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Exactly a thousand years ago, the throne of England was occupied by King Canute (one of just two monarchs across the vast expanse of British history to earn the post-mortem sobriquet “The Great”).
There is much of Canute’s life to study, but for the purposes of this discussion we turn to the tale, assuredly apocryphal but still illustrative, of Canute and the tides.
According to the legend, having grown weary of his coterie of sycophantic courtiers, the king takes them to the shoreline and proceeds to command the tide to stop. It continues rushing in, thus proving Canute’s point that no secular power will trump God and, by extension, nature.
(Too many modern references to this story often manage to get it completely backward, suggesting Canute was delusional and believed he indeed had the power to stop the tide rolling in, only to be proved wrong. Borrowing from another acclaimed denizen of the British isles, William Shakespeare: “Lord, what fools these mortals be.”)
But back to 2021. We are soon to come to a crossroads. One cranky old man will be replaced by another cranky old man in the White House. Though different in many, many, many ways, they are, when it comes to the COVID pandemic, eerily similar. Each believes he knows how to wrangle order out of chaos – Donald Trump tried to do it by sheer force of verbiage, Joe Biden is convinced he can do it by “following the science” (at least when “the science” backs up what he plans to do anyway).
We’ll never know if things would have turned out better, or worse, had a different course of action been embarked on at the very beginning of all this. And we’ll never have any definitive way of knowing if whatever switcheroos our incoming president has in store for us will improve or impede progress in getting life back to a semblance of sanity.
We’d expect neither Trump (certainly not) nor Biden (most likely not) has ever given much thought to Canute the Great. But in our current situation, they represent Canute and the pandemic is the tide – it is going to do what it is going to do, it is going to kill the number it wants to kill, and it, not we, will decide in what way to take its leave.
We can, and indeed we have, taken steps to lessen the damage being wrought by the pandemic, and we may be able to wrangle it under some semblance of control. But the sooner elected and public-health officials accept they are not the ones with the power to turn the tide, so to speak, we might begin to see more rational decision-making in 2021 than we saw (from Republicans or Democrats, or Fauci or never-maskers for that matter) in 2020.
Cultural critic Theodore Dalrymple once opined that, “political power or office often gives those who possess it the illusion that they control events.” No more so than those who ascend to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, from no matter what side of the political aisle they emanate.
And, alas, it appears nobody with the good sense of Canute the Great appears to be riding to our rescue.