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.

9 thoughts on “Pandemics and Politics

  1. It will take one more crisis . Worldwide financial systems will reorganize after that to ensure most people can live lives of dignity and meaning.

  2. I'm still trying to get at the book which my daughter hasn't finished. There is an interesting period in US history which covered a shift from devout conservatism to US socialism – the great depression and FDR. The great depression wasn't limited to Wall Street. Huge numbers of farmers were displaced as banks foreclosed on farms. City slickers who bet everything on stocks went from riches to rags in weeks. 

    Hoover was run over by the depression almost on taking office – the seeds of conservatism (low taxes, lax regulation) were planted by President Coolidge. Things only got worse for four years – Hoover vetoed legislation to provide direct aid. “Prosperity cannot be restored by raids upon the public Treasury,” he said. Homeless living in Hooverville tent cities weren't impressed and they were over conservatism by the time FDR was elected.

    Trump is no Hoover – he's plotting a huge bailout to restore the economy and his popularity before November. Mitt Romney suggested we need to get cash in the hands of consumers now. The amount I think he suggested is $1000 per adult. That's to help us survive AND make up for economic contraction. Nancy is making similar suggestions – any aid to corporations will be linked to direct cash stimulus, I think  Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are not going to sign onto a plan that looks more liberal and socialistic than what Obama did. Trump won't commit political seppuku on the sword of conservative ideology. What's even worse – this disease could not have been more designed to medically ravage the Trump base. 

    "God doth have a sense of humor." Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman on his blindness.

    That we're not managing this as well as Singapore will be an understatement if we get clobbered like Italy. That's entirely up to the shape of the bell curve drawn by whatever deity was in charge about ten days ago. I applaud actions of social distancing but they will not change the bell curve for two weeks from NOW. The question is what's in the pipe now – we're gonna find out. There may be a lot of vacancies in Florida nursing homes and retirement communities. 

    Yesterday Trump demanded and got a rate cut from the fed to ZERO. The Dow was on course for a 2000 point drop until after Trump spoke late this afternoon. In the last half-hour I think it shed 1000 points MORE. Trump's donor class has lost trillions (with a T) in the last month. And Trump expects them to pony up big bucks in the next few months to finance his election? Maybe if he was running against Bernie but Biden has promised those guys he won't rock the boat. 

    You couldn't write a script like this – but this show's gonna be written in real blood.

  3. Perry showed up in Japan with his amazing warships, that nobody in Japan could deny. Most USAians – unless they're kids or educated – never leave the country, and so have no idea how backward things are in the US. Their stupid media doesn't tell them that China has it under control, for example.

    It's interesting to me how Fox News and Trump turned on a dime today. Trump spoke more honestly about the pandemic – saying it could last for months – which caused the markets to shed more points. Hannity is using this crisis as a way to fluff Trump's amazing leadership and America's technological and medical superiority. Those old people dying in nursing homes? They were going to die anyway. It's quite a PR pivot, and also amazing that Hannity is probably telling Trump what to do. We already knew this, but Trump's pivot – toward honesty – is amazing.

    As for changing the country – I think the best that could happen is that we put aside our partisan hatreds a little bit. The worst that could happen is that unraveling accelerates. Those with money may still get infected, but they're not in the same boat as those struggling to survive. And Trump get away with pardoning his criminal friends and Bill Barr will keep looking the other way, as Putin tightens his grip on a disintegrating and distracted country.

    In other words, nobody will learn a damned thing, just as they didn't with Katrina.

  4. The big D, and not talking Dallas. Depression. Many industries wipedout. Tsunami is coming.

    Meanwhile we have a ball of snakes pretending to be a government.

    Oh, and McConnell is busy trying to get more judges to quit retire and open up more seats to be filled before Republicans lose the Senate. Does he know the senate is going to flip?

  5. Though I'm living in an Assisted Dyin…  Assisted LIVING Facility, I'm a bit optimistic about this country after The tRUMP Flu wanes, then funally disappears – nothing to remember, but a newer flu-shot.  I hope my Mom and I make it over this viral River Styx to the other side.  But I'm realistic about it all , because both of us are prime candidates to catch The tRUMP Plague.

    Now, why am I a bit optimistic?  Let's talk about "Socialism!"  THAT'S what will pull survivors through this modern plague.  Basically, people need to sit at home for a while – probably a long while (we're in a complete lockdown at our facility).  They'll need to eat, drink water, and pee and poop.  Our government is crucial for keeping we the people fed, have potable water, have garbage thrown out, and working infrastructures for sewage – among other things.

    To "save" capitalism, and the "makers," our government will have to arrange for ALL of us to also have money.  "No cashee to spendee: no recovery!" Some in Congress are already calling for money to be given to each and every adult – or plans along those same lines.

    You're geting the picture of what it'll take to get by, so let me expand.

    tRUMP is now POTUS in name only.  A bloated orange figurehead.  

    After the tRUMPalypse, and after working from home, a sea-change may occur.  Why waste gas when people can work at home?  Why have a huge carbon emitting office complex if people aren't coming in to work?   Extra benefit:  A large, potentially massive, decline in fossil fuel usage, lowering America's carbon footprint

    Upgrades to our (expensive, inefficient, and spotty) broadband networks will have to be made to accommodate for the increased usage by telecommuters.  Computer "giggage" (aka:  memory) will have to be expanded at an increased pace.  Extra-benefit(s):  Do I really need to say all of them?  The main one will have to be expanded coverage – yes, even into rural areas, since telecommuters won't have to live within X-hours of the office.  Some worker and his/her family may want to live adjacent to the Unibomber's old shack!  Hell, why not?!?

    There are more improvements to technological aspects I can mention, but the night is short, and I be gettin' sleepee!

    Social changes will also come.  Most for the good, I believe.  Telecommuting changes family dynamics, besides just work ones.  Less need for baby-sitters since Mater and/or Pater can be at home 24 X 7 (yeah, I know that'll will bring its own issues).  College can be less expensive, because no dorm fees, no food plans, etc…   

    There's more, but I gotta get to bed.

    Ultimate, major societal changes:  Most Boomers, and the generations born after us, have faced little hardship or deprivation in our lives (obviously, several books can be written about the opposite.  By women, minorities, the disabled, the poor, etc…). 

    We've known no wars on our soil (yes, 9/11, but you can't compare that to the two world wars, and other major conflicts on almost all other continents over the last 75 years), no famines, no plagues, no… Just, relative peace and prosperity.

    Think about those born before 1945.  Those Americans lived through The Great Depression, and WW I and WW II.  Those were horrible, tragic times.  Hunger and homelessness in the Depression.  Deprivations during WW. I, and especially WW II.  Neighbors shared food and other resources during the Depression – and many of the same people had fought in WW I – and some, also WW II.  Those same people comforted one another when someone's "boy" (or "girl") died in battle.  Women went to work to take the place of workers, now soldiers.  

    What happened as a result, was people in America bonded because of shared experiences:  deprivations, deaths, hunger, hard, hard, work, etc…   

    These are our parents, our grandparents, and so on. And remember how unselfish they were?  How empathetic?  How they could stretch a buck out for ages,  How…  How much better they were than we are.  We Boomers.  We Gen Xers, etc…

    Now, this Coronavirus ain't no WW I, it ain't no Great Depression, and it sure as hell ain't no WW II! 

    But it may be "OUR" version of their shared experiences.

    Maybe we'll be nicer and kinder to one another.  Maybe we'll listen better, put aside grievances and differences, and become better people.  More like the ones before us, who didn't have it as easy.

    I'm probably fully if shit, and my hopes won't come true…

    But on the other hand, they might!  🙂

  6. I hope SOMEBODY is thinking about food distribution. Here in Central Florida, there are many people in the service industry. The pay is not very good, and lots of employers are shutting their doors. I doubt many people have more money than what's in their wallets. It's nice that the President wants to implement a payroll tax cut, but one has to have a payroll check in order for that to work. On that note, it is interesting that the big theme parks are suddenly closed. Not to sound like a conspiracy nut, but the possibility of collusion several weeks ago on this subject is a possibility.

    We're in for one hell of a ride, but the president says we'll have a celebration when it's all over. I can't tell you how much that means to me. Well, I COULD, but I won't.

    • I don’t think the payroll tax cut is going to happen, but news this morning suggests that a lot of people are getting behind just sending checks directly to taxpayers.

  7. It's possible C19 will produce a social inflection point, but there are reasons to be skeptical. According to a Quinnipiac poll, Trump still had a 39% approval rating as of the 8th of this month. A lot has changed since then, but it will be a surprise if his zombie hordes change their feelings about him. They've had their hot buttons stomped constantly since the 1980s, to the point they no longer live on Earth, but Planet Wingnut.

    A look at right wing blogs shows that most now admit C19 is real if they mention it at all, but often complain "the media" are making too big a thing of it. They call it things like the "WuFlu" to exaggerate its Chinese origin, as if viruses don't mutate everywhere on the planet. There are plenty of conspiracy theories too, of course.

    Hatred of government and "socialism" is deep in the character of the US going back to resentment of England's interference in local business and amplified by the Civil War. Someone I once worked with who'd grown up in Kentucky told me his grade school teachers had warned him to "watch out for socialism." That's probably not rare in the South or cowboy states.

    There are reasons to be hopeful, but in many ways it's going to be a struggle just to get back to social priorities before Trump, never mind Reagan. Grover Norquist, the anti-tax lobbyist, famously said he wanted to shrink government small enough that it could be drown in a bathtub. The right hasn't exactly managed that, but they've given us a federal government that's much more ignorant, incompetent, inflexible, dishonest, uncoordinated, and limited in who it serves. C19's future effects on elections are a big unknown too. Those stubbornly unmindful of getting sick might turn out in greater numbers.


  8. Like 9/11 the US population has nutted up.  Remember those who spent the better part of a month on the sofa watching the TV after 9/11?  Then they slowly came out of their fugue state and bought into bogus weapons of mass destruction propaganda and cheered with Bush over toppled statues and a "mission accomplished".  I remember the ground swell and freedom fries.  I remember the certainty of the right, and the rampant righteousness that was ready to mute and maim anyone even slightly skeptical.   Only in hindsight did most of us come to our senses and realize just how crazy we had gotten.  I am getting the impression we are now in the process of nutting up again.  

    You could see it in the behavior of the people in the stores.  Panic shopping driven by emotion, not thought for sure.  Could people not think of a single work around if by chance two giant bundles of toilet paper would run out even without some idea that one might be able to economize and stretch it out if needed?  Now I read that people are in line at gun stores buying more guns and ammo.  Of course the germophobes  like Howie Mandel have donned some outlandish gear to survive the virus.  Dingy as that is, it's a more directed and rational approach to fighting the virus than by using a barrage of cover fire from an assault rifle equipped with over-sized magazines.  Where are these people's heads are at?

    I suppose it is too much to as that they spend a little time on self improvement, with a good read of something akin to Albert Ellis's  A Guide to Rational Living.  Yes things are bad, but by going crazy you may just make thing absolutely  awful, horrible, or even catastrophic.  Kind of like we all did with 9/11 or maybe even worse. 

    Scratch that last paragraph.  Only a tiny percent of Americans read, and that is not going to change much.  Seek self-improvement with a leader who exemplifies the opposite?  Better to bend reality and just claim perfection.  I will stand with the last two sentences, though, we can do crazy things and make things worse.  So far it looks like that is the way we are headed.  

    It might be a historical inflection point, but true that we have botched chances to rectify our situation on a number of occasions.  So far we are using as our guiding principle: When you find yourself in a deep hole, Dig faster and harder.  

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