It was one of those days (read: months) when my eyes felt trapped in my sockets. Neither coffee nor exercise could trick them into waking. They were trapped, scraping at a door hinge that just wouldn’t open.
And then, in big, bold letters, it came, like a splash of cold, cold water: “U.S. deaths near 100,000, an incalculable loss”, read the front page of Sunday’s New York Times.
Inside, it lists the names and ages of 1,000 Americans who have died as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, accompanied by a few words from their obituaries.
Memorial Day weekend drew out pictures of parks filled to the brim, and pool parties in Missouri and Houston. In that context, the cover was a plea to remember: This is still happening.
It was an attempt to to shock us out of numbness, to take the steps toward grievance that precede righteous action, to make us feel the scope, the magnitude, the contours of lost life — to feel it all, to mourn those we have dangerously under-mourned.
There was Jermaine Ferro, who had “little time to enjoy a new marriage.” At 77, she was still searching, carving out her story, her life. Carl Redd, 62, “squeezed in every moment he could with his only grandchild.” The paper gives verve and the air of new beginnings interrupted to the lives of the elderly, whose deaths have been minimized.
Patricia Frieson was a former nurse. Fred Walter Gray, 75, liked his bacon and hash browns crispy.
What a life to have been a caricaturist and psychiatrist (Ricardo Castaneda, 64). What a life to lose.
The richness of the text almost seduced me into believing that if I grazed my fingers over it, the screen would feel like a historic artifact, like a stone with edges that carry within them the proof of rich, unique, unpredictable lives. It is life-affirming, devastating, unsparing, leaving everything out on the floor.
Four days later, the cover has nearly been forgotten — a testament to the power and powerlessness of modern journalism, posing the question: Does mainstream political art still have utility?
Was Sunday’s cover, the most comprehensive obituary of this moment, just another piece of content? Content that, by the way, some will never see. What’s print journalism in the face of YouTube’s algorithm-fueled wormholes?
It’s heartbreaking to realize that, even though everybody could, not everyone will feel the enormity of this moment. It’s heartbreaking because feelings have the power to sustain and unify us, to point us in the direction of our humanity. It’s heartbreaking because in the face of a crisis we can each individually mitigate, avoidance could ruin us.
Readers, according to Simone Landon, assistant editor of The Times’ graphics desk, were tired of reading about data. The Times repackaged it.
“Near 100,000 deaths.”
We can know the numbers. We can’t comprehend this much loss.
But we can try. We can slow down and zoom in, to stop scrolling and feel, to let their names shock us like a defibrillator to the heart, to allow the enormity of the loss to rearrange our guts, to feel nauseous and hopeless and then, finally, human. Alive. Ready to fight.
Grieving reminds us that data is a documentation of human life and human suffering.
The cover reminded me of the 2,977 names listed inside the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in New York. The anger of those deaths drove America to war, yet 100,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus and we can’t even sit tight. You could tweet that and get 50,000 likes. That tendency is also what’s made us cynical in the face of harrowing facts: They are often leveraged by what we deem to be untrustworthy actors with what we suspect to be ulterior, self-serving motives. That makes the facts feel less important, but it shouldn’t.
Because seriously: America went to war over 2,977 deaths. Because the living were encouraged to mourn the dead vigorously, driving them to anger, to political mobilization.
In 2004, the late author Susan Sontag wrote the essay “Regarding the Torture of Others”, about the leaked photos of American soldiers posing and smiling while torturing Iraqi prisoners. The photos made growing rumblings and reports of torture feel real, forcing the hand of the White House and its supporters, who turned to words to minimize the power of pictures.
“The prisoners had possibly been the objects of ‘abuse,’ eventually of ‘humiliation’ — that was the most to be admitted. ‘My impression is that what has been charged thus far is abuse, which I believe technically is different from torture,' Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said at a news conference. 'And therefore I'm not going to address the 'torture' word.'”
According to Sontag, a caller on radio host Rush Limbaugh’s show suggested the photos of naked men stacked together was akin to a college fraternity prank.
“Words alter, words add, words subtract,” Sontag continued.
Red-handed evidence devolved into a semantic debate on the line between “torture” and “abuse.” With little room for spin, the very nature of the truth itself was challenged, writing a new P.R. playbook for a landscape where self-documentation was about to become the norm. The pics-or-it-didn’t-happen era has become the pics-and-it-still-might-not-have-happened era. What good are photos in an age of deep fakes and conspiracy theories about crisis actors?
Don’t feel anything.
A tendency to compartmentalize violence and tragedy is the natural outcome of a world where two-thirds of Americans feel worn out by the amount of news they see. How can you shock people’s frayed nerves? Maybe you can’t. Maybe you try something new. Maybe you try something old.
Tom Bodkin, The Times’ chief creative officer, said he couldn’t remember a front page without images in his 40 years there. “This is certainly a first in modern times,” he said. We’ve come full circle: The Times decided a picture wasn’t worth 1,000 names.
Text demands us to stop in a way pictures don’t. Words force us to pause, to consider, to feel.
Text can also evoke history, reminding readers that the The New York Times of 2020 — one paper in a fragmented world of media outlets and constant distractions — was once “the paper of record.”
For reasons you could write a book about, The Times is no longer monolithic. In a 2018 poll, 30 percent of respondents deemed the Times untrustworthy or very untrustworthy while 31 percent were indifferent.
The cover was powerful, but could it pierce through the layers of suspicion, mediation and distraction to make people feel something they didn’t want to feel?
The signs that it wouldn’t work came early. On March 12, a 27-year-old man named Jordan Haynes was found dead in a car crash in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The death was ruled a homicide. On Saturday, when Sunday’s paper was tweeted, Haynes’ name was the fifth to appear on the The Times’ list.
The error was then corrected, alongside others. I registered it as a mistake, one that didn’t change the cover’s impact. But if you don’t trust The Times, where I saw a mistake, you might see a pattern confirming your suspicion that the whole enterprise is rotten, that maybe the conspiracy theories about the number of deaths being cooked are really true, and that, of course, the ol’ “lying New York Times” is in on it.
In Haynes, you might see a reason not to pause, not to consider, not to feel.
The victims of COVID-19 are disproportionately black, Hispanic, elderly, undocumented, incarcerated and impoverished. America has always mourned their deaths less. Inaction has only perpetuated their suffering.
The best works of political art lay bare life’s disparities, forcing us to rip through the surface and feel empathy for people whose pain we historically haven’t related to. It succeeds when it catches us with our guard down.
We rarely have our guard down anymore.
There is no such thing as an uncompromised messenger, yet the need for messages persists.
Normalizing loss at this scale, resigning ourselves to it, is a fast track to nihilism, to the cynical assumption that our actions don’t make a difference when in reality, inaction makes a difference every day.
The only antidote to this is to feel it all, to attempt to comprehend what we can’t, to dare to fathom it. To keep scrolling, to stop looking away, to stop forgetting and start doing.
If physical distancing is starting to feel tedious, feeling it all is how you can summon the discipline to stay home, the energy to help and the skepticism to wonder why one of the world’s most financially prosperous countries frames fighting the pandemic against saving the economy.
People die for so many reasons. Feeling their loss — the outrage, the pain, the righteous anger, the incredulity, the sense that their lives didn’t have to end this way — is why we have flu shots and seatbelts and health labels on cigarettes and calorie counts for burgers. There’s no equivalent to the triple-bypass surgery for the coronavirus. That doesn’t mean there can’t be.
We can do amazing things in the face of grief. But we have to grieve.
Mourning life reminds us that lives are worth saving.
So do it.
When you’re done reading this, don’t click the headline to your right or answer the text message in the corner of your eye or scroll down to the comments or click the next tab or check Instagram. You have a million reasons not to click here.
Ignore them. Read their names.
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