If you were online several lifetimes ago — by which I mean, like, in 2013 — you have seen enough “Florida Man” memes and headlines to last a lifetime. It was always hacky shit, but for the same reason, it constantly went viral: Florida served as an experimental lab for bizarre local news that would then gain traction (and lots of clicks) when aggregator sites amplified it for a larger Facebook audience. From there it would get shared far and wide, for additional scorn.
The key to Florida stories: dysfunction. The impression you got was that a mixture of heat, humidity, alligators, giant insects, hard drugs, weird sex, plentiful guns, spring break, political grift, redneck culture, sunburn and swamp survivalism had produced a unique form of decay. The joke was that (white) America had tried to “civilize” some ecological soup and instead been mutated by it.
Really, we were often punching down at the poor and disadvantaged for their run-ins with police. “Florida is notorious for having some of the country’s harshest systems in place for those on the margins of society,” Citations Needed host Adam Johnson said in 2019. “It’s really ground zero for neoliberal rot.”
Well, that cruelty has returned with a vengeance. When COVID-19 came to the U.S., Florida and its governor, Ron DeSantis, were among the most resistant to precautionary mandates, even as college kids flocked to the beaches for drunken revels. With our stereotype of the region, we anticipated a horrific outbreak, but it didn’t come to pass. Coronavirus skeptics even took a victory lap. This, of course, was wildly premature: Florida did eventually see a surge in infections, except that didn’t make it an outlier. It was just one of many, many hotspots, including Texas and California (which now holds the state record for case numbers).
Federalism is funny. It makes otherwise intelligent people think that state borders mean anything in the scale of nature. Liberals particularly seemed to believe — and boast — that as Floridians dug their own graves, the “enlightened” ones in blue states would be protected by common sense. (“You played politics with this virus, and you lost,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said to suffering conservative states in late June.)
And now we find that the world regards our entire country the way we do Florida. America is disavowed as a chaotic vortex of ignorance and recklessness. And, in a fashion, already beyond hope.
The fear is that American misbehavior, like Floridian craziness, also cannot be contained, and this has ramifications beyond the current plague: We bomb and destabilize other nations, and we refuse to meaningfully address climate change. The U.S. unchecked by rival powers would make for what True Detective’s Rust Cohle called a “giant gutter in outer space,” the Earth itself as a sordid embarrassment to the galaxy. The Florida joke, only planet-sized. Not good.
Some of the folks who like to say “We’re all in this together” are shockingly callous toward those living in Florida (and Texas, Arizona and so on). But nobody deserves to die in a pandemic mismanaged by both political parties, and millions of citizens represented by nitwit Republican leaders are in favor of masks and similar precautions.
Maybe you’re frustrated because you feel that your city, your state or your country is better than its rising death toll would suggest — that this isn’t who we really are. And I bet the people of Florida know exactly what you’re going through.