Porn, Peace and Prisons During the Pandemic

U.S. Senate hopefuls Bre Kidman and Lisa Savage on the taboo topics the big-money politicians won’t touch

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Bre Kidman. photo/courtesy Kidman

For a bill commonly referred to as a “stimulus package,” the multi-trillion-dollar COVID-19 legislation signed into law late last month is remarkably unsexy. In fact, as HuffPost reported on April 2, a rule enforced by the Small Business Administration, the federal agency responsible for coordinating loans to enterprises with fewer than 500 employees, explicitly denies assistance to applicants who “present live performances of a prurient sexual nature or derive directly or indirectly more than [an insignificant amount of] gross revenue through the sale of products or services, or the presentation of any depictions or displays, of a prurient sexual nature.”

“The clause,” noted HuffPost reporter Alanna Vagianos, “excludes everyone who works in the legal (and, worth noting, booming) sex industry including strippers, porn performers, producers, directors, sex toy manufactures and many others.”

Put another way, if you make money having, presenting or promoting sex, and your business has been effectively outlawed by social-distancing edicts, you are, metaphorically speaking, fucked. This is despite the fact that your industry — if we’re talking online porn, conservatively estimated to generate $15 billion in sales annually — is bigger than Hollywood or Netflix. (And despite the fact that both the President of the United States and the First Lady have worked in porn; the former, thankfully, fully clothed.)

This Puritantical aspect of the stimulus package has not been a hot topic of national political debate, but here in Maine, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate has taken a strong stand. “If you don’t get how wrong this is, I don’t know how to help you,” Bre Kidman wrote in an April 2 tweet linking to the HuffPost article. “#SexWorkIsWork and everyone struggling in this pandemic deserves relief.”

It surely won’t shock you to hear that neither incumbent Republican Sen. Susan Collins nor her most prominent Democratic challenger, Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, has publicly taken a stand for Americans legally employed in the “adult industry.” But sex is far from the only important topic being left out of the national conversation about our pandemic response. Non-trivial issues like world peace, the climate crisis, economic inequality, mass incarceration, and democracy itself are also being largely ignored as lawmakers scramble to save lives, and rescue consumer capitalism, from the deadly microbes.

In late March, Mainer spoke with Kidman and another progressive candidate for Collins’ seat, Green-cum-independent Lisa Savage, about some of the big issues getting too little attention during the COVID-19 crisis.      

Independent U.S. Senate candidate Lisa Savage. photo/courtesy Savage

Mainer: What do you think of the $2 trillion Senate stimulus package currently before the House?

Savage:I think there’s a lot more in the bill to bail out corporations than to help the American people. In 2020, people understand very well that trickle-down economics doesn’t work. We would do much more to stimulate the economy by cancelling all student debt and letting those benefits percolate up.

I know for sure that General Dynamics — one of the top 10 weapons manufacturers [and parent company of Bath Iron Works] — should not be getting a bailout. The company has been buying back its own stock for years to inflate its value. The thing we need to understand about these stock buy-backs is that most CEO salaries are tied to the stock prices of the company, so there’s an embedded conflict of interest there.

Also, by refusing to close down during this pandemic, they are putting workers at risk, as well as everyone in the state. BIW is Maine’s largest employer; people come from all 16 counties to work there, and when this is over, I would not be surprised if they are found to be the incubator of Maine. The union is fighting hard for worker safety, and I think people do understand what’s at stake, because on Monday [March 23] only forty percent of BIW workers came in, but Governor Mills, who takes her marching orders from General Dynamics, has defied the recommendations of Dr. [Nirav] Shah at the CDC by refusing to order them to close.

Kidman:There’s no dispute that we are in a crisis and that we need our legislators to act quickly to provide relief. But “quickly” should not be construed as “hastily” — particularly when it comes to a $2 trillion package of legislation containing hundreds of pages of details. The final agreement was reached after midnight last night, and we’re looking at a vote this afternoon, despite the fact that text of the bill as negotiated has not yet been made available to the public. It is also unclear when — and, more alarmingly, if — our legislators were provided the text of the final version and an opportunity to review it before they’ll be expected to vote. Just yesterday afternoon, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that no member of Congress had seen the actual text of the bill. All the hand-waving Senators are doing about passing the bill without delay begs the question: what has been hidden in those hundreds of pages that our lawmakers cannot possibly have had the time to review in any detail? And, with several days of negotiating behind us, why is it suddenly unfathomable to delay for, say, 24 hours to ensure the text can be read?

The voting public is left with hours of self-congratulatory bipartisan grandstanding in the form of floor speeches, but no access to the letter of the law. When we talk about a decline of civic engagement, we have to look at the ways in which our elected officials have made it impossible for us to be genuinely informed about these grotesquely bloated packages of legislation. For that matter, we must also consider the ways in which it has become acceptable for our lawmakers to vote on laws without ever having actually seen what they’re agreeing to. Our elected officials have essentially supplanted informed consent [with] laws being written behind closed doors with overblown theatrics and broad-strokes talking points designed to paint them in a favorable light in front of voters. It’s not policy-making; it’s advertising.

Governor Mills has guaranteed free COVID-19 testing for all Mainers, and the stimulus bill includes billions of dollars for healthcare providers, medical supplies and Medicare payments for treating COVID-19 patients, as well as a delay in scheduled Medicaid cuts until November. What are the shortfalls of the response in terms of healthcare? And what would you propose instead?

Savage: First,we should immediately enroll anyone who is without health insurance in Medicare. And that includes immigrants! Pandemics don’t care if you have a Green Card. Medicare is in place, and it works. In the middle of a crisis, if you have private insurance you’re happy with, fine, stick with it. The VA isn’t perfect, but it provides good care to its members. Veterans should be able to stick with that, but people on an ACA plan that doesn’t provide good coverage should be able to switch to Medicare right now. Then, after the crisis is over, we can transition everyone to a universal healthcare system because, really, the words “profit” and “healthcare” shouldn’t even be in the same sentence.

It’s worth mentioning as well that Bath Iron Works would start building hospital ships instead of warships if we had the political will to cancel their defense contracts. It could be done today if corporations hadn’t bought our Congress.

Kidman: It doesn’t matter if you can get tested for free if the treatment is going to burden you with debt. If it’s a struggle for people to pay for a test, then it’s unreasonable to expect they can pay for the treatment. We need a response to this crisis that guarantees health care for all. People say that health care is a human right, but really an industry that profits from ensuring that people get less health care than what they pay for in premium dollars has no right to exist in this country.

The shortages of medical equipment and personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers is a serious problem, but I have reservations about someone like Trump commandeering the private manufacturing sector for fear he would find a way to make it self-dealing. That kind of absolute power with this administration makes me very nervous, but we do need to get creative about how to produce the medical supplies we need right now.

The amount of relief for the working class pales in comparison to that allocated for the corporate sector. Are the stimulus checks and loans and expansion of unemployment benefits in this bill enough?

Savage: It’s not enough, and we’re wasting time and making things more complicated by means testing. The answer is to give everyone a universal basic income right away of $2,000 per month for every adult, plus $1,000 for each dependent child, and then raise taxes on the wealthy to make up the shortfall. We should also raise the federal minimum wage to $15 and the federal government should guarantee payroll for all businesses. Farm workers especially need to be supported with Medicare enrollment and a $15-an-hour minimum wage, or we’ll have a famine on top of a pandemic.

Unless we cushion the impact on the working class, the hardship will be extreme. There will need to be cultural changes regardless. My parents were raised by my grandparents, who lived through the Great Depression, and we were taught to “use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without.” We do have resources to rise from the ashes of this, but we need to use them wisely.

Kidman: It’s crucial that we focus on relief to individuals. There are a lot of people out there who never got a bounceback from the 2008 crisis, and we can’t let those who were living on the edge before this fall through the cracks. That means taking care of people who were already laid off, independent contractors, and gig economy workers. Any relief package should also include a moratorium on rent, eviction, and foreclosures. That needs to happen on the federal level, not the state, or else we get piecemeal solutions that leave people out in the cold.

In a crisis like this, we need to get relief to people now and not create packages that are all about how much we can hide, and how much we can argue so nothing gets done. I would focus on bills that are more specific — up/down votes that are as simple, straightforward and transparent as possible.

Shelter-in-place orders and closures of public parks have exposed the rights abuses that America’s homeless and incarcerated people experience on a daily basis. What should cities, states and the federal government do to address the needs of these populations and the public during a pandemic?

Savage: Lack of leadership and mismanagement in a pandemic is fatal. Because incarcerated populations are much more susceptible to contracting communicable diseases, we must immediately open the federal and state prisons and release non-violent offenders and people whose age or health puts them at high risk, including the many low-income people who are currently incarcerated because of their inability to pay a fine or post bail. Once released, we need to provide these people with the means to house and feed themselves, along with health care.

You can’t tell people who have no home to “just stay home,” and doing so reflects a poor analysis of the situation. It’s critical that we prevent people from becoming homeless as a result of this crisis, by freezing evictions, and suspending mortgage and rent payments. People who have experienced homelessness are too often made to feel ashamed in an individual way for failing to be prosperous, and corporate media have pushed that narrative when, in fact, it reflects a systemic problem in the US economy. We don’t lack the resources to change the system, we just have the wrong budget priorities.

The closure of factories and quieting down of human activity as a result of shelter-in-place orders has had a remarkable and immediate impact on the environment. What opportunities or lessons does this present for lawmakers hoping to combat climate change?

Savage:One of the silver linings of this pandemic has been the relief it has offered the climate. There’s been a sharp reduction in greenhouse emissions; the canals of Venice are running clear; birds and dolphins are returning. It shows us that a Green New Deal could be a win-win for both climate and labor. Building warships is terrible for the climate. We could instead put people to work building public transportation, green energy infrastructure, while transforming our energy and food production to be more local.

I think Maine is a model for the country in getting back to more sustainable farming practices. The Penobscot and Passamaquoddy tribes are unique among American ingidenous people for having maintained a connection to their ancestral lands, and the wisdom of how to thrive here sustainably is still with them. Also, the majority of new farmers in Maine are women, and this is connected to the large African diaspora here which has its own wisdom to teach. I think that there is much to be learned from homesteaders as well. Growing your own food is the most revolutionary thing you can do.  

Kidman: While I’m not aware of the specific figures on the environmental impact of closures, I expect those figures might give us some metrics to gauge exactly how profoundly we will need to adapt in order to meet the climate crisis before us. While the idea of completely reversing course is not feasible at this point, I think the pandemic functions as a proxy for climate when we talk about “flattening the curve.” Essentially, our role in addressing climate change is to try and ensure the onslaught of changes roll in slowly enough that we can avoid completely overwhelming the capacity of agencies like FEMA and [the Army Corps of Engineers] to deal with the impacts of flooding and weather disturbances.

During a pandemic, we try to flatten the curve because we can’t build up hospital infrastructure and get enough equipment to keep up. We have to use shelter-in-place to keep the level of infection down or face greater loss of life as our resources become overtaxed. Because with climate change upon us, we can’t switch over enough resources to clean power and reduce impact quickly enough, we’re going to have to both build up our emergency management systems AND (if we don’t get moving on large-scale carbon-emission-reduction efforts) look at greater disruptions and costs to repair when the climate crisis outstrips our existing structures. Now is the time to be investing in holistic large-scale measures to reduce emissions and we need to be doing that in a way that prioritizes net carbon reduction over profits. In both the climate crisis and the pandemic, putting profit ahead of values will lead to significantly greater losses.

The last decade of politics in the United States has been characterized by an “America first” agenda — not just on the right, but beginning with Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign, which put the spotlight on working-class issues and the American economy. What have been the failures of our international policy and what should America be doing now to help the rest of the world through this pandemic? 

Savage:I lived abroad in Japan the 1980s and experienced first-hand the benefits of a nationalized healthcare program, in which my copay was $3, and free and reliable public transportation. That experience shaped my thinking about the false bubble of American exceptionalism many of us live in, and I tend to be very international in my policies. A virus knows no borders, and during a global health emergency the US should lift all sanctions on Iran, Nigeria, Syria, Cuba, and Venezuela, etc., which hurt not only the people in those countries but also put the health of everyone on the planet at risk.

The fact is that the wealthy and powerful have a very good understanding of the interconnectedness of humanity: they know how to use a tax shelter in the Cayman Islands; they know how to outsource labor to increase corporate profits. But when it comes to learning from and adopting the successful public health practices of other countries, they turn a blind eye.

I’m also really appalled by Trump’s labeling of COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus.” People of Asian descent in our country — whether Chinese or not — are now suffering as a result of racist backlash from people who can’t tell the difference between one race or another. It recalls the ugly period after 9/11 when not just Arab Americans, but also Hindus, Sikhs, and others feared for their safety and freedom.

Since Trump’s election, many people have expressed the desire for things to “go back to how they were.” Now, in the middle of a global pandemic that seems likely to crash the economy, do you think things can ever go back to normal?

Kidman: No, and I don’t want them to. There was really nothing normal about 2010-2016. We may not have been as aware of the wealth inequality, health disparities, racism, police brutality, deportations, mass surveillance and corruption, but it was all there. The only reason things feel abnormal now is that these crises keep bringing them into sharper focus. Now that we see them, and we understand the causes, we need to move forward and use that clarity of vision to find solutions.