New York, New York, a hell of a town. We are hunkered down, and who knows when we will hunker up. For the past few years, online mobs have enjoyed the lubricious thrill of the “cancel culture” they have created—tanking careers and livelihoods and reputations. Well, welcome to the real cancel culture, where there are no basketball games, no parades, no large parties, and in short order, maybe no live theater, no movies, no nothing.
I turn 59 this month. I feel like I have lived through four unprecedented events in my lifetime. The first two were glorious: In 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. In 1989, we watched as the Berlin Wall was brought down by revelers with pickaxes—with the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Evil Empire to follow.
The third was the opposite of glorious: 9/11. I lived in Brooklyn Heights at the time, with a window that looked out on Lower Manhattan and Ground Zero a mile away as the crow flew. I watched for months as a black-and-purple gash in the sky hovered over the site like a demonic version of the divine “pillar of cloud” that followed the Hebrews as they journeyed out of Egypt. When the wind changed, I could smell the burning plastic from the cords and electrical equipment that had helped create the sky gash.
The coronavirus is the fourth. Now, I am by nature both an optimist and an anti-alarmist. My usual reaction to warnings about dangers is a deep skepticism followed by an almost irrational annoyance. This is due in part to the common discussion in the United States over the past half-century. It inclines toward hysteria—hysteria that usually has a larger ideological and often anti-capitalist purpose.
The number of things we’ve been told were going to kill us that didn’t—products like alar, salt (called “The New Villain” on a 1982 Time magazine cover), saccharin, nitrites in hot dogs, and supposed threats like nuclear winter, population growth, acid rain, the list goes on and on—has made my bullshit detector uncommonly sensitive and possibly hyperactive.
And so I greeted reports of the virus with usual calm. After all, hadn’t we been here before, with bird flu and SARS and MERS and H1N1—all global terrors that entirely evaded me, my family, my friends, even my enemies? How bad could this be, really? Besides which, I have been blessed with ridiculously, even unjustly good health (considering how I might fairly be accused of having abused the gift).
But I am part of an active Jewish community in New York, and we are almost all one degree of separation from one another—and when a lawyer living in New Rochelle came down with the coronavirus and gave it to a child of his at a day school in Riverdale, it wasn’t even a week before it became clear I could not risk visiting my nonagenarian parents because I was too close to the outbreak and they were in the highest of high-risk groups.
It seems like once again, Jews are the canaries in the coal mine. It’s like the old joke: “Lord, would You mind choosing someone else for a change?”
If we do not respond properly to this pandemic, some blame will have to be laid at the feet of our Chicken Little culture. We live in a wondrously free and prosperous country whose residents are constantly being bombarded with messages that they are at existential risk when they are not. The irresponsibility of that hysteria-mongering is now all too painfully clear.
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