Dhaka, Bangladesh
America's 2020 is not like 1968

America's 2020 is not like 1968

Writes Niall Ferguson

The American death toll is rising. An unpopular president fears for his re-election chances. The United States sends men into space. Down on Earth, the economy is in trouble. Racial tensions boil over into rallies, looting and violent confrontations with police in cities across the nation, intensifying political polarization and widening the generational divide. The president considers invoking the 1807 Insurrection Act, which empowers a president to deploy the armed forces and National Guard in any state. Yes, as writers across the political spectrum such as David Frum, James Fallows, Max Boot, Julian Zelizer and Zachary Karabell have pointed out, 2020 is looking a lot like 1968. For Vietnam, read COVID-19. For Lyndon Johnson, read Donald Trump. For Apollo 8's successful orbit of the moon, read the docking of SpaceX's Crew Dragon with the Space Station. And for Washington, Chicago and many other cities in 1968, read Minneapolis, Atlanta and many other cities in the last few weeks. Ah yes, interjected Boston Globe columnist Michael Cohen, but today we are dealing with a pandemic. Actually, they had one in 1968 as well: the Hong Kong flu, caused by the influenza virus A/H3N2, which was ultimately responsible for more than 100,000 excess deaths in the U.S. and a million around the world. It's easy to forget that Woodstock, the following year, was a super-spreader event. True, since Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd in the street outside Cup Foods in Minneapolis on the night of May 25, there have been protests and riots in dozens of American cities. More curfews have been imposed than in any year since, you guessed it, 1968. But is this the correct analogy? Or is the baby-boomers' obsession with their own exciting teenage years leading us, not for the first time, to think too much about the late 20th century and not enough about other, more relevant periods? Like the over-used Weimar analogy, allusions to 1968 are a kind of shorthand - just a superior way of saying, "This is really bad." I'm betting that most of the people bandying these analogies about haven't ever pored over documents from 1968 or 1933. For millennia, historians have noted that pandemics can destabilize the societies they strike. Of the Athenian plague of 430 B.C., Thucydides wrote: "The catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law." Defeat at the hands of Sparta in the Peloponnesian War was followed by a period of political instability, culminating in a temporary breakdown of Athenian democracy in 411 B.C. The two great plagues that struck the Roman Empire - the Antonine Plague (165-180 A.D.), probably a smallpox pandemic, and the Plague of Justinian (542 A.D.), which was a bubonic plague - also weakened the structures of Roman rule, allowing barbarian invaders to make significant inroads. Recent scholarship on England after the Black Death of the 1340s shows that efforts by the landowning class to offset the effects of chronic labor shortages led to escalating tensions that ultimately erupted in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. Across Europe, the Black Death prompted a wave of millenarian movements, notably the flagellant orders, groups of men who roamed from town to town whipping themselves in the belief that acts of penance might ward off the Last Judgment. These religious cults often had a revolutionary undertone and came into conflict with local temporal and spiritual hierarchies. The devastation caused by waves of bubonic and pneumonic plagues - which killed more than a third of the population in many parts of Europe - also led to widespread violence, particularly outbreaks of anti-Semitism. In 1349, for example, the Jewish communities in Cologne, Frankfurt and Mainz were wiped out. Conspiracy theories circulated widely that the Jews had caused the Black Death by poisoning the water supply. The Jews of Strasbourg were offered a choice between conversion and death. Those who refused to convert were burned alive in the Jewish cemetery. The recurrence of bubonic plague in the 1890s led to conflicts between British rulers and their subjects from South Africa to India. In Honolulu and San Francisco, it led to measures that discriminated against the local Asian population. Such ethnic scapegoating often occurred in situations where a disease seemed to take an outsized toll on a specific community. The 1907 and 1916 polio epidemics hit wealthy, white New York especially hard. (In poorer populations, infants were routinely exposed because of bad sanitation, and therefore were more likely to have antibodies.) Southern European immigrants, particularly Italians, were blamed for the outbreak. In short, history shows that pandemics all too often exacerbate existing social tensions between classes and ethnic groups. It also provides numerous examples of quarantines and public social restrictions intensifying citizens' mistrust of the state. In 19th-century Europe, cholera riots were frequent, from St. Petersburg in 1831 to Donetsk in 1892. In North America, smallpox quarantines led mobs to burn down hospitals and police stations. The residents of Marblehead, near Boston, twice rioted against smallpox inoculation, in 1730 and 1773. The spread of COVID-19 from China to the rest of the world, and the generally inept responses of the U.S. authorities to the pandemic, have combined to create perfect conditions for urban unrest. The disease has disproportionately hurt minority communities, especially African-Americans. In the U.S., as in the United Kingdom, people of color are more likely than whites to work in contagion-exposed, low-skilled, "essential" occupations; to live in crowded conditions; and to have co-morbidities such as obesity and diabetes. The economic consequences of lockdowns have also hit African-Americans harder than white Americans. You really don't need 1968 to explain 2020. As a white, middle-aged, upper-middle-class immigrant, I'm hardly the person to speak to the politics of race in America. So I turned to an African-American friend, the economist Roland Fryer, whom I've known since we were colleagues at Harvard. In 2016, he published a brilliant but controversial paper which argued that the police did not disproportionately use lethal violence against African-Americans, though they were more likely to use non-lethal force against them. (Shootings made up more than 90 percent of fatal incidents.) A paper published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences lent strong support to Fryer's thesis.

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