Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

The Year We Couldn’t Breathe

The act of breathing, which we take for granted, has become the focal point in how we deal with racism, the COVID-19 pandemic and the air our modern society pollutes, killing millions every year.

George Floyd said it at least 16 times before he died on a Minneapolis sidewalk around 9 a.m. on Monday, May 25. “I can’t breathe.” 

Breathing is a real thing. If you have ever choked, suffered through an asthma attack, had pneumonia, or been under water a bit too long, you know how quickly your body trips into panic. Before you read the next sentence, close your eyes and hold your nose and hold your breath for as long as you can endure it. Now let your best friend hold your breath in for another 30 or 60 seconds and you will know real desperation. 

Breathing is also a metaphor. When someone tells you, “You need to take a deep breath,” they usually mean, “calm down, step back, give it some distance, put this in perspective.” They may mean it literally, too. When you cease to hunch your shoulders in frustration, lift your head, and take in as much air as your lungs can hold, it almost invariably reduces the tension and brings at least temporary relief. Breath is life. Life is breath. In Shakespeare’s King Lear, when the aging half-mad king (“more sinned against than sinning”), discovers that his beloved daughter Cordelia is dead, he asks the universe, “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, and thou no breath at all?” Whatever else humans are, we are a creature that breathes. 

The fragility of an individual human is staggering. A sperm whale can stay under water for up to 90 minutes. A Cuvier’s beaked whale once stayed under water for 138 minutes. A northern elephant seal can hold its breath for almost two hours, if necessary. Some turtles can spend the entire winter at the bottom of a pond or lake without ever coming up for air. This is a form of extreme hibernation. The human record was clocked in 2016 by Aleix Segura Vendrell of Barcelona at just over 24 minutes. But that is Guinness World Records stuff. Most humans cannot hold their breath for more than two minutes. 


In the Maslovian hierarchy of needs, humans can live for weeks or even months without food, for three or four days without water, but only three or maybe four minutes without oxygen. Mahatma Gandhi undertook 17 fasts during India’s freedom movement, which brought independence in 1947, the longest of which lasted 21 days. Jesus is said to have fasted for 40 days in the desert as he came to terms with his destiny: to suffer profoundly in order to save humanity from its fallenness. Young Native Americans of the West, some of them women, ventured out on vision quests on lonely bluffs. During these sacred rituals, rites of passage from childhood to adult life, they abstained from ingesting food and water. They also did everything in their power to stay awake until the lucid vision came. This required all the techniques we still use — singing, slapping one’s face, holding the eyes open with fingers or twigs — but also some we don’t now use — e.g., putting sharp rocks under one’s back to inflict warning pain if the body began to relax into sleep. Eventually, if the pilgrim had prepared properly, prayed appropriately, and fought through the fatigue, hunger, thirst and sense of unworthiness, the vision might just come, perhaps in the form of a meadowlark, or a raven, or a porcupine that “spoke” to the young person in a way that was — magically — understandable. These seekers abstained from everything else that was necessary for sustained existence, but they did not fail to breathe, because that is the most indispensable substance of all.

George Floyd was arrested for handing a store clerk a suspicious $20 bill. Four Minneapolis policemen handled the arrest and its aftermath. One of them, officer Derek Chauvin, wedged his left knee on George Floyd’s neck for a full eight minutes and 46 seconds. That’s an eternity — it turns out literally — if you cannot breathe. Two other officers held Floyd down. The third warned off bystanders who begged Chauvin to release the choke. Chauvin, who is 44 years old, and weighs 200 pounds, pressed Floyd’s head and neck so violently into the pavement that he created an indelible visual image that none of us can get out of our minds. It reminded me of the lower left figure in Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, one of the greatest paintings of the 20th century. Chauvin has been a cop for 19 years. He has been the subject of 18 prior citizen complaints. He had previously been involved in three police shootings (shootings by the police), one of which was fatal. It is also true that he has received several awards for valor in the course of his career. 


Pablo Picasso's "Guernica."  (Shutterstock)

Chauvin snuffed out George Floyd’s life. His three police colleagues did not pull him off the neck of Mr. Floyd. They did not even advise him to desist. Floyd was unarmed. He did not resist arrest. He was handcuffed. He was prone. He was in the custody of four well-armed policemen. Assuming that he could have risen to his feet, what harm could he have caused them or anyone else? Where could he have fled? It is possible to imagine a circumstance in which a police officer might need to put his knee on the neck of a suspect — if the suspect was high on crack or PCP, if the officer was alone with a larger, stronger suspect, if the suspect was struggling or threatening violence. But George Floyd was no threat to anyone on earth at 8:19 a.m. on May 25, 2020. 

A now-helpless, unarmed black man was suffocated to death by a white cop, who kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for three full minutes after Floyd became unresponsive, while passers-by urged him to release the knee-to-neck hold. Why did Chauvin do it? Can anyone justify what he did? Can he? So far as we know, no mitigating circumstance exists to justify Chauvin’s behavior. If it could be established that the police officer had reason to use the knee-to-neck procedure, how could it be justified after Floyd ceased to move? He said repeatedly, “I can’t breathe.” Sixteen times. He called for his mother. He begged for his life. 

George Floyd’s death has poured millions of people out into the streets, in Minneapolis, in America, and across the world. Back on March 30, Trafalgar Square in London was bone empty. The entire British population was complying with Her Majesty’s Government’s directive to shelter in place. How many times in Trafalgar Square’s celebrated history has it been empty of humanity? But on the weekend following George Floyd’s death, tens of thousands of British citizens of all ages, colors, and ethnic identities gathered there with signs saying, “Black Lives Matter,” “Justice for George Floyd,” “Silence is Violence,” and above all, “I can’t breathe.” At the infamous Democratic National Convention in 1968, the protestors shouted, “The whole world is watching, the whole world is watching.” It is.

We all understand that while what Floyd said in the last 10 minutes of his life was about his physical inability to breathe, his words, “I can’t breathe,” have taken on a terrible metaphoric urgency, what the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called “the fierce urgency of now.” Even in the most advanced nations on earth, millions of people at the bottom of the social hierarchy, and particularly people of color, find it impossible to feel secure when they leave their homes (and sometimes in them), because this late in the history of Enlightenment it is still possible to be beaten, harassed, arrested, or stopped and frisked, for the crime “of walking while Black,” “driving a car while Black,” “jogging while Black,” “observing birds in Central Park while Black,” or “wearing a hoodie while Black.” 

The subsequent death of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta may well be related to what happened three weeks earlier in Minneapolis. Brooks exhibited extraordinary civility and compliance when he was arrested on June 16 after falling asleep in a fast food drive-thru lane. But when one of the police officers tried to handcuff him, Brooks struggled, grabbled with the police, and tried to run away. How can we doubt that Brooks panicked when he remembered what happened to that other Black man who was handcuffed (and thus rendered helpless) by white cops? 

I remember years ago when a prominent feminist said she would not think the problem was over until she could walk alone down an isolated rural road, see men driving toward her in a pickup, and not be afraid. Every African American man in the United States, in cities and in the country, in red states and blue, in the South and everywhere else, has reason to wonder if he is going to live through a routine traffic stop or a jaywalking incident. A visit to the ATM can end in a funeral home. A friend of mine who worked for a Colorado public foundation banked at the same branch of the same bank for more than 20 years. He was Black. He said that every time he went in to deposit his paycheck, once every two weeks, he was intensely scrutinized by tellers and frequently handed off to bank mangers before they would cash his check. 

Not until every African American (and Latino, and gay person, and transgendered person, and Native American) can go about her or his business or life or recreational activity with the same security that the white community counts on and takes for granted, will we be able to say every American can breathe. And now, in the early summer of 2020, we are holding our collective breath for fear that another unambiguous incident of white-on-Black police brutality or murder will tear the country to its roots. 

It would be better, maybe, if we could all step back and take a deep breath before things spin out of control, but that is easy to say for the dominant population’s champions of order and gradualism, not an option for the people who have been historically and often systematically oppressed in the course of American history. Nobody can breathe easy in the summer of 2020 — not on the streets, not in the BarcaLounger at home, not in the 17,985 police departments across the nation.     


COVID-19 is a respiratory disease. At the height of the pandemic, when governments were scrambling and panicky, fearful of the collapse of the health-care system and desperate for the array of equipment needed to help and manage the sick, we heard incessant talk about ventilators. When the disease is virulent, its victims find it nearly impossible to breathe. Without the assistance of a mechanical lung, they would almost certainly suffocate and die. 

A study conducted in April, at the height of the crisis (so far), reported that there were approximately 62,000 full-featured mechanical ventilators in the United States. The study also reported that an additional 98,000 ventilators that were not full-featured were available for those who were not suffering quite so acutely. As of June 15, just over 120,000 Americans have died of COVID-19, and more than 2.2 million have tested positive for the disease. At one point a few weeks ago, virtually every available ventilator in the country was being used to treat people in advanced stages of the disease. Getting them from ZIP codes where they were abundant to places in critical need proved to be one of the most difficult challenges of the crisis period — and yet isn’t that the very definition of capitalism straight out of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations

The United States is a vast country with a population of almost a third of a billion people. So far, however horrific the numbers have been, the coronavirus appears to have been pretty well contained. Still, you have to imagine 150,000 Americans lying on their backs with large and intrusive plastic tubes thrust down their throats, staying alive, i.e., breathing, solely thanks to a sophisticated air pump that keeps the lungs inflated and partially operational. The people who die of COVID-19, struggle to breathe and finally, exhausted, their lungs filled with fluids, take their last breath while health professionals look helplessly on and the victim’s kinfolk wring their hands across town or across the country, unable to be by the side of their loved ones in the last moments of their life.

Virtually all of the 120,000 people who have died of the virus and hundreds of thousands more who have suffered from its respiratory assault, have said, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” So, they all have something in common with George Floyd. Except that their pleas have not gone unanswered. The difference is that when they choke out those three words, a team of medical professionals is standing by with millions of dollars of education and equipment, dedicated by vocation and by explicit oath to do whatever they can to preserve each patient’s life. Nobody squeezes the intubation tube for eight minutes and 46 seconds. Nobody switches off the ventilator. Nobody puts their knee on the patient’s neck and disregards their cries for help. The coronavirus usually starts with a dry cough, which trickles down to the lower respiratory tract, where it can damage the lung's air sacs and constrict the flow of oxygen into the bloodstream. The lungs fill with fluids, which cause shortness of breath. Said one doctor, “You don't have nice air in contact with your capillary network and blood vessels, you can't get oxygen in and carbon dioxide out as effectively as normal. It's almost like you're drowning. You have a lung half full of fluid.” Meanwhile, clots in the kidneys and injuries to blood vessels can worsen the patient's overall condition. 

Things have to get very bad before the medical staff calls in a ventilator. According to Dr. Burton Bentley II of Elite Medical Experts, ventilators are used “when people lose their own ability to have normal respiration, they are too fatigued, or their lungs are impaired because they're full of fluid, or they can't in their own power oxygenate themselves at an effective level.” The process is extremely intrusive. Typically, three medical professionals participate: an anesthesiologist or intensivist who performs the intubation, a respiratory therapist, and a nurse to manage medications. Patients often gag during intubation and spray the coronavirus into the surrounding air. This is why PPPs (personal protective equipment) are so important: face masks, shields, gloves and gowns. The patient is usually given sedatives and paralytic agents to suppress panic and the gag impulse. Then a doctor pries the air passage open with a speculum and inserts a breathing tube down the windpipe to the lungs.

And that’s just the breathing apparatus. Since patients can't eat once they have been intubated, a feeding tube is inserted through the nose or mouth. An IV containing electrolytes and sedatives is inserted into the neck. This whole procedure can take up two hours, though under less stressful circumstances, when there is no infectious disease in the room, intubation can be completed in as little as 15 minutes. According to Veronika Karlsson of the University of Gothenburg’s Sahlgrenska Academy, “The studies show that many people who are conscious while ventilator treatment experience feelings of panic. Many describe being breathless, and pain from the tube and probes makes it hard for them to relax and sleep.”

Being on a ventilator is not quite, but nearly, a death sentence. One prominent doctor said, “The ventilator is not fixing your lungs. You're buying time. Your body needs time to recover and heal.” Unfortunately, by the time a COVID-19 patient gets on a ventilator, it is usually too late. According to the Associated Press, New York City officials reported that 80 percent of patients on ventilators there had died. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said, in an April briefing, “The longer you are on a ventilator, the less likely that you will ever come off that ventilator.” 

One ventilator survivor described the pyschological impact of the procedure. “Your whole world shrinks down to your bed. You can't talk, feed yourself, or go the bathroom on your own; you don't know day from night; and you're surrounded by professionals whose presence reminds you that you could die at any moment.” When Cleveland resident Nic Brown started to lose lung function, he was hooked up to a ventilator. First, he was intubated. This procedure is so painful, disruptive and invasive that most patients have to be sedated to get through it. Brown’s situation was even worse. “I was actually in a medically induced coma for three days, and during that process, they put me on a ventilator, where I spent seven additional days,” Brown told Inside Editon. “It's a very large grouping of tubes that goes down your throat.” Patients on ventilators cannot talk. They communicate by hand signals and, if they have sufficient strength, by writing out their needs, questions and concerns. 

For those who survive time on a ventilator, the experience is so harrowing that it sometimes takes weeks or months to climb out of the feeling of helplessness and panic. What they remember is that they nearly died. They nearly died because they could not breathe. They were kept alive thanks to the selfless care of medical professionals, by the technological sophistication of the industrialized world, and by the wealth of America. 

All the studies show that in the United States, the only major country without a uniform national health-care system, the greatest impact of the coronavirus has been on the poor and people of color. When African Americans can’t breathe, they are not nearly so likely to get the medical attention that the rest of America takes for granted, the attention they need to survive a virus that knows no skin color, ethnicity or national boundary. This is the very definition of structural racism. Millions of people can’t breathe — literally can’t breathe and figuratively can’t breathe — because of the color of their skin and their socioeconomic status. 


It’s not all bad news. One of the ironies of the coronavirus pandemic is the temporary return of clean air to some of the world’s most polluted regions and cities. We have all seen the photographs of people wearing masks and walking through the murk in Beijing, New Delhi, Wuhan, Ho Chi Minh City, Shenzhen, and other smog-choked cities, many of them in Asia. The temporary shutdown of the world’s economy, the reduction in the use of automobiles and the need for power from coal-fired generation plants, has given welcome relief to places where the poor air quality was not merely an annoyance, but a very serious health hazard. Wuhan, where the epidemic began, experienced its cleanest air on record in February and March. Los Angeles experienced its longest-ever run of clean air during the shutdown, finally meeting United Nations clean air standards. New Delhi, which in some lists is regarded as the most polluted city in the world, saw a drop of “unhealthy” days to 17 percent in the spring of 2020, down from 68 percent of the days in the previous year when health officials regarded it as unsafe to be outside for any length of time. 


An aerial view of the clear air over Los Angeles in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, on April 15, 2020. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

According to IQAir, the Swiss air quality company, air pollution kills an estimated 7 million people per year. The pandemic may eventually kill several million people before it is brought under control, but it is unlikely — in the 21st century — to kill 7 million worldwide. It is at least possible that the people of those cities and those countries, suddenly experiencing clear skies and more healthy air, might now push for environmental regulations that would ease the effects of runaway industrialization. 

If you have grown up in a closed society never knowing what clean air could be, you may not realize that pollution is not an inevitable cousin of economic development. One result of the global pandemic is greater awareness of all the other things that kill people in the world: the common flu, automobile accidents, pollution, unsanitary water supplies, gun violence, war, heart disease. The statistics of those killers have been bruited about, by way of comparison, by those who believe the world has over-reacted to the coronavirus pandemic. 

So, the question becomes, “If 7 million die per annum of air pollution, why are we obsessing over COVID-19?” Or, “If we regard COVID-19 as a threat to civilization, why are we comparatively complacent about air pollution or heart disease or smoking-related illnesses?” 

In Minneapolis, George Floyd couldn’t breathe, nor could a few thousand others who were in ICU facilities battling the coronavirus. Everyone else was able to breathe normally. In America, several hundred thousand people, most of them with caring and often terrified families, have been unable to breathe in the last six months. But if we don’t get serious about carbon and global climate change, it won’t be long before hundreds of millions of people worldwide will be unable to breathe. 

A more cheerful result of the shelter-in-place orders adopted by virtually the entire American public is that wildlife has begun to reclaim some of the national parks and national forests. It turns out that wild things are much more resilient than we thought. The minute Industrial Man stopped running internal combustion vehicles into Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier and Rocky Mountain national parks, the true denizens of wild places began to return to their natural habitat. In May, pronghorn antelope ventured into the lowlands of Death Valley National Park for the first time in many years. Kati Schmidt of the National Parks Conservation Association, told The Guardian, “This is something we haven’t seen in our lifetimes. We’ve known they’re in some of the higher elevation areas of Death Valley, but as far as we’re aware they’ve never been documented this low in the park.” 

Yosemite National Park closed on March 20. Without the invasion of automobiles and tourists, 4 million of whom visited Yosemite last year, mountain lion, deer, bobcats, black bears, coyotes and other wild creatures have reclaimed their natural habitat. Dane Peterson, a hospitality worker in the park, said to the Los Angeles Times, “The bear population has quadrupled. It’s not like they usually aren’t here. … It’s that they usually hang back at the edges or move in the shadows.” 

What’s happening in these national parks is occurring with less public attention across the entire United States. This situation abounds with ironies. At the time when it would be more satisfying than ever before to be in the national parks, the coronavirus has closed their gates. If their gates were open, the wild animals would retreat to the margins, where over many decades they have found a way to work around human industrial intrusiveness. If you want to see abundant wildlife in the national parks, you have to stop flooding them with tourists. If you do that, there’s nobody to observe nature in a more harmonious and sustainable mood. If a mountain lion sits on an outcropping in Yosemite and nobody is there to see it, does it take your breath away? 

It’s possible, of course, to feel great joy in the return of wildlife even if we are not able to witness it. It gives us hope. We are learning that the planet puts up with us, but the minute we withdraw, it releases a huge sigh of relief, a great breath of joy and renewal. The industrial paradigm and the human itch to consume has made it hard for the very planet to catch its breath. It keeps telling us “I can’t breathe” in all sorts of ways, but most of the people on the planet refuse to listen. Sound familiar? 

All these wild creatures are in for a rude awakening once the parks reopen and tourists — cabin feverish and exceedingly eager to return to their recreational playgrounds — flock back to Yellowstone and Canyonlands and the Great Smoky Mountains. Meanwhile, it is summer in America and the grizzly bears and antelope are breathing easy for a change.


Take a deep breath. Pick up any yoga book and there is certain to be a passionate chapter on the art of breathing. We all take breathing for granted, until it is threatened by bad cops or a horrific pandemic or the effluents of our industrial obsessions. You cannot watch George Floyd die without thinking about the centrality of breathing to human survival. The yoga books remind us that the Greek word ψυχή means soul, spirit, and it derives from a verb meaning “to blow.” In Latin the word is anima (same meanings). In Sanskrit, the word prana signifies both breath and the resonant life force that animates us. 

We are told in such books that if we learn to breathe properly, our minds and bodies will be healed, that we can expand both our consciousness and our mental powers, that we can overcome both physical and mental stress, send energy to those parts of our body that most need it, and bring ourselves into greater harmony with the world around us. To breathe is to be human. To breathe (in the fullest sense of the term) is to rise to a higher state of being. The Vietnamese spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh has said, “Without full awareness of breathing, there can be no development of meditative stability and understanding.”

If ever western civilization needed to learn to breathe again, now is that time. We are all hunched over, anxious about the state of the world and the future. We live in fear of economic collapse, fear of COVID-19, fear of the political paralysis and naked partisanship that has taken over life in the public arena, fear for our loved ones, fear for our jobs, our pensions, our health care. We are all now like Houdini, tightening the diaphragm and bracing for the next body blow. Notice the rise of border skirmishes between China and India, India and Pakistan, North and South Korea, and the perpetual insolubility of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And here at home, we find ourselves in the midst of what the reporter Carl Bernstein calls a cold civil war. 

We can’t breathe. There are too many uncertainties, too many threats to what we thought was our settled and stable way of life, too many cultural tensions that should have been resolved decades ago, and some of us lulled ourselves into thinking that they had been resolved. Nobody can rule out that the United States may enter a grave constitutional crisis between now and Jan. 20, 2021, when the next president or the same president will take the oath of office on the steps of the national capitol. 

In his book The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again. ... Your breathing should flow gracefully, like a river, like a watersnake crossing the water, and not like a chain of rugged mountains or the gallop of a horse. To master our breath is to be in control of our bodies and minds. Each time we find ourselves dispersed and find it difficult to gain control of ourselves by different means, the method of watching the breath should always be used.” Several people I know are currently finding “it difficult to gain control” of their lives by traditional means. They have taken up transcendental meditation and it has helped. One says she can now sleep through the night for the first time in years. The other, my daughter, says that breathing exercises have grounded her, calmed her, given her increased focus and concentration, and have enabled her to absorb the news that swirls all around us with less stress and disillusionment. 

If instead of throwing a Hot Pocket turnover into the microwave, every American practiced deep and targeted breathing for 20 minutes per day, we might find a path out of the constricted universe we have built for ourselves. If Derek Chauvin has paused to take a few deep breaths, he might have transcended the rage and testosterone that killed another man and has now shattered his life, too. If the president took a few deep breaths before he tapped out a tweet, he might have held back a few of his more incendiary pronouncements. We are toxic because we can’t breathe, and we can’t breathe because we are toxic. We need to break the cycle. If every American spent 20 minutes in deep breathing every day, our health-care costs would plummet. Americans now spend more on health care (per capita) than any other country and yet you need only walk through a mall or a Walmart to see that we are not, on average, a very healthy people. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has grounded tens of millions of Americans. Most people have had, for the last four months, more time on their hands than they have enjoyed for decades. How each of us has used that time tells us something about who we are. We have it in our power to step back from the morass we have created and ask ourselves if there is not a better path. This is a time to breathe. The secular paradigm and the rule of law have been a great engine of justice in the last 300 years. But what we have learned in the last couple of dozen years is that the secular Enlightenment can only take us so far. It is almost certainly impossible to design a police procedures manual that will always protect the most vulnerable people in America from police brutality. 

Our secular system can formulate protocols and hold rogue cops accountable, but it now seems abundantly clear that the breakthrough to a higher civilization is going to require a non-secular transformation. One hesitates to use the word, but what is required is a spiritual maturation. Not necessarily a religious renewal, not prayer in schools and the Ten Commandments on the courthouse lawn. Those retro-innovations can only further divide us. We need something more ecumenical, more inclusive, more universal. It is surely no coincidence that spiritus means both breath and spirit. 

Until we learn to breathe again, we cannot save our police forces. Until we learn to breathe again, we cannot save the black rhinoceros, the tiger, the Sumatran elephant, or the orangutan. Until we learn to breathe again, we cannot break the deadlock in the United States Congress. Until we learn to breathe again, we cannot save ourselves from the diseases that seek to terminate our lives. Until we learn to breathe again we cannot save the planet.

We can’t breathe.

We need to learn to breathe again, so that the only things that takes our breath away are a child’s first words, the view from the south rim of the Grand Canyon, the landing of the SpaceX booster on the target of the recovery ship, a perfectly performed triple axel, and, as the 1986 song, Take My Breath Away, has it, the sudden love of another man or woman.   

In John Milton’s Paradise Lost, when Satan has his first encounter with Eve in the Garden of Eden, she, well, takes his breath away:

Such Pleasure took the Serpent to behold 

This Flourie Plat, the sweet recess of Eve

Thus earlie, thus alone; her Heav'nly forme

Angelic, but more soft, and Feminine,

Her graceful Innocence, her every Aire

Of gesture or lest action overawd

His Malice, and with rapine sweet bereav'd

His fierceness of the fierce intent it brought:

That space the Evil one abstracted stood

From his own evil, and for the time remaind

Stupidly good, of enmitie disarm'd,

Of guile, of hate, of envie, of revenge.

Unfortunately for humankind, Satan soon recovers and tempts Eve and Adam into knowledge and out of Paradise. 

This time, if we use our imaginations, we might possibly find a way to remain “stupidly good, of enmity disarmed, of guile, of hate, of envy, and revenge.

For more of Clay Jenkinson's views on American history and the humanities listen to his weekly nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast The Thomas Jefferson Hour. Clay's most recent book "Bring Out Your Dead: The Literature and History of Pandemics" is available at

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing editors or management.

Clay S. Jenkinson is the editor-at-large of Governing. He is a humanities scholar, historian and founder of the Theodore Roosevelt Center. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @ClayJenkinson.
Special Projects