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Living at the End of the World

The coronavirus spreads like a kind of modern plague across the global landscape. The view from my study window is of the gently rolling hills of the Berkshires in the foothills of the Appalachians. Today, they are lightly dusted with snow that will vanish in the warmer air by mid afternoon. Here, looking toward my neighbor’s apple orchard always allows and invites introspection and the separation from the world, which is good for writing.  Close by are the Litchfield Hills of northwestern Connecticut, where Philip Roth stood at his writing podium and produced some superb works of literature amid the small farms indigenous to the area. Clear the land of trees, rocks, and brush, and the farmland is fertile.

Disease and epidemics (and pandemics) are not all that unusual. What is unusual, however, is how science has been attacked for political gain, especially here in the US by the political right, and those attacks have brought us a science denier in the White House and his enablers in Congress.This epidemic of science denial affects millions in a way that many believed the bulwarks of modernity would protect us against.

We can’t fully understand the interplay of variables that produced this virus, but the pandemic has been loosened upon the world and many governments that were supposed to provide for the common good can’t leave the starting line. Something as simple as test kits for determining where the disease is and how it spreads are not generally available in the numbers needed to track the progression of the virus. Epidemiologists know that if a pandemic’s course is accurately measured, then actions such as self-isolation and social distancing are easier to accomplish. If the pandemic is not identifiable and closely measured, then more lives will be lost. I thought that our collective intellectual and ethical development was further along than is obvious now.

This pandemic encourages pause and reflection because we are cut off from the bombardment of distractions and placed in environments where we depend on ourselves and a few others. The reality of the moment confronts in a singular way.

As a leftist, the movements and people involved in them parade by like the seasons outside of this window.  The antiwar movement during the Vietnam War, the anti-nuclear movement of the early 1980s (and beyond), the antiwar movement in the face of the first Gulf War, the environmental movement, the women’s movement and the movement for gay rights, and the myriad of protest movements that followed upon the heels of the race to stop militarism and the far right following September 11, 2001. And always the movement against racism that seems to be an almost immoveable social, political, and economic presence in the US and around the world. Now immigrants from war and other forms of human destructiveness demand yet another movement for social justice.

Trump and his sycophants want to save wealth above people. “Coronavirus Live Updates: Trump Administration Sees $850 Billion Stimulus,” New York Times March 17, 2020). With headlines like “White House Takes New Line After Dire Report on Death Toll,” New York Times, March 17, 2020), just where does quickly vanishing hope lie?

It seems to me (one of protester-singer-songwriter Pete Seeger’s favorite pronouncements) that the most successful protest movement was the Vietnam antiwar movement. Maybe it was street-level involvement that cemented that movement in history. I don’t know. It took those on the right exactly two decades to irradiate the Vietnam Syndrome and make war something the majority could enthusiastically support.

It was like jumping on the Earth and having it jump back (to paraphrase protester Abbie Hoffman). Maybe if a person is lucky, he or she gets that one chance.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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