Saturday, September 20, 2014

When Plague Strikes: Blame and Bias


Photos: Pieter Bruegel's "The Triumph of Death," and an AIDS victim, from this link:

This book is an excellent primer for anyone interested in plagues.  I read this to research The Gravediggers, and while it didn't teach me anything new (except exact names and dates), it does put many of my novel's themes in the same place for ease when I'm writing.

Essentially it focuses on the social, political and historical aftermath of the plague outbreaks.  I like that it groups AIDS together with the Black Death, as my novel does, and that it connects the social biases at the times as well.  My novel does that, too, but it's nice to get reinforcement of your ideas.

When the plagues hit, nobody understood them, and so many prevailed upon the bias of the time to find scapegoats.  But, really, if allowed to hate and maim, certain people will be happy to do so, regardless of the circumstances surrounding their actions.  And so:

From the chapter "Looking for Scapegoats" re: the Black Death:

"In 1213, Pope Innocent III decreed that both sexes, from age seven or eight, had to wear circular badges of yellow felt that identified them as Jews..."  The book then draws the parallel between those badges and the ones forced upon the Jews by the Nazis almost 600 years later.

"According to the rumors, the Jews were polluting the wells in the Christian communities with poisons imported from Moorish Spain and the Far East.  If Christians drank water from the wells...they would be infected with the plague and die..."

"...the rumors led to eleven Jews being put on trial in September 1348.  They were charged with having poisoned the wells in a small south German town.  After hours of painful torture, the eleven confessed to the deed and said they had received the poison from a rabbi in Spain...

"...In January 1349, the two hundred Jewish residents of Basel, Switzerland, were herded into a wooden building on an island in the Rhine River and burned alive..." (Giblin 36-7).

There's much more, but you get the idea.  (I don't know why I was surprised by Switzerland's involvement, considering its history of neutrality, but I was.)

Though the Native Americans were not blamed for causing smallpox, colonists and Europeans were quick to use it against them.  The most infamous was Sir Jeffrey Amherst, commander-in-chief of British forces in North America, who was unwise enough to put it in writing.  This was sent to a colonel:

"Could it not be contrived to send the smallpox among these...tribes of Indians?  We must on this occasion use every stratagem in our power to reduce them."  The colonel's response: "I will try to [infect] the Indians with some blankets that may fall in their hands..."  Amherst's enthusiastic response: "You will do well to try to infect the Indians by means of well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race" (Giblin 86-7).

The British and the colonists were so happy with the results that Amherst, Massachusetts was named in his honor.

Those of my generation remember the bias against homosexuals when AIDS made its appearance here in the early-to-mid-80s.  I do specifically remember (unfortunately) some diatribes by Pat Buchanan and Jerry Falwell.  So, too, apparently, did this book's author:

"The conservative columnist Patrick J. Buchanan wrote, 'The poor homosexuals--they have declared war on nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution.'...

"In a statement that sounded remarkably similar to some made by clergymen at the time of the Black Death and during early smallpox epidemics, the Rev. Jerry Falwell said: 'When you violate moral, health, and hygiene laws, you reap the whirlwind.  You cannot shake your fist in God's face and get away with it."

And it hasn't always been just the clergy, or the conservative.  Haters will hate, if just given a cause to hate about:

"Wielding baseball bats, the youths rampaged through a public park frequented by gays.  They shouted 'diseased queers' and 'plague-carrying faggots' as they beat up every man unlucky enough to be in their path.  After his arrest, one of the attackers tried to defend his actions.  'If we don't kill these fags, they'll kill us with their f---[ing] AIDS disease,' he said" (Giblin 135-6).

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

What will the next plague be?  And who'll be blamed and persecuted for it then?

My guess: Ebola.  Who'll be prejudiced against for it?  We'll see.  Hopefully not brown-eyed little Frenchmen, but who knows?

No comments:

Post a Comment