One of the most useful pieces of writing advice anyone ever gave me was that the past, as historians reconstruct it, is very different from the stories we tell ourselves as history unfolds. When I learned this, I was writing a dissertation about crime and the New Deal state, the first draft of this book. I had larded each chapter with references to the Great Depression as if it represented a singular and total framing for everyday life in the 1930s. “You know,” my dissertation advisor said tactfully at one point, “the people you are writing about had lives that were complex and nuanced. They didn’t just wake up every day and say, “`Oh dear, another day of the Great Depression.'”
But now, since we all live in Corona Time, I think they might have done precisely that, at least at the beginning. I believe this because every day, for every person, is now shaped by Covid-19. The days are—sometimes pleasantly, sometimes numbingly—similar. We work. We eat. We read. We exercise. We watch TV. We try not to think about whether it matters that our children, overwhelmed with worksheets, are not actually going to school.
There is, we think (consciously or subconsciously), a danger that we might someday just decide to stay in bed and watch old episodes of Seinfeld, a show that was famously “about nothing.” This error must be prevented. So we read articles about how to look professional on Zoom, why it is not a good idea to wear athleisure all day (despite the Instagram ads that urge us to), what kinds of daily plans will keep us motivated, and how to coax yeast from the air to bake bread as they did in the 17th century. We wonder if Judy Woodruff has really read that biography of Ulysses S. Grant on the shelf behind her and whether we should too.
We ask astronauts and polar explorers for advice about remaining emotionally healthy. As Richard E. Byrd, who led multiple expeditions in the Arctic and the Antarctic, once noted, “little things … have the power to drive even the most disciplined … to the edge of insanity. The ones who survive with a measure of happiness are those who can live profoundly off their intellectual resources, as hibernating animals live off their fat.”
Yet explorers and astronauts also have a goal, an endgame. We do not, outside of remaining alive, because no one knows what the endgame for Covid-19 is. Instead, we have routines, lists, and the internet.
But we have no sense of when this period in history began and how long it will take to emerge from it. Perhaps the strangest thing about Corona Time is that there is no looking forward: there are no visits, no vacations, no workouts on our calendars. There are no hair cuts. There are no errands except for those furtive, anxious trips to the grocery store. For some of us, there is work–but sometimes it seems that we work on principle, not because anyone would know if we didn’t.
As historian Joan Scott puts it in the first of the three reflections that lead off our issue, “We are experiencing the Covid-19 crisis as a long season of indeterminacy. When will it end? How will it end?” But perhaps, she argues, we should occupy ourselves with a critical analysis of how we got here, one that empowers us to refuse to return to that “normal” life. Arthur Goldhammer reminds us that although history is inherently tragic, “Tragic reversals of fortune are all the more devastating because they are rare and therefore take us by surprise.” Jonathan Catlin and Ben Davis conclude this section with a curated conversation “reflecting on the history of the present and the possibilities of the future.”
By the time you read this post, there will be almost 20,000 dead from Covid-19 in New York City alone. Using data mapping, our friends at The New School’s Urban Systems Lab show “how the structural inequities in cities that we already know are driving climate injustice, may also be driving COVID-19 injustice[.]” John Ehrenreich examines why governments were so unprepared for this crisis. “It was predictable,” he writes, “that an epidemic like this would happen sooner or later and that governmental responses worldwide would be inadequate.” Janet Roitman looks at our economic future, a story told in a dizzying array of letters worthy of Sesame Street. “No matter the letter of the alphabet, there are two lessons we need to learn,” she writes: growth does not equal a healthy economy, and the American economy was ailing long before Covid-19.
Finally, we get back to politics. Judit Szakács explores the profitable business of disinformation, an industry that drives political instability in Europe. Amy Traub investigates the Trump administration’s determination to destroy the United States Post Office, a bastion of unionized African-American jobs. Finally, John Stoehr asks: why does the GOP hate America?
As we make the turn into the eighth week since New York City shut down, we realize that time is passing: our students are graduating; trees and flowers are blooming. It is almost summer. We are still alive, and when we realize that we are happy.
Tomorrow we will once again wake up and say to ourselves: “Another day of Covid-19.”
Claire Potter is co-executive editor of Public Seminar and Professor of History at The New School for Social Research. You can tweet with her @TenuredRadical. Subscribe to her Substack, Political Junkie, here.