The Return of the Plague

In times of rage and divisiveness during which the American state separates immigrant children from their parents and warehouses the ones they haven’t lost on military bases, during which it becomes okay to openly express racist, anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant sentiments, during which unarmed young black man are routinely shot and killed by police, during which daily political chaos has unsettled our social psyche, it is yet again the moment to remember the moral devastation that unbridled hate brings to our social well being. In that spirit, I am re-posting a blog I wrote shortly after the election of Donald J. Trump. The message in that blog is perhaps more relevant today than it was in November 2016.  The blog is in the form of a letter to my students.

 

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Plaques in remembrance of Jews deported from Gross Umstadt Germany in 1941 Photo by Paul Stoller

Dear Students:

I write with some unwelcome news for your immediate future: the plague has returned to America.

The rats have crawled out of their holes and are swarming over our bustling cities and our sprawling suburbs.  They have infested our peaceful small towns, our bucolic farms. They have spoiled our pristine pastures and meadows.  I’m sure that you would prefer to receive better news, but I feel it is my professorial obligation to give you an idea of what to expect from this new round of the plague.

Maybe you feel that I’m being an alarmist or overly dramatic.  But I’ve been around long enough to have seen and experienced the vile nature of the plague. You see, when I was coming up in the 1950s and 1960 the rats came after me—and many, many others.  They taunted us with epithets. On several occasions they physically attacked us just because we were different.

When the plague comes social life is transformed.  Even if you think you are one of the good ones—the good Muslim, the good Asian, the good Latino, the good African American, the good LGBTQ person, the good Jew or the good woman– sooner or later the rats will come after you.  Their appetite for hate is insatiable.

If you don’t believe me, consider what happened one day after the upset election of Donald J. Trump.  In his recent The Verge report, Sean O’Kane listed the following incidents:

  • A swastika and the words “MAKE AMERICA WHITE AGAIN” were spray painted on a baseball dugout in Wellsville, NY (p. ~5,000). A black baby doll was also found with rope around its neck in an elevator on campus at Canisius College outside Buffalo, NY. — The Buffalo News
  • A reporter for CBS North Carolina posted a photo of a wall in Durham, North Carolina where the words “BLACK LIVES DON’T MATTER AND NEITHER DOES [sic] YOUR VOTES” were spray painted. — Derrick Lewis, CBS North Carolina
  • A swastika and the words “Seig Heil 2016” were spray painted on a storefront in South Philadelphia. The Anti-Defamation League issued an official statement in response to the incident, saying that “while we view this as an isolated incident, we cannot allow this behavior to become routine. Everyone has a role to play in combating bigotry — we must advocate, educate and investigate until hate is no longer welcome in our society.” — Philly.com, The Anti-Defamation League
  • Also in South Philadelphia, the words “TRUMP RULES” and “TRUMP BLACK BITCH” were spray painted on an SUV. — Philly.com

According to “Hate Watch,” which is maintained by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) “….between Wednesday, November 9, the day after the presidential election, and the morning of Monday, November 14, the Southern Poverty Law Center collected 437 reports of hateful intimidation and harassment.”  The SPLC stated that….

Most of the reports involved anti-immigrant incidents (136), followed by anti-black (89) and anti-LGBT (43). Some reports (8) included multiple categories like anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant. The “Trump” category (41) refers to incidents where there was no clear defined target, like the pro-Trump vandalism of a “unity” sign in Connecticut. We also collected 20 reports of anti-Trump intimidation and harassment.”

These ugly incidents, which are likely to increase exponentially during the Trump Administration, are signs of the plague’s return. It is a return baited in large measure by the silences, words, choices, and behavior our President-elect!  Such news dims the bright light of the future.

What can you do to combat the plague?

How can the light of your future be brightened?

When I confronted the plague as a young man I took solace in the wisdom of a great work of literature, The Plague (La Peste) by Albert Camus.  In this book, Camus described how the bubonic plague changed the lives of the people of Oran in Algeria.  The authorities of Oran were slow to appreciate the gravity of the situation even after thousands of rats had died in the streets and people began to sicken and die.  Only when the death tally reach 30 people per day did the authorities finally recognize the severity of the situation. They quarantined the city.

The townspeople became depressed. Violence spread. Hoodlums looted city shops. People lost their loved-ones.  Babies died.  Oran became utterly chaotic.  Eventually, the rats returned to their holes and the plague retreated.  People could re-unite Families reestablished and reinforced their ties of love.

For Camus, the plague comes and goes but can never be completely eliminated. The plague is, of course, allegorical. Camus wrote his masterpiece in response to rise and fall of Nazi Germany  The recent rise empowerment of hate groups in Europe and the overt bigotry of Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign underscores the wisdom of Albert Camus.  Is it any wonder that Trump’s unexpected win unleashed a torrent of hate crimes directed at Muslims, African American, immigrants, and the gay community, and women?

What can you do?

Should you be like the elders of Camus’s Oran try to ignore the presence of plague in our midst?  Should you do nothing and let the plague spread?

Camus’s message is clear.  First you have to recognize the plague when you experience it.  Second, you have to fight it back with all your resources. Third, once it retreats you need to be vigilant because given the right circumstances, it can always come back.

In the end, though, Camus novel celebrates human resilience. Toward the end of th book he writes:  “…once the faintest stirring of hope became possible, the dominion of the plague was over.”  He goes on to say that love trumps hate for once the plague has been beaten back you know that “…if there is one thing one can always yearn for and sometimes attain, it is human love.”

And so the times are difficult and will become more difficult, but eventually the rats will go back into their holes, the plague will be in full retreat and you will realize fully the power of love to overcome hate.

Your professor

 

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