Journal of|the Plague Years

     What is it like to live through a Great Plague, that carries off a corpse every minute in a single town?
     Do people weep and tremble?
     Change their way of living?
     Is there time to think of anything but death?
     I opened Samuel Pepys’ journal to the summer of 1665, a plague year, when 10,000 people died each week in London.
     Pepys barely mentioned it.
     Oh, once a week, when the death register came out, he’d tut-tut about it: 7,000 dead this week; 10,000 dead the next. But he spent far more time writing about how drunk he got, how much money he won at cards, and what sexual liberties he had taken with the servants.
     With every ache or chill a possible premonition of death, Pepys was more concerned with putting the tales of his sexual license into a wretched mix of French and Italian, so his wife couldn’t read it.
     Not that Pepys was different from any of us. Plague was just the background noise of his day. How often do you – or I – think about the tens of thousands of deaths, the unending war and misery we continue to inflict upon the Middle East and Central Asia?
     How much time do we spend thinking about, or trying to do something about the well-connected thieves who stole trillions of dollars in broad daylight?
     How often, as we take an illegal drug, do we think about the 30,000 people murdered by Mexican drug lords in the past few years, as they bring us our “harmless pleasures”?
     What will we do about the mass deaths and illnesses we are causing in the Gulf of Mexico, except to wring our hands a bit and sigh when it’s finally over?
     For Pepys and his contemporaries, plague was a visitation of the Lord – there was nothing they could do about it.
     Today we are just as blasé about war, corruption, mass murder, and the poisoning of an ocean.
     But our modern plagues are not the Work of God – no matter what the Taliban or the Republicans say about it. They are works of men – our doing. Yet we live as though we were helpless to do anything about it – as helpless as 17th century Londoners were to do anything about the plague.
     Pepys was more intelligent than most modern Americans.
     With plague deaths increasing during a warm November, he wrote this about a Sunday sermon from the Duke of Albemarle’s chaplain: “Reproaching the imperfection of human learning, he cried – ‘All our physicians can’t tell what an ague is, and all our Arithmetique is not able to number the days of a man’ – which, God knows, is not the fault of arithmetique, but that our understandings reach not that thing.”
     Pepys saw right through the righteous, thundering statement to its bogus reasoning. That’s a talent Americans have lost, if we ever had it.
     The specious arguments dredged up daily by our – God, I hate to say this – leaders, are just as thunderous, just as vapid as the reasoning of the duke’s preacher.
     Most modern Americans – and certainly all of our politicians – who offer a solution to any of these problems are not even joking – they are bluffing, huffing and puffing. Their solutions, could they be imposed, would make things worse.
     A congressional candidate in New Mexico this week – Tom Mullins, a Republican, of course; a moron, obviously – suggested we put land mines on the border to control immigration.
     Other morons suggest we set off a “small” nuclear weapon to seal off the oil well in the Gulf of Mexico.
     That would make the oil pollution less of a problem, all right.
     But no one – from the president of the United States down to the most repulsive, goose-stepping Republican – is willing to suggest we prosecute any of the people who stole trillions of dollars in daylight.
     And amid this universal degradation of reason, 150 million followers of the party now out of power devote their time, money and effort to vile and fantastic accusations that the real enemies we face are not our armed enemies, not religious fanatics with guns, but the 150 million of our countrymen who do not think quite the way the Party does.
     This is insanity. But it’s just background noise for us. The Work of God. A plague.

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