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Menace

Tomorrow marks an entire month of closed schools in Hong Kong as a result of the outbreak of the “novel coronavirus”, as I will call it: “Covid 19” looks and sounds too much like something spray-painted on a wall at night. The Vertical City has become the Masked City; the Fragrant Harbour has become the Hygienic Harbour. We are so clean that there has been no significant outbreak of winter flu, and so fastidious that we have abandoned the handshake for the traditional Chinese fist-clasp and bow. 

I say ‘we’: I wear a mask though I am a foreigner, but most foreigners are conspicuous by not masking. I’ll explore the reason for this difference of response below, but my students have noticed it. One of them told me that the foreigners where he lives are unmasked, and he wondered whether they are fools or he is a coward. A quick look at where the disease is spreading and where it is being contained should answer that: they are fools, which is what I told him.

But a longer look is more helpful, a former student argued. He pointed out that while there is little or no evidence that masks protect their wearers from others’ nasty micro-aerosols, there is significant evidence that they protect others from the wearers’ own coughs and sneezes with their comparatively large drops of chest gunk. We should therefore wear them for their social benefit rather than their personal benefit. Non-maskers are not fools; they are free riders. ‘Well-reasoned’, as the Ravenclaw knocker would say. He (the former student, not the Ravenclaw knocker) adds that the many other hygienic measures people are taking, such as washing hands frequently and working from home, probably have a great combined effect.

I would add to his argument my my own that masking, the most continuously visible of the protective measures, has come to symbolize public hygiene and should be seen as a sign of accepting a public good and not just a magical talisman.

Two years ago Hong Kong was struck head-on by the ‘super typhoon’ Mangkhut. Storms that bring seemingly Biblical flooding are a fact of life in this part of the world, and Hong Kong’s record rainfall in one day, set in the 1920s, is over 500 millimeters, or just about twenty inches. The city has strict regulations about construction, the management of slopes (of which the mountainous city has many, including the hill on which our school is situated), and infrastructure (entrances to the Underground in low-lying areas are all protected by coffer-like baffles to keep out flood waters). Though many things were blown about, the city as a whole was not badly hurt.

Among the blown things were trees and shrubs at my school. The school decided that on our first day back, we would don work clothes, put on gardening gloves, and clear away the windblown rubbish. This film, produced by students, shows the cleanup.

The kind of threat represented by this typhoon I’ll call a Mangkhut menace. Such a menace has a physical aspect that is apprehensible by the senses. It has an identifiable beginning and end. If it is not utterly crushing, like the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, people can decide whether to be resigned to what it has done or to do something about it as the school did. 

The novel coronavirus represents an entirely different kind of menace. It is invisible to the senses, and its coming and going are hard to detect. It is “not good TV”: no blood, no pain, no evident horror. Our visual sense of it is composed of images that do not seem to be connected to anything real, e. g., masked babies or Michelin men in space suits. Its term is unfixed and maybe unknown. There is nothing we can actively do about it; we can only try to stay out of its way. I would call this kind of threat a Macavity[1] menace or a Macbeth menace.

The problem with the feline antagonist is that he is a “mystery cat” who is both “the Napoleon of crime” and “not there.” We have a second-hand sense of his activity but cannot actually confront him. A Macavity menace baffles the senses, and without special training in detection, it eludes our grasp. If it seems too flippant to name a serious menace after a cat, then call it a Macbeth menace. Is the dagger that marshals him to the murder of Duncan real, or is it a ‘dagger of the mind, a false impression / Proceeding from the heat-oppressèd brain”? Either way, for Duncan and Scotland it was a disaster. We cannot say while it is underway whether, as in Macbeth, a Macduff or a Malcolm will see us through or, as in “Macavity,” we will remain as helpless as Scotland Yard.

It is possible that such a menace, like Macavity, does not really exist at all. History is littered with the disjecta membra of fake menaces and their hysteria. The ‘Popish Plot’ of the 1670s is a good example. By the time its originator was convicted of perjury, nearly two dozen people had been hanged, some of them then drawn and quartered. Samuel Pepys was among its innocent victims, though he was saved by the passage of the Habeas Corpus Act from having his bowels roasted before his living eyes. 

It is thus that people remain unmasked in Hong Kong. They tend to take infectious diseases as a distant or unreal menace. One of the features of a Macavity menace is that different people may weigh its threat differently. That should not, however, leave us thinking that all such evaluations are equally valid.

William James called the readiness to fall uncritically for every hope or menace, real or imagined, mental vertigo. It is also a kind of mental vertigo to adopt a thoughtlessly skeptical pose. The cure for mental vertigo, James said, is education. He meant, of course, the kind of education that doesn’t forget the wisdom we lose in knowledge, or the knowledge we lose in information[2] and alternative facts[3]. It therefore seems vital that education—good education—should continue whenever the menaces of the moment permit.

And so we are offering online lessons. Online education is greatly inferior to the live kind, except in the classroom of Ferris Bueller’s history teacher and those like him[4]. It is a kind of stopgap that can be tolerated in an emergency, like a crummy spare tire that gets us to the garage. When the emergency ends, though, back to the trunk it must go.


[1] After the cat in the T S Eliot poem that bears his name

[2] As Eliot put it

[3] As Conway put it

[4] As I put it in my last posting, Gone and Back Again

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