The greatest American stories have always been fictions. I mean this both literally and figuratively. I mean The Great Gatsby, Moby-Dick, Invisible Man, and Little Women, but I also mean American exceptionalism, "good" wars, rags to riches, and liberty and justice for all. What, then, is the great American non-fiction story? I submit that it could be the unwritten chronicle of a child born into the fallout of the Great War and the cataclysm of the Great Depression, a young woman who survived her hero father's trench-warfare-fueled post-traumatic rages and graduated high school in the "happy days" of the mid-1950s.
There was a well-trod road she could have followed, but this bright young woman cut a path of her own. She went on to be a roadie for one of the first all-woman rock groups, was involved in the activist tumult of the Vietnam War years, and still found time to pick up a doctorate in American literature and intellectual history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Unable to find gainful employment in the ivory tower's old boys' club, she went south to teach at a small black college she dubbed "Uncle Tom's Campus" where she grappled with the difference between "mental discipline and moral suicide." This woman wrote a book about it, published in 1973, and then went on to write eight more tomes -- all typified by haunting prose, savage candor, and sardonic wit -- over the next four-plus decades.
During that time, she had happier teaching experiences at the City College of New York, the University of Massachusetts (she organized its women's studies program), and Mount Holyoke College. She became one of the world's foremost (not to mention first) experts on violence against women; covered the globe as a journalist and photographer, filing for magazines ranging from National Geographic Traveler to Town and Country; voyaged across Africa in a powder-blue army surplus Series III Land Rover in search of the rainmaking, peace-loving Modjadji V, queen of the Lovedu people; hopped a flight to Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11 to spend the better part of a decade working as a volunteer with women there; led a special project for the International Rescue Committee in post-conflict countries across Africa and Asia, empowering women by helping them document their lives through digital photography; served as an emergency gender adviser to the United Nations; and, in her seventies, borrowed some body armor and embedded with the U.S. Army at a forward operating base near the Afghan-Pakistan border. And that's just a thumbnail of a fraction of her "story," a tale too fantastic for F. Scott Fitzgerald or Louisa May Alcott to have penned, a tale too amazing for fiction, too incredible to be anything but true.
Ann Jones has lived a great American story, but the type that doesn't get optioned by Hollywood or turned into a Netflix documentary series. It's a tale of uncommon strength and courage, a loud life lived quietly, and one of triumph over innumerable adversities, including (as she writes today) Covid-19. I'm not surprised that she beat the lethal virus that has killed more than 74,000 of our fellow Americans and more than 264,000 people worldwide because her tale is also a survivor's story. Today, Jones, a TomDispatch regular, offers an elegant and evocative take on some of the strangest days we've yet seen -- Covid-19 experienced from two countries and two worldviews. It's just the latest chapter in a great American story written by one of our true national treasures. Nick Turse
A Journal of the Onset of the Plague Year
By Ann Jones
Donald Trump is not a president. He can't even play one on TV. He's a corrupt and dangerous braggart with ill-concealed aspirations for a Crown and, with an election coming up, he's been monopolizing prime time every day, spouting self-congratulation and misinformation. (No, don't inject that Lysol!) His never-ending absurd performances play out as farce against the tragic background of the Covid-19 pandemic sweeping the nation. If we had a real president, which is to say, almost anybody else, things would be different. We would have seen the pandemic coming. It would not have attacked me in my old age. And most of the dead might still be alive.
The records of other countries make this clear. South Korea, Taiwan, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, New Zealand, and Norway have all had commendable success in protecting their people. Could it be by chance that seven out of eight of the most successful nations in combating the Covid-19 pandemic are headed by women? Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan, Mette Frederiksen of Denmark, Sanni Marin of Finland, Angela Merkel of Germany, Katrín Jakobsdóttir of Iceland, Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, and Erna Solberg of Norway have all been described in similar terms: as calm, confident, and compassionate leaders. All of them have been commended for thorough preparations, quick decisive action, and clear, empathic communication. Erna Solberg has even been hailed as the "landetsmor," the mother of her country.
Perhaps in such disturbing times as these we feel some primal yearning for a capable, comforting mother, but we need not resort to such psychological speculation. The fortunate countries turn out to be those with the fairness and foresight to have welcomed women into government decades ago.
What seems anachronistic in this critical time is the presence in leadership posts of so many self-aggrandizing, sociopathic male autocrats: Jair Bolsinaro of Brazil, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, Viktor Orba'n of Hungary, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Donald Trump of the United States, and more. Faced with the pandemic, none of these "powerful" men had a clue. They encountered an invader that could not be bullied, bribed, banished, or bombed. And for their ignorance and vanity, the people pay (and pay and pay).
Lessons in Leadership
I know something about the difference good leadership makes because I've been locked down now in two different countries. One kept me safe, the other nearly killed me. I happened to be in Norway when the virus arrived and saw firsthand what a well-run government can actually do. (Yes, I know Norway seems small indeed when compared to the United States, but both of the governments that locked me down, Norway and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, where I now reside, represent roughly 5.5-6.5 million people, and Norway's capital, Oslo, is only slightly more populous than Boston. So some comparisons may be revelatory.)
More to the point, with any population, the difference between success and failure is preparation, swift action, and the techniques applied to overcome the pandemic. On February 26th, the Norwegian Institute of Public Health announced the first case of Covid-19: a woman who had returned a week earlier from China. The next day, it reported two cases in travelers returning from Italy and another from Iran. After that came two skiers also back from Italy. One of them, an employee of Oslo's largest hospital, went right back to work, where tracers would soon witness just how fast the unseen virus could move.
And here's the key that escapes political leaders in America: in Norway, testers and tracers were on the job from the start. As February rolled into March, they were already testing and tracking some 500 Norwegian skiers returning from the Austrian Alps and northern Italy. Some had frequented convivial après-ski taverns there and, once back home, were quick to catch up with friends. One Norwegian tracer labeled such skiers "very sociable people."
Systematically, Norway would test all its returning travelers (every one of them!), then track down all the contacts of those who had tested positive and test them and their contacts as well, and so on down the line. Working with remarkable speed, the tracers used immediate test results -- a tool apparently available in the U.S. only to the rich and famous -- to track the trajectories of the virus as it spread. When cases began to multiply without known contacts, the tracers knew that the virus had begun to hitchhike through an unwitting community and were quick to surround it and shut it down.
In response to the pandemic, the government gradually closed down the capital and other centers of contagion. In Oslo, places of assembly went first: theaters, cinemas, concert halls. Norwegians were even asked to stay away from the World Cup Ski Championships being held at Holmenkollen, on the edge of Oslo.
(Note: You can view every article as one long page if you sign up as an Advocate Member, or higher).