Can the pandemic serve America as the cradle for a rebirth of civil society?

by Bill Benzon

This pandemic changes everything, we can’t go back to the way we were. That’s what everyone is saying. Well, not everyone, but I don’t know how many times I’ve read some version of that over the past month.

What rough beast…

I would like to reflect on that theme, albeit in perhaps and oblique and impressionist manner. I want to begin by invoking a recent essay in which Marc Andreessen urges us to “reboot the American Dream.” Then I move back half a century and look at Walt Disney’s version of, well, the American Dream. I return to the present through an essay by Ezra Klein and conclude with a video in which Sean O’Sullivan talks of how he came to form an NGO that worked on building Iraq early in this millennium.

Marc Andreessen: Let’s Build Something!

Roughly two weeks ago a prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Marc Andreessen, issued a call to action, It’s Time to Build, which has been getting a lot of action, pro, con, and sideways. Here’s how it opens:

Every Western institution was unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic, despite many prior warnings. This monumental failure of institutional effectiveness will reverberate for the rest of the decade, but it’s not too early to ask why, and what we need to do about it.

Many of us would like to pin the cause on one political party or another, on one government or another. But the harsh reality is that it all failed — no Western country, or state, or city was prepared — and despite hard work and often extraordinary sacrifice by many people within these institutions. So the problem runs deeper than your favorite political opponent or your home nation. Read more »

Anatomists of Melancholy in the Age of Coronavirus

Spencer Lee-Lenfield in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Before 2015, few people would have thought of not finishing college as a public-health issue. That changed because of research done by Anne Case and Angus Deaton, economists at Princeton who are also married. For the past six years, they have been collaboratively researching an alarming long-term increase in what they call “deaths of despair” — suicides, drug overdoses, and alcoholism-related illnesses — among white non-Hispanic Americans without a bachelor’s degree in middle age.

Change any one of those attributes (race, nationality, education), and the trend disappears. Mortality has not increased among white Americans with a bachelor’s degree, nor American people of color, nor non-Americans without a bachelor’s degree. (Indeed, all-cause mortality among those groups has continued to go down, as usual.) Something about not having a bachelor’s degree in America, especially when white, can be deadly.

The term “deaths of despair” has taken on a life of its own, becoming ubiquitous in newspapers, magazines, and op-eds. It has been the subject of think-tank panels, conferences, and even government inquiry. “America Will Struggle After Coronavirus. These Charts Show Why,” proclaims a New York Times article that visualizes some of their research. This past fall, Congress’s Joint Economic Committee issued its own report on “Long-Term Trends in Deaths of Despair.”

Case and Deaton’s new book, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism (Princeton University Press), takes their message even further.

More here.

Experts have been predicting a global flu pandemic for years. So why was the U.S. so unprepared for coronavirus?

Michael Hobbes in the Huffington Post:

By the last week of January, Rob DeLeo knew it was going to get bad.

“I was having breakfast with my partner and I said, ‘We should get some extra food because we’re going to be inside for awhile,’” said DeLeo, a Bentley University professor who has been studying America’s political response to pandemics for more than 15 years.

Over the next two weeks, as he began preparing for a lengthy period of self-isolation, he was struck how calm political leaders seemed to be. The coronavirus was never mentioned at the Democratic presidential debate on Feb. 7. Even as cases appeared in major cities and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that person-to-person transmission was underway, no one seemed interested in warning Americans to get ready for a lockdown.

DeLeo later searched the congressional record and found just six mentions of the word “coronavirus” before Feb. 8.

“I’m a political scientist, not an epidemiologist,” said DeLeo. “If I was freaking out, why wasn’t anyone else?”

More here.

Curfew Sans Compassion?

MG Devasahayam in India Legal:

The Covid-19 lockdown on the largest population on earth with the shortest possible notice has completed five weeks. Overnight, a medical pandemic was made into an economic and humanitarian disaster of immense proportions. It is time we took stock.

First, let us see the way the lockdown was imposed in India. Even a 1,000-man infantry battalion of our professional army, always prepared and ready-for-action, gets four hours’ notice to move into operation. But here, within four hours, a 135-crore civilian population that was totally unprepared and chaotic was ordered to lock down, halting and abandoning everything. Given the immense life-livelihood hardships this has brought about, one wonders who the government was at war with—the virus or the people, particularly the marginalised.

Equally shocking was the way the lockdown was enforced—with baton-wielding police entirely in charge, taking orders from an authoritarian political leadership. There were horror stories of citizens being hounded, beaten up and subjected to all kinds of indignities. The massive number of urban migrants, mostly poor and penniless, was despised because they could be carrying the virus. So they were stopped, sprayed with chemicals and put in isolation barracks with no food or water so that they didn’t spread the disease. Many migrants, including pregnant women and tender kids, were forced on a long march home, crying for food and water en route.

More here.

Sunday Poem

Do not make Grief your God

Make it a cup of coffee
The espresso percolator wheezing on
the biggest eye
of the stove

Consider the dress
line up every spark you own
and weep at its small finalities
Hold each piece of silk and cotton
like the gone love/hero/heart
Name the garment, please
give Grief a name
Then fold it
Place it kindly in a home suitable
for royal things

Text every contact
In your cellphone
I love you
I love you
I love
Try this same exercise with your email inbox
newsletter, spam and such correspondence
Each item will bounce back with your declaration
in the subject line:
I love you. I love you. I love you. you. you.

Glorious chant of remembrance
Praise the ability to feel this deep:

Read more »

What the Great Pandemic Novels Teach Us

Orhan Pamuk in The New York Times:

ISTANBUL — For the past four years I have been writing a historical novel set in 1901 during what is known as the third plague pandemic, an outbreak of bubonic plague that killed millions of people in Asia but not very many in Europe. Over the last two months, friends and family, editors and journalists who know the subject of that novel, “Nights of Plague,” have been asking me a barrage of questions about pandemics. They are most curious about similarities between the current coronavirus pandemic and the historical outbreaks of plague and cholera. There is an overabundance of similarities. Throughout human and literary history what makes pandemics alike is not mere commonality of germs and viruses but that our initial responses were always the same. The initial response to the outbreak of a pandemic has always been denial. National and local governments have always been late to respond and have distorted facts and manipulated figures to deny the existence of the outbreak. In the early pages of “A Journal of the Plague Year,” the single most illuminating work of literature ever written on contagion and human behavior, Daniel Defoe reports that in 1664, local authorities in some neighborhoods of London tried to make the number of plague deaths appear lower than it was by registering other, invented diseases as the recorded cause of death.

…Much of the literature of plague and contagious diseases presents the carelessness, incompetence and selfishness of those in power as the sole instigator of the fury of the masses. But the best writers, such as Defoe and Camus, allowed their readers a glimpse at something other than politics lying beneath the wave of popular fury, something intrinsic to the human condition. Defoe’s novel shows us that behind the endless remonstrances and boundless rage there also lies an anger against fate, against a divine will that witnesses and perhaps even condones all this death and human suffering, and a rage against the institutions of organized religion that seem unsure how to deal with any of it.

More here.

WEAI Author Q&A: Andrew Liu’s “Tea War: A History of Capitalism in China and India”

Over at Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute:

Q: Why focus on tea? …

First, how did I jump into this topic in the first place? In my first year of PhD work, I decided to revisit something I had been curious about since my undergraduate days, when I took survey courses on modern India and modern China in consecutive semesters. The infamous opium-for-tea triangle trade between the British empire, colonial India, and Qing China had popped up in both courses. Yet neither of the course textbooks had much to say about the circuit itself in all its transnational dimensions, and certainly no conceptualization of China-India connections. I had been inspired by the questions South Asia historians raised about power, colonialism, and culture, and I was looking to bring this into conversation with Chinese history, so I pursued this linkage in hopes of finding a concrete way to unite them.

I found that the flipside to Indian opium—the drive to export tea, first from China then India—entailed an even more substantive history of connection and competition. I first wrote a journal article about the British imperial project to bring teamakers from Jiangxi, China to Assam, India and establish the Indian industry. From there, I decided to pursue a long-term historical survey, paying attention to the local details of life in both Chinese and Indian tea districts while maintaining a comparative focus that would disabuse me of nationalist and culturalist explanations.

More here.

What Richard Hofstadter Got Wrong

Chris Lehman in TNR:

Hofstadter debuted his argument in his Pulitzer Prize–winning 1955 study The Age of Reform, and as the Cold War drove American politics, on the right especially, into operatic new registers of derangement, Hofstadter updated and expanded this general theory of cultural lag into a diagnosis of the distempers of the reactionary anti-modern mind. The two works now anthologized by the Library of America, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) and The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964), showcase Hofstadter’s most ambitious efforts to supply a unified theory of the American romance with cultural reaction.

Of the two, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (which also won a Pulitzer Prize) is the more engaging study, and in its strongest sections the book lands a sharp argument for the autonomy of intellectual inquiry in an American educational tradition that’s proved all too vulnerable to philosophic fads and watery, low-cost brands of socially minded sloganeering. Like The American Political Tradition, it’s a synthetic interpretation of the full sweep of American history. But instead of disinterring the shared material interests of the American leadership caste, as he did in that book, here Hofstadter charts the shifting fortunes of intellectuals as a class and the life of the mind as a precarious redoubt of cultural privilege.

More here.

Private gain must no longer be allowed to elbow out the public good

Dirk Philipsen in Aeon:

Adam Smith had an elegant idea when addressing the notorious difficulty that humans face in trying to be smart, efficient and moral. In The Wealth of Nations (1776), he maintained that the baker bakes bread not out of benevolence, but out of self-interest. No doubt, public benefits can result when people pursue what comes easiest: self-interest.

And yet: the logic of private interest – the notion that we should just ‘let the market handle it’ – has serious limitations. Particularly in the United States, the lack of an effective health and social policy in response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak has brought the contradictions into high relief.

Around the world, the free market rewards competing, positioning and elbowing, so these have become the most desirable qualifications people can have. Empathy, solidarity or concern for the public good are relegated to the family, houses of worship or activism. Meanwhile, the market and private gain don’t account for social stability, health or happiness. As a result, from Cape Town to Washington, the market system has depleted and ravaged the public sphere – public health, public education, public access to a healthy environment – in favour of private gain.

More here.

The Hampstead Modernists

Kathryn Hughes at The Guardian:

In 1937 the art critic Myfanwy Evans published The Painter’s Object, an anthology of new essays by leading artists of the day including Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Nash. While Evans’s aim was to present a snapshot of contemporary practice, it’s clear from her introduction that she wasn’t holding out for consensus. In fact, she suggested, the art world was currently in the middle of a series of all-encompassing “battles” between “Hampstead, Bloomsbury, surrealist, abstract, social realist, Spain, Germany, heaven, hell, paradise, chaos, light, dark, round, square”. Evans’s breathless list was meant to be playful, but she was making a serious point. Within the broad church of modernism, you could find the cool abstract grids of Piet Mondrian, the increasingly politically engaged style of Picasso or, more recently, the curve ball of surrealism, as represented by Salvador Dalí and his lobster telephone.

more here.

The Paintings of Moira Dryer

Barry Schwabsky at the NYRB:

Perhaps more important than the way Dryer’s paintings have continued to live in the memories of those who saw them in the Eighties and early Nineties is the way her name has lived on as a kind of password among certain younger abstract painters who may never, or only rarely, have had a chance to see her work in person. In an article published in the Brooklyn Rail in 2012, the English painter and critic David Rhodes recalled his impression, reading in London about Dryer’s work years before, “that New York had done it again; a tradition was being recoined and revitalized,” thanks to her “taking a long look at abstraction and quickly coming up with something fresh and new.” Her reputation continued to circulate, sub rosa, among painters hoping to work with abstraction without bombast or the illusion of progress, to paint in ways that might be at once more intelligent and more full of feeling, more playful and yet more earnest.

more here.

HBO’s Narrow Dramatization of a Real School Scandal on Long Island in “Bad Education”

Richard Brody in The New Yorker:

HBO’s “Bad Education,” coming out on Saturday, is a dramatization of a real-life school-district scandal that occurred on Long Island. I took note of the scandal when it first unfolded, in the early two-thousands, because I graduated from the institution at its center, Roslyn High School, three decades earlier (though my family connection to the town was already long over). What’s fascinating and significant about the film, which is written by Mike Makowsky and directed by Cory Finley, is that it takes a serious look not at Roslyn’s idiosyncrasies (“Bad Education” doesn’t dwell on local curiosities) but at the traits that Roslyn shares with more or less every prosperous suburb in America. It’s a story of aspirations and dreams, of the striving for wealth and the perpetuation of its privileges, and of the systems by which that process of heightened stratification, of upward mobility for those already on top, is sustained. It’s also a movie that exemplifies the unchallenged movie convention of distilling a complex story into information snippets, each with its own specific emotional orientation, that fit together so precisely and so tightly that, rather than exploring its implications, it seals them out.

The title is ironic, inasmuch as the movie’s starting point is the very idea of a good education. It begins with a virtual rally, a public meeting where Bob Spicer (Ray Romano), the head of the school board, trumpets to a joyful audience the news that Roslyn’s schools have been ranked fourth in a national evaluation. He boasts about rising standardized-test scores and the large number of students admitted to Ivy League schools, and he attributes the success to the district’s superintendent, Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman), who, after grooming and primping himself in the men’s room, heads down the corridor and enters the auditorium to cheers. In other words, from the start, the movie’s subject isn’t education as such but its markers of success—ones that Tassone is driven to optimize.

More here.

Stoicism in a time of pandemic: how Marcus Aurelius can help

Donald Robertson in The Guardian:

The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was the last famous Stoic philosopher of antiquity. During the last 14 years of his life he faced one of the worst plagues in European history. The Antonine Plague, named after him, was probably caused by a strain of the smallpox virus. It’s estimated to have killed up to 5 million people, possibly including Marcus himself. From AD166 to around AD180, repeated outbreaks occurred throughout the known world. Roman historians describe the legions being devastated, and entire towns and villages being depopulated and going to ruin. Rome itself was particularly badly affected, carts leaving the city each day piled high with dead bodies.

In the middle of this plague, Marcus wrote a book, known as The Meditations, which records the moral and psychological advice he gave himself at this time. He frequently applies Stoic philosophy to the challenges of coping with pain, illness, anxiety and loss. It’s no stretch of the imagination to view The Meditations as a manual for developing precisely the mental resilience skills required to cope with a pandemic. First of all, because Stoics believe that our true good resides in our own character and actions, they would frequently remind themselves to distinguish between what’s “up to us” and what isn’t. Modern Stoics tend to call this “the dichotomy of control” and many people find this distinction alone helpful in alleviating stress. What happens to me is never directly under my control, never completely up to me, but my own thoughts and actions are – at least the voluntary ones. The pandemic isn’t really under my control but the way I behave in response to it is.

Much, if not all, of our thinking is also up to us. Hence, “It’s not events that upset us but rather our opinions about them.” More specifically, our judgment that something is really bad, awful or even catastrophic, causes our distress.

More here.

Saturday Poem

Summum Bonum

All the breath and the bloom of the year in the bag of one bee:
All the wonder and wealth of the mine in the heart of one gem:
In the core of one pearl all the shade and the shine of the sea:
Breath and bloom, shade and shine, wonder, wealth, and–how far above them–
Truth, that’s brighter than gem,
Trust, that’s purer than pearl,–
Brightest truth, purest trust in the universe–all were for me
In the kiss of one girl

by Robert Browning

Bill Gates: The scientific advances we need to stop COVID-19

Bill Gates at Gates Notes:

The coronavirus pandemic pits all of humanity against the virus. The damage to health, wealth, and well-being has already been enormous. This is like a world war, except in this case, we’re all on the same side. Everyone can work together to learn about the disease and develop tools to fight it. I see global innovation as the key to limiting the damage. This includes innovations in testing, treatments, vaccines, and policies to limit the spread while minimizing the damage to economies and well-being.

This memo shares my view of the situation and how we can accelerate these innovations. (Because this post is long, it is also available as a PDF.) The situation changes every day, there is a lot of information available—much of it contradictory—and it can be hard to make sense of all the proposals and ideas you may hear about. It can also sound like we have all the scientific advances needed to re-open the economy, but in fact we do not. Although some of what’s below gets fairly technical, I hope it helps people make sense of what is happening, understand the innovations we still need, and make informed decisions about dealing with the pandemic.

More here.