Kyle Harper On Plagues And Covid
The historian is out with a magisterial new book.
Kyle Harper is an historian who focuses on how humanity has shaped nature, and vice versa. He’s a Professor of Classics and Letters at the University of Oklahoma and the author of several books, including The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of an Empire, and his latest, Plagues Upon the Earth: Disease and the Course of Human History. His mastery of the science is only matched by the ease of his prose. If I were to nominate a book of the year, it would be this one (alongside Jamie Kirchick’s Secret City).
You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player above (or on the right side of the player, click “Listen On” to add the Dishcast feed to your favorite podcast app). For two clips of our convo — on the zombie bloodsucking fleas of the Black Death, and on how Covid doomed the careers of Trump and Boris — pop over to our YouTube page.
Other topics: the bubonic plague’s role in the fall of the Roman Empire, the Black Death, flagellants and anti-Semitism, the plague in 17th century London, the Spanish flu, the AIDS crisis, Thucydides, Camus’ La Peste, “The Roses of Eyam,” monkeypox, lab leak, and the uprising over China’s ghastly Covid policy.
Looking back to our episode with Robert Draper on GOP radicalism, a listener writes:
I’m a fan of Robert’s writing, so it was nice to hear him on the Dishcast.
I think he’s correct on a bunch but slightly off on a few. First of all, no matter how many times the New York Times and CNN tell me January 6 was a violent coup attempt, I just don’t see that it was anything other than a riot. Maybe a riot of morons. The media has too much invested in the narrative at this point to change. Sadly, I would include Robert in that too.
The election denialism issue got taken to an absurd level this past election cycle with the media labeling basically every Republican as an election denier, which is crazy when you think that a lot of people like you just had reasonable questions about the 2020 election. That shouldn’t necessitate the media slandering them. Your fellow Substackers have put together interesting videos showing Democrats as “election denying.”
And has any Republican in this cycle failed to concede defeat? Or refuse to leave office?
Kari Lake is still holding out. Trump, of course, is backing her insane claims. As for January 6, it was surely all of the above. It was a riot and a farce; but it was also designed to prevent the peaceful transfer of power after a free and fair election. The conviction this week of one of its ringleaders on a crime of seditious conspiracy is one we should pay attention to. I trust juries. And they got this one dead-right.
From a listener in Florida:
Great episode with Damon Linker. That was an interesting discussion about your awful childhoods, which you both survived very well.
I don’t hear much discussion about it, but is part of why DeSantis won so big his “culture war on steroids”? A lot of it would appeal to the GOP base, but does it also appeal to others? What about his stunt of flying immigrants from Texas to Massachusetts after lying to them about what’s going on? Does that appeal to people other than the Trumpers/GOP base? Does it appeal to you?
It doesn’t appeal to me — although I think the way it exposed the hypocrisy of white wealthy leftists on mass immigration was well-deserved. And my reader does not factor in the left’s “culture war on steroids” as critical context. I remain open to DeSantis as a GOP alternative to Trump. I’m not without some conflicts about him as a candidate out of that context. Another listener on DeSantis:
He opened clinics around Florida to offer monoclonal antibody therapies widely. These treatments were purchased by the federal government in limited supplies, and Florida broke the allocation system because their cases were off the charts. Then, when Omicron came to town and the monoclonals didn’t work anymore, DeSantis squared off with the FDA to try to keep using them. You read that right: DeSantis fought the feds to keep using an ineffective therapy as the center of his COVID response. That ought to be disqualifying for any further elected office.
This next listener, though, defends DeSantis:
Not nearly enough credit was given to DeSantis on COVID. We know that now. It’s not the “time will tell” that Dexter Filkins was saying on your podcast.
Shutting schools was probably the worst policy blunder of a generation. I’m an elementary school teacher and parent, so I’m biased, but I am furious about school closures (mostly with my union). DeSantis deserves a medal for keeping his schools open.
“Yeah, but I didn’t like his tone.” Fuck that. He was right. Someone needed to knock Dr. “The Science” Fauci off his high horse. Fauci has damaged public trust in public health for a long time. That is real damage.
DeSantis was right. And he did immeasurable good for his constituents. Enough of the parsing. Why should the governor of Florida be smarter on public health than public health experts? Because he followed the science. He can’t be given enough credit for that.
I’m with my reader on this — and on the Dishcast this week with Kyle Harper, we talk about it in more historical context. Another parent and teacher emailed us about Covid concerns a year ago:
Like most parents, I fear my child contracting Covid. My husband and I are vaccinated, but we’d rather not get it. For many others in our situation, this is the predicament: our kids aren’t eligible for vaccination, but they’re (mostly) happier in school. We simply can’t have it both ways right now, so we have to weigh the risks and make an informed decision. It stinks, but dwelling in angst won’t help us arrive at a better decision.
Your comment regarding “the modern cult of total safety for children” struck a chord in me. I’ve been a public high school teacher for 20 years, and due to freakishly lucky timing, I spent this last year on sabbatical leave researching the current generation of teenagers (Gen Z/iGen) in great depth. Safety is a massive theme that emerged from my study. I now understand how the situational fears plaguing parents (such as unapproved vaccinations) fit within a greater whole. This is a force we’ll have to reckon with whether we like it or not.
I couldn’t put my finger on it, but similar to your podcast guest Amy Chua, I noticed a gradual shift in my high school students about 5-7 years ago. While on leave, I wanted to examine their lives from as many angles as possible and write a report for my colleagues. The report is now the size of a book — indicative of the complex forces shaping this generation.
Zooming out (pardon the pun), Gen Z’ers have distinctly individualistic notions of identity (reflected in their incessant use of self-labels). Their unrealistic calls on authority figures to acquiesce to their specific needs can be traced to (at least) two sources: 1) being raised in authoritative, democratic family systems where their input was explicitly sought; and 2) the explosion of Amazon-style customizable products.
On the surface this appears to be an open-and-shut case of entitlement, but I think it stems from the transactional nature of their existence. The kids are the consumers, adults are the providers. It’s a one-way dialogue — voice a complaint, issue gets corrected. Quickly and comfortably, please; they have Snapstreaks to attend to.
The mental gymnastics that older generations rely on to solve everyday problems are foreign to them; human glitches are not fixed with iOS updates. This is a crass analogy, as we’re talking about human beings, not robots, but having witnessed education’s “one device per child” rollout ten years ago, veteran educators like myself see the impact it’s had on learning and communication. Many of us have stopped trying to compete for their attention in class, because we can’t. And while instituting classroom cell phone policies can help, this is harder to do with school-issued devices.
Teenagers spend inordinate amounts of time online viewing vivid — sometimes frightening — imagery around the world. Yet, being online in their bedrooms allows them to do so safely. Parents know their kids would be better off playing and interacting with other kids in person (as most of us did), but we’re subject to the same brain-hijacking algorithms as our kids. We think the world is scarier, and we’ve overcompensated by over-planning and over-monitoring their lives.
They simply don’t have the same skills that Gen X’ers and Boomers had heading off to college. I think this can be a bit deceptive on the surface, because many Gen Z’ers have well-developed verbal skills and can spout off on a variety of topics. But it’s as you observed while working in newsrooms: when they’re asked to “defend” their position (as opposed to simply explaining it), they cave under the pressure and look for an adult to help. The more time goes on, actually, the more I’m convinced it’s their verbal facility catching HR’s attention and alarming managers.
Collectively, however, they lack social communication skills and assume they’re under attack when confronted with logic and reason. A recent Psychology Today article noted 78% of Gen Z is afraid of workplace bullies. I get that I’m a Gen X’er (I suppose that means old) and I entered the workforce during a different time. But of all the fears I had starting my first “real” job, being bullied did not crack the top 25. I find this frustrating because they’re capable of becoming self-assured adults, but they haven’t practiced the skills necessary to become independent.
I think this is where the rubber meets the road. Gen Z has been seduced by the omniscient ruse of their mobile devices. Yet of everything modern technology can fix, it can’t hack their fundamental need for acceptance and community. Fulfilling this need means facing the reality that true friends cannot be customized. Relationships are messy and unpredictable, requiring enormous effort and patience. It’s far easier to shut down the conversation with name-calling and taking offense.
Humility demands setting aside our self-image to be mentally present with people we care about. In the social media age, self-image can be a costly commodity to set aside. Within their peer groups, status is earned through victimhood and virtually piling on the “bully.” This generation is aching to belong, but doesn’t have a secure enough self-identity to understand they can do both.
Another listener circles back to the Linker pod:
Your last few podcasts have been a welcome respite from the interesting albeit frightening delve into the far right. It’s as refreshing to hear normie political banter as it is to see normie political results.
That said, I did find some of your conversation with Linker around Trump voters to be unnecessarily pejorative and even misguided. Many Trump voters aren’t “irrational,” as I think Linker said a few times. Nor do I think they’re particularly attracted to his crudeness, as Linker suggested more than once.
Even outside the mainstream media, Trump is often talked about as a freak show and his supporters as circus-goers. But for many working-class voters, he was one of a very few political candidates to speak in a way that directly and (semi) honestly challenged the status quo. While it might have gotten lost among the antisemitism controversy, Dave Chappelle pegged Trump an “honest liar” in his recent monologue on SNL (at about 9:30 onward):
Chappelle described perfectly Trump’s ability to seem credible in saying, “I’m an elite, and you’re right: We have been fucking you over.”
While I have no doubt there are some Trump voters who are eager just to tell elites to fuck off, most of them I know tolerate Trump’s behavior rather than love it. Or they see it as a means to a most necessary end. When most politicians are mostly just talk, can’t it start to seem appealing — even rational — to choose the guy who will speak openly about the obvious grift of the tax code, the hypocrisy of the revolving door between government and industry interests, et cetera?
An example: A middle-class friend who used to earn solid wages worked to consolidate some debt just before the pandemic while he switched jobs. Beyond the inherent problems of the virus, his career shift made him ineligible for unemployment. Nearly three years later he’s living on payday loans despite immense qualifications in his field. He’s working a shitty union job for lower pay because any risk of an injury or time lost from work would neuter his ability to pay of his debt.
People have a sense, I think, that if he were a company or bank, there’d be a bailout. But a hardworking family man doesn’t get those options as a matter of course. He’s not a Trump voter, but others I know in similar situations — e.g., an old classmate who acquired some college debt to ultimately put his English degree to work as an assistant manager at an AutoZone for mediocre wages — absolutely are #MAGA.
Who other than Bernie and Trump have credibly spoke to these people? Biden made a rudimentary and placating attempt with student debt relief — but even that mostly effects elites and elite-adjacent folks.
Trump speaks directly to everyone else, and regardless of his foul mouth and his own hypocrisy, as Chappelle noted, he at least told the fucking truth of it: In an era of massive wealth, the game of American life is damn near rigged in favor of those who can go to a top school, who can afford to invest, who are a part of our modern bourgeois class, and everyone else is left to fend for themselves.
Are those voters irrational? Are they chasing his colorful language? Or are they just looking to be heard? I don’t know for sure, but I’m certain they’re not quite the picture Linker paints.
And for the record, I am WAY to the left of you politically and couldn’t bring myself to vote for Trump even if he had ran against Hannibal Lecter. I’m just trying to see the other side.
It’s what Dish readers do best. Speaking of Chappelle, another reader:
I just saw Jon Stewart on Colbert defending his friend Dave Chappelle’s SNL monologue, which made use of some anti-semitic tropes to make a larger point. As a Jew, I wasn’t offended by Chappelle and I found myself agreeing with Stewart’s defense of him:
Given your experience on Stewart’s show and how he’s been quite trigger-happy to call someone “racist” or any other label, I imagine you’d find his defense of his friend nauseating or at least highly convenient. But maybe one can hope he’s changed his ways, now that the mob is coming close to his gates, and that he really will engage people in a dialogue and stop the name-calling. He’s right, of course; it’s utterly unproductive. Whenever someone yells out “TERF” or “racist” or “anti-semite” from the sidelines while snickering and high-fiving their friends, they’ve only labeled themselves as someone who isn’t serious about solving the problem.
Truth be told, I’m only acting all sanctimonious now because I’ve taken the time to stop and reflect on the reflexive name-calling and the braindead herd-think I used to engage in. And I have the Dish to thank completely for helping me reach this point. Though I disagree with you on many issues, your podcast and the newsletter have, without exaggeration, given me an intellectual renaissance. (I had outsourced so much of the intellectual heavy lifting of my political life to The Atlantic and Vox.) I’m finally taking responsibility for my own critical thinking.
So thank you and Chris for the brain gym you have provided with the Dish. Your pod conversations with guests from so many disciplines have helped me challenge my own ideas, hear from people I never would have sought out otherwise, and think critically about the frameworks and lenses I use. (Your conversation with Cornel West was the one that really lit the fire in my brain.)
That email cheered me up. By the way, I’m glad Stewart defended Chappelle and comedy’s integrity. I’m glad he violated the taboo on the Covid lab-leak theory on a previous show. I long admired him. His recent emergence as a bigot for the left doesn’t capture his complexity or talent. I’d happily have him on the Dishcast to hash this out.
Lastly, a listener looks to another potential guest:
Here’s a suggestion of a good person for you to interview: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Here’s a recent piece from the Guardian featuring her: “I believe literature is in peril’: [Adichie] comes out fighting for freedom of speech.” And she has thoughts on your “pet” issue — trans stuff!
Below is some remaining discussion over my column on marriage equality:
Your column was an outstanding bit of misdirection to attempt to walk away from the fact that regardless of what you claim, this was a direct assault on marriage that opened the doors to all sorts of non-binary gender roles. But you have to somehow demand your right to change the entire definition of marriage but close the door on those folks you don’t accept. Classic conservative reasoning: the past is rewritten to suit your own prejudice and then claim that it was a conservative decision all along!
Rewritten? The subtitle for my TNR cover story in 1989 was “A (conservative) case for gay marriage.” This next reader mentions that piece:
I literally sat at what was called the “roundtable” — leaders of civil rights organizations committed to advancing civil rights for lesbian, gay and trans persons — in the late ‘90s, as the legal director of an ACLU branch in a deep red state. I was frankly dismayed that the leader of that part of the national ACLU expressed ambivalence, if now outright opposition, to the notion of marriage equality. I supported marriage equality because I could not find any flaw in the proposition that you had advanced almost a decade earlier on the cover of, and in a seminal piece for, the old (God rest its soul) New Republic.
So I’m not surprised, but deeply disappointed, that Chase Strangio would feel “an inexplicable amount of rage” that marriage equality has become the norm. What is Strangio so afraid of? I would never demand that Strangio be shunned or shamed for not joining the “deeply flawed and fundamentally violent institution of civil marriage.”
I would, however, invite him to visit me and my husband in our home, in that deep-red state, to see an example of a flawed (hopefully not too deeply) but fundamentally loving civil marriage, celebrated as soon as possible under civil law, consecrating a union that will mark 20 years in March 2023, having survived various dysfunctions, diseases and disasters, making our way fitfully forward, one day at a time. I can only express compassion that such a life seems so strange to Strangio, and I hope the possibility of marriage might remain open to anyone who might venture into such a mystery.
Another reader also addresses the ACLU lawyer:
You quote Chase Strangio: “I feel an inexplicable amount of rage witnessing the Senate likely overcome the filibuster to vote to codify marriage rights for same-sex couples” … but the Respect for Marriage Act (RFMA) does no such thing. It repeals the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) without codifying marriage rights for same-sex couples. The right to marriage would still be codified only by the states.
DOMA said that if a state allowed same-sex marriages, the federal government could not recognize those marriages (e.g. married same-sex couples could not file taxes jointly with the IRS). With the RFMA, it would have to respect those marriages. DOMA said that the rule that all states must give full faith and credit to the laws of all other states did not apply to same-sex marriage. With the RFMA, states would have to respect each others’ marriages. That is not the codification of same-sex marriage. As the name implies, the Respect for Marriage Act is all about respecting marriages, not creating them.
The Supreme Court said that, under the Constitution, states cannot exclude same-sex couples from marriage. (If a state somehow got away with not permitting opposite-sex marriage, it could also ban same-sex marriage — equality!) If the Court ever reverses itself on that, then the RFMA, if signed into law, would not require any state to allow same-sex marriage and would not codify an alternative federal same-sex marriage. It would, however, require all states to recognize same-sex marriages from other states and require the federal government to respect them as well.
So, Strangio is correct that his rage is “inexplicable.”