A Pandemic Thanksgiving

The last year and a half has been a rough ride. Could it change Americans for the better?

Readers, I hope that you are where you want to be when you open this newsletter, and with the people you care for around you. Paying subscribers: I will take Friday off to rest and re-charge, and in return, I will extend everyone’s subscription for a week. And as the holiday season begins, consider taking advantage of our holiday gift subscription special, a 20% discount on our normal yearly fee, and good until December 31, 2021. You can gift it to someone else or yourself!

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On Monday, I had lunch with a fellow historian in New York, and except for the fact that we were sitting in a wooden shack on the sidewalk under heat lamps, life felt almost normal. Although we work in the same department, we hadn’t seen each other in real life for almost two years. It was great. When we last lunched in this spot (actually, probably about thirty yards to the east, and inside), I think we ate the same meal: a salad for him, a BLT for me, Diet Cokes all around.

It was utterly fun. It was also very different from our pre-pandemic lunches, much as life after 9/11 was different from our lives on 9/10. In addition to catching up with each other’s pandemic narratives (did you leave, when did you leave, where did you go, what did you do, when did you get jabbed, did you lose family or friends, did the booster make you sick) other topics now salt our exchanges. Where is the best place to get a PCR? How about a rapid test? Do you want a hug—or would you rather not? (This last is probably a good question to ask anyway.)

As a nation, we are also in a strange, intermediate space. An acquaintence was raging on Twitter about people eating, unmasked, in a major airport hub, and I had two thoughts. First, how are they supposed to eat if not unmasked? Second, if you are so frantic about this, what are you doing getting on a plane in the first place?

This failure to come to terms with the permanent unsafety of traveling, which always spread diseases like the flu, is by no means a personal flaw: it is a symptom of how impossible it is to come to grips with the world Covid has made. As the pandemic becomes endemic in the United States, a situation that will ask us to live, as 9/11 did, with uncertainty and unease even as the Covid-19 virus itself becomes less deadly and more treatable. The virus won’t disappear. Americans will learn to live with it and the new restrictions it imposes.

And it is important to note that, as it becomes endemic to overdeveloped nations, Covid-19 will remain pandemic in large parts of the world for some time to come. We in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Europe have been fortunate to have access to vaccines and treatments that much of the world does not. As Joe Meyers of the World Economic Forum reported in August, “The latest data from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) shows that around half of people in high-income countries have been vaccinated. In low-income countries? Barely more than 1%.”

This failure to vaccinate the people of less fortunate nations, among other things, is unremarkable. It is particularly unremarkable given the prior failures to address global inequality that created the grounds for earlier SARS pandemics, but also AIDS, which remains endemic, mostly among the poor. But, more importantly, differential access to basic medical care is a human rights problem that is easy for Americans to ignore because we receive very little news about the impact of the disease outside of our borders. Often, reporters cite Covid-19 as context for bigger conflicts, but not as an essential aspect of those conflicts. Yet, like poverty more generally, today it is.

However, there are important openings for conversation that could change that. Never has there been a better opportunity for the Democratic party to impress on Americans that a principal MAGA absurdity—the United States can and should go it alone in the world—is a dangerous delusion. Internationalism is a fact, not a choice: it’s how you manage its responsibilities that matters. And if all the refugees in motion around the globe don’t convince you of that truth, a “return to normal” where Covid variants multiplying around the world are imported in waves, as Delta was, should.

It’s only partly about compassion, an emotion that seems not fully available to Trumpy Republicans when it comes to poor people in the United States or abroad. It’s about common sense. And it can be about bending the arc of history towards justice as the future unfolds, about understanding the possibilities for change, and choosing the best ones.

There have been brief moments in American history that have been turning points in this regard, and we need to think of the Covid-19 pandemic as another. When the United States entered World War II, conservative isolationists (like Donald Trump’s father Fred) argued that the Founders didn’t put our nation on this earth to fight European and Asian wars. Some, like Charles Lindbergh, believed that the United States government should fully align the national interest with the inevitable triumph of fascism.

As there are now, there were urgent human rights issues at stake during World War II, both at home and abroad. And arguably, one of the great failures of that conflict was not just the failure to resolve those human rights violations. This includes structural white supremacy in the United States, but it also includes the permanent militarization of the United States itself. It is indisputable that, like a disease, having the nation on a permanent war footing became endemic after 1945. If the United States became the nation that claimed to defend democracy around the globe, it was a job that it could not do without a permanent military presence on every continent, one that the leadership of both major parties easily mobilized for political purposes.

The good news about Covid-19? It should be a permanent wet washcloth on all forms of Manifest Destiny and American exceptionalism, old and new. The United States has never been especially blessed by whatever God you pray to, nor can the nation’s successes be understood without coming to terms with the forms of human subjugation that did, and do, make those successes possible.

But what if the lesson Americans learned from the Covid-19 pandemic was this: unlike military commitments and partnerships that impose unwelcome constraints on other nations, the scientific, medical, and technological bounty of this nation really could be shared. Better, could systematic attention to poverty, the incubator of endemic disease, be another way of thinking about national security, particularly since the military model has failed?

What if Covid-19 could teach Americans to share, and to care about those less fortunate than ourselves at home and abroad? Now, that would be a historical turning point worth giving thanks for.

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Short takes:

  • At Portside, Indigo Olivier reports that the Teamsters for a Democratic Union reform slate headed up by incoming president Sean O’Brien and general secretary-treasurer Fred Zuckerman has defeated the old guard. This is yet another sign that whatever is happening in the Democratic party right now, workers are repudiating the old concessionary contracts that have put them in a forty-year hole with major corporations. Targets for the new leadership? UPS and Amazon. (November 23, 2021)

  • In the New York Times, historian Martha S. Jones writes about a woman enslaved by founder John Jay, who died before she won her freedom in Paris. No memorial to the United States politicians whose brokered alliance with France helped to win independence “explains that during John Jay’s time in the French capital, while he brokered the new nation’s freedom, he also dealt in the unfreedom of others.” (November 23, 2021)

  • At The Editorial Board, John Stoehr ponders the normalization of political violence in the United States. “But some won’t let the Second Amendment nullify the First. They’ll arm up,” he writes. “When racists with guns meet anti-racists with guns, it’s likely the results will be bad, bad, very bad.” (November 23, 2021)

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