Revolutionary aside

The present is seldom (if ever) a guide to the future; except, that part of the present which never changes. If he is reading this antiblog, gentle reader is probably able to accept this proposition calmly, though he might resist some of its corollaries. One of them is that we can’t predict future events, even though, in retrospect, none will be surprising, and with time, fewer and fewer will actually surprise us. That “bad things happen” certainly should not startle anyone; or bad things out of good intentions; or good things out of bad — are platitudes of the sort that invariably catch us off guard.

They are a confutation that anything in politics can be achieved, for longer than the moment. What was made will be soon destroyed: even if what replaces it is given the same name. We hear this, for instance, in the sarcastic tone used to repeat proud old slogans. “Mom and apple pie,” for example. It was intended to describe something utterly uncontroversial. For this very reason it is controversial now, and a person can be “triggered” simply by the phrase. (Never miss a chance.) The little trolls on campus will freak right out. But even for a person who is sane and intelligent, the concept of mom and apple pie needs serious revision, to bring it “up to date.” Often it is a good, if uncomfortable thing, when what was once obvious needs rethinking through. It is a recapitulating operation, like sharpening a knife.

The reason I have been writing so much lately, about what I’ll call today the “CCP Bat Virus,” is that once again everything is changing, without changing. New platitudes emerge, that were once old. After however many months of “social distancing,” or whatever else is imposed, things will go back to “normal.” This will be so no matter when or if the virus returns, after whatever number of mutations.

But the bubonic plague, as noticed in London, returned in much the same form, seventeen times between 1348 and 1666. It had already visited Europe in the time of Justinian, and returned frequently between 541 and 750 AD, each time carrying away thousands and millions of those late Byzantine-Romans, and bystanders throughout and beyond the Mediterranean. We still have no vaccine, incidentally; and it is still not dead. Only Communism can approach the aggregate body count.

Have we learnt anything from either? The question is rhetorical: it answers itself.

That the world was transformed by the greatest of Black Deaths, is a banality of the historians. More than half of the population of Europe was erased; in some parts most of it. The archaeologists have tracked so many villages wiped out, but it was worse in the cities. The economic historians gleefully review the advantages. A lot of property was inherited, and wages went up. Many overcrowding problems were solved. As an environmentalist recently put it: “Coronavirus is the solution, humans are the problem.” That our most profound ecologists are devils in human flesh, I take for granted.

But nothing changes. Had there been no bubonic plague; had the bacterium never travelled the Silk Road; had this or that not coincidentally happened, other things would have. Think of all the pestilences that, in the course of history, never got properly started. Think of all the asteroids that never hit.

My own impression of the 14th century — regrettable in various ways — is of continuity. The dramatic social changes after the Black Death were visible before. Boredom with the stable Christian order (which was always more fragile than appeared), would have led to other, essentially parallel disasters. (Perhaps the Reformation was the least of these.) People always get bored at some point, and then they do something revolutionary, and incredibly stupid.

Get used to it.