Author: James Hankins

Cultural Revolution in the Renaissance?

It is a striking feature of our historical moment that vast numbers of cultural institutions, universities and professional associations have felt the need to express their horror at the sickening murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer on May 25th. Hundreds of such messages have shown up in my inbox since that day, from almost every institution that has my email address on its lists. (“Unsubscribe” is apparently one of those words that has a special meaning on the Internet, like “fact” and “free.”) So it wasn’t really a surprise when the board governing the professional organization to which I feel closest, the Renaissance Society of America (RSA), decided to issue a “Statement in Support of Social Justice” last month, declaring its solidarity with the world-wide protests against “government-sanctioned brutality.” I wondered which organ of government had sanctioned the Floyd killing until I read further and met language blaming the incident on “a widespread and longstanding structure of anti-Black institutional racism that pervades American society and others around the globe,” …

Do We Really Want a New Cold War?

Fear has been making some pretty foolish policy decisions in the last few months. In the US, the decision of several state governments to move patients infected with COVID-19 into nursing homes probably takes the prize, but a close runner-up would be Congress’s CARES act, which misguidedly paid the unemployed to stay unemployed. Trillions have been allocated to remediate the damage done by shuttering non-essential schools and businesses, but relatively little of that Niagara of dollars has made its way downstream to the small businesses and schools that have been most harmed by the lockdowns. As usual, our solons have been trying to crack a walnut with a sledgehammer. Fear has been giving no wiser advice on foreign policy. Politicians and commentators left and right have been competing to march us into a new Cold War. Hold the Chinese responsible! Sue them! Impound their US bank accounts! Uproot all our supply chains that pass through China! Show China who is boss in the South China Sea! Send Chinese students back to China before they can …

Social Distancing During the Black Death

One of the comforts of studying history is that, no matter how bad things get, you can always find a moment in the past when things were much, much worse. Some commentators on our current crisis have been throwing around comparisons to earlier pandemics, and the Black Death of 1347 — 50 inevitably gets mentioned. Please. The Black Death wiped out half the population of Europe in the space of four years. In some places the mortality was far swifter and deadlier than that. The novelist Giovanni Boccaccio, who gave us the most vivid picture of the Black Death in literature, estimated that 100,000 people died in Florence in the four months between March and July 1348. The population of the city in 1338, according to one contemporary chronicler, stood at 120,000. Boccaccio at the time was a city tax official and saw the whole thing at ground level. Every morning bodies of the dead—husbands, wives, children, servants—were pushed out into the street where they were piled on stretchers, later on carts. They were carried …