Home of the brave? Coronavirus epidemic reveals America s fundamental weakness

Home of the brave? Coronavirus epidemic reveals America’s fundamental weakness

Despite America’s national mythology, this crisis has revealed a weak, divided and totally unprepared nation


David Masciotra
March 21, 2020 4:00PM (UTC)

The United States of America is a weak country. All the flag-waving, patriotic speeches and obtuse declarations of superiority have long seemed overly conspicuous — and history has no sympathy for the delusional. It continually exposes the vulnerability, fragility and inanity of a nation that has the wealth, resources and human intelligence to cultivate a magnificent civilization, but repeatedly sacrifices the common interest and public good on the altar of avarice.

Our military extends itself into every inch of the planet, starting wars that it cannot win, while more than half our nation’s discretionary budget in any given year is wasted on the Pentagon. Runaway militarism was useless on Sept. 11, 2001, when 19 terrorists, armed with boxcutters, brought the country to its knees. Academic and CIA experts on Osama bin Laden — the mastermind of the evil attack — agreed that one of his aspirations was to draw America into lengthy wars with ambiguous missions, depleting its treasury and morale as the days of battle and the body count grew in number. The U.S. recited its lines as if from bin Laden’s script, sending thousands of troops to die and setting fire to $6 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some of that money could have saved lives had the Bush administration heeded the warnings of the Army Corps of Engineers and Louisiana authorities, and replaced the levees in New Orleans. Its failure to repair the weakened infrastructure protecting one of America’s greatest cities was responsible for unnecessary death and destruction when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast. For several days in the summer of 2005, the world watched as the United States was helpless to save its citizens, who pleaded for help on the rooftops of flooded homes or struggled through the squalor of the Superdome – a football stadium turned makeshift shelter without sufficient food, hygienic products or medical supplies to properly care for children in the «world’s last remaining superpower.»

The mad-dog greed of corporate America, the finance industry, and the «too big to fail» banks coupled with nonsensical free-market fundamentalism to initiate a bipartisan deregulatory agenda and the slashing of social services. In 2008, the bill arrived. The housing market crashed: Millions of people lost their homes and many more lost their jobs. The liquidation of middle-class wealth, particularly severe for black and Latino homeowners, continues to drag the country down into a miasma of shame, rage and suspicion. While the Obama administration was successful in preventing a full-blown depression, there has been no real recovery for the 50 percent of Americans who have no savings or the millions who struggle, second by second, in the cruel category of «working poor.»

The poor and working class will suffer the most pain and hardship as the entire country undergoes a lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus. There is nothing like a pandemic to put into perspective all the red, white and blue chest-pounding, exposing «American exceptionalism» as a bad joke.

Once again, the world’s richest country was tragically unprepared and ill-equipped for a crisis. Insufficient testing capacities make the severity of coronavirus a mystery within America’s borders, while a dysfunctionally narrow, business-oriented health care system prevents many people, including those with chronic conditions, from receiving the treatment they need.

President Trump had already failed to replace the global pandemic response team at the National Security Council after their mass resignation. He had also closed 39 of the 49 CDC offices overseas, and ended the program called Predict, which had the principal task of studying animal-borne diseases to determine which ones might go viral among humans.

American leadership has failed to summon the will to create adequate remote testing centers, build anywhere near enough ventilators, or even convince all of the nation’s governors and big-city mayors to cancel public gatherings. Chinese billionaire Jack Ma has donated one million testing kits to America, and the Italians have donated 500,000. President Trump, displaying his own generosity and goodwill, attempted to bribe German scientists working on a coronavirus vaccine to sell the rights exclusively to the U.S.

Never one to miss an opportunity for promoting racism, Trump has also taken to referring to COVID-19 as the «Chinese virus.» One of his aides, showing off a psychopath’s sense of humor, called it the «Kung Flu.»

Deepening America’s medical, financial and political wounds is the dangerous ignorance of nearly half the electorate. Only 56 percent of Americans consider coronavirus a «real threat,» according to an NPR/PBS/Marist poll. NPR also reports that 60 percent of Republicans do not believe that the pandemic is a «menace.» There is a strong statistical overlap between those who care little about the coronavirus, think that climate change is a left-wing hoax, and would continue to support Donald Trump if he broadcast the decapitation of his political enemies from the White House lawn.

Americans who believe in scientific evidence and adhere to a conception of the common good will have to find a way coexist with those who think the answer to every problem is more ammunition, tax cuts for the rich, and shouting about «freedom.» But public education and the mass media must begin taking decisive measures to guard against widespread stupidity in future generations. A country cannot thrive when nearly half of its adults are in open revolt against reality.

Improvements to public schools and public communication require the same investment of funds and personnel as building safer infrastructure, creating a medical system that works for all its citizens, and regulating industry for the protection and prosperity of workers and consumers.

The prevalent philosophy of individualism in the United States discourages, and at times even demolishes, communal thinking. There is a close connection between the widespread social and cultural isolation that exists in so many American communities and our inability to create laws and institutions of governance that work in the common interest.

Footage of Italians in quarantine singing to each other from apartment balconies and rooftops has inspired the world. Rather than suffer alone, even when immobile, the Italian people are sharing with each other the gift of music, amplifying its beauty and faith in the possibility of human triumph over adversity.

Here in the land of the free and the home of the brave, the picture is a bit different. The Los Angeles Times reports that «gun sales are surging.»

David Masciotra

David Masciotra is the author of «Mellencamp: American Troubadour» (University Press of Kentucky, 2015) and the forthcoming «I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters» (Bloomsbury Publishing). Contribute through LaterPay to support David’s Salon articles — all money donated goes directly to the writer.

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What great Russians did in isolation

«Pushkin in Mikhaylovskoye» by Boris Scherbakov, 1969

Alexander Pushkin at Boldino: His most productive time

Pyotr Konchalovsky. Portrait of Alexander Pushkin (1932).

On September 3, 1830, Alexander Pushkin arrived at his family estate of Bolshoye Boldino in the Nizhny Novgorod region. He was due to take ownership of the village of Kistenevo, which his father had presented to him on the occasion of his impending wedding. Alexander Pushkin and Natalia Goncharova had announced their engagement back in May 1830, however, the wedding kept being postponed throughout the summer, and now another impediment had arisen: a quarantine across Russia because of a cholera outbreak. On September 30, Pushkin wrote to Goncharova: “I’ve been notified that there are five quarantine zones set up from here to Moscow, and I will have to spend 14 days in each. Do the maths and imagine what a foul mood I am in!”

The quarantine, which had been established by the order of Interior Minister Count Zakrevsky, paralyzed trade and all travel within Russia. A year later, Pushkin wrote: “. Quarantines brought manufacturing and cargo traffic to a halt, ruined contractors and carriers, ended the revenues of peasants and landowners, and nearly caused riots in 16 provinces.” Although Alexander Sergeyevich, as a member of the nobility, was obliged (under Zakrevsky’s order on measures against the cholera epidemic) to accept a public position proposed by the local marshal of nobility and help in the fight against cholera, Pushkin flatly refused. Instead, in October 1830, having learned that cholera had reached Moscow, he tried to make his way to the capital to be with his bride, but when he learned that Goncharova had been evacuated from the city, he returned to Boldino.

Still, Pushkin managed to appreciate the benefits of isolation. “How charming the local village is! Just imagine: endless steppe all around; not a neighbor in sight; ride as much as you like, write at home as much as you like, no one will be in the way,” he wrote to his friend Pyotr Pletnev. But the forced seclusion did have an impact on the poet’s looks and daily routine. He wrote to his bride: “I have grown a beard; as the proverb goes: a mustache and a beard are praise to a young man. When I go outside, they call me an uncle. I wake up at seven o’clock, drink coffee and lie till three o’clock. I have been writing a lot recently and have already written a heap of things. At three o’clock I go riding, at five I take a bath and then dine on potatoes and buckwheat porridge. Then I read till nine o’clock.”

Bolshoye Boldino. Pushkin Family manor, now Alexander Pushkin Museum

Alexey Beloborodov (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The quarantine period was perhaps the most fruitful in Pushkin’s writing career. He finished Chapters 8 and 9 of ‘Eugene Onegin’, presenting a retrospective of his work in the final chapter; wrote ‘Belkin’s Tales’, largely based on his observation of peasants’ life. He also wrote ‘The Little Tragedies’, as well as many lyric poems. This period in his life became known as the “Boldino Autumn”, an expression that has entered the Russian language to denote a productive period spent in isolation.

Also, from the pulpit of the local church, Pushkin delivered a lecture about cholera for the peasants of his estate. According to a contemporary account by Pyotr Boborykin, the lecture went as follows: “Cholera was sent to you, brethren, because you do not pay the levies and you drink a lot. If you continue in the same way, you will be whipped. Amen!” The lecture, apparently, was the only thing he agreed to do “for society” after Minister Zakrevsky had sent an order to him personally. Pushkin returned to Moscow only on December 5, when the cholera epidemic was over and the quarantine was lifted.

Vladimir Lenin in Shushenskoye: An exile like a honeymoon

«Vladimir Lenin and Nadezhda Krupskaya in Shushenskoye», 1961, by Timofey Kozlov.

Omsk Regional Museum of Fine Arts

Soviet historians were prescribed to describe Lenin’s stay in Shushenskoye as a real exile. But in reality, he led a very comfortable life there.

In 1895, the 25-year-old Vladimir Ulyanov was already a famous revolutionary, with a new Marxist doctrine to his name. He had set up and led a ‘League of Struggle for the Emancipation of the Working Class’, a political organization that carried out revolutionary propaganda, but within a month, its key members, including Lenin, were arrested. Lenin spent more than a year in prison awaiting trial, and in 1897, he was exiled for three years to the village of Shushenskoye in Siberia, near Minusinsk, now in Krasnoyarsk Territory.

In Shushenskoye, Lenin rented a 14-meter room in the house of Zyryanov, a well-off peasant, who ran all the drinking establishments in the village. Lenin had the status of an exile and had no right to work, so he was paid an allowance of 8 rubles and 17 kopecks per month. As Nadezhda Krupskaya, who later joined Lenin in exile, wrote, this money was enough to pay for “a clean room, meals, and to have his clothes and linen washed and mended, and at a generous rate at that”. The food, according to Krupskaya, was “somewhat rustic”: a working woman “would chop purchased meat in a trough, where they prepared feed for the cattle, into cutlets for a whole week”.

Twice a day, a police officer came to check up on Lenin, but soon it was agreed that Lenin would be “supervised” by the owner of the house, Zyryanov, which in effect meant no supervision. Soon, Lenin was allowed to go hunting. In a letter to his mother, Vladimir Ilyich wrote that he had been hunting and that the local mountainous area was rich in wild goats, squirrels, sables, bears and deer. Obviously, Lenin went hunting with a rifle. In 1899, he bought himself a new centerfire rifle by August Francotte and had it delivered by courier from Moscow to Shushenskoye.

The house Vladimir Lenin lived in, Shushenskoye, Krasnoyarsk region

Vyacheslav Bukharov (CC BY-SA 4.0)

In July 1898, Lenin married Nadezhda Krupskaya, who, too, had been sentenced to exile in connection with the League of Struggle case. Now she was allowed to serve her exile in Shushenskoye with her husband. Thus, a punishment turned into a honeymoon. Krupskaya, too, received an allowance, so the two of them could afford all the food they wanted. In addition, Krupskaya’s mother helped them with money. The young couple could even afford hiring a 13-year-old peasant girl as a servant. They ordered books from the capitals. Krupskaya wrote to Lenin’s mother and sisters: “I’m not yet used to seeing Volodya looking so healthy. In St. Petersburg, he always looked rather ill.”

It must be said that, in addition to enjoying life, Lenin also worked in exile. It was there that he wrote ‘The Development of Capitalism in Russia’, which, upon his return to the capital, brought him a substantial fee of 250 rubles, and more than 30 other works. During the exile, Lenin corresponded with other revolutionaries; obviously, his correspondence was not censored, because he managed to establish a whole network of contacts with the then Social Democrats.

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Lenin and Krupskaya did not have much contact with the local population. Krupskaya had brought Lenin a pair of skates, and he, as Krupskaya reported to Lenin’s mother, “taught this unusual pastime to all the local kids, having made a skating rink on the Shusha”. By the end of the exile, Lenin already enjoyed such a degree of freedom that he and Krupskaya saw the 1899 New Year at a party in Minusinsk at the apartment of another exiled revolutionary, Gleb Krzhizhanovsky. The party was quite big, about 16 people. Krupskaya wrote afterwards: “That was an excellent change of scene and that will last us long. Everyone was amazed at how healthy our life in the country has made us look.” Lenin and Krupskaya spent another year in Shushenskoye and already in 1900 returned to the central provinces, where, having rested and gained strength, they continued their revolutionary activities.

Joseph Brodsky in Norinskaya: “I refuse to overdramatize it”

Joseph Brodsky in an open field

Joseph Brodsky Museum in Norinskaya

On March 13, 1964, the poet Joseph Brodsky was convicted of “parasitism” and sentenced to five years of exile “with mandatory labor”. He was sent to the Arkhangelsk region, where on April 10, he was assigned to work at the Danilovsky farm and to live in the village of Norinskaya. Brodsky chose the village himself: he liked its name, which sounded like the surname of the wife of his best friend Yevgeny Rein, Galina Narinskaya.

Brodsky’s trial was a show one: of course, he was not the only person in the country not to have had official employment for a long time, but the authorities thought he presented an ideological threat. Brodsky did not preach anti-Soviet ideas. What he did was much worse: he lived, wrote poetry and communicated with others as if the USSR did not exist at all. That was why, through the efforts of the KGB’s Leningrad directorate, Brodsky was “isolated” from his circle of contacts.

First, Brodsky lived in a room for three months, then he moved to a separate house, a hut belonging to a local resident, Konstantin Pesterev. His duties as a farmhand included: preparing fertilizers, clearing plough land of stones and stumps, making poles for hedges, sowing winter crops, loading grain, and much more. Earlier, Brodsky, who was 24 at the time, had done some factory work and served on a geological expedition, but he was really bad at farm work and unable to keep up with more experienced local hands. Even grazing calves was an unmanageable task for him: the cattle would just disperse, as if sensing that the shepherd was a useless city dweller. Later, he managed to get a job as a traveling photographer with Konosha Consumer Services Plant: Brodsky had learned photography from his father, a military photojournalist. To get to work in the town of Konosha from the village, Brodsky rode a bicycle, sent to him by his friends. Generally speaking, parcels from his friends and family — with money, groceries, books — were a great help for the poet. Several times during the exile, Brodsky was allowed short trips to Leningrad.

Joseph Brodsky in Norinskaya

Joseph Brodsky Museum in Norinskaya

Paradoxically, in exile, Brodsky enjoyed better living conditions when at home in Leningrad, where he shared “one and a half rooms” in a communal apartment with his parents. Having heaps of time alone with himself, he wrote a lot: more than 150 poems, including the cycle ‘New Stanzas to Augusta’, dedicated to his beloved Marina Basmanova. Their relationship ended shortly before the trial; Brodsky even tried to kill himself. Nevertheless, Basmanova visited him in exile and during one of his brief trips to Leningrad, he even tried to go to Moscow to see her, but his friends managed to talk him out of it: the breach of his regime could have led to a more severe punishment.

In a 1982 interview, Joseph Brodsky spoke of his exile: “It was a very productive time. I wrote a lot. Including some lines that I remember as a kind of a poetic breakthrough.” In conversations with Solomon Volkov, he described the 18 months spent in Norinskaya as “a best, if not the best, period in my life”. Throughout Brodsky’s exile, various cultural figures, both Soviet and foreign, wrote letters and spoke out in his defense. A decisive role in that campaign belonged to the famous socialist writer Jean-Paul Sartre, who issued a warning to the Soviet government.

In September 1965, the term of Brodsky’s exile was reduced to the time already served, and he returned to Leningrad. Contrary to the image of “an exiled hero” and a victim of the Soviet regime that his friends and the media tried to impose on him, Brodsky used to say: “I was lucky. Others. had it much worse.” Even many years later, already in the West, recalling that period, Brodsky said: “It was not all that interesting. I refuse to overdramatize it.”

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‘He was not a victim’: Doc shows Cobain’s struggle with fame

Most Popular Today

April 18, 2015 | 12:43pm

When Kurt Cobain played the finished version of the Nirvana album “Nevermind” for his mother, Wendy O’Connor, in the summer of 1991, she almost cried. Not so much out of joy, but out of fear.

Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain with baby Frances Bean. FilmMagic

Sensing it was a game-changer for the as-yet-undistinguished punk group, she told her son, “You better buckle up, because you are not ready for this.” As the new film “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” explores, she was tragically on the nose.

The documentary — authorized by O’Connor, as well as Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love, and his daughter, Frances Bean Cobain — is, without a doubt, the most painfully detailed account to date of the singer’s life.

It examines his troubled youth, growing up in the logging town of Aberdeen, Wash., in a way that artfully melds Cobain’s journals, voice recordings and drawings.

Also dissected is the rise of Nirvana from underground curiosity to household name in the space of a few months — and the heartbreak, public scrutiny, health problems and drug addiction that ultimately led to Cobain’s 1994 death, at the age of 27, by self-inflicted gunshot.

Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, drummer Dave Grohl and guitarist/singer Kurt Cobain. Getty Images

The film premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival on Sunday, opens in theaters Friday and airs on HBO May 4.

Director Brett Morgen was first approached about the movie in 2007, as Love was a big fan of his 2002 doc, “The Kid Stays in the Picture” (about Hollywood producer Robert Evans), and provided unseen personal footage.

Morgen also gained access to videos and photos of Cobain as a child from O’Connor, but it’s Love’s trove that offers the biggest window into Cobain’s post-fame life and mindset, revealing a rail-thin recluse living in squalor and willfully descending into drug addiction.

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The speed of Cobain’s rise to fame was a major trigger to his destruction. The September 1991 release of “Nevermind” was, as O’Connor predicted, a turning point.

As the single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” raced up sales charts all over the world that year and into 1992, the singer’s initial euphoria was replaced by anxiety.

“The [band’s] lives were maniacal, and Kurt’s face was everywhere,” Kevin Kerslake, who directed four of the band’s videos, tells The Post. “So when we talked about doing the video for ‘Come as You Are,’ almost the only thing that he told me was that he didn’t want to be in it. To me, that screamed ‘Get me out of here.’”

That’s exactly what Kurt did, withdrawing from interviews and opting not to tour for most of 1992 — at a point when Nirvana was the most in-demand band in the world.

“He wanted to stay in the apartment and do heroin and paint,” notes Love matter-of-factly in the film. In home-video footage from that period, Cobain has terrible skin, looks horrifically gaunt, and both he and Love appear to care little about the disgusting conditions around them.

A brief respite came with the arrival of Frances, born in August 1992.

“Having Frances gave him more pleasure than anything in his life,” Charles R. Cross, who knew the musician from the Seattle music scene and who wrote the Cobain biography “Heavier Than Heaven,” tells The Post.

That happiness comes across in “Montage of Heck” via sweet sequences of a smiling Cobain playing with his baby daughter, whose birth inspired him to make a concerted effort to clean up.

But as the film outlines, the musician’s drug usage continued, due in part to a painful, undiagnosed stomach complaint that had bothered him his entire adult life.

A young Cobain in his childhood home in Aberdeen, Wash. AP

AP One particularly harrowing scene features Cobain nodding out as he attempts to hold Frances still for a haircut. “I’m not on drugs,” he protests weakly, even though it’s clear that he’s lying.

Life under the media microscope added to his sense of alienation, particularly after journalist Lynn Hirschberg wrote a 1992 Vanity Fair profile that alleged Love used heroin while pregnant.

Love actually admits to the drug use in “Montage of Heck,” but at the time, the story left Cobain feeling “violated” and resulted in Frances being briefly removed from the couple’s custody.

Love also offers a surprising new revelation in the movie, confessing that she considered having an affair.

“I’m a big flirt — I flirt with chairs,” says Love. “I never, never cheated on him, but I certainly thought about it one time in London.”

She adds that Cobain sensed the possibility of her straying, and it may have triggered his March 1994 suicide attempt.

But as engrossing as “Montage of Heck” is, with its compelling interviews and unprecedented access, Cobain’s friends and collaborators claim it’s far from the whole story.

Cross, who documented Nirvana’s rise as editor of Seattle music publication the Rocket, feels something often missed in examinations of Cobain’s life is his fear of poverty.

The feeling was renewed for the singer when director Kevin Kerslake sued Nirvana over allegations of copyright infringement related to the 1993 video for “Heart-Shaped Box.” (The suit was settled out of court after Cobain’s death.)

“What he told his drug counselors was that his biggest fear was losing his money from a court case,” Cross says. “He’d been on the street as a kid, so the idea of going back to that was horrifying.”

The overwhelming sentiment throughout the second half of “Montage of Heck” is that Cobain was tortured, especially in the final years of his life. But the singer’s friends and confidantes recall a man with a very funny side.

“His whole life was based on humor and sarcasm,” Cross explains. “But it gets lost because it’s hard to capture that without encountering the real person.”

The frontman definitely didn’t shy away from practical jokes.

Once, during the recording of third album “In Utero” in 1993, Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic, drummer Dave Grohl and producer-engineer Steve Albini put in a prank call to Evan Dando of the Lemonheads, pretending Madonna was waiting to speak to him.

Albini posed as a member of Madge’s staff, with the rest of the band listening in; Dando fell for it and waited as they simply left him dangling on the line for five minutes.

It didn’t just play out in private, either. During a 1993 Halloween show in Ohio, Cobain took to the stage in a giant Barney suit. “I remember he took the tail and taped it under his legs to make it look like a d–k,” Grohl told NME in 2007.

Guitarist Pat Smear was dressed as Slash from Guns N’ Roses (with whom Nirvana were often feuding) and at the finale, they had a mock-fight. “Kurt had a bag of fake blood in his stomach and at the end of the duel, ‘Slash’ killed ‘Barney’ with his guitar by stabbing him. It was so funny.”

Cobain performs in 1993. AP

“He was really good company,” says Steve Diggle, guitarist in British punk group the Buzzcocks, who were invited by Cobain to be the opening act on what would be Nirvana’s last tour, in 1994.

“He had people following him telling him that he had to do 500 interviews, but he would say, ‘Steve, I just want to hang out with you.’ One time, he gave me a couple of wraps of cocaine. I chopped them out for everyone, but the rest of the band didn’t want any and Kurt was upstairs. So I did the lot! Then Kurt came down, he said, ‘Where’s it all gone?!’ ”

Cobain was a ball of contradictions. He was a reckless drug addict, but owned a Volvo because it was the safest car in the world. He hated the scrutiny of fame, but feared losing the monetary benefits.

He loved his daughter dearly, but ended up denying her a father. As Frances (now 22) noted in a recent interview with Rolling Stone, one of her few directions to Morgen was that she didn’t want the film to fall into the “romanticism” and “mythology” that so often surrounds her father’s memory.

“One of things that often gets played up in depictions of him is Kurt as the victim,” concludes Cross. “He was not a victim. The choices he made were his own — both in his drug abuse and suicide. Nobody forced him to do anything.”


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