It Takes One to No One

For some reason, this morning I have been fixated on rules, systems, taxonomies, grammar and the like. Prime numbers, even and odd numbers, declarative and imperative sentences. It’s always a mystery why our minds drift toward these corners of the room, without any apparent cause or prompting.

As ToM fave Robert Wiebe once said, writing of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, which were times of massive tumult in US society: “Men in confusion clutched what they knew.” Maybe sometimes we lean back toward The Elements of Style or the rules of deductive logic as a way to put our elbow down and rest, when everything is so crazy and uncertain.

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On some level, almost everyone knows that the rules of math and grammar are made-up — alien spores on a far distant planet would probably not come up with the axioms or syntax that we have. But we also know that these systems have (for the most part) an internal logic that coheres together, and endures. Whether you like it or not, math is math and grammar is grammar. They might be disrupted, disputed, or challenged, but they’re only so because of the honor of a breach. Breaking the rules means that there are rules. Which is a victory for rules.

As a history teacher, I talk a lot about how so many really contradictory things were often happening at the same time. For example, the 1920s in the United States was a time of cultural rebellion and challenges to the racial hierarchy, while it was also a time of intense conservatism and enforced Protestant morality. We feel this now, as everything seems to be pulling in all directions at once, like a medieval dissenter being pulled apart by 10,000 horses. Things are changing, in deep and destabilizing ways, but we don’t know which horse is running hardest.

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But the torture and dismemberment metaphor is not quite right. The trend of things doesn’t have to be toward pain, punishment, evisceration. The direction of things is as arbitrary as Time’s Arrow, as Martin Amis showed in his great 1991 novel, or in Virginia Woolf’s and Sally Potter’s Orlando.

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Here I think of the writer and activist Ai-Jen Poo’s 2015 book The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America. Poo is one of the few people who have been ringing the bell about the most obvious, immediately looming challenge facing the US, and many other developed nations: how to care for a group of older individuals on a scale that has never been seen before in human history. It’s here. For the people who already doing eldercare, it’s now. And for those who aren’t yet, it will be soon.

Ai-Jen Poo’s great insight is that we could be entering an Age of Dignity, if we want to. The aging population of most wealthy countries can be a good, and not an ill. We could learn to recognize our own vulnerability and interdependency, while making a conscious choice to reallocate our vast resources toward the care of actual humans, instead of the zig zag of this or that Gamestop thing on the market.

COVID has put all of these unspoken and occluded problems into stark relief. Nursing homes were the ground-zero for the virus in the US, and a bright floodlight has been brought to the people and things we don’t really want to think about. We can look at this and say it’s unsolvable problem, wash our hands, and kick the Medicaid grandmas out an ice floe and say “Good luck!” Or we can benefit from this moment by realizing our own susceptibility to risk and the innate value of mutual aid — the seesaw of caring for each other when one or the other is in pain. We could look at this gigantic shit taco of American capitalism and say that an Age of Dignity is possible. It’s right there in front of us.

This week we have some of our editors’ favorite picks: