On Pandemic, Racism & Renaissance

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As the coronavirus pandemic gains devastating strides, sensible and anxious people impose self-isolation. Streets become vacuous. Businesses, large and small, shutter. Millions of laborers are laidoff. The New York Times calls it “the great empty.” Millions contract the virus; hundreds of thousands die. At this writing, in America alone, there are four-million people infected, 140,000 deaths, and new cases set new records daily. Although the virus has struck the world, America has the distinction of having most confirmed cases and deaths. The seemingly most wealthy, most technically advanced, and most powerful nation is also the most inept in managing the pandemic. Americans are banned from traveling to other countries. An American journalist abroad notes his homeland is an utter humiliation before the world.  

Beyond our collective disgrace, the pandemic exposes other existential realities. As in any national disaster, it is usually the people of color, the poor, and the disadvantaged who suffer more. Most of the 35-million unemployed are low wage workers. Most deaths are in nursing homes and poorer neighborhoods. While many wealthy flee the virus-infested cities to safer havens, the working-class files for unemployment and forms food lines. The disparities between the races and classes couldn’t be more glaring in the great empty.      

In the midst of the pandemic panic, as if on cue, loud gunshots pierce the eerie void. Several black Americans are killed by racist vigilantes and during police arrests. Almost overnight, the great empty metamorphoses into the great occupation. Angry protests inflame across 2000 and more cities, towns, and places. With clenched fists, gloved in enraged voices, protesters shout against systemic racism, social inequality, and police brutality. Stores are looted, buildings burn, and police cars set ablaze. At one dangerous moment, the president is escorted to a bunker under the White House for safety. At another moment, military actions disperse crowds near the White House so the president can hold a Bible in front of a church for a media optic.

The pandemic and protests put our nation’s infrastructure failures and structural disparities on full display. After days, and nights, of riotous uprising, great crowds, inexplicably enter a diligent decorum. While some continue to wallow in the shell of their selfishness and succumb to their vain impulses, many protesters quiet their restive rage. Perhaps some realize the incongruity between their call for social justice and their callous malfeasance. Perhaps some recognize this unprecedented moment and yield to history. Many by-standers, medical professionals, police officers, politicians, religious groups, and those of tender years join in.

Watching the world descend into darkness and set on fire, a friend wonders out loud if the world has gone mad. My first thought resonates with hers; my second thought wonders, “how did we end up here?”When history turned the page to a new millennium, Jacques Barzun, a cultural historian, published his prescient From Dawn to Decadence. His 800-page opus traces Western culture from the 16th century Renaissance and Reformation to its decadence and decline in the present.  I decide to sit down and re-read it.

Barzun’s “cultural decadence” (taken from its second dictionary definition) posits that the West’s “decadent” culture is slipping into a lassitude, a debility, a collective laziness of intellectual fatigue, creative humdrum, and social exhaustion. This lassitude renders both Europe and America incapable of responding to the pandemic and social injustice. The West has been here before. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe entered a pervasive darkness. In that Dark Ages (476 – 1453CE), it suffered cultural mediacy, economic stagnation, institutional deterioration, and moral decay. Then the Renaissance and Reformation brought an outburst of human advances, of which the world has not seen (Actually, it co-occurred with the golden ages of the Ming Dynasty on the other side of the world). Europe flourished in religious reforms, cultural enrichments, artistic splendors, political realignments, socio-economic opportunities, rise of the middle class, and individual freedoms.

In time, these progresses begin to slow and plateau. By the dawn of the 21st century, the West experiences a precipitous decline. Nations lost their way as if floundering in Eliot’s wasteland. The past 50 years of confluent technological advances that made daily life better couldn’t veil our cultural decay. Stripped of enthusiasm, we are exhausted, creatively, psychologically, and spiritually. The crises of the pandemic and social injustice expose a deeper crisis of confidence and of complacency.

Barzun’s final chapters speak of The Great Illusion that fools our assurance of liberal endeavors. That the West is getting better is an illusion. We have slouched into a societal malaise of existential loneliness, moral indifference, capitalistic greed, and spiritual insignificance. While Embracing the Absurd, we have normalized what is “abnormal,” and marginalize those who don’t agree. We have become decadent according to its first definition – a rich, self-indulgent society in the present that is myopic of past and future. Suffering a Demotic Life and Time, we prefer “publicity over achievement, revelation over restraint, honesty over decency, victimhood over personal responsibility, confrontation over civility, psychology over morality.”  

Nations rise and fall. The “old Europe” of colonialism has given way to the “new Europe” depleted of imperial powers. The 20th century is the American Century, some insist. Perhaps. That political prominence has shifted again. The 2020 devastating pandemic and the riotous protests expose America’s political, social, and economic flabby flaws. Perhaps America is in decline, others insist. Barbara W. Tuckman, another historian, wrote of the “black death” at the end of the Dark Ages that killed one third of Europe’s population. After that traumatic pandemic, Europe went through paradigm shifts that touched every aspect of being human. Its citizenry questioned God, political and religious leaders, social and government institutions, life, liberty, meanings, and the pursuit of happiness. These existential doubts led to the Renaissance and Reformation.

The pandemic and social unrest also expose our truer human nature and that nature’s insensibility. They undress how we see ourselves, think about God, understand our world, and face up to our racist history and decadent present. The grieving optimist in me wants to believe that we are at the brink of something significant. As the aftermaths of the “black death” ushered a renewal in Europe, perhaps the “great empty” caused by the coronavirus and the “great occupation” of social unrest in time will bring another cultural renaissance and religious reformation.