I was five years old when my grandparents’ cottage burned down. A few years later, three feet of rainwater flooded our basement. All the photos, letters, and diaries lost to fire or flood held pieces of our lives, though their cash value was nil.
Amid campus unrest in the late 1960s, I made a sharp distinction between life and property. One day my stomach sank to hear of someone’s notes destroyed from fifteen years of research. It was only paper. It was also fifteen years of a life.
The line between life and property no longer feels so clear. Yes, murder is more vile than theft. In a fire, save the cat before the heirloom. But the small business or family restaurant that took years to build up is more than bricks and mortar. It’s also years of the family’s life.
Locke wrote governments exist to protect “life, liberty, and property.” For the Declaration of Independence, why did Jefferson make it “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”? Some say he worried property might protect slaveholders. Some say he knew Locke meant more by property than land and goods.
Property today goes beyond the holdings of the insured and the one percent. For some, it’s inextricably tangled up with liberty, pursuit of happiness, and life itself.
. . . That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . .
Unlike the U.S. Constitution, the Declaration of Independence has no legal authority. But its moral authority to Americans is, I hope, indisputable. The purpose of governments, it states, is to safeguard everyone’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
To do so entails laws. The Declaration charges King George with having “refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good,” “forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance,” and “refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people.” Laws are necessary—as a means, not an end.
What changes when focus shifts from law enforcement (a means) to public safety (the end)? Instead of counting tickets or arrests, the measure of effectiveness becomes accidents averted, conflicts deescalated, homes and neighborhoods at peace. Officers need to know the law, both to stay within it and to protect the rights of everyone. If a law doesn’t help secure those inalienable rights, the law needs to change.
Like many at risk from coronavirus, I expect to hunker down till we get a vaccine. When will that be? Polio history brings to mind my mother’s saying, there’s many a slip ’twixt the cup and the lip.
Approval. Licensing a new vaccine depends on tests to prove it safe and effective. Salk’s polio vaccine was licensed, and boxes of vaccine shipped, the very day field trial results were announced. Though the public acclaimed the rush to market, some scientists thought it reckless.
Manufacture. Working with biologicals is iffy. Two manufacturers of Salk-style vaccine agreed to scale up production to supply every country that didn’t already use it. Technical difficulties kept them from fulfilling the contract on schedule.
Distribution. A vaccine won’t reach you and me the day it leaves the plant. Much depends on supply, priorities, and wild cards beyond human control. When ash from a volcano in Iceland closed European airports, at least 15 million doses of polio vaccine bound for West Africa were grounded in Paris and Frankfurt.
One bad apple spoils the whole barrel.
Adages and idioms are odd things. A saying can take on a life of its own and come to mean the opposite of what it says.
An over-ripe apple emits a musky gas called ethylene as it starts to rot. Other apples nearby absorb the ethylene, which speeds their ripening. They in turn give off ethylene as they spoil. The rot spreads.
Curiously, these days to blame a few bad apples for prisoner abuse or police violence or business corruption is to affirm the innocence of everyone else. Of course the proverb says just the opposite: Let a little rot slip through unhindered, and soon the whole bunch will be rotten to the core.
Children will be paralyzed. Mass immunization can’t happen in a time of social distancing. While vaccination campaigns are tragically deferred, the skills and resources for other polio activities help fight the new pandemic.
Surveillance workers detect cases of both COVID-19 and polio, trace contacts, and transport specimens for analysis. Polio-funded vehicles and phones are at their disposal. Laboratories, data systems, and emergency operations centers set up against one virus are being used against another.
Trusted community members convey basic health messages in urban slums and remote villages. Handwashing instructions save lives in communities where former vaccination teams distributed soap from door to door. Pakistan’s polio hotline doubles as a COVID hotline. Trained communicators respond to rumors and misinformation.
Coronavirus is hard on most of the world. It would be even harder on parts of Africa and Asia if the global movement to eradicate polio hadn’t gotten there first.
How is social shaming different from bullying? Though I find most folks friendly and courteous amid all the anxiety and frustration, social shaming is rampant online or in public spaces. It thrives in the moral certainty that we’re right and they’re jerks.
Does shaming change behavior? Perhaps, with large corporations whose business depends on public image, or people who violate the norms of those they care about. Individuals called out by strangers tend to get defensive, hostile, aggressive, and increasingly blatant. Sometimes someone gets shot.
Remember Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William L. Ury (1981)? It enjoyed a brief popularity before we decided civil disagreement was a sign of weakness. This relic of a different era outlined a four-step approach to negotiation:
My self-inflicted haircut is crooked. Who cares? I’m invisible while we hunker down “safer at home.”
That’s apart from several video conferences a week, which take me into homes of people I’d normally see only in public, and brings them into mine. Social distancing blurs boundaries to create a kind of intimacy. Who guessed we'd ever watch members of the Paris Ballet dance in their kitchens with toddlers and pets?
Visibility, invisibility, a blessing and a curse. I hate being invisible when a meeting chair ignores my raised hand. I love invisibility in a pre-pandemic crowd where no one notices or cares how I look.
Writers choose how visible to be to their readers. I hope someday to read coronavirus memoirs where the author shines through on every page, alongside histories and analyses where the author disappears. Unless those lines, too, begin to blur.
Obsessive hand washing has adults singing the alphabet song several times a day. If you’re getting sick of ABCs, any song that lasts at least twenty seconds will do.
Or compose your own lyrics to the same 18th-century French melody, as plenty of people have done. The version to which Mozart composed twelve variations (below) translates roughly to “Shall I tell you what upsets me, Mom? Dad wants me to reason like a grown-up, but I prefer sweets over reason.” I’m still trying to pen an English version that fits the tune.
More familiar is “Twinkle, twinkle, little star,” first stanza of a poem by Jane Taylor (1783-1824) published in Rhymes for the Nursery in 1806. By the time The Singing Master III paired Taylor’s poem with the old tune 32 years later, other lyrics had been set to it too, including the alphabet and something called “Mark My Alford.” The possibilities are endless. “Bah, bah, black sheep” is similar but shorter. You’d have to sing it twice to get your hands clean.
Ah ! Vous dirai-je maman
Ce qui cause mon tourment?
Papa veut que je raisonne
Comme une grande personne
Moi je dis que les bonbons
Valent mieux que la raison.
Life may return to almost the way it was, with more hand washing and fewer handshakes. Or entire cultures and global power balances may shift. It wouldn’t be the first time.
After bubonic plague devastated Europe, English landowners had fewer peasants to work the same amount of land. Many switched from crops to sheep, which required less labor. The English wool industry led to textiles, the Industrial Revolution, colonization, global naval power, and cultural hegemony that continues to this day. English is the international language.
Smallpox and measles ravaged the Americas when travelers from another hemisphere (like bats in the current pandemic) introduced the viruses to humans who had no prior exposure. Visiting San Antonio in February, I learned how disease and drought drove people into the missions for survival and gave rise to an entirely new, blended culture of Spanish language, Catholic faith, and indigenous foods and customs.
Will the long-term impact of coronavirus be minor or huge? It’s too early for scientists or historians to know.
Uptalk: Speech in which declarative sentences end with a rising pitch.
Of the ways a writer can convey tone in dialogue, few carry as much punch as a question mark at the end of a non-question. You can picture the speaker easily? A wimpy, insecure, superficial airhead who’s either oblivious or hungry for approval? This stereotypical Valley girl usage has spread far beyond the San Fernando Valley of southern California, especially (but not exclusively) among women and the young.
Though widely derided, uptalk can be a mark of strength. It connects speaker with listener, inviting a nod of understanding. People with more authority in a conversation—doctors to patients, supervisors to employees, scientists to laypeople—often use uptalk to reduce distance and soften an otherwise impersonal lecture.
A rising tone in speech, as in music, signals there’s more to follow. Far from showing deference, uptalk flashes a warning: Don’t interrupt me. I’m not done.
Ending a statement with a question mark in written dialogue has pros and cons. Pro: It conjures up a ready image. Con: Like many stereotypes, that image may not hold true.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.