Saturday, July 18, 2020

From Justinian's day through the "Black Death" of 14th century Europe, Shakespeare's locked-down London, "Yellow Jack" in Memphis, and today, pandemics and epidemics have been part of our human history, one that hits the poor the hardest as the princes of the world escape to their castles

(To the right, artist Fritz Eichenberg's wood engraving for Poe's The Masque of the Red Death)

Fun-loving Prince Prospero wanted to have a party. Sure, the Red Death had killed half the population of his princedom, and the pestilence threatened to kill the other half with a horrid grip that forced streams of blood through their very pores. Leave the peasants to deal with it, the prince said as he invited a thousand of his fellow nobles to a masked ball at his castle.

Thus begins The Masque of the Red Death that writer Edgar Allan Poe published in 1842, a scant 11 years after a cholera epidemic had devastated Baltimore, the city where he himself would die in 1849, and much of the rest of the world. As the story unfolds, Prince Prospero learns that even he and the landed gentry at his party could not escape the pestilence. Among the masqueraders was a “tall and gaunt” figure “shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave.” And so it was. The Red Death had come to the prince’s ball, and soon the prince and all his friends would lay at its feet, as dead as all those peasants beyond the moat of his castle.

(Edgar Allan Poe)

As the world today wrestles with the Covid-19 pandemic that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives and sickened millions more, a look through human history and accompanying body of literature reveals that such events, whether pandemics or epidemics, have always been part of the human experience.

Here in the U.S. South, one of the most horrific examples—detailed in an earlier Labor South post--took place in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1878. A yellow fever epidemic, known as “Yellow Jack” and spread by mosquitoes that had traveled up the Mississippi River from New Orleans and which likely was brought to the Americas by the African slave trade, nearly destroyed the city of Memphis. Among the 20,000 left after a mass evacuation, 17,000 got sick and 5,000 died. A disease that produced “black vomit” as it destroyed internal organs, Yellow Jack left a city of “rotten wood pavements … dead animals, putrifying human bodies and the half-buried dead,” in the words of one physician who had been in the city.

The high-living Prosperos among the wealthy cotton moguls who ruled Memphis may have loved their mint juleps at the Peabody Hotel, but they had provided scant services for the city, allowing sewage to run through the streets and garbage to go uncollected. When the pestilence came, they blamed the poor Irish workers who populated the crude shanties along the river. Those Irish would be among the first to die.

History records pandemics in ancient Rome and Constantinople, where the Emperor Justinian himself in 542 A.D. became a victim of the bubonic plague—spread by rat fleas. It didn’t kill him, but it did countless of his subjects.  The plague would return many times to Europe and Asia. Called the “Black Death”, it wiped out one third of Europe’s population between 1347 and 1351.

As described recently in a New Yorker piece by Elizabeth Kolbert, war and protest and even revolution have often contributed to or resulted from the spread and devastation of epidemics. People took to the streets of St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1831, to protest the government handling of the cholera epidemic there. Toward the end of the century, riots after another cholera outbreak would spread from St. Petersburg to the Ukraine, planting a seed in the revolution that was to come.

Spanish explorers brought smallpox to the New World in the early16th century, devastating the indigenous population and helping to inspire the toppling of statues of Christopher Columbus today.

The literature of pandemics is rich and informative. On April 23, 1564, Willliam Shakespeare was born into an English town that would lose a fifth of its population to the bubonic plague before his first birthday. The plague would leave and then return many times over the course of his life, closing down his Globe Theatre and other London theatres, too, as all but the city-bound poor fled. Shakespeare wrote Macbeth during his own quarantine, and the play’s description of a “poor country, almost afraid to know itself … our grave” may have referred to Macbeth’s Scotland but is imbued with the writer’s experience of the plague.

In fact, the plague contributed to Romeo and Juliet’s suicide. Fear of it prevented the message getting to Romeo that the potion Juliet took did not poison her but only put her to sleep. And we all know how that ended.

(Ben Jonson, portrait by Abraham van Blyenberch)

Shakespeare’s contemporary, Ben Jonson, sets his play The Alchemist in plague-ridden London around 1610 where “the sickness hot, a master quit, for fear, his house in town, and left one servant there.” Yep, the master’s left town. Let the servant deal with the plague.

The history of pandemics and epidemics—including the deadly 1918 flu pandemic--reveals certain threads that weave their way through the entire record of human existence. Often first to die are the poor, as the landed gentry escape to safer confines. Political failure to provide the people with the necessary means to combat the pestilence stretches across the centuries. And, yes, the Prince Prosperos of the world are still among us.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Is race this nation's biggest problem? NO, but that's what our Corporate Rulers want us to believe. What is our biggest problem? They are.

(To the right, Norman Mailer in 2006)

The late novelist and journalist Norman Mailer, somewhere in his large body of work, once said something about modern-day journalism that was never truer than today. The media, he said, help “keep America slightly crazy.”

Maybe America has never been crazier than today after four months of quarantine as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Bereft of leadership with little hope for relief, facing a November presidential election that will pit a narcissist demagogue against a sleepy-eyed neoliberal chameleon, they remain largely hunkered down in their homes, many of them jobless, watching their televisions as anti-racism protesters go beyond condemning Confederate statues to tearing down or calling for the removal of statues of Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln.

They hear report after report about peaceful protests against police brutality and racism, but then there’s the burning and looting, the government-tolerated encampment in Seattle known as CHAZ or CHOP that considered itself during its brief and violent existence a patch of cityscape decidedly not part of the United States of America.

Meanwhile, the economy flounders and sinks into another Great Depression. Workers are ordered back to the assembly line regardless of the lack of safety conditions. Millions have lost their health insurance and have no means of paying the doctor if they get sick. Ballyhooed government assistance, they learn, has gone to friends of politicians and favored corporations rather than those who lost their jobs or their small businesses.

On the New York Times Best Sellers list is a book called White Fragility by a corporate consultant named Robin DiAngelo, who travels around the country and for big bucks tells white people they’re essentially hopelessly racist and their only hope is to listen to black people with a nodding acknowledgement of their own sinful natures. They can’t argue. They can’t even remain silent. They can only acknowledge and passively submit to the greater wisdom of DiAngelo and her ilk.

Even the arts provide no guaranteed refuge for truth and reason. The most-touted Broadway play in recent years has been Hamilton, which turned a pro-monarchy elitist into some kind of common folk hero, a book and a play based on a lie.

Mailer knew why the media keep America crazy. They tell half-stories with little context or well-grounded perspective. They react in ways that reflect a long-held American style of anti-intellectualism. Truth can be so inconvenient. They wet their fingers to see which way the wind is blowing and act accordingly.  And today, even more than in Mailer’s day, they’re corporate-owned, so they see life and America through corporate lens.

Corporate America does not want Americans to see the horrific legacy of decades of corporate hegemony in this country that the pandemic has exposed—the shameful divide between the wealthy and everyone else, the patchwork private health care system that has failed as miserably as politicians in stemming the spread of COVID-19, the raw exploitation of migrants, prisoners, and the working class of all races in the relentless search for cheap labor and profits, a Wall Street that no longer reflects the nation’s economy but only the growing wealth of non-producing hedge fund operators.

So what does Corporate America do? It does what it has always done. Divide us and take our eyes off the thousand-pound gorilla in the room. It tells us white Americans are hopelessly racist, that we have made little or no real progress in race in our nation, and our only solution is a lifelong wrestling match with our individual souls while Corporate America continues to run things. Are there race problems in this country? Yes, of course. Has the militarization of the police contributed to the hiring of thugs in uniforms who take special pleasure out of beating up and killing blacks? Yes. Is race America’s biggest problem? NO, for all the reasons above, but we’re simply too crazy these days to see it.