March 16, 2020
Last Saturday I was minding my own business, reading Stephen King’s The Stand and checking Twitter, when a knock came at the door. A middle-aged man, not much older than I am, stood on my porch. He had a pleasant, bespectacled face and a card in his hand, which he used to wave at me. I reached to open the door when he announced through the glass that he was there from a church which he named but whose name I did not catch. He said wanted to tell me about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Since I had not yet had a chance to open the door, I stopped short of doing so, not because I don’t think I need saving exactly, but because I was not prepared to let this man explain to me how he presumed that would happen. Or was it because I feared the coronavirus? I’m not sure.
I am a history professor. My classes have all been “moved on-line,” which to be honest is a kind of administrative ruse, a way of claiming that the semester is still happening so that students can get credit for all the work they have already done (and money they have already paid), and so that they can graduate and not have their lives totally upended. The truth is that our classes can be “moved on-line” only in a very partial sense. Even if you are not teaching printmaking or theater or a biology lab, all of which require one’s presence in the material world of people and things, pedagogy mostly thrives on in-person contact. For myself, I need to see my students, see what they are getting and what they are not getting, see when I need to go back over something that I had perhaps only incompletely explained the first time. I need to see when I am boring them, when I am surprising them, when I am affecting them. I need to hear their questions and opinions.
I love that work, that back-and-forth. I love being part of the unique organism of a classroom, an organism that only exists for a single semester, fourteen weeks or so, and never again. It’s really sad to have to suspend our meetings, especially so far into the semester, when that organism—the world my students and I made—was really just becoming self-aware, starting to fire on all cylinders, and bear forth the revelations and connections that a half-semester’s worth of accumulated knowledge enables.
The last time I saw my students, which was Wednesday before last, March 11, I gave a lecture on fascism. That subject is directly in my wheelhouse as a historian, and I like giving the lecture, grim as it is. I talked about Mussolini’s rhetorical style, his repertoire of gestures, the postures he assumed in photographs, and how he used his body to communicate. I talked about how weary people in the 1920s and ‘30s became of democracy—its indecision, its compromises, its endless debates and deliberations, its distinct lack of glory. And how attractive it became, when discontent surged and things became more and more chaotic, to imagine that some powerful personality could save them, set things to rights, regain order, redeem what had been lost.
For students who have often been given a single explanation their whole lives for the rise of Hitler—the Great Depression—it might have been a pretty eye-opening lecture. My students heard not just about how bad times and fears of communism drove many Germans to vote for the Nazis but also about what good political organizers the Nazis were, how effectively they exploited modern technology, about their rallies and their spectacles of mass belonging and us-ness.
I also talked about the idea of historical contingency, on the example of the Reichstag fire. I asked my students to consider what our national Reichstag fire might be and whether it might already have happened. When I asked them this question last Wednesday, I don’t know if any of them might have thought of the coronavirus as that pivotal moment. I wonder what they think now.
I closed my lecture by talking about the role myth plays in history. Confronted by so much abject lying and sycophancy and delusional behavior nowadays, you often hear people saying—and I even say it myself, I say it to my students—that facts are what matter. If someone is making things up, we have to confront them with their prevarication and brandish facts like weapons against deception. Democracy dies in darkness. Facts are the life-giving light.
But the reality is that sometimes what matters—and what really moves the wheels of history, as Mussolini might have put it—is what you can make out of the facts. Sometimes myths are much more compelling than humble, modest truths. In that sense, it did not matter much whether the Reichstag fire was set by a young communist who opposed the Nazis, or if that’s merely what they said happened. What mattered was the chain of events that flowed from the fire, and what the Nazis made of those events. What mattered was how the facts were interpreted and put to work.
By the way, just yesterday, one of our illustrious Tennessee state senators, Frank Niceley—who in 2013 addressed the Southern National Congress, which the Southern Poverty Law Center says is an offshoot of the neo-Confederate hate group League of the South—posted this question to Twitter: “isn’t it a #Fact that #COVID-19 originated in #China?”
In lieu of payment, our friends and contributors to the Corona Correspondences are dedicating donations to nonprofits and independent businesses in their communities. Black’s contribution will be directed to The Love Kitchen.