Pandemics and Politics

In The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum writes that the coronavirus pandemic could utterly change how America sees itself. It could even have an impact similar to Matthew Perry’s steamships in Tokyo Bay, 1853. And I’ll come back to that.

What if it turns out, as it almost certainly will, that other nations are far better than we are at coping with this kind of catastrophe? Look at Singapore, which immediately created an app that could physically track everyone who was quarantined, and that energetically tracked down all the contacts of everyone identified to have the disease. Look at South Korea, with its proven testing ability. Look at Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel managed to speak honestly and openly about the disease—she predicted that 70 percent of Germans would get it—and yet did not crash the markets.

The United States, long accustomed to thinking of itself as the best, most efficient, and most technologically advanced society in the world, is about to be proved an unclothed emperor. When human life is in peril, we are not as good as Singapore, as South Korea, as Germany.

That depends on what happens in the next few weeks, of course. Maybe our social distancing and hand washing will be enough to limit the pandemic’s reach, and most of us will be untouched. It’s not impossible that our vast rural areas, so sparsely populated but so over-represented in the Electoral College, will not see much of the disease. In that case, expect a mass whining that it was all overblown and those libtards in the cities are just snowflakes.

However, I understand the S&P 500 dropped another 12 percent today, and the Dow dropped almost 3000 points. The effects of that will ripple everywhere sooner or later. People are hesitant to say the “R” word — recession — but eventually some authority figure will declare there is one.

A painting of US commodore Matthew Perry’s squadron of ships, believed to have been painted by Hibata ?suke.

What about Matthew Perry? If you’ve made it to Chapter 8 in my book The Circle of the Way, you’ll find Matthew Perry introduced on page 241. The Tokugawa shogunate had introduced a policy of strict isolation of Japan in the 1630s. This was mostly a reaction to the European colonialism that was spreading chaos and destruction through Asia. For more than two centuries Japan allowed only limited outside trade, and that only through the port of Nagasaki on the southernmost island of Kyushu. The only foreign presence allowed in Japan was a Dutch consolate in Nagasaki. Foreign books were banned as well. Only the most educated Japanese had any idea what was going on in the world outside Japan.

Matthew Perry and his smoke-bellowing, steam-powered warships were a huge shock to the Japanese. The flagship USS Susquehanna was twenty-five times larger than any Japanese vessel of the time. The squadron’s seventy-three guns included artillery that fired 150 lb. shot. The Japanese realized they were helpless against modern military technology. Isolation ended absruptly, and in the late 1850s and 1860s Japan came to be overrun by foreign, mostly European, merchants.

Shoguns, military dictators, had been the de facto rulers of Japan since 1185; the emperors were mostly figureheads. But the stresses caused by the foreigners ended the last shogunate in 1868. The young Meiji emperor seized control, and in a generation Japan went from medieval feudalism to westernized modernity. I wrote about these events in The Circle of the Way because they profoundly impacted Japanese Buddhism.

But the social-psychological shock of change also had a lot to do with the militarization of Japan in the early 20th century. The Japanese still were a deeply conservative and xenophobic people, and all those centuries of military culture didn’t end because the emperor said so. So the lingering effects of the Meiji Restoration were not all positive.

Will the coronavirus be our Matthew Perry? Maybe a hundred years from how someone can address that. It’s hard to know what the long-term effects of a cataclysmic event will be. I would have thought that Hurricane Katrina, and the abandonment of a major American city by the Bush Administration, would have been a huge red flag that something is deeply wrong in American politics. But other than making a fool of George W. Bush, nothing much seems to have changed. The effects of the September 11 attacks appear to have faded, except we’re still stuck in overseas wars. The financial crisis of 2008 doesn’t seem to have taught us any lessons.

But maybe those events didn’t impact enough people. Perhaps an old-fashioned plague will be just the thing to force a great re-thinking upon us. But the impact of Perry’s squadron in Tokyo Bay wasn’t immediate, either. Getting ourselves unstuck from stupid will probably take the next few years.