Breaking with History
Daily, I hear “this is finally coming to an end.” It’s a combination of a sigh of relief and a question about what comes next, after a year and a half of illness and death that can seem like a break with history. That history has broken and needs repairing is essential to looking at the world amid a devastating eruption of nature’s potential and calling it a pandemic. I will explain.
For years, I have occasionally offered a college course on epidemics as narratives. Earlier versions of the course featured accounts of outbreaks by journalists, memoirists, novelists, playwrights, and screenwriters—that is, epidemics as shaped by one sensibility. This time, the students and I got to study some of those accounts next to what we are hearing and seeing right now.
Most of my students warmed to—or at least made their peace with—the Nietzschean undertones of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and the stark existentialism of Albert Camus’s The Plague. They never could come to terms with the double dealing by today’s powerful, rendered obvious by the current outbreak. Watching Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets, they were taken by the similarity of the heroic depiction of Dr. Reed (played by Richard Widmark) to the contemporary worship of “selfless” physicians talking straight about viruses, Anthony Fauci especially. They noted the parallels between the Venetian authorities’ unwillingness to announce the onset of a cholera epidemic in Mann’s Venice and former President Trump’s manipulations of the news of SARS-CoV-2’s arrival in early 2020. They pointed out that in both cases the danger, when finally acknowledged, was said to have come from Asia. They noted the attacks on Jews during the 14th-century Black Death and the attacks on Asian Americans in 2021, and wrote about the biblical scapegoat.
It was in considering Tony Kushner’s Angels in America that the students came to see not just a presage of contemporary themes, but also a larger truth about how an event comes to be called an epidemic. How hard it was to draw attention to AIDS as an epidemic in the 1980s, the period of Kushner’s plays—even though it was in the process of literally decimating sexually active gay communities on the East and West coasts. AIDS changed the culture for the people most intimately involved, but it shook none of the smug certainties about sexual propriety and normalcy held by the people in power.
It is no longer much recognized, but in the 1980s the vigorous national response to polio epidemics—the “summer plague”—was well within the living memory of many Americans. By the middle of the 20th century, polio was killing almost 2,000 people a year and leaving 35,000 paralyzed, some permanently. Most were children. Polio epidemics were terrifying enough by the 1950s to prompt the creation of vaccines that by 1979, two years before the first cases of AIDS were recognized, had eliminated polio from the United States.
What had evidently not terrified Americans, at least those whose opinions mattered, was the contemporaneous threat of tuberculosis. The TB death rate fell throughout the mid-20th century because of improvements in living conditions, but by the late 1940s annual TB deaths still outnumbered polio deaths and cases of paralytic polio combined. Tuberculosis tended to take the lives of the urban poor. It was typically attributed to the failure of the victims to get on board with the middle-class hygienic and dietary practices that, they had been advised, were preferred. Therefore, TB was a lamentable but not urgent concern; polio, putting the children of the upwardly mobile middle class into leg braces or wheelchairs, was. In the AIDS era, as Kushner shows us in Angels in America, it was obvious to AIDS sufferers and those in danger of contracting it that winning the sort of attention for AIDS that a national “epidemic” merited—as polio had and tuberculosis had not—depended on shaking the assumptions of the powerful about their own sense of normalcy. If history doesn’t seem to have broken, you don’t get taken care of.
My students are undergraduates, most of them 19 or 20 years old. Polio is basically gone from the United States, TB barely heard of. Other than its lingering associations with the history of what they know as “LGBTQ+ rights,” HIV/AIDS is an ordinary treatable disease. All their lives they have been led to believe that things get better, and then better still. Science will tell us more about the world. Medicine will produce new cures. Society will become more tolerant, even if that progress is maddeningly slow. It troubles and intrigues them that, in Kushner’s hands, this version of American history is broken. Although the despicable Roy Cohn is disbarred, contracts AIDS, is hospitalized, and dies, there’s no hell for him to go to: morally, Cohn gets away with everything. Even late in the technologically adept and medically capable 20th century, an event like AIDS could strike the good along with the vile. There is no guarantee of progress in Kushner’s universe; the world has turned swirly—shades walk the earth, the characters face their ancestry, an Italian-American nurse unwittingly recites the Hebrew prayer for the dead, sane people converse with imaginary companions, angels seek to manipulate human desires. God resides in the chaos.
Chaos is relevant. Chaos has been the world’s self-view for 15 months now. We have observed science at war with itself, heard half-truths and untruths from officials, and witnessed worldwide warfare fought not with bullets or bombs but by withholding vaccine. We have recognized that the compassion narrative is all but played out—I recently heard the dean of a prominent medical school refer, unabashedly, to the spring of 2021 as the “pandemic fatigue era”—and has been replaced, with the advent of Covid vaccines, by the narrative of technology triumphant, even though triumph is clearly far from apt. Metaphors made previous disease outbreaks—plague, cholera, polio, or AIDS—accessible, at least to a certain narrow point of view. You could think in terms of punishment, invasion, miasma, or the wages of sin. But metaphors haven’t served here. Covid is nobody’s fault, try as some do to blame factory farming or Chinese censorship. If you breathe, you might die. That this has been true before, specifically in flu outbreaks, seems irrelevant, or has been rendered so by the incessant grasping for a “scientific” story—the mathematical models and the intense study of supposedly dangerous or possibly dangerous variants. In this state of dismantling of assumptions, Covid has seemed a phenomenon apart, a break with history. In that sense, it merits the “pandemic” label. History has broken everywhere.
This is exactly what the Covid narratives have in common: the premise that what we are seeing is unprecedented. The implication is both that time has shifted in some world-changing way, and that never before has such a change happened. To perceive such a shift is essential to the epidemic story.
Distressingly, hallowed science can seem to have failed. Science is fundamental to today’s history makers. Our systems, preeminently the medical one but also industrial, agricultural, and educational systems, among others, rely on science to deliver inarguable truths. “Follow the science” was not only the mantra of Dr. Fauci but was also intoned broadly all through 2020 and into 2021 by those who deplored the lies and obfuscations uttered by Trump and his accomplices. The right-wing dismissal of coronavirus seemed of a piece with the denial of climate change, the depiction of Mexicans as rapists, the encouragement of toughs who beat up legitimate journalists. But how to “follow the science” when, from the start, scientific authorities provided either no information about the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 or simply an incorrect account?
In other words, the thing we have learned to expect from science—useful knowledge about how to improve conditions for real people—wasn’t forthcoming (indeed, if current suspicions are borne out, science in the shape of a Chinese laboratory might even have been involved in the release of SARS-CoV-2). Instead of scientific authority, generally wrong information led to a muddle of ineffective theatrics in the service of putting the onus of Covid prevention on the people least equipped to manage it. Physical distancing (tellingly renamed social distancing to appeal to the community-minded) is of little value, it turns out. Mask wearing is important indoors, but mainly because air flow can be poor. Cleansing with hand sanitizer, scrubbing chairs and floors with disinfectant, or wearing a mask outdoors is so unlikely to make any difference to transmission as to be not worth mentioning. Yet, that is all that was mentioned. “Be safe” always meant “it’s your problem.” To not be able to think that science is delivering truth can seem like a kind of a derailing of the engine of history.
It’s clear now that ventilation matters—not, by and large, individual behavior. But science, as provided by the most respected scientific authorities, did not say this. Instead, science was complicit in making coronavirus the fault of the sufferers. As Megan Molteni explains for Wired and Zeynep Tufekci for The New York Times, some scientists knew that the recommendations from the public health authorities were wrong, did further research to be sure, and tried to disabuse the leaders of organizations like the WHO. But power confers the right to write history. Following the science meant following the leaders, even though the leaders were without a map.
That the conventional narrative—broadcast, telecast, tweeted—is shaped by the powerful and depends on science, which disappoints, does not mean that all is lost. Modern technology has many benefits. The Covid vaccines seem to be safe in a very large proportion of cases, and highly effective at preventing serious illness. That we can’t know whether the protection offered by vaccines will last doesn’t detract from their effectiveness. Monoclonal antibodies have been shown to protect against serious illness in people with mild or moderately severe cases of Covid. Recently published research indicates that a monoclonal antibody preparation can be effective as prophylaxis against SARS-CoV-2 infection for nursing home residents and their caregivers. To be vaccinated against Covid or to accept new kinds of treatment is not to kneel before the godhead of technology; it is simply to acknowledge that some aspects of modernity, even some aspects of the continuous process of turning human problems over to the doctors—sociologists call it medicalization—aren’t all bad.
With science overmatched and the bodies piling up, having a sense that the history had broken was inevitable. And this sense has elicited all those preoccupying questions: what’s the proper pace for reopening? When will full normalcy return? These are, assuredly, preferred tropes of the news media, perhaps because they are both unanswerable and guaranteed to spark fear. But they mustn’t be dismissed as corporate cant: the underlying questions about the world, so widely held, are evidence of a bewilderment, and of that yearning to repossess the narrative.
Taking Hold of the Story
I asked my students what story of the coronavirus outbreak they will tell their children or grandchildren. Tell me about your novel, play, or film, I said. Some of their themes were the ones you hear in the ambient buzz: lockdown, mask refusers, inept officials. But others were reclamations, stories of their own world. Families without enough to eat. Young people unable to visit beloved grandparents. Selfless caregivers unable to protect themselves. Older people dying alone. Heartbreak.
The moment demands a difficult balance. On the one side, to make use of the technology that is funded and promoted by governments and carried out by wealth-seeking corporations. On the other side, to close the ears to the buzz that those steering forces produce. “The spirit of the times is one of joyless urgency,” Marilynne Robinson writes in The Givenness of Things, “many of us preparing ourselves and our children to be means to inscrutable ends that are utterly not our own.” To close the ears and to make the world “normal” in one’s own way.
How do you bring out that which animates the world for you? “More life,” Tony Kushner’s character Prior proclaims at the end of Angels—not, in that case, because AIDS has ended but because “the world only spins forward.” History doesn’t really break. The pandemic—by this I mean the thing described by the powerful, the history makers—capitalizes on fears, sells products, reinforces preconceived notions of justified privilege, or just keeps you tuned to the same channel. It is meant to disguise that it is impossible to be fully at peace with the universe and yet a great privilege to be able to try. As it is now the middle of 2021 and we have survived a truly dangerous eruption of nature’s dark potential, we might recognize that dialectic and live.
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