The Pandemic Mirror

These days, we barely recognize our lives: teleconferencing in sweat pants, teaching skeletal versions of our classes, socializing and exercising only through screens. Yet in some ways the pandemic is a mirror in which we and our communities are reflected with vivid, urgent clarity. We know what matters now, in our teaching and our friendships, our families, in the places we live. We know what matters to our leaders: we see politics playing out with stark and immediate consequences. We see the usually opaque mechanisms of access, equity, race and privilege made visible in who gets tested, who gets care, who gets sick and who dies. We are watching ourselves rise to the occasion, so many of us voluntarily exceeding the directives of our mayors, governors and president. We are seeing what remains when so much is swept away.

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Daunting Freedom, Paralyzing Fears

One of the most dramatic features of the late modern period (which to historians means anything after about 1790) is that everything about where you will live and what kind of work you will do and who you are likely to meet and marry was no longer decided by the time you were born. As the myriad changes in the technology of production collectively constituting the Industrial Revolution produced in turn momentous shifts in geographical, political and familial organization, suddenly people no longer simply inherited their place on the planet and their place and role in a community from their parents. More than two centuries downstream, we take all this for granted, but of course in the grand sweep of human experience across millennia, it’s really pretty much a recent innovation.

The good news is that, to a significant extent, if you are born in the US or Canada, in Western Europe and in increasing portions of Eastern Europe, as well as in many other arenas of relative affluence and stability around the globe, you are largely free to choose your life: where you want to live, what kind of work you want to do, whether and whom you want to marry or whether to have a family at all. In short, you can decide who and what you want to be when you grow up. (This remains true in general despite all the ways access to various life paths and indeed to freedom of choice itself is filtered and limited by economic resources, ethnicity and social class in America as elsewhere, despite our denials. Social mobility and the liberty it offers is not by any means unqualified or universal, but it is real, and historically unprecedented.)

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