“Apocalypse normal means we can go back to school, get on planes, and hit up restaurants and bars — as long as we don’t think too hard about disabled people, unvaccinated children or long COVID. It means experiencing escalating heat waves, droughts, hurricanes and wildfires, and scrolling past news about ‘code red’ climate reports, and the refugees that climate catastrophes create, without retaliating or rebelling against political leaders who have once again refused to chart a different course.” In this episode of Movement Memos, Kelly Hayes tackles the idea of “getting back to normal.”
Music by Son Monarcas and Ebb & Flod
Note: This is a rushed transcript. It has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not appear in its final form.
Welcome to Movement Memos. TruthoutPodcast about things you need to know if your goal is to make a difference in the world. I’m your host, writer and organizer, Kelly Hayes. This show focuses on building relationships and analyzing data to create movements that win. Today, I want you to hear a few words about getting back to normal. In the wake of an all-but-pointless COP 26, the gutting of Biden’s infrastructure bill, and the collapse of progressive leverage on the Build Back Better act, we should be talking about the fact that we live in extraordinary, disastrous times, and how nothing remotely adequate is being done to address the scope of what we are up against, but instead, our political leaders, the mainstream media, and a whole a lot of everyday people, continue to fetishize normalcy. This podcast’s first episode was broadcast on February 10, 2020. It was recorded a few weeks prior to COVID-19, which would transform the world in which we live. During that episode I said, “An overwhelming political climate has left many Americans frozen in a state of uncertainty. Unable or unwilling to fully process the enormity of climate change or the tragic circus of Trumpism, many are going through the motions of normalcy while the world burns.” If you crammed in some mention of the pandemic, and our failure to process the deaths of more than 5 million people, I could have been talking about what we’re experiencing now, in November of 2021. Trump is no longer president. But Trumpism is still alive and well, and is taking control of school boards while Republicans demolish voting rights and reproductive liberty at the state level. Many are feeling burned out amid the ongoing right-wing attack. However, I think many are also suffering from what we could call moral injuries.
I recently had a health care worker named Hannah Winchester on the show, and Hannah explained that the distinction between burnout and moral injury was the assumed causation of a person’s hurt and fatigue, as well as the presumed remedy. When we tell people they’re suffering from burnout, the problem is usually approached in terms of what the person experiencing burnout can do differently to manage their stress or maintain a better work/life balance. But when we talk about moral injury, we’re talking about our reactions to conditions that are being imposed upon us, and to the dehumanization and exploitation that we’re experiencing. The problem is that we are being treated badly, devalued, and dehumanized. There is no solution. All of those things are possible, but they don’t solve the problem.
Nearly 100,000 people died of overdosesThe U.S., March 2020 to March 2021. During 2020, the proportion of mental health-related emergency room visits among youth aged 12–17 years old increased 31%From the previous year. Some studies suggest that anxiety and depression rates have returned to pre-pandemic levels. However, the editors of Scientific American recently wrote, “The longer-term disruptions, losses and volatile shifts from hope to fear to languishing are harder to parse. COVID has already killed or disabled millions, deepened economic insecurity and racial inequality, and forced radical adaptations to daily life; its serious effects on mental health and well-being very likely will continue and in ways still unknown.” What we have experienced during the pandemic is a deadly system becoming much deadlier. We have seen that we don’t have the structures of care that we need to assist people in times of crisis, and that people who are treated as disposable on a good day will be completely ground under during times of crisis. These terms are not acceptable.
2020 was the most politically active year of my life. A mass rebellion against the police violence was joined by a mass movement for mutual assistance. We also saw a lot of energy channeled into Trump’s removal, which I believe was necessary, but those efforts also set us up for some problems. First, people had a lot of misplaced hope when a Democrat was elected in such dire times. Sure, Biden was preferable to a modern cartoon Hitler who hijacked planes full of PPE and tried to overthrow the government, but the neoliberal leadership of Democrats delivered us to Trumpism, and right now, it looks like they’re on track to do it again.
People wanted to believe that the election of Biden meant that we had made a turn, at least temporarily. We dodged the ascent of full blown right-wing authoritarianism, and that’s not nothing. But even amid the optimism of the moment, I don’t think there was as much naivety about Biden as we saw under Obama, where so many people believed that if we gave him time, and asked in just the right way, a neoliberal Democrat would fix our problems. I don’t think the disillusionment we’re seeing is the result of people having believed in Biden, the way people believed in Obama. Although some people were able to hype Biden, I believe that most people were enamored with the idea that Biden would restore normalcy.
Democrats excel at maintaining a fragile status quo. So many people believed that if the government could be turned around, they would get their lives back. Biden certainly wanted us all to believe that. In fact, his presidency still focuses on returning to normal. But the normal we knew is dead, and what we’re being offered is something like a zombie, and much like the zombies of film and television, this normal is deadly, and it will only become more decrepit with time. Zombie normalcy, or apocalypse normal, means we can go back to school, get on planes, and hit up restaurants and bars — as long as we don’t think too hard about disabled people or unvaccinated people, including children, or long COVID. It means experiencing escalating heat waves, droughts, hurricanes and wildfires, and scrolling past news about “code red” climate reports, and the refugees that climate catastrophes create, without retaliating or rebelling against political leaders who have once again refused to chart a different course.
According to CNN’s “Back-to-Normal Index,” the U.S. economy “is operating at 93% of where it was in early March” of 2020. I find that page fascinating because… I’m fascinated by morbid things. Sometimes, I think I find politicians interesting in the same way that I find serial killers interesting, but that’s kind of silly, because serial killers do far less damage to society. Interestingly, one of the factors that the “Back-to-Normal Index” charts is unemployment, which the page notes, fewer people are applying for. There’s no mention of the fact that far fewer people now qualify for unemployment, so the fact that fewer people are applying doesn’t necessarily mean that unemployed people are experiencing less hardship. But it does suggest that conditions are improving for employers, many of whom would prefer a more desperate, pliable workforce — and after all, the page is called the “Back-to-Normal” index, not the “Quality of Life and Society Index.” Within the realm of “normalcy,” workers still get screwed. That’s the status quo, so for the system, the fact that more people are going to run out of money and accept jobs that are dangerous and/or dehumanizing is actually a big win.
I also want to speak briefly about schools because it is so amazing to see the struggle of students, parents, and teachers. Look at Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. She has not offered any contact tracing or functional testing for students after fighting tirelessly to get students back into classrooms. After promising and failing to deliver regular testing for students, Lightfoot’s administration recently declared that regular school-based testing for students was never really necessary. Many parents hoped that local schools would host clinics after vaccinations for children aged five and up were approved. Instead of planning for this contingency Chicago Public Schools gave every Chicago public school student a single day to find a vaccination appointment anywhere in the city. It’s all been a really tragic spectacle to behold. When the mayor is questioned about safety measures regarding COVID in Chicago Public Schools she always talks about the importance and value of in-person learning. These students know that in-person learning does not pose a problem. It’s happening. This is not a matter of debate. The city simply isn’t taking responsibility for creating safe environments for students. Why? It has never happened. This attitude toward safety is completely normal in Chicago Public Schools. This normalcy is just occurring in the context a pandemic. For some, it has proven fatal, while for others it will cause disability and debilitation.
So how does apocalypse Normal feel for people who give a damn about it? It’s pretty terrible, right? We are being told to live our lives, but the world is not the same and we are not the same — and we were already pretty upset with the world when this whole thing began. Some people hoped that the pandemic would be a gateway, as Arundhati wrote. That the crisis and destabilization capitalism might spark a great political awakening and lead us to new places. Some people have given up on these hopes. I personally believe it’s too soon to gauge the radicalizing power of the pandemic, and that those shifts are still ongoing, but I understand why people feel forlorn. Electoral contests have traditionally usurped energy that might otherwise propel radicalism, and there’s perhaps no better example of that phenomenon in my lifetime than the election of 2020. However necessary Trump’s removal may have been, and I believe it was essential, electoralism definitely tempered a moment of rage and rising consciousness, and the relief that people experienced, after Trump’s removal, has manifested itself in disturbing ways. Tearful liberal outrage about children in cages under Trump has given way to indifference about the Biden administration’s adoption of some nearly identical policies.
I’ve talked a bit on the show about the liberal abandonment of migrant justice, and honestly, I think that gear-shifting mentality is also responsible for some of the bizarre shaming we witnessed last spring, when some liberals scolded vaccinated people who continued to wear masks, as if they were holding up progress by not having faith in the restoration of normalcy. “Trust the science,” they insisted, as though “the science” were a singular, verified authority, rather than a global scramble among experts that produced a lot of incorrect conclusions along the way. People who were not vaccinated were mocked, pathologized, and even blamed for their reluctance to get vaccinated. Why? Because they weren’t cooperating with a transformation that a lot of people desperately wanted — the so-called transition back to normal.
I’ve had some people tell me that for them, “back to normal,” means spending time with their friends and loved ones again, or resuming certain activities or routines, and I get that, but honestly, I think we should start speaking with more specificity. If we are talking about how we can’t wait to see our loved ones again, I think we should say that, rather than using the word “normal.” As I’ve said in the past, I don’t think we should jump down people’s throats for saying they want to get back to normal, but I do think we can have engaging conversations about what we do and don’t miss about the way things were, and about how we actually deserve a lot better than the normal we had. I believe that some people are ready for such conversations, as evidenced by the Great Resignation. I think the important thing is to speak from a place of empathy, curiosity and solidarity, rather than lecturing people for using the word “normal” to describe what they want. Instead of pontificating about how “normal” is bad for many people, activists and organizers need listen, and also talk to people about what they miss and what they would like to get back. They also need to ask important questions about how we can make it different. That’s advice I’ve been giving since the beginning of the pandemic, but I think it bears repeating. Because I see you all struggling, and I appreciate that you’ve held onto your humanity enough to know that, even if you’re tired, and you’re not sure which way to pivot, that what we are being handed is bullshit.
We have seen the pandemic as a glimpse of life in an era of decline. As climate catastrophes and mass displacement continue to increase, apocalypse normal will mean an ever-increasing tolerance of preventable suffering and mass deaths. We all desire to see the light at the end. But even though the pandemic isn’t permanent, we are living in an era of catastrophe. We can’t rely on a distant light. We have to create light right where we are and spread it to others. And sometimes, we’re going to have to grab a pick axe and destroy whatever’s obstructing the light. And whatever we do, we cannot afford to imagine that normalcy is that light, because it’s just a mirage drawing us deeper into the desert.
The good news? The pandemic has also shown us that human potential runs in multiple directions. We’ve seen the power of mutual aid and collective action, and human ingenuity. We’ve been reminded that mass protest can bring the powerful to their knees and thrust ideas as big as prison abolition into mainstream dialogues. Our ideas are gaining ground because the Democratic establishment continues to attack the defund movement and blame it for their own failures and missteps. Never be discouraged by those accusations, because Democrats are not being hindered by radical ideas they’ve never embraced or subscribed to. They are being hindered because their rhetoric targets everyday people who are looking for financial relief and just policies. They are being hindered by their broken promises and the fact they rely on fear for voter turnout, while their opponents fuel the enthusiasm of actual zealots. The answers will not come from them, and if anyone hasn’t reconciled that yet, it’s time. All we have is one another and our willingness to shake this system.
The Apocalypse Normal is Now. But we can decide that we won’t live and die on these terms. We can decide that we won’t abandon the vulnerable, in our schools or workplaces, or on a global scale. We can refuse the need to go through the motions. We can find new ways to live and care for each other. We can make demands that are representative of our struggles rather than limiting our hopes and imaginations and bowing to the will of the ruling classes. We can fight the zombies in the old world, at the edge to oblivion.
I would like to thank all our listeners for joining me today. Remember, the best defense against cynicism and to do good is to remember that what we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.