Years ago, I taught an undergraduate course in which I showed a clip from the 1966 film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The film is based on Edward Albee’s play of the same name and depicts a married couple, George and Martha, whose toxic relationship consumes not only them but everyone unlucky enough to get near them. Social distancing, had it existed then, would not have saved the younger, hapless couple in the play.
At one point George, a history professor who laments the demise of Western culture and the rise of the technocratic state, predicts a future of genetically-altered humans who will be docile, mediocre, and uniform.
“We will not have much music, much painting,” he muses. Rather, technocrats will run society, “each dedicated to and working for the greater glory of the super-civilization….Cultures and races will eventually vanish….ants will take over the world.”
Substitute rats for ants, and it seems that “sourpuss,” as Martha calls George, was right. Rats are taking over the world. Friends in New York tell me that with subway ridership down to a fraction of what it was pre-COVID, rats have nothing to eat and have come up to the streets for food. After riding the D train between Columbus Circle and the Bronx for more than ten years, I can tell you that that’s a lot of rats.
At Columbus Circle they would scurry around on the middle platform where the garbage dumpsters were kept. I wouldn’t want to contend with them on the street. Add to that the estimate that there are two rats for every New Yorker, and you get an idea of the enormity of the problem, if not exactly the enormity of the rats.
Still, ants or rats taking over is a metaphor for a larger crisis. In today’s context more than half a century after sourpuss’ warning, that crisis has less to do with a pandemic, racial turmoil, and an economic recession and more with the loss of control over our speech, actions, and even bodies.
I say this, because as a liberal and Christian I regard the basic unit of society as the individual, not the collective. And when I say liberal I mean in the traditional sense, not the radical one. It now takes a muzzled village to raise a muzzled child and, sadly, that child may come to believe that muzzles are the most natural thing in the world.
This is not to deny the reality of COVID or that it has killed almost a million people worldwide. But I am disturbed by both the aggressiveness with which authorities have muzzled communities and the eagerness of many people to comply, especially given the overall rates of infection and death. Recent protests in Argentina, Germany, and Spain against governmental heavy-handedness are encouraging.
Then there is the political situation, which hasn’t been this volatile since the revolution of 1968 that began in Paris, the home of barricades. Parisians certainly know how to throw a revolution. Today, we Americans have taken on that role in a strange, new, polarizing division not of Left and Right but red and blue, pride and proud, woke and walked-away, globalists and populists. And everywhere you hear the call for change as if power in different hands would be any different. The ideologically possessed actually believe that.
If ants take over the world and rats roam up and down Park Avenue, cigarettes dangling from their snouts like film noir criminals, it won’t be because of that race of “smooth, blond” technocrats George feared. It will be because we let them take over by surrendering control, locking down the economy, and convincing ourselves that we don’t deserve better. After all, aren’t we just another species, a speck of dust in the universe?
I never thought I’d advocate riding the subway, but stranger things have happened, and those same friends tell me that the D train is much cleaner now, although I don’t take comfort in that. A clean subway car is too unnatural. Too serious and sober. Too antiseptic.
I’d rather have dirty cars and rats in the tunnels, where they belong.