These past few weeks have been decades.
It’s pretty much impossible to understate the gravity of this moment. There is no going back to normal from the crisis of the coronavirus: It’s scalped our institutions and revealed the rotten brain inside.
But what is a “crisis,” anyway? More importantly, what is “normal?” Because how we define those two words, and the value we ascribe to either of them, dictates how we understand everything else. The parts of “normal” that institutions of power want to get back to, those aren’t the good parts.
The first definition you find in the Oxford English Dictionary when you look up “crisis” is “a time of intense difficulty, trouble or danger.” That’s good enough, but the second definition tells us more: “a time when a difficult or important decision must be made.” Rather, a time when the important decisions are made for you by people with more power — who have a vested interest in keeping things the same, or digging their claws in deeper.
In a crisis, even the smallest deviation from the norm — any norm that is left — forces you to confront the crisis in its entirety all over again.
For instance, I think that part of Yale’s resistance to something as simple as pass/fail in a pandemic is that it has to admit that there really is a pandemic, that things aren’t normal, that its trademarked blue and everlasting neo-gothic architecture (the buildings that always were and thus always must be) can’t protect us. Yale can’t protect normal.
But Yale can’t just let the rat race stop, not for one minute. After all, if we don’t have grades, how will we know what we’re worth? Yes, all students are equal, but some are more equal than others.
But this isn’t about the debate over Universal Pass or pass/fail or opt-in or whatever the pathetic excuse of a policy we have now is called. The debate is a symptom — a symptom of a world where “normal” is and always has been unjust and unequal.
And yet, separated from “normal,” we cling to it. Put on real pants to go to class in your bedroom; FaceTime when you would’ve caught your regular meal; suck it up and take your tests like normal; get outside, go to work and just get the virus already so we can get the Dow Jones back up and go back to normal.
That last part, I’m not exaggerating: “The fundamental problem is whether we are going to tank the entire economy to save 2.5 percent of the population which is (1) generally expensive to maintain, and (2) not productive,” tweeted Scott A. McMillan, a California lawyer and consultant.
It’s not a fringe idea, either: “WE CANNOT LET THE CURE BE WORSE THAN THE PROBLEM ITSELF. AT THE END OF THE 15 DAY PERIOD, WE WILL MAKE A DECISION AS TO WHICH WAY WE WANT TO GO!” decreed Donald J. Trump, our courageous leader.
Bracketing the idiocy of the idea that any economic normalcy can be attained by allowing a virus to freely decimate the nation: From a moral standpoint, please, please realize how evil this death cult is.
But, you know, they may have a point. It’s about time we get back to sacrificing our tired, our poor, our huddled masses to Mr. Doward Jones. How long can we last without 7.0 to 10.5 million Americans dying of work-related injuries and illnesses each year? Why can’t we just continue denying our workers sick leave, child care and health care as usual? When can we get back to overlooking the laborers that are currently carrying the country through this crisis?
No, regardless of what your mom’s cousin’s boyfriend’s brother’s nephew’s dog’s sister who knows a guy who works at the CDC said, the virus itself was not man-made. Every other part of this crisis, however, from the lies of authoritarian governments to the complete disregard for vulnerable populations, certainly is. Diseases on their own don’t discriminate by wealth or class, but the rest of our world does. Change only happens if people admit that the absolute insanity of today has been going on all along.
Crises are not momentary lapses of normality, they’re times that redefine what normal is. “Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around,” wrote the influential free-market economist Milton Friedman (ominously).
Yale is a place full of ideas. We should have better ideas than pretending everything is normal, than resigning to slouch back into normalcy, when this is all over. When the choice that “normal” gives us is between the economy and death, we better start imagining something new.
We can work to rebuild the world in a better image. We can imagine something better.
I might be wrong. But that doesn’t worry me. At Yale, we’re perpetually afraid of error, but that fear isn’t symmetrical. We’re much more afraid of being wrong by overestimation than we are by underestimation. Underplay your hand: that’s room for growth. Overplay your hand: you’d better start amputating.
Out of complacency or cynicism, we grow comfortable with lowering our expectations, resigning that tomorrow will inevitably be a dirty mirror to today.
We shouldn’t cling to the myth of normalcy, forgetting what parts of it are really crises themselves.
Normal is what is. Nothing more. It says nothing of what could be — but we can.
ERIC KREBS is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .