There is a line from the third Leslie Nielsen cop spoof movie that cracks me up every time. In Naked Gun 33 1⁄3: The Final Insult, Nielsen’s character, Lieutenant Frank Drebbin of Police Squad, has to infiltrate the Academy Awards to save it from a terror attack. The resulting scenes offer up a hysterically funny send-up of the Oscars and of Hollywood’s celebrity culture more generally and include some fun-poking at the motion-picture industry’s habit of taking itself far too seriously. The line in particular that always cracks me up is the announcement of one of the nominated films: Mary Lou Retton is up for best supporting actress in Fatal Affair, described as “one woman’s ordeal to overcome the death of her cat, set against the background of the Hindenburg disaster.”
It’s the absurdity that sells the joke. Losing a pet is very sad. The Hindenburg disaster killed 36 people and destroyed an industry. The two things are not alike, but Hollywood’s notorious obliviousness, plus the numbing effect of the passage of time since the tragedy, made it just plausible that someone actually would set a movie about the death of a cat against the background of a zeppelin blowing up with dozens aboard.
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I have been thinking a lot about history of late, as we struggle to understand the past year of all our lives. While some of us have known personal tragedies worse than the past year, this is the most serious collective danger we’ve faced since the Second World War, or perhaps some of the hotter, scarier moments of the Cold War. But for many of us, the experience of COVID-19 is one of isolation and boredom, not danger and death.
This week, the Globe and Mail published an entirely well-intentioned op-ed that went very badly wrong — along the lines of conflating a dead cat and a burning airship. The piece was a personal essay by an author who wrote of drawing strength during COVID-19 lockdowns and isolation by rereading the Diary of Anne Frank. You might be cringing already, but the piece really was sincere and was trying to make a point about surviving adversity. It was wildly tone-deaf, of course, because Anne Frank didn’t just face partial social isolation and disrupted routines, but extermination by a genocidal regime determined to annihilate her entire religion ... and did, of course, end up a victim of the Nazi Holocaust. It was a massively inappropriate comparison that quickly spawned a sub-genre of mocking tweets in which people compared their minor life irritants with historical tragedy.
This isn’t a piece about the Globe article, per se (an article, by the way, that was pulled down with a note of apology from the editors). It’s a piece about history and how we find our place in it. Because there have been other hysterically overwrought comparisons between our time and tragedies past, too, including ones that suggest that our fairly mild COVID-19 restrictions amount to some kind of police state (they don’t), that our quarantine hotels are like gulags (they’re not), and that our societal response is like a war-time effort (folks, if we’d mustered a COVID-19-level response to the Axis, we’d be living in a different world right now — some of us, anyway).
COVID-19 is the biggest societal event of our lives — the biggest in generations — at least in North America. Arguably, nothing comes close to equalling it, either in terms of its death toll or its widespread effect on society. But it’s ... not the Holocaust. It’s not a genocide or a war. It’s not even the worst pandemic on historical record. It’s bad enough, to be clear, but look at what the 1918 flu pandemic did to the world. In cities like Philadelphia, relatives spent days indoors with the bodies of dead loved ones because the city’s mortuary services had collapsed under the strain.
It turns out that a little bit of knowledge of history can be a dangerous thing — you might think you’re living an Anne Frank lifestyle hiding out at home from the threat outside, but only if you don’t know nearly enough about the Holocaust, genocide, the Nazis and their occupation of the Netherlands, and the Second World War generally.
But we still do reach for historical comparisons and probably always will. It’s important to understand how this crisis compares to others and how our response should be judged accordingly. It’s also important to know the lessons of history, not just so you avoid making really bad comparisons — I spilled tea all over myself today, which is the worst thing to happen since the Blitz! — but also so that you can avoid the mistakes others have made before you.
And we haven’t even cleared that bar. We spent years reassuring ourselves that we were better prepared than anyone for the next pandemic because of our experience with SARS, until COVID-19 came along, and we were forced to begin a panicked search for hospital beds and basic personal protective equipment for front-line workers. SARS was only 18 years ago! Even worse, we didn’t even learn the lessons of the first wave (or interpreted them badly) and so have seen yet more carnage in our long-term-care homes and major problems with our testing systems since the second wave got underway in the fall.
The challenge for us is obvious. We are not a historically literate country. It’s an old lament of mine, and I usually make it just on general principles, but it matters. It would have been possible to have a much better, more effective response to COVID-19 if we had learned lessons from the past and applied them. Understanding the scale of the danger COVID-19 poses relative to other crises of the past — it’s serious, but not the worst thing ever — is also vital. Treating this pandemic like a world war and a genocide saps our agency and contributes to fatalism: there was nothing that Anne Frank could have done to save herself, but there are many, many things all of us can do to help keep ourselves and others safe during this time.
This pandemic is a serious crisis — the most serious we’ve faced in our time. But it is not the worst thing that societies have endured, and ours can meet this challenge. A working grasp of history helps show us the way.