‘We’re all in this together’: The Perils of Kumbaya Rhetoric

White people have bought houses.

Talk is cheap, and sentimental talk cheapens public discourse in dangerous ways at a time when total sobriety is required. Eight weeks into a public health and economic catastrophe, the facts before us should be sobering enough:

  • Disease and death in this pandemic overwhelmingly afflict communities of color (e.g. despite making up just a third of the state’s population, 70% of the dead in Louisiana have been African American; in Michigan the numbers are 14% and 40% respectively, etc).
  • The crisis has already condemned low-income families to a shocking level of food insecurity, with one-fifth of American kids now at risk of going to bed hungry each night.
  • Many of those forced to work—especially women of color—will sicken and die in a too-rapid “reopening” aimed at saving businesses.
  • The rapidly widening divide between wage workers and cosseted “knowledge workers” has become scandalously apparent.
  • Economic insecurity for many of those we call “essential workers” has grown still worse during this crisis, as wages are pushed further down.
  • While conservatives in Congress resist saving cities and states from bankruptcy, they used crisis legislation to give rich speculators and real estate tycoons a $200 billion “second helping” on top of the lavish tax cuts these pigs already enjoyed in the 2017 tax law.
  • With union organizing rights already gutted, big employers still making big bucks during the pandemic feel free to snuff organizing drives with impunity; Trump specifically ensures that even the union workers in crowded meatpacking facilities will be forced to continue working without the normal workplace health & safety protections. 

In this dire context the need for careful language and scrupulous truth-telling among the leaders on the liberal side should be self-evident. But clarity and scrupulosity are rarely what we get. Take, for example, three of the slogans that fall so easily from the lips of high-minded liberals, including religious liberals, during this time of trial: 

“We’re all in this together”: How is this not a colossal lie that gives comfort to the already comfortable while insulting those who suffer most? A virus may not discriminate, but a society that does—and in a huge way—is the exact opposite of one in which all suffer together, experiencing comparable levels of fear and dread. 

“We salute our heroes”: A more truthful form of this throwaway expression would be “We salute our sacrificial victims.” My postal carrier may appreciate the thank you that I shout to her from across the street; EMT drivers and ICU nurses might warm to the nightly serenade of applause from open windows; but all of them would much rather have proper safety protection, hazard pay, and, in the case of the badly exposed wage workers, a degree of job security along with basic union rights. It is unfortunate, in this context, that the latest 1800-word “let’s fix it” bill to come from House Democrats is called the HEROES Act, when in fact what their bill precisely does not do is maintain employment lifelines for first responders and others, whereas what it does do is heavily subsidize the private health insurance industry.

“Nothing will ever be the same”: In all likelihood a whole lot will be the same, only worse, as large corporations consolidate their strength in relation to smaller businesses and as the American caste system grows still more rigid and more suffocating for those at the bottom. 

In a searing exploration of the liberal mindset in relation to policing, Yannick Marshall notes how the repeated mantra of “We will hold them accountable!” in the mouths of the liberals “assumes the benevolence of the violent” and functions to obscure the centuries-long persistence of lethal anti-Blackness in America. Right now the Covid-related sloganeering of perfectly secure white liberals is having the same obscuring effect; it’s mere rhetorical chump-change offered up in a way that ensures we do not actually have to see the wounds or hear the groans of the sufferers. 

Even as sage an observer as Roger Cohen can’t get beyond the confines of the liberal mindset in a beautifully written column titled “No Return to the ‘Old Dispensation.'” Cohen says we need to tame the “monster of modernity”—hypercapitalism—though he never gets around to telling us what’s specifically barbaric and cruel about American race-based capitalism. You can’t tame a monster that you don’t understand. And there’s no way to understand the extent to which this country leaves people to sink or swim on their own without an understanding of the centrality and continuing malignity of white supremacy. The malignity goes way beyond indifference to the poor; it expresses itself in active contempt for those who struggle at the bottom of the racist heap.

The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos gets us a bit closer to the heart of the beast in his deft and thorough portrait of how that contempt penetrated his affluent home town of Greenwich, CT, over the past four decades. This was always Republican territory, with investment bankers and white-shoe lawyers thick on the ground along the Gold Coast. The difference is that wealthy patricians of the Prescott Bush era actually cared about their neighbors; the old-time bankers invested in—and the CEOs ran—productive enterprises that created real jobs. In contrast, the Gordon Gecko types who dominate Greenwich GOP circles today spout Ayn Rand rhetoric, use their hedge funds to degrade and destroy jobs, fully back the Trump agenda, and build eight-foot F**k you walls around their mansions. 

Progressive faith leaders who shut their eyes to the real nature of American hypercapitalism—and to the extent to which many leading Democrats who fund the campaigns and run the party apparatus remain deeply wedded to this system—have nothing useful to say at this time. Their calls for prayers and individual acts of kindness and tiny little changes around the edges of the system (often aimed exclusively at the Republican Party) fall woefully short of a faithful response, which is to say a prophetic response. 

I spend much of my time these days trying to engage with religious leaders who are willing to use the language of revelation to describe this moment; I urge them to push the concept further and to ask the most pressing question that needs asking in a time of unveiling, namely: What exactly is being revealed? Not to mention that question’s corollary: What is the root of the evil, and how might we set about eradicating it? 

These are questions that have answers, but the thoughts-and-prayers crowd won’t be asking them. Nor will the politically minded liberals who would have us believe that a “return to normal” with Joe Biden at the helm will make everything all hunky-dory again. Trump’s incompetence and malice—and the GOP’s connivance in all of it—have certainly made the pandemic worse than it needed to be. But the underlying structural problems and the deep-level racism now being exposed long preceded Caligula’s reign. 

White supremacy and the white way of thinking have held sway for 500 years now, and we see the result. This could be the point at which we start over with entirely different framing. But that won’t happen if conventional liberalism prevails. 

What the good liberals want to forget is that the old “normal” is precisely what stands now revealed as ethically abhorrent: the grotesque stamp of American racism, the capture of government for the purpose of private profiteering, and the abomination of a common culture that clings to the myth of social mobility in order to avoid having to look squarely at the sickening reality of an increasingly savage class divide.  

The concept of moral injury is usually applied to the damage done to military veterans who feel an acute disconnect between what they were told was a noble cause and the horrendous things they must witness and sometimes do. But now it becomes increasingly clear that the concept has much wider application in a thoroughly corrupted country whose marble-incised ideals (“Equal Justice Under Law,” etc.) bear no relation to what actually goes on.   

Moral injury? That would be us.