For Times and a Time

For Times and a Time

This seems as good a time as any for a confession: I’m decidedly a leftist, not a liberal. If that label comes loaded with too much baggage for your comfort (understandable, given the confusing and bloody history of the last 250-odd years), then maybe “anticapitalist” would serve better—anticapitalist in the vein of a Chris Hedges, Mike Duncan, or Jenny Odell, to be specific. If you read my post on social responsibility in storytelling, you may have picked up on this already, what with the potshots it takes at The Marketplace, as filtered through the publishing industry.

I want to come right out and say it, however, because although what follows is absolutely for everyone everywhere, I think those of us who stand opposed to the capitalist system are feeling particularly demoralized right now1Or maybe it’s just me. Well, either way…. The Sanders campaign appears to be on its last legs, the U.S. government has (as of this writing) pumped $1.5 trillion into a stock market that’s crashing harder than all those faulty airplanes Boeing dumped on the market a while back, our “leaders” want to let the coronavirus run freely through the population, and meanwhile, the rich are literally retreating to their bunkers, yachts, and private jets to ride out the storm in luxuriant safety. It feels very much like the tide has turned against us (i.e. everyone who isn’t a billionaire), and that…just hurts. There’s no way around how bleak things seem right now—no easy way, that is.

An infographic outlining 5 demands for COVID-19 survival. First, free healthcare. Second, suspend work obligations and ensure food stamps and sick pay. Third, suspend all rent, debt, parking enforcement, and the like. Fourth, free prisoners, deactivate ICE, stop sweeps of homeless camps. Fifth, open all unoccupied homes for anyone who needs one.

“Wait a second,” I hear you saying. “Isn’t this a blog about writing? Where’s all this ‘current events’ shit coming from?” Just bear with me a second, alright? We’ll get there.

Now, although the U.S. government has taken some apparently generous measures, like making coronavirus testing free (sort of) and sending out $1000 stimulus checks to ordinary Americans (eventually)2And don’t worry, that money definitely won’t trickle back upwards in the form of debt and rent payments.[/sarcasm], we can’t let such insufficient, token efforts lull us into passivity. Indeed, we should be insulted. We must call for real action that might actually save lives. Spain, for example, has nationalized its entire healthcare system in order to deal with the crisis, Cuba is sending medical brigades to several countries (including, in a historic development, Italy), and Vietnam is making everybody else look like morons with their exceptional containment efforts and test kit manufacturing capabilities.

The United States is the richest nation on Earth, and has no trouble coming up with trillions of dollars when it’s the fucking stock market on the line. A pandemic like this should not bring our economy to its knees, nor would it if all our fabulous wealth weren’t locked in the dragon’s billionaires’ hoard, if our nation made some pretense at caring for those who do all the actual work of maintaining it.

We now begin to see just how valuable their labor is, the grocery store workers, janitorial and cleaning staff, the doctors and nurses who don’t have the safety gear they need, the garbage collectors who have to handle all manner of infected waste, the delivery people who keep the food coming—without them, our society would cease to function at the best of times. In times like these, their absence would spell the final end of civilization. Our elites are thanking these “unskilled” workers by suggesting we let them get sick and die, as if it weren’t bad enough that hundreds of thousands will already die needlessly because our great and glorious Western Civilization has failed for decades3Okay, no, let’s be honest: from the very fucking beginning. to provide our most vulnerable with the wages, healthcare, and social safety nets they need—in short, to ensure a fair and equitable distribution of wealth. No, apparently only industries and corporations deserve a safety net.


So…

In the face of such deliberate mismanagement and criminal negligence, what the hell can stories and poetry possibly do, except keep us entertained while we’re all stuck inside (those of us lucky enough to have a roof over our head, that is)? Well, as I’ve said before, writing can be about far more than entertainment. It can allow us to learn from experiences without the burden of having them4Pretty sure I’m stealing that from someone…Patrick Rothfuss, maybe?, escape our own heads by inhabiting someone else’s for a while, explore what it means to be human in times of chaos and crisis.

A bearded man stares slightly right of camera, looking ill, afraid, and tired.
Arthur Morgan from Red Dead Redemption 2, right after confessing to a nun and admitting he’s afraid to die. I stole got this screencap from Marz’s Let’s Play of the series. Check out the comments for the episode; nearly every one is about this moment, how heartwrenching and beautiful it is.

More than that, I’ve found that stories which deal directly with themes of transience and mortality have the most power to move us. Not only do quite a few of my personal anxieties and fears revolve around such things, but unfortunately, our youth- and positivity-obsessed culture seems largely incapable of acknowledging, much less confronting, these dark and dour topics. That can leave me (and, I imagine, plenty of you out there) feeling very much alone at times when I most need support, so I turn to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and Guy Gavriel Kay, to Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, Gospel at Colonus, and games like Red Dead Redemption 2. All of these (and so many others) confront the realities that most of us are busy running away from, and show how life can have meaning, joy, and purpose even in the face of our appalling frailty.

But here’s another one for you: sci-fi and fantasy in particular love to give us story after story about resistance in the face of an Empire come to crush us—and make no mistake, they are coming to crush us. However, we can also see some small pockets of resistance springing up. In Los Angeles, for example, the homeless have seized around a dozen5Sources vary on the exact count. vacant homes, while Instacart’s workers are (successfully) striking to protest their company’s terrible (but all too common) attitude toward worker health and safety.

More generally, certain tenets of the mythologies corporate and governmental mouthpieces have woven for us over the years are coming undone: prisoners who, before, were supposed to be a danger to society are now being unceremoniously released; disabled people who have been denied the right to work from home for years are suddenly allowed to do so with minimal difficulty; free coronavirus testing belies the idea that our outrageous for-profit healthcare system cannot be changed; and the suspension of evictions both private and commercial throws into sharp relief just how unbalanced the power dynamic between landlord and tenant really is, and how unnecessary.

These efforts must be expanded, and we all need to throw every ounce of support we can muster their way, because it is long past time to face reality: things are catastrophically bad right now, and unless we fight back against those who have lied, cheated, and stolen their way into obscene wealth and power, they will not get better. Remember, even after the coronavirus burns its way through our societies, we still face a climate catastrophe that represents an existential threat to human civilization. A time of crisis like the one we’re living through now may be, as Naomi Klein has pointed out, the best time to push for change.

That’s the only silver lining I can see here. Our institutions have failed us, and now those in power are leaving us to die. The lines have been drawn. To quote Chris Hedges, “I’m not a Manichean, but this is as stark a battle as you can get.”

Dark stuff, I know. I can’t and won’t offer any saccharine “positivity” or naive hope, though all you who have loved and understood the works of J.R.R. Tolkien will know better than to give in to despair in the face of an apparently overwhelming enemy. I hope that, like Treebeard as the ents marched inexorably toward the gates of Isengard, we can allow ourselves to feel the sorrow of this whole miserable affair, and yet remain “sad but not unhappy.” Indeed, like the ents, and everyone arrayed against Sauron in Middle-Earth, our only hope lies in each other—our only hope for victory, yes (a mass movement is all we can count on here), but also for a defeat in which we remain human, the bitterness of which will not send us into a tailspin of nihilistic despair. A sense of community and shared struggle, of brother- and sisterhood, has the power to sweeten victory, and comfort us even in final defeat.

This is what leftists and activists mean when they use the word “solidarity.” Or, if it isn’t, then it ought to be.


A British soldier from World War 1 posing for a photo.
G.B. Smith

I’d like to end with a poem that, unless you’re a particularly ardent admirer of Tolkien, I can all but guarantee you’ve never heard of. At King Edward’s School, Tolkien and his friends formed a sort of literary clique called the T.C.B.S., short for Tea Club and Barrovian Society. The members of this group were many, but Tolkien and his closest friends Christopher Wiseman, G.B. Smith, and Rob Gilson formed its stable core, and all of them were pressed into military service when World War 1 broke out. Almost the entire T.C.B.S. was killed in the fighting. Only Tolkien and Wiseman survived.

Afterwards, Tolkien arranged and published a collection of Smith’s poetry called The Spring Harvest, which closes with the following:

                             So we lay down the pen,
                             So we forbear the building of the rime,
                             And bid our hearts be steel for times and a time
                                    Till ends the strife, and then,
                             When the New Age is verily begun,
                             God grant that we may do the things undone.

So, good luck everybody. Stay safe, stay healthy, and be good to each other.

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