For my last blog of the 2019-2020 Bits blogging year, I wish to return to the cataclysmic event in which we are all, unhappily and reluctantly, participating. This is history, and while, unfortunately, what we regard as historic is all too often some sort of catastrophe (like a war or a plague), it behooves us to learn what we can from it. And one of the major lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic—an obvious one to anyone who is paying serious attention to it—is political. But since the politics of the pandemic may not be quite so apparent to our students, it would be worth taking the matter up with your classes when you return to teaching in the fall, especially if you are adopting a cultural-semiotic methodology in your pedagogy.
To cut right to the chase, it is now clear that ideology—both in the United States and globally—has played a major role in the personal and political response to this biological scourge. Dividing explicitly along the progressive/conservative fracture lines that have been widening all over the world for a number of years now, this response reflects the polarized politics of our time in entirely predictable and almost stereotypical ways, with conservatives resisting (and protesting) governmental restrictions designed to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, and liberals/progressives generally accepting and defending them. In the critical first weeks of the pandemic, it was conservatives who played the threat down—explicitly complaining that it was a "hoax" designed to prevent Donald Trump's reelection, for example—while liberals, after a slow start, worried about worst-case scenarios. Governor Newsom in California, for instance, publicly declared in March that some twenty-five million Californians would be infected within two months. Indeed, it would make for an interesting class exercise (most likely to be conducted through some virtual means, I'm afraid) to have your students catalog, in a binary fashion, the respective conservative/liberal attitudes towards the plague.
One of the particularly polarized differences to emerge in the wake of the pandemic offers a striking example of the way that America's politics reflect the cultural mythologies that shape our consciousness in often highly contradictory and even paradoxical ways. I'm thinking here of the way that conservative positions on the social response to the plague explicitly prioritize the economy over individual health. This is not an empty accusation: one need only look at which states (invariably red states) resisted locking down, and then, after being compelled by spiraling caseloads to lock down after all, were the first to lift their restrictions—always in the name of the economy. By contrast, blue states like California and New York, even while facing catastrophic economic damage due to their lockdowns, are moving with the most caution towards lifting them.
The contradiction here may not be immediately apparent, so I will spell it out. The conservative predilection for "pro-life" social policies is not only well-known and explicit, it is one of the foundations of modern conservatism. And yet, in choosing to prioritize economics over individual lives, the conservative position on the plague is anything but pro-life—especially when those lives are those of senior citizens. If you are using the ninth edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A. and/or plan to adopt the 10th edition, you will find plenty of guidance on teaching your students how to discover and analyze such contradictions in the chapter entitled "American Paradox: Culture, Conflict, and Contradiction in the U.S.A."
More generally, the ninth and tenth edition of Signs of Life both feature, as thematic leitmotifs, the ways in which the ideological divisions in America have widened to the point that we can regard them as harbingers of a veritable cultural civil war, a war that can be found being played out throughout our popular and political culture. Unfortunately, this conflict has badly damaged our national response to the pandemic, and it may well be too late to undo that damage now. But in the hopes that we will all still be here in the fall and beyond, it is a lesson worth teaching and learning in the ever-dimming hope that we will not repeat such mistakes in the future.