Our Town: The coronavirus as the ultimate ‘black swan event’

"Things change dramatically after a 'black swan event'

A black swan event is defined as an extremely surprising random occurrence that has a huge impact on the world economy and that experts try to explain away as something that was predictable if we only had some foresight.

Examples of famous black swan events include World War I, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, the rise of the internet, the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center in 2001 and most recently the global economic meltdown in 2008. These events are always costly.

As an example, the 9/11 attack cost America about$1.4 trillion.
There can be little doubt that the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 will come to be defined as a black swan event and will cost American trillions of dollars in lost income, lost jobs and losses to their IRA’s.

Welcome to the next great recession. This tsunami came about suddenly and it seemed to be so unpredictable.
But was it completely unpredictable?

Let us take a moment to assess American life just prior to 2020. The economy was roaring along like a tiger on fire, the stock markets were at an all-time high and unemployment was at an all-time low. All was right in the world. But exactly how were we feeling underneath all this progress?
In 1999 Harvard economist Juliet Schor wrote “The Overspent American” where she described the average citizen as unsatisfied and unhappy and working incredibly long hours in order to buy things they did not need to have.
In 1994 Paul Shorter wrote “From the Mind into the Body: The Cultural Origins of Psychosomatic Disorders” where he outlined an epidemic of stress-related psychosomatic illnesses Americans were suffering with.
And let’s not forget “The Geography of Nowhere” written by James Kunstler in 1993 where he describes our growing sense of isolation we suburbanites feel right here on Long Island thanks to TV addiction, cars and hideous town planning which keeps us isolated and apart.
Robert Putnam, another Harvard professor, wrote the national bestseller “Bowling Alone” in 2000 explaining how we have become increasingly disconnected from one another and that all of our former social structures have disintegrated.
And no one could argue that our political life has become so argumentative and divisive that it nears the point of psychosis.
The final revelation as to the status of the American mind comes by viewing the many apocalyptic films about pandemics which seemed to have captured our imaginations.

The 2011 film “Contagion’ starred Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow was basically a blow by blow story of the coronavirus pandemic we are now facing. But that is by no means the only film about pandemics that have worried us.

Blockbusters such as “I am Legend” starring Will Smith, “World War Z” with Brad Pitt, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” with Keanu Reeves and “War of the Worlds” starring Tom Cruise have been viewed by millions around the world.
The psychoanalytic reason blockbuster films capture our attention is because they express our deepest anxieties and anguish. Great films provide our collective unconscious with much-needed expression of our deep fears.
All these films at their core symbolize and express our disowned and barely repressed middle-class American mindset. The middle-class sense of despair, exhaustion, inability to get ahead, disgust and disappointment in the consumer rat race is the virus that is killing them.

You will notice that the denouement of these films is a protagonist arriving at a quiet safe friendly village up in Vermont somewhere far away from the hustling and bustling germ infected rat race.

The safe haven is always shown with a main street and town square where folks walkabout and smile. Kind of like the Grover’s Corners Thornton Wilder portrayed in his much loved Pulitzer Prize-winning American play “Our Town.”
We as a nation are an overspent, overworked, lonely, isolated and deeply disappointed society with a weakened immune system and a feeling that we are quite helpless and weak and no one is coming to help us.
Our current reaction to this coronavirus pandemic is a perfect expression of America’s mental state. And our American zeitgeist set the stage for and even predicted this pandemic.

The black swan theory posits that these anomalies have no rhyme or reason. But there is rhyme and reason in all this. Shakespeare once said ‘beware of the ides of March.”
When the Berlin Wall fell it ushered in the fall of communism in 1990 and this was seen as a black swan event as well.

Following this event, the Slovenian philosopher and world-renowned cultural critic Slavoj Zizek warned that the world will need two superpowers to balance global ideology.

For 30 years global capitalism has been supreme and without a competing ideology. As a result we see amazing growth and prosperity but at the same time an unrelenting competitiveness and a selfishness that has exhausted the American soul.

This is the reason that Bernie Sanders campaign has had such traction. He is the only candidate that voices a sincere and convincing concern for the average American’s plight.
So as we shelter in and social distance and quarantine and watch the death toll rise, what is the moral of this story? We now see that biology has come to the doorway of runaway capitalism in order to pick a fight.

Biology is a formidable foe. So we shut down shop, go home, rest our immune systems and get ready for this new bully.

The threat of socialism, communism and terrorism are nothing compared to a microbe. How amazing it is that something as small as a microbe could take down an entire nation. This sounds remarkably like the H.G. Wells book “War of the Worlds” but in that case the microbes saved us from the Martians.

In this case, the microbes are the invaders.


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