2020-10-22

The End of the American Era (felled by a virus)

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by Neil Godfrey

Wade Davis

A few years ago I read the fascinating book Justinian’s Flea by William Rosen. Rosen showed how the bubonic plague spread by the flea could be seen as the single most decisive factor in bringing about the collapse of the sixth-century empire. More recently I listened to an interview with anthropologist Wade Davis s. The interview, Has COVID-19 signalled the end of the American era?, was another with Philip Adams on Radio National’s Late Night Live and was inspired by an article in RollingStone that “went viral”: The Unraveling of America: Anthropologist Wade Davis on how COVID-19 signals the end of the American era.

Read it. And/or listen to the interview.

Excerpts to whet the appetites of those who have not yet read it:

Never in our lives have we experienced such a global phenomenon. For the first time in the history of the world, all of humanity, informed by the unprecedented reach of digital technology, has come together, focused on the same existential threat, consumed by the same fears and uncertainties, eagerly anticipating the same, as yet unrealized, promises of medical science.

. . . .

Pandemics and plagues have a way of shifting the course of history, and not always in a manner immediately evident to the survivors. . . .

The COVID pandemic will be remembered as such a moment in history, a seminal event whose significance will unfold only in the wake of the crisis. It will mark this era much as the 1914 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the stock market crash of 1929, and the 1933 ascent of Adolf Hitler became fundamental benchmarks of the last century, all harbingers of greater and more consequential outcomes.

. . . .

. . . . But what surely does [stand out as a turning point in history] is the absolutely devastating impact that the pandemic has had on the reputation and international standing of the United States of America.

In a dark season of pestilence, COVID has reduced to tatters the illusion of American exceptionalism. At the height of the crisis, with more than 2,000 dying each day, Americans found themselves members of a failed state, ruled by a dysfunctional and incompetent government largely responsible for death rates that added a tragic coda to America’s claim to supremacy in the world.

For the first time, the international community felt compelled to send disaster relief to Washington.

. . . .

More than any other country, the United States in the post-war era lionized the individual at the expense of community and family. It was the sociological equivalent of splitting the atom. What was gained in terms of mobility and personal freedom came at the expense of common purpose.

. . . .

Odious as he may be, Trump is less the cause of America’s decline than a product of its descent. As they stare into the mirror and perceive only the myth of their exceptionalism, Americans remain almost bizarrely incapable of seeing what has actually become of their country. . . .

. . . .

American politicians dismiss the Scandinavian model as creeping socialism, communism lite, something that would never work in the United States. In truth, social democracies are successful precisely because they foment dynamic capitalist economies that just happen to benefit every tier of society. That social democracy will never take hold in the United States may well be true, but, if so, it is a stunning indictment, and just what Oscar Wilde had in mind when he quipped that the United States was the only country to go from barbarism to decadence without passing through civilization.

. . . . But even should Trump be resoundingly defeated, it’s not at all clear that such a profoundly polarized nation will be able to find a way forward. For better or for worse, America has had its time.

The end of the American era and the passing of the torch to Asia is no occasion for celebration, no time to gloat. In a moment of international peril, when humanity might well have entered a dark age beyond all conceivable horrors, the industrial might of the United States, together with the blood of ordinary Russian soldiers, literally saved the world. American ideals, as celebrated by Madison and Monroe, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Kennedy, at one time inspired and gave hope to millions.

If America’s first president, George Washington, famously could not tell a lie, the current one can’t recognize the truth. Inverting the words and sentiments of Abraham Lincoln, this dark troll of a man celebrates malice for all, and charity for none.
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Neil Godfrey

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11 thoughts on “The End of the American Era (felled by a virus)”

    1. Davis’s point is that covid has exposed what America has become.

      How can the rest of the world expect America to lead on global threats — climate change, the extinction crisis, pandemics — when the country no longer has a sense of benign purpose, or collective well-being, even within its own national community?

      If it were merely a matter of broken foreign relations, those could be restored with the next presidency. Covid has exposed America’s “decadence” and social fragmentation so starkly that other nations now pity it.

      1. All too true. America’s reputation is in tatters, with ignorance and bigotry given a national and international forum unimaginable four years ago. Our only hope for any return to self-esteem as a nation of ideals and principles is a decisive electoral victory next week. America, and perhaps the world, is at a tipping point.

  1. Maybe its false hope on my part but as I have mentioned before I am hoping for a Trump victory, sometimes bad situations have to be brought to a conclusion, the promises of a fake Messiah have to be exposed, the emperor has to been to have no clothes.

  2. “A few years ago I read the fascinating book Justinian’s Flea by William Rosen. Rosen showed how the bubonic plague spread by the flea could be seen as the single most decisive factor in bringing about the collapse of the sixth-century empire”

    It wasn’t; that was the Persians and Arabs during the seventh century. The Empire collapsed during the seventh century; it came out of the sixth century stronger than it came in due to its reconquests of Tunisia, Sicily, Ravenna, southern Spain, and the city of Rome, as well as remarkable triumphs on the Persian front under Maurice. As for why the reconquest of Italy failed, it was the Avars, who pushed the Lombards into Italy. When one looks at the entirety of the Empire’s sixth century history, the climate crisis and the plague look like tiny scratches on an otherwise highly successful century resulting from remarkable Byzantine political stability. Also, the bubonic plague of the sixth century almost certainly spread through body lice; it spread too fast to be spread solely via fleas.

    I agree, of course, that the coronavirus and the Floyd riots are the beginning of a sort of twenty year chill (at least) in Europe’s and America’s global reputation. Thailand, Vietnam, and China all handled the coronavirus quite well on their own (while exporting masks!) without the need for Euro-American help. What the Russo-Japanese war was to military matters, the coronavirus is to matters of human development.

    1. Rosen’s thesis is that the first waves of the plague in the sixth century tore the guts out of the empire’s administrative fabric in ways that effectively sabotaged it and made it so easily vulnerable to the invaders of the seventh century. Comparable, I suppose, to Davis’s comment that though the British Empire reached its greatest extent in the 1930s its heyday had come and gone decades before and it was just waiting for the one blow to bring it crumbling after having been white-anted economically within for so long.

      The flea was not spreading on the power of its legs alone but was using the rats as its primary transport. And of course it was not the flea itself that was deadly but the bacteria it carried.

      I should make it clear, though, that the coronavirus is not nearly as deadly as have been other plagues – it’s destructive power is not in wiping out whole swathes of necessary populations to maintain society — but in the way it has exposed the deep wounds and shortcomings in American society. How can divisions and inequities and systemic injustices so chasmic ever be healed to create nation with at least an ostensibly (even if mythic) humanitarian purpose now?

    1. The only thing the U.S.A. is a global leader at right now is mask imports from China and COVID cases (unless you count the E.U. as a unit of its own). The West has zero leadership, zero credibility on coronavirus. China has a lot. Australia has some, I guess; I guess it handled the epidemic well. But it got its policies to combat the virus from China, Vietnam, and Thailand, not the U.S.

  3. I would have to disagree. Mr. Davis is way off the mark and time will show that he missed it. America is not going anywhere just yet. Covid is not the bubonic plague. coronavirus is nothing new. I’ve been giving my dogs shots against it for years. Covid 19 is a different stain but soon there will be another strain.
    Covid was weaponized by the radical left(democrats) and those around the world that want to rule the world. What will they come up with next year when President Trump is reelected?
    Why do they not like Trump……… he’s cutting into their PROFITS.
    As far as 2,000 deaths a day. If we did away with everything that causes 2,000 deaths a day, we would do away with LOTS…….

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