As tens of thousands of American citizens get sick or die from COVID-19 and millions more lose their jobs and businesses close and the economy teeters on the brink of collapse and lawmakers scurry to pass policies that would help people and businesses and schools close down and children go hungry and nurses and doctors beg Congress for protective gear and unemployment application websites are overwhelmed by traffic and everyone loses what little faith they had in the idea that if you work hard you will be able to cobble together a decent life, here’s former president Barack Obama praising a few celebrities for using their fingers to plug a bursting dam:
Shea Serrano and Roxanne Gay are generously giving of their time and money and deserve the coverage and recognition they’ve received. So do the other individuals and community groups Obama drew attention to. So do the local networks of mutual aid that are saving people’s lives and the national organizations dedicated to making sure the hungry have food or paying off people’s medical debt.
Focusing exclusively on these good works, though, is a way of avoiding the obvious: Donations and volunteering from private citizens and organizations alone will not and cannot avert a national crisis. It will take drastic, unprecedented government intervention in order to avoid mass unemployment, another Great Depression, and thousands of preventable deaths.
Since leaving office, Obama, the most admired political figure in the world, has been famously loathe to say or do anything political. The refusal to engage in politics is, of course, a political act. So too is a decision to focus solely on individual responsibility—a huge part of what got the country into this mess in the first place—rather than that of the collective. The federal government is an instrument that can be used for the common good, and the only one with the scope and powers to alleviate the worst of this crisis. The question that matters is to what uses those powers will be put, and to whose benefit.
It would be good for the most popular Democratic figure in the country, one who is already publicly engaging in political action, to do so to real effect—to come out in support of Rep. Maxine Waters’ bill calling for direct cash payments to citizens and the suspension of consumer and small business debt payments, for instance. It would be good for him to support the obvious truth, under attack for generations by the most powerful elements of society, that there are public interests that can only be served by public action. It would be good for him to say that individual good works are necessary, but not sufficient.
This is probably too much to ask of the Netflix-deal-having dude whose stimulus plan sold out ordinary people during the last recession so that banks could give their executives billions of dollars in bonuses. It probably isn’t too much to hope that in absence of anything useful to say, he wouldn't say anything at all.
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