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As the Trump presidency (although not, perhaps, the Trump era) moves toward its Götterdämmerung-esque denouement, it is perhaps worthwhile to remind leaders at all levels that, despite the relative insanity of the past 10 days, they still have a pandemic to contend with.
As such, it is equally worthwhile to recall that, exactly 1,000 years ago, the throne of England was occupied by King Canute (one of just two monarchs across the expanse of British history to earn the sobriquet “The Great”).
There is much of his life worthy of study, but for the purpose of connecting the dots to our modern-day situation, 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 commands the incoming tide to stop. It continues rushing in, thus proving Canute’s point that no secular power will checkmate God or, if you prefer, 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 a fool. Mmmm, no.)
But back to 2021. We are soon to come to a crossroads. A vitriolic old man will be replaced by a cranky, sometimes easily confused and even older occupant in the White House. Though different in 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 verbosity, Joe Biden is convinced he can do it by “following the science” (at least when “the science” backs up what he plans to do at the behest of whoever is actually running the show on his behalf).
We’d expect neither Trump nor Biden has ever given much thought to Canute the Great. It is their, and our, loss. For, as cultural critic Theodore Dalrymple once opined, “political power or office often gives those who possess it the illusion that they control events.” None more so than those who ascend to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, from no matter what side of the political aisle they emanate.
And, alas, our choices on Nov. 3 did not include anyone with the good sense of Canute the Great.
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, we might begin to see more rational decision-making about trade-offs than we have (from Republicans, Democrats, Fauci, never-maskers, and all the rest) over the past year.