Pop culture has a funny way of contrasting current events. When the world is in chaos, television, movies, and music tend to try to get your mind off of the hectic nature of real life and let you focus on something less dire. The middle of the 20th century saw the rise of rock and roll in the ’50s and ’60s, disco in the ’70s, and hair bands in the ’80s. All of this came amid the Cold War, when every American was constantly worried that the world could end in a nuclear war at any given moment. As soon as the Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War ended, we saw a rise in grunge music. As opposed to the musical genres that preceded it, grunge had a depressing sound to it, regardless of the lyrics.
Take, for example, the Bon Jovi song, “Livin’ on a Prayer.” This song is about two people who are in dire straits financially. However, instead of giving up, they decide that no matter how bad things get, they will make it in the end. This song was written in 1986. Flash forward just five years. One of the premier grunge bands, Pearl Jam, released “Jeremy,” a song inspired by a true story about a boy who shot himself because “Daddy didn’t give attention.” You see, in times of extreme hardship, nothing matters other than getting through the issue at hand. Once everything is more or less fine, we are forced to return to the mundane issues of everyday life. No longer are we focused on just surviving; we are now faced with the world’s imperfections, and as I’ve mentioned before, humans are all just a little bit sad all the time because we know that life is finite. As long as we have something that unites us to fight against, we tend to focus on that. Once that thing is gone, we are met by reality. This message is played out in the 1996 movie, Independence Day. Earth comes under attack by an alien invasion. For a brief time, the world forgets its wars with each other, and unites to face a common enemy. The movie doesn’t really explore a world post-alien invasion, but it wouldn’t surprise me if slowly over time, the world went back to the wars and strife it had before.
It is heavily researched that in times of prosperity and peace, suicide rates go up, whereas in times of struggle and oppression, they decline. For example, the suicide rates among black slaves in America and Jews during the Holocaust were extremely low. This is because when the goal is just survival, people tend to try to fight against death by any means necessary, and they are definitely not going to help those trying to kill them.
Fast forward to March 2020. The coronavirus has halted everything. And I mean everything that isn’t corona-specific. I am writing this on Friday, March 13, and nobody has even mentioned the fact that today is Friday the thirteenth. There is no time or patience for superstition. Looking at the homepage of every major news outlet, there is story after story of corona-related articles: the World Health Organization categorizing COVID-19 as a pandemic, President Trump’s mismanagement (or correct, adequate management, if you’re looking at Fox News), the market collapse, survival tips, hand-washing tips, news about major sporting events being canceled. Here in the Jewish community, we discuss if shuls and schools should be closed. All anyone is talking about is coronavirus.
Nothing else matters.
You know what’s not really being talked about right now? Sexism, racism (unless it’s somehow related to coronavirus), anti-Semitism, LGBTQ rights, free college, student debt. Nobody really cares that Harvey Weinstein was sentenced to 23 years in jail. Nobody cares about Roger Stone’s plight. Remember when we were arguing if Michael Bloomberg was sexist or not? In the last week, we passed National Women’s Day, and usually that sparks some sort of discussion. Not this year. March 31 will be the so-called “Equal Pay Day,” which is the day when women supposedly have to work until in order to earn as much as a man did the previous year. Aside from it being completely false (I celebrate equal pay day on December 31), it’s not going to be mentioned at all if we’re still in this state of threat come the end of the month. It almost seems as if none of this stuff actually matters when we are dealing with a real crisis.
Outside of this specific coronavirus, we live in a time of extreme prosperity. The prosperity is so good that, in general, we don’t have much to complain about, so we prop up issues that either aren’t nearly as bad as people make them out to be (like police brutality) or aren’t real (equal pay day). Now that’s not to say that all of these issues don’t exist, and it’s not even to say that we shouldn’t be trying to fix them. We have racists, sexists, and anti-Semites. People are currently suffering from crushing debt, and yes, we were very close to nominating a socialist for the presidency. But these issues are nowhere near as morbid as they are made out to be. It’s sad that it takes an international emergency to get us to a place where we can put those things aside, and come together to learn basic human functions – like how to wash our hands.
So as we all try to get through this, please remember that eventually we will come out on the other side; and while this world certainly is imperfect, it’s definitely a lot better than media (social or traditional) would have you make it out to be. I can remember back in 2016 when our remaining presidential hopefuls were Clinton, Sanders, Cruz, and Trump. The joke going around was that we could have had the first female, first Jew, first Hispanic, or last President. Trump was never going to be the last president. He’s not destroying democracy the way his opponents claim he is, just like President Obama didn’t destroy democracy before him, and Bush, and Clinton, etc. It’s just that we don’t have anything real (and I mean really real) to fight for or against. So when we do come out of this on the other side, please remember that the stuff about which we fight on a regular basis is nowhere near as important as we make it out to be.
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.