This week, the US garnered the dubious distinction of recording a record number of coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, and deaths all on the same day.
Because getting a virus, being hospitalized with it, and then ultimately dying from it, are related events, it’s not surprising that records on all three were notched in close proximity. But it speaks to something important. You can cite various metrics which suggest the virus isn’t as deadly now as it was during the first wave, and you can point to better therapeutics, but the cold, hard reality is simply that a record number of people in the world’s richest nation are sick enough to be either hospitalized or dead from COVID-19, nearly 11 months into the pandemic.
On Friday, the US recorded almost 229,000 new cases in 24 hours. I realize that, by now, some people are desensitized to these figures. But try to remember that anyone who lost family members and loved ones during the pandemic probably isn’t “over it,” so to speak. So, just to drive the point home: America logged almost a quarter of a million new infections in a single 24 hour period on Friday.
Also on Friday, the seven-day average for new daily deaths rose to more than 2,000. That hasn’t happened since April. Over the past week, at least fifteen states have logged more fatalities than in any other week of the pandemic.
Nationally, nearly 2,500 more people died on Friday. It was the fourth consecutive day of deaths well in excess of 2,000. Hospitalizations continue to climb. The latest reading from The COVID Tracking Project puts nationwide hospitalizations at more than 101,000.
One ER nurse at a large public hospital in Los Angeles County told The New York Times that this week was “overwhelming.” In a somewhat disturbing assessment, she noted that some patients “don’t even think they are that sick” when they come in. And yet, “their oxygen levels are very low,” she said. “The patients are sick.”
Yes, the patients are sick. And there’s a sense in which the entire country is still sick, both physically and mentally.
Not helping matters are folks like CNBC’s Rick Santelli who, for those not steeped in the lore of CNBC anchors, owes whatever small bit of notoriety he can claim to a financial crisis-era rant about not “subsidiz[ing] the losers’ mortgages.”
Santelli is “credited” (and I use that term very loosely) with founding The Tea Party. One of the most amusing things about Rick is that typically, when one helps establish an offshoot of America’s political duopoly, some measure of national fame ensues. Not for Rick, though. Ask the average American who Rick Santelli is, and they’ll probably shrug their shoulders — “I dunno. Was he a tangential character in The Sopranos? Which season was that?”
On Friday, Santelli engaged in a possibly scripted, one-sided shouting match with Andrew Ross Sorkin, who plays spoiler to Joe Kernen’s comedically sycophantic positions vis-à-vis Republican talking points on the aptly-named “Squawk Box,” a long-running morning program that resembles Fox & Friends if Fox & Friends had a Democratic foil.
I hesitate to feature the actual clip. It’s highly offensive, not to mention potentially dangerous from a public health perspective, but I want to use it to make a point about the pandemic, the media, and public discourse in America.
“You can’t tell me that shutting down — which is the easiest answer — is necessarily the only answer,” Santelli emoted, during the exchange, before proceeding to regale the audience with an over-the-top version of what passes for libertarian “thinking” in America these days.
“Rick, just as a public health, and a public service announcement for the audience–,” Sorkin ventured. “Wait, wait. First of all, who is this,” Santelli wondered.
Sorkin then attempted to explain why strolling around, say, a cavernous Home Depot where everyone is almost by definition six feet apart, is categorically different from being inside a restaurant, where the ceilings aren’t 30-feet high, people aren’t separated, and everyone can’t possibly wear a mask because, as it turns out, you need your mouth to eat.
But Santelli’s mouth isn’t just for eating. It’s also for screaming. “I disagree! I disagree!,” he shrieked, pretending to be both simultaneously astounded and aggrieved by Sorkin’s remark.
To be clear, there’s nothing to “disagree” with. Santelli posed a straw man argument about “500 people in a Lowe’s” not being “any safer than 150 people in a restaurant that holds 600.” I have no idea whether Santelli has any actual operating experience in the restaurant industry, but I can tell you that he’s categorically wrong. And for a laundry list of reasons, some of which are just common sense and others have to do with how things actually work behind the doors that separate the dining room from the “server alley” (where waiters and waitresses congregate to gossip when they’re not interacting with diners) and the kitchen.
Anyway, that’s not the point. The point, rather, is that in my judgment, the clip above (and “Squawk Box” itself) encapsulates everything that’s wrong with public discourse in America and lays bare the extent to which networks prey on the public’s insatiable appetite for bite-sized content featuring vacuous argumentation designed to reflect the culture clash in a divided country.
That’s not constructive. It exacerbates societal rifts and, in my judgment, it’s exploitative.
While I obviously can’t say for sure whether Friday’s exchange between Santelli and Sorkin was literally “scripted,” I can say that there are countless similar exchanges (usually between Sorkin and Kernen) which, if not scripted, are at least in the script, where that means part of the show.
Consider this. Santelli, Kernen, and Sorkin are all millionaires. Many times over. When it comes to their anchor jobs at CNBC, they’re paid to do exactly what they’ve done for the duration of the pandemic — namely, play spoiler to one another, making television just a mirror of America’s increasingly dangerous socioeconomic rifts.
Sorkin, Santelli, and Kernen are engaged in highly-paid cosplay — the educated, liberal “elite” (Sorkin), the angry libertarian emitting faux machismo (Santelli), and the dyed-in-the-wool conservative (Kernen) cynically suggesting, in so many words, that you too can have a $20,000 Rolex if only you work hard enough.
That’s not journalism, it’s theatre. Theatre is fine. Except that off stage (outside the studio), it’s America’s grim reality. And people are dying behind it.
280,000 Americans are dead from COVID-19 or complications of the virus. The health consequences and the economic hardship brought on by the pandemic have fallen disproportionately on the shoulders of the poor and minorities.
Those are the same lower-income Americans and minorities who were already struggling to decide who really cares about them in a country where high-minded rhetoric about “equality of opportunity” is just that — rhetoric. There is no “equality of opportunity.” It’s a myth.
The American version of capitalism touted loudly by folks like Kernen has failed. Inequities are rife, hard work doesn’t always pay off, and inequality of all sorts feeds on itself. In 2020, America reached a breaking point, as the pandemic collided with street protests against racial injustice.
Sorkin, for all his pretensions to the moral high ground, is a millionaire participating in what amounts to a daily, on-air soap opera which, while purporting to be about the economy and the stock market, is in fact just a staged mockery of the American tragedy.
For his part, Santelli is just a television version of the libertarian bloggers pushing ideological poison to the masses, only without the actual ideology. There are a lot of ostensible libertarian crusaders in America these days. You can find them blogging about economics, running hedge funds, or pretending to be portfolio managers on Twitter. But they aren’t libertarians. Virtually none of them have any academic background in political philosophy, and couldn’t name a single thinker from the libertarian tradition they claim to represent. What they push on the public isn’t libertarianism. It’s poison.
The kind of cosplay exemplified by CNBC’s programming is disingenuous, cruel, and exploitative at a time when America can least afford it. And that’s a generous interpretation. A less generous interpretation would be to just call it dangerous.
As Sandra Beltran, the ER nurse at Olive View-U.C.L.A. Medical Center quoted by the Times (and re-quoted above), put it: “The patients are sick.”
Again: There’s a very real sense in which every American is a patient right now. The nation is figuratively ablaze. CNBC’s morning programming is, in many cases, fuel on the fire.
Jim Cramer, for example, called Nancy Pelosi “crazy Nancy” while speaking to her live in a September interview (he later claimed he was merely quoting the president, which just begs the question). More recently, he suggested, in a tweet, that Joe Biden may have to call in the military to remove Trump.
Commenting further, Beltran told the Times “It’s almost like a wildfire. You light up a match and it’s going up.”
She was referencing the influx of COVID-19 patients. But she could just as easily have been diagnosing the state of American society in general.