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  • Glenn Sonnenberg

Musings from the Bunker 8/11/20

Good morning!



I find one of the most enjoyable of genres is “alternative history.” There are some great such books. Some of the best include:

Fatherland, by Robert Harris. The “father” of these books, to me… The Germans win the war, a Kennedy is President (it’s just Joseph Kennedy, JFK’s father and German sympathizer). It’s a gripping telling of “what if” the Germans won the war. What would the world look like in the 1960s, as Germany gathers to celebrate Hitler’s 75th birthday. A routine murder investigation not only on the trail of that mystery, but also uncovers the mystery of the camps. Quite the dystopian future.

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. It’s amazing how much of our current “intelligent” science fiction comes from the mind of this great science fiction writer. This is the story of an America that lost World War II, suffering under a German-controlled East coast and a Japanese-controlled West coast, with a neutral area in-between. The characters are developed more than one would expect in a story like this. Seeing how individual Americans adapt to the circumstances is quite compelling. In his short career (he died at age 53), he wrote the books upon which the movies Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, the Adjustment Bureau and this story were conceived. The Man in the High Castle television series begins with the book and moves forward in an intelligent and consistent manner (in the way The Handmaid’s Tale does not).

The Plot to Destroy America Phillip Roth’s tour de force about Lindbergh, noted German sympathizer, defeating Roosevelt in the 1940 election. It’s all seen through the eyes of a young Jewish boy in New Jersey, who sees adult events through his perspective. The issues posed are interesting. By changing the results of the 1940 election, Roth shows the world under President Lindbergh as one of antisemitism and isolationism. How safe can people feel in a democracy when it is making peace with the devil? One of the beauties of the book is how thing move ever slightly away from the history we remember—how tiny things have a significant impact and how, in the end, perhaps things don’t work out so differently after all. This book can serve as the “entry level drug” for the vast and fascinating literature of Phillip Roth. Read this—you can skip the TV version, which is merely good entertainment, not great.

November 22, 1963 Stephen King’s imaginative time travel back to the time before the Kennedy assassination. What would you do to stop the assassination? Could you pull it off? An interesting, intricate imagining of a person who could go back to the time of this seminal event and interact with many of the players, building up to an attempt to change history.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon. The war is over. There is a Jewish state—it’s not Israel, but Alaska. They speak not Hebrew, but Yiddish. Chabon creates a world centered in Sitka, of the “Frozen Chosen,” seen through a murder investigation. The Jewish settlement will only exist for 60 years, after which the Alaskan State will be established. In the meantime, the rest of world history is modified in myriad ways (a “Polish Free State,” the war continuing until nuclear weapons are used on Berlin in 1946, a war with Cuba, a short history of Israel, necessitating the Yiddish State.



While we’re talking about alternative history seems to be one of the arguments justifying our government’s shameful response to the COVID-19 crisis. We aren’t even close to emerging from this crisis and the apologists already are out in force. I divide them into several categories:

1. The Alternative History. This is when they say “If Hillary or Biden were President, it wouldn’t have been any better.” How can they possibly know this? Besides the fact that I don’t believe this, Trump is President—not Hillary and not Biden. There is no place to hide in “they might have been as bad.” The President’s success or failure is not dependent upon a comparison with alternative history.

2. The “He Did it Too Narrative.” Somehow people compare this to Obama’s response to H1N1 Virus. Again, we should measure the President’s performance within the current context. How Obama behaved in the past is not an excuse for how the President performs. And, by the way, the H1N1 flu did not pose nearly the risks of this crisis.

3. The “Look at the Rest of the World” Narrative. This is the narrative that “we’re testing more” or “our mortality rate is lower.” But the facts belie this argument. We’re doing horribly vis-à-vis the rest of the developed world. With 5% of the world’s population, we’re at 25% of reported cases. Even adjusting for increased testing (and reduced testing in less developed countries), our performance is not a source of pride.

4. The “It Really Isn’t that Bad” Narrative. In this narrative people look to numbers of deaths and compare them to a prior pandemic, a war, or typical death statistics. Besides being inhumane in diminishing the value of the lives lost, the fact is that the absolute number of American lives lost to date exceeds the deaths on 9/11 (2,977) by over 50 times. We just crossed over 150,000 deaths from COVID-19, which exceeds the deaths in the Revolutionary War, the Korean War (36,574), the Vietnam War (58,220), the 1968 worldwide flu epidemic (100,000), the 1957-58 flu pandemic (116,000), and World War I (116,516). We are told the total deaths will exceed 200,000 by the end of September; and the death toll is generally believed to be undercounted. Before this is over, it is possible that total deaths will exceed the total deaths in World War II (405,399) and even the Civil War (620,000). Let’s hope not…

5. The “Now That We’re Testing, the Odds of Death Have Come Down” Thesis. Great news. But still lots of people are suffering and dying. Let’s keep testing.

As they would say in the Yiddish Policemen’s Union, “Oy!”



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