We’re all White Trash Weirdos in a Tiger Cage Now: Reflections on Plague and Privilege

An Essay by Jan Alexander

image of the plague

At the altar of Netflix, binge-watching The Tiger King as the quarantine took hold, it wasn’t just the redneck parallels to the Trump-Hillary Presidential contest that held me captive to this stranger-than-fiction reality series. It was also the freak-show parody of white America’s sense of entitlement. That includes my own. Turns out that you’ve led a privileged life if you’ve ever lived by the words “conquer your fears.”

In The Tiger King, America is a bleak land of highways, strip malls and meth-fueled self-importance. At his private zoo in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, Joe Exotic (born Joe Schreibvogel, married name Joe Maldonado-Passage) used to make his money pimpishly, from charging visitors to pet his fuzzy baby tigers, bred in captivity. (I wanted to pet one too, but I felt guilty about it.)

In 2016, when things weren’t going so well with his always-scrappy business, Joe made a bid to run for President of the United States as an independent, and when that fizzled out he ran for Governor of Oklahoma. He lost. Imagine, we could have had a guy in U.S. politics who ran just to invigorate his brand, sporting a chromatic-palette-defying eruption of hair and an unhinged habit of screaming expletives at his adversaries on camera—and, as he grew more accustomed  to the political spotlight, began to imagine himself as some kind of royalty.

In one scene Joe appears to be completely at ease driving down the highway while nuzzling a full-grown tiger in the passenger seat. But in the eighth episode of the series, a coda in which comedian Joel McHale interviews some of the stars, Rick Kirkham, a former daredevil Inside Edition reporter who was going to produce a reality TV series about Joe Exotic until all of the footage was destroyed in a highly suspicious fire, reveals that Joe was actually terrified of the big cats. It was all the gay redneck (that’s how Joe described himself) macho swagger of a guy so swaggering he shot animals for fun.

To watch Tiger King now is to be transported into a toxic biosphere that’s almost as bizarre as where we’re all living now. Fear of Covid-19, like fear of a hungry 600-pound cat, has become a partisan exercise. But we’re all locked down. Joe Exotic is just a little more so, serving 22 years in a federal penitentiary for his (thwarted) attempt to hire a hitman to kill his nemesis, animal-rights activist Carole Baskin, along with multiple counts of killing endangered species and falsifying records of interstate transactions involving wildlife.

While we humans have been sheltering, lions from Kruger National Park have been seen napping on the roads in South Africa. In New York, those of us who’ve ventured into the subway have spotted rats sauntering along the platform as if they own the place. A microscopic foe holds us at gunpoint, and suddenly we’re not the privileged species with priority in the public sphere.

I say “suddenly” in a self-conscious way. In the hours I’ve spent socializing on Facebook lately, I’ve joined a debate among writers that a Facebook friend sparked by posting: “Never use the word suddenly in your writing.” I posted on the affirmative side: “Suddenly with one word any story turns to melodrama.”

Covid-19  is nothing if not melodramatic; as vaingloriously heinous as a silent screen villain in a black cloak—and it can attack in an instant, as someone I know who caught it and recovered told me. She was feeling fine one minute, then suddenly flush with fever and chills and a potentially deadly cough.

The other melodramatic thing about a plague is that, like Count Dracula, it lies down long enough that we can tell ourselves it’s gone but it doesn’t really die. Drive a stake through the heart but another vampire will rise up somewhere. Lately I’ve been alternating escape fare with tales of plagues from the past, wondering why we ever imagined we could escape an age-old desperado that nearly destroyed Thebes in 429 B.C., the whole of Europe in the 14th Century, London in 1665-66 (“I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ writ there,” as Samuel Pepys described it), and the U.S. and Europe a mere century ago.

But the human instinct is to ignore a plague as long as it can, Camus tells us. In his allegorical plague in the town of Oran, on the Algerian coast, the business-minded residents “…went on doing business, arranged for journeys, and formed views. How should they have given a thought to anything like plague, which rules out any future, cancels journeys, silences the exchange of views. They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.”

Camus intended The Plague as a stand-in for Nazi occupation, psychological burdens, and all that adds up to humankind’s eternal vulnerability. That was a warning we were able to ignore for the most part in the second half of the 20th century and into the start of this one, though only because Ebola and SARS, and before that AIDS and terrorist attacks didn’t hold every inch of the planet  under siege—and that was only through a combination of luck, better policies than those in place now, and diligent medical research that eventually saved lives, though I still mourn many that were lost.

Something these more recent confined plagues did was lay the groundwork for a scourge that isn’t an equalizer. We all live in fear now, but some fear is worse than others. The privileged are restless and afraid to go too far outside; the most vulnerable are trying not to breathe on one another in close quarters or workplaces where they’re deemed essential though often underpaid, or on the street…

A segment of the privileged—in the United States that refers specifically to white people—see any demands for confinement as an infringement on the privilege that comes with whiteness. As Jamelle Bouie has pointed out in the New York Times, to be white has long meant to be “subject to no one’s will but one’s own.”

With more guilt, I realize I’ve been among the privileged all my life, if privilege means you can pick and choose what you fear.

When I was four years old I developed a seemingly irrational phobia of “bad germs.” I was no longer free to put a lollipop in my mouth or jump onto the bus that took me to pre-school; anything anywhere might have bad germs. My brother was about to explode at me. I heard my mother, in the next room, say to him “Don’t get annoyed with Jan. She has a sickness.”

A sickness! I knew she meant a disease of the head. Pit of snakes style, somehow the idea of becoming an object of pity scared the phobia out of me. Until now. “Is this really necessary?” my husband asked as I scrubbed the groceries one-by-one with rubbing alcohol. Well, yes, isn’t it?

The other big fear of my childhood was a story on the nightly news and a topic of outrage when my parents took me to “ban the bomb” demonstrations. Every loud airplane overhead sent me into shivers. Was this the nuclear bomb about to drop? Still, there were people in America who didn’t demonstrate, people who built fallout shelters and were sure they would come out of them alive, people who said we’d nuke the Soviets and be done with it. Never mind the scientists who said that in the aftermath we’d all die in a contaminated wasteland.

Curiously though, science class sent some of us longing for a thing we’d never experienced in our sheltered Chicago neighborhood: the surge of adrenaline that comes when the bandits in a Hollywood Western attack your wagon train or you play Juliet on Broadway and the audience gives you a standing ovation.

Every day was the same for us.  We went to school. We walked home for lunch, where our mothers or a housekeeper or a babysitter would have peanut butter or salami sandwiches waiting for us; then we walked back to school. On Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, we came back from lunch and gathered in the playground. A girl who was known as an embellisher of stories said,    “Did you hear? President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas, and it might be fatal."

I didn't believe her. One of my friends said, "If it’s true I hope he dies." I knew exactly what she meant; she wasn’t being malicious. We liked JFK, but we imagined the idea of the President getting shot as a moment out of a movie, something we’d still be talking about when we were old.

Fifty-seven years from now, old and old-ish people will tell their grandchildren about the spring when everything changed. They’ll recall what was missing in their lives: rock concerts, theater, trips to Galapagos, Grandma coming to visit, going to school. Or, they might recall the day Mom went to her job at the hospital and never came back, the day the sheriff threw the whole family out of their home because they couldn’t pay the rent, the parent who lay wasting on a cot because the hospitals were full and there were no ventilators to be had.

For all survivors, something will be missing. We might think we’re privileged enough to regenerate—like Wall Street after the crash of 2008-09, or a starfish that grows new points. When I think of what we’ll be like after the pandemic, though, I think of Kelci “Saff” Saffery, an employee at Joe Exotic’s place who stuck his hand into a tiger cage to close the door one day, and the tiger grabbed it. Saff now has a stump of a forearm, and while he has been remarkably cheerful about the whole experience in interviews, saying he has no regrets and even going back to work at the theme park under new owners, how many of us will be cheerful about lost love ones, health, time, income, sanity? When it’s over—whenever that might be—we’ll have to reconstruct life. Camus has a warning about that: “destruction is an easier, speedier process than reconstruction.”

Still, this time will pass, and in half a century or so there will be stories and songs from this era that are classics but still ring sort of quaint to people born post-Covid-19. Imagine how tough it was back in 2020 when you could only see your friends on a Zoom screen instead of virtual hugging with your holograms.  What the privileged children of the future will probably forget, until it’s too late for them too, is that it isn’t by accident that the verb “plague” can apply to anything we don’t like.

I’ve gone to Passover seders all my life, mostly secular and informal ones, and always understood that the Ten Plagues of Egypt haven’t completely gone away. At some particularly free-wheeling seders we’ve spilled our drops of wine and cited our own versions of awful things—“badly-written bestsellers!” “Republican court appointees!”

Now I think we should just read aloud from Dr. Rieux’s internal monologue at the end of The Plague and consider ourselves lucky if in that particular year we don’t have to take lice and locust swarms literally: “….as he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled….the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.”

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