Plagues and Protests

Is there a thread of connection between national and world events that have at once threatened the health and life of large swaths of the human population in the form of an extremely contagious viral invasion evolving into a global pandemic, and an uprising of protests in dozens of cities in the United States sparked, ostensibly, by the video of the clumsy yet brutally degrading execution of a black citizen—protests which have become, much as COVID-19, a worldwide phenomenon? If nothing else, some interest could be taken and a conversation started from a comparison with Albert Camus’ 1947 novel The Plague.


Camus’ fictional plague became an epidemic in the city of Oran, Algeria, the country where the author was reared. The epidemic was caused by a historically familiar and frequent bacterial infection know as the bubonic plague or black death, primarily through biting fleas that had themselves become carriers from an infected rat population . Camus’ work has been pigeonholed to the existentialist tradition, and his other major works such as The Stranger and The Myth of the Sisyphus are also good examples of the modernist’s angst in an absurd world with only elusive and illusory meaning. The plot line and action of The Plague are pedestrian, for the most part describing without fanfare life in a city quarantined from the rest of the world, and much of the value coming from the interactions and philosophical forays between the major characters. 


The novel has been described as an allegory of the rise and establishment of fascism that swept up Europe and the world. Could we transfer the symbolic connection to our current crises, comparing our shared distress from a devastating virus and the ugly manifestations of systemic social and criminal justice and the growing tendency of authoritarian leaders and enforcers to take actions that have increasingly come to have neo- or proto-fascist tendencies to Camus’ metaphor? The militarization of local police departments through Program 1033 of the 1997 National Defense Authorization Act set about transferring U. S. military equipment of all varieties to local authorities. Courts are being stacked with hardline law and order judges. A campaign of misinformation, mendacity, and personal attacks,  from trivial to major, emanates from the White House, and is met with the approval of silence from the Republican legislative faction. Religious fundamentalism, jingoistic nationalism, and political power on the right are becoming a grotesque coterie of a force that looks much like the scourge that wracked the collective decency of 20th Century Europe.


Jean Tarrou, a major character in the novel who was visiting Oran when the epidemic broke out and forced into the quarantine, gave one insight into the allegory; namely, that the susceptibility to be rendered helpless and uncaring about our fellow humans is a part of the human condition, and remains in conflict with empathy, sympathy, and compassion that is also part of our being, and the necessity to shed any illusions about our innocence. “When I was young I lived with the idea of my innocence; that is to say, with no idea at all.” Tarrou’s innocence disappeared when his father, a local prosecuting jurist, took him to court one day to watch the proceedings as his father argued for the conviction of a man whose conviction bore the death sentence. At that point in the court, the young Tarrou claims he  saw the defendant as a human being for the first time in this moment of coming face-to-face with the firing squad, changing him forever, and becoming a dedicated advocate of abolishing the death penalty. “To my mind the social order around me was based on the death sentence, and by righting the established order I’d be fighting against murder.” The plague allegory is directed toward the social milieu of fascism: “For the plague-stricken their peace of mind is more important than a human life. Decent folks must be allowed to sleep easy o’nights, mustn’t they?…And thus I came to understand that I, anyhow, had had plague throughout all those long years in which, paradoxically enough, I’d believed with all my soul that I was fighting it. I had had an indirect hand in the deaths of thousands of people; that I’d even brought about their deaths by approving of acts and principles which could only end that way.”


The 1960s brought waves of civil unrest: anti-war protests, the culmination of second wave feminism, and the very robust struggle for racial rights and justice, all overlapping, and with the same people involved in more than one. Anti-war protests were populated mainly by young and white students. They were called unrealistic idealists, hopeless romantics, cowards, traitors, and worse. They had lost their innocence about the comfortable life they grew up in with the testament of misery  walking right beside them in the form of unequal women and oppressed Blacks. 


Today’s continuing large protests could connote the same experience of innocence lost, and maybe it is for some of the younger participants, but for most, in today’s mix of all colors and a cross section of ages, that innocence has long since passed, and the realization that everyone has a duty as a human to resist comfort and complacency, stand up against injustice for the good of all. Tarrou sums it up metaphorically

I can say I know the world inside out, as you may see, that each of us has the plague within him; no one earth is free from it. And I know, too, that we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him. What’s natural is the microbe. All the rest, health, integrity, purity (if you like), is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter. The good man, the man who infects  hardly anyone, is the man who has the fewest lapses of attention.


Stay safe, keep up the good fight, and take up the causes against the microbe and against an increasingly inhumane society.


Marty Bankson, reporting for The Humanist Advocate

June 7, 2020