Immunologist Dr. Rick Bright has the job title of the director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA). He is the author of the phrase “the darkest winter in modern history,” which may one day become the title of a Hollywood movie that recounts the invasion in 2020 of the serial murderer bearing the code name COVID-19 and the ensuing political, social and economic collapse of American civilization.
It’s the compelling story of the hero who understood the threat before anyone else and tried — less timidly than many of his colleagues — to warn the political establishment of the severity of the coming coronavirus pandemic. Bright also insisted on talking about the concrete measures required to defend against it. As a consequence of his lucidity and his insistence, he was relieved of his duties, cast aside, demoted.
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Bright describes the tenor of the early discussions in anticipation of the COVID-19 disease’s arrival in the US: “I was told that my urgings were causing a commotion, and I was removed from those meetings.” On April 20, according to Bright’s whistleblower complaint, he was “involuntarily removed” from his position as director of BARDA “by Dr. [Robert] Kadlec and others,” one of the “others” of course being US President Donald Trump.
When asked to explain, Trump commented, “To me, he’s a disgruntled guy and I hadn’t heard great things about him.” He added that “with his attitude, [he] should not be working for our government.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Lucid, realistic, candid and outspoken
The media have focused on the current drama and the practical consequences of the lack of adequate planning for the pandemic. It has already taken nearly 90,000 lives in America, devastated the US economy and aggravated the underlying social chaos that characterizes US democracy. (This persistent cultural chaos that predates both the pandemic and the Trump administration may be the true meaning of “American exceptionalism.”)
Bright’s complaints against the administration’s behavior go well beyond the current coronavirus pandemic. They concern, for example, as stated in the title of Section II of his complaint, “HHS Leadership Cronyism and Award of Contracts to Companies with Political Connections to the Administration.” According to Bright, those practices date back to 2017, the year Trump’s presidency began.
In a single sentence, Bright sums up the Trump administration’s practice in awarding contracts for the needs of public health: “Despite [the] rigorous multi-level review process to ensure that BARDA prioritizes public health considerations and makes decisions based exclusively on scientific merit, from approximately the spring of 2017 through the date of his involuntary removal as Director of BARDA, HHS leadership pressured Dr. Bright and BARDA to ignore expert recommendations and instead to award lucrative contracts based on political connections and cronyism.”
This is far more serious than the complaint by Trump’s critics concerning the administration’s preparation and planning to meet the current crisis. Media commentators have zeroed in on Bright’s description of the government’s failure, since the month of January, to respond to and manage the needs of a population facing an imminent pandemic. “We don’t have a single point of leadership for this response, and we don’t have a master plan for this response,” Bright told lawmakers on May 14. In short, whether it was back then (2017) or now, Dr. Bright has a lot to be “disgruntled” about.
In response to Trump’s characterization of Dr. Bright’s attitude as a factor of disturbance in the workings of a coherent team, Bright countered, “I am not disgruntled, I am frustrated at a lack of leadership; I am frustrated at a lack of urgency to get a head start on developing lifesaving tools for Americans.”
Whatever happens when and if the coronavirus pandemic reaches some unforeseeable kind of resolution, future historians will in all probability note that it marked a significant turning point in US history. The great debate that has emerged in the midst of today’s crisis focuses less around the question of how to protect the population’s health than that of defending the quintessential American concept of “freedom.”
At the base of contemporary political thought in the US is the idea that people are free because markets are free. This is what everyone learns in school and what pundits and politicians endlessly repeat in the media. To those conveyors of conventional wisdom, the freedom of markets ideally means the elimination of all constraints on personal decision-making. The acceptance of constraints can only be short-lived and justified by the reaction to an emergency.
Because of another fundamental truth at the core of US culture, that “time is money,” emergencies will always have a limited shelf-life. They constitute disturbances of the existing order, not warnings of flaws in the system. After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, President George W. Bush made it clear: “They hate us for our freedoms.” It was useless to imagine that the terrorist attacks may have been related to features of a system requiring some critical examination. Paradoxically, the Patriot Act that followed 9/11 reduced some of those freedoms. But few people seemed to notice. Today, for many Americans who are perennially aware of their sacred right to enjoy multiple freedoms — and especially the freedom to consume — two months of lockdown was already too much.
An increasing number of respectable politicians, most of them Republican, are appealing to federal and local authorities to concentrate their effort on saving the source of everyone’s freedom — the consumer economy — even at the cost of sacrificing tens of thousands of lives and prolonging the crisis over time. Their fears of the consequences of a shutdown are justified. They realize that they are engaged in a very real ideological war that has profound historical significance. The pandemic is exposing the failure of an economic system, supported by an elaborate ideology that defines human beings as producers and consumers of merchandise.
Perhaps the biggest question facing the US ideological superstructure is the status of a concept called the “job.” Jobs themselves are a form of merchandise to be consumed. The logic of student loans that have become the bane of several generations highlights that fact. Young people voluntarily accept a lifetime of debt to purchase a future job. But jobs are not just sources of earnings permitting subsistence in a competitive world. They also define an individual’s social identity.
Media pundits are currently grappling with the question of how many jobs will definitively disappear as a consequence of the pandemic. Opponents of lockdowns would rather see tens of thousands of human beings disappear than millions of jobs. Proponents of lockdowns appear prepared for a post-pandemic culture in which the tyranny of the job as the principal factor of social identity may be loosened.
Andrew Yang’s presidential primary campaign based on the idea of establishing universal basic income now appears to make social and economic sense to a lot of Americans. But it violates the underpinnings of the current neoliberal consumerist ideology that depends on people struggling throughout their youth and, more often than not, going deeply into debt to purchase a job that will fix their identity in the social order. The system cultivates extreme instability at the micro level (the individual consumer-producer) to establish a macro level of stability measured by the Dow Jones index.
The problem today is that most jobs are not the product of publicly-traded enterprises. When the daily death count due to the COVID-19 disease finally subsides to a level of banality that keeps the obsessive tracking of its numbers out of the media’s headlines, will the defenders of the neoliberal order have the means to reestablish the ideology of jobs and gigs that has been the motor of the economy in recent decades? Or will US society and the rest of the capitalist world move into a new historical phase in which people and governments begin to engineer a society based on another concept than the purchase of employment? That is a question that, if left unresolved, will leave a lot of people seriously disgruntled.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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