Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Ovid As In Covid

Hidden inside that word Covid is the Roman poet Ovid even though he pronounced it Ahvid. He was all about love and transformation. Two of my favorite subversions. Love is what we are here for and transformation offers a new dimension to our lives. For some indiscretion in the eyes of Emperor Augustus he was given a one-way ticket to Romania, a fate worse than an afternoon in the Coliseum with hungry lions.

It strikes me that Ovid got it right. We are in the middle of a societal convulsion. Transformation is the operative word. The virus from bats has brought with it a toll of over 400,000 lives, a wreckage of economies and some profound behavioral changes. The confluence of this with hundreds of thousands of protesters taking to the streets demanding cultural and structural reappraisal would have brought a smile to Ovid’s face.

In fact, the two storms have interfaced. Massive unemployment has allowed for more marchers, masked and unmasked, even at greater risk for the virus. Racial injustice and inequality are, themselves, health matters and centuries of systemic racism have turned White America, us, partially deaf, blind and soulless. Liberals may not be racist but our silence renders us accomplices.

In his long epic poem, Metamorphoses, Ovid has people turning into stone or animals. Indeed, slumbering America has ossified in plain sight. It has taken a tragic loss of life to stir the consciousness of  the dominant race (us) into outrage. To measure up to Ovid’s standards we need to see the placards and chants transformed into legislation which redefines the mission of policing and revisits the standards of uniformed men and women. Public safety must not be regarded as a menace particularly to communities of color.

Seismic shifts can refresh the tree of liberty. We must not let this moment go. The act of dismantling and defunding the Minneapolis police department is a way of confronting the stranglehold by the union which has provided cover for unfit officers to remain on the job. Caught on camera some police are revealed as criminals or at least ill-equipped to deal with incendiary situations. Lethal power should never be put in their hands.      

Ovid was born in B.C. (43) and died in A.D. (17). Those were also tumultuous times. Whatever he wrote was deemed a threat to the empire. We know now when in Rome to do as the Romans do. He didn’t and for that had to pack his toothbrush and get out of town. Western Civilization is significantly the poorer because of that.

Incarceration is our idea of an enlightened form of banishment only because there is no longer anywhere isolated, uninhabited or unconnected. The shouts against brutal authority have become global. Prisons could be largely emptied without any threat to society. In fact they already have with the Coronavirus looming over the inmates.

Can legislation change a culture of racism? I say, Yes, it can and it has to some extent. Progress has been made compared to the segregation before the sixties. Clearly it is not nearly enough to enjoy black athletes, actors and musicians. Even a black president didn’t significantly alter the daily indignities suffered by people of color. But legislation with the support of leadership can bring us closer to a just society. Transformation from this to that. Ovid, I think, would agree.

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