Sunday, April 5, 2020

The Coronavirus as a Caesura in History

In music, a caesura is a complete break in metrical time with total silence.  The conductor decides when to start the music again.  For the poet Hölderin, a caesura in tragedy is "a rupture that sunders the continuity of historical progression and provides a break in the jointure of experience and expectation."  (Charles Bambach

Caesuras also occur in history.  Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe said a historical caesura "would be that which, within history, interrupts history and opens up another possibility of history, or else closes off all possibility of history."  He thought Auschwitz was the caesura of the twentieth century.  Similarly, Charles Bambach identified World War I as a historical caesura.  He wrote, "The unspoken bourgeois faith in both the meaning and coherence of history had been shattered."

The coronavirus has created a caesura in the history of the twenty-first century.  Life has stopped, and the only topic is the health and economic effects of the virus.  The direction our history was going has been interrupted, and it is probable that history will go in a very different direction than it would have absent the virus.

Despite political divisions, the first two decades of the twenty-first century were a time of optimism.  People believed that science controlled nature and that we were living in world in which mankind used technology to make our lives better.  Writers, like Steven Pinker, argued that human progress was real and that we were living in the most peaceful time in history.

The coronavirus shattered this optimism.  Our greatest scientists could not prevent the spread of a microscopic bug.  Our wise leaders could not prevent the spread of the virus, and they often did a poor job treating it.  The virus destroyed our economy, and it will have significant effects on our lives for years to come, just like World War I affected society and culture for a over a decade.

There is no doubt that the coronavirus will exert crucial effects on our lives, our society, and our culture.  What has happened, and will happen before the end of the crisis, will send us in a direction different than we were on before.  The virus will affect all aspects of our lives--our beliefs, our politics, our faith in science, the structure of societies, and even our music and our art.

It is impossible to predict how the virus and its effects will influence our future.  Will we become more optimistic, more pessimistic, or more realistic?  Will we become a kinder, gentler society because of our mutual suffering, or will we become more distant from our pandemic isolation?  Will the world become more global, or will the suffering caused by the virus limit globalization? Will our governments become more caring of their people, will politics become more bipartisan, or will our rulers become more repressive?

No one can answer these questions at present.  The only lesson we can glean from history is that the effect of a historical caesura is unpredictable.

A few authors, however, have tried to predict how our society and culture will look after the pandemic. Bret Stephens of the New York Times views at the effects of the coronavirus from 2025.  (here)  He sees the virus as facilitating the spread of authoritarianism.  He states, "The pandemic provided a ready-made excuse for democratic governments around the world to obstruct opposition parties, ban public assemblies, suppress voting, quarantine cities, close borders, limit trade, strong-arm businesses, impose travel restrictions and censor hostile media outlets in the name of combating 'false information.'"  He adds, "Remarkably, the tactics met with comparatively little resistance, partly because they were advertised as only temporary, and partly because the concerns of civil libertarians paled next to calls to 'flatten the curve.'"  He also writes, "It was left to Trump to preside over an expansion of the welfare state the likes of which Bernie Sanders could only have dreamed about a year earlier."  He concludes, "At the outset of the crisis it may have seemed that progressive parties stood to benefit politically. The opposite proved true."

Henry Kissinger believes that the pandemic will forever alter the world order and that governments must begin to prepare now for the post-pandemic world.  (here)

He writes, "Now, in a divided country, efficient and farsighted government is necessary to overcome obstacles unprecedented in magnitude and global scope. Sustaining the public trust is crucial to social solidarity, to the relation of societies with each other, and to international peace and stability." He continues, "Nations cohere and flourish on the belief that their institutions can foresee calamity, arrest its impact and restore stability. When the Covid-19 pandemic is over, many countries’ institutions will be perceived as having failed. Whether this judgment is objectively fair is irrelevant. The reality is the world will never be the same after the coronavirus."

He warns, "The crisis effort, however vast and necessary, must not crowd out the urgent task of launching a parallel enterprise for the transition to the post-coronavirus order."  He notes, "Leaders are dealing with the crisis on a largely national basis, but the virus’s society-dissolving effects do not recognize borders."  He declares, "Drawing lessons from the development of the Marshall Plan and the Manhattan Project, the U.S. is obliged to undertake a major effort in three domains. First, shore up global resilience to infectious disease. . . .  Second, strive to heal the wounds to the world economy. . . .  Third, safeguard the principles of the liberal world order."  He adds, "The world’s democracies need to defend and sustain their Enlightenment values."  Similarly, "Restraint is necessary on all sides—in both domestic politics and international diplomacy. Priorities must be established."  He concludes, "Now, we live an epochal period. The historic challenge for leaders is to manage the crisis while building the future. Failure could set the world on fire."

Regardless of which of the above views you agree with, or if you have your own, it is indisputable that the world will change dramatically in the coming years.  One other thing will be indisputable: We will be the ones making that change.  Be prepared!

(Scott Fruehwald)

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