Current Affairs

Revisiting Written in Stone, A Guest Post by Sanford Levinson

svl55-largeSanford Levinson holds the W. St. John Garwood and W. St. John Garwood, Jr. Centennial Chair in Law at the University of Texas Law School. In today’s guest post he writes about how his 1998 book Written in Stone continues to be relevant but in constant need of updating. We published a 20th Anniversary Edition in 2018. Through August 31, 2020 we are offering a 40% discount on the book with coupon code STONE40. We hope you’ll consider adding it to your reading list or syllabus.

This fall, for the third time, I will be teaching a “reading course” at the Harvard Law School on “Monuments and Memorialization.” Needless to say, among the readings is my Duke University Press book Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies. Originally published in 1998, the Press published a second edition in 2018, with what turned out to be a new afterword of some 20,000 words, together with a new cover—a picture of Robert E. Lee’s statue being removed from Lee Circle in New Orleans—and a variety of other new photographs of controversial monuments. When the second edition was initially planned in 2016, the thought was that I would write a new afterword of about 5,000 words and that the new edition would be published in early 2018 (at the latest). As John Lennon famously sang, though, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Among the things that happened between initial plan and publication in September 2015 was the massacre in Charleston, the 2016 March in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the ensuing taking down of many monuments, particularly in the states of the Confederacy. And, of course, at the present time the entire country is experiencing the aftermath of the murder by a Minneapolis police officer of George Floyd in Minneapolis, including the renewed attention on monuments (and building names) across the country. For example, Lake Calhoun, in Minneapolis, named after John C. Calhoun, the leading defender of the slavocracy in his long career in American politics, was renamed, though not without controversy, Bde Maka Ska, described by the Minneapolis Star Tribune as “its original Dakota name.

Written in StoneGiven events in Minneapolis; Richmond, Virginia; Bristol, England; and Brussels, Belgium, to name only and handful of recent locales where monuments have come down or places renamed, friends have encouraged me to prepare a third edition of Written in Stone. There is a good reason for not doing so at the present time: Such an edition, at least at this time, would have to be published in a loose-leaf version! As I prepare my syllabus for the course this fall, I find myself revising it almost literally every day, as new actions are undertaken and arguments presented. Just this week, toward the end of June, 2020, for example, it appears very likely that Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Virginia, will drop Robert E. Lee’s name, though, no doubt, some students, both African-American and white, might at least wonder why the slaveowning George Washington deserves continued honor.

And Princeton University, after deciding in 2018 to retain Woodrow Wilson’s name for its eminent School of Public Affairs, announced that it would drop it. Princeton President Christopher L. Eisgruber wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post explaining his own change of mind. Eisgruber took note of “Wilson’s genuine achievements,” not to mention his centrality to the development of Princeton because of his service as one of Eisgruber’s predecessors. Wilson, therefore, “is a far different figure than John C. Calhoun or Robert E. Lee, people whose pro-slavery commitments defined their careers and who were sometimes honored for the purpose of supporting segregation or racism. Princeton honored Wilson without regard to, and perhaps even in ignorance of, his racism.” Eisgruber now believes that “ignorance” was “precisely the problem. Princeton is part of an America that has too often disregarded, ignored and turned a blind eye to racism, allowing the persistence of systems that discriminate against black people….”  There is nothing innocent about naming programs or buildings. “When a university names its public policy school for a political leader, it inevitably offers the honoree as a role model for its students. However grand some of Wilson’s achievements may have been, his racism disqualifies him from that role.” It is no longer possible to “disregard or ignore racism when deciding whom we hold up to our students as heroes or role models…. Our commitment to eliminate racism must be unequivocal, and that is why we removed the name of Princeton’s modern-day founder from its School of Public and International Affairs.”

Fortunately, Written in Stone, especially in its expanded second edition, pays extended attention to a number of analyses of policies about monuments that were prepared at a variety of universities, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Duke, and the University of Texas, as well as by a special committee appointed by the Mayor of New York. I also treat at length an absolutely remarkable speech by former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu explaining his decision to remove a number of Confederate statues from the city’s public space, including the aforementioned one of Robert E. Lee.

At the present time, there are two central issues at the forefront of the controversy over monuments and memorialization. First, who exactly deserves the kind of public honor that is conveyed, say, by a statue in front of a major public building? In New York City, for example, a statue of Theodore Roosevelt in front of the New York Museum of Natural History that was explicitly considered by the Mayor’s Committee, which recommended against removing it, has now been slated for removal because it demeans African- and Native-Americans in placing them in a decidedly subordinate position to Roosevelt atop his horse. Many statues of Christopher Columbus are being removed, not to mention, of course, the myriad of statues honoring those who took up arms against the United States in 1861-65 and vigorously advocated the maintenance of white supremacy (including lynchings) thereafter. Some of these examples seem quite easy to resolve. Others, as with Roosevelt, Columbus, or Woodrow Wilson, appear considerably more difficult.

But, especially to a lawyer like myself, a second important issue involves the process by which decisions to remove (or maintain) statues or to rename buildings or, as in Minnesota, lakes, should be made. Even if one heartily approves, for example, of attempts to remove the slaveowning and anti-Native American Andrew Jackson’s statue from Lafayette Park, in Washington, one can, at the same time, be disturbed if that decision, in effect, is made by demonstrators (or, as some people might describe them, a “mob”). It is not simply that a structured process would give people an opportunity to make a variety of conflicting arguments, with the final decision made by bodies ranging from a city council to the voters in a local referendum; rather, it is almost certainly also the case that the losers who might lament the demotion of their own “heroes” from the public square might at least feel somewhat mollified if they felt they had a fair opportunity to make their arguments and they lost “fair and square.”

Q&A with Alex Blanchette

Alex Blanchette is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Environmental Studies at Tufts University and coeditor of How Nature Works: Rethinking Labor on a Troubled Planet. In his newest book, Porkopolis: American Animality, Standardized Life, and the Factory Farm, Blanchette explores how the daily lives of a Midwestern town that is home to a massive pork complex were reorganized around the life and death cycles of pigs while using the factory farm as a way to detail the state of contemporary American industrial capitalism.

How did this project start? What first led you to study the industrialized agrarian town you call Dixon in the book, which residents refer to as one of “the red meat capital[s] of the world?”

The gist is that I wanted to live in what is arguably the most “industrialized” of American industrial meat towns. Porkopolis started as a doctoral dissertation in the mid-2000s. At that time, the area where I grew up was seeing (in retrospect, relatively modest) growth in confinement animal agriculture. One impetus for the research was to inhabit a possible future for my home region. Agribusiness corporations in Dixon birthed and killed about 7,000,000 hogs per year through the labor of some 5,000 people. They were amongst the most vertically integrated meat production facilities—meaning that they control and derive profit from every stage of the species’ life and death, from genetics facilities all the way to bone-rendering plants. And they purported to be generating the world’s most uniform animal at scale. These companies appeared to be expressing a teleology for the future of agricultural capitalism. They were claiming viable paths for the renewed industrialization of an organism that already bears the weight of some 150 years of accumulated industrial engineering. This opened up the question of what labor with these overworked animals tells us about the very old yet ongoing intensification of industrial processes in swathes of a supposedly ‘post-industrial’ United States. And it is how I ultimately arrived at the ethnographic method and terms of critique that Porkopolis develops. Rather than a typical meat exposé that paints these places and the people who work within them as morally deviant or exceptional from American norms, the book moves across the modern hog’s life and death to examine fledgling workplace struggles and the consequences of trying to find new value in an intensely-valued organism. It takes hog life as an icon of our exhausted late industrial present.

Many studies of industrial farming focus on the harm caused to either the animals or the workers. You argue that the factory creates a “human-pig entanglement” with wide-reaching implications. How are humans in the factory managed in relation to pigs’ needs?

Ethnographic research taught me that centering analytical focus on either “human” or “animal” well-being has become a tough distinction to maintain. The states of human labor and hog bodies are intertwined in these agribusinesses. And though they are presently conjoined to mobilize projects for industrial growth, it also presents the possibility of political interventions that do not see human and animal interests as antithetical.  Most simply, making uniform hogs at scale—for branding purposes, or for increasing line speeds at the kill stage—has come to require a lot of specialized work. Whether it is someone who exclusively works on intensifying hog instincts in artificial insemination, or someone who makes 10,000 repetitive cuts of the left shoulder every day, realizing more standardized hog bodies requires some people to gain unique, intimate, and even potentially radical knowledge of particular dimensions of swine. 

Yet, further capitalizing on animal bodies—while maintaining existing scales of concentration—has also led to attempts to remake human life and labor. For instance, managers felt compelled to intervene in employees’ living arrangements outside of work to reduce the risk of hog diseases from the slaughterhouse transferring across human bodies and infecting barns of pigs. Taken-for-granted forms of nuclear kinship and household-making practices were becoming threats in terms of their effects on pig proliferation. This led companies to enact forms of social distancing ideals to protect hog growth, well before this practice became a common term to protect human health in the wake of COVID-19. Conversely, the very physical composition of the hog, I would argue, is inseparable from the state of rural labor. Using pig genetics that are very fecund but also biophysically fragile necessitates a lot of work to care for and regularize piglet bodies. The sustenance of these capitalist pigs requires low-paid (yet knowledgeable) labor. I do not think we can easily separate racial projects to further cheapen labor today from how industrial animals physically appear on farms. A constellation of things—precarity-making squads such as ICE, discourses that frame everyone working on farms as “unskilled,” or outdated policy that makes it difficult for farmworkers to unionize—can be seen to be manifesting within the very diminished qualities of pigs’ muscle fibers.

Modern capitalism assures that every part of the pig is used to create over 1,000 product codes. What are the ethical implications of this for people who object to the factory farming system?

By the end of Porkopolis, one of the points that I emphasize is that we have paid insufficient attention to the ways that capitalist slaughter, for a very long time, has built its margins and profit by developing commodities that arch far beyond food. A factor that underlies the remarkably cheap American meat of today is all of the other non-meat products made from hog bodies. These range from pet food flavorings, to various kinds of adhesives and infrastructural materials, to fat converted into biodiesel, and to a series of biomedical drugs derived from animal organs. Even though this is not new—the early 20th century Chicago meatpackers said they used “everything but the squeal”—it remains an ongoing process as companies try to achieve growth by disassembling hogs in more precise and diverse ways, creating new economic claims on animal biology. 

This is often greeted as a neutral matter of economic rationality, or even as a laudable act of stewardship by limiting “waste.” Yet, efforts to find more “sustainable” ways to transform excess biological material into commodities also have the effect of sustaining this system of corralling and taking life, making society as a whole more dependent on these facilities. A consequence is that it has become difficult to go about one’s everyday activities without being in contact with processed hog particles in infrastructure and the built environment. Amidst discussions that exalt the market as a space where we can (and must!) make ethical choices, there have been parallel efforts to turn the conduct of our everyday lives into a minor subsidy to meat. I think that it is important to at least politicize these kinds of processes. Minimally, it would reveal how much science and knowledge is expended to develop this unending array of products—the sheer amount of human creativity diverted to maintain industrial animal growth.

Slaughterhouses have become hotspots for COVID-19 across the United States. Does your research on human-animal relations have anything to add to our current moment?

The moral, economic, and biophysical pressures being foisted onto people who work in slaughterhouses across the United States are unfathomable. Not only does Donald Trump’s invocation of the Defense Production Act mark an attempt to limit corporations’ legal liability for sickening workers. We even see governors going further to deflect moral culpability from agribusiness by making absurd racist claims that outbreaks across slaughterhouses result from the social lives of immigrants rather than cramped, refrigerated warehouses where 150 years of obsessive industrial refinement ensure that every square inch is dedicated to maximizing output and labor productivity. From workers being denied bathroom breaks on the line because these systems cannot “accommodate” the bladder, to companies compelled to include the cost of injuries in their profit model, the human body was a (largely ignored) problem of production for this system long before COVID-19 threatened to make meat less plentiful. One of the points of Porkopolis is that so-called efficiency itself has long been out of control on American meatpacking lines. Increased efficiency is synonymous with physical violence. Hogs’ bodies are standardized across their lifetimes through quasi-invasive labor to intensify line speeds via simplified repetitive motions at their death—leading to harmful and painful burdens on the tendons of workers as they make thousands of cuts.

 But this new moment has also started to expose the vulnerabilities of unending productivity, and we are witnessing things that were rare in the 2010s. There are protests in packinghouse parking lots, and calls for boycotts of meat from worker advocacy organizations. Children of people who work in slaughterhouses are coming together to refuse the idea that their parents should risk their lives for a livelihood—or for meat. Our analyses should try to follow the lead of these emerging voices, activists, and demands.  

So I will just make a narrow point for further context on why the use of the Defense Production Act for meat is so troubling. These models have evolved to the point where agribusinesses deploy (and exploit) labor to monopolize all known money in the porcine species. We might say that these companies are totalizing because they are fragile: they are trying to realize value under low profit margins (that they helped create). But they are also fragile because they are so totalizing: they require so many distinct labor processes to create new niches of profitable pork and animal products, and maintain their model. The sheer quantity of people working in modern slaughterhouses is a reflection of this totalization, as people carve animals into ever-finer sale-ready pieces in acts of labor that would have, a couple generations ago, been done by urban butchers in a less concentrated value chain. Loins injected with flavoring. Shoulders sliced thinly for higher-margin export. The working and reworking of skeletons. The issue is not only that slaughterhouses have become so large that single plants ship 5% of the national pork supply. It is also how the unending search for more value and value-added products packs more people into refrigerated rooms. Invoking the Defense Production Act naturalizes and renders indistinguishable a wide array of labor processes under the label “meat.” I have read little state guidance—let alone regulatory force—on a host of things that could conceivably create space in these plants: mandating reduced daily slaughter capacity, slowing disassembly line speeds, barring certain value-added tasks, or even just cutting up animals less. Some of those things are happening due to a sheer shortage of labor, but the question is whether this industry can sustain them indefinitely. 

We should be questioning whether meat itself is essential, in this moment or otherwise. I do not believe it is. But what the DPA and its oppression of workers appears to be about is an effort to sustain cheap meat—and, further, a refusal to grant us even a moment of pause to question the social value and racial logics of industrial “efficiency.”

What is something you hope readers will take away from this in-depth account of factory farming in the United States? What kind of future research do you hope it might inspire?

This is an extension of what I said above. Despite the fact that I have encountered few people who think that contemporary animal agribusiness is a socio-ecological ideal or even a good thing, I am always struck by the social resources and imagination that is being marshalled every day to keep these institutions in the world. It is almost paradoxical: their late industrial vulnerability seems to call out for and invite people to help them. When these animal assemblages near collapse due to their own scale and concentration—during this pandemic, but also in many other moments such as when a hurricane event buries a community in manure—we tend to instantly see even ostensible critics proposing new inventions, fixes, or schemes to make them more tolerable. If we keep performing these institutions as indispensable, then the cumulative ideological effect is to block our ability to believe that there really are other viable and desirable ways of doing things. I hope that Porkopolis is a contribution to ongoing conversations on experimenting with alternative ways of more equitably working, living, and eating—but also of learning to effectively insist on the need to let some things go. 

Read the introduction to Porkopolis free online. Save 50% off this and all in-stock titles with coupon SPRING50 until May 25, 2020.

Always a Poster Girl for Just Causes, Mafalda Now Takes on COVID-19: A Guest Post by Isabella Cosse

Today’s guest post is by Isabella Cosse, an independent researcher for the National Science and Technology Research Council and the University of Buenos Aires. She is the author of numerous books, including Pareja, sexualidad y familia en los años sesenta and her new book, Mafalda: A Social and Political History of Latin America’s Global Comic. In Mafalda, Cosse examines the history, political commentary, and influence of the world-famous comic character Mafalda from her Argentine origins in 1964 to her global reach in the 1990s.

In Argentina, the government took drastic measures to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic early on. Despite an acute economic crisis, on March 19 the government decreed a mandatory nation-wide lock-down. The aim was to prepare the healthcare system while slowing down the spread of the virus. A month and a half later, with the national death toll at less than 300, there seems to be no doubt that this was the right strategy, especially when compared to the terrible situation faced by other countries where the government failed to take action in time.

That does not mean things have not been hard in Argentina. Nor that what lies ahead will be easy. The most vulnerable sectors of society are struggling just to cover their basic food needs, even with the aid provided by the government. Winter is only weeks away and when it finally arrives it will aggravate the situation. Wage-earners with a steady job and middle-class independent workers have also been hit by the effects of the pandemic, as they face a shrinking labor market and dwindling salaries in a context of mounting inflation. Tension and uncertainty dwell in every household. Conflicts and anxieties simmer just below the surface, ready to erupt at any moment.

As a way of dealing with the situation, people have taken to social media like never before. News on the virus and its effects naturally spread like wildfire, but so do memes and jokes. As in other crises, humor in its various forms makes it easier for us to navigate these hard times. It allows us to laugh at the tensions that we face on a daily basis, serving as a relief valve. As Freud said, humor acts on our emotional state, enabling us to look at something unpleasant and even painful through the lens of laughter, thus displacing unmanageable feelings of distress. It therefore helps process conflict, functioning as an effective coping mechanism.

A few days ago, it became mandatory for Argentines to wear face masks when leaving the house. This marked a new stage in the quarantine. Seeing people walking briskly down the street, with their faces covered up and carefully avoiding each other certainly presents a disheartening picture. In that grim context, Mafalda—Latin America’s most famous cartoon character—made the news. The people of Buenos Aires woke up one morning to find that the much-loved statue of this iconic character was sporting its own homemade face mask. An anonymous fan—one of the many among the legions of readers that the comic strip has garnered in its almost sixty years of existence—had decided that Mafalda had to make a statement in this new global crisis. And not just Mafalda, but her friends Susanita and Manolito as well, who flank her sides at a prudent distance, as if mindful of the current social distancing guidelines.

This is not the first time something like this has happened. In fact, since the very beginning, Mafalda has helped to channel the dilemmas faced by the comic strip’s readers. This wise-beyond-her-years little girl emerged as an expression of the antiestablishment generations of the sixties, reflecting on the changes that were shaking the foundations of social and family life at the time and speaking out against the many injustices in the world. And she did it with a witty and endearing humor.

Despite the character’s obvious social commitment and the fact that her readers have had no qualms about appropriating her as a symbol of what they consider a just cause, her creator, Joaquín Salvador Lavado (or Quino, as he is more widely known), has only very rarely given permission to use her in public campaigns. This, however, is one of those rare occasions. Mafalda now leads a group of popular cartoons featured in an awareness-raising effort launched by the government that also seeks to encourage Argentines and help them withstand the lockdown, just as it faces insistent calls from the opposition to lift the strict quarantine measures.

In the current crisis it is not surprising that Quino could be persuaded to lend his famous character for this effort. The historical moment we are living is one of great global uncertainty. But even if some suffer more than others, it is undeniable that the entire planet is afflicted. In the image chosen for the campaign, we see Mafalda caring for a bandaged globe as if it were a sick child. That strip, which was originally drawn as a reflection on the problems of humanity, now expresses the current state of the world almost literally. As in the past, this crisis—the ways to face it and the effects it has—entails political disputes on a transnational scale, and humor can not only help relieve our anxieties, it can also contribute to shape a common identity, one that takes on the responsibility of caring for the world and all its inhabitants.

Mafalda, and all in-stock Duke University Press titles, are available for 50% off during our Spring Sale with coupon SPRING50.

The Virus in Detroit: A May Day Post by Philip Conklin and Mark Jay

For May Day, here’s a guest post by Philip Conklin and Mark Jay, authors of the new book A People’s History of Detroit, which uses a class framework to tell a sweeping story of Detroit from 1913 to the present. 

Peoples History of DetroitSince the outbreak of the coronavirus, two notable strikes took place in the Detroit area. On March 17, bus drivers from the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 26 walked off the job in protest of fatal work conditions, shutting down Detroit’s public transit system. Among the workers’ complaints were unhygienic buses, lack of access to rest rooms, and forced close proximity to maskless passengers. Detroit is the poorest large city in the US, and due in part to the high cost of auto insurance more than a third of Detroiters can’t afford a car; the result is that, even as the pandemic ravages the city, hundreds of thousands of Detroiters are forced to rely on the underfunded, overcrowded bus system to get around. “This is death walking around here,” Roderick Nash, a city bus driver, said. “And nobody’s taking it serious.” The city government responded to the strike by suspending bus fare collection during the pandemic to limit passengers’ interaction with drivers, providing masks for passengers, and making more toilets (including porta potties) available for drivers. But days after the strike, drivers reported that conditions remained unsafe, with passengers still lacking access to masks. The government’s safety measures came too late for Jason Hargrove, a city driver who, just days after posting a video on social media complaining about safety conditions on his bus, died of coronavirus.

Two weeks after the bus drivers’ strike, 40 workers at an Amazon warehouse in nearby Romulus launched a protest action of their own. According to organizer Mario Crippen, Amazon treats their employees as “expendable.” “It’s a scary, scary place to be right now,” Crippen said. “There’s no hand sanitizer, no face masks given out. We’re limited on glove use. . . . They’re not worried about anyone’s safety, they’re worried about shipping out packages.” Amazon responded to a similar strike in Staten Island by firing the lead organizer and deriding him as “not smart.” Following a precedent set by Henry Ford a century ago, Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos has decided it’s simply better business to deploy harsh union-busting tactics than to acquiesce to the basic, humane demands of his workers.

amazon

As we argue in our A People’s History of Detroit, Detroit has long served as a metonym for the myths and fantasies of urban life in the United States, a sort of endlessly generative symbolic backdrop for our national unconscious—from the industrial miracles of the early 20th century, when Detroit was the manufacturing hub of the world and the birthplace of the manufacturing middle class, to the deindustrialized landscape of poverty, crime, and decay from the latter third of the 20th century up to the present—or, rather, the recent past. Now, Detroit is being hailed as the “greatest turnaround story in American history,” as billions of dollars of real estate investments transform the derelict cityscape into an urban playground of consumption, entertainment, and white-collar industry. In light of this “funhouse mirror” effect (to quote local celebrity journalist Charlie LeDuff), one might wonder, what can the Motor City tell us about the coronavirus epidemic? Indeed, Detroit has also magnified the problems of this virus, as Michigan falls just behind New York and New Jersey in COVID fatality rates, with Detroit tallying 35 deaths per day in early April.

Crises, however universal they appear, have unequal effects, which reflect the inequalities of society more broadly. Much like “natural” disasters, epidemiological ones hit hardest among the most vulnerable sections of the population. On the other hand, crises can also serve as catalysts for coordinated action on the part of these groups. Detroit autoworkers took advantage of the high demand for labor during World War II to jockey for better working conditions at the notoriously dangerous and enervating auto factories that had been converted to produce military equipment, striking despite a nationwide strike ban negotiated by union leaders and government officials behind the backs of the rank-and-file. In early 1944 Detroit workers averaged a dozen strikes per week, making the Motor City the leading center of workplace militancy. That year one workplace death, five amputations, and one hundred serious injuries occurred per day in Michigan.

The two recent labor actions in Detroit highlight a similar dynamic of workplace unsafety and worker power during crises—the essential difference now is the severity of generalized precarity among the working classes. Amazon warehouses are particularly illustrative of the current situation. The corporation has opened several massive “distribution centers” in the Detroit area in recent years. Employees inside these behemoths have denounced their “inhumane” working conditions, decrying the company’s union-busting techniques, as well as productivity standards that force people to stay on their feet all day long and leave no time for bathroom breaks. One undercover reporter described “employees collapsing at work, suffering panic attacks, pulling muscles and more.” Even in the midst of the pandemic, Amazon continues to hire workers for its Metro Detroit warehouses, despite workers’ insistence that the work they’re doing is not essential. “People are ordering the same stuff as usual,” one employee who took part in the strike explained. “If it was purely medical supplies and if Amazon actually stepped up and did that then I’d be much more willing to put myself [on what feels like] the front lines because we get stuff from everywhere, but that’s not what’s going on. . . . It’s people ordering the same cat litter, toys, ramen noodles.” According to another worker, “We aren’t heroes and we aren’t Red Cross workers—we are working people who pack and deliver goods. We’re working through a crisis not by choice but by necessity.”

Although most of the media coverage surrounding these and other workplace concerns have understandably focused on the particulars of the coronavirus, it’s important to bear in mind that deadly work conditions and worker “expendability” are nothing new in Detroit. If there is an abiding truth of the past 100 years of Detroit’s history, it is this: the city’s prosperity is built on its workers, and its hardships have likewise been borne by them. And a cursory glance through the annals of the modern Motor City shows the high cost even of this “prosperity,” which at every turn was wrenched from the living grasp of labor.

A 1973 report by the US Department of Labor found that significantly more people died each year inside U.S. factories than on the battlefields in Vietnam. The report “estimated 65 on-the-job deaths per day among auto workers, for a total of some 16,000 annually.” These deaths pale in comparison to the toll of industrial diseases, which the Public Health Service estimated took a remarkable 100,000 lives each year at this time. Foundry workers, machinists, and coarse-metal finishers were at significantly greater risk of fatal heart disease and lung disease than other workers. These were the jobs that Detroit’s black workers were primarily assigned, making the city’s black population particularly vulnerable to premature death—just as black workers and those living near polluting factories are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus today.

In their struggle for safe and dignified living conditions, Detroit activists have not only come up against profiteering businesses, but also governments who have slashed public programs and the social safety net in favor of subsidies to these same businesses. For decades, organizers such as Maureen Taylor and Marian Kramer, have been leading the struggle for a universal living wage and adequate healthcare for impoverished Detroiters. If their basic demands had been met, non-essential workers would not have to risk their lives by getting on the bus each day to get to degrading, underpaid jobs throughout the metro area. But instead, tax breaks for big business and austerity for the masses have been the order of the day, compounding the devastation of the COVID-19 crisis.

To get a sense of the government’s priorities, consider the fact that in recent years, the Detroit government spent $547 per capita on police, whereas, throughout Michigan, per capita spending on food stamps was $22, and per capita spending on public health was less than $13.

Across the country, and the world, urban landscapes have been vacated to stop the spread of coronavirus, with images circulating online showing abandoned streets in usually bustling areas. The eerie emptiness of tourist traps and national landmarks is enough to spook even a nonbeliever. But ghostly landscapes are nothing new in Detroit. A New York Times writer recalled being “unnerved” by the emptiness of Detroit’s downtown back in 2001. “It felt like the beginning of a zombie apocalypse movie,” he wrote.

Starting in the 1940s, the “Big 3” auto companies fled Detroit precipitously, first to the suburbs, then increasingly to low-wage areas across the world. By the late 20th century, after decades of federal cutbacks and failed initiatives to lure investment to the Motor City, signs of this corporate abandonment were unmistakable. This dramatic situation led to a range of competing visions for the future Detroit.

One vision was to make the city a spectral theme park of decay. Camilo Jose Vergara, the famous Chilean photojournalist and author of American Ruins, made the following suggestion for Detroit in the April 1995 edition of the leading architectural magazine Metropolis: “As a tonic for our imagination, as a call for renewal, as a place within our national memory, a dozen city blocks of pre-Depression skyscrapers [should] be stabilized and left standing as ruins: an American Acropolis…Midwestern prairie would be allowed to invade from the north. Trees, vines, and wildflowers would grow on roofs and out of windows; goats and wild animals—squirrels, possum, bats, owls, ravens, snakes and insects—would live in the empty behemoths, adding their calls, hoots, and screeches to the smell of rotten leaves and animal droppings.” Coronavirus has given us a glimpse of this dramatic vision, as animals have ventured into urban spaces formerly occupied by humans.

Against this fetishization of decay, a second vision for Detroit’s future was proposed by the late activist Grace Lee Boggs, who saw in Detroit’s abandonment the seedbed of revolution. Boggs was inspired by the fact that, as Detroit hollowed out, activists were responding in a myriad of inspirational ways, by repurposing vacant buildings, creating communes, community schools, starting small businesses, and planting urban farms:

Detroit, which was once the symbol of miracles of industrialization and then became the symbol of the devastation of deindustrialization, is now the symbol of a new kind of society, of people who grow their own food, of people who try and help each other . . . When you look out and all you see is vacant lots, when all you see is devastation, when all you see—do you look at it as a curse, or do you look at it as a possibility, as having potential?

Boggs’s vision is a powerful one; but it was not only activists who saw potential in the city’s emptiness. “Detroit has bottomed out,” Dan Gilbert’s business partner John Linkner wrote in Forbes in 2012, “so now, there’s nothing but upside.” In recent years, investors have pounced. Gilbert has led the way, purchasing around 100 buildings in the city, making him the owner of more than half of downtown Detroit. Even after Gilbert wrangled hundreds of millions in government subsidies, at one point even threatening to move his company QuickenLoans to Cleveland, the corporate media has hailed Gilbert’s efforts. The Atlantic wondered if he was “Detroit’s New Superhero,” while the New York Times called him a “missionary.”

Repudiating Vargas’s American Acropolis, companies and wealthy individuals are buying up the quintessential subjects of ruin porn photography to enact their own vision. And there is no more dramatic ruin than Michigan Central Station, which, when it was built in 1913, was the tallest train station in the world. Closed in 1988, the abandoned train station has for decades been a mecca for urban spelunkers, the subject of myriad investigative reports, and a go-to backdrop for post-apocalyptic Hollywood action films. Now, in an almost too-perfect metaphor for the current remaking of Detroit, Ford plans to turn the train station and its surrounding area into a 1.2 million-square-foot “innovation hub” geared toward “mobility solutions that will shape the future of transportation.” According to a local columnist, “Ford’s act of faith in Detroit’s future with the enormous investment it will bring signals a new era.… From now on, redevelopment will occur as the natural and expected outcome in a city once again on the move.” Corporate investment is seen by those in power as the solution to Detroit’s abandonment. But even while these investments have failed to address the needs of poor Detroiters, the coronavirus epidemic has shown just how fragile this “solution” is even for those on the receiving end of its benefits.

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As workers in Detroit, and around the world, protest against deadly workplace conditions, capitalists are using the crisis as an excuse to justify automation. This is nothing new. There is a long history of capitalists using worker protests against inhumane conditions as a pretext to invest in labor-saving technology, leading to unemployment and an increasingly hectic pace of work, as human labor is forced to adapt to “the inhuman speed of the machine.” Under the banner of public health, the current wave of automation is sure to reproduce these same effects, barring coordinated government intervention or a robust response from workers’ movements.

As people around the world attempt to maintain their work and their lives during the pandemic, they are forced to find creative ways to adapt to the limitations imposed by the crisis. While the ensuing innovations are an encouraging sign of our collective imagination and resilience, one can’t help but wonder whether these adaptations will serve to further the encroachment of labor-saving technology into new realms. To give just one example, academic workers are being forced to find ways to provide instruction virtually. This happens amidst an already prevalent trend toward online education; as the CEO of online learning platform Coursera has explained, “The current crisis will accelerate this trend.” The implications for the casualization of academic labor attendant to this trend are already being felt. At UC Santa Cruz, the pandemic hit in the middle of a months-long labor action by underpaid graduate student workers, and the move to a virtual learning and working environment has undermined their ability to withhold their labor and to disrupt the functioning of the university, which insists on “business as usual” during the pandemic.

What first appear as “innovations” and “creative adaptations” to the pandemic, take on another valence: they are forced accommodations to a “leaner”, more exploitative regime of capital accumulation. In effect, workers are being compelled to participate in their own devaluation. In the last half-century, political elites of deindustrialized American cities dealt with its growing “surplus population” and the recalcitrance of radical labor activists by hounding them with police and throwing them in prison. With millions more workers slated for redundancy as the coronavirus accelerates automation, and amidst unprecedented (and ever-increasing) ecological catastrophe which threatens humans and ecosystems across the globe, we shudder to think how the coming crises will be resolved.

If the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the fault lines of our unequal society, it’s no wonder that Detroit, which has long been a benchmark of the extremes of urban life in America, has been hit harder than most cities by the coronavirus, and also had already evinced many of the crisis tendencies wrought by this virus. Deadly working conditions, abandoned urban landscapes, structural unemployment due to automation, and extreme precarity—these have been the order of the day in Detroit for the better part of the last 100 years, coronavirus or not. Today in Detroit, a corporate revival is hailed as the answer to the city’s protracted decline, but this has proved tenuous for the Detroiters hardest hit by recent dispossessions. Even as the New York Times acknowledged that “there are no real assurances that gains will be spread democratically across the city, or that city planning and public resources will serve the needs of everyday Detroiters,” it found solace in the vague “hope . . . that private individuals will keep the greater good in mind.” If this hope seemed far-fetched before, in the midst of the devastations wrought by COVID-19 it now appears so remote as to appear ridiculous.

Leaving aside the fact that a primary source of pandemics lies in the ravages of the capitalist system, we can see that COVID-19 is an accelerator of global capital’s rampaging devastations. However, like other crises, it also presents an opportunity for workers to assert their power, for the animation of our political imaginary, and for a radical restructuring of society’s priorities. 52 years ago tomorrow, May 2, 1968, 4,000 workers walked off the job in protest of deadly conditions at the Dodge Main plant in Hamtramck. DRUM’s actions inspired dozens of other anti-capitalist unions to form across the city, and they all eventually coalesced into the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, an organization committed to challenging the power of the “parasitic, cannibalistic, vulturistic corporate elites who ruled Detroit. If the latter continue to have their way, crisis will remain the norm for most Detroiters.

Mark Jay is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Philip Conklin is a PhD student in the History of Consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz. After attending the University of Michigan, they met while working as tutors in Detroit public schools. They lived and worked in Detroit for about seven years, during which time they founded a small literary magazine and continued their work with Detroit’s youth. A People’s History of Detroit is available for 50% off during our Spring Sale with coupon SPRING50.

Q&A with Frédéric Keck, Author of Avian Reservoirs

Keck, FredericFrédéric Keck is Senior Researcher at CNRS, director of the Laboratory for Social Anthropology in Paris, coeditor of The Anthropology of Epidemics, and author of several books in French. His newest book is Avian Reservoirs: Virus Hunters and Birdwatchers in Chinese Sentinel Posts, which is freely available until June 1, 2020 in our Navigating the Threat of Pandemic syllabus. The following interview originally ran in French in Philosophie Magazine and was translated by Dan Hicks.

A coronavirus transmitted from a bat to a pangolin at a wet market in Wuhan, and then to humans all over the world: what does this mean to you?

We are living in a changed world, but Europe has only just realized this with COVID-19. China and what I call its “sentinel posts”—Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore—have known this for some time. After the SARS outbreak in 2003, which was also caused by a coronavirus, these countries invested massively in virology research and in technologies to detect, screen and monitor populations to prepare for a crisis like this one. Chinese researchers were expecting a virus causing a respiratory disease to be transmitted from bats. After the initial three weeks at the end of December and up to mid-January, the Wuhan authorities controlled the epidemic, and they did what they had to do, according to the WHO report of 28 February. In Europe we simply refused to imagine this could happen to us. Little affected by SARS, Europe just didn’t understand the global shift that it caused—the fact that China has controlled pandemics not only on its own territory but also at the global level, and the fact that the Chinese authorities have influenced the nomination of the head of the World Health Organization after 2006. Europe doesn’t just lack the equipment to deal with the pandemic: we lack the imagination to understand what’s happening to us.

Can you say more about what you mean when you say that Europe lacks the imagination needed to prepare for pandemics ?

Avian ReservoirsIn Europe, public health is based on prevention not preparation. It’s led by nation states within defined territories, as with vaccination against tuberculosis or smallpox. But viral infectious diseases require global preparedness, swift detection, and containment. In the 1990s with avian flu, Chinese societies learned that this is about preparing for a catastrophic outbreak, with “sentinel” chickens in poultry farms, simulations of pandemics in hospitals, and stockpiling masks, vaccines and antivirals by national states and multinational companies. Back then, American strategies for anticipating nuclear attack was one model, but there are others: Japan has the frame of earthquakes; France has that of industrial action—preparing for a strike. The point is that industrial strike, an epidemic outbreak, an earthquake are catastrophic events which halt economic activity—they requires different forms of preparedness.

Can you tell me about the analogies you make between Chinese preparedness and hunter-gatherer societies, andbetween European “prevention” strategies with the world of pastoralism?

We can see virologists as “hunters” of microbes or viruses. That’s why they get along well with ornithologists, who also operate by tracking. The anthropology of hunter-gatherer societies allows us to reassess this figure of the hunter-tracker. The virologist isn’t just someone who observes invisible wild entities under the microscope: more than that, they seek to adopt the point of view of birds, bats, and monkeys. The virus is a warning signal that affects animals; the “hunter” follows its transmission from birds to pigs to humans, or bats to pangolins to humans. This tracking is a kind of “hunting,” and it sees uncertainty in relationships with animals. That which is hunted can also kill.

So, the hunting relationship is reversible. But pastoralism relies on what Foucault called biopolitics. Shepherds control their flocks, decide which animals are cared for, which killed or sacrificed to protect the herd. Biopolitics is the power to ‘make live’ and to let die. Now, this was Boris Johnson’s initial approach in the UK—on which he’s now reneging because it was of course an indefensible plan: to let the virus spread and to have 400,000 deaths among the old, the weak and the poor while city traders survive, with it all costing the smallest possible sum of money! Pastoralism made the modern state possible. That state is based on what I’m calling “prevention.” So today epidemiology and public health is on the side of the pastoralists.

Are we not obliged to use ‘pastoralist’ techniques when the pandemic is here ?

There is a middle ground between hunting and pastoral care, preparation and prevention: which I call “precaution.” Taken to its logical conclusion, pastoral care requires acts of sacrifice. It assumes that people must die since the most important thing is to maintain the health of the population as a whole – the so-called “herd.” But in contrast, Taiwan and Singapore quickly tracked down the virus and confined it, like hunters. Now of course if a “hunting” approach is applied badly or too late it becomes just precaution: it identifies maximum risk and shuts everything down. With “mad cows” and chickens with avian flu, all of a farm’s livestock were slaughtered if one animal was infected. Now we are the ones who are collectively confined.

What does this pandemic reveal about our relationships with animals ?

Since the 1970s, the ecology of infectious diseases, with major thinkers such as René Dubos and Frank Macfarlane Burnet, has been warning us that nature can “strike back.” Virologists have tracked Ebola (in 1976, from bats in Central Africa), AIDS (1981, from monkeys), mad cow disease (1996, cattle), avian flu (1997, chickens/migratory birds), SARS (2003, bats) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome-CoV in Saudi Arabia (2012, camels). Then there’s what’s in store from the world of insects: Dengue fever, transmitted by mosquitoes, is at the gates of Europe; in 5 years we may have to adopt containment measures against that! Every four or five years a new disease emerges which comes from animals, against which we have no immunity, no vaccine.

So this is a kind of “revenge” of nature ?

Not quite. In my work, I reframe Jared Diamond’s idea of diseases of domestication. In my view, the 1970s witnessed a revolution as profound as the Neolithic revolution: industrial animal husbandry and its corollary, globalization of trade, have produced new diseases  because the relationship between humans and animals has been totally overturned.

But bats and pangolins are wild animals.

The geographies of diseases today no longer just involve places where humans and animals live together, as in the case of domestication, but to the unpredictable movements that come with industrial livestock farming, deforestation, loss of biodiversity and climate change. The “wild” has been dislodged and is forced to find other niches, including in urban areas. We Europeans have been “good shepherds,” and pastoralism has enabled us to deal with the diseases of the Neolithic period. But now we have to become hunter-gatherers again.

What kind of world is emerging out of COVID-19 ?

In the middle of a deeply unpredictable crisis, what’s certain is that China is ahead of Europe. Not because of a dictatorship capable of confining its population authoritatively and without resistance, but because of the experience of health disasters in China and in East Asia more generally. My argument is anthropological. We find it difficult to face our fear of disease-transmitting animals because we believe in a firm divide between nature and culture. Our “naturalist liberalism,” which has already done such a lot of harm to the planet, now needs to learn some humility.

Avian Reservoirs can be read or downloaded for free until June 1, 2020, and you can get a print copy for 50% off through May 1 with coupon SPRING50.

Cabin Fever: Trapped Onboard the Last Ships at Sea: A Guest Post by Eric Paul Roorda

Near the end of his own stormy passage through life, Mark Twain began an untitled story that he never finished. Its setting was an endless voyage on a sea teeming with terrors, such as the “spider-squid,” which surfaced to snatch the captain’s little boy from the deck of the ship. As it turns out, the vessel is microscopic, plowing through an ocean-like drop of liquid on a slide, under a microscope. The sea monsters that menace it are such miniscule horrors as bacteria and viruses.

Today, a version of that nightmare has come to life onboard ships—containerships, oil tankers, cruise ships—among crew members and passengers alike, who find themselves virtually imprisoned.

Merchant ships continue to circulate around the globe, maintaining the tenuous international supply lines. From one port of call to another, cranes unload thousands of truck-sized boxes full of products from containerships, and pumps fill-up and empty-out tankers, but the mariners working on those ships are not permitted to disembark. The March 26 New York Times cited a single example: an oil tanker manned by eight sailors, plying from China to Singapore to Sri Lanka, due to go on to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with each destination having in common a prohibition against anyone coming ashore.

That means that workers on merchant ships, even those who have fulfilled their contractual terms of labor, are forced to continue doing their duty indefinitely. An estimated 150,000 individuals, mainly from the Philippines, China, India, Indonesia, Ukraine and Russia, find themselves in a nether-region of un-free employment. They have no options other than to toil on, seven days a week, for monthly pay ranging from $400 to $1,000 for ordinary seamen. Officers make more, up to $10,000 per month, but they have the same chance of going home as the greenest oil wiper: zero.

How long can that last? The situation resembles the customary abuse of maritime labor that prevailed in the 19th century, which the Supreme Court approved in its 1897 ruling in Robertson v. Baldwin, known as the Arago decision, after the name of a ship from which four sailors deserted due to brutal treatment. In that case, the justices found that the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States, did not apply to mariners! This form of legalized exploitation of workers endured until the Merchant Marine Act of 1915, which afforded American sailors some basic protections. But many countries have never promulgated such a measure, leaving their seagoing citizens prey to conditions of pseudo-slavery, in particular in the outlaw world of commercial fishing in international waters.

Now, the international community is collectively shrugging and acquiescing to this backward leap in workers’ rights. Global demand for the goods the ships deliver outweighs the world’s regard for the people who deliver them.

Cruise ships have had to return to port and stay put, but there are stragglers still out there. One of them has become a disaster zone—Holland America Line’s Zaandam. The ship inexplicably left for a cruise from Argentina to Chile on March 7, more than a month after Princess Line’s Diamond Princess imported COVID-19 to Yokohama, Japan, and at the same time the Grand Princess was bobbing about fifty miles off the Golden Gate, trying to deal with an outbreak of the disease. The Zaandam left Buenos Aires just the day before the State Department’s tardy warning against such herding onto artificial islands (which cruise ships are). It got as far as the Strait of Magellan, where those among the 1,243 guests who were ambulatory went ashore to see the faded grandeur of Punta Arenas, while most of the 586 crew members cleaned their rooms, prepared their food, and maintained the manifold operations of the ship. That was their last port of call. That was March 14. The cruise was supposed to end on March 21.

Since then, Zaandam has made its way up the west coast of South America, from one potential refuge to another, denied entry to all of them, while the deadly novel coronavirus has spread throughout the ship, without discrimination, from roomy penthouses to kennel-like crew quarters. Zaandam reached the Panama Canal with four corpses in a walk-in refrigerator. Another 138 people had reported feeling sick—53 paying “guests” and 85 employees. Two of them had tested positive for the coronavirus in the brief interim since test kits arrived on the ship.

After an initial delay, Zaandam gained permission to transit the isthmian passage, but now has been denied entry into any port in Florida.

Holland America Line is a cruise industry cliché—it caters to the most elderly segment of the market. It is the Geriatric American Line. Anyone a few years short of qualifying for Medicare will feel like a young whipper-snapper on a HAL cruise.

HAL’s Zaandam is a huge ark of wealthy, vulnerable elderly, and relatively penniless, vulnerable servants.

Micky Arison is the Chairman of Carnival Corporation, which his father founded and ran for decades, before expatriating himself, along with his vast, virtually untaxed wealth. Carnival includes a dozen brands, including Princess and HAL.

Micky Arison failed to bring his fleets to port before the inevitable nightmare scenario came to pass—that COVID-19 would hijack a cruise ship like a legion of invisible pirates. While that was happening, Arison offered the idled vessels of Carnival Corp. to the federal government, for use as hospitals—charging a rental fee to cover costs. The president has praised Arison’s proposal as a patriotic, selfless gesture.

In truth, the audacity of Arison’s gambit to salvage revenue at this moment of crisis defies description, if not divine judgment.

In the meantime, Holland America Line’s Zaandam has reached Miami, with nine people onboard having tested positive for COVID, and another 200 showing symptoms, and those four corpses still onboard, maybe in the freezer by now. The Carnival Corp. COO has called Florida its “port of last resort.” At this writing, Governor Ron DeSantis is denying Zaandam’s bid to find shelter in this viral storm. In the interim, the chorus of coughing along its narrow corridors grows louder, coming from behind more and more closed doors, with every passing hour…

Eric Paul Roorda is the editor of The Ocean Reader: History, Culture, Politics. He is a Professor of History at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky, where he specializes in the diplomatic and naval history of  the Caribbean Sea. During the summer, he directs the Munson Institute graduate program in Maritime Studies at Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut. He regularly lectures on cruises on the Regent Seven Seas Voyager. He is the author of The Dictator Next Door and co-editor of The Dominican Republic Reader, both also published by Duke University Press.

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The Plague, A Guest Post by Amy Laura Hall

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Amy Laura Hall is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Duke University Divinity School. She is the author of Laughing at the Devil: Seeing the World with Julian of Norwich.

I am writing from Texas. It is Lent, and I am surrounded by Christmas decorations that need to be sorted. My mom, the amazing Carol Hall, teacher of generations of West Texas teens, had her heart cut open and her brain rudely interrupted as the great plague of 2020 began. She suffered a heart-attack and stroke the last week of January.

My dad, the amazing Reverend Robert Hall, has been married to my mom for more decades than I’ve been alive. I do not understand them. Their love confuses me. They have developed a means of communicating that I imagine as a geriatric version of the cant that twins are rumored to have. I’ve been intruding on them regularly since the crisis. Today, I just wanted to go to the grocery store.

Cedar Park, Texas was a small town a half hour from Austin. Now it is Nordstrom Rack, Hobby Lobby, local barbecue, old-timers remembering before Lakeline Mall, and multi-generational families speaking another language. We all exist outside AUSTIN, TEXAS, travel destination of the stars. South by Southwest, now an international phenomenon, was cancelled this year, due to the plague of 2020, and people who were already working three jobs for a living are driving through Cedar Park trying to figure out how to make ends meet. And everyone is converging on their H.E.B.

If you are reading this from North Carolina, H.E.B. is the Piggly Wiggly of Texas. People are loyal to their local H.E.B., and, even if there are other spots to shop, I swear that Cedar Park people are going there for a sense of normalcy. Maybe that is projection. I have shopped there almost daily every visit. Back in North Carolina, I carry H.E.B. reusable shopping bags from each season as if they were Prada.

My mother’s car has a radio function that allows me to shift from the 1940s to the 1980s. I’ve been doing the Charleston to the Hustle between stop lights. Two refrains have stuck in my head. “The things we do for love.” And “Freak Out!”

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I have rarely walked in the rain or the snow, but “the things we do for love” makes for good prayer. When dealing with depends and diapers and tampons and anything else that is “down there,” including all the dog poop I pick up when I am home with mutts, I sing, to myself, “The things we do for love . . .” Here in Cedar Park, this week, looking at all the people standing in line around the corner at the H.E.B., because the store management is doing their best, I thought, yes. The things we do for love.

Yesterday, facing the line around the corner, I gave up and went to buy barbecue at a place that shares the parking lot and has the name Moe. (I am afraid I will get the name wrong, but I recommend everything they serve.) I promised my dad I would not come within 4 feet of anyone. A man about my dad’s age saw me trying gently to avoid him and said “Don’t worry! I don’t have it!” No worries! I am also trying not to scare anyone by my mere presence! Then, over the radio, “Freak Out!”

The barbecue spot is small, and less than a dozen people were there. But we decided, awkwardly – from old Cedar Park and tattooed new Cedar Park, and with at least a few couples venturing to the Hill Country – that “Freak Out” could be a theme song for the great plague of 2020. At least a few of us danced. Mr. Moe, who I have never caught off-guard, cracked a smile.

Here is what I know for sure. It is Lent. I am trying to remember how to eat, not to fast. The birds in Cedar Park are singing their hearts out. The plague of 2020 reminds me that we matter, each of us. Every sparrow. Every mockingbird. Every grackle. Everyone. Each one of us matters. Call me what you will. I am clear that God’s omniamity (yes, I coined that word) does not fit within a primary or an election year or a nation. And . . . and, Julian of Norwich saw all of this. She was a visionary during what is indisputably known as the Great Plague. She lived through proclamations of God’s wrath. She saw people declared as mere peasants rise up together bravely. They were mowed down like mice. I have not forgotten. I will continue to see.

Save 50% on Amy Laura Hall’s Laughing at the Devil: Seeing the World with Julian of Norwich and all in-stock titles during our special sale using the coupon code SPRING50.

La Grippe à Paris: How Paris Responded to the 1918 Influenza Epidemic, A Guest Post by Eric Smoodin

Smoodin PhotoEric Smoodin is the author of Paris in the Dark: Going to the Movies in the City of Light, 1930–1950, just published this month. He is Professor of American Studies at the University of California, Davis, and author of Regarding Frank Capra: Audience, Celebrity, and American Film Studies, 1930–1960, and coeditor of Looking Past the Screen: Case Studies in American Film History and Method, both also published by Duke University Press. This guest post is reblogged from his own blog, The Paris Cinema Project.

On March 14th, 2020, the French government announced the closing of all restaurants, museums, theatres, and cinemas, a response to the novel coronavirus, possibly the worst global public health crisis since the flu epidemic of 1918-19. But as a comparison, what exactly was the government’s response just over 100 years ago to la grippe espagnole, which killed as many as a quarter of a million people in France? More to the point of my interests here, how did the flu affect the cinema in France, and especially in Paris?

Information can be difficult to come by, largely because the press in France covered the disease only very slowly, perhaps because the government insisted so as not to cause any alarm, or perhaps because journalists simply didn’t understand the severity of the outbreak. Françoise Bouron has provided the most exhaustive analysis of the general attitudes of the press at the time. While the flu seems to have come to France in April, 1918, most newspapers and journals at first avoided it altogether, then reported that France, unlike other European countries, seemed to have been spared, and then only began to cover the national outbreak in the late-summer and early-fall.

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Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announcing the closure of all non-essential public places in France, including cinemas, on March 14th, 2020

In any case, and far different from the response of 2020, the governmental actions in 1918-19 seem to have been regional rather than national, and might vary significantly from place to place, with Paris, apparently, always doing less rather than more. In mid-October, 1918, Le Figaro reported that 700 Parisians had died from the flu during the past week, an increase of 300 from the week before. The newspaper indicated that more hospital beds were coming to the city and that schools would be disinfected but would not close. Hinting at the dense Parisian bureaucracy that may have made any decisive action difficult, Le Figaro continued that, anyway, schools could only be closed in Paris by the local government, at the suggestion of the Seine Prefect and in consultation with the Hygiene Council.

That same report in Figaro, however, let readers know that Édouard Herriot, the mayor of Lyon, had acted more decisively. Herriot, of course, was the radical socialist who would later be in and out of office as Prime Minister during multiple revolving-door governments in France during the 1920’s and ‘30’s. In Lyon, Herriot insisted that all corpses be buried immediately, demanded the daily disinfection of post offices, banks, cafés, restaurants, and train stations, and completely closed all theatres and cinemas.

Other locations did the same thing. In Périgueux, in southwestern France, schools were closed and so too were all theatres and cinemas. The Communist newspaper L’Humanité reported on those closings, and added that the ongoing Parisian response involved, yet again, more hospital beds and, in addition, thirteen thousand gallons of rum to be distributed to the city’s pharmacies and sold as a partial cure for flu.

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Édouard Herriot, who as the mayor of Lyon closed all the cinemas there during the epidemic

Assertions of official Parisian inactivity went across ideological lines. In late-October 1918, the far-rightwing newspaper L’Intransigeant wrote, “One thinks…of closing the cinemas, the theatres and even churches, as has been done in Switzerland and some French cities.” Then L’Intransigeant added that, “rather than facing anything that extreme, Parisians have been told to refrain from going anywhere they might be exposed to influenza.”

At least according to the press, aggressive actions by Herriot and others worked. In early-November, Le Journal reported that closing theatres—and it’s unclear whether this included cinemas—in Limoges, Dijon, Cherbourg, Orléans, and elsewhere had stopped the spread of flu. Le Temps wrote that “the efforts in Lyon had had their effect,” and theatres and cinemas would now reopen.

But Paris still did nothing comparable, and there was even some debate in the city about the usefulness of closures and the severity of the epidemic. On November 11th, 1918, the day that World War One ended, La Presse, a Parisian daily, devoted its front page to the Armistice. On page two, however, La Presse ran two stories about the flu. One of them insisted that the illness had declined considerably in the Parisian population (La Grippe décroit). In the other, a reporter for the paper, Lucile Laurence, wrote that city officials had given some thought to closing all cinemas and other public places, including schools. She went on, though, that even if they did, “public health would still be menaced” because of all the men who spit on streets, their germs then going into the air and onto the food that Parisians ate. On the same page, La Presse announced the opening of one of the most anticipated films of the season, Bouclette, at the very fashionable Palace-Aubert cinema in the ninth arrondissement. Bouclette featured one of the great French stars of the era, Gaby Deslys, who would die of influenza in February, 1920.

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An undated publicity photograph of the great French star Gaby Deslys, the star of Bouclette and a victim of the flu epidemic

Deslys’ film, which had a scenario by Marcel L’Herbier, was one of the great cultural events in the city just after the war. But there were also many, many others, in cinemas and in the city’s theatres. Reporting on the flu on February 23rd, 1919, Le Matin put the grim numbers next to the masthead at the top of the front page. La grippe à Paris had claimed 900 lives in the last week, an increase of 350 from the week before. Le Matin never listed the movies in Paris, but it did offer information for plays, music halls, and café-concerts, and the list is astonishing, both in terms of how much was going on and how little the city’s entertainment industry seemed to have been touched by the epidemic. Had they wanted to, Parisians could have seen Les Noces de Figaro at the Opéra-Comique, where it alternated with Carmen, or Cyrano de Begerac at the Porte-St. Martin, or Sacha Guitry’s Pasteur at the Vaudeville. The Folies-Bergère featured a lion tamer for its family matinee and then more adult entertainment in the evening. The great music hall stars Mistinguett and Max Dearly appeared at the Casino de Paris, along with 200 Jolies Femmes, and Raimu, the stage actor soon to become a great movie star, performed in Le Cochon qui sommeille at the Théâtre Michel. There was also much, much more.

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On the upper right, on the masthead from February 23rd, 1919, Le Matin announces that week’s death toll of La Grippe à Paris

Parisian entertainment continued as usual for the duration of the epidemic, as the death toll mounted and city leaders kept all venues open while supplying pharmacies with more and more rum for the afflicted. A century later, French officials were slow to react to the coronavirus, as were governments in Italy, Spain, the United States, and elsewhere. They had, however, apparently learned something from the earlier public health crisis. Spitting on streets may still be a difficult problem and still a means of spreading disease. But Mayor Herriot’s example in Lyon, closing theatres, restaurants, and other public spaces, including cinemas, has now become the French model for containing the epidemic, even in Paris.

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“Cruise Ships, Containerships, and the COVID-19 Crisis: Harbinger of a Great Stillness on the Ocean?” A Guest Post by Eric Paul Roorda

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Visitors to San Francisco who arrive by sea experience a spectacle. Their ship approaches the Marin Headlands, glides through the narrow passage called the Golden Gate, passes beneath the iconic bridge, and enters San Francisco Bay. More than eighty cruise ships visit the Port of San Francisco annually, carrying upwards of 300,000 passengers and an untold number of crew members.

But cruise ship traffic into San Francisco—and for that matter, every U.S. port—may come to a halt, due to a single vessel, the Grand Princess. The ship arrived at the Golden Gate with the novel Coronavirus virus onboard, which causes the potentially lethal disease designated as COVID-19. The highly contagious pathogen had apparently gained a foothold on the ship during its previous voyage in Mexican waters, infecting a passenger who died of COVID-19 after returning home. The virus endured onboard the Grand Princess, only to re-emerge on the ship’s next voyage. Dozens of people exhibited symptoms as the ship neared the end of another voyage to Mexico.

First came the Diamond Princess, which introduced the disease to Japan on February 4, when it docked at the port of Yokohama, where it became a micro-cluster of contagion. After weeks of improvised, ineffective quarantine measures, the ship released about 3,600 passengers and crew back to their countries of origin, many of them potential carriers of Coronavirus, because few of them had been tested conclusively for the malady.

A month later came the Grand Princess, carrying 3,533 passengers—2,422 guests and 1,111 crewmembers—from 54 nations. News reached the ship on 2 March, that a prior passenger had tested positive for COVID-19 before dying. Princess Cruises canceled the remainder of the vessel’s itinerary, and ordered the Grand Princess to steam straight back to San Francisco, its port of embarkation. Along the way, on 5 March, Coast Guard helicopters dropped test kits to the ship’s deck. The following night, Vice President Mike Pence reported that 46 passengers who showed symptoms had been “swabbed,” and 21 of them had tested positive. That total included two “guests” (who stay in private suites), and nineteen members of the crew (who live, work and breathe, sometimes cough and sneeze, and occasionally vomit, in very close quarters, below the vessel’s waterline).

The positive tests halted the ship’s progress, just short of its destination. The Grand Princess bobbed around fifty miles outside the Golden Gate, awaiting its fate, suffering the claustrophobic inconveniences of belatedly instituted quarantine measures. After a public debate over the fate of the Grand Princess, which included the President expressing his preference that the ship stay at sea indefinitely, it was allowed to dock on 9 March.

But the Grand Princess did not end its ill-starred voyage at the historic Pier on San Francisco’s lovely waterfront adapted as a “cruise ship terminal,” with all of its amenities. Instead, it headed for a “container terminal” across the bay, on the barren industrial waterfront of Oakland/Alameda. The guests disembarked into quarantine at military bases in California, Texas, and Georgia, while Canadians were allowed to fly home for their 2-week period of preventative isolation. The crewmembers, however, must remain onboard.

The cable news networks followed the Grand Princess on its sunrise passage through the spectacular Golden Gate. The ship itself seemed riveted together from sheets of pure gold, illuminated in the low rays of eastern light. But then the scene became unusual, possibly unprecedented. The Grand Princess, a “mega-ship” of the new breed, symbolic of the spectacular rise of cruise travel, was mooring at a vast dockyard that utterly lacked the infrastructure to accommodate it. Weirder still, the dockyard itself, the sprawling Oakland/Alameda complex, one of the busiest in the hemisphere, was vacant!

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What next? There are 314 cruise ships loose upon the world’s waves, all of them bound for some port of call, each of them a potential vector of the invisible scourge of COVID-19. The potential carnage is akin to that of 1918, when 675,000 Americans succumbed to The Great Influenza—among 50 million worldwide, by conservative estimates. It seems possible that the imminent spread of the novel coronavirus will mothball the pleasure fleet for an indefinite period of time, while the world weathers the virus crisis. As I write, Princess Cruises and Viking Cruise Line have both announced that they are suspending operations. More are sure to follow…

And yet, the size of the global merchant marine dwarfs the number of cruise ships. There were 53,732 merchant vessels out there as of January 2018. About 5,500 of them are enormous containerships. The ratio is 171 merchant ships to every cruise ship.

As the rate of production of manufactured goods and extraction of raw materials in China declines, while the severity of the Coronavirus outbreak increases, there is less and less cargo for these hulls to carry around the world. Already, the docks of Los Angeles, Long Beach, and Oakland/Alameda, usually hyperactively busy with the disgorging of cargo from Asia, have become weirdly sleepy. Soon, there will be vast flotillas of empty ships—bulk carriers for wheat and ore, tankers, car carriers, containerships—anchored off the major ports of the world, riding high in the water, with nothing to haul, and nowhere to go.

All of this adds up to a rare occurrence in recorded history. The Ocean may be virtually free of human activity for a while, and there is no way of telling how long that could last. There is also little way to forecast what effects such a strange event might have. From the perspective of global capitalism, the damage could be devastating and enduring.

But other contrasting priorities could be well served by this ongoing twist of fate. In particular, the disruptions brought by Coronavirus could be a boon for the movements to buy locally made products, to eat regional food sources, and to reduce the giant, greasy carbon footprint of global trade and globe-trotting tourism. An empty Ocean could not only stall the pandemic, it could help humanity to hit the reset button on the dangerously unsustainable status quo of the international economy.

Eric Paul Roorda is the editor of The Ocean Reader: History, Culture, Politics. He is a Professor of History at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky, where he specializes in the diplomatic and naval history of  the Caribbean Sea. During the summer, he directs the Munson Institute graduate program in Maritime Studies at Mystic Seaport Museum in Mystic, Connecticut. He regularly lectures on cruises on the Regent Seven Seas Voyager. He is the author of The Dictator Next Door and co-editor of The Dominican Republic Reader, both also published by Duke University Press.

 Read the introduction to The Ocean Reader free online and save 30% on the paperback edition with coupon code E20RORDA.

Joshua Neves on the Coronavirus (COVID-19), Anti-Chinese Racism, and the Politics of Underglobalization

Neves, Joshua photoJoshua Neves, author of Underglobalization:
Beijing’s Media Urbanism and the Chimera of Legitimacy
, is Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair, Film Studies at Concordia University and coeditor of Asian Video Cultures, also published by Duke University Press. He wrote this post on February 21, 2020 and updated the statistics today, March 11.

In the 2018-19 flu season, the United States’ Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimated that 16.5 million Americans saw a health care provider for their illness, 490,600 people were hospitalized, and 34,200 people died from influenza. Such data helps us to temper recent panic about the coronavirus, contagion narratives, and the repressive Chinese state. 

To be sure, the strict management of information and party-state bureaucracy have plagued China’s response to the virus. My aim here is not to downplay what are very grave challenges to public health, but rather to turn attention to the ways the viral outbreak has also been swollen by frenzied news and social media around the world. Among the many responses in North America and Europe, for example, is a resurgent anti-Chinese racism. This includes suspicions about exotic animals and racialized ideas about sickness and disease, as well as alarm about surgical mask shortages, government cover ups, and entire cities under quarantine. As a recent US headline puts it, “First the media sold you overblown fears. Now it’s selling false comfort.”

But there is little new in this hysteria over China as a breeding ground for pandemics. From counterfeit medicine to authoritarian capitalism, China plays a complicated role in stories about the world system. On the one hand, it’s laboring population serves as factory to the world and has sustained the global economy through stagnation and crisis. It both produces the world’s best known things and is derided as a menial laborer or copycat—and not, that is, a designer. A major theme in recent news coverage centers on profits lost to factory closures. In many such stories, concerns about the well-being of migrant workers, among others, seems limited to their inability to get to work. On the other hand, even while China co-creates what we have come to know as globalization, its ambition and the challenges it poses to the Washington Consensus have led many to see the country as a global villain. Alongside Russia, Iran, etc., the PRC increasingly fills an imaginary void in post-Cold War geopolitics. It is the “other” that “we” organize our anger or fear around. 

What interests me about the tensions framing the COVID-19 outbreak is that China is at once understood to be inside and outside of the world or proper society of nations. It is both a prime mover and sickly underminer. This contradiction—including mistrust, intolerance, fear—must be tied to a history of anti-Chinese racism in North America and elsewhere. Not surprisingly, the current “yellow peril” is once again linked to the exploitation of Chinese workers, as well as a deep suspicion of these same people’s motives and lifeworlds. It highlights the inequality of global supply chains—a current logic of racialized capitalism—which seek to move things in specific directions and keep everyone in their place. It is this sense of global order that the virus ignores with its potential to spread where it should not. Contagion thus not only refers to the unruliness of new flu strains, but to the new mobilities of Chinese people, products, and technologies. The latter includes US attempts to block the Chinese company, Huawei, from building 5G infrastructure around the world. Officials claim that Chinese built networks will allow Beijing to infiltrate critical telecom infrastructure, making them insecure and threatening. These same reports rely on language that could just as well describe panic about the infectivity of influenza. Per Vice President Mike Pence, “We cannot ensure the defense of the West if our allies grow dependent on the East.”

The point of highlighting such tensions is not to bracket the very real problems posed by the People’s Republic of China or its vision of the future. But it is to refuse sweeping and prejudicial assessments of China and the Chinese, which inform insidious racisms by tethering ideas about counterfeits, censorship, exotic animals, the flu, and much more, to particular bodies. Put simply, these critiques are widespread, confused, epidemic—and demand more nuanced attention from journalists, scholars, and publics. What remains undigested by routine critiques of China, and is once again brought into relief by the recent outbreak of the outbreak narrative, is how smug dismissals buttress troubling ideas about the munificent “West” and the “free world.” This is one of the most menacing and normalized aspects of anti-Chinese racism in the North Atlantic. It locates viral contagion in Asian cities and populations, naming them as external threats, thereby consolidating a violent clash of civilization understanding of the earth. Here is safe; there is toxic.

It is important to add that, contrary to Euro-American assumptions about Chinese repression and citizen compliance, political dissent is endemic and visible across the PRC. For example, in Social Protests and Contentious Authoritarianism in China, political scientist Xi Chen describes both the dramatic rise and routinization of social protest in China and also how, “beneath the surface of noise and anxiety,” China’s political system remains stable. This is a complex political formation and no doubt differs from the imagination of protest in places like the US. But these differences notwithstanding, it is important to understand that protest and dissensus are frequent responses to life in contemporary China—and many Chinese citizens are “more than ready to blame the Communist Party for suppressing public health information and closing ranks against the people.” What is distinct, and marks an increasingly global condition, is that such protests are not made within formal civil society. Instead they are quasi- or il-legal, and suggest new modes of political society. Consider the January 2020 essay, “When Fury Becomes Fear,” from the outspoken former academic and critic, Xu Zhangrun. In searing prose, Xu argues that the current epidemic sounds a “viral alarm” and “has revealed the rotten core of Chinese governance.” See Geremie R. Barmé’s translation of Xu’s essay here, a Wuhan diary here, a typical report about netizen responses here, or the Sinophobia tracker here. What matters about such examples, is that they refuse the self-righteous politics of pity—where, for example, Americans are free and Chinese are controlled—and instead demands that we re-examine the workings of popular politics under globalization, which includes China and the so-called “West.”

Screen Shot 2020-02-21 at 12.42.46 PMAs I write, 4,379 people have died from the coronavirus and nearly 119,108 cases have been confirmed. Currently over 1000 deaths have been reported outside of China, with Wuhan, Hubei Province, still the most affected area. While details vary, reports indicate that lockdowns and curfews affect hundreds of millions Chinese citizens. The strictest rules, per the South China Morning Post, keep 60 million Hubei residents from leaving their homes. Further coverage suggests that the epidemic may now have peaked, as its spread slows in China, though others note that Japan is now a hotbed for the virus, with new cases also confirmed in the Philippines, South Korea, Iran, Egypt, and others. I linger on the current flu epidemic, stories about its (mis)management, and its Asian hosts and itineraries because they bring into relief a range of issues that are critical to what I call underglobalization

978-1-4780-0805-7When writing Underglobalization, I struggled to make sense of the contradictory and often racist understandings of China that co-exist in much official and popular discourse. As above, I was struck by the way that China is both dismissed as a fake, parasite or outlier nation and, at the same time, is critical to both the global economy and institutions, and to the everyday experience of the world. This paradox brings into relief deep structural conflicts over what constitutes political, economic, and social legitimacy in the present and future. Against such antagonisms, Underglobalization charts how a wide range of social actors underperform or refuse to implement the specific procedures and protocols required by globalization at different scales. Put differently, what international law (like the TRIPS Agreement) identifies as illegal must also be understood, in many contexts, to be locally valid. One important ramification of this claim is the recognition that contemporary global dynamics are shaped by increasing tensions between (il)legality and (il)legitimacy. Most simply the book asks: what happens when legal contracts around the world—including rights, civil society and citizenship—fail or become dangerous, and on what ground are political relationships reclaimed and sustained? 

Save 30% on the paperback edition of Joshua Neves’ Underglobalization using the coupon code E20NEVES and download the introduction here.