There’s a difference between current events/journalism and history. When I teach my course in recent European history, I stop about the year 2000 (with a coda on Brexit). The last twenty-ish years are too recent for historians to get much perspective. As I have previously quoted E.H. Carr: “History is a dialogue between the Past and the Present,” and until there is a decent-enough interval of time, the past and the present are too close to each other to have much to say. So much of what splashes across our daily feeds/consciousness becomes—in due course—ephemera. To be sure, there is history to be mined from ephemera, but it requires a delicate touch to extract those items that still resonate with meaning after twenty or a hundred or 250 years; and the historian who does so must start with a particular frame of reference or they’re just picking up flotsam on the beach.
So, it was with some skepticism that I saw a piece in the NYT recently under the headline “100 Years from Now, This is What We’ll Say Got Us Through the Pandemic.”
I needn’t have worried that the authors made any serious attempt at history (the title notwithstanding). The article comprised short pieces from 17 “cultural critics” on “Pop Culture Moments that Define the Covid Era.” As if.
As if the “Covid Era” is how people of the 22C will see the last four years. It’s certainly possible, of course, but given the geopolitical crisis in Ukraine, the threat of war in Taiwan, the precariousness of global democracy, and the nigh unavoidable environmental cataclysm, it’s not clear that Covid will make the cut as the defining phenomenon of the 2020s.
As if eras are, in any event, definable by cultural “moments.” Even in our media-crazed times, eras tend to be defined by geopolitics and economics. In the list of “big things” in 1939, “Gone with the Wind,” and “The Wizard of Oz”, the first NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, the birth of “Batman,” and the opening of LaGuardia Airport don’t make much of a dent in the start of the European phase of WWII. Ditto for the 1929 birth of “Popeye,” and “Tintin,” the opening of MOMA in New York and the invention of the game of “Bingo,” which are similarly second tier to the start of the Great Depression.
As if “pop culture” tells us much of lasting import. I will readily admit to not being tuned into “pop” culture (I was wholly (and blissfully) unaware of most of the NYT list of 17 “must see/do” items). I am particularly ready to take a stand, nonetheless, that any list that includes any Kardashian or the eighth version of some video game is worth my time to consider. More fundamentally, however, the nature of “pop” culture is to be popular and (almost by definition) ephemeral. The article’s claim of significance is belied by the mental concentration that would be required for us to recall even half a dozen significant “pop” cultural icons of 2003. If it doesn’t mean much after twenty years, then a century seems like quite a stretch.
As if a list of seventeen items can claim to broadly represent the state of US culture during this time. I am aware of the standing of Taylor Swift, for example. But as with her predecessors, Celine Dion, Cher, Barbra Streisand, et al., their appeal only goes so far. This list includes but one book (seven streaming video shows), nothing from Hispanic culture, barely a nod to the heartland or to spontaneous events (other than Will Smith’s slap of Chris Rock at the Oscars); nothing about serious culture, nothing about anybody outside the US of A. It’s a highly selective metro/media-skewed selection.
As if these are the things that “got us through the Pandemic.” There is certainly inspiration and solace and insight to be had from a society’s culture in times of death and trial. For ordinary folks, the fear, disruption, and pain were countered by perseverance, creativity, and mutual support. Where is any mention of the outpouring of support for front-line health care workers by banging pots at 7pm? Where is the awe at the speed with which vaccines appeared? Where are the manifestations of heroism and hunkering-down. Unfortunately, the list trivializes the trauma, the courage, the science, and the humanity of the Covid experience.
As if there’s any sense of history. Per the Carr quote above, we have virtually no idea what people a century hence will think about us or how they will characterize our age. As an exercise in constructing a virtual “time-capsule,” this is much more about self-reflection; i.e., it tells us much more about how this particular group of “cultural critics” saw their peculiar slice of the world in 2023 than it will tell historians about what will seem historically significant. Indeed, I suspect I would be quite surprised, even as a 22C cultural historian of the US in the 21C, if more than a couple of the seventeen items still stood out.
Was it the stuff on this list that “got us through the Pandemic?” Rather to the contrary, one could argue that they were more noise and distraction than aid and comfort. Given our sorry national record on “listening to the science” and the unwillingness of millions to make voluntary sacrifices in the pursuit of “freedom” and “normalcy,” our “getting through” isn’t so much to celebrate.
Depending on how you count it almost 1.5M folks in the US died because of the pandemic, part of 20M+ globally. They, their families, and the many millions more who had serious repercussions—of health or livelihood—didn’t “get through.” Historians of the 22C will assess whether that’s more meaningful than a few yuks on some Netflix dating show