In response to the fear of change

Know your place – poetry after the Black Death reflected fear of social change. Contemporary moralists complained about those who rose above their allotted station in life and so in 1363 a law was passed that specified the food and dress that were appropriate for each social class. In line with such attitudes, Langland railed against the presumption of laborers who disdained day-old vegetables, bacon and cheap ale and instead demanded fresh meat, fish and fine ale. The Black Death altered the fundamental paradigm of European life that included socio-economic and religious belief and practice, unleashing the forces that made the Renaissance possible. The Renaissance yielded scholars the ability to read the scriptures in their original languages, and this in part stimulated the Protestant Reformation. The 16th century reformers considered the root of corruptions to be doctrinal rather than simply a matter of moral weakness or lack of ecclesiastical discipline.

The Catholic Church officially accepted the doctrine of Purgatory in the 1200s – many died without last rites during the Black Death, so the concept of purgatory gave people hope that the souls of the dead could still achieve salvation. By the late Middle Ages, the practice of granting indulgences was associated with the interim state between death and the afterlife. For a fee, bereaved relatives could get a deceased loved one out of Purgatory. Indulgences were a way to pay for sins committed after being absolved, which could be carried out in life or while languishing in Purgatory. Leo X was Pope from 1513 to 1521, a member of the high-living de Medici family, dished out bishoprics to his favorite relatives and tapped the Vatican treasury to support his extravagant lifestyle. When the money ran out, he made use of sale of indulgences. The sale of indulgences was abolished by the Pope in 1567.

During the 14th century, a cultural movement called humanism began to gain momentum in Italy. Among its many principles, humanism promoted the idea that man was the center of his own universe, and people should embrace human achievements in education, classical arts, literature and science. In 1450, the invention of the Gutenberg printing press allowed for improved communication throughout Europe and for ideas to spread more quickly. As a result of this advance in communication, little-known texts from early humanist authors such as those by Francesco Petrarch and Giovanni Boccaccio, which promoted the renewal of traditional Greek and Roman culture and values, were printed and distributed to the masses. The humanists believed that the Greek and Latin classics contained both all the lessons one needed to lead a moral and effective life. Secular humanism posits that human beings are capable of being ethical and moral without religion or belief in a deity.

Meanwhile, in Germany, Albert of Brandenburg (1490-1545) was a young professional on the fast track of church success. At age 23, he was archbishop of Magdeburg and administrator of Halberstadt. It was against canon law to hold more than one office, but everyone was doing it. It was a great way to play politics. So when the archbishopric of Mainz became available, Prince Albert sought to add a third office to his resume – this the most politically powerful of all. The problem was, Albert was low on cash. Seems he had spent his liquid assets in getting the posts he already held, and Pope Leo was asking a colossal sum to consider him for the job in Mainz. The normal strategy, passing the cost on to the common folk in the form of taxes or fees, was impractical, since Mainz had gone through four archbishops in ten years and was nearly bankrupt from supporting all those pay-offs.

But Albert had a good credit rating, and was able to borrow from the banker, Jacob Fugger. How to pay back the loan – Pope Leo authorized the sale of indulgences in Germany. Albert recruited Johann Tetzel, a German Dominican friar, known for his preaching on indulgences to handle the sales. Luther wrote his “95 Theses” in response to Tetzel’s activities. Luther and the other reformers became the first to skillfully use the power of the printing press to give their ideas a wide audience. No reformer was more adept than Martin Luther at using the power of the press to spread his ideas – his 95 Theses quickly spread debate through Europe.  Luther also directly contributed to putting the Bible into the hands of ordinary people, creating a highly influential German translation of the New Testament. Between 1518 and 1525, Luther published more works than the next 17 most prolific reformers combined.

But Luther wasn’t the last Protestant to defy a hostile government. The movement he started led relentlessly in that direction. Protestants asserted not the right to choose their rulers, but the duty to challenge them. In performing that duty, the Scottish radical John Knox wrote in 1558, “all man is equal.” He didn’t mean that the way we would understand it today, and he very definitely meant men and not women. But the idea had a life of its own. A generation after Knox, the Scottish King James VI was accusing his Protestant subjects of plotting a “Democratic form of government.” It wasn’t true. They favored monarchy, good order and social stability. Again and again, they were forced reluctantly to take matters into their own hands. They insisted that their voices be heard, and, when forced to, they took up arms against rulers who failed to meet their obligations.

Donald Trump embraces policies such as privatization, massive tax cuts for the wealthy, and ongoing financialization of the economy. Trump’s privatization shifts to private plans that includes restricting senior choice of providers and expanding Medicare Medical Savings Accounts as a tax shelter for the wealthy. He wants to privatize the Post Office – a department that was created in 1792 with the passage of the Postal Services Act. The bulk of the $150 billion corporate tax cut put into the hands of corporations in 2018 went into shareholder dividends and stock buy-backs, both of which line the pockets of the 10% of Americans who own 84% of the stocks. Financialization creates profit through financial channels rather than through trade and commodity production, enriches a select few at the majorities’ expense. Because of the way financial services are measured, GDP data does not measure changes in inequality. The consequence of such dogma: inequality continues to skyrocket ever since the pandemic.  

Emmett Louis Till was a 14-year-old African American who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955, after being accused of offending a white woman in her family’s grocery store. Pictures throughout northern newspapers of Emmett Till’s bloated, mutilated body in open casket sensitized the public to the fact that his killers were acquitted, and drew attention to the long history of violent persecution of African Americans in the United States. In 1955 The Chicago Defender urged its readers to react to the acquittal by voting in large numbers; this was to counter the disenfranchisement since 1890 of most blacks in Mississippi by the white-dominated legislature; other southern states followed this model, excluding hundreds of thousands of citizens from politics. Videos of the deaths of George Floyd and Jacob Blake have sensitized many to the fact that such police practices are just the tip of the iceberg of processes to remind the poor of their allotted place in society.

Fear is created not by the world around us, but in the mind, by what we think is going to happen, observes Elizabeth Gawain. The Trump administration’s failed public health response is mirrored by its failure to respond to the economic crisis, which has led to an economic fallout that sets the United States apart from other high-income nations. This creates the worst economic shock since the Great Depression – societies are in turmoil and economies are in a nose-dive. We fear new because of the uncertainty it brings – we might lose what is associated with change. Our aversion to loss can even cause logic to fly out the window. The Republicans need a distraction, and turn to their old playbook: an emphasis on urban disorder and racist fears of Black people moving into largely white neighborhoods is a familiar play. It has boosted the party’s candidates at least since President Nixon’s “law and order” campaign in 1968.

When cities move from crisis management to recovery, how can we make sure these unexpected experiences and the large gaps in urban systems that the crisis has exposed translate into more resilient, more inclusive cities? The most immediate need is to work with partners to generate the data required at the city and neighborhood benchmarks to better monitor and respond to changing conditions on the ground. Cities cannot fix what they do not understand, and this crisis has made clear just how little many municipal governments understand about what is happening in their cities, or the potential impact of different policy options. Cities need technical support and data to create integrated social, economic and infrastructure strategies at the local level. And at the national level, we need to improve governance to allow more seamless national-local coordination for emergency response and recovery. This how we respond to the fear of social change.1

1 Ani Dasgupta. (28 April 2020) After the Crisis: How COVID-19 Can Drive Transformational Change in Cities

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