Angry white crowds prove that anti-health COVID-19 protests are not about the economy
“Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.” The haunting lyrics of “Me and Bobby McGee,” made famous by Janis Joplin, defined the aspirational attitude of a young generation of Baby Boomers optimistically looking to change the world.
Curiously, those same words also defined that generation’s destructive attitude toward angrily undermining the American institutions and social contract that made their lives of privilege possible.
Recent protests demanding the opening of society in the midst of a global coronavirus pandemic are the most recent risky antisocial behavior being exhibited by an increasingly self-destructive segment of our society: aging whites experiencing a sense of decline and loss of social status.
The protests have been, of course, a largely white phenomenon. Despite black and brown people being disproportionately impacted by the destroyed economy and the virus itself — protests against state government actions to protect the most vulnerable among us were overwhelmingly made up of white people.
If these protests were truly about the economic impacts of government action, it is more than odd that Latinos and Blacks were nearly impossible to find in these protests. A recent report from the California Latino Economic Institute showed that the industries impacted by the pandemic are overwhelmingly staffed by Latinos. In addition, recent California polls show that it is lower-income residents that are most supportive of shelter in place policies — 78.7 percent of low-income Californians support shelter-in-place policies for “as long as needed,” according to an April survey conducted by the California Healthcare Foundation.
No, this isn’t about the economy at all.
Ten years ago, Gregory Rodriguez, one of the country’s premier thinkers on race and ethnicity, predicted in Time Magazine that demagogues would soon wield a new kind of white ethnonationalism, one characterized more by a “defensive, aggrieved sense of white victimhood” rather than by old-fashioned chest-thumping white supremacy. Recent events strongly suggest he was right.
This month, in an essay titled “ The Other Epidemic: Are Whites Dying of Anger, “ Rodriguez updated his thesis and linked the increasing death rates for middle-aged whites to the fear of their losing status. He concludes that as whites’ numerical majority status continues to shrink, they will feel more threatened and be more likely to engage in behaviors that are risky to their health and to the health of others. This has played out throughout human history among minority groups and nations that feel defeated.
And again, the facts bear his argument out. The declining white population in America is exhibiting self-destructive tendencies synonymous with despair. High mortality rates, increasing rates of opioid and drug addiction, alcohol abuse and suicide are affecting whites in our society at alarming rates.
More troubling: These self-destructive tendencies are now turning towards the destruction of the social and governmental institutions they perceive to have failed them. The protests in Sacramento were an amalgamation of anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists, anti-science coronavirus “truthers,” aging tea-party activists, white supremacists and gun-wielding Second Amendment militiamen.
A number of these anti-vaxx organizers were recognizable for their aggressive and disruptive behaviors last year in trying to shut down the government functions in the State Capitol because the only ears sympathetic to their fringe movement belonged to a dwindling number of Republican legislators.
There is also a clear partisan component to this politics of white identity, anger and destruction. It has found a home in the Republican Party, with its personification of angry despair in President Trump and its pernicious adherence to Trumpism.
In a clear illustration of just how partisan science has become, when legislators in Sacramento convened on the first day after the easing of shelter-in-place orders, Democrats wore masks while Republicans did not.
Anger and despair ultimately become destructive. The pandemic has provided an opportunity for this broader social anger to metastasize beyond these individuals harming themselves. Now, it’s focused on harming the broader society.
An anti-vaccine activist physically assaulted a state senator in Sacramento last year. Heavily armed militiamen stormed the capitol in Michigan. Alt-right protestors in Fresno showed up on the doorstep of the home of the city council president demanding answers to the city’s shelter in place policies.
A defining characteristic of Trumpism is the need to blame. Because there’s no underlying ideology of Trumpism, it requires something to oppose — because it can not define what it is for, it must define what it is against: Mexicans, Muslims, the Chinese, the government, the media. Any convenient target will do.
This anger is as big a threat to our institutions as any virus is to our health. Our society is sick, and not just from the coronavirus. The lack of concern and disregard for the life and welfare of others is the next logical step when you feel you’ve lost your identity and behave with little regard for the health and safety of your own.
Having to wear a mask to shop at Costco in the middle of a deadly pandemic is not tyranny. Sheltering in place to protect the lives of fellow human beings is not martial law. Binge-watching Netflix instead of going to a movie theater is not oppression. The cavalier tossing out of revolutionary terms are reflective of a movement’s desperate need to direct anger at something — anything — while diminishing the real struggle and sacrifice previous generations endured to get us to this privileged place.
Unless, of course, the aim of those that claim to want to Make America Great Again is just to destroy her on the way down so no one else can have her. In which case, the Janis Joplin song was right after all: “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.”
Originally published at https://www.sacbee.com.