On March 16, during the first week of worldwide COVID-19 hysteria, Vanessa Hudgens of High School Musical fame went live on Instagram. Shrugging into the camera, looking bored and exasperated, she said, “People are going to die, which is terrible. But… inevitable?”
It was a moment of pure, almost beautiful celebrity detachment — even for Hudgens, whose star status long ago fell from Disney Channel’s crown princess to aspiring TikTok personality. On Thursday, six days into social distancing, actress and Israeli army Twitter propagandist Gal Gadot led several of her fellow celebrities in singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” to their legions of adoring plebeian fans.
As I watched Hudgens stare blankly at the camera, and a bunch of rich and famous people implore me to imagine a world without heaven or hell from the insides of their luxury homes and cars, I felt a warm, familiar feeling wash over me: anger.
There’s nothing terribly interesting about resentment, but I think I’m allowed an ugly emotion or two at a time like this. “Imagine no possessions,” sings actor Pedro Pascal, who rakes in more money in one month than I’ve seen all year, and I can. Right now, as I write this, most of my friends have lost shifts, been let go, or forced to go to work anyway despite the threat of impending COVID-19 infection. Others have suddenly lost their school housing, forced to go home through crowded airports and packed flights. My rent just went up, right as my speaking and teaching gigs for the month were cancelled. Meanwhile, my mother, whose expensive lifesaving medication has the unfortunate side effect of compromising her immune system, has locked herself in her apartment for the foreseeable future. People are fighting over toilet paper and canned tomatoes. It is a scary, confusing, upsetting time for all of us, some far more than others.
So much is happening all at once that you may have missed the other bit of celebrity news: RuPaul, the pioneering drag queen whose media empire encompasses an award-winning reality show, a musical career, and a clothing line, is also a fracking profiteer. He admitted as much on an NPR podcast after Terry Gross asked him about the 60,000-acre plot of land he and his husband own in Wyoming and South Dakota. “Well, a modern ranch, 21st-century ranch, is really land management,” he said. “You lease the mineral rights to oil companies and you sell water to oil companies. And then you lease the grazing rights to different ranchers.” The precise details of his fracking operation were left unquestioned, as Gross went on to ask about what it was like for someone who was so “New York” to live in the country. “I'm adaptable. This is the secret of my success...I can adapt to whatever,” RuPaul replied, in his characteristic motivational speaker’s cadence. “And that is the strongest power that each of us holds — our ability to adapt. You know, I always say that, you know, being youthful is about being flexible, both literally and figuratively.”
“Imagine no possessions,” sings actor Pedro Pascal, who rakes in more money in one month than I’ve seen all year, and I can.
RuPaul is an aspirational figure, an outsider who made it big and whose story and experience is meant to inspire and excite the underdog and dreamer that lives inside us all. That kind of transcendence is also part of what makes this moment so strange and unsettling. RuPaul, who once promised a better world for young queers, alternative artists, struggling drag queens, and white moms everywhere, is actively profiting from one of the dirtiest and most environmentally damaging industrial practices in the world.
It feels almost too on the nose that these banal, high-minded expressions of celebrity spiritual clarity should occur in the midst of such a massive catastrophe. Pandemics are scary precisely because of their supposed inability to discriminate based on class, race, or gender; they reveal the incapacity of human bodies and systems to defy the natural world. Even stars like Tom Hanks or dictators like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro can contract COVID-19, and appear implausibly mortal.
But even though celebrities, plutocrats, and billionaires may suffer like us, at least in theory, they are definitely not suffering like us in practice. Such supposed universals are hardly universal on the ground. The impact of this crisis has been felt differently between and within countries, hitting different communities much harder than others, along lines that are often themselves traceable to existing divisions of global power and wealth. While the United States tries and fails to contend with its spiralling outbreak, the enduring regimes of sanctions it imposes on countries like Iran and Venezuela are preventing them from instituting essential containment and treatment procedures. At home, ICE detentions and apprehensions are ongoing. In the sixth consecutive year of the Flint, MI water crisis, the U.S. government somehow found at least $1.5 trillion to throw at the stock market. And as we’re all told to stay home, homeless people are left out in the cold, literally.
So, yes, on paper, this is a global problem. To quote Hudgens’ character in High School Musical, we’re all in this together. But… are we really?
In the face of rising fascism, climate crisis, and now, global pandemic, it’s easy to feel like we’re living at the end of the world — or at least, the end of the world as we know it. Most of the eschatological imagery available to Americans can be traced to the work of a man named John Nelson Darby, a 19th-century theologian whose translations of the more fiery, esoteric portions of the Christian Bible swept across the US and saturated the already-evangelical American popular imagination by the early 1900s.
In Darby’s view, the events that constituted the end of times were kicked off by a Rapture, in which the righteous and upright among us would be lifted into the sky and joined with God, who supposedly is chilling up there just out of view, and spared the ensuing period of fire and brimstone. Though Darby’s interpretation is considered heretical by most branches of Christianity, his vivid descriptions of doom and salvation have managed to retain a startling resonance in popular culture.
Yet I wonder if anyone expected it to play out so embarrassingly literally. Contemporary Western capitalism justifies itself with the myth of capitalist meritocracy — a steely insistence that wealth is fundamentally earned, that its reckless accumulation is not an expression of greed but of good old-fashioned American grit. Wealth inequality isn’t immoral, apparently, because wealth begets charity. Rich people are prudent, productive, and pious; they deserve success. In this framework, the individual economic success of the rich and famous is a moral achievement, a righteous reward for hard work and good behavior.
While we languish inside, unpaid and uncertain, unprotected by an ideology of American exceptionalism and individualized meritocracy, RuPaul and his capitalist cohort are happily fracking at the end of the world.
So it follows that the righteously rich have managed to escape the actual ills of our time. Climate crisis and global pandemic — or, hellfire and plague if you’d like — ravage criminalized communities and colonized countries. Those who can afford to rise, do so, Rapture-like, up and away from the worst of it. The good and worthy are saved: Senators shed costly stocks after secret briefings, banks urge pharmaceutical companies to raise their prices, beleaguered governments bail out the oil industry of all things. As for the rest of us, rent is still due and cages are still closed. Voting is more harm than help. The rich rise to heaven, and we’re stuck on the ground.
Capitalism is killing us. There’s no way around it. While we languish inside, unpaid and uncertain, unprotected by an ideology of American exceptionalism and individualized meritocracy, RuPaul and his capitalist cohort are happily fracking at the end of the world.
I wonder what will happen next — after the shit has hit the fan, after the curve has been flattened, after the bodies are buried and the hot takes have gone cold, when the wealthy and powerful expect us to go back to business as usual. What kind of “normal” world is there to go back to now that we know what a globalized, neoliberal, billionaire-funded “normal” leads to, and that no matter how high we pull our bootstraps, many of us may still end up sick and dying in apartments we can no longer even afford?
We need a different kind of political or moral logic, with different winners and different losers, with different rules and different outcomes. I want to believe in a world that can’t be voted for, stimulated, embargoed, sanctioned, or left up to the invisible hand of the market. I want to believe in a world where mass death isn’t an easy option. I want to believe that the people and communities that capitalism has rendered disposable, criminalized, precarious, and unworthy deserve to live freely and without fear. I want to believe that the punitive, do-it-yourself ideology of alienated individualism which justifies a broken healthcare system and profit-minded political apparatus cannot survive the pandemic it helped produce. I want to believe that, if this world is in fact ending, another world is possible.