In the latest City Journal, Peter Huber offers a must-read essay on our society’s acute and growing vulnerability to infectious disease. As he notes, it is a problem that many at the highest levels of government are downright obsessed with these days, and rightfully so.
In recent years, that obsession has been most evident in federal efforts to prepare for a potential epidemic of the “bird flu.” Avian influenza, we’ve been told, could be the next major global pandemic, on par with the deadly flu outbreak that killed tens of millions worldwide (including about 675,000 Americans) in 1918. Our government has devoted enormous energies and funds to the effort to prepare: undertaking exercises and “war-games,” producing a massive response plan, sending top officials to brief state and local leaders on what they would need to do in the event of an outbreak, and spending billions on the effort to stockpile both vaccines and treatments.
Among the key lessons of that process (a process in which I played a tiny part as a White House domestic-policy staffer) is one Huber does not address in his piece: the unprecedented vulnerability of our way of life to any disruption that causes large numbers of Americans to skip work. Staying home, especially if your job involves travel, is a logical reaction to an infectious disease outbreak, and public health officials are inclined to recommend doing so in the case of a serious epidemic.
Sign and Sight has translated a long article by Die Zeit‘s music critic Volker Hagedorn on the Alban Berg Quartet, one of the world’s pre-eminent string quartets. After a career spanning 40 years, the quartet will be retiring from the stage at the end of the next performance season.
Founded in 1967 by the Austrian violinist Günther Pichler and comprising Pichler, violinist Gerhard Schulz, cellist Valentin Erben, and violist Thomas Kakuska, the quartet made championing the work of 20th-century composers its fundamental principle. (Though the group did not, by any means, neglect the work of past masters, producing important recordings of Beethoven’s string quartets.) The quartet soon became one of the most widely heard and well-beloved in Europe.
Next Sunday, France will hold its first round of balloting for a new president. This is the first of three posts on the leading candidates by the French editor and journalist Michel Gurfinkiel. A longer and more in-depth look by Gurfinkiel at the condition of present-day France will be coming out in the May issue of COMMENTARY.
Nicolas Sarkozy is the candidate for the presidency of France best known in America—and the most popular, since he is as pro-American and as knowledgeable in all things American as a French political leader can be. A short, thin man with an angular face, ribbed eyebrows, and big dark eyes, he looks a bit like a character in an El Greco painting. French cartoonists, however, tend to portray him as a turbulent, devilish little figure. In spite of being born and raised in the affluent West End of Paris, he speaks with a hoarse, almost working-class, accent. But his command of the French language and his talent as a debater are truly astounding: he was trained as a lawyer and graduated at the Paris Institute for Political Science. No less astounding is his meteoric political career: mayor of Neuilly, a posh suburb of Paris and one of the wealthiest townships of France, at twenty-eight; member of the National Assembly at thirty-three; budget minister at thirty-eight. Before the age of forty, he had achieved membership in the charmed circle of French political leaders thought to have un destin national—a real shot at the presidency, in American English.