It was April and I was away (with your permission, Mayor Bowser) on my constitutional night on Embassy Row. Weeks of almost zero traffic had purified Washington’s air. Deer were frolicking on the asphalt, which they once timidly probed. Only the Borg cube from the Brazilian mission spoke of the 20th century, let alone this one. Rock Creek Park seemed poised to take over the built environment, as if it were an emulation of a landscape by Thomas Cole.
How I hated it. Specifically, I hated celebrating such scenes in the urbanized world. A year without real hardship for me has been painful in one respect: the rise of a sort of smarmy anti-modernity, both among liberals and reaction forces. They used that moment to “think”, you see, on the “rat race”. They feel a chance to restore the Arcadia before mass airlift and just-in-time manufacturing.
The pandemic teased this people’s nostalgia but it was already here in other forms. This vein of journalism that we might call Millennial Grousings has a lot of usefulness in saying about intergenerational inequalities in assets. But he may be gullible about the quality of the baby boomers, before the rubella vaccine and MRI, before the marginal cost of communication fell to practically zero.
Looking back, the years leading up to the pandemic were full of this stuff. Steven Pinker has shown that life improves in quantifiable ways and has not been forgiven for his shamelessness. “Against Modern Football” has become a movement whose vision of the past has glossed over stages of death traps and defrauded players. As for the relentless proliferation of costumed dramas, it has fostered the strangest nostalgia of all: that for times we haven’t even lived.
It was natural in recent years to fear right-wing opponents of modernity. But nominal progressives are also prone to a soft ambivalence about human development. It was the romantics, not just the bovine nobility, who cursed the industrial revolution and thought a rainbow was tainted if explained. It’s the liberal left that gives Pinker the hardest trick. A recurring character in Ian McEwan’s work is the metropolitan madman, pious in his quackery, immersed in high-tech life as he vaguely berates his hollow. By rendering them so nicely, he is implying that a fool is no less dangerous to have common sense.
It is important to argue systematically against nostalgia. But for now, it’s more efficient to report the news. It was one of “Lenin’s decades of decades happening”. The UK has become the first government to approve Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine. Thanks to artificial intelligence, we are also further ahead in our quest to probe the structure of proteins. An unknown number of extended and improved lives will be traced back to the events of the last few days.
It’s a blow to science, yes, but also to the modern world itself. The global labor market, the vast for-profit corporation, the technocratic state: all of this happened about two seconds ago in the history of our species. All are controversial. And everything intersected to produce a response to a new virus within a year of its still mysterious emergence.
There was a phase in the spring where the pandemic was almost discussed as a comeuppance of modernity (as if the Black Death hadn’t slightly preceded the jet age). It looks like we’ll end the year with the reverse epiphany. Plagues occur at any time and only this could have contained the effects as well as he. Even outside of the vaccine, supply chains for food and most other commodities have weathered a once-in-a-century shock with almost eerie gentleness.
Anyone who would like to trade the present for much earlier than a generation or two ago hasn’t seriously given the proposal a thought. And yet, this feeling is inescapable. The idea of our world as post-Fall, of the past as Eden, passes for wisdom. It appeals to Britain’s next ruler, a pastoral romantic, but also righteous townspeople, babbling this year about the possibility of ‘resetting’. What to be grateful for, I guess, that only nostalgia defies inoculation.
Email Janan at firstname.lastname@example.org
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