You’ve probably seen the picture of Naked Athena by now. She’s the lithe young woman who pranced nude through the streets of Portland, Oregon, the other night, wearing only a black face mask and a cap to confront law enforcement officers as they tried to quell protestors. She raised her hand to the heavens, and then sat, spread-eagle on the pavement, flashing her vulva at the stunned officers.
The moment captures perfectly the particular madness of this moment.
To appreciate the madness, you need to do more than watch her display. Read press accounts; look at social media. Her naked confrontation of the state’s power is already being compared to a Vietnam protestor placing a daisy in the barrel of an officer’s gun, or that of a lone protestor facing Chinese tanks at Tienanman Square.
She was naked. She was vulnerable. As officers fired rounds pepper balls into a angry crowd, she walk statuesquely to the fore, sat, and the officers, stunned, did not respond. Her display showed, according to those romanticizing her, that it was the emperor, and not she, who wore no clothing.
To my mind it was another reminded that the pandemic has generated a sense of mass hysteria almost unique in our history.
COVID-19 crept into the country late last year. Before spring had come, illness spread, and panic set in. Our federal institutions, splitting federal and state powers, was paralyzed. Soon there were quarantines, social distancing, and tens of thousands of deaths. A silent invader put us all on edge. Terror swept in without a terrorist to blame.
Then, of course, George Floyd died during an arrest gone bad. In a moment, the collective angst of a nation erupted. The narrative went to the prepared: Black Lives Matter is a quasi-Leninist organization armed with propaganda, a cell structure and an ideological quick fix for what ails us: “Systemic racism” is the new evil. And you are for BLM or against BLM. There is no middle ground. Never mind that Floyd was killed on May 25, one of a handful of black men killed in confrontations with police officers in the past year. America is evil. Its institutions must be torn down. To the streets, people. Now.
They are still play-acting at Les Miserables in Portland on a nightly basis now, eight weeks later.
A decade ago, I wrote a book called Taking Back the Courts. In that book I talked about a looming crisis of legitimacy festering in the land. What were the signs of the crisis? Folks increasingly could not distinguish police officers from armed bandits. The former, possessing the right to use force by authority of the state, looked, to an increasing number of Americans, like just another street gang roaming the streets.
Little did I know that a decade later public officials would be calling to defund the police.
The other day, a would-be progressive let me know in no uncertain terms that I am on “the wrong side of history,” and that it would be his pleasure to pour bleach down my throat. I should have responded by warning him not to kill the goose who lays the golden egg: You can’t redistribute something if you make nothing, and the view of history from the safety of your mother’s basement isn’t all that grand, or enduring.
Frank Snowden at Yale has written a wonderful book entitled Epidemics and Society. It is a summary of his undergraduate course on epidemics and pandemics, focusing on the scientific, social and political responses to mass illness. Periods of mass hysteria follow after a pandemic of mysterious origin. The tension and terror unnerve us. We are quick to seek to discharge the anxiety and fear with bizarre rituals.
And so it goes in Portlandia, a city that prides itself on sleeping through the demanding work of reasoning from cause to effect. The unhinged, untethered and uprooted play at street theater each night, doing a maypole dance around whatever remains standing from the previous night’s dance. Of course, this hysteria can’t endure. You can’t feed a city on fantasies and apocalyptic fumes.
So when the government seeks to impose order reality confronts fantasy. Our civil liberties aren’t safe among the good children of Lord of the Flies.
Enter now the dancing vaginal princess. It helps she’s shapely – I don’t imagine jelly rolls would have had the same aesthetic effect. She sits on the pavement, flashing her private parts at the police. And all at once, a new divinity is born.
My heart sinks. Are we so exhausted, so deprived of an enduring vision of the good, that this latter day streaker is where we turn for inspiration?
The bottom has fallen out of pluralism. We cherish diversity for diversity’s sake. Long live difference!, is the battle cry. Everything must be unmasked. Strip-tease is substituted for the sacred, and we rename our gods after masked women sitting naked in the street.
This pandemic will pass. We will regain a sense of reasonableness. The adults will reawaken and put the children to bed.
At least I hope so. Otherwise, we are a civilization without the ability to distinguish the better from the worse, and we will become little more than animals with the capacity for speech. Naked Athena? I doubt many of those on the streets know that Athena was a goddess in a culture that respected human excellence.