California, Where Whatever You Do, You Will Be Wrong

We're All in This Together—But Please, Keep Your Distance

California, Where Whatever You Do, You Will Be Wrong | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

A Sacramento yard fence message in April. In COVID, being a good citizen requires constant compliance with contradictions. Courtesy of Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press.

Our politics may be paranoid, our society may be paralyzed, our police may be irredeemable, and our skies may be on fire, but don’t fear! At least we Californians can see clearly how to navigate all our crises.

We Californians are fortunate that we receive so much guidance, official and unofficial, about how to respond to these emergencies. All we have to do is follow it. Which is easy-peasy, if you are broad-minded (and we do have a reputation for being broad-minded).

For starters, go outside. You must avoid the indoors, because COVID spreads best in enclosed areas. Spending time outdoors now is good for your health.

Also, don’t go outside. Don’t you know there’s a pandemic on, and you should isolate yourself? Plus, with six of the 20 largest fires in California history burning, you’ll just be breathing smoke. Spending time outdoors now is bad for your health.

By the way, it’s important that you see family right now. Particularly if they are elderly or in a facility. Because you know what’s the biggest killer out there? Loneliness. That’s the real epidemic.

Just one caveat, though: don’t see your family. It’s too dangerous. Public health officials, even the governor, say family gatherings are where the virus spreads. Haven’t you heard the latest PSAs on the radio? If you visit your mother or grandfather, it’s pretty much murder.

Speaking of matters of life and death, you shouldn’t call the cops unless you’re absolutely sure there’s a crime or emergency; try to deescalate matters yourself. Cops carry dangerous biases, so your call puts vulnerable people at risk. And, big picture, we should defund the police, and have other kinds of experts handle crime.

Of course, though, you should call the cops. Violence and property crime are up. This is a heavily armed society. If something suspicious occurs, a trained law enforcement professional—not you—should be the one responding. We already have too many vigilantes out there. Haven’t you seen the signs? “See something, say something.”

Speaking of say something: You must speak out. In this moment of reckoning, silent isn’t just assent; it’s complicity in injustice. We need whistleblowers to call out wrongdoing. We need to hear from people of color, whose stories and perspectives have too long been ignored. White people have a special obligation to challenge racism. And mass protest is essential to keep the pressure on unjust systems and people in power.

Still, don’t speak until you’re sure you’re adding to the conversation. There are already so many voices talking that it’s hard to hear ourselves think. White people need to stop talking about the cultures and histories of other people. People of color shouldn’t have to keep explaining themselves. And mass protest is dangerous—don’t you know there is a pandemic on?

Our politics may be paranoid, our society may be paralyzed, our police may be irredeemable, and our skies may be on fire, but don’t fear! At least we Californians can see clearly how to navigate all our crises.

In raising our voices, it’s important to remember not to attack people personally. We are confronting systems of oppression, that hurt all people. Focus on ending those systems, and replacing them with better systems, designed for equity. That’s how you get unity, which is vital.

And never forget that this is about individual morality, not systems. When people misbehave or say the wrong thing, they need to be called out forcefully, and held to account, no matter if they’re in power or not. This is about changing individual behavior. And if that’s divisive, so be it—unity is overrated.

Because this is a moment to choose sides and rally your base.

Because what better time than now to reach out to people who disagree with you—that’s how we change things.

Just don’t reach out on social media—those companies are doing terrible things to our democracy, and making us anxious and even sick.

But we need to use social media because it empowers citizens, and allows us to go around the corrupt corporate media.

On social media, you must speak your own truth, and recognize that your lived experience is what counts.

But we can’t rely on anecdote or emotion; we need to make decisions based on facts and data.

In this pandemic, it’s essential that we trust our scientists and public health officials.

But we can’t trust our scientists and public health officials, who are compromised by politics and corporate money.

Speaking of business, you need to open yours as soon as possible. We need some semblance of normalcy, and we must bolster the economy, so that people have jobs and income to pay rent, and there are enough tax dollars to recover from all these crises.

Of course, you should keep your business closed, so that you don’t contribute to COVID’s spread—and so that you protect yourself and your employees, too.

And if you live or work in a dense city, you might want to leave the metropolitan area and head somewhere with fewer people and less COVID, especially if you’re in an at-risk category.

At the same time, you shouldn’t move to far-out or exurban places on the urban-wildland interface—you’re just putting yourself in the path of fire. Instead, embrace the density of our cities!

Wherever you’re living, your kids need to be back in school immediately. Pediatricians say getting back to class is crucial. Kids are losing educationally and socially when they’re at home. Kids who miss months of school end up less educated, less wealthy, and less healthy. You don’t want to shorten kids’ lives, do you?

But be careful: Sending the kids back to school is a rotten idea. Look at the outbreaks at universities that reopened. Kids can be spreaders, too. And we have to protect our educators, who didn’t sign up to risk their lives. You don’t want to shorten teachers’ lives, do you?

If you’re a parent, now is the time to step up and prioritize your kids; find ways to collaborate with other parents to make up for the lack of in-person instruction and socialization, maybe even hire teachers so kids can gather in small groups.

But don’t do too much, and don’t just focus on your kids. When privileged parents intervene, they worsen inequality.

And kids, you need to avoid sitting in front of your screens for hours. Screen usage is up, and it’s bad for your eyes, your body, and your mental health.

Also, kids, you must be diligent about distance learning, and you need more time with your teachers online—even if it means sitting in front of your screen for hours.

Remember, we’re all in this together. We have to stay connected and help one another.

But don’t forget, to survive this, we must isolate ourselves. Keep your distance.

In these unprecedented times, we must comply with all of these clear directives, in service of stopping disease, preventing catastrophe, and insuring justice. When you don’t follow all these messages, you are putting everyone else at risk.

In these unprecedented times, it’s impossible to comply with so many mixed messages. Whatever you do, you will be wrong. So prioritize taking care of yourself. All anyone can reasonably demand is that you do the best you can.


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