On April 15, 2020, the New York Post revealed a secret about Ethel Kennedy. In a color snapshot, Ethel sits next to Mariah Kennedy Cuomo (her granddaughter) on her Palm Beach couch and wears a white Patriots jersey (12, for Tom Brady). The two smile. But behind them, the Post identified a framed portrait of Che Guevara on a credenza, circling it in red. Mariah had posted the photograph on Twitter to mark Ethel’s 92nd birthday and promote social distancing as a means of protecting the most COVID-vulnerable. “#IStayHomeFor,” she captioned the picture.
“My mom loves Che Guevara. Her dog is named Che,” Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. explained to the Post. “My mom has a subversive streak.” Ethel and Castro had shared a glint of mutual recognition; they even sat together at the Revolutionary Palace in Havana during a commemoration of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Mariah deleted her tweet — she hadn’t intended to transmit an allusion to Marxist revolution. She was simply participating in Kevin Bacon’s “six degrees” social media campaign — a demonstration of the interconnectedness of human fates. (Bacon, of course, is the Hollywood emblem of the statistical proposition that all humans are connected by six or fewer links.)
While the Post reported on Che, Mariah’s father, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo — once married to Ethel’s daughter Kerry — was garnering praise for his COVID-19 management. Jada Pinkett Smith announced that she had developed a painful crush on him; so did Chelsea Handler. A sparkly fantasy of Democratic Convention coup d’etat began to circulate.
Cuomo morphed into a divine foil to Trump — sober, informed, empathetic, pale, brunette. A Swiss moral compass seemed to guide him through the complex maze of viral management logistics. A politics-transcendent “life and death” perspective shunted economic concerns to the periphery. First things first. New York was like one large family from Queens: the preciousness of every life — each of equal weight — and the awareness of interdependence held in balance. “It’s not about your life. You don’t have the right to risk someone else’s life,” Cuomo shamed quarantine complainers.
Cuomo branded coronavirus “the great equalizer.” When he said, “I don’t care how smart, how rich, how powerful you think you are,” he declared the death of the status quo. It nearly was a coup d’etat.
Coronavirus shed and spread infinitely, covering the globe in a coat of invisible, durable droplets. Inside the new viral field, Cuomo was a humanitarian numerologist — narrating the daily flux of infection, death, and hospital bed counts with dignity. He became a body count bard, modeling an unfamiliar willingness to register human value and collective grief. He had stepped into the liberatory potential of the viral field: a space for revivifying essential values that had gotten trampled — rendered roadkill — on the high-speed raceways of late capitalism. As foxes scampered in football fields, banana breads rose and care engorged forgotten phone lines, it seemed as if numbers — lives and bodies — could speak for themselves again.
On April 7, the New York City COVID-19 death toll — 3,202 — surpassed its 9-11 losses: 2,753. Outside the perimeter of excruciating personal loss, anonymous death poses an affective and cognitive challenge. Comparative measures are harnessed to register tragedy; sums that are nationally sanctioned as traumatic are referred to for scale. When New Jersey deaths reached 5,839, Governor Phil Murphy translated the number: now greater than the combined losses of New Jersey residents during the Vietnam War, the Korean War and World War I.
In late March, Cuomo’s little brother Chris developed a 103 degree fever. He hid in his East Hampton basement, broadcasting nightly on CNN with COVID-19. He became a spectacle, a testing ground for the Governor’s warning about the virus’ imperviousness to power — a semi-wilted semi-celebrity, vulnerable and invincible at once. With Sanjay Gupta pressed to one ear, the Governor to the other, and Fauci to a third, Chris Cuomo couldn’t possibly die — could he? The pandemic granted new depths of celebrity access; Us Magazine’s “What’s In My Bag” purse-spill was suddenly an antiquated, superficial swab. We learned that Chris shivered so intensely that he chipped a tooth, and that he hallucinated while floating in pools of his own sweat. His wife, editor of a magazine called The Purist, narrated the forms that passed through his colon — oxygenated herbs — and the form that held his forms: a favorite Tory Burch pitcher.
As Chris began to heal, he too stepped into the fresh-start viral field. The ordeal concretized his latent intolerance for the role-playing and shrunken discursive spectrum endemic to corporate journalism. New values emerged. ”I don’t like what I do professionally, I’ve decided… I don’t think it’s worth my time.” He was ready to throw off the shackles of false self — no longer attached to “making millions of dollars a year.” He didn’t need to be rich, he figured out — because he was rich. “I’ve saved my money and I don’t need anymore,” he explained. But a few days later, second thoughts erupted about his $6 million a year job.
When Gov. Cuomo said, “I don’t care how smart, how rich, how powerful you think you are,” he meant to say, “I don’t care how poor, non-white and disenfranchised you are.” But these were long days, and everyone was forgetting keys, mis-measuring yeast, making Freudian slips.
The $177 billion New York state budget passed just before 4 a.m. on April 3. The emergency climate and threat of shut-down rushed resolution, and made it impossible for lawmakers to read or debate complex policy changes packed around the budget edges. Among them: the rollback of a recent criminal justice reform that had eliminated cash bail for most nonviolent felonies and misdemeanors. Cash bail, an American speciality that requires payment to stay out of jail before trial, transparently discriminates against the poor and people of color, feeds the multi-billion dollar prison industrial complex, and produces over 70 percent of the country’s jail population. The landmark reform — in effect since January and the most progressive in the U.S. — led, pre-pandemic, to a 30% drop in New York jail populations. It also spurred coordinated backlash from law enforcement, prosecutors, and media that turned public opinion against the changes. The April crisis budget produced a golden opportunity — Cuomo could revise the bail reform swiftly and out of sight.
He did so at a peculiar time: amidst mounting recognition that prisons and jails fostered the most lethal coronavirus breeding grounds. In response to demands to protect incarcerated populations from ipso facto death sentences, Cuomo acted feebly: 7000 people are scheduled to be released from New York state prisons this year; he released about 200. Of the 5200 people in prison for low-level technical parole violations (such as missing a curfew), he released zero. If some numbers began to speak for themselves in the new viral field, others remained as mute and non-persuasive as before: neutral givens, unavoidable necessities.
And if “life” and “death” were relative, flexible notions, so was time. Deferential to experts and evolving scientific data, Cuomo declined predictions about the resumption of pre-virus activity in New York. But he announced a precise number of days — 90 — before which the bail changes would commence. The state-sponsored seven metrics and complex caveats that would determine New Yorkers’ gradual return to normalcy did not apply to human beings considered beyond the pale of care. The roll-back would take effect in July regardless of other state timelines, regardless of the 15% increase in jail populations it was projected to produce.
For many, Cuomo’s lives over economy rhetoric came like a rush of good values — a structure of responsibility at a time of precarity. This warm reception gifted him a safe space: for consolidating power, sharpening his profile and balancing his budget in such a way that exacerbated the vulnerabilities underwriting the very deaths he was counting while denying the logic of those links. One in seven US billionaires lives in New York City; their taxes remained untouched as the budgets of public hospitals, public schools and public transportation were slashed. Underneath the thin surface of the liberatory viral field is a violently shredded social safety net, a belief that vulnerability is contingent, and a set of structural relations according to which the number of hospital beds and prison beds fall and rise in synchronized proportion. In this space, down on the ground, examining the links between pursuits of power, wealth, and comfort and resource extraction from marginalized communities is seismically threatening.
A wish began circulating in the plane-free sky that, like a meditation that has gone off the rails, we could start the count from zero again, picking and choosing the silver-linings of the pandemic we’d like to keep. But zeroing out was never an option. Just beneath the infinite viral field, all the old counters were still running. In late April, workers in a Missouri Smithfield plant could not cover their mouths when they sneezed or coughed — lest they miss a piece of pork and face disciplinary action — and Amazon speed quotas made it impossible for employees to follow CDC guidelines for sanitizing and hand-washing.
It’s hard to fathom that a first principle of our times registered as a stymying quandary earlier in this century. The old mystery — “Can corporations be people?” — re-surfaced in an early COVID dream. I was living alone in a dark attic above a midwestern garage when a voicemail arrived. Speaking in Kardashian lilt, regularized by the measured rhythms of business-savvy, Kylie Jenner said she was checking in on me. “Heyyy — I just wanted to reach out to my solo friends. I know it can be hard social distancing…let me know if you want to take a walk.” The word “solo” was tinged with sensitivity, designed to make my predicament seem almost cool. I peered out the attic window and saw two shiny convertibles parked in the driveway — one black, one white. Kylie was waiting, offering me a choice. Her gesture — momentary friendship and access to her resources — was a humiliating reinforcement of my inferiority, a seduction whose punch line — profit for her — was imminent. Corporate care and consideration were circulating freely in my cells. The young billionaire embodied the most durable of our organizing principles — one that structures by oppositional twos, offering hits of agency and choice while setting limits on thought.
Among Trump’s dangers is one we grant him: definitional control of his own opposite. As neon representative of the non-human, he, like the red light that tells us green signifies “go,” produces the human. But relying on one man’s death-state or self-interest to define life or collectivity produces difference too grossly. Trump owns non-care and racism, the logic goes; therefore care and anti-racism naturally thrive on the left. Once safely ensconced in an oasis of differentiation, my motivation to tend to finer links in chains of interconnection shrivels. I will return to the never-ending work of trimming my shape, warding off the lethal threat of namelessness, tending to my well-being. But spraying organic fruit with Lysol is not, in the end, so different from sticking a Clorox syringe up someone’s ass.
Coronavirus is unprecedented because it is non-Otherizable. It can’t be cast aside as the unfortunate concern of another group, demographic or land — or experienced via a light pulse of empathy and forgetting. It is called a “public health emergency,” but the 40,000 U.S. deaths among people living with AIDS in 1993 — the year George H.W. Bush left office, the tens of thousands of annual U.S. deaths due to lack of health insurance, and the Black women who are three times more likely than white women to experience maternal death in the U.S. have never resonated in the public domain of life and death. These figures are not invoked to register the enormity of COVID-19 losses.
In short, the threat of coronavirus is actionable and distinct because its particles can travel all the way to Jeff Bezos’ house. But Jeff hasn’t been home. Flying far above the stench of real estate market decomposition, Bezos bought a three-bedroom apartment at 212 Fifth Ave. for $16 million in early April (an add-on to his three adjacent units). He did some crucial re-branding, tweaking things to adapt to the times: Whole Foods workers got new t-shirts, emblazoned with “HERO” on the front and “HARDCORE” on the back, and, after Bezos donated what he makes in 11 hours of work — $100 million — to Feeding America, he featured a link to the nonprofit on his Instagram profile. Pushing back on stories of worker abuse and whistleblower retribution, he appeared at an Amazon fulfillment center and a Whole Foods store, his compact body swerving through aisles as he waved, thanked and thumbed-up. His forearms bulged beneath his rolled-up sleeves. Bezos was animated, super-charged on the cusp of trillionairism, still high on “alive girl” (the pet name for his girlfriend that had leaked, alongside photos of his penis, before he left his wife).
Staying alive — maintaining distinct brand vitality and bodily profile — in a pandemic produced ethical dilemmas. As they hash-tagged #whotheystayedhomefor, sent make-up free gratitude to frontline workers, and participated in pro bono spirit-lifting jamborees, some celebrities needed access to shuttered gyms. “I always tell people I’m not one to gossip, so you didn’t hear this from me,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said in late April. “Our parks are closed down and so a lot of our park staff, you know, they patrol around just to make sure that people aren’t doing contact sports and things. [One staffer] saw an individual working out in one of our downtown parks, and she went over to tell him that it was closed, and it was Tom Brady.” By mid-May, Brady had recovered from the negative press. He released Protect, a timely new $45 immunity supplement from his TB12 brand. “This amazing new product … will provide you guys exactly what you need to stay healthy, strong and resilient for whatever comes your way,” he told his Instagram family.
Just before the pandemic, in a rush to open an Amazon box, I accidentally tore open a package meant for a neighbor and found a silicon sac labeled “AESTHETIC STICKERS.” Designed for device decoration — a means of ornamenting branded territory with one’s own brand — the stickers, in their variety, offered a spectrum of expressive choice. “Personalize your belongings,” the label instructed. The cornucopia of die-cut icons and imagery included gay pride, mental illness, Jesus, peace, marijuana, Starbucks, nuclear disarmament, YouTube, cheeseburgers, lipstick — and Che.
There is something perfect about the Post photograph of Ethel. She sits in the foreground, elder-keeper of the official liberal flame, sandwiched between two insignias. Her skin is covered in Brady-jersey — a polyester metonym for a $180 million MAGA-hat-owning man-brand — the object, it seems, of deeply-felt loyalty and passion. Another love object — a Marxist revolutionary, here represented by his globally-legible likeness — hovers to her left. It’s an unwitting portrait of the spacious perch of liberal values, a dis-integrated patchwork of convictions and comforts brought into decorative harmony.
Ethel’s former son-in-law turned to the language of revolution in early May. Surfing on his surging popularity, Cuomo announced a partnership with Microsoft and Google kings Bill Gates and Eric Schmidt to re-make New York public schools. “We all talk about change … but really we like control and we like the status quo and it’s hard to change the status quo. But we get moments in history where people say, ‘OK, I’m ready. I’m ready for change. I get it.’ I think this is one of those moments. We all learned a lot about how vulnerable we are and how much we have to do, and let’s start talking about really revolutionizing education.” Perhaps weeks of daily briefings had precipitated another Freudian slip, and the Governor meant to say instead: “I will rhetorically appeal to the deepening hunger for structural change and potential for intersectional solidarity while linking my own arms with two white billionaires. Join me in this ritual re-naming of corporate saviorhood. Please see me through the lens of your hatred of Trump. May the resulting image captivate and control you.”
The Ethel photo is a document of a mathematical fact — with only six degrees at play, we are all only a few links away from Trump and Che — that might also be liberating: energies spent publicizing and denying those links can be freed up for other activities. For those fortunate enough to have been spared the decimations of frontline work, grief and illness, there is, under the infinite viral field, a real and ongoing rough ground with unprecedented opportunity to attend to unacknowledged links and to turn away from ones that are dying or already dead.
In April, as the pandemic unfurled in the acute present tense, an online photograph of a political celebrity served as an unlikely point of entry as I sought to understand potent fantasies circulating as rapidly as the virus itself — particularly the moral certainty that the pandemic represented an exclusive threat to the preciousness of life and that, by extension, pandemic mitigation was the exclusive means of protecting that preciousness. The phrase “viral numerology” was meant to capture the mythic register in which value and values are calculated and represented when capitalism repels our gaze.
In the weeks between writing and publication, the generic/white liberal subjectivity under consideration in the essay has has been rendered — publicly, collectively — an increasingly legible ideological text and “socialism” has begun to circulate in popular discourse without hysterical affect. The massive public outcry that followed the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery drew fire from other manifestations of racialized state violence — including COVID’s disproportionate impact on Black Americans. In April, Fauci had pointed to an amorphous future in which the societal “foibles” underwriting that discrepancy might be addressed: “there’s nothing we can do right now other than try to give [Black Americans] the best possible care to avoid complications,” he said. The grassroots voices and demands of late spring and summer have replaced the hedging inaccuracies — the “nothing” — of official explanation with the precision of undeniable truths. Among them: a diseased steady-state — the marriage of racism and capitalism — preceded “the pandemic.”