The Roaring Twenties

In early July, for our wedding anniversary, we spent eight days in New York. This was our first vacation since 2019, and pretty much our first time we’d travelled more than 200 km from our house since the pandemic began. (Excepting a solo visit to my parents in early May.)

New York, as always, was a delight. We saw some great plays – including two, American Buffalo (with Laurence Fishburne and Guy Fleegman himself, Sam Rockwell – both excellent) and Moulin Rouge (which, although it gave us lots to talk about, was actually very disappointing – I might write about it later) – that I had purchased tickets to see in March 2020. We managed to score tickets for a fantastic Richard III in Central Park. We wandered the galleries in Chelsea and the Lower East Side. I got to see the Mets lose to the Marlins in 10 innings.

On a more-sour note, the Rogers outage was more than a casual annoyance. We were intermittently unable to use, alternately, our credit card and our debit card to pay for trifles such as a metro card and food. Plus, there’s nothing like losing your internet service to make you realize how much you’ve come to depend on your phone’s GPS to get around. But that was only one day, and any day that ends with pizza at John’s of Bleecker Street can only be judged an overall good time.

We also managed to avoid catching COVID, no small accomplishment given that New York City, like Ontario, is in the middle of yet another wave. New Yorkers, like Canadians, have mostly stopped trying to protect themselves and others from the pandemic. Restaurants are open for indoor dining, galleries like the MoMa are packed to capacity, and hardly anybody is wearing masks in indoor or crowded settings. The main exception here being service workers, almost all of whom we saw were masked up.

For our part, we always masked when we were indoors, except for our hotel room, where we ran a HEPA air purifier constantly. Instead of flying or taking the train, we drove the seven hours to New York, parking across the river in New Jersey (for less than the cost of a single plane ticket!) and taking the ferry into town. Between the novelty of our means of entry to Manhattan, the scenic drive and being able to avoid the unpleasantness of air travel, I highly recommend driving to New York over flying, if you can.

We only ate outdoors – not a great sacrifice in the summer, since New York restaurants have done their very best to make curbside dining not only possible, but enjoyable. (Toronto, take note.) We spent a lot of time hanging out in Tompkins Square and Washington Square Parks reading and dog-watching, always part of our New York trips. We marked our anniversary with an exquisite, unforgettable meal in the Musket Room’s courtyard herb garden/patio.

We masked outside as well, any time we were in a crowd, which we treated as any more than a few people on a block. And it really wasn’t a burden, especially given that, well, we’re still in the midst of a pandemic.

I don’t know the precise percentage of New Yorkers who were masked, and it sometimes depended on the venue: American Buffalo still had a mask mandate in place, so pretty much everyone was masked, but most of the (younger) Moulin Rouge crowd wasn’t, hardly anyone at the Mets game, and of course everyone eating indoors was maskless. Maybe 5% overall?

I can say that the number was just high enough to make you think you weren’t crazy for wearing a mask and treating the pandemic for the ongoing crisis that it is.

The Roaring 2020s

Taking a step back, it’s an odd mix: our rejuvenating vacation, against the backdrop of a deadly and debilitating global pandemic and a population – including their government and institutions – that has failed to rise to the task of addressing it. We had a great time, in a city in which individuals have been left to fend for themselves while most go about their lives, presumably having just as good a time as we were, but unconcerned with the pernicious and potentially deadly effects of their actions on themselves and others. And in the background, a deadly reckoning looms, of collapsing health systems, debilitating Long COVID, and persistently and needlessly high death rates.

Is this what the 1920s were like?

That tragic decade was bookended by World War I and the spectre of the murderous Nazi regime and World War II, the two wars usually seen as linked. The Roaring 20s as euphoric interregnum.

History may not repeat exactly, but it sometimes rhymes. In this case, we have the initial 2020 COVID outbreak and global, comprehensive (if insufficient) actions to deal with it. However, despite all the “welcome back” and “we missed you” signs throughout New York, the pandemic is not over. Infection, hospitalization and death rates continue their grim march, abetted by an attitude that is, at its heart, a denial of reality.

The same goes for Canada and elsewhere, but Americans are also dealing with political trauma. Those who have yet to succumb to the Republican Party’s far-right anti-democratic extremism are still recovering from the Trump presidency’s constitutional depravities.

It’s surely no coincidence that the Public Theatre, which is responsible for Central Park’s iconic annual Shakespeare in the Park chose this year to mount Richard III, a tale of an amoral, murderous king’s rise and (eventual) defenestration. In one scene, King Richard, played by an almost-too-majestic Danai Gurira (aka Okoye from Black Panther), attempts to demonstrate his virtuousness by holding a Bible in exactly the same awkward manner that Trump did for his “violence-enabled photo op” during the 2020 Black Lives Matters protests.

Richard III’s parallels with Trump are undeniable: the indignities Richard puts his court through as they still profess loyalty to this monster uncomfortably parallels the Republican Party’s fatal embrace of Trump and Trumpism.

However, from the vantage point of 2022, the play’s ending – where the forces of good rise up and overthrow the tyrant – reads more like revenge fantasy than anything else. It seems an unearned ending for a country where anti-democratic forces have successfully turned their Supreme Court from an institution of laws to one of far-right Republican politics, where Democrats face the loss of power thanks to a gerrymandered House, a Senate hamstrung by the filibuster and a system that gives 40% of Americans control over 60% of sets, and a presidency shaped by the undemocratic Electoral College. Add to that a Democratic Party that seems unequal to the monumental task of staving off Republican authoritarianism, and it’s hard to see the current moment as anything more than a brief break in the storm that is already starting to engulf the American Republic.

And all of this is taking place against the ultimate backdrop of the climate emergency, on which the US Senate has effectively prevented the United States from addressing it in any meaningful way.

Cognitive dissonance: The plague of the 2020s

In all three cases, governments, abetted by their populations, have been unwilling and/or unable to take the steps necessary to stave off disaster. Cognitive dissonance, not COVID, is the defining disease of the early 2020s. The result of inaction and inattention will almost certainly – has already been – needless suffering, misery and death.

Actually fixing the problems of climate change, COVID and a collapsing democracy, of course, require collective action. Unfortunately, very little of what’s happened over the past two years suggests that either the United States or the rest of the world, governments or any other organizations, have the will to take the actions needed to stave off or mitigate disaster.

Early in the pandemic, opeds looking for lessons Albert Camus’ 1947 masterwork The Plague were something of a cottage industry. The Plague isn’t talked about so much these days – most likely because of the collective decision to ignore as much as possible the ongoing pandemic – but its lessons are more relevant today than ever.

Camus intended The Plague as an allegory for life under fascism. He was concerned with the question of how we, as individuals, as people, should act when we find ourselves – as the French did under the Nazis in the 1940s – living under an inhumane, anti-democratic, fascist government. Our responsibility, he suggested, is the same as when dealing with a plague, or pandemic, whether the government is working for or against the public interest. Our responsibility is always to the truth of the situation, no matter how uncomfortable.

Most importantly, he argued, we all have a responsibility to do our best not to spread the virus, whether it be fascist ideology and action or biological. This responsibility is not dependent on government decrees.

In the case of our current pandemic, even though governments have effectively declared the pandemic over, our fundamental moral and ethical obligations to each other have not changed: don’t spread the virus. Get vaccinated. Wear a mask. And, where you can, work to change public policy to be less callous toward human life.

Dealing with the collapse of democracy in the United States – to say nothing of the climate emergency – will be more difficult, and Canada won’t be spared the difficult individual and collective decisions that we will have to take in self-defense. In this sense, the individual and collective reckonings around the end of legalized abortion access in the US are a preview of what’s to come. But our obligations to ourselves and each other will stay the same, even in the absence of the hope of meaningful systemic action.

And so we wear masks, while on vacation, in New York, in our calm before the storm.

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1 Response to The Roaring Twenties

  1. Franziska Emslie says:

    Thank you for such an excellent, thought-provoking read for my Tuesday morning, Blayne!

    Franziska Emslie
    Donor Stewardship Manager
    YWCA Niagara Region

    905 329 6977
    176 Oakdale Ave, St. Catharines, L2P 2K9

    For thousands of years, indigenous peoples have walked on this land; their relationship with the land is at the center of their lives and spirituality. I believe it is important to acknowledge my presence on the ancestral lands governed by the Dish With One Spoon Wampum agreement between the settlers, the Haudenosaunee and the Anishinaabe Peoples. In a spirit of reconciliation, may we always seek to respect the history, spirituality, and culture of Indigenous Peoples.
    Acknowledging territory is a beginning and not an ending in terms of our work towards truth and reconciliation.

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