Trying to look away from all the stories about crazy protesters who object to wearing masks and who think the pandemic is all a conspiracy theory they can blame on people they don’t like…
To look at long thought-pieces by the adults on the planet about the effects on society of past pandemics, and the possible effects of this one.
Today, Andrew Sullivan—
—With an aside about Andrew Sullivan (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Sullivan). He’s a political commentator and blogger, whose blog The Daily Dish launched in 2000 (according to Wikepedia) and which I discovered later that decade. Sullivan claims to be a conservative, and he’s Catholic, but he’s also gay, and so his takes on many topics have always been unpredictable. Again according to Wikipedia, he broke with the conservative movement in the George H. Bush era, because of the Republicans’ rightward shift on social issues.
His Daily Dish blog migrated to other sites, and then he stopped blogging in 2015. But in recent years he’s been writing weekly columns for New York Magazine (https://nymag.com/, not to be confused with The New Yorker), which I haven’t followed because there are only so many sites (or newspapers or magazines) one can follow every day or week. But one site I do follow, Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution Is True (https://whyevolutionistrue.com/, which is only occasionally about abstruse recent discoveries in evolutionary science, much more often about cats, or issues of the day), has followed and occasionally posted about Sullivan’s NYMag columns. And today, about Sullivan’s last column for that magazine, before he moves back to a personal website, to be called The Weekly Dish, a subscription site. (It’s his living.)
This is pertinent because Sullivan’s Daily Dish was the inspiration for this blog.
Previously, as sole editor of Locus Online beginning in 1997, I posted occasional editorials (as Charles N. Brown did in every issue of Locus Magazine), about website or science fictional topics, such as convention reports, and then in 2003 created a “blog,” as everyone was doing in those years, in Blogger, a then popular blogging hosting site, which was linked from the Locus Online homepage (That was Views from Medina Road). This ran for a decade, but was confined mostly to, again, website or SF topics, or other topics loosely relevant or interesting to a science fiction audience. That decade-long blog migrated at some point to WordPress, and then to a directory of my current blog; the entire earlier blog is at http://www.markrkelly.com/Views/.
Having been laid off from work in late 2012, and inspired by Sullivan’s Daily Dish – and also, to create a repository for family history and photos – I created my own domain name, markrkelly.com, using WordPress, to create a blog on general topics, as Sullivan’s did. Sullivan’s mode was to link to some current newspaper article or magazine essay, quote a paragraph or two, and then make his own comments. Exactly like my “Links and Comments” posts. Sullivan also allowed comments, which I haven’t done; he could check comments and accept or reject daily, because that was his full-time job. Since I’ve never had the following that Sullivan has, virtually all of the comments I’ve gotten, when I’ve allowed them, have been spam. Thousands and thousands of spam comments. So I turned comments off.
The problem with posting everything on my own domain, of course, is that once I’m hit by the proverbial bus, or have an Afib-derived stroke, my entire site will exist only for another two or three years until my registry of the domain name expires. The content will all still exist, on the Locus server, but no one will be able to find it. I don’t know if there’s a solution to this problem; likely, no one will care.
—So, back to Andrew Sullivan on the pandemic. A Plague Is an Apocalypse. But It Can Bring a New World. The meaning of this one is in our hands.
A long, well-researched essay.
Plagues have been major movers of historical events. They appeared once humans settled down…
Our species seems never to have experienced epidemic diseases for the vast majority of our time on earth, encountering them only when we settled down, formed stable, concentrated communities, and started farming and domesticating animals for food. Plagues were usually a function of diseases that jumped from precisely those animals in close proximity and spread through concentrations of the human population in settlements, villages, towns, and cities as civilization began. Humans lived in more intimate relations with animals; their settlements compounded filth, infected water, fleas, and excrement human and animal. We were unknowingly creating a petri dish and calling it home.
…Plague is an effect of civilization.
The fall of Rome….
And plagues drive people crazy. You might call them mass-disinhibiting events. It’s not hard to see why. When the plague returned to a fast repopulating Europe in the 14th century, in the Great Mortality known as the Black Death, up to 60 percent of Europeans perished in an astonishingly short amount of time. When normal life has been completely suspended, and when you don’t know if you’ll be alive or dead in a week’s time, people act out.
A cultish sect, which had first arisen earlier in Italy, emerged in Germany, for example, called the flagellants. These half-naked protesters traveled from town to town on foot in pilgrimages, atoning for the sins they believed had caused the plague, and whipping themselves bloody and raw as penance, in bizarre public rituals that drew big crowds. They rejected the established Church, claimed to have direct access to Jesus and Mary, disrupted Masses, and, as time went by, radicalized still further, becoming increasingly populated by the poor and ever more anti-Semitic. Forbidden to take a bath, shave, or change clothing on their pilgrimages, they also doubtless became unwitting spreaders of the disease as they moved from place to place and masses of panicked penitents greeted them.
Plagues do not usually unite societies; they often break them apart in this way. Around the turn of the 20th century, for example, Asian immigrants were blamed for an outbreak of bubonic plague in San Francisco and Honolulu; in 1918, enterprising xenophobes settled on Spain as the source of the new and deadly flu and called it “the Spanish Lady,” to add a soupçon of misogyny. In the polio outbreaks at the beginning of the past century, immigrants from Southern Europe were scapegoated. In general, the wealthy escape from cities in plague times, minorities are blamed, the poor revolt, families are torn apart, and cruelty abounds.
Trump: “Chinese virus.”
And with a literally existential event taking place all around them, 14th-century Europeans shifted in their spirituality as the Romans had done before them. Just as the sixth-century plague had finished off the old religion of the Roman gods and brought the final triumph of Christianity, so a newly personal and mystical variety of that religion replaced the more institutional one. Sects from the lower classes began to emerge — like the Lollards in England, who rejected key Catholic doctrines and translated the Bible into English. In these rebellious religious subcultures, the seeds of the Reformation were sown.
Key passage about the benefits of a world-shaking event:
Paradoxically, the Black Death also reshaped and rebuilt the rural economy to benefit the poor. With half the population suddenly wiped out by bubonic plague, food became plentiful and cheap as soon as the harvests returned, because there were so many fewer mouths to feed, and the price of labor soared because so many workers had perished. Day laborers suddenly had some leverage over the owners of land and exploited it. A manpower shortage also led to innovations. With fewer people on higher wages, for example, the cost of making a book became prohibitive — because it required plenty of scribes and copiers. And so the incentive to invent the printing press was created. Industries like fishing (new methods of curing), shipping (new kinds of ships both bigger and requiring less manpower), and mining (new water pumps) innovated to do more with fewer people. The historian David Herlihy puts it this way: “Plague … broke the Malthusian deadlock … which threatened to hold Europe in its traditional ways for the indefinite future.”
There will be more pandemics as humans fill up the planet the destroy more and more of the natural habitat (as Brazilians burn down the Amazon jungle).
Knowledge of a brutal new virus does not prevent its spread. Only a much more profound reorientation of humankind will lower the odds: moving out of cities, curtailing global travel, ending carbon energy, mask wearing in public as a permanent feature of our lives. We either do this to lower the odds of mass death or let nature do what it does — eventually so winnowing the human stock that we are no longer a threat to the planet we live on.
That’s the sobering long view. It is hard to look at the history of plagues without reflecting on the fact that civilizations created them and that our shift from our hunter-gatherer origins into a world of globally connected city-dwelling masses has always had a time bomb attached to it. It has already gone off a few times in the past few thousand years, and we have somehow rebounded, but not without long periods, as in post-Roman Europe, of civilizational collapse. But our civilization is far bigger than Rome’s ever was: truly global and, in many ways, too big to fail. And the time bomb is still there — and its future impact could be far greater than in the past. In the strange silence of this plague, if you listen hard, you can still hear it ticking.