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The Year We Learned to Live Like Life Doesn’t Matter

How the pandemic put a grotesque new face on the political normalization of brutality.

It’s bad. This week marked a record in Covid-19-related deaths, and we are currently seeing an average of 209,864 Covid cases per day. Nearly 300,000 people in the United States have died since the beginning of the pandemic, with worse expected on the horizon.

And yet these numbers no longer shock. In fact, Americans seem to have become habituated to them. Habituation is a behavioral term that basically means getting used to it. People learn to filter out input that isn’t essential. If a car alarm is going off—or this year’s ubiquitous ambulance sirens—and there’s nothing you can do about it, you learn to live with the noise, and it fades into the background. It seems like the same thing has happened with Covid deaths. Alarming headlines circulated in late May after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that deaths from the virus surpassed the 100,000 mark. The New York Times created a striking visual package accompanied by short obituaries in an effort to make the number, staggering as it was, feel more real. But nine months later, death at this scale has become just another part of living in America.

In psychodynamic terms, we use defense mechanisms to protect ourselves from unpleasant thoughts or feelings. We compartmentalize the horrors we see on the news every day when we avoid thinking too much about what is going on. It’s sad that things are how they are—terrible, even—but what can you do, really? Or we rationalize them. We tell ourselves that God looks out for us in a narrow and direct way and that anyone who succumbs to the virus just doesn’t have the right divine protection. Or we tell ourselves that Covid-19 is a fate for certain categories of people—for service workers, for immigrants, for people in jails and prisons. We broaden the scope of whom we accept as disposable, and we tell ourselves that we’re safe.

Patrick Blanchfield called this a “dramatic tightening of longstanding continuums of exploitation and disposability.” In March, he wrote, “Our culture has developed robust mechanisms for naturalizing artificial scarcity, normalizing punitiveness, and justifying suffering as morally deserved—in everything from poverty to incarceration to health care and more.” This is also what a high school history teacher, fearful about his school’s lack of a safe reopening plan back in July, called an enforced instinct to “normalize the constant death of our neighbors.” These changes have happened very quickly.

Our social structures more or less guarantee these reactions to the crisis. Absent any kind of financial relief package, millions of people had to go to work in order to pay their bills. (Some never stopped working to begin with.) Parents and other caretakers still have 24-hour obligations to children and family members. With so little room to process, we adapt to this situation, learning to filter it out or defending ourselves from our true feelings in order to do what we have to do.

There is protest. Workers have walked off the job or refused to go back. Communities have taken to the streets in defense of their neighbors. There is power there, both in what’s being built and in a disruption that acknowledges what is different and unacceptable. But the systems that govern our daily lives insist that we go on with life as usual.

This is hardly a new development in America. From mass shootings and people who die from lack of health insurance to the country’s founding in slavery and Native genocide, brutality has long been a central part of American life. It’s seen in what the journalist Chris Hedges has called the “sacrifice zones” of Houston, Texas, and in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, where chemical refineries and other heavy industry contribute to high rates of cancer and asthma. Similarly, it’s seen in the political indifference to the effects of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, or the way that American military violence abroad is taken as a given. We adjust to greater and greater amounts of brutality, or we figure out ways to excuse or ignore them, because they are all too often the only thing offered to us by the state.

On Election Day in Somerville, Massachusetts, Leah Zallman, a young doctor and researcher who worked with immigrant populations, was killed on her way home from her local polling place. She wasn’t killed in the ways that you might fear in 2020—by Covid-19 or by right-wing militia groups. Her cause of death was much more quotidian: A pickup truck hit her by accident, and she died from her injuries in the hospital. Every year, almost 6,000 pedestrians in this country are killed by vehicles, and the problem is getting worse. But most of us don’t walk around all day upset about it. We just take it as a given that vehicles kill pedestrians and that it would be impossible to build cities less centered around cars, even though we’ve done it before in this country and such cities currently exist around the world. Perhaps we write letters to our elected officials or show up at protests or local hearings. But this is slow work that more often than not yields disappointment. So we focus on our to-do lists, or we tell ourselves that we always look both ways at an intersection.

Meanwhile, Republican political leaders tell us to suck it up. They tell us that mass death and suffering are inevitable, so we should stop rending our garments about it and get back to work. In March, Texas Governor Dan Patrick told Tucker Carlson that he would happily die as a sacrifice to keep the economy “normal.” “Don’t be afraid of Covid,” the president told the public in October, after receiving elite medical care to survive the virus.

These responses aren’t surprising, considering the trajectory of the Republican Party. The idea that the GOP is a death cult has recently become axiomatic, not only among the left but among liberals. But when it comes to policy, the Democratic Party often caves to the same ghoulish priorities. During the Amy Coney Barrett hearings, Democrats went hard on protecting the Affordable Care Act. They brought along poster board cutouts of people whose lives were saved by it. Yet many of the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee are outright opposed to Medicare for All or have walked back previous support. The message, then, is that health care is important. Perhaps it’s even a human right. But we can’t cover everyone, and it’s too much to ask that we try.

Pennsylvania Democratic Representative Conor Lamb tried to temper his constituents’ expectations about policies that might improve their lives. In November, he told the Times that policies supported by his party’s left flank are “completely unrealistic,” and that it’s cruel to bring up the possibility of a better world when it’s not possible.

“I’m giving you an honest account of what I’m hearing from my own constituents, which is that they are extremely frustrated by the message of defunding the police and banning fracking,” Lamb said. “And I, as a Democrat, am just as frustrated. Because those things aren’t just unpopular, they’re completely unrealistic, and they aren’t going to happen. And they amount to false promises by the people that call for them.”

But you don’t have to accept the view that we just have to get used to mass death and terror. Like Mariame Kaba and Ruth Wilson Gilmore, you might imagine a world without prisons and police. Like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Naomi Klein, and the young members of the Sunrise Movement, you might imagine an economy that respects the limits of the earth and of our own bodies. Even the Cassandras in your Twitter feed, posting ceaselessly about everything like the emergency it is, likely do this because they can imagine a world that is beautiful instead of one that is ugly.

People have very good reasons for learning how to live in our brutal country. The people who dream of a better world are up against a sclerotic and undemocratic system helmed by people who tell us things can’t be better. That’s a demoralizing prospect for activists and bystanders alike. If you’re asking people to lower their defenses, you better give them a world where those defenses are no longer necessary.

In the meantime—if we can—it’s worth offering ideas of how things could be. And it’s worth trying to understand why things are the way they are, and why people might be reacting the way they’re reacting. Or maybe I’m just intellectualizing here. That, by the way, is a defense mechanism.