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Politics, Protests, and Pandemics – The New Yorker

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In fourteenth-century Florence, the Black Death led to a marked decrease in civil disorder, even as it destroyed the governmental system of Siena, fifty miles away.Illustration from Bettmann / Getty

It’s odd to know, as a citizen of your own time, what future historians will argue about it, but not to know what they will say about it—and, even odder, what they ought to say about it. We should, after all, be experts on our own experience; yet we aren’t. In a way, this isn’t surprising. Someone who fought in blue at Antietam would, presumably, be able to tell Civil War historians a thing or two about the face of battle. But, overwhelmed by smoke and noise, a soldier would more likely emerge from the battle simultaneously cursing his time and blessing his luck for surviving the fight, but having no more insight into the course—or the meaning—of it than anyone else. Veterans read military histories of the battles that they fought in more voraciously than do people who weren’t there. They, too, need the God’s-eye view in order to see their own experience.

Most of us living through the coronavirus pandemic are a little like those veterans—what we see is limited by the noise and the smoke of our immediate surroundings. We know that there’s a relation between our pandemic fears and our political anxieties, but articulating it is hard. Not long ago, the historian Niall Ferguson offered a succinct summary of the ways in which pandemics have historically infected politics, stretching back to the Plague of Athens—which induced, or oversaw, the Peloponnesian War—and to ways that the 1918 flu may have triggered the rise of both Bolshevism and Fascism.

We could hold the 1918 flu ultimately responsible for crises that occurred twenty years later, but it would have first had to tumble its way, domino by domino, through the excesses of the Jazz Age. Too many other causes came along the way to single out any. Similar efforts to moralize on this pandemic have so far proved slippery in certainty. Last summer, the admirable Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis tried writing a summary of the political lessons of the pandemic. Beginning with the idea that vaccines were unlikely to arrive any time soon—an idea now consigned to the hospital dustbin of history—he went on to the notion that Canada had done much better in handling the pandemic than the United States. As much as Canadians (myself included), proud of our long history of national health care, might want this to be true, the reality is more complicated. Montreal and Toronto recently have been under tighter restrictions than New York City, and the vaccine rollout is seen as inefficient. The larger, scary truth is that the mortality rate in the pandemic is remarkably labile from country to country; nations with strong national medical systems, such as France and Spain, haven’t always done much better than those with anarchic systems, such as the United States. Open democracy doesn’t seem to help as much as we might have hoped, either. Australia and South Korea have done extraordinarily well, but so, if the numbers are to be believed, has China. According to the Lowy Institute’s Covid Performance Index, “despite initial differences, the performance of all regime types in managing the coronavirus converged over time.”

Turn to the past, and what you find are not neat historical vectors but the same indeterminacy. The historian Samuel K. Cohn, Jr., an expert on the relationship between plagues and people, has, story by story, exploded the neat, cartoon versions of history in which diseases point to unidirectional political vectors. In his extensive scholarship, including the book “Epidemics: Hate and Compassion from the Plague of Athens to AIDS,” a staggeringly exhaustive study of the correlations between pandemics and political violence— taking in everything from the Black Death in fourteenth-century Florence to cholera in nineteenth-century London, syphilis in Impressionist Paris, and tuberculosis in early-twentieth-century New York—Cohn has shown, that, although pandemics and infectious diseases do sometimes lead us to blame some “other” group, they just as often create new kinds of social solidarity. “Pandemics did not inevitably give rise to violence and hatred,” Cohn writes. “In striking cases they in fact did the opposite, as witnessed with epidemics of unknown causes in antiquity, the Great Influenza of 1918–19 and yellow fever across numerous cities and regions in America and Europe. These epidemic crises unified communities, healing wounds cut deep by previous social, political, religious, racial and ethnic tensions and anxieties.”

Pretty much every generalization we might attempt in pandemic politics turns out to be unpersuasive. The Black Death destroyed Siena’s governmental system and increased violence there, but, just fifty miles away, in Florence, the same plague led to a marked decrease in civil disorder—the “tenor of life” there became less, not more, violent. In some places and moments, Cohn writes, in “The Black Death: End of a Paradigm,” fear of the plague “may have initiated a new intensity in the history of Jewish persecutions,” but in other, not-too-distant places and times, reactions to the plague inspired a new proto-scientific skepticism of authority, so that “the new plague doctors relied on their own ‘experience’ ” in battling illness. Looking in detail at the history of cholera, syphilis, and other diseases, it seems that, in each case, so to speak, for every anti-Semitic riot you get (and you get them), you also get social solidarity around threatened groups. No unidirectional pattern, just contingent acts.

The same truth holds today, as the research group ACLED’s COVID-19 Disorder Tracker shows: social disorder in the pandemic year has been planetwide, and it has been polarized in purpose. In some places—Hong Kong is an obvious example—the pandemic has provided cover for political repression. In others—the U.S. among them—it has been a catalyst for both legitimate social demonstrations and scaremongering protests. The only pattern that emerges is the absence of one.

Yet, within all that fluid movement, something solid surely can be seen; the uncertainty of outcomes—the wild oscillations between reform and reaction, between productive protest and riot—rests on the inherent ambivalence of pandemic psychology. Pandemics make people feel precarious, and feeling precarious can either focus our minds or fry our circuits.

If the entangled mysteries of plague and politics do point to a moral, it may lie in a novel that seems to be all about a pandemic but is actually primarily about politics. This is, of course, Albert Camus’s “The Plague.” Despite the novel’s omnipresence during the past year, its point is often missed. Long rightly understood as an inspired allegory of the German occupation of France, Camus’s novel is about how unprecedented pressures challenge and change ordinary people. Change happens in all kinds of vivid and unpredictable ways. Brave people panic, small people rise to the occasion. Some minister to the ill, others try to flee. Some of the characters who do flee have understandable reasons for doing so, such as to reunite with a loved one; some who stay have dubious motives. The pressures of a pandemic push us all to similar moments of moral choice: to march or not; to turn inward or outward; to become, like those Renaissance Florentines, skeptical of authority or furious at the outsider. None of it is fixed in advance.

Plagues don’t have plans. People do. What the unreasonable pressures of an inexplicable, universal medical crisis do is enlarge human possibility in all its variety, place it on the stage, and make it vivid. The basic existential choices that make meaning become inescapable then. The only moral a plague dictates is that nothing is dictated, and everything can alter, sometimes overnight. That pluralism of human possibilities is what we are still trying to enact as democratic politics.


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Opinion | In Canadian politics, Erin O'Toole might be the pandemic's biggest loser – Toronto Star

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It was not so long ago — a bit less than a decade — that Canada was the scene of a heated debate as to whether the NDP and the Liberals needed to come together under a single roof or form a coalition of some kind.

Back then, the thinking was that the division of the country’s progressive forces between the federal parties could only lead to the dominance in government of the Conservatives.

And while Justin Trudeau’s 2015 majority victory combined with the second-best New Democrat score in that party’s history seemed to put the issue to rest, doubts lingered as to whether that result was mostly the product of circumstances.

Voter fatigue with the Conservatives after a decade of Stephen Harper’s rule combined with the eclipse of the Bloc Québécois certainly played a part in the election of Canada’s first majority Liberal government in 15 years.

From that angle, the 2019 election could have been construed as a correction of sorts. The Conservatives won the popular vote, the Bloc made a comeback, and had the NDP not underperformed to the degree that it did, Trudeau could be in political retirement today.

Then came the pandemic, an event of such profound consequences that it has the potential of altering — at least for a time — the political calculus.

Never have so many Canadians had to rely on governments for so much and for so long as they have over the past 12 months.

Given that, it should come as little surprise that the pool of progressive voters and the ranks of those who support government activism seems to have expanded over the course of the COVID-19 episode.

Consider the following:

A year into the pandemic, the Conservatives are the only federal party that is consistently falling below its last election score in voting intentions.

Even as a debate has raged over the federal delivery of vaccines, the Conservatives, who — based on their seat count — are best positioned to replace the Liberals in government, have failed to hang on to their 2019 audience, let alone add to it.

Every national poll published since Feb.1 has Conservative support hovering around the 30 per cent mark. That’s down four points from the party’s election finish.

It would be tempting to put the decrease mostly down to a failure to launch on the part of Erin O’Toole. Admittedly, it is a challenge for an incoming opposition leader to make an impression in the midst of a pandemic.

Still, the notion that the shoes Andrew Scheer left behind were so big that his successor is at a loss to fill them borders on mind-boggling.

The Green Party has also changed leaders over the course of the pandemic and, in the process, it has traded down on the profile front. Over the years, Elizabeth May had become a national fixture. Her successor, Annamie Paul, is still relatively unknown. Yet, the Greens sit at or around their 2019 score in the polls.

As support for the Conservatives has shrunk, that for the NDP has expanded. In all but one of the last six national polls, the New Democrats have scored better than in the last election.

That is not to say Jagmeet Singh is necessarily on a roll. Historically some of the NDP’s best polling results have been achieved between elections.

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In the summer before the 1988 campaign, Ed Broadbent seemed to be on the way to becoming prime minister.

At the start of the 2015 campaign, the polls gave Thomas Mulcair the inside track to beat Harper.

In each of those cases, the NDP’s polling gains were essentially achieved at the Liberals’ expense. But so far this year, Trudeau’s party is either holding its own or improving on its last election score.

The two — at least at this juncture — are not communicating vessels.

At the same time, a trend favourable to activist governments is emerging at the provincial level.

Among the premiers of the larger provinces, François Legault and John Horgan stand out for the high marks their management of the pandemic is earning them.

In last week’s Léger poll, satisfaction with Quebec’s Legault ran at 73 per cent, while 65 per cent of British Columbians approved of Horgan’s performance.

Despite political labels that could lead one to conclude the two premiers hail from opposite sides of the left/right divide, the fact is that Legault is every bit as much of a believer in government interventionism as his NDP counterpart.

Meanwhile, over on the Conservative side, the reviews range from decisively mixed in the case of Ontario’s Doug Ford and Manitoba’s Brian Pallister to outright negative in the case of Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe and Alberta’s Jason Kenney.

Even in the Conservatives’ heartland, the pandemic is doing the Canadian right no favours.

Chantal Hébert is an Ottawa-based freelance contributing columnist covering politics for the Star. Reach her via email: chantalh28@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter: @ChantalHbert

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Opinion | In Canadian politics, Erin O'Toole might be the pandemic's biggest loser – NiagaraFallsReview.ca

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It was not so long ago — a bit less than a decade — that Canada was the scene of a heated debate as to whether the NDP and the Liberals needed to come together under a single roof or form a coalition of some kind.

Back then, the thinking was that the division of the country’s progressive forces between the federal parties could only lead to the dominance in government of the Conservatives.

And while Justin Trudeau’s 2015 majority victory combined with the second-best New Democrat score in that party’s history seemed to put the issue to rest, doubts lingered as to whether that result was mostly the product of circumstances.

Voter fatigue with the Conservatives after a decade of Stephen Harper’s rule combined with the eclipse of the Bloc Québécois certainly played a part in the election of Canada’s first majority Liberal government in 15 years.

From that angle, the 2019 election could have been construed as a correction of sorts. The Conservatives won the popular vote, the Bloc made a comeback, and had the NDP not underperformed to the degree that it did, Trudeau could be in political retirement today.

Then came the pandemic, an event of such profound consequences that it has the potential of altering — at least for a time — the political calculus.

Never have so many Canadians had to rely on governments for so much and for so long as they have over the past 12 months.

Given that, it should come as little surprise that the pool of progressive voters and the ranks of those who support government activism seems to have expanded over the course of the COVID-19 episode.

Consider the following:

A year into the pandemic, the Conservatives are the only federal party that is consistently falling below its last election score in voting intentions.

Even as a debate has raged over the federal delivery of vaccines, the Conservatives, who — based on their seat count — are best positioned to replace the Liberals in government, have failed to hang on to their 2019 audience, let alone add to it.

Every national poll published since Feb.1 has Conservative support hovering around the 30 per cent mark. That’s down four points from the party’s election finish.

It would be tempting to put the decrease mostly down to a failure to launch on the part of Erin O’Toole. Admittedly, it is a challenge for an incoming opposition leader to make an impression in the midst of a pandemic.

Still, the notion that the shoes Andrew Scheer left behind were so big that his successor is at a loss to fill them borders on mind-boggling.

The Green Party has also changed leaders over the course of the pandemic and, in the process, it has traded down on the profile front. Over the years, Elizabeth May had become a national fixture. Her successor, Annamie Paul, is still relatively unknown. Yet, the Greens sit at or around their 2019 score in the polls.

As support for the Conservatives has shrunk, that for the NDP has expanded. In all but one of the last six national polls, the New Democrats have scored better than in the last election.

That is not to say Jagmeet Singh is necessarily on a roll. Historically some of the NDP’s best polling results have been achieved between elections.

Loading…

Loading…Loading…Loading…Loading…Loading…

In the summer before the 1988 campaign, Ed Broadbent seemed to be on the way to becoming prime minister.

At the start of the 2015 campaign, the polls gave Thomas Mulcair the inside track to beat Harper.

In each of those cases, the NDP’s polling gains were essentially achieved at the Liberals’ expense. But so far this year, Trudeau’s party is either holding its own or improving on its last election score.

The two — at least at this juncture — are not communicating vessels.

At the same time, a trend favourable to activist governments is emerging at the provincial level.

Among the premiers of the larger provinces, François Legault and John Horgan stand out for the high marks their management of the pandemic is earning them.

In last week’s Léger poll, satisfaction with Quebec’s Legault ran at 73 per cent, while 65 per cent of British Columbians approved of Horgan’s performance.

Despite political labels that could lead one to conclude the two premiers hail from opposite sides of the left/right divide, the fact is that Legault is every bit as much of a believer in government interventionism as his NDP counterpart.

Meanwhile, over on the Conservative side, the reviews range from decisively mixed in the case of Ontario’s Doug Ford and Manitoba’s Brian Pallister to outright negative in the case of Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe and Alberta’s Jason Kenney.

Even in the Conservatives’ heartland, the pandemic is doing the Canadian right no favours.

Chantal Hébert is an Ottawa-based freelance contributing columnist covering politics for the Star. Reach her via email: chantalh28@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter: @ChantalHbert

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Barcelona Soccer Club Is Getting Caught Up in Politics – Bloomberg

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FC Barcelona v Juventus - UEFA Champions League

FC Barcelona calls itself “more than a club,” an affirmation that its Catalan culture and identity within Spain goes beyond soccer. That motto could be about to take on wider significance as it gets more deeply embroiled in the nation’s politics.

The biggest club in the world by revenue will hold elections on Sunday to pick a new president. The outcome may have a bearing on the future of Catalonia’s independence movement, whose fight with the Spanish government has dominated the country over the past three years.

Known internationally for stars like Argentina’s Lionel Messi, Barcelona is a flag carrier for Catalonia and was a lightning rod for resistance against the Franco dictatorship. On 17 minutes and 14 seconds at home games—before the pandemic emptied the stadium—a faction of the crowd chants for independence to symbolize the fall of the city in 1714.

But the team is still considered the last big Catalan institution that remains largely outside the influence of secessionists.

During the campaign to elect a new president, candidates have mostly avoided speaking publicly about the Catalan issue. Behind the scenes, though, efforts are being made to ensure that whoever wins will be firmly aligned with the separatist cause, according to a person familiar with the plan.

“In a country where politics is as voracious as it is in Catalonia, where there’s a vengeful and fratricidal behavior in so many things, it’s no surprise that Barca has become a disputed power,” said Ramon Miravitllas, author of the 2013 book called “Barca’s Political Role.” “To those who favor independence, Barca needs to be a striker that plays against other forces beyond football.”

#lazy-img-369175232:beforepadding-top:66.55%;FC Barcelona v Real Valladolid CF  - La Liga
FC Barcelona fans display a banner reading “Independencia” during a match at the Camp Nou in 2019.
Photographer: Alex Caparros/Getty Images

The two main pro-independence parties—Esquerra Republicana and Junts per Catalunya—are currently negotiating to form a government in the region after elections last month. While Esquerra looks set to lead the administration, the more radical Junts appears to have the upper hand in the race for who will run Barcelona.

The party’s leader, former regional President Carles Puigdemont, is personally following every twist and turn of the election. He is in self-proclaimed exile in Belgium following the turmoil of the region’s failed bid for independence in October 2017, which also divided Spanish soccer as well as the nation.

Junts is interested in using Barcelona to develop television content, according to the person familiar with the party’s involvement. The club owns a television channel and has a content studio, Barca Studios, with capacity to build streaming services.

Puigdemont and his allies have been working with Joan Laporta, a former president and the frontrunner to get the post again.

#lazy-img-369176046:beforepadding-top:66.675%;Ousted Catalan President Carles Puigdemont Presents Coalition Ahead Of Elections
Carles Puigdemont in 2017.
Photographer: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg

People close to Puigdemont have been helping gather the necessary financial guarantees for candidates on the Laporta team. They need 100 million euros ($119 million)—or about 8.5 million each—and enlisted the help of an executive at one of Catalonia’s main banks, according to the person familiar with the situation. 

Should he prevail, Laporta faces the task of fixing a club in a mess, with debt of  about 1 billion euros and a cash crunch in May. Former President Josep Maria Bartomeu and three other directors were arrested earlier this week amid a prosecutor’s investigation into the previous administration’s use of the club’s funds.

In December, Laporta made an advertising splash when he put up a billboard outside the stadium of archrival Real Madrid in the Spanish capital. The slogan “Eager to see you again” referenced the rivalry, but the message was also that the independence movement is back, said a person familiar with the decision.

“Barca has been ‘more than a club’ since the dictatorship, but it can’t have the same role,” said Miravitllas. “Times have changed.”

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