Captain Ahab of “Moby-Dick”: Workplace trauma sufferer, bullying boss, or both?

If you’re even remotely familiar with Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby-Dick (1851), then you may regard the Pequod‘s Captain Ahab as a mad, angry, and obsessed figure. After all, the novel is driven by Ahab’s relentless and rageful chase of the eponymous whale, seeking revenge for a grievous injury inflicted during an earlier encounter at sea. This obsession leads to Ahab’s undoing.

Earlier this year, I had an opportunity to consider Moby-Dick, via a fascinating online class offered by the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, an independent school that offers non-credit courses in the humanities and social sciences. Taught by Dr. Rebecca Ariel Porte, “Moby-Dick: Reading the White Whale” was a four-week deep dive (ba dum) into this complex novel, examining it from a variety of literary and social perspectives. I had long wanted to read Moby-Dick, but previous efforts to do so on my own flamed out after a few chapters. I knew that I needed the prod of interactive class sessions to sustain my reading of the book. I am happy to report that the course was more than worth the effort, thanks to its brilliant instructor and a very smart group of fellow students.

Going into the course, I brought a hypothesis: Moby-Dick is, at least in part, a story of psychological trauma suffered by Capt. Ahab. During the course, I was stunned to read passages that, at least for me, vividly supported that hypothesis. I now submit that Herman Melville understood the guts and sinew of trauma, well before the acronym PTSD ever entered our nomenclature.

Indeed, Melville’s description of Ahab fits the profile of a trauma sufferer. Sprinkled throughout the novel, we are given these looks into Ahab’s mental state. Ahab, the narrator tells us multiple times, is a “monomaniac,” which one modern dictionary defines as “a person who is extremely interested in only one thing, often to such a degree that they are mentally ill.” In chapter 106, we learn how Ahab carries a deep sense of grievance linked back to the injury inflicted by the whale, including a subsequent mysterious “agonizing wound” that “all but pierced his groin.” In chapter 135, we are told that Ahab “never thinks; he only feels, feels, feels.”

Today, we know that Ahab’s mental state and behaviors are very consistent with psychological trauma. From Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s superb book about trauma, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014), we learn that research on brain functioning shows how trauma can shut down logical thinking capacities and hyper-activate the emotions. Those who have experienced traumatic events may relive and obsess over them.

I have seen this on many occasions with some targets of severe bullying and mobbing at work. They face enormous difficulties in getting “unstuck” from a state of rumination and anger. A few become fixated on obtaining some measure of justice, or perhaps vengeance. Like Ahab, they sometimes only feel, feel, feel.

Of course, frequent readers of this blog may also classify Ahab as a bullying boss, given the way he treats the Pequod‘s crew. That’s a fair characterization, too. One senses that the ship’s crew members are walking on eggshells around Ahab. They fear him and question his mental state.

But seen as a trauma sufferer, perhaps Ahab becomes at least a slightly more sympathetic figure. I was recently introduced to the phrase hurt people hurt people, and I think that applies here. Put simply, some abused individuals turn their pain outward and mistreat others.

Thankfully, our understanding of trauma far exceeds what we knew about it in the mid-1800s. Among other things, we now know that PTSD can be treated. Many of these treatment modalities are discussed in The Body Keeps the Score

I readily confess that my fiction reading has tended towards mysteries, tales of spies and suspense, and the occasional horror story. But reading Moby-Dick with the help of this course turned out to be a welcomed intellectual workout, one that yielded surprisingly relevant connections to my work. I also came away very impressed with how one iconic author had a remarkable 19th century understanding of trauma and its effects.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Devoted and skilled advocate for equal rights and equal opportunity

The passing of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a deeply sad and momentous occasion. As an Associate Justice of the Court, Justice Ginsburg was a steady and passionate voice for equal rights and equal opportunity. Given the moniker the “Notorious RBG,” she became a hero and pop culture icon to so many women, especially, who rightly looked to her as a role model.

Justice Ginsburg’s important contributions to American jurisprudence will be studied by lawyers, judges, law professors, and law students for many years. After all, the rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court, and the voting patterns and written opinions of individual Justices, attract considerable attention. Every American law student takes a required course in Constitutional Law, where Supreme Court cases interpreting the U.S. Constitution form the main focus of study. In my Employment Discrimination course, we devote primary attention to Supreme Court decisions interpreting major federal employment discrimination laws.

Ginsburg’s death leaves a significant void on the Court and has triggered what will be an ugly and divisive political battle over the confirmation of her successor. If Donald Trump and Senate leader Mitch McConnell succeed in filling this vacancy, it is likely that the ideological balance of the Court will be tipped in a way that threatens reversals in women’s rights, workers’ rights, and civil rights generally for a generation.

Attorney Ginsburg

But I shall leave that for a later commentary. Rather, as we reflect upon Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s signature contributions, I’d like to focus on her legacy as a public interest lawyer. Even had she never sat for a day on America’s highest court, her work as a pioneering advocate for needed changes in the law would have left a great record of accomplishment. As Moira Donegan writes for the Guardian (link here):

Strategic, contemplative and disciplined, but with a passion for the feminist cause that is rarely admitted into the halls of power, Ginsburg established an impressive legal legacy long before she became a judge. Over the course of a two-decade career as a lawyer before her appointment to the DC circuit court of appeals, she successfully argued cases that expanded civil rights law and 14th amendment protections to women, undoing a dense network of laws that had codified sex discrimination in all areas of American life.

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Ginsburg is the rare supreme court justice whose most significant work was done before she joined the court….Ginsburg personally argued six gender discrimination cases before the then all-male supreme court, winning five. She built on her victories one by one, establishing precedents that made future victories easier to win.

***

First was Reed v Reed (1971), a monumental victory that struck down an Idaho law favoring men over women in estate battles. That case extended the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment to women, barring laws that discriminated by sex. Ginsburg followed this case with victories in Frontiero v Richardson (1973), barring gender discrimination in compensation of military members, and Weinberger v Wiesenfeld (1975), striking down gender discrimination in state benefits. Her tactics were savvy; she framed gender discrimination in ways that made the practice seem unreasonable even to hardened misogynists.

Indeed, perhaps Attorney Ginsburg’s body of work best informs everyday lawyers and law students who wish to use their training to advocate for desired changes in the law. While serving as a law professor at the Columbia and Rutgers law schools in the 1970s, she forged an association with the American Civil Liberties Union that would fuel her advocacy work. This included co-founding the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project and serving as its General Counsel. The period covered much of her most significant civil rights litigation work.

It is a testament to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s character, determination, and ability that she has left multiple legacies. Among these, her work on the Supreme Court will be the defining one to many. But I hope that lawyers and law students, particularly, won’t forget her vital contributions as a legal advocate.

Amid this pandemic, folks are digging deep to provide welcomed goods and services

(image courtesy of clipart panda.com)

I’m going to sound a little Pollyannish in this entry. Yesterday it struck me once again how many people are digging very deep to provide goods and services to all of us, to keep small businesses up and running, and to generally give us some semblance of normalcy as we continue to live in the shadow of this pandemic.

Yesterday I walked over to the main retail district of my Jamaica Plain neighborhood in Boston for a visit to the Post Office, a long-needed haircut (yes, even us balding fellows need a trim now and then), and a stop by my local food store.

I first went to the Post Office to pick up some stamps. It reminded me of how helpful my mail deliverer has been during this time, especially given how many packages I’ve received during the past few months.

I then walked into Sal’s Barber Shop to see everyone in masks and plastic partitions between each chair. After a short wait, I sat down for my first haircut since March. It was over quickly (like I said, it’s mostly chrome on top), and I felt completely safe in that environment. The owner was so grateful for my business, but I felt like I should be thanking them for keeping their shop open, while following safety guidelines.

Finally, I went over the main store of City Feed & Supply and filled a small bag with some goodies for home. (The City Feed’s grocery delivery service has been a lifeline for me during this pandemic!) I was happy to see the store’s co-founder setting up tables and chairs as part of a new local initiative to allow for more outdoor cafe and dining service. I hope that we’ll get a long New England fall so that folks can safely enjoy their coffee, pastries, and sandwiches in some nice weather.

I claim no great epiphanies from yesterday’s neighborhood sojourn, just a deep and renewed appreciation for those whose labors are contributing so much to the sometimes buffeted, but always resilient, fabric of our communities. During challenging times, these everyday heroes step up to make a positive difference in our lives. 

 

Teaching as everyday leadership (pandemic edition)

The new “back to school” prep

This strange, anxious, and difficult period, marked by a pandemic that has changed our lives dramatically, has caused me to engage in no small amount of reflection on my role as an educator. I keep coming back to the notion of teaching as a form of everyday leadership.

By March, the coronavirus situation was well on its way toward becoming a global pandemic. In response, my university — like so many others — announced that we would be teaching the rest of the semester online. For a lot of faculty (including yours truly), that meant using the Zoom videoconferencing platform that now has become a staple in many millions of lives. This fall, it’s pretty much more of the same, except that we’re starting off the term online, rather than switching modalities in mid-semester.

I’m grateful that we have technologies that allow us to have live classes. Under normal circumstances, most of us would prefer to be in face-to-face classrooms. But these are not normal times, at least in a city that was one of the nation’s COVID-19 hotspots during the spring and early summer. We’re doing better now, but we cannot take this threat lightly.

This isn’t what our students signed up for in terms of an educational experience. I’m a law professor, and in normal times, both our full-time day and part-time evening students have the benefit of studying law right in the heart of Boston. They have the use of a beautiful building and a spacious law library, with a variety of on-site services ready to help them. They are within walking distance of legal employers, courthouses, and government offices.

For now, however, instead of having all that, most are logging in from their homes or workplaces to attend law classes online. The disruptions to their usual lives and to their degree programs have often been substantial.

Of course, I understand that the lives of educators, administrators, and staff in higher education have been upended as well. We will never forget the unsettling transition of suddenly going into lockdown mode, while wondering if the most momentary contacts with the outside world will cause us and people we care about to get very sick. Adapting our work lives around these new realities hasn’t been easy.

Nevertheless, practicing everyday leadership means rising above our own challenges to educate, support, and inspire our students. How we present ourselves and engage our students in this online mode will greatly impact how they perceive the experience of studying remotely. Some will also look to us for cues on how to get things done, while emotionally navigating the dramatic changes in our lives.

I’m fortunate to teach at a university where our students are generally not entitled or spoiled. Quite understandably, they’re not happy with this situation, but they are doing their best to adapt to it. If they see their instructors putting in the effort to make these courses useful and interesting, then they are likely to respond in kind.

Of course, teaching is like that generally. The ability, effort, and emotional intelligence of individual professors always make a difference. But under current circumstances, these qualities matter even more.

Next Avenue on posttraumatic growth: PTG following PTSD

Barbra Williams Cosentino, writing for Next Avenue (link here), writes about recovery and renewal in a valuable piece on posttraumatic growth:

The concept of Posttraumatic Growth, or PTG, was developed in the 1990s by psychologist Richard G. Tedeschi, now distinguished chair of the Boulder Crest Institute for Posttraumatic Growth in Bluemont, Va., and his colleague Lawrence Calhoun.

It’s different from PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a constellation of psychological and often physical symptoms experienced after profoundly upsetting events such as a natural disaster, an assault or a terrible illness. Posttraumatic growth can be the reward for pain and suffering, a positive ending which can lead to rich and unanticipated rewards in terms of emotional, social and even spiritual health.

Cosentino reports that Tedeschi and Calhoun have developed a Posttraumatic Growth Inventory instrument, which measures how those who have suffered from trauma can grow in several dimensions. In more tangible terms, this can lead to a variety of positive changes:

Internal changes in perception, self-awareness and one’s sense of competence often lead to positive actions. Trauma survivors of any age may switch careers, find intensely rewarding hobbies, go back to school or take early retirement and travel.

Fortunately, individuals can facilitate their own posttraumatic growth in many ways, according to Tedeschi:

  • Learning the ways trauma can lead to a disruption of core belief systems
  • Developing emotional regulation skills which allow you to manage negative emotions such as anxiety, guilt and anger
  • Talking about the trauma and how you have been personally affected by it
  • Producing an authentic narrative about the trauma and our lives afterward so you can accept the reality and envision moving on
  • Providing service to others who experienced similar or different traumatic events

Targets of workplace bullying and mobbing: Getting “unstuck”

I especially recommend Cosentino’s article for targets of workplace bullying and mobbing who are experiencing the challenges of getting “unstuck.” As I wrote in 2014 (link here):

One of the biggest challenges facing many people who have experienced severe workplace bullying is getting unstuck. Some may feel trapped, helpless, or victimized. Others may be caught in a cycle of anger, defiance, or battle-like conflict. Oftentimes, these thought patterns and behaviors are associated with psychological conditions including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress.

Our emerging understanding of posttraumatic growth offers genuine, tangible hope for those who are recovering from severe work abuse. Practitioners and researchers working in this mode are onto somethingas I like to say, and the results have the potential to be life-changing for countless numbers of people.

On recovering from adversity and loss to have his finest moment

Here in the U.S., Joseph Biden, the Democratic Party’s nominee for President, delivered an acceptance speech at his party’s nominating convention that has received widespread praise for its moral conviction and strength. A man not associated with powerful oratory (among other things, he had to overcome a childhood stuttering impediment) nonetheless delivered a speech full of passion and heart quality, urging America to reclaim the light that has been lost in the midst of the current presidential leadership and a global pandemic.

The speech also served as a testament to recovering from great adversity and personal loss. Biden stumbled early in his party’s presidential primaries, appearing lackluster at campaign appearances and doing poorly in televised debates. Once the state primaries began, he stumbled badly at the polls. The growing suspicion was that this 77-year-old former vice president was washed up.

However, when all appeared to be lost, Biden pulled off a dramatic win in South Carolina, and the momentum just steamrolled from there. His march to win the nomination will be remembered as one of the greatest comebacks in the history of presidential politics.

Biden’s political comeback is only a part of his story, of course. He has overcome adversities much greater than that. Weeks after he was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972, his wife and one-year-old daughter died in a horrible car crash. He would remarry and raise his family. But in 2015, his oldest son, Beau Biden, who served as Delaware’s attorney general and as an active duty Army officer in Iraq, died after a long battle with brain cancer. It was a devastating loss that strongly factored into Biden’s decision not to run for president.

So here we are, in the summer of 2020, with the Democratic nominating convention being conducted as a socially distanced event for television and the internet because of a pandemic that continues to ravage this nation. There were no cheering delegates waving signs and banners; applause was delivered via projecting Zoom images on a giant screen. It was a strange and challenging setting for such an important speech.

And yet Biden delivered. You can watch his speech here.

Biden highlighted his sharp differences with the White House incumbent, not only in policies, but also in character. He invoked the term dignity on several key occasions. I try to avoid being overtly political on this blog, despite the fact that I am a longtime political junkie. However, I believe that the 2020 election is America’s moment of truth. We either make a change at the top or say goodbye to our nation as a decent, caring democracy. The stakes are that vital.

That said, for many Americans, the best reason to vote for Biden has been that he is not his main opponent. That may have changed on Thursday night, when a guy who was written off as an aging has-been stepped up to deliver the speech of his life. It’s a speech that history may very well credit for helping to save this country from a terribly dark future and lasting moral and ethical decline.

Puerto Rico enacts workplace anti-bullying law

(courtesy of 4vector.c0m)

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico has enacted a workplace anti-bullying law that allows employees to file a legal claim for in response to severe bullying and abuse. The National Law Review, an online legal news site maintained by in-house corporate attorneys, broke the story about the new law (link here):

In an unprecedented move and without taking into consideration the mass opposition from the private sector, on August 7, 2020, the Governor of Puerto Rico signed into law House Bill 306 to prohibit workplace bullying. This law goes into effect immediately.

Under the new law, employees in the public and private sector have a cause of action for conduct the law classifies as workplace bullying. Aggrieved employees would be entitled to remedies greater than those under local anti-discrimination statutes.

In addition, government and private sector employers, among others, must adopt policies and protocols advising employees about their rights under this new law. Employers must prohibit all forms of harassment and bullying in the workplace and provide mechanisms to address and investigate internal allegations. Unlike other employment law claims, an employee needs to exhaust both internal remedies with the company and external remedies with the Alternate Dispute Resolution Bureau of the Judiciary through a mediation process as a prerequisite to filing a lawsuit in court.

Puerto Rico is the first American jurisdiction to adopt a comprehensive workplace anti-bullying law. The law bears some resemblances to the template Healthy Workplace Bill currently pending in a number of U.S. states, but adds additional provisions unique to Puerto Rican employment and labor law. Similar to the HWB, it requires that the totality of the circumstances be considered in determining whether or not a legally actionable workplace bullying is present. It also requires a showing of malicious intent, a high standard of proof that had been included in earlier versions of the HWB.

In 2014, the Governor of Puerto Rico vetoed a workplace bullying bill after it had been passed by the legislature.

I’ll be taking a closer look at the new law in the weeks and months to come. In the meantime, this is an enormously positive development for the workplace anti-bullying movement. While many American states have been deliberating upon the Healthy Workplace Bill and similar proposals for years, Puerto Rico has stepped up and proclaimed that severe workplace bullying is now an unlawful employment practice.

***

Adapted from a previous blog post, here is a brief timeline of major developments in the path toward enacting workplace anti-bullying laws in the U.S.:

  • 2000 – Basic parameters for the eventual drafting of the Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) are set out in David C. Yamada, The Phenomenon of “Workplace Bullying” and the Need for Status-Blind Hostile Work Environment Protection,” Georgetown Law Journal (2000).
  • 2002 – I draft and begin circulating early iterations of the HWB.
  • 2003-04 – California becomes the first state to consider the HWB.
  • 2003-present – Over 30 state and territorial legislatures have considered versions of the HWB.
  • Early 2000s – Various states consider bills designed to create study commissions and climate surveys about workplace bullying.
  • 2010 — New York State Senate passes HWB.
  • 2010 – Illinois State Senate passes a version of the HWB applying to public sector workers only.
  • 2010s – Several Employee Practices Liability Insurance policies start to cover liability for bullying-related claims.
  • 2011-12 – Massachusetts House of Representatives moves the HWB to a stage known as “third reading,” making it eligible for a floor vote in the House of Representatives.
  • 2012 – Prompted by the HWB grassroots advocacy movement, more than 100 U.S. local governmental entities issue proclamations endorsing “Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week.”
  • 2013 – Fulton County, Georgia county government (covering Greater Atlanta) adopts a workplace bullying ordinance covering public workers, using the operative definition from the HWB, and permitting discipline or termination of offending employees.
  • 2014 – California enacts legislation that requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide supervisory training and education about workplace bullying, using the operative definition from the HWB.
  • 2014 – The governors of New Hampshire and Puerto Rico veto what they consider to be problematic workplace bullying legislation.
  • 2015 – Utah enacts legislation requiring state agencies to train supervisors and employees about workplace bullying prevention, using the operative definition from the HWB.
  • 2019 – Building on a 2014 law covering state and local public employers, Tennessee enacts an odd statute that immunizes employers from bullying-related legal claims if they have adopted a model anti-bullying policy.
  • 2019-20 — Massachusetts HWB attracts 109 co-sponsors, out of 200 elected state legislators.
  • 2019-20 – Rhode Island State Senate passes the HWB.

MTW Revisions (August 2020)

Dear readers, I’ve gathered some posts that I’ve revised over the years and have not shared in previous “MTW Revisions” features. This particular collection emphasizes workplace bullying and toxic or difficult work environments. I hope you find the selections interesting and useful.

Weighing the exit option for a toxic job (orig. 2016; rev. 2019) (link here) — “But until more employers start to take abuse at work seriously and the law steps in to create stronger legal protections, leaving a bad job — voluntarily or otherwise — will remain the most common “resolution” of severe workplace bullying. Whenever possible, those who are experiencing toxic jobs should try to get ahead of the situation. It is not an easy thing to do — at first glance, it may feel downright impossible — but it’s much better than waiting for others to impose the choices.”

What separates the “best” workplace abusers from the rest? (orig. 2015; rev. 2019) (link here) — “One of my central observations is that many of the “best” workplace abusers — the ones who get their prey and continually evade being held responsible — are calculating, committed, and smart planners. With task-oriented surgical precision and detachment, they plot and scheme. Like the serial killer who manages to escape capture, they’re usually a step or three ahead of everyone else, with a scary sense of anticipation.”

When employees leave your organization, how do they feel about it? (orig. 2013; rev. 2019) (link here) —  “If you’re looking for a quick “status check” on the culture of your workplace, ask this simple question: When employees leave the organization, how do they feel about it?

Is closure possible for targets of workplace bullying and injustice? (orig. 2011; rev.2016) (link here) — “Targets of workplace bullying or mobbing often hear some variation on the phrase you really need to get over this. I suppose there’s some truth in this. No decent human being wants to see another stuck in a place of stress, fear, anger, and trauma. But prodding someone with those words, however well meaning, is rarely helpful — especially absent more concretely useful assistance.”

Dealing with “gatekeepers” at work: Beware of Dr. No (orig. 2011; rev. 2020) (link here) — “In darker situations, gatekeeping can be a form of intentional exclusion, perhaps a passive-aggressive, bullying-type tactic. It’s a way of keeping someone in their place, blocking them from advancement, or preventing them from making a unique contribution.”

Is emotional detachment an antidote for a nasty workplace? (orig. 2010; rev. 2016) (link here) — “Emotional detachment does not come without its costs, as anyone who understands workplace bullying can comprehend. After all, indifferent slackers aren’t the ones typically targeted by abusive bosses or co-workers.  Oftentimes it’s the high achiever, or at least someone who is engaged in her work, who is marked for mistreatment. Telling this person to turn off the passion for her work is indeed an instruction to numb her soul, even if for the purpose of avoiding deeper injury.”

America’s pandemic economy: Little news and big news alike, it’s pretty sad right now

Just last week, I was thinking about how nice it will be to once again grab a late lunch and spend part of the afternoon working at the Pret A Manger cafe in Boston’s Downtown Crossing. For a downtown, high-volume chain eatery, it had a homey and comfortable feel to it. Once the business lunch hour crowd had dissipated, I was usually able to find a table to enjoy my food and get some work done, with laptop or tablet at hand.

My typical lunch fare was one of Pret’s egg salad sandwiches and a cup of lentil soup, with a coffee or an iced tea for a little mid-day boost. If I was there for a snack only, I’d often opt for one of their chocolate chunk cookies, truly one of the best I’ve ever had. Only minutes from my university office, it was a pleasant place to be productive, and the staff was always friendly and efficient. During recent years, I spent many hours there.

But earlier this week, the company announced that it is closing all of its Boston locations. As reported by Erin Kuschner for Boston.com (link here):

London-based café chain Pret A Manger has closed all of its Boston locations as it announced plans to restructure its business model as a result of COVID-19.

In a statement shared with Boston.com on Wednesday, the company revealed that U.S. sales were down by 87 percent year-over-year due to the pandemic, and that it had made the decision to close 17 outposts across Boston and Chicago….

When it comes to the state of the American economy, it’s all pretty much the same, on smaller or larger scales. The impact of the pandemic on the national economy has been terrible. As Scott Horsley reports for National Public Radio (link here):

The coronavirus pandemic triggered the sharpest economic contraction in modern American history, the Commerce Department reported Thursday.

Gross domestic product — the broadest measure of economic activity — shrank at an annual rate of 32.9% in the second quarter as restaurants and retailers closed their doors in a desperate effort to slow the spread of the virus, which has killed more than 150,000 people in the U.S.

The economic shock in April, May and June was more than three times as sharp as the previous record — 10% in 1958 — and nearly four times the worst quarter during the Great Recession.

The numbers are horrific, but the individual stories behind them are even worse. They’re about jobs disappearing, businesses closed, and everyday pleasantries gone. The heartache is significant. The damage done in roughly five months is breathtaking. And here in the U.S., we’re not through it yet. We’ve got our work cut out for us.

 

Can we use this challenging time to plant seeds of creativity and compassion?

Will the coronavirus pandemic prompt us toward creating a better society? Exploring this possibility for the New Yorker, author Lawrence Wright interviewed Gianna Pomata, a retired professor at the Johns Hopkins University’s Institute of the History of Medicine, about how the pandemic may shape our futures (link here). Dr. Pomata is an authority on, among other things, the history of the Black Plague of the Middle Ages.

Now living in Italy, one of the original hot zones for COVID-19 outbreaks, Pomata shared her historical perspective with Wright:

When we first talked, on Skype, she immediately compared covid-19 to the bubonic plague that struck Europe in the fourteenth century—“not in the number of dead but in terms of shaking up the way people think.” She went on, “The Black Death really marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of something else.” That something else was the Renaissance.

…“What happens after the Black Death, it’s like a wind—fresh air coming in, the fresh air of common sense.”

Although Pomata expressed shock over the resistance of so many Americans to follow basic public health precautions such as wearing masks, she sees the potential for a similar revitalizing response on a global level once we get through this pandemic:

“What I expect now is something as dramatic is going to happen, not so much in medicine but in economy and culture. Because of danger, there’s this wonderful human response, which is to think in a new way.”

This article has prompted me to look at pieces I’ve posted during the past few months, examining our current state and speculating as to how we will come out of this in terms of our basic humanity. I see within my own thinking both hope and doubt.

Work and workplaces

I’d love to see waves of kindness, compassion, and creativity overcome our workplaces in light of this pandemic, but the evidence for that transformation is not exactly overwhelming. In fact, it may be pointing in the other direction. Here’s what I recently wrote about those prospects: 

I hope that our better natures will prevail. Perhaps the fears and ravages of a deadly virus affecting our health and lives, the economy, the state of employment, and the viability of our various civic, cultural, and educational institutions are humbling us and causing us to treat one another with greater understanding and care. Maybe we’ll see less bullying, mobbing, harassment, and incivility, as people welcome the return of some semblance of normalcy.

…Then again, it’s not as if bad workplace behaviors have disappeared during the heart of this pandemic. The news has been peppered with accounts of alleged worker mistreatment, especially that in retail, warehouse, and delivery employment. Many of these reports involve claims that management is strong-arming employees to show up to work without providing adequate protective gear or other safeguards. We’ve also seen an unfortunate and sharp uptick in harassment of people of Asian nationalities, linked to the origins of the virus in China.

Furthermore, as I wrote earlier this month, the news is now peppered with stories of retail and fast food workers being bullied and assaulted by not-so-wonderful customers who are angered by mask requirements and limitations on inside dining. Apparently these folks are taking out their ignorance and frustrations on modestly paid service workers who are simply trying to do their jobs safely.

Now we’re also learning of more extensive efforts to leverage this pandemic in ways that exploit workers and expose them to greater harm, all in the name of squeezing out more profits. For a detailed account of one such instance, check out Jane Mayer’s recent investigative piece (also in the New Yorker, link here), which examines how a “secretive titan behind one of America’s largest poultry companies, who is also one of the President’s top donors, is ruthlessly leveraging the coronavirus crisis—and his vast fortune—to strip workers of protections.”

Our better natures

Still, on occasion we read of extraordinary efforts to keep businesses afloat and workers on the payroll. For example, European travel guru and writer Rick Steves, who has built a very successful business organizing guided tours to Europe and publishing a popular series of travel guidebooks (I’ve purchased my fair share of them!), is digging deep into his company’s cash reserves to keep his staff of 100 employed for the next two years. This involves pay cuts but will allow retention of health insurance coverage. (You can read more about his decision and planning in this Seattle Times article, here.)

And we also read accounts of remarkable creativity and flexibility practiced by small business owners. Recently ZAGAT Stories (link here) featured restauranteur Barbara Sibley, owner of La Palapa, a Mexican restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood. (Full disclosure: My cousin Judy, mentioned in this piece, is a manager there, and I’ve made modest financial contributions toward Barbara’s efforts during this time. I’ve also eaten a lot of their food over the years!) Here’s a snippet:

I didn’t shut down, not even for a day, not even for a minute. The next day after lockdown I was here with Judy, my general manager who’s worked for me for over 15 years, and my chef. I’ve worked with his family since I was 19. Having been through all of those different experiences, there were things that I knew right away. First of all, you have to hold onto your cash. You have to take care of your people. The most important thing is to make payroll and make sure nobody’s starving, and then put what you have to good use.

So we started to feed hospitals. We made a donation to the Catholic Worker. We had all this bread. I was very conscious about which purveyors I was going to shop from. There were people that had been with me through other crises and helped me up. I was very mindful about taking care of them. If I was going to spend any money, I was going to spend it very thoughtfully.

…Then Bloomberg Philanthropies decided it was important that we feed the public hospitals, because private hospitals had donors and board members that wanted to do wonderful things for those. Bloomberg teamed up with World Central Kitchen. I ended up doing 2,000 or 3,000 meals a week for the city hospitals. It allowed me to keep everybody busy, and to have really fresh food at La Palapa because we were making all these meals.

Jury’s out

So, wearing my law professor’s hat, the jury is still out for me on whether our post-pandemic world will be a more enlightened one. After all, here in the U.S., we are still in the heart of this pandemic. While many other nations have managed to wrestle down this virus, we are witnesses to some of the most appalling ignorance and selfishness when it comes to undertaking preventive public health measures, and we have an alarming absence of competent, caring leadership at the head of state. In late May, I wrote here:

Here in the U.S.,…the past 40 years have served as a case study of what happens when power corrupts and values become distorted. The past few years have taken us much deeper down that rabbit hole. Between this terrible pandemic and the pending 2020 election, I feel as though we in America have one last chance to turn things around. I hope we will summon the wisdom and humanity to do so.

And yet we have people like Rick Steves and Barbara Sibley, working tirelessly to keep their businesses going, while looking out for the interests of their employees.

Folks, if humankind can come out of the utter carnage of the Black Plague to create the Renaissance, then we have the capacity to emerge from this pandemic with a vision for a much better world as well — including more creative work and more compassionate workplaces. That’s all the more reason to wear those masks, wash our hands, and stay socially distanced. After all, we’ve got work to do.

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Note: This is adapted from a piece recently posted to my personal blog, Musings of a Gen Joneser (link here).

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