Columns

MRR #444 • May 2020

What’s Left?

The terrifying thing about an outbreak that requires people not to leave their homes for 90 days is it means the only ones to survive will be freelance writers.

—Sam Adams, senior editor, Slate Magazine

I dropped out of graduate school at UCSD in 1979 after a traumatic breakup with a lover. I spent the next two-plus years drunk twenty-four/seven, even spending nine months homeless living in and around the UCSD campus. Friends helped me reconstruct my life, find a place to live and get a job. And from that point on until my retirement, I was gainfully employed.

Almost.

I hated working for someone else. Even my best jobs never went past six years, and on average they lasted only two. I always stayed employed long enough to qualify for unemployment benefits and then to get terminated in such a way as to collect said benefits. That was six months of paid writing time as I saw it, and occasionally during economic downturns, I doubled that. I’m a writer, have been since I was twelve, and I did much of my writing after hours, after either school or work. Being on unemployment was like being on a paid writer’s holiday.

It’s in the writer’s nature to self-isolate. I spent days blending into weeks sitting at home alone writing while on unemployment living in San Diego and the Bay Area. Computers and word processing software have been a boon to writing. I’ve always owned a Mac, starting with a changed Mac Plus in 1985. After they invented the laptop, I would take the one I owned to write in cafes and coffee shops. I still do. But even now I prefer writing in libraries because of the peace I can find there. Staying holed up in my residence writing—self-quarantining if you will—has always been second nature to me. 

Of course, that meant also drinking alone while writing when I drank alcohol. Being a day drunk went with the territory, so much so that when I retired I had to make rules for myself limiting my drinking to after five in the afternoon. The alcoholic writer is a common trope. Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Bukowski, William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, Edgar Allan Poe, Dylan Thomas, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, Raymond Chandler, Hunter S. Thompson; the list of alcoholic writers I admire is long. “Taking the cure” has often meant suffering from writer’s block and other writing problems. Fortunately, I never had that problem when I stopped drinking.

Writing in a time of plague is a tricky business, however. It’s becoming common to compare COVID-19 not just to various flu-like diseases but also to the AIDS/HIV pandemic. “There’s no sense in comparing the two viruses — the novel coronavirus and HIV. They are not alike, not in speed or reach or genome.” (Ryan Kost, “They survived one plague. Now HIV/AIDS survivors face down the coronavirus,” SF Chronicle) Whereas COVID-19 is transmitted through airborne and physical human contact and has a 1-3% mortality rate, for instance, AIDS is sexually transmitted and had an 11% mortality rate at its height. About the only thing they have in common is the fear they’ve generated. As a member of the queer-friendly community back in 1980, I remember the whispered anxiety that a new “gay cancer” was making the rounds. Gay-bashing has always been a reality for the LGBTQI+ community, exacerbated by the public’s fear of AIDS. The community response has ranged from staid volunteer self-defense organizations like the Castro Community on Patrol to the far more militant Bash Back! movement. Now people are freaking out if someone even coughs or sneezes nearby. Asian/Chinese bashing caused by COVID-19 fears is coming to rival the gay-bashing related to fear of AIDS. US combat veterans have patrolled San Francisco’s Chinatown in response. I bear the vaccine mark of the poliovirus from the 1950s fear of poliomyelitis. As with polio, good solid science halted the spread of HIV, and, with luck, it will do so against COVID-19.

Another thing these disparate diseases have in common is the loneliness and isolation engendered by catching the illness. Being confined or quarantined because of having a potentially life-threatening disease can be almost as deadly as the illness itself. So can the fear of being infected. I and everyone I know are sheltering-in-place because of COVID-19 and after a month-plus cabin fever has already set in. Gay men have told me about going through all this before, only far worse. The social isolation, the fear of losing one’s friends and employment, being condemned and ostracized, the fear of death. Gregory Fowler has described this poignantly: “I had straight and sadly some gay friends who would not eat out in restaurants if a gay person worked there or wouldn’t invite their gay brother over for Sunday dinner. At its worse, there were weeks when we would hear of the death of 2, 3, 4… friends and acquaintances, all the time living in fear of our own death. This didn’t go on for a few weeks or a few months, but for year after year after year, it became embedded into our daily existence and our constant fight for survival, all the while watching our friends die as the government stood by and did nothing!”

The AIDS and COVID-19 crises are not comparable in so many ways. Coronavirus sheltering-in-place is inconvenient, disruptive, and sometimes risky, but it’s not stigmatizing. The response to both requires comparable strategies, namely mutual aid and revolution. I’m running out of space and revolution is a fraught term, so I’ll discuss mutual aid now and defer revolution for a future column.

I’ve known members of the Radical Faeries, a group of gay men “which blends counter-cultural values, queer consciousness and spirituality.” (Rory Carroll, “Hold the applause for Facebook’s rainbow-colored profiles, activists say,” The Guardian) Founded by former Communist Party member Harry Hay, the Radical Faeries grew into a loose international network that owned rural land and urban buildings designated sanctuaries for communal living hosted occasional tribal gatherings and took care of their own. That meant providing companionship, nursing, and hospice for its members who had contracted AIDS. When Harry Hay died in 2002, the Radical Faeries took care of his partner, John Burnside, until he too died in 2008. I volunteered to work at Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS) for several years. PAWS started as a free food and medicine delivery service for people with AIDS confined to their homes because “no one should have to make the difficult choice of caring for themselves or caring for their beloved pets.” PAWS has since expanded their free comprehensive support services “to pets of seniors and individuals living with disability or illness,” providing a pet food bank, free and subsidized veterinary services with partnering veterinarians, and pet care services like dog walking and in-home cat sitting. I drove around San Francisco delivering supplies before I eventually did shifts at the PAWS pet food bank.

Well before Peter Kropotkin wrote: “[p]racticing mutual aid is the surest means for giving each other and to all the greatest safety, the best guarantee of existence and progress, bodily, intellectual and moral” in his book Mutual Aid, the practice of human sociability and solidarity have been key to our survival. Long a feature of immigrant communities in the US, mutual aid societies reflect thesentiment that members of a community that might be overlooked by government efforts may be more successfully reached by people in their circles. Some leftist activists also see mutual aid as part of the work of building the bonds needed for mass movements and a more cooperative democratic society.” (Abigail Savitch-Lew, “Mutual Aid Movement Playing Huge Role in COVID-19 Crisis.” CityLimits) But whether viewed as an immediate, ad hoc solution to problems better left to government, as a way to shame the government into doing its jobs or as the tip of the anarchist spear critiquing the State as an unnecessary, harmful and violent institution, mutual aid was a feature of both the AIDS crisis and today’s COVID-19 pandemic. It’s Going Down, a website “for anarchist, anti-fascist, autonomous anti-capitalist and anti-colonial movements,” features a separate “COVID-19 Mutual Aid” page with hundreds of listing in almost every state in the country.

Shopping and grocery delivery, supply and clothing runs, pharmacy prescription pickups, food preparation, free money—the list of activities and resources covered by mutual aid programs and groups can be long. But providing mutual aid is no substitute for the radical social change required to make such piecemeal efforts obsolete by transforming the whole of society into one based in part on mutual aid. I think the postmodern “resistance of everyday life” is wholly inadequate to the task, but the concept of revolution has fallen into disfavor. So we’ll unpack revolution next time.

 

SOURCES:

Personal recollections

Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution by Peter Kropotkin

Anarchy in Action by Colin Ward

From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890-1967 by David T. Beito

The Fire in Moonlight: Stories from the Radical Faeries 1971-2010 ed. By Thompson, Young, Neely

Radically Gay: Gay Liberation in the Words of Its Founder by Harry Hay

The Trouble with Harry Hay: Founder of the Modern Gay Movement by Stuart Timmons

No More Bad Future

Bleak strategies: punk in a pandemic

Listen to this column:

While it’s always been gauche to think too hard about punk, least of all in a global pandemic, none of us are short of time. One of the many sweet blessings about writing for Maximum for eleven years is that for all the paragraphs I definitely wasted, I never had to waste one providing situating definitions for what I meant, and didn’t mean, by punk. Thank god. But, as I’ve realised recently, when anything that’s been such a constant just… stops, you can trace its most honest shape from the space it leaves. Plus, as mentioned, not short of time here.

What is gone? There’s punk as cultural practice (room), and there’s the subsequent conveyor of products available as part of an international micro-economy of hobbies, business, and hobby-businesses, and then we have punk as a way of being together, and punk as a way of being.

There are countless other sides to our idiotic dice, every spin subject to an indefinite COVID-induced pause, but it’s the latter seems like the only one we might use lockdown to safely fortify, or at least repoint, punk as a way of being. The globalised punk universe approaches middle age on lockdown. Which of its old habits and rhythms could we stand to shed for a post-Corona world? Coupla provocations, then. Bryony No’s Bleak Strategies, if you will…

  • Who is first in line for a community bailout – givers and receivers?
  • Should these be determined by social capital or access to capital, and how?
  • Is mutual aid going to be enough once enough people start dying?
  • If that button brings a delivery person with no sick pay to your door, do you still press it?
  • What exactly is it you miss right now?
  • People or a feeling? Sound or a sensation?
  • Have you told them?
  • What is next for collective joy?
  • Has your life slowed down or sped up?
  • Does it feel more like boredom and malaise or panic and stress?
  • How much are you willing to give up for things to go back to normal?
  • How much are you willing to give up for things not to go back to normal?

Is No future still seductive, or has punk’s apocalypse imaginary packed up and gone home? Mad Max is baking sourdough, horny on main. Maybe the romance of it relied on the world not actually ending but in that shared, sexy fervour of being the clued-in ones, ready to stare down coming doom while others only fiddled.

Punk as generalised non-compliance is always a big mood but come on, no one wants to get pneumonia to make a point about liberty. There is no time for nihilism when the only thing between life and death is soap and distance.

Most attempts at punk as a way of being together during all this require internet access. We’ve had a grim but lusty side-eye towards The Online since it appeared. Don’t let me ever forget a column in the print iteration of this mag that walked us through setting up a MySpace band account with the foreboding energy of a doomsday prophesy. Punk prior to the virus was physical fetishes enabled with digital means, our push-pull of desire for access, and a self-loathing disgust at the bourgeois convenience of it all. It’s no surprise that electronic music bends itself with much less cringe to the first digital global pandemic. So where does this leave the Discharge Industrial Complex as we face down a year of no band practice?

Look, I can see you eyeing that acoustic guitar, and I know you’ve been on your phone a bunch. It’s okay. We dip in and out and in and out of timeline vortex, strapping our sinewy ankles into the mental illness machine for another day of cycling. The impulse to repeat behaviour in search of occasional reward is called a ludic loop. You keep scrolling and you don’t know why. In the Big Bad Now, we are caged animals slowly wearing away our frontal lobes from repeatedly nudging at the days-empty food hatch. Your brain wires still listlessly seek serotonin hits among the death counters. The total saturation makes the news appear uncanny, too, like those fake newspapers and social media interfaces you see in films, created to carry one headline only for a plotline. We can only marvel at the new moral universe of everything and perhaps attempt to keep our critical minds sharp with a game of Cop COVID or Comrade COVID. Usually, they are both on patrol, rarely observing the two metres apart rule.

The political choice to exploit the crisis for PR? The will to reputation-manage a virus? Cop COVID. In Tory Britain, this looks like a domestic violence awareness hashtag brought to you by the party that has defunded and closed 1 in 6 UK refuges since 2010. It looks like their endorsement of a weekly doorstep ‘clapping’ campaign for healthcare workers from the same system that brought you Social Murder, gutting NHS funding for decades, and somehow unable to unleash the mighty power of UK Plc to, perhaps, order them some decent fucking masks. But here is the strange inversion. The tears that came hard on hearing the roaring clapping and impromptu fireworks on my street despite my cynicism? A grounding display of pro-social behaviour as the state solemnly locates £330billion to pay their wages because they know there is no other choice? Definitely a Comrade COVID flex.

There is something slightly succulent for leftists witnessing the exact steps we’d prescribed for the demise of capitalism being taken with a grimace by our sworn enemies. Comrade COVID winks. The parameters of the possible are bust open by that smug prick named Political Will who we always knew had the only keys. That all this may come at a cost of hundreds of thousands of excess bodies, and that it may still all be temporary, should provoke in all but the most Malthusian scum a kind of ‘wait… not like this!’ horror. Still, that which was for so many of us already laid bare is now running around showing the entire world its ass: inequality kills and this virus is no leveler. The conditions under which you work predict how likely you are to die from this virus.

Can’t have class consciousness if you’re dead.

Fixed national character is fiction and all of our lungs look like trees. But did you notice how in response to a crisis, America blusters and buys more guns, Australia laughs and buys more toilet paper, and Britain hurriedly wheels out a war metaphor? Nurses not given access to masks are ‘heroes’ and the Prime Minister will recover because he is a ‘fighter.’ The nation readies its seventy-five-year-old hard-on for a tasty bit of battle as the suburban pastime of curtain switching and irate ‘tsk’ing swings upwards. Big Cop COVID hours. The personalisation of individual responsibility in a collective crisis only serves to insulate the powerful. There’s less scrutiny over the logistical infrastructure we all depend on than there is for our neighbours exercising habits. Humans are obsessed with shame. The Final Cancelling of whoever went to that party or shook that hand will never come. Ultimately, there is only a patchwork of deeply human culpability that covers all of our shoulders. In this, we are disastrously, fatally­­ – or perhaps ecstatically – one.

The truth of our interdependency smiles placidly back like “Come on, you always knew.”

The imperatives from this may take a minute to reveal themselves, and our embodied social world must wait. Punk mutes her mic to fart on a Zoom call. In the meantime, what we can do is fortify each other, redistribute, rebalance and ensure we use the limited energy of our weakened souls to direct rage at the right targets. These extraordinary times should make certain truths crystal clear, finally. Go to your window yell it out at anyone who will listen for as long as your precious lungs will let you.