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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

tom chitty

When History Happens

Editor Lyta Gold reflects on the writings of Connie Willis and the heroes of history.

“There are some things one shouldn’t have to endure, even in an epidemic.” Connie Willis, Doomsday Book

“In March,” Eric Levitz writes in New York Magazine, “history broke into our house, and ever since, we’ve been cowering in panic rooms, wondering what our home will look like when the mad thief is finally through.” He immediately adds: “at least this is how living in the COVID era can feel.” Many people I know have said something similar to me, that the COVID era and the Trump presidency have felt historic, as though we have been living through history, a thing we do not ordinarily do. In the Atlantic, historian Joanne Freeman said of her profession, “it’s one thing to reckon with the past and quite another to make sense of transparently historical events as we live through them.” We are, of course, always alive in history, which, as Freeman emphasizes “doesn’t stop.” The idea that it might stop, that there could be times that fall outside history, is really very weird. Whether a situation feels “historic” is just a function of whether or not dramatic things are happening around you personally. History is always present, whether its workings are transparent or opaque.

Growing up in the Midwest in the 1990s, in the so-called “end of history” after the fall of the Soviet Union, there was indeed a sense of stasis, what Samuel Miller McDonald has called in this magazine “an empire of same.” History was over, I was told: the good guys had won, and there would be just a general, slow upward trend toward progress, forever. This was a total lie, but an interesting one. Why insist that everything is over, that nothing can ever change? There are obvious political reasons for liberal capitalism to insist on its permanent dominance, of course, much like the Borg catchphrase “resistance is futile”—if it were actually true, you wouldn’t need to keep repeating it to the people you’re trying to subjugate. 

But there’s also a psychological reason why so many people have been eager to insist that history is over, and why so many of us find ourselves unprepared for the shock of living through dramatic events. It’s because history is fucking terrifying. We don’t know what will happen. We have no idea if it’ll all turn out okay. We don’t know if what we’re suffering is a temporary blip, the prelude to a revolution, or a fast slide into apocalypse. We are, in Walter Benjamin’s famous image, blown backwards through history, seeing only the wreckage that comes before. 

“I know what I like in books and movies, which is characters who are in over their heads and trying to do their best in impossible circumstances; mysteries that need to be solved; no-win situations; people who care about each other and about the world more than they do about themselves; revelations (both good and bad) that hit you right in the stomach and knock you off your feet; and irony.” Connie Willis, interview with Science Fiction Writers of America, 2012.

Connie Willis, who writes about history and what living through history feels like, is the most famous science fiction novelist you’ve never heard of. With more major awards in the field than anyone else—11 Hugos, seven Nebulas, and four Locus awards—she’s been inducted as a “Grand Master” by the Science Fiction Writers of America. Distressingly, although perhaps not unexpectedly, women science fiction writers have a way of being quickly forgotten, as Joanna Russ explains in her ironic guidebook How To Suppress Women’s Writing. (Russ herself, in a bitter proof of her own point, has been largely but not entirely suppressed and forgotten.) In a 2001 interview, Willis laughed at being called “the definitive contemporary American SF writer,” saying: “…everyone I meet either A) has never heard of me, or B) thinks what I write isn’t science fiction.” 

Some of Willis’ lack of mainstream recognition may have to do with her subject matter: Willis’ novels and short stories have plenty of drama and speculative technology, but few fight scenes and badass heroes. There are no chosen ones with superpowers; there is nothing you can destroy or kill to save the world. Callous cynicism and the murder of innocents is never, ever, substituted for plot. Willis’ fiction mostly consists of what Ursula K. Le Guin would call “bag stories” not “spear stories”—that is to say, written about how people live, not about how they kill each other. This is despite the fact that Willis’ most famous novels are set during World War II and the Black Death. Willis doesn’t exploit death and violence for thrills, but she’s nevertheless very interested in how ordinary people grapple with horrible, frightening situations.

Willis explores these ideas in a loosely grouped set of time travel stories, partly set in Oxford between 2050 and 2060, and partly set in England’s past. The Oxford of the future remains curiously undescribed—it doesn’t seem to be especially utopian, or dystopian. Little has changed in terms of politics or technology; everyone’s beset by many of the same problems as now (future Oxford, for example, is just as rife with bureaucratic absurdity and academic sniping as a contemporary university). Cats and cold viruses have disappeared from the Earth, but people still go Christmas shopping, and the National Health Service still exists. The aristocracy hasn’t gone anywhere, and neither have wealthy, demanding Americans or nationalist bigots. Climate change and the geopolitics of the world beyond Oxford doesn’t really come up at all. Willis’ future seems to be more or less the liberal “empire of same” at the promised end of history. 

And because history is more or less over, Willis’ characters get to muck about in the past and have adventures. Historians at her future Oxford have access to time travel technology which allows them to visit the past, dressing up like “contemps” (short for “contemporary people”) blending in to see what their lives were really like. Academic historians are, in fact, the only people in Willis’ books who use time travel: historical observation is the only practical application of the technology, since changing the past or bringing objects back through time is considered to be impossible. The scientific consensus in Willis’ novels is that going back in time to kill Hitler, for example, wouldn’t work—the continuum would stop you, spitting you out halfway around the world at a different time. History protects itself.

Just to be on the safe side, historians are supposed to be careful about not interfering and changing the timeline. Travelling to the past is a risky business, even if the historians don’t change anything; once they’ve gone to the past, they’re just as vulnerable to injury and death as the contemps, especially if they end up in a time period that’s considered a “ten.” (The danger and chaos of past epochs is measured on a scale of one through ten; we learn that the entire medieval period has been labeled by the History Faculty as a ten, even though the Middle Ages were pretty interesting, actually.) Whether the historians find themselves in a “ten” or in some less terrifying time, “not interfering” proves to be impossible for all of Willis’ characters. In the two-part novel Blackout and All Clear (2010), three historians (Mike, Eileen, and Polly) visit England during the Blitz and find it almost impossible to stop helping people. Mike, who is trying especially hard not to change history, accidentally winds up on a rescue boat at Dunkirk and saves several lives; Eileen keeps a pair of brash, hilarious kids alive despite what seems like the universe’s best efforts to get them killed; and several times, a chance remark from Polly causes someone to make a different decision than they otherwise would have made, inadvertently changing their fate. Blackout/All Clear is a very anxious story—are the historians’ actions, no matter how well-intentioned, and no matter what they think they understand about the physics of time travel, altering the timeline irrevocably? Have they, as Polly worries, “undone the future out of a desire to help”? Or would it be worse to live through an event like the Blitz callously, only observing and not “doing their bit”?

“Worse than the Blitz”

“London recorded 21 percent of the total number of Covid-19 deaths in England and Wales until 1 May, despite having 15 percent of the population.

In fact, in the four weeks to 24 April, more people were killed by coronavirus in London than died during the worst four-week period of aerial bombing of the city during the Blitz in World War Two.” BBC, June 9th, 2020.

When news leaked that Trump had deliberately downplayed the coronavirus threat back in March, he defended himself by comparing his response to that of the British government during, you guessed it, the Blitz. “As the British government advised the British people in the face of World War II, keep calm and carry on. That’s what I did.” Many historians and journalists rushed to fact-check him, pointing out that “keep calm and carry on” was not actually a slogan used during the war, and claiming that Churchill was “blunt” about the danger that the British faced. As is usual with fact-checks, these corrections are both true and not true. That exact slogan was not used, but reasonably similar ones were; Churchill was blunt sometimes, and misleading at other times. For example, in 1944 during what could be called the second phase of the Blitz, Churchill’s government initially withheld information about the V-1 bombs and outright lied about the V-2s, claiming that the damage from the supersonic bombs was due to “exploding gas mains” so as not to cause panic. In the early days of the first phase of the Blitz, the British government failed to provide adequate shelter for citizens, even though they had known for some time that catastrophic air raids by the Luftwaffe were likely. The medical journal the Lancet (in a recent article titled, “The psychology of protecting the U.K. public against external threat: COVID-19 and the Blitz compared”) explains that the Committee of Imperial Defence was worried about citizens developing a “shelter mentality,” where workers would become accustomed to safety underground and become too anxious to return to their aboveground factories, a problem which would “undermine national production.” 

Much as we’ve seen in the U.S. and the U.K. response to the coronavirus, Churchill’s government viewed a functional economy as more important than the health and sanity of citizens—a calculation somewhat more understandable in WWII, where keeping the factories churning actually made a difference when it came to winning the war. In lieu of building large-scale underground shelters, the Committee of Imperial Defence “identified stoicism (mental resilience) as the core defence against the stress of aerial bombardment, and sought ways to strengthen people’s inherent resolve to withstand bomb attacks.”

The so-called “blitz spirit”—the plucky determination of the British people in the face of continual deadly bombings— is nothing more than a “cruel myth,” historians such as Richard Overy warn us. This myth was encouraged by government propaganda, such as the famed (and faked) photograph of the milkman in the ruins. “The public face of the ‘blitz spirit,’” Overy writes, “concealed the awful reality of being bombed.” The Blitz is best understood, in his view, as a traumatizing event rather than any sort of heroic one. “The sight of destroyed buildings, corpses and body parts was utterly alien to daily life. The trauma this produced was largely unrecorded, and certainly untreated.” 

Nonetheless, the “blitz spirit” lives on in the time of coronavirus, especially in advertising. I recently saw “Stay Resilient, New York” on the side of a city bus, printed not courtesy of the government, but by Essentia (“overachieving H2O”). On my socially-distanced walks, I’ve seen several people wearing shirts that read “New York tougher than ever,” and the sign outside a home goods store in Long Island City bragged that they were “doing [their] part” and donating more than 2,000 masks to “law enforcement, first responders, and people in need.” The market research company Kantar has run a study of consumer preference during the COVID-19 crisis which concludes that “people prefer that brands talk about what they can do to help society and provide reassurance to communities.” Anecdotally, I’ve noticed an uptick in cheerful TV ads—there seems to be a concerted effort to get people to pull through, stick together, wear a mask, paint their walls, utilize technology to productively communicate, and above all, keep working and spending.

It’s easy to regard all this cheeriness cynically. It’s meant cynically, as a means to sell products. But it’s also fairly effective, much like Blitz-era propaganda, because it gives people a feeling of agency, community, and a vision of life beyond the crisis. According to “a study of lockdown adherence in ten U.K. cities” cited in the Lancet report, “the most important belief driving compliance was the Blitz phrase, ‘we are all in it together and we all need to come out of it together,’ a sense of common fate, and a shared identity.” It’s very true to say that the Blitz was a traumatizing event, and the government’s response was, at certain times and in certain respects, nearly as bad as the response to the coronavirus in both the United Kingdom and the United States. But what that framing misses is any sense of what does keep people going during hard times. Human beings, after all, have successfully lived through many traumatizing events; trauma is part of being alive. How do we manage it?

One important tactic is solidarity, which can come about organically in times of trouble, even without a government coldly seeking to engineer it, and often in the face of actual government indifference. When the British government failed to provide adequate shelters in 1940, many Londoners bought tube tickets and, in a show of collective action, simply refused to leave the train platforms until the raids were over. “The weight of numbers,” Edgar Jones writes in the Lancet, “prevented the authorities from removing people from the underground stations and forced a re-evaluation of the deep shelter policy.” In Connie Willis’ novel Blackout, Polly describes the scene in Holborn station, which was one of the first to be taken over by the people against the government’s wishes. Polly goes in expecting horrible conditions: she tells us that historians—not the time-traveling kind—“had described the shelters as ‘nightmarish’ and ‘like one of the lower circles of hell.’” However, she finds that while Holborn is indeed crowded and has the expected sanitation problems, “the shelterers seemed more like people on a holiday than doomed souls, picnicking and gossiping and reading the comic papers.” 

Blackout is a novel, of course, but Willis is a meticulous researcher, and she’s able to accomplish what historical fiction does best: to give us a sense of what things might have actually felt like. Reading her novels often feels like being dropped into real history, into the running stream of actual time. The “contemps” that Willis’ historian-heroes meet during their time-travels are cranky, drunk, rude, weird, cheerful, selfish, thoughtless, demanding, self-sacrificing, selfish, kind, and cruel; they are, in short, a lot like actual people. As they endure the Blitz, they are subject to frequent false alarms, propaganda, and wild rumors; they never have perfect information. Meanwhile, our three historians, increasingly concerned that their actions have affected the continuum despite what they think they know about time travel, start to fall into the contemps’ mindset. If the historians have changed events, and accidentally created an alternate past, then they, like their subjects, do not know what is going to happen. They are every bit as lost and helpless in history.

“One never gets used to the idea that there is nothing one can do.”Doomsday Book

Connie Willis’ future Oxford is not completely bereft of “history,” that is to say, dramatic and tragic events. Around a decade or so ago in her timeline, a pinpoint bomb is supposed to have destroyed St. Paul’s cathedral and much of London, killing half a million people. (The bomb, we learn in the 1982 short story “Fire Watch,” was supposedly detonated by “dispossessed communists”—some parts of Willis’ oeuvre have aged better than others.) There’s also an event referred to as “the Pandemic,” which is supposed to take place around about, uh, approximately now. Later, in 2054-2055, a smaller-scale but nonetheless terrifying influenza epidemic breaks out in Oxford, with no known vaccine. The 21st-century flu epidemic is the setting for half of Willis’ novel Doomsday Book; the other half is set during the Black Death, in 1348.

Kivrin, the heroine of Doomsday Book, is supposed to arrive a few decades earlier in the past, but ends up in 1348 due to the careless actions of Gilchrist, the pompous, snotty head of the Mediaeval department. “Attitudes toward death in the 1300s differed greatly from ours,” Gilchrist insists. “Death was a common and accepted part of life, and the contemps were incapable of feeling loss or grief.” But when she actually visits the 14th century, Kivrin finds that this isn’t remotely true. The contemps she meets have some different cultural expectations, but they’re just people: selfish and kind and cruel and stupid and mostly trying their best. Then the Black Death hits, and they all die around her, every single one. Kivrin, who was inoculated against the plague before she left as a safety precaution, ends up taking care of the dying as best she can. “I wanted to come [to this time],” she says, “and if I hadn’t, they would have been all alone, and nobody would have ever known how frightened and brave and irreplaceable they all were.” 

Despite the occasional heaviness of her settings, Willis’ style is light and witty and sprightly. I’m half-convinced she makes you laugh just in order to lower your guard, and stab you in the heart with the tremendous grief of the past. Everyone who has ever lived and died was a person, and Willis makes you feel it; they all lived, they were all frightened and brave and irreplaceable.

The ones who survive, in Kivrin’s 1348, are the ones who run away. As another character reminds us, this is “how the plague was spread during the Black Death… They kept trying to run away from it, but they just took it along with them.” In a moment of despair, Kivrin says, “Perhaps that’s what’s wrong with our time… it was founded by [the ones who fled.] And all the people who stayed and tried to help… caught the plague and died.”

During the portion of the novel set during the winter influenza epidemic of 2054-2055, it sometimes seems like Kivrin’s hypothesis might be true; that over the centuries that followed the catastrophe of the Black Death, human beings have become more selfish and less interested in helping others. Mr. Dunworthy—Kivrin’s mentor, who is desperately trying desperately to pull her out of 1348—witnesses a flyer that reads: 

‘“FIGHT INFLUENZA. VOTE TO SECEDE FROM THE EC.’ Underneath was a paragraph: ‘Why will you be separated from your loved ones this Christmas? Why are you forced to stay in Oxford? Why are you in danger of getting ill and dying? Because the EC allows infected foreigners to enter England, and England doesn’t have a thing to say about it.’” 

If this seems depressingly familiar, you’ll love Dunworthy’s encounter with a visiting American who becomes trapped in Oxford due to the quarantine. “I’m not used to having my civil liberties taken away like this,” she complains. “In America, nobody would dream of telling you where you can or can’t go.” Dunworthy thinks, but doesn’t say: “And over thirty million Americans died during the Pandemic as a result of that sort of thinking.”

At the time of this writing during our own eerily-timed pandemic, we’ve reached just over 200,000 American deaths. It feels like anything could happen now, and all of it bad. In fact, our world feels like all of Connie Willis’ time travel novels crammed together: pandemic and looming fascist conquest and incredibly funny jokes all at the same time, in (as a doctor in Doomsday Book puts it) “a [21st] century that’s rapidly becoming a ten.” In Blackout, one of Polly’s nurse friends discusses the idiocy of falling in love during uncertain times: “How can anyone plan for the future when we don’t know if we’ll have one?”

Art by Tom Chitty

Pandemics in particular feel apocalyptic. Willis quotes Agniola Di Tura, writing in Siena in 1347. “Buried with my own hands five of my children in a single grave… No bells. No tears. This is the end of the world.” The Black Death killed somewhere between a third to a half of Europe; 150 years later, Europeans would arrive in the Americas, bringing waves of infectious disease that may have killed as much as 90 to 95 percent of the Native population, or a fifth of the entire human species at the time. As the Native writer Rebecca Roanhorse put it, “we’ve already survived an apocalypse.” The coronavirus, for all its horror and frustration, is not a pandemic on the scale of those pandemics, or even of the 1918 Spanish flu. Pandemics do not happen as solo events, of course; they’re followed by social upheaval, as was seen in Europe after the Black Death, and the collapse of indigenous societies in the Americas. What is specifically terrible about coronavirus is that it’s happening concurrently with something that human beings have never faced before: not just disease or the Republican Party’s brand of apple-pie fascism, but anthropocentric climate change. The world has faced existential threats before, of course: nuclear weapons still pose an even faster and more destructive apocalyptic scenario than climate change. But avoiding nuclear winter mostly requires inaction, whereas mitigating climate change requires enormous mobilization and a transformation of the global economy. If it doesn’t happen, and soon, then this time the world really could end, for just about everyone.

“Some wait alone, some share their invisible rooms with others. Invisible, yes, what do the furnishings matter, at this stage of things? Underfoot crunches the oldest of city dirt, last crystallizations of all the city had denied, threatened, lied to its children. Each has been hearing a voice, one he thought was talking only to him, say, ‘You didn’t really believe you’d been saved. Come, we all know who we are by now. No one was ever going to take the trouble to save you, old fellow…’” Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

About halfway through the Blitz novel All Clear, it becomes clear that something indeed has gone very wrong with time travel, and our three historians are trapped in the past. Is it because of their actions? Could it be that the lives they inadvertently saved, the destinies they changed, have had a ripple effect on reality? Is it possible they’ve caused the Allies to lose the war?

Alternate history scenarios where the Nazis won are a hugely popular topic for fiction; the Wikipedia page for the topic links to seven subcategory pages alone. Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America may be the most famous of these stories, but there are plenty of others. A cynical appraisal of their popularity might note that WWII was perhaps the only time when the British and Americans could credibly claim they were on the right side of history, and there’s a certain thrill in imagining oneself as heroic underdogs battling an evil empire. “The Allies were the good guys” is, of course, a wild oversimplification: it is true and necessary to point out that the Nazis took inspiration from certain U.S. policies, and that Churchill was a racist imperialist whose policies led to famine in India. However, there’s a growing tendency on the left to go one step further and declare that the Allies and the Axis were more or less equally evil; as historian David Parsons recently claimed on Twitter, “America didn’t defeat fascism in WWII; its version of fascism triumped.” If that’s true, and both sides were more or less the same, then an alternate history where the Nazis won would hardly matter.

Those kinds of takes tend to leave me cold, possibly because I’m Jewish. One piece of evidence that the historians in Blackout/All Clear hold up as possible proof that history hasn’t been altered is that the historians themselves are still in the past, ergo time travel itself must still exist—in Willis’ novels, time travel technology was invented by a Jewish scientist, and if the Nazis had won, then the scientist would never have been born. There are many people to whom the outcome of the war mattered a lot; there was no “both sides are basically the same” scenario for Jews and people of color under a Nazi regime.

The less self-congratulatory reason why alternate WWII novels exist, and why Jewish writers like Philip Roth have written them in particular, is that it was a tense historical moment that could have gone any number of ways. Such moments are fascinating, and terrifying. “There were dozens of times,” Polly says in All Clear, “when the outcome balanced on a knife’s edge.” Today, there’s considerable scholarly debate about what exactly won the war for the Allies; Richard Overy locates factors such as the recalibration of the Soviet military and economy; the vast American production machine set in motion by the New Deal; Allied air power and German military mistakes. Polly, speaking from a rather Anglo-centric perspective, cites “Ultra [the code-breaking program] or the evacuation from Dunkirk or Churchill’s leadership.” But, she concludes, “it wasn’t any one of them. It was all of them and a thousand, a million, other things and people. And not just soldiers and pilots and Wrens, but air-raid wardens and planespotters and debutantes and mathematicians and weekend sailors and vicars.” That is to say, it was a series of small actions by ordinary people, all taking place across a much broader swath of the world than Polly cites. That’s all it took, and everything it took. That’s what won the war.

“…no one can be in a chaotic system and not affect events.” -All Clear

In Doomsday Book, when it’s clear that the Black Death is spreading uncontrollably, the local priest asks Kivrin if this is the apocalypse: “the end of the world that God’s apostles have foretold.” Since he’s already decided that Kivrin is a saint sent by God, she tells him: “No. It’s only a bad time. A terrible time, but not everyone will die. And there will be wonderful times after this. The Renaissance and class reforms and music. Wonderful times. There will be new medicines, and people won’t have to die from this or smallpox or pneumonia. And everyone will have enough to eat, and their houses will be warm even in the winter.” Kivrin is, of course, compressing a rather long timescale—after the Renaissance, Native populations died from smallpox and other plagues, due to accidental spread and lack of vaccines and deliberate genocidal practices by the American government. People will continue to die, as they’re dying now, from awful diseases, as they are also in the year 2054 that Kivrin comes from. And some “class reforms” did indeed happen after the Black Death, but we still live in a world of mass inequality and crushing poverty. It seems like what Kivrin is really talking about is the whole sweep of human history; the “wonderful times” are not the incomplete world of 2054, but what might yet come in the future, hers and ours, where everyone has enough to eat, and the houses are warm even in winter.

How are we supposed to get to this future? Willis doesn’t say, or at least, she doesn’t say it directly. The historians in Blackout/All Clear don’t know if the continuum is “collapsing or correcting itself.” They don’t know anything about what’s going to happen. They have zero evidence that their efforts to help haven’t just made things worse, maybe even changing the outcome of the war. “Except,” Polly thinks, “so many lives saved and so many sacrificed—so much courage, kindness, endurance, love—must count for something even in a chaotic system.” But she admits, “I haven’t any proof.”

This is what it’s like to be alive in history—we never have any proof that our actions matter, that we’re making any difference. The left tends to focus on fixing structural problems; this makes sense, as many problems are indeed structural rather than the fault of individuals. But it’s very easy to get lost in “the structural” and “the systemic” and forget that even the structural and the systemic are a series of choices made by individuals, and those choices have power and meaning when made collectively. Throwing up our hands in despair at systemic injustice is, as our own Nathan J. Robinson puts it, the result of “paralysis” which comes “because there is so much going on around you at any one time, and everything feels beyond our control, that we just feel we are barely staying afloat while being carried by a gigantic tidal wave, and it is as futile to try to turn the course of history as it is to try to stop a tsunami. But the most unsettling thing is that this is the reassuring lie. Being certain of your powerlessness lets you get away with quietism; I can do nothing so I do not need to try. The truth is far worse: there might be a way to stop the wave, and it might be our job to figure it out.”

It’s very easy to despair right now, when everything feels like an unfolding catalog of horrors. But there are people taking bold action all the same, such as the BLM protesters across the country, displaying absolute courage in cities like Louisville, Portland, Kenosha, and St. Louis. They’re going out to protests knowing they could lose an eye to a policeman’s rubber bullet, or get mowed down by a fascist in a giant truck, or catch coronavirus in some freezing cell. But they’re still going. Mutual aid societies have been springing up and connecting everywhere; in Michigan, as Eli Day writes for this magazine, many of these efforts have been happening, unheralded, in “communities across the state where they’ve spent years doing the thankless, grinding work of fighting for a better world.” This work has been going on for years, everywhere; the tube stations get occupied despite what the government may think. Some people will run away, or try to capitalize on suffering, or otherwise behave selfishly. But many will continue to do what they always do: take care of each other as best they can, quietly and unrewarded, in the most terrifying of circumstances.

By the end of All Clear, it seems that Polly’s unprovable guess is right: that good actions matter, even in a chaotic system, and the historians have not changed the timeline, but maybe even helped to fix it. Polly, Mike, and Eileen—who are all flawed but fundamentally good, kind, and heroic people—have to do nothing except be good, kind, heroic (and even flawed), and the continuum will be righted, and all in the aggregate will be well, or at least not as horrible as it could have been. What’s lovely about this is that it’s true, or at least close to true. “Doing your bit” doesn’t have to be imbued with any kind of patriotic, empire-blind fervor or propagandistic “Blitz spirit.” It can simply mean that everyone is engaged in acts of bravery and mutual aid; that together we are trying to overthrow an evil system. It may work. In fact, it’s the only thing that could possibly work; the only thing that has ever worked in human history.

The mass mobilization necessary to mitigate climate change is possible—after all, the New Deal and WWII saw similar mass mobilizations. Defeating the rising wave of fascism across the globe seems daunting, but fascists have been beaten before. Surviving this pandemic and reconfiguring our health care system and our relationship with the animal world to avoid novel zoonotic diseases in the future is also possible, if difficult and the results likely imperfect. Everything worth doing is difficult, and the results likely imperfect. As the vicar says during his eulogy for a beloved character in All Clear, “We hope that right and goodness will triumph, and that when the war is won, we shall have a better world. And we work toward that end.” Hope is important, but it isn’t enough; the work is essential, and everyone really has to do their part. We have to plan for the future, even though there’s no proof we’ll have one, so that despite the fact that we’re living through a ten, people will someday look back and marvel: “how did they get through it?”

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