Like any longtime pundit, I’m leery of predictions. But it’s almost Christmas and record numbers of Americans are dying of Covid19 or suffering from it or grieving or nursing their loved ones, and the rest of us are exhausted and depressed, so fuck it. I need something to get me through the next three months. So here goes.
Next year is going to be epic. It will be a year of rapid economic growth, extraordinary medical triumph, huge psychological relief, mind-numbing political normalcy, and pent-up social liberation. It will be lit. The summer will be remembered as the most hedonistic since the 1980s. There will be parties; there will be orgies; we will drink and do drugs; we will travel in unprecedented numbers; and after a grim year of withdrawal, fear, anxiety, and solitude, we will become human again.
Of course, if that doesn’t guarantee catastrophe, nothing will.
But there are plenty of reasons, apart from countering depression, for more than optimism. Allow me to count them. First and foremost, Donald J. Trump will not be president. Savor that for a moment. Remember how he has invaded our minds and souls and even dreams for years. But in 2021, there will be days you don’t have to flinch at every ping of a news alert, when the constant possibility of a sudden lurch of despair in your gut recedes, days when you don’t have to think about him. It’s happening already. When did Trump last control a news cycle? He’s fading like the Cheshire Cat, leaving just the trace of a sneer.
He’s not going away, of course. He’ll be ranting and tweeting and emoting and lying and calling in to OANN. But we will not be forced to look at his painted clown-face, or pathetic coif, or absorb his malignant, careening moods. To have that kind of cray-cray person yelling maniacally out there is one thing. Just join Parler. To have him in charge of the entire country is quite another. I don’t think we’ve fully absorbed yet the psychological toll a madman with such power has inflicted on so many of us for five years. But imagine it going away!
What makes 2021 more than just a change of regime, however, is that this massive psychic relief for half the country will almost certainly be accompanied by an end to the plague and the end of the winter. No Trump; no quarantine; no viral fear; and the rites of Spring. And more: a near-inevitable V-shaped economic rebound.
On that front, Josh Barro recently assembled some key reasons for optimism. Among them: “Household savings have been extremely high — because of government aid payments, yes, but also because of reduced consumption and lower interest rates. All told, the increased savings rate means households will have saved an extra $1.5 trillion or so more this year than if they saved at the same rate as they did over the prior four years.” That’s a lot of pent-up demand. Neil Dutta also notes a backlog of houses being sold before they’re bought: a great sign for contraction spending. The dollar is weaker, helping exports; inventories are too low.
Another Roaring Twenties? The analogy isn’t perfect, and I’m not the first to invoke it, but it’s close enough. The 1918 flu pandemic, which took almost 700,000 lives in the US, and the end of the First World War, were followed by a sharp contraction. In 1920, unemployment surged, GDP plunged, just like this year. But a big, sudden economic dip turned into a V-shaped recovery that lasted a decade: “American consumers, who had patriotically scrimped and saved during wartime, began to live it up. Europeans also joined in, purchasing $8 billion in exports from America. Inflation ticked upward, and so did prices, but consumers were willing to pay anything for a taste of freedom.”
In the 1920s, even the most flu-stricken regions recovered. Laura Spinney, in her book, “Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918”, notes that “when economists Elizabeth Brainerd and Mark Siegler looked at state-by-state flu mortality rates and compared them with personal income for the following decade, they found a striking correlation: the higher the death rate, the higher the growth in per capita income throughout the 1920s.” And these boom-after-trauma years were heralded by the landslide election of Warren Harding in 1920. He won, rather like Biden just did, by promising a return to normalcy: “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment.”
And history has plenty of precedents for post-plague booms. The Black Death devastated the population but, for that very reason, gave the remaining peasants much more leverage for higher wages. Landowners, in response, tried to figure out how to farm with fewer workers; publishers tried to produce books with fewer scribes; and the result was a surge in productivity over time. Efficiency began to matter. The historian David Herlihy put it this way: “Plague … broke the Malthusian deadlock … which threatened to hold Europe in its traditional ways for the indefinite future.” Similarly, after the Great Plague and Great Fire of London in 1666 and 1667, the capital was “built back better,” so to speak, with vast infrastructure investments, sewers and roads and buildings in mandatory stone and brick, crowned by Wren’s new Saint Paul’s Cathedral.
Then there are the parties. During but especially after most plagues in history, live-for-the-moment hedonism was always there. After the Black Death, Boccacio lamented the sudden burst of drinking, fucking, and acting out: “Nor is it the laity who alone do this. Nay, even those who are shut in the monasteries, persuading themselves that what befitteth and is lawful to others alike sortable and unforbidden unto them, have broken the laws of obedience and giving themselves to carnal delights, thinking thus to escape, are grown lewd and dissolute.” Even the monks partied.
The same happened after 1918. There was a big baby boom in the 1920s — with a whole generation marked as “sons of the flu” — many, horrifyingly, the products of rape. In Britain, 1920 still holds the record as the biggest year for newborns in history. And as Spinney notes, Rio’s 1919 Carnival was one of its bawdiest ever: “Newspapers documented the ‘unusual joy’ that engulfed the city. ‘We had a party’ wrote one chronicler, with droll understatement; ‘the binge was full’, another. ‘Carnival began and overnight, customs and modesty became old, obsolete, spectral … Folks started to do things, think things, feel un-heard of and even demonic things’”.
Fashions changed sharply to become more risqué; and Prohibition only intensified the desire to let things rip. The Cabaret culture in Weimar Germany; the bright young things of London and Paris; the flappers and the bootleggers and the speakeasies and the endless dancing and newly scandalous “petting parties” were all familiar features of the post-plague West. The wealthy also lost any inhibitions about flaunting their possessions, clothes and cars; and the younger generation, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s words, “brusquely shouldered my contemporaries out of the way and danced into the lime-light … A whole race going hedonistic, deciding on pleasure.” Something similar happened after the AIDS epidemic relented. Many gay men, finding it hard to process what they had just gone through, sought refuge in sex again, but this time with crystal meth, plunging them into a vortex of hedonism that verged on nihilism.
There are caveats to this kind of post-plague giddiness, of course. For those with lost family members and friends, the end of a plague can feel like the beginning of mourning, rather than the end of it. So many in this pandemic have lost loved ones — and been barred from their hospital beds as they died, or denied funerals and memorial services which can help them process loss. There’s pent-up grief as well as energy. Health workers will doubtless feel bewildered (and emotionally exhausted) as the emergency ends. And there will be for some a refusal to accept the good news, as Camus described in “The Plague”. You can become psychologically attached to crisis. Some will be social distancing for months after it is unnecessary. But the impulse to leave 2020 behind, if the past is any guide, will gather pace.
Maybe this time will be a little different because we were shielded from much of the raw agony and trauma — occurring in hospitals we couldn’t visit, or nursing homes cut off from the wider world, and concentrated in the older generation. In 1918, you were surrounded by young and strong and healthy people collapsing in the streets, hideous symptoms like projectile nose-bleeds, blackened faces and lips, and skin that crackled with bubbles of trapped air. That is a lot harder to recover from, which is why most Americans sought escapism instead.
But even in 1919, the vast majority recovered or didn’t get sick at all, like today. And in the wake of war and disease, the impulse to forget about it all, to cast the whole trauma into oblivion, was deep and real. The reason this immense event disappeared so quickly in the public consciousness is because so many wanted it to. Jen Gerson has a lovely treatment of this phenomenon here.
And we will want to forget this too. With a new president, a new season, a miraculous set of vaccines, and a booming economy, it will be easier to put Covid behind us than it might otherwise have been. And we can tell ourselves a different kind of story than in 1919. The difference between this plague and every one before AIDS is that it didn't blow itself out. We put an end to it. The passivity and fatalism that marked many human experiences of plague are, in this moment, avoidable. We can rightly see this turning point as a real scientific breakthrough, with vast implications for tackling plague viruses in the future.
And freezing a society for a while, putting the entire social order on hold, allowing ourselves to think again and reassess where we are and where we were, has consequences, many of which we cannot know at all right now. I explored this theme in an essay earlier this year. Whole industries will be re-imagined; careers will change; people will move; workplace patterns will permanently shift; babies will be born in larger numbers; the younger generation will rise; and the culture itself will throb with renewed energy.
That this future is unknowable is partly why it’s so invigorating. Coop an entire society up for a year, suppress all the human instincts to be together, surround everyone with fear and caution … and then set them all free. The end of this epidemic is coming. We know that now. We can see it in the future. And can almost taste it. So get ready to party. Because 2021 will rock.
(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. If you’re not subscribed and want to read the whole thing, and keep independent media thriving on Substack, subscribe now! This week’s issue is probably our best yet. It includes reader dissents over my Christianist column on Trump; more dissents over the ongoing All Black Lives Matter thread; an update to my longtime thread on male genital mutilation; a new podcast episode; a new Yglesias Award for Yglesias; a prophetic Quote For The Week; a hopeful Face Of The Week; another Mental Health Break from the South Park guys; more window views, and, as always, a new challenge for the View From Your Window contest, set to arrive on Christmas Day. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)
New On The Dishcast: Meghan Daum
She’s the author of many books — the latest being The Problem with Everything: My Journey Through the New Culture Wars — and she’s the host of her own podcast, Unspeakable. I hadn’t met Meghan until this week, but it was a pleasure. We talked about our generation; what it feels like, if anything, to be a man or woman; the truthful hyperboles of wokeness and Trump; the poison of Twitter; the lessons of facing death early, and the benefits of solitude. It was a blast.
To listen to two clips from my conversation with Meghan — on the difference between gender outliers and outsiders; and how both of us had near-death experiences — head over to our YouTube page. Listen to the whole episode here. That Dishcast post includes the best and most thorough refutation of my profound worries about American democracy I have yet read. From a Dish reader, of course. So glad to be back in conversation with the smartest, sanest readership on the web.
Do All Black Lives Matter? Or Just Some? Ctd
Two weeks ago, I began my column on civilian violence against black Americans with the story of Travis Nagdy, the charismatic young BLM activist shot dead in a car-jacking. Now your heart just breaks further:
Hours after protest leader Travis Nagdy was shot and killed in late November, Kris Smith remembered the young man fondly. “He’s gonna be missed over here, because he was really one of the good ones,” Smith told The Courier Journal at the time. Today, those who knew Smith have found themselves saying similar things about the 42-year-old business owner who was a regular at protests over the death of Breonna Taylor. On Friday [Dec 11], Smith was shot and killed in the 200 block of North 26th Street …
The carnage never seems to end in black America. A reader keeps the discussion going:
The issue isn’t so much about the value of black lives, but rather the psychological cost of black deaths. Focusing on the 3 percent of killings caused by the police allows activists to face a problem that could be conquered, because law enforcement has a structure that can be attacked. Facing the anonymous majority of black-on-black shootings is less rewarding because it’s like punching smoke.
This dissent — and some moving, anguished others — continue here. We also make a callout to readers to share their story of family fracture over this difficult debate, so please click through if you’d like to contribute.
The View From Your Window Contest
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The results for the last week’s window are coming in a separate email to subscribers later today. (You can always view prior contests on our archive page.)
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The main Weekly Dish is taking a break over Christmas, but for the window contest, see you next Friday.