Politics, Protests, and Pandemics

Historians in the News
tags: Protest, unrest, COVID-18

It’s odd to know, as a citizen of your own time, what future historians will argue about it, but not to know what they will say about it—and, even odder, what they ought to say about it. We should, after all, be experts on our own experience; yet we aren’t. In a way, this isn’t surprising. Someone who fought in blue at Antietam would, presumably, be able to tell Civil War historians a thing or two about the face of battle. But, overwhelmed by smoke and noise, a soldier would more likely emerge from the battle simultaneously cursing his time and blessing his luck for surviving the fight, but having no more insight into the course—or the meaning—of it than anyone else. Veterans read military histories of the battles that they fought in more voraciously than do people who weren’t there. They, too, need the God’s-eye view in order to see their own experience.

Most of us living through the coronavirus pandemic are a little like those veterans—what we see is limited by the noise and the smoke of our immediate surroundings. We know that there’s a relation between our pandemic fears and our political anxieties, but articulating it is hard. Not long ago, the historian Niall Ferguson offered a succinct summary of the ways in which pandemics have historically infected politics, stretching back to the Plague of Athens—which induced, or oversaw, the Peloponnesian War—and to ways that the 1918 flu may have triggered the rise of both Bolshevism and Fascism.

We could hold the 1918 flu ultimately responsible for crises that occurred twenty years later, but it would have first had to tumble its way, domino by domino, through the excesses of the Jazz Age. Too many other causes came along the way to single out any. Similar efforts to moralize on this pandemic have so far proved slippery in certainty. Last summer, the admirable Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis tried writing a summary of the political lessons of the pandemic. Beginning with the idea that vaccines were unlikely to arrive any time soon—an idea now consigned to the hospital dustbin of history—he went on to the notion that Canada had done much better in handling the pandemic than the United States. As much as Canadians (myself included), proud of our long history of national health care, might want this to be true, the reality is more complicated. Montreal and Toronto recently have been under tighter restrictions than New York City, and the vaccine rollout is seen as inefficient. The larger, scary truth is that the mortality rate in the pandemic is remarkably labile from country to country; nations with strong national medical systems, such as France and Spain, haven’t always done much better than those with anarchic systems, such as the United States. Open democracy doesn’t seem to help as much as we might have hoped, either. Australia and South Korea have done extraordinarily well, but so, if the numbers are to be believed, has China. According to the Lowy Institute’s Covid Performance Index, “despite initial differences, the performance of all regime types in managing the coronavirus converged over time.”

Turn to the past, and what you find are not neat historical vectors but the same indeterminacy. The historian Samuel K. Cohn, Jr., an expert on the relationship between plagues and people, has, story by story, exploded the neat, cartoon versions of history in which diseases point to unidirectional political vectors. In his extensive scholarship, including the book “Epidemics: Hate and Compassion from the Plague of Athens to aids,” a staggeringly exhaustive study of the correlations between pandemics and political violence— taking in everything from the Black Death in fourteenth-century Florence to cholera in nineteenth-century London, syphilis in Impressionist Paris, and tuberculosis in early-twentieth-century New York—Cohn has shown, that, although pandemics and infectious diseases do sometimes lead us to blame some “other” group, they just as often create new kinds of social solidarity. “Pandemics did not inevitably give rise to violence and hatred,” Cohn writes. “In striking cases they in fact did the opposite, as witnessed with epidemics of unknown causes in antiquity, the Great Influenza of 1918–19 and yellow fever across numerous cities and regions in America and Europe. These epidemic crises unified communities, healing wounds cut deep by previous social, political, religious, racial and ethnic tensions and anxieties.”

Read entire article at The New Yorker

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