This is the update for Monday, March 23, 2020.
Announcement from College Square
In response to the Governor’s order from yesterday, we will be closing all retail operations, including the Loghouse, the College Store and Printing Services. The latter will continue to serve College needs.
Speaking of Governor Beshear, props to him for his calm leadership of the Commonwealth of Kentucky throughout this crisis. If you’ve been tuning in to his 5:00 daily press briefings, you’ve been seeing a confident, forward-thinking, intelligent and empathetic person doing his utmost for everyone in our state.
An announcement from Berea Kids Eat
Last week Berea Kids Eat served 9500 meals in 4 days. To better protect everyone’s health they are instituting some changes in service for this week. Those announcements will be conveyed through Berea Community School.
An announcement from Financial Aid
Last week I announced that the Student Financial Aid Services Office would be open through lunch for a couple of weeks. As of today, the office will no longer be open. However, if you need a Social Insurance (SNAP, food stamps) letter or something else, please send a message to FINAID@berea.edu. Office staff are still available 8a – 5p, M-F by email, or you can leave a message on the office phone.
An Historian’s Perspective on the COVID-19 Virus
By Rob Foster, Professor of Asian Studies and History
On the last day of in-class instruction, one of my students asked what I thought of our current situation. What came immediately to mind is a book I use in the History capstone: Paul Cohen’s History in Three Keys: The Boxer Rebellion as Event, Experience, and Myth. Historians always approach their topic with hindsight, and often from generations of separation from the event. We have the leisure to gather sources to analyze an event from multiple perspectives to explain how something occurred and what the ramifications were. Cohen points out that those sources often come from people immersed in the experience. In Cohen’s case, the study was of the anti-foreign, anti-Christian movement in China from 1899 to 1901. He drew upon the letters and diaries of Western missionaries, Chinese officials, personal accounts from members of the Boxer movement, Western soldiers, etc.
The accounts of the experiencers demonstrate two things that seem simple: first, the future is unknown, and therefore a cause for uncertainty; second, that expressions of uncertainty lead to anxieties and hopes that are shaped by the society and culture in which one is raised. Missionaries tended to reflect upon the tribulations of Biblical figures and God’s will. Chinese couched the experience in terms of cleansing the land of a foreign religion that angered their gods, leading to drought and famine. Western soldiers drew analogies to Western literature about military valor (and often racist tropes about “Orientals”). Chinese Boxer practices were often influenced by tales of heroes related through village opera performances (a genre that influenced Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) and by a China-centered xenophobia.
Anxiety, hope, and uncertainty generated rumors. Rumors stoked fear (Christians were poisoning wells) or wish fulfillment (Western armies were about to rescue trapped Christians), again couched in cultural terms familiar to the experiencers.
Yet the event of the Boxers did not only generate negative experiences. There are accounts of great kindness and help from unexpected quarters, of people who put themselves at risk to help strangers from their own and other cultures.
We can see many of these patterns in our experiences today. Different societies have responded to the pandemic in different ways. I have been struck by the American propensity for self-reliance that, when taken to extremes, leads to hoarding. I may be wrong, but I have not seen similar accounts from other nations. Some argue that the reason South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan have been able to somewhat stem the tide of contagion is due to a strong sense of individual responsibility to the community. There is no doubt that Americans also have a sense of responsibility (our health care workers are doing tremendous things at great personal risk). But there is also a strain of “don’t tell me what to do,” as in the case of the Kentucky man who tested positive, but refused to self-quarantine. He now has a police guard.
In responding to my student’s question in our last classroom session, I noted that this event would be studied for decades, if not centuries. History is not predictive. We are not “doomed to repeat” the past. However, patterns of the past may suggest possible outcomes depending upon actions taken in the present. People are currently revisiting the 1918 flu pandemic to see what worked and what did not. Questions are being raised about whether less liberal governments (the People’s Republic of China) are better equipped to deal with national crises than more liberal governments (Italy, and, perhaps, the United States). In response, I would point to South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan—liberal democracies that have emerged from cultures with strong communitarian values.
We won’t know for years to come what the ramifications of this event will be. How will it shape the 2020 elections? How will it influence the debates regarding a national health-care system, or the social responsibility of the wealthy in relation to those less fortunate? These are pressing questions for the present. How we answer them will be the grist for historians’ analyses in future generations. And those historians will argue about which cultural tendencies came to the fore in a time of crisis. For us, will we turn to xenophobia or openness? Will a sense of cohesive civic responsibility or one of fragmenting individualism be the pervasive response?
Whatever happens, future generations will create national myths about this event. Cohen characterizes myths as representations (usually inaccurate) of the past in service of current political agendas. In China, the myths are already coalescing around the guiding wisdom of the Communist Party (though there is also a great deal of dissent). Will our myths be tinged by individual heroism, or by the general American distrust of expertise? Our students’ students will decide and debate these questions.
Lyle Roelofs, President