Fire the Canon

The return of our wonderful guest, author and historian Ada Palmer! (If you haven’t listened to our first episode with her, scroll back a bit and listen to Romeo & Juliet & Everything else.)  This time we talk about the Black Death, Covid-19 as a historian sees it, and helping each other make a better world.  Topics include: Titus Andronicus, Romeo & Juliet, Petrarch, tranquil souls, the gayest city in Europe, cuneiform tweet tablets, jelly baby models of the Battle of Helm’s Deep, Prometheus, the correct way to time travel, Machiavelli, Beethoven, Rosalind Franklin, John Brown, and hopepunk.

Note: we briefly talk about autoimmune disorders, and the science is of course much more complex than we were able to get into.  If you want to read up a little, here are a couple articles:

Show Notes

The return of our wonderful guest, author and historian Ada Palmer! (If you haven’t listened to our first episode with her, scroll back a bit and listen to Romeo & Juliet & Everything else.)  This time we talk about the Black Death, Covid-19 as a historian sees it, and helping each other make a better world.  Topics include: Titus Andronicus, Romeo & Juliet, Petrarch, tranquil souls, the gayest city in Europe, cuneiform tweet tablets, jelly baby models of the Battle of Helm’s Deep, Prometheus, the correct way to time travel, Machiavelli, Beethoven, Rosalind Franklin, John Brown, and hopepunk.

Note: we briefly talk about autoimmune disorders, and the science is of course much more complex than we were able to get into.  If you want to read up a little, here are a couple articles:

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What is Fire the Canon?

Prefer your books in comedy form, but still want to sound smart at parties? We got you. Discover the hilarity hidden in the classics with new episodes every Thursday.

* Intro music -

THEO: Hi guys, this is the second part of our conversation with Ada Palmer. In this conversation we focused more on the history of the Black Plague, and what that might mean for the future of Covid. And also some other stuff, including how to stay hopeful in the face of a global pandemic. We hope you like it. Here it is.

RACHEL: When we read the part about the quarantine, I don't remember if it was Jackie or Theo, but one of them was like, “Ugh, are you serious?” But I imagine the audience of the time - this would have happened and they would have been like, “Ohh, that's so satisfying It was so close!”

ADA PALMER: Yeah, and also that's so familiar.

JACKIE: Right.

AP: Because it's important for us to remember that the Black Death was endemic in Europe from 1348 until the 1720s. That entire time, the plague came back over and over. And in the century that Shakespeare lived, London would shut down for plague one year in five.

J: So, question” are we going to be okay?

R: Maybe in three hundred years.

J: I seek a lot of comfort from historians, maybe rightly or wrongly, because I feel like you guys are the only ones who can give us any… history is cyclical. Whatever, that's an easy thing for a dummy like me to say. What does that mean to you?

AP: History isn't cyclical, history doesn't repeat itself. History rhymes.

J: Oh!

AP: That similar structures will appear again, but the circumstances are always different.

J: I like that better.

R: You know I love a good rhyme.

J: This better be a slant rhyme, though, because I don't want four hundred years of Covid.

AP: Well, so, I'll tell you the you know, the rough period version, and then I'll fast forward to how our situation is different, for good and ill. So the Black Death can recur over and over because it'll occur in a pocket and, like Covid, people recover from it. We think of the Black Death as being super deadly, but it - the bubonic form of the infection had a 40% mortality rate.

J: Okay.

AP: Which is way higher than Covid’s, but not 100%. And if you recovered from it, then you did have immunity, and the immunity would last decently.

J: That's nice.

AP: But the plague would recur and recur and recur. And if you got the pneumonic form, meaning if you inhaled it rather than getting it in your blood through a flea bite, that created a kind of pneumonia that was much deadlier and had a close to 100% fatality rate.

J: Oh, okay.

AP: So, you know, it would hit a community, it would kill a third of the population. The rest of the population would gain some immunity. And then it would hit again later, and it would hit again later, because pockets of it would survive in this town or that town, and places were very isolated from each other. So you might not have the infection spread across. And so different cities would have resurgences of the plague once every ten years. Or ten years would go by, eight years would go by, 15 years would go by, and you'd lose a bunch of people.

J: And of course the immunity is not heritable, so every time there's a new generation they're not immune, and…

AP: The immunity is not heritable, but the slight resistance is heritable.

J: I guess that makes sense. If it didn't kill your father, then it's probably not as likely to kill you.

AP: And so in fact what made the bubonic plague stop being endemic in Europe is that 300 years meant that people in Europe evolved to be resistant to it.

R: Mmm.

T: Wow.

AP: Which is why the bubonic plague, which is still a problem now, is primarily a problem in places that it wasn't endemic then. So, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. And in the US, where we do have fatalities from it, it's fatalities mainly among people who have a larger portion of non-European DNA. So Asian-Americans will get it, African-Americans will get it.

R: How large a portion? As someone who has some white DNA, am I safe? How much do I need to have?

J: Or is it also due to inequities?

AP: No, no, the other important thing is to remember, the latest research on this suggests very strongly that the adaptation to have resistance to the Black Death meant heightened immune response. Which is probably why autoimmune disorders are way more common among people with European DNA. [see episode notes]

R: Ohh.

AP: We didn't evolve in a good way to be resistant to the Black Death. We evolved to be resistant to the Black Death and in return we have Crohn’s disease. And in return we have a bunch of other problems because we changed the immune system to be hyper-responsive, to be adapted for the one thing, and that actually made it worse in a bunch of other ways.

J: When people say, like, “Let's boost your immune system!” It's like… not too much. Then you have lupus.

AP: In that sense of the Black Death is still killing Europeans due to having been endemic that long, because it required that adaptation. So when you hear people talk about herd immunity, the answer is no, herd immunity is a] very, very bad plan for this. If you're talking about just letting it rip and hoping people will be resistant, because that: A) takes 300 years and B) at the end you're worse off, not better.

R: Yeah.

J: There's also an interesting theory, which is kind of unrelated to what you're saying, but interesting theory, that one of the reasons that women have so much more autoimmune disorders is because of the fact that we're having fewer children than ever before. We had somehow evolved to, you know, protect ourselves from the fetus being - or the placenta being - this, like, alien thing in our bodies, and now that we're not having that, our immune systems are going out of whack.

R: Oh, Jackie’s a genetic counselor, by the way. Just a little background.

J: I just think that's interesting! Like you know…

AP: Yeah, I've - I've run across that one too.

J: Yeah, yeah.

AP: it's one of these we really need to study women and women's bodies a whole lot more.

J: Yeah.

AP: Because we've been studying mostly men and men's bodies. And we need to study women and women's bodies in order to understand all this amazing genetics stuff, especially how the competition with the fetus works. So if we move to Covid, you know, when we look at diseases, diseases generally have a ratio of how deadly they are versus how contagious they are.

R: Mmhmm.

AP: And it's better for the disease to be contagious and not deadly. Right? Because you don't want to kill your hosts.

J: It wants to spread itself.

AP: Yeah. And so over time, diseases tend to evolve to be more contagious but less deadly. As we've seen with influenza, for example, which is endemic. And indeed Covid is doing it faster, because Covid has more total infected people and so it can do in a month what the Black Death would do in several years in terms of how many people it had to infect and adapt and develop new strains of itself.

T: RIght.

AP: So Covid is adapting very quickly and developing new strains very quickly. Either we will succeed in vaccinating enough that we will succeed in diminishing it a lot and it will become an uncommon virus that we can contain, or we will not vaccinate enough and it will become like influenza and a new endemic disease that has constant resurgence but over time mutates to be more contagious but less deadly.

J: So you said 1348 or something through the 1700s is when -

AP: 1720.

J: Yeah, is when the plague was endemic in Europe. And now that it's kind of hitting people outside of that area, like you said, in sub-Saharan Africa -

AP: And Asia.

J: And Asia. Do you consider that to be the same plague?

AP: Genetically it's the same bacterium.

J: Yeah.

AP: And geneticists work on this and yes, you know, it is. It has undergone a few changes, but it's very much the same.

J: I guess it’s like a Theseus’ ship sort of question. It's just… it's just interesting to think about something lasting so long.

AP: And we have traces of it earlier. You know, it wasn't new in 1348. It was just moving around in a new way in 1348. You know, yersinia pestis goes back a very long way. And what you really don't want to do is let a disease be endemic.

R: Right.

AP: That's the thing you really want to avoid. We could have not. If we hadn't had vaccine resistance and mask resistance, if everyone had done the sensible things that the CDC would have been telling us to do, if the CDC hadn't been interfered with.

R: [If] we did a better job about letting other countries manufacture vaccines for themselves, like not gatekept the knowledge.

AP: Yeah, there are a whole lot of different fails. You know, and I - you know, I would give us a C- on vaccine roll out, which isn’t an F but isn’t an A. An A would have meant that we nipped it in the bud and by now we would be all in the situation that New Zealand was in for a while, where they really managed it and it was taken care of. Or remember the Ebola outbreak under Obama, which was fine because they did the right thing and they handled it and it’s gone.

R: Those were the days.

AP: That could have happened. That would have been the A+ or the A.

J: Well, so that - I mean, Covid is basically like Romeo and Juliet! Like, there's a lot of different ways this could have gone right, and…

AP: I think it's a little more like Titus where we really did have to do 90% of the things right to get the best outcome.

R: Mmm.

J: So it's not like one thing could have been fixed. We should have done a lot more, but the ball has been rolling for a long time.

AP: Exactly. If we had done everything right at the start, we may have nipped it in the bud in the first two months and had very few cases. If we had done most of the things right at the beginning, we may have taken care of it with just the first two waves and kept those waves smaller by masking effectively, and then when the vaccine came in, boom, acted. You know, as it is, we're still doing a good job and we're still vaccinating people and we're especially vaccinating medical staff, and you know, lots of good stuff is happening amid the bad stuff that's happening. And I still don't think it's completely certain whether Covid is going to become endemic or whether we still have a chance to have it become, instead, an uncommonly resurgent disease.

J: Man.

AP: It's very likely that, like influenza, we're going to be doing annual vaccinations for the rest of our lives. But you know? That's fine!

R: Yeah.

J: Yeah. Yeah, better than the alternative. It's just so interesting how, you know, having the context of history, it's almost as good as talking to an epidemiologist, you know, or as good. I mean it's understanding all of the same kind of concepts. And you know, if you just look at the past -

AP: Yeah, and again with the head lice simile, notice that our aspiration is - the good scenario would have been, this plague never happened. The pretty good scenario would be the plague happens for a couple years and then it's gone. Think about how even our worst case scenario of “this is constantly disrupting lives, but we have vaccines and we work on mitigating it and balance it and we are getting better and better treatments at it, and it's a new problem and it stays with us, like influenza” - notice how much better that is than “Black Death: it's just there”.

R: Yeah.

J: Yeah, yeah.

AP: And I read a lot of letters of Renaissance people, letters back and forth, and there are no collections of letters that aren't filled with the Black Death. You know, I was just rereading a letter of Machiavelli where his brother had - this is going to sound so familiar. His brother had been taking a ferry, and then afterward found out that somebody on the ferry had the plague, and was all worried about having had a contact and what he could do, and his brother was writing to him with all this quack advice about “people say do this, and people say do that, and don't eat this” -

J: Oh God.

AP: And you know, “We'd better hope,” right? Other letters will be like, somebody's mom is writing to them and saying, you know, “I know you're on your way home. Don't go through Padua. Padua has the plague right now. Go around.” There are no letters, bodies of letters that don't have this. And basically none where there are isn't a “well, I went to visit my friend, but when I got there he was dead because they had the Black Death. So instead I went to visit a different friend. You know, it's just such a world of difference. And the one that really gets me: Petrarch, who lived through the first big epidemic and then lived long after it as well and saw resurgences and so on. Petrarch’s letters about the plague are incredible. Because the first letter, when his first friend has died of it, is, you know, “My friend is dead and I'm very sad, but you know, I know God has a plan and I know that my friend is in a better place. I trust in this plan and it's okay.” And then there's another letter and two more of his friends have died. And he's you know, “This is hard. God is testing us. It's very difficult to cope with it, but we just have to have faith and my friends are together at least.” And then the letters keep coming and keep coming, and there's a later one where he's just lost it and he can't handle it anymore. And the letter just says, “I don't know what our generation did that was so much worse than every other generation that we deserved this. I can't understand, I don't understand the plan anymore.” And you see it, that his faith broke and he just couldn't cope with it.

J: God.

AP: And years later he was writing an amazing book called The Remedies Against Fortune Fair and Foul, which is a series of dialogs, some of which are very serious and some of which are just hilarious. And these are advice on how to have a tranquil soul, how not to be too gloomy and too pessimistic, but also not to be too proud and too hubristic, and so some of them are consolation about sad things. Like you're sick? “Well, you're sick. That's too bad, but you know, at least your family is there supporting you.” And “You're sick, but you're still alive and you can enjoy rest and reading.”

J: I'm thinking of this in you know, like modern nonfiction books. Oftentimes we'll have lik, Title: Subtitle. Like what would that book have been called these days? Like, “Life is shit: But it's okay,” or something like that.

AP: Yeah, but the other half is advice about, like, not being proud of things that are too good. So he has one on being an author.

R: Oh Gosh.

AP: And it's a dialog, and the dialog is between Gaudium, or joy, and Razio, reason. Or sensibleness. And Gaudium is like, “I'm an author!” And Razio is like, “I bet that was a lot of work.” Gaudium is like, “People are reading my book!” And Razio is like, “Yes, and people are criticizing you, and you're not there to defend yourself!” Gaudium is like, “I'm proud of my book!” and Razio says, “When you reread it, you're gonna see all these things that aren’t as good as you want and you're going to feel terrible.” And Gaudium is like, “People in faraway countries are reading my book in translation!” And Razio’s like, “Yeah, you're not gonna be there EVER to defend your work there, and neither are any of your friends!” It can be very funny.

T: Yeah, and even people who like your book are misinterpreting it.

J: And you're still not wealthy!

AP: There's another one, which is being proud about having a lot of books. I love [it]. It's - Gaudium is, “I have LOTS of books!” And Razio is like, “You're never gonna have time to read all those.”

R: That’s me and Stephen.

AP: Gaudium is like, “I have MOUNTAINS of books!” And Razio is like, “Then you have mountains of errors in those books, and you'll never have time to fix them all!”

J: Yeah.

AP: And Gaudium is like, “But look at all my books!” And Razio is like, “Your friends who have to deal with your books when you're dead, or your kids, are gonna be angry at you. Your books are heavy.” And it's just - it's so funny.

T: Gosh. I wonder how those two became friends.

J: Yeah!

T: They seem so different.

R: True, Theo.

AP: Yeah, [and there are] very serious ones about, you know, fear. How to overcome fear. “I'm afraid of losing my wealth,” and he'll say, “If you lose your wealth, you still have the things that really matter. You still have yourself, you still have your friends.” “I'm afraid of losing my loved ones.” “Well, just remind yourself that -”

T: You got wealth.

AP: Well, no!

T: No, I’m just kidding.

AP: “Remind yourself that you still have your memories of them, and you know, they're still with you in the important ways,” and so on.

J: Yeah.

AP: He writes one about plague. And it's… it's totally different in tone than all the other ones. Because in all the other ones he's been talking about why you shouldn't be afraid, why you shouldn't be afraid of this and why you shouldn't be afraid of that. And then it's, “I'm afraid of the plague.” And he says, “You should be. And if the reason you're afraid of the plague is that it wreaks such terrible destruction on humanity, then good. Because that fear is an act of charitable love to feel pity for so much suffering. But if the reason you're afraid is that you're afraid that you might die, you shouldn't be afraid to die with friends instead of dying alone.” You know, all he can say is, “At least your friends are dying with you.” Actually, what he says is, “Why should you be more afraid to die with much company?”

R: If you're going to die, it might as well be in a mass death event. That’s what he’s saying?

AP: That's all he can say! And it's just so different. It's the one time that he says, “If you're afraid, be afraid.”

J: That's powerful.

AP: “But be afraid for all humanity and not for yourself.” That's all that you could say. Because - and if we had a time machine and told Petrarch, “We have airplanes, we went to the moon!” All these things we could tell Petrarch, he'd be like, “Cool!” And if we went with the time machine [and] told Petrarch, “We have vaccines. We have antibiotics. We can treat the plague, we understand how it works. We have conquered a bunch of them. Two thirds of the diseases that you lost friends to are either gone or at least treatable. And the ones that we have, we have the hope of curing. Here is what a vaccine is.” He would just weep. It's so beyond anything he could ever imagine humanity would ever do. The only consolation he thought we would have is, “Your friends are dying with you.”

J: I mean it's like, someone comes from 100 or 200 years in the future and is like, “Oh, you have cancer? We just give you a pill, it's gone. You know, it doesn't matter what kind it is, everything's fine.” You know, it's…

T: I'm curious, because I'm a musician, so I feel like I hear of this a lot in music, that the arts flourished in the Renaissance because it was coming out of the plague. Right? So I'm wondering, was it most severe in the 1300s?

AP: Right, so the 1348 one was the giant roll across that destroyed something between 15% and 50% of all of Europe at different points. All of the subsequent resurgences tend to be one city at a time and that city will lose 20% of its population. That town will lose 20% of its population. There isn't another eeeeeeverything gets it at once.

T: Okay.

AP: So you know, London, Venice, Rome, individual cities would have plague this year and then not, and then plague this year and then not, for a number of years thereafter. You know, the Renaissance does have progress in the form of more trade, more goods moving around. Instead of England processing its wool at home into itchy homespun wool, England is selling its wool crop to Florence, which can use large quantities of Mediterranean olive oil, which is necessary for the production of high-quality, non-itchy wool, which it can then re-export to England, and then everyone's wool is not itchy. This is great! But it also means that -

J: And it also tastes really good!

AP: Ships are going back and forth between England and Florence and boy, can they take diseases with them!

R: Right.

AP: As progress advances, diseases move faster, and disease gets worse, and outbreaks become more frequent, even of diseases that were already there in the Middle Ages. It's similar to how progress means soldiers are better equipped, cannons are bigger, they can shoot down city defenses better, wars get deadlier. And also the gradual advancement of state infrastructure, taxation and so on, getting more efficient, means that countries have more funds so they can raise larger armies with more centralized power. You get bigger wars, you get deadlier wars. So this is a big part of why the life expectancy from Medieval to Renaissance goes down, not up.

J: Oh, okay.

AP: Because of progress. Which isn’t what we expect.

J: Yeah, that’s not what we'd think about. So, but you said that that made art better? Or that made music better, Theo? Because people had been through…

R: That's the idea that he hears from other musicians.

AP: It's not the angst that's giving it energy. That's a very 19th-century-tortured-artist kind of thing. It's that - the desperation is WHY it gets funded.

J: Ahh.

AP: So when your world is facing an apocalypse and you're a wealthy, powerful family… You're the Montagues, and you're used to having a feud with the Capulets, but now France might invade and just kill all of you and take all of your money. And carry off Juliet. And kill Romeo, and Tybalt, and Mercutio, and carry off Juliet and declare themselves the Duke of Verona. That's an existential threat. And how do you deal with that? Now, fundamentally, you can't. The population of France has two more digits than the population of Verona. You are never going to raise an army that's capable of defending Verona against a French invasion. Period. It's just not possible. What CAN you do? You can negotiate and try to have there be reasons to not conquer you beyond just money. And here I'm gonna switch from Verona to Florence, which is my arena of expertise and is also much of where this happened fastest and therefore is a good example. So Florence, right? So Florence is the banking capital by this point of Europe and it's full of merchant scum, because Florence’s solution to the Montague-Capulet constant civil war stuff, and the constant array of nobleman trying to overthrow the ruler and make themselves your ruler, was to execute every single nobleman in the city.

R: Mmm.

AP: So that there were no noblemen in the city, so that they would stop taking stuff over. This worked for about five minutes, because the merchants started having feuds with each other anyway. But meanwhile there's no nobility. We're going to have a merchant republic and everybody's going to be huge banking investors and everyone has is the hub of giant banking franchises which go all across Europe. Banking is a major, major change. As banking develops - banking had started developing in the 1100s, but it gets to a sort of a tipping point by the 1300s. The [inaudible] of banking being, you can have your bag of gold and deposit it in a bank, and then ride across the bandit-infested countryside without your bag of gold, and then get to your destination and withdraw gold from a bank. And if bandits attack you on the way, you don't have your bag of gold with you, and they don't take all of your money. This is amazing, and enables trade on a much larger scale. Or, more realistically, when you send your servant to go do the transaction, your servant, who is killed by bandits, is dead, but he didn't have your bag of gold.

J: Score!

AP: And you take care of his widow and his orphans, but you didn't also lose the money with which you will take care of his widow and his orphans. So banking is a big deal and Florence by the time you get to 1430 is full of merchant scum who have literal mountains of gold in their basements because they’re bankers. Florence also has a reputation for depravity and specifically homosexuality. The verb for ‘anal sex’ in at least five European languages is “to Florentine”. Fiorentinare. And in several countries you can be indicted for sodomy on the evidence that you have ever been to Florence.

R: Wow!

J: Your city is so gay you can't even have admitted you went there.

AP: I know. So your city is a pit of scum and villainy, with literal mountains of gold in your basement. And you have no nobility, so you can't make marriage alliances with anybody.

J: Sounds horrible. How do I get there?

R: Well, no one can take them over, though, because they would immediately be gay if they try to show up.

AP: No, you just take over and kill all of them. You can just kill all of them and take their stuff and burn this to the ground and take the money home. This sounds good!

R: Darn, darn. Okay. Never mind.

J: Not a good plan, Rachel.

AP: So you know, if you're a king and you want to have a war and get rich, do you want to attack the friendless merchant republic full of bags of gold and merchant scum that nobody likes? Or ANYONE else?

R: Yes!

AP: Like, there's a WRONG answer to this question. So how do you stop that from happening? So let's imagine that you're the French ambassador and you're on your way to Rome. And on the way to Rome you're stopping off at Florence, because it's on the way. And you're also scouting it out for your king, who kind of might want to conquer it. And if you're an ambassador, you're a nobleman. You're at least, you know, the rank of County Paris, because to be an ambassador you had to be a nobleman. Which means there's no human being in this city of sufficient rank to actually speak to you as an equal. And there's no ducal palace to stay at, but you have the address of your dad's banker, because bankers are all in Florence. So you're like, whatever. And you ride into this city and you're like, “Oh, actually, this city has some really impressive architecture and their cathedrals are really big domes!”

J: Ahh, there's - there's some artistic merit to this city.

AP: “That's cool!” And and you ride past some bronze sculptures and you're like “Wow, those are just like ancient Roman bronze sculptures. They're like, really realistic and all the detail, it looks like he could come to life in a second. Are those actually ancient bronze sculptures? Because I know that we can't do that. That's a lost art, but they look new.” You know, and then you get to the banker's house and he meet greets you humbly at the door and he apologizes that there's nowhere worthy for Your Excellency to stay. And he invites you in and you go into the palace. And the instant you set foot inside, it's like you're in another world. Because you're surrounded by these gorgeous, luminous round arches and you're in this courtyard with the light slanting in and it's so cleansing and luminous it's almost, like… more like outside than the crowded streets are. And you've never seen anything like this. Except wait! You - actually, you have. It looks like the Roman ruins in the backyard of your dad's castle at home, except those are ruins. We don't know how to do that anymore. But here it is, and there in the middle of the courtyard is another one of these impossible bronze statues that can't exist, but there it is, and it's obviously brand new because the patina hasn't even turned green yet. And around the edge of the courtyard are busts of all the Roman emperors in order, and above them are portraits of the banker and, like, members of his family. And over there in the corner there are some guys in weird robes who are speaking a language you've never heard, and you're like, “Who are those guys?” And then the banker says, “Oh, those are Platonists. They're speaking ancient Greek. They've been studying the works of Plato.” And you say, “The works of Plato have been lost for a thousand years!” And he says, “Oh no, we have lots of Plato here. Look, here's my little grandson, Lorenzo. He's just written a poem in ancient Greek about the parts of the soul, would you like to hear it?” And now there's a ten year-old boy reciting a poem to you in ancient Greek about the different parts of the soul, and you're like, “Where am I?!”

J: “What is going on?!” And then the banker says, “Would you like your anal sex now or later?”

AP: No! What he does do, is turn to you and say, “Would you like to make an alliance between France and Florence?” And that's the moment in which you can say… no.

J: (gasps)

AP: You can say no. You say, “No, we're gonna come here with our army, we're going to burn this down, and we're going to take the money, and all of these things that have been lost for a thousand years will be lost for another thousand years.”

J: Oh God.

AP: Or, you can say, “Yes, let's make an alliance. Send me an architect and a bronzesmith and a Greek tutor and a Platonist, and I'm going to bring them to France and we're gonna do the royal court like this, and then when the ambassador from England comes, he's gonna feel like an uncultured chump, just like I feel right now.”

R: And they've never gotten over it.

AP: You know, nobility and dignity have just reversed, right? And suddenly, instead of merchant scum, you're the person who feels like a nobody in the face of all of these amazing lost arts and achievements. And that's the moment at which you realize, “I don't want to destroy this with my army. I could. Instead, I want to trade with this and I want to get this, because if I destroy this, all these things will be gone.” So the art and the music and the scholarship are a defense mechanism.

T: Hmm.

AP: They are an investment strategy that proclaims the reason you want to be friends with this instead of destroying this. If war is politics by other means, art, music, [and] literature are war by other means. They are saying, Hey, let's compete with each other on the level of the architecture we can produce, the literature we can have dedicated to us. Let's exchange that, and reduce the warfare level and instead have these art forms that are more desirable than the fruits of victory. So Petrarch and his peers, around the time of the Black Death, had this idea that Europe was in a really terrible state. What would solve it? Well, Europe had peace during the Pax Romana, during the best parts of the Roman Empire, when there was stability. How do we get that? We look for the lost library of the ancients and we educate our ruling classes, our nobility and our wealthy merchants, with the education that produced Cicero, and that produced Seneca, and that produced Caesar, and that produced people who, unlike the Montagues and Capulets, who care much more about their feud than they do about the stability of Verona, right? Cicero would never carry on having a feud when it risked Rome. Cicero would die to END a feud to protect Rome. And Petrarch says, “That's what we need, that's what will get us out of Montague and Capulet deadlock. That's what'll end the second hundred year - the first Hundred Years War, the Montague-Capulet violence, right? The Guelph and Ghibilline violence. What we need is the education that made Romans be loyal to Rome instead of to their families.

R: Hmm.

AP: And that's why they start looking for these books and trying to redo education and end up producing the art and the literature, which then wealthy elites realize work really well as a defense mechanism. So you get to that amazing courtyard, which, by the way, I'm describing a specific courtyard, and it is the courtyard of Cosimo de Medici. You get to that from Petrarch and his generation saying, “Hey, maybe we can save ourselves by rediscovering the educational system of the ancients to get a more patriotic ruling class that will care about the good of the country above the good of their feud.” And that fails. The feuding continues. But the side effect of that are these impressive libraries and impressive works of music and impressive works of art that then are effective as a defense mechanism for a while. And a good way to put it is, you know, Italy doesn't prevent invasion. The wars are frequent. You know, France invades. France invades again. The empire invades. The empire invades again. These places do fall, these places do get conquered, but they almost never get burnt. Italy has never been conquered by a power that didn't respect it.

R: Okay!

AP: And that is why all of Italy’s stuff has survived. And so many other places have been conquered by conquerors who didn't respect the culture that was there, and were happy to burn it and bury it and lose it. And Italy never did.

R: From what you're saying, it sounds like people who think, “Oh, some good music came after the plague. We might get good music after Covid.” That you would say, “...No, because it wasn't, disease equals music.”

AP: Right. But it's more complicated than disease equals music. It was, you know, disease equals emergency, equals a desperate time, equals a desperate measure. There will be desperate measures taken after Covid. What those desperate measures are is up to us. You know, lots of people like to tout this, “After the Black Death, wages went up, because there was a labor shortage and so it empowered the working class!” And the answer is, that is from some studies that were done on one section of England and those studies are almost a hundred years out of date.

R: Ach.

AP: But the fact is so desirable. People really want to say, “Oh, plague equals, you know, economic boom and laboring class profits!” But we've done a lot more studies and what we've discovered is the effect of the plague on people's lives and the economy - Did wages go up? Did wages to go down? - were entirely dependent on local policy. It was entirely policy. In some places, right, this was the empowerment of workers, and workers were able to leverage the labor shortage to be able to demand more rights and more independence, and wages went up and families were more secure. In other places at the same time, this was - the local elites realized that there was chaos, and they were to entrench their power and, you know, reinforce serfdom and strip rights away from laborers and reduce freedom. It was entirely local decisions. After a plague there is a major change. And there is a desperate time, and people do desperate things. But what they are and whether it helps or hurts the populace, the poor, whether it strengthens or weakens those in power, is entirely dependent on what we actually do, the specific actual policies that we do.

J: We can't just sit and wait for the plague to do it for us. We have to still work.

AP: Exactly.

* Interstitial music -

T: Hi everyone. This is Theo, producer of the podcast you're currently listening to, called Fire the Canon. Thank you so much for listening. If you like what you're hearing and you'd like to support our podcast, check us out on On our Patreon you can find multiple rewards tiers. For just three dollars a month, you get access to all of our bonus episodes. For five dollars a month, you also get a Fire the Canon sticker, and the more you give, the better the prizes get. So check it out. It's, and ‘canon’ is spelled C-A-N-O-N. All right, now back to the episode.

R: I've always thought it's strange when I read a book by a science fiction writer and I can kind of tell that the writer has a more reactionary, like, non-politically speaking, conservative point of view. Because you think, like… I usually enjoy more the science fiction where you can tell the author is curious and interested. Like, “Wouldn't this be interesting? Let's explore it.” As opposed to like, “I'm very afraid because things are changing fast and I don't like it.”

AP: Yeah. Well, and sometimes in science fiction you see glimpses of what people believe is true about human nature. I mean, I think always. But also of what people are afraid of. You know, there's several science fiction novels from, I think it's the 70s and early 80s, by a couple different authors, that look at the question of automation and the idea that, you know, less and less human labor is needed, and someday it might be the case that machines and computers can do all the work and we won't need to do work. In which they think that what would then happen is the whole human race would commit suicide.

R: Right.

J: Because we, like, need work to feel meaningful? Is that what that is?

AP: Right, because we - yeah, that's the idea. And you're like, “Wow, that's really alien to me.”

J: No, I don't. I don't need it.

AP: You know, if the computers could do all the work, then we could all spend all of our time making awesome craft projects and selling them to each other on Etsy! Or, you know, speed running video games and all the other wonderful ways of making -

J: But what if they automated the crafts, Ada?

AP: Well, we wouldn't care, right? Because we love, you know - we love doing stuff that's unnecessarily arcane and archaic. Right?

J: Yeah, honestly.

AP: There's a company that you can get a handmade cuneiform clay tablet made of one of your favorite tweets.

R: Oh no!

AP: You can send your tweets to them, and they'll make a cuneiform tablet of it. Humans will never run out of delightful things to do. And even if a computer could make your tweet into a cuneiform tablet, though one that was handcrafted. would still be more delightful.

J: Yeah!

AP: People are still going to be able to sculpt room-sized 3D models of the Battle of Helm's Deep made out of Jelly Babies and then take photos of it and put it online -

J: Oh, hell yeah.

AP: - and be delighted by it.

J: I'm delighted just by that sentence.

AP: You can find pictures! But you know, it's fascinating to see in the science fiction of someone who doesn't think that that's true, who thinks that without work there would be no meaning. Again, it's a contact with an alien - alien mindset who belongs to a different human species from the one that I believe in. And that's one of the really neat things about science fiction, too, is even when the proclivities of the authors come through, science fiction, like all fiction, is giving a portrait of human nature. We're getting glimpses of a whole bunch of different “Ghis might be how human nature works, or this might be how human nature works! Or this might be how human nature works. Let's compare all of these to our lived experience and think about how human nature works and how we might gradually revise our model to be better.” And when we think about something like The Odyssey, or Plato, and people read it and are like, “This doesn't make any sense. The root of “this doesn't make any sense” is, Plato has a different idea about how human minds work from our idea.

J: Didn't he think the mind was in the br- or, in the heart?

AP: No, the liver.

J: Oh, the liver. Okay.

AP: So the Greeks thought the mind lives... of course it's the liver! The liver is huge, purple, and triangular. This, by the way, is important to remember when you think about the Prometheus myth.

R: Ohh!

AP: That, when the eagle is eating his liver, it's eating his mind. It's, to us, it would be eating his brain. It’s eating the seed of consciousness.

J: Did they even know that the liver can grow back? Because it grows back in the myth! But like, they couldn't have known that. Right?

AP: No.

J: Imagine if you told one of those ancients, like, “Yeah, you can take out part of a liver, put it in someone else, and it will grow into their liver.” That would be mind blowing to them because that's that person's mind!

AP: Yeah.

J: You just grew a mind inside of someone else!

AP: Yeah, they would, they would… they would be… Well, there are lots of things that they would be very excited only that.

R: No, only that.

AP: Cell nuclei, you know!

J: We gotta go back and tell ‘em.

AP: Yes. And the old “if you had a time machine and could do one thing…” We were speculating about this recently. We were speculating about what would have the biggest possible impact. And after several hours of debate we landed on, going and teaching Imhotep about washing your hands. Because he was a very influential scientist and medical authority and if you get that early in Egypt, he's just at the right position that that could have disseminated to get hand washing to be really seriously embedded in the ancient world before Christianity came and disrupted ideas about hygiene. And then it would make it from Imhotep into Aristotle, and if it's in Aristotle, then the Middle Ages will do it. And then it would make it into Galen. We thought about teaching it to Galen, but we realized that it would probably be more efficacious to teach it to Imhotep.

J: Why not start early?

AP: Yeah. Because then it might make it as far as India. So that's my current nominee for a big intervention if you had a time machine.

J: Oooh.

R: Do you have, like, a pet tiny intervention? Where you're just like, I would love to tell this one person something that would make them just amazed.

AP: I want to tell Machiavelli that not only is Florence okay in the year 2020 or 2022, but that UNESCO, the United Nations Culture Ministry, has made a list of places so precious that it is banned in all nations to destroy them in war, and that the heart of Florence is on the list.

R: Aww! That would be so cute.

AP: Because he lived in such desperation, right? And so many times saw his homeland nearly destroyed. Not just nearly destroyed, but like nearly destroyed on his watch, right? His job was to stop these armies from coming, and they kept coming so close and so close. You know, there was yet another coup two months before he died. And just for him to know Florence is okay, and everyone has promised to keep Florence okay.

J: Oh my gosh. It's almost like it was his child. Like his eternal child. There's a tower… I've been to Florence once, and it's like one of those cities… You could probably say this about a lot of places, where the past feels very close. But there's a tower as part of the Florence Cathedral that - they halted construction during the Black Plague. I don't know at what point during the Black Plague, since I just learned today that it lasted a really long time.

AP: During the first one.

J: I want to say - I could be wrong, but they never finished it. Or they're like, still working on it or something.

AP: Yeah. They're still working on it.

J: Yeah, yeah, it's like you can get that real example of just like… here's a physical object that halted because of this historical event and we are still in progress.

AP: Yeah, it makes it real in a way that… the version of that for the US that I often think about, or that I always think about when I'm in DC or see pictures of it… I don't know if you've noticed that about a quarter of the way up the Washington Monument there's a line, and then the stone is a slightly different color?

R: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.

AP: They stopped construction for the Civil War, and when they resumed they couldn't use the same quarry because it got destroyed in the war.

R: Huh.

AP: And so that line is the scar of the Civil War on the construction of the country.

R: Do you have any of that, like any little things you'd want to do like that, Jackie and Theo? I'm sure Theo’s got some musical thing. Would you just tell Beethoven, like, “It still sounds really good! Like, people are still loving it! You went viral on Tik Tok recently.”

J: “I threatened to kill both of my best friends to defend the third symphony.”

T: Yeah. I did do that.

J: You did. Two things come to mind for me. One is… it can't be done, because Carl Sagan, you know, started the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence and we still haven't found it. So, but if we had found it, I would love to just be able to go back and say, “Carl!! We did it, you did it! SETI is still here, and they're still working on it!” My other option would be to go back in time, and I don't even know what this would mean to her, but tell Rosalind Franklin that, “Even though you died before you got your Nobel Prize, we know it should have gone to you. We know Watson and Crick are not the greatest. We know that picture fifty seven or whatever it was, was your picture. Everybody's giving you the credit. Know that.”

R: I would definitely I would tell John Brown, I would be like, “You did a good job here, and slavery is going to be outlawed, and you'll be vindicated. And you know, people will celebrate your life.”

T: Yeah. You know what’s crazy? Like when you were talking about the lice thing earlier, how everyone had lice? So I wrote a piece that uses this folk song that is about John Brown a few months ago, and so I was reading his biography. He was, like, sick the whole time he was doing all of that. It's amazing to think, like, you have a fever and you think you're going to go like, march to this US armory and take it over.

AP: Because everybody was sick all the time.

R: That was normal.

AP: Yeah, I have a list where I rack up people who, there's a tiny footnote saying, “By the way, they were disabled the whole time.” Which includes Lorenzo de Medici and Cosimo de Medici and Voltaire and Diderot and Rousseau and lots and lots and lots and lots of people. Because they didn't have treatments for these things, but they get left out of their biographies a lot of the time. Because the 19th century had this very strong stigma that if you are ill, it was a bad reflection on your moral character. And therefore these people, who were great people and accomplished great things, couldn't possibly be ill.

J: And this is maybe something that's just kind of coming out of my being a modern person, but you know, I do feel like a lot of the time we think of, quote unquote, “disability” as being like a modern construct.

AP: Yeah. But there's lots of great disability history about antiquity, the Middle Ages, and like way more people are disabled. You know, look at Vikings. Everybody's disabled. Or rather all adult men. There are no adult male Vikings who aren't disabled. Their ideas of health aren't that “you're fine.” Their idea of health is that your brain is still functional. But you know, you might be missing an eye and an arm and that's perfectly normal.

J: And I know this doesn't need to be explained to you, but I mean, there's like - the difference between having a disability and being disabled is whether or not your society allows you to adapt to do what you need to do and live. And, you know, so they would have been doing what they need to do, I guess. You know?

AP: We erased it so much in the 19th century, when it was present in people's understandings earlier. And that's true of so much. So many things that are in there in 16th and 17th century material and then get curated out in 19th century material. Oh, briefly, the Imhotep thing. You also gotta tell him about lead poisoning. Lead poisoning, maybe mercury poisoning, and handwashing. You get those in there… because we lost so many people to lead poisoning over… forever.

R: Right.

AP: The lead poisoning in there… ah, the population, the whole world is giant and just fabulous.

J: So, Imhotep, you could have essentially fixed a lot of things, it sounds like, if you just told him.

AP: I mean, you have no idea. It might be worse, but you're gonna have a life expectancy that's way higher and a death rate that's way lower and just everything is gonna change as a result of that. You know, to give you an example, there's a 1506 encyclopedia. This is on the 19th century curating stuff out. There's a 1506 encyclopedia that I've been working on by Rafaelo Maffei Il Voltterano, who's a minor humanist. [He] worked at the Vatican under the Borgia popes, and under Julius the 2nd, so lots of other spicy popes. So I've been studying him for that reason. But this is his encyclopedia, and in it he lists something like 170 ancient philosophers, and 30-something of them are women, and he's listing this from ancient sources. When you look at 19th century encyclopedias, all these women, they decide are fake and didn't exist because women can't be philosophers.

T: Wow.

AP: Or women couldn't have been philosophers in antiquity. Like, the 16th century believed it, the 17th century believed it. The 19th century was like, “No, this isn't plausible, delete all of these women.” That so much got curated out, and we so frequently think of, you know, however, stuck up or prejudiced the 19th century was, everything earlier was the same, because progress is linear. But it's not. Often it was, you got worse on this axis and better on this axis. And even through my period and the Renaissance, you watch intolerance toward homosexuality go up and go down, and go up and go down, and be worse and then better, or be worse here and better there, and you know, depictions of it being more okay for twenty years and then less okay, and and going back and forth. You see this variety. But we get this impression that like everybody was, unilaterally condemning homosexuality in an identical way forever. From basically the end of Ancient Greece until Oscar Wilde, as if it was homogeneous, as if the state of women and how much power they had didn't vary, as if the state of tolerance toward polygamy didn't vary. You know, it's just all of these different things that vary. The past was just so complicated. And it gets boiled down to homogeneity for us, much of which is the 19th century projected backwards.

J: And the lack of understanding of that variance breeds more intolerance, right? Like, “No, this is just a brand new thing. We don't have to take this.”

AP: And they claim that it's always been a steady, steady improvement. Which is why it's so important to look at things like how in the Renaissance life expectancy goes down, not up. That lots of things wiggle, and you know, progress doesn't mean a straight line up. Progress means a bunch of stuff is changing and different. You know, some of it is going to have good impact, but it's also going to have bad impact. And the best example probably being the polio epidemic. Because if you.. I don't know if you understand how polio works and how the polio epidemic happened. But polio, if you're exposed to it as an infant while you're still nursing, and your mother has antibodies, the antibodies are in her milk and you develop immunity to polio because you were exposed to it at that point. So polio was endemic and was everywhere, but most people were exposed to it in infancy… until we got good at hygiene.

R: Right.

AP: And we got good at hand washing, and we started, you know… cholera and such things started getting better because we were washing our hands and having hygiene! And that meant that babies didn't get exposed to polio while they were still nursing. And so even as all these other diseases were getting better, we suddenly had the polio epidemic. And it was a side effect of improving hygiene.

J: Huh!

AP: And we needed to then study how polio worked and understand it and develop the vaccine to deal with that. And it's a perfect example of how, it was a piece of progress! Handwashing is progress. But it also caused an epidemic which then we had to deal with, because the whole fabric is really complicated. And very often when you change a thing, it has beneficial effects and also bad side effects and then you have to realize that the system is that complicated.

R: Right.

AP: And does it mean we shouldn't try to have progress? Like does it mean we should have never had handwashing? No. Because we would have all died of cholera instead of getting polio. It's still strictly better. But it means we need to study things really thoroughly and look at their side effects and consequences. And be prepared that there are going to be growing pains, and get our social safety net stronger.

R: I didn't realize what, like - how big of an effect the plague and the resurgence of the plague had until recently when… or like the Black Plague, I should specify… my sister's boyfriend, he just started, or he's finishing up his undergraduate degree because he got some Gi bill money. So he's much older than the average college student. But he's taking a history 101 course, and I think you're going to be upset about this, but he has asked me for help with a few of the papers. One of the papers was max two and a half pages and you had to cover the fall of the Roman Empire. Not one aspect, you had to cover all the reasons in at most three pages, but ideally like two and a half. So I helped them with that and I was so angry. And then he had another paper. That was another… I think it was 1200 words, and it was, you need to talk about 1500 years of population change in Europe. And the professor said there are five to seven stages. You have 1200 words and you need to explain why they all happened. So I was helping him with that and most of it was plague!

J: As a professor, is there a good way to do that? Like is that valid? Or is there something we're not getting?

AP: Well, I mean there is a merit to making people practice writing concisely, because if you can compress something into the opening paragraph of your blog post that is really powerful, then people are going to read further in your blog post. So, like, I endorse short assignments and I endorse the having to compress stuff. I did a class once where we were curating an exhibit, and so their midterm was, write a paper about this topic and then their final was, okay, now you're doing the exhibit case. You have 150 words. You have to get across the same thing that you had in your midterm paper, but you only have 150 words because that's what's going to fit on the label. It's gonna go on the object in the museum case. Go! And boy, is that hard. And you learn really different skills from, what do you do when you have to compress this down to 1200 words. Because you can, because you're cutting it down when you do it at 5000 words. Right? You're cutting it down always. What do I include and what do I exclude, and how do I think carefully about what I'm including and excluding? And a lot of the work we're doing in history right now is saying, okay, the old narratives about the Black Death, what was included and what was excluded and why? And then finding things like, “Oh, we were privileging Britain. Good to know. Let's look more at studies in places that aren't Britain.” “Oh, we were sort of excited by this ‘plagues are good for the economy’ idea and, in a zoomed out sense, by the ‘just sit back and let the economy make conditions better for workers. We don't have to work on making conditions better for workers, the economy will do it by itself’ thesis. Which, boy, do people want that to be true.

T: Yeah.

J: The market is always a good actor, right? The market’s always great.

AP: Yeah. And so people were really wedded to that thesis, because they sure wanted it to be true that you could just sit back and passively let the world get better and that you didn't have to actively implement policies to make it get better. And so, realizing those patterns, we can then re-examine our 1200-word summary of the Black Death, or our 1200-word summary of demographic change in Europe, and intervene in that with “we used to think that X, but in fact we've realized that that privileged this approach and this region, and when we look at more places, we realize that local policy makes the difference and that it was human action and not natural forces of the economy inevitably liberating people from serfdom.”

J: We look back on the past and we kind of look down, I think, on societies that thought that divine intervention was doing things. But we do the same thing, right?

AP: Yeah, providentialist thinking is very saturate in American culture in a way that it… people are off in resistant to recognizing? Especially people who feel like they've rejected religion, or rejected at least their parents’ Christianity, and will be very upset when you say, “You're doing providentialist thinking.” And they're like, “No I'm not, I’m an atheist.” And you're like, “It doesn't matter if you're an atheist. If you think that the economy will naturally do a good thing, you know, that's providentialist thinking.” Now, you're not thinking that it's because of God, you're thinking that it's because of structures within the economy. But there is a huge vein within US culture that really wants to say, sit back and let the market do it, and the market will sort for virtue. The market will make virtuous people rise and, you know, slothful, sinful, inferior people be poor. Because, boy, does that relieve you of the burden of intervening and taking action. Boy, does that give you self esteem if you are economically well off, because it means that your economic prosperity is proof that you're an ethically good person. And there's a whole lot of emotional factors that make it very hard to dislodge somebody from providentialist belief that the market sorts for virtue and vice. But that kind of thinking is a factor in a huge number of both bad policies and resistances to good policies that shape our culture.

J: Do you know the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who's also at U Chicago?

AP: I know her a bit, yeah.

J: Yeah, I think she… Doesn't she do some work on, like, the philosophy of the gospel of prosperity?

AP: Yes, she does.

J: Which is, I think, also what you're talking about. Yeah, that's an interesting crossover. I was like, I wonder if you guys ever go get drinks together or something.

AP: Yeah, we talk sometimes. We've discussed possibly co-teaching at some point.

J: Ooh!

AP: Which would be fun. But also, you know, we discussed this because providence is a very old idea. It goes back to classical stoicism. It was super popular in ancient Rome as well as being popular in the Middle Ages. It means something very different in the present from what it means earlier. You know, in earlier phases of human history and antiquity and in the Middle Ages, there wasn't very much that you could do to improve the world. Medicine didn't have a lot of capacity to do very much. We didn't understand society very well. You couldn't sit back and say, “Hey, let's implement these labor policies, we have studies that show that they will improve life expectancy.” There wasn't a whole lot you could do. There wasn't a whole lot you could understand. Why am I sick? You know, why is this working and this not? Why did the crops fail? There wasn't a lot of apparatus to give you answers.

J: Mmhmm.

AP: And so providence was a really therapeutic philosophical system because it could tell you: yes, everything is rough, yes, you don't understand, but you can understand just enough to know that there is a plan and the plan is good. And to look around nature and say look, the woodpecker has the beak it needs to get its food, and the forest animals have forest camouflage, and the desert animals have desert camouflage, and the world seems to be ordered by something that fundamentally is benign and makes the world work. And therefore, even though lots of terrible things are around you and you're powerless to fix them, at least you can accept that they are in service of some greater plan. And that's a very therapeutic thing when you are powerless.

R: Yeah.

AP: The problem is we aren't powerless. You can sure relax when you’re powerless!

J: Yeah.

AP: But you know, the Renaissance, which was a project to try to save the world from catastrophe, then the 17th century, which looked back at the Renaissance and said, Well, we sure invented and discovered a lot of stuff. It didn't prevent war or diminish plague. In fact we have more war and more plague. But now we understand that we don't understand. So let's work on understanding, and have science, and have systematic science and collaborate on science. And then you get the scientific method and developing forward. And then the 18th century, which is saying, let's rationally re-examine our laws, let's rationally re-examine our our religion, our society, our judicial system and try to say, you know, do we really need to torture people? Does that actually accomplish something? It doesn't really, does it? Let's not torture people. You know, can we make a government that's based on hypothetical principles of helping people instead of based on… “Well, this is how we've done it for thousands of years, and the original system was developed because of somebody who stole somebody else's cow. But it's how we've always done it, so we're going to do it that way.” And then the 19th century, which tries to implement a lot of this, much of it with devastating consequences, some of it with positive consequences. As we move forward into the 20th century and we have science, and we have several hundred years of watching ourselves try to do it and we now understand how diseases work and we're starting to understand how economies work and how society is put together. We can make interventions.

J: Mmhmm.

AP: That's why providentialist thinking sort of doesn't work anymore. Providentialist thinking worked when we were powerless, even up to as late as maybe 1700. But now, no, we do have power. We have the power to wreck this planet. We have the power to fix this planet. We have the power to ensure that the poorest among us live better than kings did before, who all had head lice and we don’t. Right? And the poorest of us do live better than kings did 500 years ago, but let's see if we can get them living better than kings did 100 years ago.

J: It's a really uplifting kind of message.

AP: Well, uplifting, but scary. Because it means we have a responsibility. And no, we can't sit back and let it flow. And no, we can't sit back and let the economy do it, and we also can't sit back and let geniuses do it. Which is another historical model, right, because we have the great men model of like, history chugs along and then a great man appears and then does something! Or maybe it's a great woman, but it's like, a special heroic person and their genius and they have a plan and they change the world. No. Everybody collaboratively changes the world. It's not only Petrarch, it's dozens of people who did dozens of things and they all influenced it.

J: It’s the goons in Romeo and Juliet.

AP: Yeah, and everybody who does things in Romeo and Juliet. One character taking one different action, whether it's Friar Lawrence or Mercutio or anybody. The apothecary could have saved the world. He didn't. Every one of us can change the outcome of the play, even if we're not the prince and even if we're not the protagonist. Secret: there's no such thing as a protagonist in real life! But even if there were, the apothecary still has the power to change the outcome of play.

J: Huh.

AP: It's stressful and there's a lot of reasons to not want to believe it. There's a lot of reasons to want to sit back and feel like our job is to watch the thing flow and do its job. And the more I look at history… I have a blog post called On Progress and Historical Change, which looks at this question of how progress works and how we think progress works. And it comes back over and over to, we have lots and lots of different narratives to give ourselves excuses to feel like it's not our responsibility.

J: Man. I feel like we're going to have to have like a follow-up to be like, okay, what do we do? You know? Or we need a roundtable of lots of minds. This has been so, so very interesting.

AP: I think the short term thing we do is vote.

J: Yeah.

AP: And engage, and follow issues as much as we have the mental health stamina to do so. And also remind ourselves that we're in it for the long haul. Because Machiavelli saved his country from destruction eleven times. And just because you've saved your country from destruction once, you can't stop.

J: Yeah. Or ten times.

AP: Yeah.

J: You have to keep going.

AP: Yeah. And [he] died not knowing, will my country be okay without me? You have to pay it forward, you have to trust the future that you're passing the baton on. You know, we have to be in it for the long haul, which also means concentrating on mental health, right? It means being… I'm not going to push myself past my limit for this one important moment. I'm gonna do a sustainable amount of work so that I'll still have the strength to do this work in a year and in two years and in ten years and in twenty years, when the crisis will be different.

T: Right.

J: Different.

AP: Because, you know, the Renaissance had a bad pope. And then they had another bad pope. Then they had another bad pope. And then they had another bad pope. And then they had a good pope for two months, and then he died, and then they had another bad pope, and…

J: It's just going to keep happening, like we have to resign ourselves to a long fight.

AP: Well, because there were good things too, and we're going to have good things too. We have good things right now. Like, yeah, in the middle of all of our misery around Covid, we have an AIDS vaccine.

J: That's amazing. And prophylactic pills, and yeah, everything.

AP: Yeah, great things are also happening. They're drowned in the bad things because we always remember bad things ten times as much as we remember good things.

J: That's a compelling argument for some positive thinking, which I think a lot of times gets misused because, you know… I know people who will say, like, “Oh, just think positively!” And it's like no, you have the privilege to think positively. This is… you have to focus on what's also going wrong. But you're right, I mean, we can't JUST do that.

AP: Well, so, Cory Doctorow and I have discussed this as well. He has a great discussion of the difference between optimism and hope. And the way he defines it is, optimism is, you know, assuming the best outcome will happen and sitting back, whereas hope is hoping for the good outcome and recognizing you have to work for it.

J: And not take it for granted.

AP: Right. There's a genre of SF, which I consider my work to be part of, called hopepunk. And hopepunk SF very much is about futures of hard work, futures where it's not that it's okay, but it's not a dystopia either. And maybe climate change got worse, but we're working on making it better. Or sometimes it's not the future. You know, hopepunk was originally conceived of as a primarily SF genre, but there's some fantasy in that vein now. And it's concentrating on okay, bad things happened and now we're building and we're building with teamwork and we're building with hope and you know, the end isn't dystopia or apocalypse or perfect victory. It's not a Disney happy ending either. The ending is, we made it a bit better and we still have hard work to do. And we don't have a lot of stories like that. We don't have a lot of stories where the ending… I mean, Shakespeare doesn't, right? He has tragedies and he has comedies. And even his histories don't tend to be like, “And we worked on it for a while and now we're still in it.” Although they are closer, and that's one of the reasons I like the history plays a lot. They're my favorites. But, you know, we need more stories which are neither triumph nor disaster, but “we worked on it and it got a bit better and we will continue working on it as a team.” And that's what a lot of hopepunk literature does.

R: All right. Well, thank you so much to our guest, Ada Palmer. Thank you very much for coming on. You told us more than we knew there was to know, in fact.

J: I could literally talk to you forever.

T: Yeah.

AP: I would love to come again, and this was… I mean, you guys asked really great questions, which is also key to a great conversation.

R: Thank you!

* Interstitial music -

T: Hi everyone. I hope you enjoyed the second half of our conversation with Ada Palmer. We learned a lot, didn't we?

R: We did. Maybe too much.

T: Yeah.

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T: Yeah, and you know that would mean if someone tries to assassinate you, we’d jump in front of them.

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T: Yeah, so thanks everybody. Bye, bye.

R: Bye!