READER WARNING: This turned into another academic-based and longer post than I had expected it to be. Given you are probably at home, and it is Saturday (at least, the calendar says it is Saturday), feel free to get another coffee or cup of tea before you read on. I just felt this needed to be stated and CLEARLY so.
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This ITV News report is both a tribute to Londoners staying home to try to end a pandemic and a terrifying glimpse into how a city is nothing, and pointless, without its people…
When was the last time you had Trafalgar Square completely to yourself? Empty streets, empty theatres, empty trains… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…—
ITV London (@itvlondon) April 24, 2020
Unsaid is this. The worst may be ahead of us in this sense. We can only but wonder how many will not really *want* to return to those places after the pandemic finally passes?
We had been complacent. There has been no truly global epidemic on this scale since influenza in 1918. Perhaps we thought we had scientifically moved beyond those? What we are learning is we have not, and that, just as our ancestors well knew, easily transmitted disease can hit from nowhere and devastate our lives.
Do epidemics lead to political and social reforms? Yes. One example: cholera and typhus in increasingly congested and unsanitary British cities at the time led to the Public Health Act of 1875:
This COVID-19 pandemic will have long-term social and policy consequences too. Suddenly what may matter is not “2070” but perhaps trying to *live* to 2022. As historically has been the case in plagues and after, cities – where there are big crowds – tend to suffer the most. Those who can will try to flee…
And those who must remain will return to full public transport and packed workplaces fearfully. How long until a bus cougher won’t alarm us? Will we resist sharing an elevator? Even air travel will likely suffer, for how many will hesitate to jam onto an airplane and want a middle seat?
Crowds, and sharing, remember, spread germs. Few are more self-interested and likely to want distance themselves from others than those living in the aftermath of a plague. In our current world, who will want to be living and working at close quarters in an “urban utopia” if the odds were much greater there of catching a deadly virus?
Despite all of that uncertainty ahead, we are also lectured by some that *collectivists* (read “communists” and “socialists”) among us see in the virus their big chance to force us to live as they demand we live – particularly in the United States:
Authoritarians and petty fascists, eager to issue endless edicts, molt their exoskeletons, as if under their chrysalis suits they were always caudillos, waiting to be reborn with sunglasses and epaulettes. But a free and empowered people, even in times of mortal danger, long nursed on a Bill of Rights, is hard to subjugate or shut up, even after over a month spent locked up in their homes. Thank God, we have a Constitution quite different from those of European nations, which are themselves far superior to other alternatives.
That screed comes from this in the “conservative” National Review:
National Review (@NRO) April 21, 2020
The US lockdown protests are unsurprising. Looking for a way out and for someone(s) to blame for this mess, naturally many stressed and desperate people are searching. Often stuck at home, perhaps facing financial ruin, that some are seduced by and embrace glib pseudo-academic whirlwind polemics peddled by self-imagined Patrick Henrys crying out on Fox News, or on radio, or on the net, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” – like that one above – is sadly to be expected.
But that sort of rhetoric needs a reasoned response. I have encountered enough academics like that writer that I know to whom he is pitching that overheated table-pounding. It is deliberately littered with half-baked references to (elected governors as) Napoleon, the European Union (about which most Americans honestly know little), and, as you see, “caudillos” – that evidently a reference to Spanish dictator from 1939-1975, Francisco Franco (who is, I suspect, to most Americans, including National Review readers, hardly more than a name and just another synonym for dictator, like Benito Mussolini).
That last is also an important giveaway to understanding thinking like that National Review writer’s. Franco was a fascist, not a socialist; but as is common on the “reactionary right,” that writer seeks to try to discredit the viral response and possible further social reform by pushing the decidedly fringe (and even unscholarly) view among political and social scientists that “middle of the road” reformers, socialists, and fascists/Nazis are all really authoritarians all the same… in order craftily to try to undermine, for example, an Eleanor Roosevelt calling for a minimum wage, banning children from working in coal mines, and treating all Americans the same regardless of race. Why? Because he knows he must muddy the waters because even he knows he cannot get away with calling Eleanor Roosevelt a fascist. (He would get laughed out of the room.) However, he can try sneakily to imply how underneath it all liberal social reformers like she are really secretly anti-democratic and hostile to our Constitution, indeed are anathema to the idea of American freedom, and thus ultimately are as scary as Stalin. In our generation “WE” too must stand fast, he warns frightened and worried readers, or Elizabeth Warren’s US gulags (for lockdown protesters and REAL patriots) are coming. (It is not hard to believe that in “1935” he would have written much the same of Mrs. Roosevelt.)
For fundamentally he and others like him see an “us” versus “them” perpetual conflict between “WE” (meaning his types) who love our country and respect our Constitution particularly in revering its “original intent,” while “THEY” (meaning whoever is not he and his presumed ilk, including, I suppose, someone like me) are a threat to both that country and the Constitution. Yet that original 1787 Constitution, let us remember, for example, considered an enslaved human being only 3/5ths of a person (for congressional district and Electoral College purposes). That was of course subsequently amended… because it is not a document meant to be frozen in that time. As early as the first decade of the 1800s, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall was one who understood it would need to be “interpreted.” Later, by the 1860s, one Abraham Lincoln CERTAINLY knew that too.
I tried in my poli sci teaching years, and try still currently in my novel-writing, to push back against the belief (most often heard from African-Americans and women) that the narrative of “1776” and early US independence is about only white (conservative, even white supremacist) men. That is inaccurate. The success of the musical Hamilton is just what America desperately needs, for the United States of America was even then a much bigger story than just emerging from rule by a distant monarchy.
For the independence of the United States was the IMPERFECT start of the gradual creation of a new people based on an idea:
It is also still believed by too many Americans (and certainly is at least insinuated by those such as that writer) that the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) was all Americans gallantly lined up battling the oppressive British, and the British in turn all despised and were determined to stamp out the light of liberty among freedom-loving Americans. Likely part of why that is still so is because that long-believed myth (which began appearing after independence partly perhaps to try to gloss over and forget all of those possibly hundreds of thousands of born Americans who had remained loyal to the Crown and who had as a result either fled or even been chased out of the country mostly to Canada or Britain itself) seems impervious to historians’ efforts to correct in the minds of most people. And that effort only faced a major step back when the myth was then reinforced (unwittingly perhaps) in the simplistic “2 minute” “America Rock” cartoon singing histories millions of American kids entertainingly saw on Saturday morning television on the wildly popular “Schoolhouse Rock!” program of especially the 1970s and 1980s.
But actual academics should know better. It was also in many ways a “civil war”; it was not a clearly “us” versus “them” conflict. Many Americans had wished to remain in the British Empire, and some British supported American grievances and even independence:
Still, “1776” certainly is not our world; but it is where it BEGAN. We may forget this, but – aside from in Great Britain – almost no one else anywhere on the planet voted in 1789. While property-owning requirements to vote were so high that even most white men in the US could not vote until the 1820s/1830s, and compared to today the number of voters was tiny (George Washington was elected president in 1789 with less than 50,000 votes in a country of some 2 and 1/2 million white adult men), the new USA then had the LARGEST electorate in the world.
We can too easily forget all of this too – and we MUST never. Some Native Americans played active parts fighting FOR the United States. Thousands of free black men who joined of their own choosing, may have made up at times as many as ten percent of Washington’s Continental Army’s soldiery (Washington – a slaveowner himself, of course – insisted all men who wished to join be permitted to do so) and the Continentals had racially integrated units (and it was in fact a more integrated US army than would exist again until the latter days of World War II). Many US soldiers (mostly German-Americans) did not speak English as a first language. Recent immigrants (British/Irish, French, Germans, Dutch, Swedes, Poles, Spanish, and even some Jews and Italians) were all part of it all too. There were also women – including a few black women – who were important in the context of their place in the world at the time, and some clearly saw it as the start of their own drive for equality; Abigail Adams famously in 1776 wrote her husband John (who would in 1796 be elected the second US president), that in declaring “independency” the men going forward must NOT forget the ladies.
Noting all of that is not meant to try to play down the era’s negatives, of which there are too many here to begin to list. (For instance, when the state militia system was created in 1792, allowing for calling up of male citizens, blacks were excluded. Almost no blacks were in the US army again until 1862.) What it does all mean, though, is “1776” belongs to ALL Americans. With all its faults our America is not exclusively the property of a bunch of mouthy reactionary-right-wingers who insist only they are the “real” Americans and that they have the corner on patriotism and the understanding of freedom.
It is not all that difficult to profess how much you love your country when you have mostly been “on top.” More remarkable really are those who love it even when they have been historically often grossly mistreated. Those latter are those for whom we all ought to be most in awe of in terms of their love of our country.