So in the past few months, like many other people, I’ve read both Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year and John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza.
(My husband just did a little podcast discussion of A Journal of the Plague Year as a subscriber extra over on his Substack.) I guess it’s going around.
Just a little plague humor there, folks.
I’m very sorry.
Anyway, Defoe’s book is a fictionalized but heavily researched account of the Plague in London in 1665; Barry’s is an equally exhaustively researched discussion not of the 1918-1919 influeza pandemic itself, but of government and scientific response to it, and the failures thereof.
The one thread running through both books is something that I think is familiar to all of us right now: It didn’t have to be this bad.
But denial, selfishness, poor decisions, more denial, bureaucratic malfeasance, a lack of support for the ill and at-risk… all of these combined to make both plagues far, far more terrible than they had to be. The damage done by the 1918 influenza was especially increased by the totalitarian, denialist response of the Wilson administration.
I think we can all relate to how shortsightedness, a rush to force things to return to “normal” even if normal isn’t safe, and a narcissistic, solipsistic belief that if you just say a thing often enough it becomes true can combine to create a terrible storm of death and missed opportunities.
This has me thinking about community spirit, honestly, and how a situation that affects everyone requires us all to choose to work together. Collective action is what saves us, again and again, despite our myth of the one hero, the protagonist who rides in out of nowhere to fix what no one else could fix without him.
That’s a good story. But it isn’t true.
What solves problems is all of us choosing to work together, to make sacrifices, to make a slightly better choice on behalf of our neighbors. We’re a social species, and that society is our strength. Predators rely on the myth: I’m special. Only I can save you. Only I know the real answer.
But the fact of the matter is that they’re Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons, and what can finally end their reign of terror is everyone standing up together and saying “No, not another inch.”
There’s a guy down the street from me with a Trump flag in his yard (I am, I admit, indulging in a little gender stereotyping here). Even in Deepest Western Massachusetts, in an area that the rest of MA refers to as “behind the tofu curtain”, the queer progressive rural preserve where I live.
Now, in an election year, this would be… well, objectionable, but unremarkable. Except he’s had that damned flag up since 2016, and it’s pretty obvious that he’s just doing it to troll his neighbors.
In the past few weeks, all of his neighbors have put up “Black Lives Matter” and “We Believe…” signs. All of them. Several houses in either direction.
Now, it makes me smile when I have to drive past his house, instead of rolling my eyes and muttering “Fuck you” under my breath. That’s the power of collective action: instead of all of us just shaking our heads and letting this idiot do emotional harm to every queer or person of color or other marginalized person who happens to pass, some of us have decided to tell him—politely, in a very Yankee sort of way—”That’s not okay.”
And it reminds me that we need to get a new yard sign, as the “We’re glad you’re our neighbor” sign we had up for years finally gave up the ghost to the wind and the rain and teh forces of oxidation.
So wear your mask and wash your hands. And stay out of crowded clubs full of people yelling over the music. And get on your congresscritters’ cases about extending wage replacement, because my god the infantilizing of conservative talking points like “People won’t work unless they have to” is just ridiculous.
Maybe if corporations want people to work at extremely dangerous jobs they should be forced to pay them what it’s worth. Maybe if we want to limit pandemic deaths, now and in the future as further zoonotic illnesses emerge, we need to have a system in place that makes it possible for people to make safe choices for the benefit od the community.
This is not over yet, and it won’t be over for a while. But every time we make a good choice, we’re helping ourselves and everyone around us.