It is July 1, so the first half of this miserable year is over.
Looking back, January 1, 2020 doesn’t seem to have been six months ago or even years ago, but instead a date experienced on a different planet where nothing was the same as it is here and now.
Let’s look back a little.
On January 1, what we know as COVID-19, the disease resulting from infection by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, had not been named. In fact, on that date the virus itself was called the “2019 novel coronavirus” by the few persons who were calling it anything. As late as Jan. 23, the World Health Organization said the virus probably wasn’t spread from human to human. It wouldn’t be until the second week in February that the virus would be named SARS-CoV-2; the disease itself also got its name that day.
On January 1, about half of the Democratic presidential debates – remember those? – had not taken place; the first one in the new year would take place Jan. 14. The participants would be Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer and Elizabeth Warren. Andrew Yang and Mike Bloomberg were also candidates, but they hadn’t qualified for this particular debate.
On January 1, people were still wondering when and how the Senate trial of Donald Trump, impeached in the House of Representatives in December, would unfold. Speaker Nancy Pelosi had said in mid-December that she wouldn’t transmit the articles until the Senate had established rules for the trial that satisfied her.
On January 1, the economy was roaring along, with record unemployment, high productivity, and more people participating in the work force.
Virtually none of the things that occupy the national discourse today were on anyone’s mind as 2020 began.
And we haven’t even begun to consider the events that got catalyzed when a man died in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25. There’s much to be said about all that – far more than a column could adequately consider, so I’ll not dive very far into it just now.
I’d like to make a couple of passing observations, though. It’s fair, I think, to say that a protest becomes a riot when people start breaking and stealing other people’s stuff. And I think it’s fair to say that when a group claiming to seek racial equality tears down a statue of Ulysses S. Grant, a goal long sought by the likes of the Ku Klux Klan, somebody isn’t thinking things through.
The combination of events has led to a lot of rethinking and reappraisal, as well as actions we are likely to come to regret. One thinks – one hopes – that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, lately a news media darling, regrets his order that placed COVID-19-infected people into the state’s nursing homes, resulting in thousands of old people dying. (It hasn’t, though prevented his scolding the governors of states whose death rates are less than a tenth of New York’s.)
We were able, if we were paying attention, to learn a great deal about science and the extent to which the phrases “settled science” and “scientific consensus” are contradictions in terms. Everything scientists thought they knew about SARS-CoV-2 turned out to be wrong, as did much of what they’ve discovered since then. While it is not immediately helpful, it is how science is supposed to work. Science is an endless search to better explain things.
We were also able to learn that science and politics have at best an uncomfortable relationship, because they have different objectives, and when the goals and standards of one become the goals and standards of the other disaster often results.
The whole big mess that was the first half of 2020 has cast a new light on our cities. They are especially vulnerable to the spread of disease, and they are especially vulnerable to what is euphemistically called “civil unrest.” The quarantines led people to realize that in many cases they can work from home. They led companies to realize that they needn’t be tied to big cities anymore. And the number of people who think cities are safe places to be has surely declined, perhaps by a lot. Conditions in cities are likely to get worse, and there’s room to think that cities may never fully recover.
During the first half of this year the national media finally abandoned all pretense of objectivity. We have three “all-news” channels. Two of them report that everything is Donald Trump’s fault, while one of them reports that nothing is Donald Trump’s fault. That is pretty much all that they do. That is all that they can do. It’s the only lens in their gadget bag. The national newspapers are as bad and in some cases are worse. Stories that don’t fit the preferred narrative simply go unreported, in both broadcast and print. Opinion and feelings now overtrump – no pun intended – fact.
We’ve heard much about how wonderful it would be to use cellular telephone location data to perform contact tracing and thereby reduce the spread of COVID-19, and there are even regulations proposed to bring this to fruition. Some of us believe that this would be yet another intrusion into what little privacy that we still have, that the tracking ability would inevitably be misused. It did not take long for us to be proved right: A company called Mobilewalla late last week issued a report that uses mobile phone data to break down participants in the recent protests – by race. Is this something we want? To paraphrase the old aphorism, legislate in haste and repent at leisure.
The material I mention above is scarcely comprehensive. But it’s sufficient to illustrate that the world we live in today is very different from the one in which we lived on New Year’s Day. Few, I think, would say it’s been an improvement.
What might the second half of the year bring? We have a presidential election coming up, pitting an unstable, self-absorbed crazy man against a senile old coot who wasn’t quite bright to begin with. No one I can find is happy about either candidate. That’ll turn out well, won’t it. And if the part of the year we’ve lived is any indication, we have no idea what the near future has in store for us.
Invasion by space aliens, maybe?
I don’t think so. I think the space aliens would look down at us, then look at each other and say, in their space-alien language of clicks, whistles, and hums, “Why the hell would we bother with that place?”
Editor’s note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears every Thursday in The Athens NEWS. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.