While the Covid-19 crisis is fuelling fear throughout the world, the resulting lockdown in many countries is an opportunity to place culture at the heart of a daily life otherwise plagued by continuous, distressing information. According to Dominique Moïsi, our special advisor, author of La géopolitique des séries ou le triomphe de la peur (Stock, 2016), the best way to deal with fear is through fear itself, which then becomes a subject of study and not just a feeling one experiences. He recommends a book and two (three) series to escape our lockdown.
La peur en Occident (1978), Jean Delumeau
Jean Delumeau was a great French historian, professor at the Collège de France, who recently passed away. In his book published in 1978, La peur en Occident, he tries to construct a geography and a chronology of fear, based on the history of Europe, from the Middle Ages to the 18th century. He deals with epidemics, in particular the Black Death, which killed nearly 50 million people - cutting the population of the affected countries by half - between 1348 and 1351.
This work is particularly interesting in our current times as it reveals how fears reinforce each other. In the period studied by Jean Delumeau, this fear of the pandemic is paired with the fear of war, civil violence, hunger, foreign invasions. It is striking that his reflection on fear can very well be applied to our contemporary society. Fear pre-existed: fear of terrorism, fear of the other fuelled by migration, fear of decline, fear of economic crisis. So many archaeological layers of fear to which was added the fear of the pandemic.
This type of crisis is characterized by ambiguity. The pandemic first seemed egalitarian: it traditionally strikes dukes as well as peasants - as illustrated by the hospitalization of Boris Johnson after he was infected with the virus. This was absolutely the case until the end of the 18th century, which marked the emergence of discussions on treatments. In a second phase, however, it reinforces inequalities. In Chicago, where the population is 30% African-American, 70% of Covid-19 victims belong to this community. What will happen tomorrow if, or rather when, the pandemic hits the world's most densely populated areas - the African continent and the Indian subcontinent? If we are, a priori, equal before the disease, this "egalitarianism" disappears with time.
The Plot Against America (2020), David Simon and Ed Burns
This mini-series of six episodes, based on Philip Roth's highly successful novel of the same name published in 2004, is a dystopia. It describes the rise and victory of anti-Semitism and fascism in the United States, with the election of Charles Lindbergh in 1940 and the defeat of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which resulted in an alliance between Washington and Nazi Germany.
The story told here is all the more frightening since the election of Donald Trump, because it appears less like fiction and, in some respects, a little closer to reality. It conveys an important message: when speech is liberated at the top levels of the state, everything becomes possible at the bottom. It is no accident that there has never been as much violence in the United States as there has been since the election of Donald Trump, anti-Semitism in particular. The American President cannot be blamed for being anti-Semitic, but he is partly responsible for the release of the most extreme voices.
This dystopian series gives us a window into what the United States was like in the 1940s, the life of a Jewish family from New Jersey and the evolution of its members. One of them goes to London to fight with the Allied troops, the other one falls in love with a rabbi who collaborates with Lindbergh. It looks at what the big story could have been, through the little story. It thus provokes fear, but also makes us think - and that is what this period of lockdown calls us to do.
What will happen if populism, in its most extreme version, prevails in a key country of the world? At first, the epidemic strengthens the leaders in power, giving them a bonus because we thank them for taking the helm while the sea is particularly rough. Then comes the moment of judgment of the results. Let us remember that in 2015, when Germany had opened its door to refugees, commentators were foreseeing Angela Merkel’s doom.
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