Americans generally care little about history, but they do like a good “if only.”
If only JFK wasn’t shot there’d have been no Vietnam mess and no Tricky Dick taping in the Oval Office. If only his brother had dodged a bullet, Ronald Reagan would never have got his mitts on a government to gut. The concept hinges on the belief that events involving a single life can change world history, à la the wing-flapping butterfly creating a tsunami. But the contemporary origin story is the 1914 assassination of the Austrian Archduke, Franz Ferdinand, that was said to have triggered World War I.
Since 9/11, Americans have relentlessly searched the CIA and FBI to pin the world-changing tragedy on a single individual’s action or failure to act. And even now, as the media have mined every COVID-19 parallel to the 1918 influenza pandemic, it was suggested that if only Woodrow Wilson didn’t come down with the flu at Versailles, the treaty might have turned out differently and Hitler would never have come to power. “If only” scenarios are the thinking-person’s conspiracy theory—podcasts thrive on the clever web of associations they meticulously lay out. They additionally fulfill Picasso’s macho claim on destiny: “I don’t believe in accidents. There are only encounters in history.”
Ironically, though, the impulse to bring disruptive, messy history (often involving collective responsibility and guilt) down to the personal comes from a position of vulnerability—the fear of contingency. We can’t control events, but if we can control their cold-case narratives—if we detect and diagram patterns—somehow we can impose a vascular structure on chaotic history.
So far, COVID-19 has presented no recourse to if only. The situation is a dense tangle of mistake that is threatening America’s sacred belief in eternal transformation through consumption—our Cinderella mythos that has juiced the economy since Reagan. Through the magic of unregulated capitalism and shrunken government, everyone gets a shot at getting this gown, these shoes, this carriage . . . and of course that prince. The Cinderella algorithm drives much of our entertainment, the epitome being HGTV, where a big reveal reliably culminates every episode of every show. The pandemic has required nervous Americans to adjust how they get their hits of big reveal. The Trump crowd thought it would surely come with the whole thing being proved a gigantic hoax or at least overhyped. When the deaths piled up, that idea morphed into the reveal of the virus being nefariously created in a Chinese lab.
Under lockdown, the white nonessential but job-retaining classes hoped the big reveal would be a podcast-style resolution where things wouldn’t be all that bad and we wouldn’t have to change our lives. We’d have a couple bad months but then go back to the world of February 29th, with a surging market concealing functional chaos. This demographic in New York City even made like it was some kind of big reveal that the poor and people of color are the ones suffering and dying, pulling the weight as the nonessentials snark it out on Twitter over mask-shaming. They console themselves with media reports of their anxious travails, their despairing of a second Trump term and 15 extra bread-baking pounds. They are too educated to cast blame for the pandemic, but they take no ownership of the societal problems it has revealed.
In a way, the epidemiological projection models we’ve looked at for weeks—with their wide-open field of possibilities for how many thousands of us will die by what date—are the antithesis of the big reveal. Because with public health, the future depends precisely on how we discipline our choices right now. Every time I look at the graphs I think of the 1998 movie Run Lola Run, about a young woman who needs to get a large sum of money in 20 minutes to keep her boyfriend from being killed by the gangster boss whose money he’s just lost. In real time, the movie shows three different scenarios of the same intended actions where one person dies, a different person dies, and no people die. The “if only” of this story is tagged to a single encounter with a man and his dog at the start of Lola’s dash, but the narrative suggests the infinite arbitrariness of interconnected events. In short: no vascular structure whatsoever.
Fittingly, this Berlin-based film was made by a German, the nationality forever causing the lords of global finance to roll their eyes at the naïveté of economic austerity. But so far the Germans have done COVID-19 right, with their painstaking armies of testers and tracers. Meanwhile, back in the States with our chart-topping COVID deaths, the only appropriate cinematic analogy is Bill Murray in Caddyshack—the golf links groundskeeper and “Cinderella boy” forever narrating his coming-out-of-nowhere win at Augusta.
Although the 2020 Grand Masters was postponed to November, on April 24 Georgia declared itself partially reopened for business, attracting 62,441 people from neighboring states together with the potential for the further spreading of COVID-19 just as researchers had warned. That’s one big reveal we’d rather not see. §