Pandemic and Pop Culture

“Among the overwhelming majority of people, anxiety, greed, lack of independence, and brutality show themselves to be the mainspring of behavior in the face of unsuspected chance and threats. At such a time the tyrannical despiser of humanity easily makes use of the meanness of the human heart by nourishing it and giving it other names. Anxiety is called responsibility; greed is called industriousness; lack of independence becomes solidarity; brutality becomes masterfulness . . . For the tyrannical despiser of humanity, popularity is a sign of the greatest love for humanity. He hides his secret profound distrust of all people behind the stolen words of true community.”
~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Ethics.”

When the Covid-19 pandemic became a present reality I started watching the Netflix series “Pandemic: How To Prevent An Outbreak” which turned out to be informative and an educational resource to help wrap my head around the severity of the pandemic we were going to be living through. Then I went to the movies and watched “Contagion” and “Outbreak” followed by the series “The Walking Dead.” Why was I watching all these things when a real pandemic was playing out in real time on CNN?  

I then came across this in the American Scholar “What Zombie Movies Can Teach us About Viruses” . Stephanie Bastek writes in this article, “In her book Going Viral, pop culture critic and film professor Dahlia Schweizer asks why, and when, outbreak narratives became such a part of our culture. She divides these narratives into three distinct waves of film starting in the early 1990s: first globalization, then terrorism and conspiracy, and then post-apocalypse and zombie films.” She then shares an interview she did with Dahlia Schweizer in which she discusses her book “Going Viral: Zombies, Viruses, and the End of the World.”

I found this all to be fascinating in the context narratives are being shaped now during the Covid-19 pandemic. What weaknesses and strengths is this pandemic revealing about life in America? The lines that are being drawn between saving lives and saving the economy, the fractured health care system, paralyzed partisan politics, k-12 and university education, value of workers – what makes one essential and another non-essential and why? Will we take greater care of the earth and its resources? What do we value? It is not surprising that these questions were being asked in pop culture before the pandemic arrived, but humans seem reluctant to ant to answer the difficult questions until on precipice of disaster. At the American Scholar article there is a list of additional resources to look at and the one I found most interesting is a syllabus of supplemental study materials for a course at Rutgers University centered around Dahlia Schweizer book referenced above. 

This will be an ongoing conversation in our culture, especially when we begin to chronicle how this pandemic is and will continue to shape and transform how we live and how we continue to define what being human is during and after this historic crisis. I think the quintessential question is what do we do with our fear and anxiety? Do we look for a scapegoat(s) to project blame, do we create an “other’’ real or imagined to lash out at in anger or frustration? Or do we look inside and come to the realization that we all as humans are potential hosts for a virus whether a disease or an ideology (which is the message in “The Walking Dead”). And as such we have no control other than the awareness of our lack of control.

Hold space for darkness
Lingering in liminal chaos
Staggering within ambiguity
Tasting salty tears mingled with blood
Fashioning angst out of fear
As death machinery moves across the faces of the dislocated
Resist the machinations of the wheel of violence
Dare to ask, “how do you still love in spite of everything?”
Even if no answer comes to the question
Sit in silence and in waiting
Breathe and hope for justice