Washington DC –
When the Blue Angels flew over our nation’s capital, to honor “our frontline healthcare workers and essential employees,” I happened to be taking a shit. I’m not disappointed that I missed it. I’m not totally sure whether or not I heard the sonic boom from some daring-do by the U.S. Navy’s flight demonstration squad that normally exists to entertain the slack-jawed at county fairs and air shows, but has since quarantine found itself without their normal audience. You often hear flight sounds above Capitol Hill, so I wouldn’t necessarily register one more vaguely ominous clap of mechanical thunder somewhere off near the National Mall. You hear a lot more medivacs as of late too. Two weeks from now I imagine that I’ll hear a lot more. Thousands of people apparently came out to watch the display, all clumped together, most without masks. The self-satisfied quote in my first sentence was Tweeted by whoever maintains the Blue Angels’ feed, and if my tone seems disrespectful, ungrateful, positively heretical in a nation where we’re raised on myths of military superiority than I broach no apology. Because I’m not a particularly confessional writer, and I don’t feel that everyone needs to know or cares about my private concerns, I’ll just say that I’m married to one of those frontline workers and all of them need more than a Blue Angels show right now.
Within the Tweet were included the hashtags “#AmericaStrong” and “#InThisTogether.” Forgive me, but maybe there is some room for hope when even in the midst of apocalypse American bullshit can’t stop bullshiting. The Blue Angels soared over the Capitol dome and the Lincoln Memorial, the Tidal Basin and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (with coronavirus deaths over the last six weeks having just surpassed American fatalities from that war). The previous day was May Day, which saw essential workers at Target, Amazon, and Whole Foods protest for basic job safety in the midst of the pandemic while at the same time astroturfed protesters clutching semiautomatic weapons crowded state houses in Lansing and Richmond to demand that workers endanger their health and families so that they can fulfill their God-given purpose of cutting the hair of a guy with a Gadsden flag or flipping a burger for a woman wearing a “Trump that Bitch” t-shirt. Meanwhile the (Republican) governor of our neighbor Maryland has been forced to keep coronavirus tests which Annapolis purchased from South Korea in an undisclosed location and protected by the National Guard, since the federal government has taken to confiscating medical supplies. Several states in the northeast and on the West Coast have banded together in regional alliances, since not only have they received little support from Washington, but they’ve actively seen their attempts to keep their residents safe scuttled by this administration. The Blue Angels might tweet #InThisTogether, but it increasingly feels like #OhShitCivilWar.
American capitalism and marketing, of which the Blue Angels are representatives of, extol milquetoast optimism porn, where a few hashtags about reconciliation and togetherness can erase conflict and difference. The president who is ostensibly the Commander in Chief for those jet pilots has, as he has everyday of his administration and well before, been tweeting out bile, rancor, and bilge. As of late he’s stochastically taken to demanding that citizens “liberate” their states, and then coincidentally people show up with guns at state houses and governors’ mansions. Then he claims that those marching with Confederate and Nazi flags are fine people. American saccharine has always been too sweet, but the Blue Angels display – once perhaps an apolitical bit of goofy machismo – seems not so much ironic as mocking. Especially as all those crowds’ dwell amongst each other, breathing together, respirating together, aerosolizing together. As states clamber to reopen, akin to deciding to work on your roof during the eye of a hurricane, I can’t help but wonder what DMV hospitals will look like in fourteen days. It’s a sometimes-unhelpful cliché of #Resistance rhetoric that the Republicans are becoming a death cult, but sometimes the simplest explanation is the correct one. That we’re facing an economic crisis that could be worse than the Great Depression precipitated by a pandemic that could be deadlier than the Spanish flu is not a call to “open America for business” – it’s a reason for socialism. That wouldn’t be American though; here we offer up the lives and bodies of people other than ourselves to make the ultimate sacrifice for our own comfort. It’s kind of what we do.
When it comes to theoretical treatments of Covid-19’s significance, I remain agnostic. I can accept poetry in understanding the virus, but not theory. In the midst of the pandemic, we should leave analysis to the epidemiologists, the rest of us can only offer our fears, angers, and hopes. The virus has no agency, desire, or intent – the virus cares not about our interpretations. The human reaction to the virus, on the other hand – regarding that I have opinions. Whenever anyone points out the grotesqueries of our current moment, some internet scold will remind us of the long history of American obscenities. We’re told, normally correctly, that American exceptionalism has always been a hell of a drug, and that not everyone in our society has been able to get a prescription. There are, I would venture to say, certain moments when the fallacy of American exceptionalism is a bit more aptly demonstrated though, when our hypocrisies begin not to look like bugs but features. As a second generation American apt to still feel pangs of patriotism like a former evangelical who can’t help but desire God’s love, the presence of you-know-who on the 1600 block of Pennsylvania Avenue still feels like a molestation, a debasement, a sacrilege.
My own academic work is on the origins of American civil religion from the seventeenth-century onward, all of that “City on a Hill” stuff. As cynical as I am, it’s hard not to emotionally have some part of me see the National Mall as a type of democratic Holy City, to take part in what sociologist Robert Bellah described as our native faith with “its own prophets and its own martyrs, its own sacred events and sacred places, its own solemn rituals and symbols.” If that’s the case, then when I see the diminutive Trump holding his “COVID-19 town hall” dominated by the statue of Lincoln within its Parthenon, I can’t help but feel like I’m witnessing a blasphemy. It makes me wonder, though, if I’ve always had the script wrong, and if Trump isn’t an incarnation of our own darkest desires, the embodiment of D.H. Lawrence’s observation from Studies in Classic American Literature that our “essential soul is hard… and a killer. It has never yet melted.” Histrionic of me to pretend that the death of some false sense of American exceptionality is what enrages me – it’s much more personal and closer than that. Simpler too – the origin of my anger is that the president of these disunited states is purposefully overseeing a type of genocide against potentially millions of his fellow citizens, and nobody quit seems to know how to put that into words. My rage concerning that is pure, and hot, and bright, and it burns, burns, burns.
I’m not the only angry one out there of course; there are all those sprinkles of red in my deep blue city whom I see when I drive down Independence or Constitution. They’re there with their Trump flags and their “Keep America Great” banners. I know that being the good liberals that all of us are supposed to be, that we’re to imagine those red-hatters as potential converts to be swayed with reason and decorum, and I know as the good leftists that we are we’re to understand them as motivated by economic anxiety (because racism is always the result of material conditions dontchaknow…) but I’ll admit that I detest them. I’m still Catholic enough that I believe in contrition and confession, but I don’t see any desire for redemption coming from the MAGA crowd. How can I respect those that against all reason protest for the “right” to die so that they can make obscene amounts of money for people whom they don’t even know? Or more perniciously to agitate for the “freedom” to let others contract coronavirus because they miss going to the Cheesecake Factory? America has always been an ideal, but lately it seems like the liberty and justice for all joke is a bit clearer in its cruel ironies when compared to the reality of the whole thing. I’m tired of utopia myself, and so have no desire to pretend that we’re all #InThisTogether. Missing the Blue Angels was a positive pleasure – I’d rather tend to my own garden. The afternoon following the aeronautic display over DC, and I saw something infinitely more affirming. In the apartment beneath ours, the children who live there were playing with a bubble machine. Rather than witnessing steel death birds make supersonic bursts over Washington, I simply watched the rainbow bubbles rise up as the kids laughed.
Ed Simon is Editor at Berfrois, the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a frequent contributor at several different sites, having appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek and Jacobin among others. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, his Facebook author page, or at his website. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion was released by Zero Books in 2018.