Welcome to Dystopia

Can I be honest, guys? There are moments I don’t recognize my life anymore. I don’t mean moments where I think, “Huh, isn’t this different?” I mean moments of dissociation where I wonder if I’m living the right life, or if I somehow got body-swapped into some other, horrible place and time. Because the life that I’ve been plonked down into is both strangely familiar and terrifyingly foreign, and I don’t want to be a part of it.

But enough about me. How are you doing? Crazy days, am I right?

I don’t know what you imagined for your future. Heck, half the time, I have a hard time remembering what I imagined for my own. I just know that I never wanted to have a pandemic, global depression or be living in a country at the brink of a civil war. And I certainly never wanted to do all three at once. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess anyone reading this is probably in the same boat, no matter what else we might disagree on.

I mean, things are looking bleak, right? We’ve been in pandemic mode for going on three months now. Unemployment is as high as it ever was at the worst of the Great Depression. A brutal murder by police of a black man who was innocent (as anyone is until proven guilty) proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, sending America into paroxysms of rage and grief and despair. For the first time, the crowds of protesters were as much white as they were Black, and grew night by night in their unrelenting demand for change.

So who was really surprised when the inevitable happened?

Apocalypse … Now?

I was quite the rabble rouser as a kid. There wasn’t a demonstration I wouldn’t go to, provided it was left-leaning enough. There wasn’t a communist organization at the University of Michigan that didn’t try to recruit me at some point. It’s true. I flirted with the Trotskyists the most, but cut it short because I just wasn’t interested in going to another weekly meeting.

Leon Trotsky, my erstwhile love

I’ve been open to revolution a long time, but I’m no fanatic. You won’t find me at the barricades yelling it’s time to burn down the world. It seems to me that successful revolutions are, to a degree, organic. While I, of all people, know you can bend the public will (oh, hi, Overton), I don’t have the time or effort to put into the project. I realized long ago you could do more good for more people more quickly through other means.

Still, I wondered, what would it take for American people to finally say they had enough? I wondered it as I watched the division of wealth grow ever wider. I wondered it as I watched bankers get away with bankrupting the lower-middle class. I wondered it as I watched the Republican party systematically undermine the middle class and roll back the principles of democracy that we learned were supposedly sacred to our nation. I wondered it after Trayvon and Tamir and Michael and Philando.

I decided, finally, it would take people losing their televisions to get them off their couches. It turns out I completely, 100 percent wrong. It took the exact opposite

What it took was three months of people having nothing to do but watch “The Tiger King” and reality show repeats and “The Masked Singer” on television while they were stuck in their houses. And seeing 107,000 Americans and counting die in a mishandled pandemic. And losing their jobs. And having a righteous cause of anger, or at least someone else’s righteous anger to hide behind. That’s what it finally took to get Americans into the street.

It took dystopia. And now, dystopia is here.

I had a general idea of what a “dystopia” was, but I wasn’t sure it’s exact definition. So I looked it up. Here it is:

an imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice, typically one that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic.

That’s nice. But what if it’s not imagined?

Or Does It Explode?

There are so many valid reasons to be angry right now, and that goes at least 10 times if you’re Black. Everyone has been touched by COVD: either you or someone near you has had it, you’ve lost someone to it, your job or daily life has been affected or your lost your job. Speaking of, unemployment is at levels not seen since the days of Hooverville. Remember “Grapes of Wrath”? Remember “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”? Those days.

Who suffered the most from these things, as a community? Black people. Their rates for both contacting and dying from COVID-19 was higher than any demographic. I’n not sure we know exactly why yet. Someone said there was a connection to the same genetic mutation that leads to sickle cell anemia, which could be why the drug that helps against malaria (which sickle cell is an adaptation against) might have a modest effect against COVID-19. Perhaps more likely, Black people are more likely to work the kinds of jobs that put them in contact with a wider group of people during the pandemic: delivery drivers, grocery store workers, nurse assistants. These jobs made them more likely to be exposed to COVID-19, and more likely to die. And so they did.

Another thing more likely for Black folk: to be murdered by law enforcement when there was no good reason for it. They have known this for more than a century. The white community has been so much slower to wake up to this reality. When we were confronted with images of Rodney King in 1991, we were shocked. But that was an anomaly, we concluded. We didn’t see it everyday. A decade and a half passed, and then came social media. And with it, truth. It got harder and harder to deny what our eyes could plainly see. Police shooting a boy on a picnic table shot after a split second. A man strangled to death for the “crime” of selling a single cigarette. Another man gunned down in his own home because his neighbor, a cop, mistakenly entered the wrong apartment and got scared. Evidence piled up and could no longer be denied.

George Floyd

Then, the murder of George Floyd. His execution too brutal, too slow, too callous. Black families were already disproportionately bearing the brunt of COVID-19. Black families were already bearing the brunt of mass unemployment. It was all too much.

Langston Hughes knew about “too much.” In his poem, “Harlem,” he pondered, “what happens to a dream deferred?” You probably know the poem — if not, look it up. At the end, Hughes warns that a people who are continually denied and dehumanized, whose dreams are scaled back and turned to dust, will explode. Written in 1951, I’m sure a lot of people thought his poem was a foretaste of the Civil Rights Era. But was that really an explosion? Or was that more like a bottle rocket? Maybe we’ve been waiting on the real dynamite all along and that’s the heat and the light we’re experiencing now.

The rest of America is captivated by the same glow and we can’t look away, either. We all know what we saw in the George Floyd video. Even Rush Limbaugh, for crying out loud. There’s no denying it anymore. And you know what else? When upwards of a quarter of all people are out of work, they’ve got time of their hands. And they’re angry from the COVID, angry from the quarantine, angry from the job losses. So what do you expect.

I mean really.

What do you expect?

THe Revolution Was televized After All

Revolution is really a young people’s game. All that marching around is for people who don’t have arthritic knees or bad backs, who don’t have an 8:30 meeting with the boss, whose arches aren’t fallen and who are fine not knowing where the nearest public restroom is at any given moment. But that’s OK. My wife and I, we watched it all unfold on tv.

That is, we did until the power cut out at our house as the nearest civil unrest took hold less than a mile from our home, near the state capitol. State police helicopters buzzed over our neighborhood for hours on end while we heard the sound of tear cans exploding in the distance. Checking on Twitter, we saw that a car had been set on fire after the driver tried to plow into a crowd of protestors.

I popped a Xanax and gripped the arm of the couch. That was the first time I looked around the room, now illuminated by a dozen candles, and wondered,

A few days ago, I was having a discussion with some other Jews online. One of them asked, half-jokingly, if the rest of us had our passports in order and a suitcase packed. He was alluding to the age-old paranoia borne of centuries pogroms and Inquisitions and Holocausts, a learned wisdom and determination to never get caught up in the next wave of madness. His question was half-joking, but the answers were dead serious and ranged from, “the bag is packed and by the front door,” to “we’ve talked about it, but because of the pandemic, international borders are closed, so we don’t know where we could go.” Nearly everyone had a sober talk with their family about a “country’s gone to shit, time to get the hell out now” back-up plan.

That’s a lot of fodder for the anxiety prone.

And that’s only talking about global things that ALL of us are dealing with. What about the personal junk? In the past few days, my mother-in-law has had a slight stroke, my wife has found out her diabetes has gotten out of control and my mother has some physical and emotional health problems of her own. We woke up one morning to find it raining in our living room and … let’s just say it costs a LOT to get a new roof. So all that on top of our country maybe being on the brink of a revolution or civil war. Yep, it’s a lot.

For those of you who know the joy of anxiety disorders all too well, you know. For those of you who don’t, imagine spending 15 minutes hyperventilating where you honest to gosh could not control taking a breath in or breathing out, all the while feeling ashamed for even daring to utter the phrase “I can’t breathe” at a time like this, and hoping you’d just pass out so you’d start breathing normally while you were down. Yeah, good times.

These aren’t exactly great days for people with anxiety trouble. Just the regular business of the world is enough. If there are other things in your life going on, god help you. I’m not here saying I have solutions. I’m not even saying I have suggestions. I’m just saying, if you’re struggling, you’re not alone. If you feel like you’re losing your mind a little, well, you might be — but you’re not making that journey solo.

I got absolutely no idea where all this is headed. Heck, I don’t even know what tomorrow will bring. I only know that I need to focus on putting one foot in front of the other, and making it through one day to the next, until the ground beneath my feet starts to look more familiar again.

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