Wired’s “Cozy Catastrophe” Has Me Pulling Out Marx

Wired’s “Cozy Catastrophe” Has Me Pulling Out Marx April 1, 2020

You know how sometimes you come upon an article you think must be parody, only to realize it’s definitely not? That happened to me with an article by Josh Wilbur on Wired yesterday. This Is the ‘Cozy Catastrophe’ Americans Have Always Wanted, the headline reads. “No commitments! No commutes! No cares! Admit it: The coronavirus apocalypse is actually kind of fun for you.”

HERE’S A LITTLE secret about the coronavirus crisis: If you and your loved ones are healthy and financially secure—for now—then some not-so-small part of you might just be enjoying this whole thing. Lazy days at home, ALL CAPS headlines, desolate parking lots, that warm-and-fuzzy-end-of-the-world feeling. The turmoil is thrilling from afar. The internet works just fine. And, let’s be honest, you needed a break from the daily grind.

I do at least appreciate that Wilbur does make a nod to those who may not be healthy or financially secure. He at least appears to be aware that there are those who can’t make rent (due today for millions of Americans) and those who are still going to work at grocery stores and in other essential jobs, without protective equipment, terrified that they will be the next to catch this virus. But despite this acknowledgement, his entire piece is both ridiculously wrong and terrifyingly out of touch.

My own little family is perhaps best placed to weather a storm like this. My husband and I both have white collar jobs that allow us to work from home. We are able to be there as caregivers for our two children, who are also at home with us. Neither of us is likely to lose our jobs. None of us has underlying health conditions. But that does not mean that this has been a picnic or a vacation.

I am living in a state of deep, elemental horror that has made it difficult to get productive work done for weeks. (A Harvard Business Review article perhaps best got at this feeling: That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief.) My children are at loose ends, and I’m concerned that the loss of their friends and of normalcy is affecting them in ways I may not be able to immediately see. I have relatives who are healthcare workers, or in the military, where the virus is threatening to spread like wildfire.

My and my husband’s jobs are secure, for now, but I came to adulthood during the 2008 financial panic and I am feeling a welling, underlying horror of what it would mean for that to happen again. I don’t want that! Many people I know are already out of work; I sometimes feel guilty that my husband and I still have jobs when so many don’t. I do what I can to help those around me, but I also have a sense of the world falling apart around me while I’m unable to stop it—it’s too big for me.

Remember what I said about living in a state of underlying horror?

Wilbur seems blissfully unaware of all of this.

These pandemic days flow by in waves of exhilaration and stillness. Who knew a trip to the grocery store could be so exciting? Bread-and-milk runs have become surgical raids: Sterilize the grocery cart with a disinfectant wipe, scout out the TP aisle, exchange sideways glances with the could-be infected, grab the essentials, and get the hell out of there.

Are you kidding me? Runs to the grocery store terrify me. I have read about way too many young, healthy people my age who have gotten this virus and wound up horribly sick for weeks, and even landed in the hospital. And while I know I’m not at high risk for dying of this thing, I also know that hospital resources are about to be stretched damn thin, and I don’t want to contribute to that or to find myself alone on a stretcher in a hospital hall for weeks while my loved ones worry at home. They are turning convention centers into temporary field hospitals. I do not want to end up in one.

Later, as another news alert interrupts the Netflix stream, the group text explodes: “This is crazy,” everyone says from their respective couches. Few hasten to add that crazy is also sort of fun.

Oh god, what an awful, awful take. What an awful, classist take. My heart bleeds because when they say Michigan is being hit hard, they really mean Detroit. My heart bleeds because it is the disadvantaged and marginalized of our society who are going to bear the true brunt of this, and I can’t stop it. 

I see people saying that if our government could come up with two trillion dollars out of thin air to respond to this crisis, they will have no excuse but to come up with similar money when it’s all over to fund things like Medicare For All. I know that’s not true. I know what will happen. They will say that our national debt is way, way too big and they will start cutting things like Social Security and Medicare, and much, much more. We will end up much worse off than where we started.

I hope this prognostication is only the product of my currently horror addled mind, but I am not at all sanguine about where this is going to go. Disasters like this, too, can feed fascism. The idea that we’re going to end up better off when this is all over feels like fairy tale talk to me.

Postapocalyptic stories have long shown the lighter side of disaster. In the 1970s, science-fiction writer Brian Aldiss coined the term “cozy catastrophe” to describe a fictional plot in which a bourgeois protagonist finds pleasure while the world goes to shit. “The essence of cozy catastrophe is that the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off,” Aldiss wrote. He was writing in reference to the postapocalyptic landscapes of John Wyndham, author of The Day of the Triffids, a bio-disaster novel in which, as Aldiss saw it, the narrator not only survives but thrives. In an essay at Tor, Jo Walton outlines the characteristics of the subgenre: “In the classic cozy catastrophe, the catastrophe doesn’t take long and isn’t lingered over, the people who survive are always middle class, and have rarely lost anyone significant to them. The working classes are wiped out in a way that removes guilt. The survivors wander around an empty city, usually London, regretting the lost world of restaurants and symphony orchestras.” Just the other day, a friend said to me, wistfully, “Man, I miss eating at restaurants.” He’d gone a whole week without ordering an appetizer.

What. The. Hell.

Look, I haven’t read any of these books, but I’m going to guess based on this summary that we’re not supposed to like these people. “The working class are wiped out in a way that removes guilt”?! What the hell is that supposed to mean? I don’t live in some sort of gated complex where I only interact with other people who are middle class! I have friends and relatives who are working class!

Oh hey guess what. I looked at the essay by Jo Walton that Wilbur references and quotes from, and I found this:

In 2001, I wrote a paper for a conference celebrating British science fiction in 2001. It was called “Who Survives the Cosy Catastrophe?” and it was later published in Foundation. In this paper I argued that the cosy catastrophe was overwhelmingly written by middle-class British people who had lived through the upheavals and new settlement during and after World War II, and who found the radical idea that the working classes were people hard to deal with, and wished they would all just go away.

It’s bizarre to me that Wilbur is interacting with a genre of literature that is fundamentally and inexorably classist as though it does not have any moral meaning at all. If he and his friends are experiencing this disaster as a “cozy catastrophe,” something is wrong. The very literature he references as showing “the lighter side of disaster” was grounded in an unspoken desire to eliminate the increasingly uppity working classes, a fact he seems to have completely missed.

I mean good god, Wilbur writes things like this:

Of course, the coronavirus catastrophe is far from cozy or fun or exciting for those who are most directly affected. For small-business owners, truck drivers, hospital workers, and the tens of thousands of very sick people gasping for breath in ICU beds, the coronavirus isn’t a spectacle or an inconvenience. It’s a life-altering tragedy. The severity of the current crisis makes it all the more fascinating that—from the safer side of windows and screens—millions of Americans can’t help but relish the chaos and the calm. Whence the satisfaction?

No, no, no! 

For many Americans the coronavirus isn’t a spectacle, Wilbur writes, but for the rest of us, it is! We’re relishing it and drawing satisfaction from it! I am running out of expletives I can include in this post without having its google search rankings depressed.

So, where were we?

Whence the satisfaction?

For one thing, staying at home and doing nothing has been the new American dream for quite some time. In a sense, we’ve been social distancing for decades. In a sense, we’ve been social distancing for decades. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, published in 2000, is the authoritative study of the country’s long-eroding social bonds. Atop a thick bedrock of sociological statistics, he argued that leisure time has been “individualized” and warped by private consumption. (And that was before the iPhone.) What was enlightening 20 years ago now seems obvious. Five depressing seasons of Black Mirror assault us with what we already know—that technology has and will continue to isolate us. The funny thing is, we love it.

In a recent stand-up set, Norm Macdonald cynically stumbles through this dimension of the coronavirus crisis: “It comes at a good time when we’re all quarantined. We know how to live like that, right? We got our magic phones and computers and everything. I don’t need no fucking people. The last step between us and happiness is people.” Macdonald’s bit echoes a quintessential Larry David joke about the joy of being canceled on: “If somebody cancels on me, that’s a celebration! You don’t have to make up an excuse, it doesn’t matter. Just say you’re canceling, and I’ll go, ‘Fantastic! I’m staying at home, I’m watching TV, thank you!’” Today, Americans in dozens of states are making the same joke. “Shelter in place? Work from home? No problem! That’s what I wanted to do anyway.”

After the first week of sheltering in place, I told my husband that when this was all over, we should go through and rethink all of our commitments. There was something nice about having evenings at home rather than running off to meetings or to take the kids to music lessons. Here, Wilbur comes closest to saying something that its actually accurate—that having some time to slow down can be nice. It’s why we take vacations, after all! To get away from the busyness of everyday life. But. 

It has been nearly three weeks now and I am tired of not seeing people. Macdonald and David, whom Wilbur quotes as some sort of prescient truth tellers, are comedians, not sociologists. I am tired of not being able to go to the local shops or my favorite coffee shop. I am tired of not being able to have my friends over. I am tired of not being able to have my kids’ friends over—our house was the designated neighborhood hangout spot. I am tired of having my kids’ on my hands all day long.

As the debate continues over whether the virus is airborne (or only carried in droplets), I am tired of being scared to go outside. I miss the days when I could take my kids to the local park and stand and chat with my friends. I miss the days when I could see people without being scared of them. Humans are social beings. I don’t like treating every other human being as toxic, giving them a 6ft birth.

Wilbur goes on as follows:

The catastrophe part is more complicated. On the one hand, “some men just want to watch the world burn.” Arguably, to some extent, we all do. You don’t need a PhD in psychology to observe that human beings are fascinated by war, death, and calamity.

While this is true, I wonder whether we are more often fascinated by wars and calamities in the past, which are over and done and do not involve current suffering. Like many in my social circle, I have become increasingly horrified by the war in Syria in recent years, and by the horrors faced by Syrian migrants in Turkey and Central American migrants at our southern border. We don’t get off on reading about children freezing in Idlib or parents sending young children in deteriorating health across our southern border alone in hopes they’ll get the healthcare they need there and not die in tent camps.

Like disaster movies and combat sports and blood-soaked videogames, the coronavirus crisis scratches a deep-seated, rarely acknowledged itch. The difference from spectator entertainments, of course, is that people are actually dying in the real world.

Uh. Yeah. And that’s a pretty big difference.

When news agencies ditch the big (and sometimes misleading) numbers and instead tell human stories of affliction, the detached fascination of mediated images turns to sober appreciation of the suffering of others.

Dare I ask what “sober appreciation of the suffering of others” means?

Catastrophes, like train wrecks, are something to watch, whereas Joseph Stalin’s oft-quoted formulation—“the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic”—pinpoints the moment when we prefer to look away.

Let’s talk about looking away. I sometimes feel the need to look away from evils I can’t fix, because to do otherwise would mean living in a state of constant sorrow. This is a privilege: I have the ability to look away. But there is simply too much pain in this world for one person to absorb. I do what I can. I call my representatives and I make donations and I hold signs at protests. But often I feel helpless. I can’t fix the horrors that beset our world. I can’t make them stop. I am one person.

But none of this means the horror isn’t still there, and when I read Wilbur’s piece, I don’t see any of that horror. I see a gleefulness about playing at catastrophe while sitting on one’s couch watching Netflix, somehow at once disconnected from and fascinated by the turmoils of the world outside. “In spite of our physical isolation, there’s something nice about everyone paying attention to the same thing for once,” he writes. I disagree. I have had to turn off the radio because they only ever carry one story. I am tired of pulling up news websites online to see that every single article is about the same story.

And then, to top it all off, Wilbur adds this:

Best of all, like John Lennon’s revolution from bed but with a Slack-connected laptop, Americans can overturn the system while wearing their PJs.

That is not true. Those individuals currently working to overturn the system are the striking grocery store and delivery workers, Amazon employees and nurses expected to do battle without armor. They are on the front lines, and their strikes, their acts of defiance, come at very real risk to themselves—but then, so does the current catastrophe. Wilbur writes from overly inflated sense of importance, and from a distance and isolation from the current crisis that allows him to be blithe about life and death.

This catastrophe is not fun, and I’m pretty sure those who think it is are the bourgeoisie the working class is meant to overthrow. (I am not a Marxist, but Wilbur’s writing makes me wonder whether I should reconsider this.) Wilbur’s piece ought to be one of self-criticism, chiding those who look on from afar, but alas, it is not! Instead, it seems meant only to be descriptive of his and others’ experiences.

I doubt Wilbur’s almost gleeful view of this catastrophe is as common as he thinks. Most people I know are feeling the same horror I am. Some of us have had panic attacks. We aren’t gleeful. We want normal back. We want to undo all the hurt and damage, but we feel helpless. There is grief.

My daughter is finishing elementary school this year. She will miss all the graduation festivities she had so looked forward to, including the camping trip 5th graders go on each year. Everything is canceled. I have friends who have been devastated as their wedding plans have been upended. Gone, too, are the rest of the soccer season, the much anticipated dance performance, and the spring break plans.

What does Wilbur think of all of this?

[T]he feeling of being in the midst of a real historical event is exhilarating. You’ll tell your grandkids with pride, “I was there. I lived it. It was terrible.” That you ate frozen pizzas for six weeks straight won’t be mentioned.

Is it possible that Wilbur’s article is the product of an extreme degree of class isolation? Could Wilbur be so isolated from those who have lost jobs—and from those who have been deemed “essential workers”—that his social circles have been unaffected by this tragedy except by the move to working from home? What a damning indictment of our society if so.

Wilbur paints a horrifying picture of an out of touch bourgeoisie partying while disaster crushes the working class, and he paints it only to gleefully describe what he sees as his reality, and not to offer any critique. In fact, he doesn’t seem to be aware that there is a critique worth making, and that may be the most disturbing part of his entire piece. I didn’t know it was possible to be that out of touch.

According to the essays Wilbur quotes to establish the term “cozy catastrophe,” the appellation is used to describe works of science fiction that feature catastrophes with an out of touch middle class who’ve still got theirs while everyone else is suffering and dying. Despite quoting these works saying exactly this, Wilbur adopts the term as an uncritical description of how he is experiencing our current disaster.

That, perhaps, is the most true thing in his whole essay.

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