Rebekah’s (New) Pandemic Diary, Entry #3: Who’s in Charge Here?

11 Aug
Photo by LED Supermarket on Pexels.com

I keep thinking back to this conversation I had one morning back in 2007 in the now defunct Has Beans coffee on 5th Avenue in Brooklyn. I was talking to my friend Ben Curry – may he be arguing for eternity with his intellectual equals – about lightbulbs, of all things. I had just updated all of mine to be energy efficient. He laughed at me, telling me that individual action was pointless in the face of corporate and governmental failure. I was appalled. I cited the hundreds of cups I forewent by religiously bringing my own reusable thermos day after day; the energy saved by riding my bike or taking public transit into Manhattan for work; the plastic bags that didn’t end up in the ocean and stuck in trees because I toted around canvas. I simply couldn’t compute that being schooled in the importance of the 3 R’s – reduce, reuse, recycle – could have all been a sham. I dug my heels in. He smirked at me and shot back the quick stats he always seemed to have effortless access to. I shrugged my shoulders in a “let’s agree to disagree” kind of way – he was always hard pressed to let something go – and we continued on to discuss, and argue about, other topics. Of all the conversations we had over the years this particular one stuck with me. I find myself thinking about it more and more as we bumble through this pandemic and race towards a complete environmental collapse. And I keep asking myself, who is in charge here?

We have spent our entire lives, all of us, being indoctrinated with this ideal of individual freedom and responsibility. I know I’ve talk about this a bunch over the years – about the lies of the American Dream, the limits of individualism. I recognize that it’s a dangerous narrative, one that hides the realities of structural inequalities and tells us that if we work hard enough then we too can ride a giant phallus into space. What I didn’t do was think about the true depths of this narrative. We isolate our “heroes” and our “failures.” We talk about how people get themselves trapped in poverty and how others earn themselves millions. The fact of the matter is that none of this is done alone, none of it happens in a vacuum. There are always other people helping us or holding us back.

Bear with me for a second because I’m going to take a sharp turn.

I was recently thinking about this movie, Dark Waters, starring Mark Ruffalo, Anne Hathaway and Bill Pullman (I’ve loved him since Newsies!), among others. The premise, based on a true story, is that a tenacious lawyer (Ruffalo, obviously) takes on DuPont for poisoning an entire town in West Virginia. I liked this movie, actually. I’m a sucker for over the top, based-on-a-true-story legal dramas where the good guys win and the evil corporate empire is forced to pay tons of money to the powerless people they have victimized for decades (even though, relatively speaking, what they pay out is pocket change). But the more I think about it the more it occurs to me: we celebrate this lawyer, Ruffalo’s Robert Bilott, for fighting this battle for over 20 years, but we celebrate him as if he did it alone. The reality is, though, that he couldn’t have done this without support, without help and without the willingness of the community – a community who had been victimized for decades – to fight with him. It might seem like these people, dying of cancer and whatever else they got from DuPont, had nothing to lose but the reality is that almost no one has nothing to lose, no matter how sick they are.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about this because I think our habit of individualizing everything – be it a success or a failure – is what mires us in our current situation and makes us incapable of addressing the environment or ending this pandemic or any other manner of totally doable things that we simply cannot seem to accomplish (gun reform, anyone?). The Earth is dying not because you bought a bikini from Shein, took a long shower or (god forbid!) used a plastic bag at the store. The Earth is dying because while people are pointing their fingers at the role individuals play corporations have a free pass to do whatever the fuck they want if it keeps prices low and stock holders happy. We can’t get out of this pandemic not because of a bunch of assholes who refuse to get vaccinated or wear masks (although that certainly is not helping), but because of a complete governmental failure from the day this arrived on our shores until now, 17 months later.

Remember when states were bidding against each other for PPE and then the federal government swooped in and took it all? Remember when we were told this was “just the flu?” Individual actions my ass. I recognize, of course, that there are some individuals who wield more power than others, but their power comes with a force of many. They do not act alone. No one acting alone is this powerful.

Sorry to come back to this space all pissed off after a 7 month long hiatus. It’s good to be here. It’s good to think again. Good to get this loop out of my head and onto the page. But I guess if you made it this far, I’d like to just quickly boil this whole tirade down to one thing:

Ben was right, my eco bulbs won’t stop the world from burning. And, in an argument I’m sure he would make while fully vaccinated and wearing a mask, those actions, although ethically correct, won’t save everyone. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still do them, but we should be honest about where the real power lies. Until we stop blaming (or lauding) individuals, we’re fucked.

4 Responses to “Rebekah’s (New) Pandemic Diary, Entry #3: Who’s in Charge Here?”

  1. creatingcarrie August 11, 2021 at 7:42 pm #

    I’ve been thinking a lot about how to bridge the gap between individual action and collective action. Like, if all the efficient lightbulb/canvas tote/reusable coffee mug people got together to use their collective power, then we could get somewhere (maybe not all the way, but farther down the road we want to go). (I’m guessing there are folks who think about and research this and know how it actually happens and I should probably go see what they have to say on the subject!)

    • FranklyRebekah August 11, 2021 at 9:10 pm #

      Maybe! And then use that knowledge to find the way to do something!

  2. mikelfrankart August 11, 2021 at 9:01 pm #

    I think this is all very true Rebekah. But seriously the truest of the truths is your last two words. We are so fucking fucked it’s fucked.

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