Free Will Astrology for week of May 27, 2021

Acting great Ingrid Bergman said, “I was the shyest human ever invented, but I had a lion inside me that wouldn’t shut up.” (Shutterstock)

Acting great Ingrid Bergman said, “I was the shyest human ever invented, but I had a lion inside me that wouldn’t shut up.” (Shutterstock)

Virgo, your inner lion may awaken or come into greater glory

ARIES (March 21-April 19): “Open your mouth only if what you are going to say is more beautiful than silence,” declares an Arab proverb. That’s a high standard to aspire to. Even at our very best, when we’re soaring with articulate vitality, it’s hard to be more beautiful than silence for more than, say, 50 percent of the time. But here’s a nice surprise: You could exceed that benchmark during the next three weeks. You’re primed to be extra expressive and interesting. When you speak, you could be more beautiful than silence as much as 80 percent of the time.

TAURUS (April 20-May 20): Here’s the definition of an emotional support animal: “a companion animal that provides therapeutic benefit to a person with a mental or psychiatric disability.” I don’t mean to be flippant, but I think every one of us has at least one mental or psychiatric disability that would benefit from the company of an emotional support animal. If you were ever going to acquire such an ally, the coming weeks would be prime time to do so. I encourage you to also seek out other kinds of help and guidance and stimulation that you’d benefit from having. It’s the resource-gathering phase of your cycle. (PS: Cesar Chavez said: “You are never strong enough that you don’t need help.”)

GEMINI (May 21-June 20): A blogger named Valentine Cassius reports, “A tiny old woman came into the deli where I work and ordered a ‘wonderful turkey sandwich.’ When asked what she wanted on the sandwich other than turkey, she said ‘all of your most wonderful toppings.’” Here’s my response to that: The tiny old woman’s approach usually isn’t very effective. It’s almost always preferable to be very specific in knowing what you want and asking for it. But given the current astrological omens, I’ll make an exception for you in the next three weeks. I think you should be like the tiny old woman: Ask life, fate, people, spirits and gods to bring you all of their most wonderful toppings.

CANCER (June 21-July 22): “I am tired of trying to hold things together that cannot be held,” testifies Cancerian novelist Erin Morgenstern. “Tired of trying to control what cannot be controlled.” Here’s good news for her and all Cancerians. You have cosmic permission to surrender—to no longer try to hold things together that can’t be held or try to control what can’t be controlled. Maybe in a few weeks you will have gained so much relaxed new wisdom that you’ll be inspired to make fresh attempts at holding together and controlling. But that’s not for you to worry and wonder about right now. Your assignment is to nurture your psychological and spiritual health by letting go.

LEO (July 23-Aug. 22): Philosopher Georges Bataille wrote, “The lesson of ‘Wuthering Heights’ of Greek tragedy and, ultimately, of all religions, is that there is an instinctive tendency towards divine intoxication which the rational world of calculation cannot bear. This tendency is the opposite of Good. Good is based on common interest, which entails consideration of the future.” I’m going to dissent from Bataille’s view. I agree that we all have an instinctive longing for divine intoxication, but I believe that the rational world needs us to periodically fulfill our longing for divine intoxication. In fact, the rational world grows stale and begins to decay without these interludes. So the truth is that divine intoxication is crucial for the common good. I’m telling you this, Leo, because I think the coming weeks will be a favorable time for you to claim a healthy dose of divine intoxication.

VIRGO (Aug. 23-Sept. 22): Virgo actor Ingrid Bergman (1915–1982) won the most prestigious awards possible for her work in films, TV and theater: Oscars, Emmys, and a Tony. She was intelligent, talented and beautiful. Life was a challenge when she was growing up, though. She testified, “I was the shyest human ever invented, but I had a lion inside me that wouldn’t shut up.” If you have a sleeping lion inside you, Virgo, I expect it to wake up soon. And if your inner lion is already wide awake and you have a decent relationship with it, I suspect it may soon begin to come into its fuller glory.

LIBRA (Sept. 23-Oct. 22): Libran author Antonio Tabucchi described the frame of mind I recommend for you in the coming days. I hope you’ll be eager to embrace his far-reaching empathy. Like him, I trust you will expand your capacity to regard the whole world as your home. Here’s Tabucchi’s declaration: “Like a blazing comet, I’ve traversed infinite nights, interstellar spaces of the imagination, voluptuousness and fear. I’ve been a man, a woman, an old person, a little girl, I’ve been the crowds on the grand boulevards of the capital cities of the West, I’ve been the serene Buddha of the East. I’ve been the sun and the moon.”

SCORPIO (Oct. 23-Nov. 21): Author James Frey writes, “I used to think I was tough, but then I realized I wasn’t. I was fragile and I wore thick armor. And I hurt people so they couldn’t hurt me. And I thought that was what being tough was, but it isn’t.” I agree with Frey. The behavior he describes has nothing to do with being tough. So what does? That’s important for you to think about, because the coming weeks will be an excellent time to be tough in the best senses of the word. Here are my definitions: Being tough means never letting people disrespect you or abuse you, even as you cultivate empathy for how wounded everyone is. Being tough means loving yourself with such unconditional grace that you never act unkind out of a neurotic need to over-defend yourself. Being tough means being a compassionate truth-teller.

SAGITTARIUS (Nov. 22-Dec. 21): Fragile intensity or intense fragility? Ferocious gentleness or gentle ferocity? Vulnerable strength or strong vulnerability? I suspect these will be some of the paradoxical themes with which you’ll be delicately wrestling in the coming days. Other possibilities: sensitive audacity or audacious sensitivity; fluidic fire or fiery fluidity; crazy wisdom or wise craziness; penetrating softness or soft penetration; shaky poise or poised shakiness. My advice is to regard rich complexities like these as blessings, not confusions or inconveniences.

CAPRICORN (Dec. 22-Jan. 19): Birds that live in cities have come up with an ingenious adaptation. They use humans’ abandoned cigarette butts to build their nests. Somehow they discovered that nicotine is an insectide that dispels pests like fleas, lice and mites. Given your current astrological aspects, I’m guessing you could make metaphorically comparable adjustments in your own life. Are there ways you could use scraps and discards to your benefit?

AQUARIUS (Jan. 20-Feb. 18): A blogger named Raven testifies, “My heart is a toddler throwing a tantrum in a store and my brain is the parent who continues to shop.” I’m pleased to inform you, Aquarius, that your heart will NOT act like that toddler in the coming weeks. In fact, I believe your heart will be like a sage elder with growing wisdom in the arts intimacy and tenderness. In my vision of your life, your heart will guide you better than maybe it ever has. Now here’s a message to your brain: Listen to your heart!

PISCES (Feb. 19-March 20): The Voyager 1 space probe, launched by NASA in 1977, is now more than 14 billion miles from Earth. In contrast, the farthest humans have ever penetrated into the ground is 7.62 miles. It’s the Kola Superdeep Borehole in northwest Russia. Metaphorically speaking, these facts provide an evocative metaphor for the following truth: Most humans feel more confident and expansive about exploring the outer world than their inner realms. But I hope that in the coming weeks you will buck that trend, as you break all previous records for curious and luxurious exploration into your deepest psychic depths.

Homework: What image or symbol represents the fulfillment of your noble desires?

Magic helped us in pandemics before, and it can again

Magic helped us in pandemics before, and it can again | Psyche

Ezekiel raising the dead. Detail of a miniature from the Tales of Luqman, Arabic manuscript, c1583. Photo by DeAgostini/Getty

Matthew Melvin-Koushkiis an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of South Carolina. He is co-editor of the volumes Islamicate Occultism: New Perspectives (2017) and Islamicate Occult Sciences in Theory and Practice (2020), and among his forthcoming books is The Occult Science of Empire in Aqquyunlu-Safavid Iran (2022).

Edited by Sally Davies

26 MAY 2021 (

Humans often appear to react irrationally in the face of disease, as the COVID-19 pandemic has shown. Many cling to religion or become superstitious. Others become fatalistic. In times of plague and trauma, we moderns seek to protect ourselves with prayers, charms, sigils and spells as much as any medieval peasant. That a surgical mask is hygienic doesn’t make it any less of a magical symbol.

But perhaps magic – particularly plague magic – isn’t so irrational. Have humans always pursued the occult arts because they actually work, at least sometimes?

Despite the often blood-soaked history of the use of the term ‘magic’, we must remember that Western history is filled with thinkers who have defended its honour as good natural science – a tried-and-true technology for harnessing interactions between minds and bodies, human and otherwise. And their empirical claims were never tested more than during the centuries of plague.

During the previous millennium, the biggest boom in the practice of magic coincided with the Black Death in the mid-14th century. It was the deadliest pandemic in human history, killing as much as half the population of Asia, Africa and Europe – around 200 million souls. It caused major social and political transformations in the process: slaves, raiders and mystics became kings, and new empires were founded on predictions of the end of time. Plague isn’t merely a medieval curse, either; the bacterium responsible, Yersinia pestis, is very much still with us, genetically unchanged.

The Islamic world, my own area of focus as a historian of science and empire, was hit particularly hard by the plague – termed ta‘un in Arabic, meaning ‘smiter’. There, it helped give rise to what I call the ‘occult-scientific revolution’, where various occult sciences – astrology, alchemy, kabbalah, geomancy, dream interpretation – became an important basis for empire more than ever before. The ability to predict the future with divination, then change it with magic, was of obvious political, military and economic interest, and associated with Alexander the Great in particular. Western Europe saw a parallel upsurge of occultism – much of it from Arabic sources – which we now call the Renaissance. The scientific revolution that followed continued the same trend: historians now admit that saints of science such as Johannes Kepler, Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton were likewise raving occultists.

Medicine, too, was often classified and practised as an occult science among premodern Muslim, Jewish and Christian physicians. Many considered it alchemy’s sister, both sciences being predicated on the harnessing of cosmic correspondences and natural sympathies to restore elemental equilibrium in the human body – the definition of health. Techniques for life-extension were also central to the alchemical quest. The sweeping physical and sociopolitical imbalances wrought by plague were accordingly answered by an upsurge in medicine, occult and otherwise.

The Ottoman empire is a prime example of just such a sociobiological transformation. It controlled increasingly large areas of Asia, Europe and North Africa between the 14th and 20th centuries, and plague persisted there for its entire duration. In the name of public health, the Ottoman state sought to purge cities of both physical and moral contaminants, including prostitutes, beggars, illegal immigrants, criminals, bachelors and bachelorettes. While we haven’t gone so far as to outlaw bachelorhood, the effect of our own pandemic is comparable: 2020 and 2021 saw a ramping up of state control, too. Not unlike their modern counterparts in epidemiology and public health, the authors of the most important Ottoman plague treatises were leading scholars striving to combat this existential threat to state and society. They presented plague as a social problem, a disease of the body politic, just as much as an environmental problem. Unlike those of today’s experts, however, their manuals were often emphatically magical.

Wherever the pandemic hit hardest and longest, the occult arts boomed – as a scientific response

The most sophisticated and extensive of these manuals was the Treatise on Healing Epidemic Diseases by Taşköprizade Ahmed (1495-1561). As an imperial judge in Bursa and then Istanbul, as well as a famed encyclopaedist, historian and astronomer, Taşköprizade’s approach to this topic was very much cutting edge. His Arabic masterwork deals with the full range of legal, ethical, religious and especially medical responses to plague current by the 16th century, with an emphasis on experimentally proven methods.

Taşköprizade first offers a strong argument in favour of rational responses to plague: obviously, one should avoid or flee plague-stricken areas if possible. Here, he counters earlier Arabic plague treatises that denied the contagiousness of the disease and contested the legal permissibility of fleeing it. He also condemns the fatalistic attitude of some of his contemporaries, singling out mystics for derision. The correct procedure is to have faith in God – then protect yourself and others, preferably medically. Taşköprizade then categorises plague medicine as being either physical or spiritual. The first type includes standard pharmaceuticals derived from plants, animals or minerals; the second includes Quranic prayers and invocations of divine names, planets, angels or jinn by means of mathematical talismans.

Taşköprizade’s anti-plague talisman featuring a magic square based on the divine name ‘The Perduring’ (al-Baqi), Istanbul, Süleymaniye Library, MS Aşir Efendi 275/1, f 53a. Supplied by the author

As Taşköprizade asserts, however, spiritual medicine is more potent than physical medicine, though the two should always be combined to ensure the best health outcome. Likewise, to him, mental hygiene is at least as important as bodily hygiene for surviving a pandemic. He devotes a full third of this work to detailing a range of occult technologies as the most rigorously empirical means by which one can defend against or cure plague, giving many historical and contemporary examples of their success, some of which he witnessed himself. He ends by citing Plato and the Delian problem – which involves the creation of a cube double the volume of the first – as ultimate proof of the effectiveness of Pythagorean mathematical magic in averting the disease.

Taşköprizade is not unusual in the Western medical tradition in his emphasis on magic as simply good science. Contemporary Latin Christian authors of plague treatises did the same, though they focused more on alchemy than talismanry. But regardless of religious affiliation, wherever the pandemic hit hardest and longest, the occult arts boomed – as a rational, scientific response.

A similar sociobiological transformation took place in the 19th century, when two new pandemics joined plague to ravage much of the Islamic world: cholera and colonialism. The scholarly response was much the same: potions and prayer must be combined to combat them both. Some scholars went further, and declared European invasion to be cholera’s cause and twin, and likewise best resisted by magic

Under the Qajar dynasty, which ruled Iran from 1785 to 1925, most cities boasted gold anti-plague talismans that were buried at the city limits. The manufacture of such devices was an important service rendered to the state by many early modern philosophers. However, conniving princes reportedly sold some of these devices to English diplomats, after which cholera struck those cities. And both Iranian and Afghan rulers recruited astrologers and talismanists to help drive out Russian invaders. In Morocco to the far west, Mawlay al-Hasan I (who reigned 1873-94) took up the study of alchemy himself in a bid to transform the French into fish and cast them out to sea.

As these examples suggest, it’s normal for humans to turn to magic in times of trauma. So war, like plague, is also good for the occult business. Embattled Muslim philosophers sometimes acted as assassins-at-a-distance as part of their standard imperial repertoire. Similarly, the English occultist Dion Fortune led a Magical Battle of Britain against Nazi German invasion during the Second World War. And during the Cold War, both the Soviet and US militaries invested in psychical research and ufology. Reports of paranormal battlefield experiences are common, too.

By any premodern definition, the placebo effect is simply a form of magic

Why did, and do, most practitioners of spiritual medicine see it as a perfectly rational response? Why do premodern physicians often report its experimental success? Leaving aside the possible agency of spirits and other nonhuman entities, one factor is certain: the placebo effect. The term acquired its current English meaning in the 18th century thanks to Benjamin Franklin, who took part in a Parisian experiment designed to disprove mesmerism (the therapeutic magnetisation of water and metal). It refers to the clinical effectiveness of inert substitutes in healing disease, as long as the patient believes them to be a real drug. Animals and even plants respond similarly in laboratory experiments.

Despite the often dismissive use of the term, the placebo effect remains one of the most powerful effects in modern medicine. Its twin, the nocebo effect, can be equally powerful: if a patient has been advised to expect a negative side-effect, she could well go on to experience it. As for overall outcomes, even some of the most potent drugs have at most a 60 per cent efficacy, while placebos sit at 35-40 per cent. It’s also not clear to what extent the greater effectiveness of certain modern drugs is due to their marketing.

Under conditions of mass trauma, combined with sincere belief and mental focus, the effectiveness of the placebo often goes up sharply. Individual focus can be equally potent: research has shown that patients under hypnosis can endure surgery without anaesthesia and perform other physiological feats, such as stopping blood loss. Those suffering from dissociative identity disorder – likely a form of self-hypnosis in response to childhood trauma – are likewise able to change their physiology at will, whereby allergic reactions, musculature, body shape, handedness and vision often differ between personalities.

As it happens, creating extreme psychophysical conditions is also a prerequisite to the practice of many occult arts: fasting, prayer, isolation, a vegetarian diet, ritual cleanliness and constant vigil, for weeks, months or even years on end. Psychedelics might also be involved, which similarly produce an altered, hypnotic state of consciousness. The intense mental and physical engagement required by magical ritual can be thought of as artificial trauma: sensory deprivations create medicines that often work. On the other hand, failure to believe or to perform a ritual with technical precision normally results in the failure of the operation.

By any premodern definition, then, the placebo effect is simply a form of magic. Which term we use is unimportant for practical purposes: either way, the fact is that mind can affect matter under the right circumstances. The point is to harness these mind-matter interactions to achieve positive health outcomes.

This powerful, magical effect was recognised and routinely utilised – on the authority of Plato himself – by premodern Muslim, Jewish and Christian physicians. Our triumphalist narrative of scientific progress notwithstanding, and the antibiotic revolution aside, in many cases premodern treatments work roughly as well as modern medicine. Whether you believe in the authority of celestial spirits or of doctors in white lab coats, the effect is similar: astonishing reversals (or inducements) of disease can sometimes be achieved through the power of belief alone – especially when ritually, traumatically harnessed.

The witch doctor and the medical doctor have more in common than they might suppose. As such, perhaps we should take a page from our premodern predecessors and recognise that physical and mental hygiene are two sides of the same sociobiological coin. Pandemic diseases, once established in local biomes, can almost never be eradicated, only controlled and lived with, as human societies have done for millennia. But fear and paranoia are equally contagious, and can become pandemics in their own right. In a time of global traumas, it seems only rational to use the power of belief as part of our basic hygiene, too.

Class-Action Suit Against God Pays Out 45 Extra Seconds Of Life To Every Creature

Tuesday 12:10PM (

THE HEAVENS—Calling it a historic victory for all who have been victims of the Lord’s negligence, lawyers representing the planet’s estimated 20 quintillion animal inhabitants announced Tuesday that a class-action lawsuit against God would pay out an extra 45 seconds of life to each creature. “While no amount of extra time on this Earth can compensate for the many grave indignities He has inflicted upon His creation, we are nonetheless thankful that our clients will finally see some justice,” said lead attorney Landon Burke, who announced that anyone who believed they were owed restitution by God could reply to the notice they received in the mail or sign up online to receive their supplemental 45 seconds of life. “Less than a minute may not seem like much, but when you add it up, you are talking about a payout of almost 30 trillion years, a record judgment in a case of this kind. This is a huge win for humans, birds, fish, and insects—especially the mayfly, which unjustly received from its Creator an adulthood lasting less than a day. We hope, with this precedent, to establish once and for all that while He may be the Almighty, God is not above the law.” Pressed for comment by reporters, Burke confirmed that in exchange for their services, each member of his legal team would receive an additional 700 billion years of life.

Seneca on Grief and the Key to Resilience in the Face of Loss: An Extraordinary Letter to His Mother

By Maria Popova (


“Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be,” Joan Didion observed in her classic meditation on loss. Abraham Lincoln, in his moving letter of consolation to a grief-stricken young woman, wrote of how time transmutes grief into “a sad sweet feeling in your heart.” But what, exactly, is the mechanism of that transmutation and how do we master it before it masters us when grief descends in one of its unforeseeable guises?

Long before Didion, before Lincoln, another titan of thought — the great Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca — addressed this in what might be the crowning achievement in the canon of consolation letters, folding into his missive an elegant summation of Stoicism’s core tenets of resilience.

In the year 41, Seneca was sentenced to exile on the Mediterranean island of Corsica for an alleged affair with the emperor’s sister. Sometime in the next eighteen months, he penned one of his most extraordinary works — a letter of consolation to his mother, Helvia.

Helvia was a woman whose life had been marked by unimaginable loss — her own mother had died while giving birth to her, and she outlived her husband, her beloved uncle, and three of her grandchildren. Twenty days after one the grandchildren — Seneca’s own son — died in her arms, Helvia received news that Seneca had been taken away to Corsica, doomed to life in exile. This final misfortune, Seneca suggests, sent the lifelong tower of losses toppling over and crushing the old woman with grief, prompting him in turn to write Consolation to Helvia, included in his Dialogues and Letters (public library).

Although the piece belongs in the ancient genre of consolatio dating back to the fifth century B.C. — a literary tradition of essay-like letters written to comfort bereaved loved ones — what makes Seneca’s missive unusual is the very paradox that lends it its power: The person whose misfortune is being grieved is also the consoler of the griever.seneca-3.jpg?resize=680%2C600


Seneca writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngDearest mother,

I have often had the urge to console you and often restrained it. Many things have encouraged me to venture to do so. First, I thought I would be laying aside all my troubles when I had at least wiped away your tears, even if I could not stop them coming. Then, I did not doubt that I would have more power to raise you up if I had first risen myself… Staunching my own cut with my hand I was doing my best to crawl forward to bind up your wounds.

But what kept Seneca from intervening in his mother’s grief was, above all, the awareness that grief should be grieved rather than immediately treated as a problem to be solved and done away with. He writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngI realized that your grief should not be intruded upon while it was fresh and agonizing, in case the consolations themselves should rouse and inflame it: for an illness too nothing is more harmful than premature treatment. So I was waiting until your grief of itself should lose its force and, being softened by time to endure remedies, it would allow itself to be touched and handled.


[Now] I shall offer to the mind all its sorrows, all its mourning garments: this will not be a gentle prescription for healing, but cautery and the knife.


Art by Charlotte Pardi from Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved, a remarkable Danish illustrated meditation on love and loss

In consonance with his strategy for inoculating oneself against misfortune, Seneca considers the benefits of such a raw confrontation of sorrow:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngLet those people go on weeping and wailing whose self-indulgent minds have been weakened by long prosperity, let them collapse at the threat of the most trivial injuries; but let those who have spent all their years suffering disasters endure the worst afflictions with a brave and resolute staunchness.
Everlasting misfortune does have one blessing, that it ends up by toughening those whom it constantly afflicts.

In a sentiment of uncompromising Stoicism, he adds:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngAll your sorrows have been wasted on you if you have not yet learned how to be wretched.

Observing the particular difficulty of his situation — being both his mother’s consoler and the subject of her grief — Seneca finds amplified the general difficulty of finding adequate words in the face of loss:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngA man lifting his head from the very funeral pyre must need some novel vocabulary not drawn from ordinary everyday condolence to comfort his own dear ones. But every great and overpowering grief must take away the capacity to choose words, since it often stifles the voice itself.

Instead of mere words, Seneca proceeds to produce a rhetorical masterpiece, bringing the essence of Stoic philosophy to life with equal parts logic and literary flair. He writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngI decided to conquer your grief not to cheat it. But I shall do this, I think, first of all if I show that I am suffering nothing for which I could be called wretched, let alone make my relations wretched; then if I turn to you and show that your fortune, which is wholly dependent on mine, is also not painful.

First I shall deal with the fact, which your love is longing to hear, that I am suffering no affliction. I shall make it clear, if I can, that those very circumstances which you think are crushing me can be borne; but if you cannot believe that, at least I shall be more pleased with myself for being happy in conditions which normally make men wretched. There is no need to believe others about me: I am telling you firmly that I am not wretched, so that you won’t be agitated by uncertainty. To reassure you further, I shall add that I cannot even be made wretched.

We are born under circumstances that would be favourable if we did not abandon them. It was nature’s intention that there should be no need of great equipment for a good life: every individual can make himself happy. External goods are of trivial importance and without much influence in either direction: prosperity does not elevate the sage and adversity does not depress him. For he has always made the effort to rely as much as possible on himself and to derive all delight from himself.


Art by Maurice Sendak from We Are All in the Dumps With Jack and Guy

Echoing his animating ethos of deliberate preparation for the worst of times, he adds:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngFortune … falls heavily on those to whom she is unexpected; the man who is always expecting her easily withstands her. For an enemy’s arrival too scatters those whom it catches off guard; but those who have prepared in advance for the coming conflict, being properly drawn up and equipped, easily withstand the first onslaught, which is the most violent. Never have I trusted Fortune, even when she seemed to offer peace. All those blessings which she kindly bestowed on me — money, public office, influence — I relegated to a place whence she could claim them back without bothering me. I kept a wide gap between them and me, with the result that she has taken them away, not torn them away.

Seneca makes a sobering case for the most powerful self-protective mechanism in life — the discipline of not taking anything for granted:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngNo man has been shattered by the blows of Fortune unless he was first deceived by her favours. Those who loved her gifts as if they were their own for ever, who wanted to be admired on account of them, are laid low and grieve when the false and transient pleasures desert their vain and childish minds, ignorant of every stable pleasure. But the man who is not puffed up in good times does not collapse either when they change. His fortitude is already tested and he maintains a mind unconquered in the face of either condition: for in the midst of prosperity he has tried his own strength against adversity.

For this reason, Seneca points out, he has always regarded with skepticism the common goals after which people lust in life — money, fame, public favor — goals he has found to be “empty and daubed with showy and deceptive colours, with nothing inside to match their appearance.” But the converse, he argues, is equally true — the things people most commonly dread are as unworthy of dread to the wise person as the things they most desire are of wise desire. The very concept of exile, he assures his mother, seems so terrifying only because it has been filtered through the dread-lens of popular opinion.

With the logic of Stoicism, he goes on to comfort his mother by lifting this veil of common delusion. Urging her to “[put] aside this judgement of the majority who are carried away by the surface appearance of things,” he dismantles the alleged misfortune of all the elements of exile — displacement, poverty, public disgrace — to reveal that a person with interior stability of spirit and discipline of mind can remain happy under even the direst of circumstances. (Nearly two millennia later, Bruce Lee would incorporate this concept into his famous water metaphor for resilience and Viktor Frankl would echo it in his timeless assertion that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”)

Seneca then comes full-circle to his opening argument that grief is better confronted than resisted:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngIt is better to conquer our grief than to deceive it. For if it has withdrawn, being merely beguiled by pleasures and preoccupations, it starts up again and from its very respite gains force to savage us. But the grief that has been conquered by reason is calmed for ever. I am not therefore going to prescribe for you those remedies which I know many people have used, that you divert or cheer yourself by a long or pleasant journey abroad, or spend a lot of time carefully going through your accounts and administering your estate, or constantly be involved in some new activity. All those things help only for a short time; they do not cure grief but hinder it. But I would rather end it than distract it.


Art from Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch, an uncommonly tender illustrated meditation on life and death

Seneca points unwaveringly to philosophy and the liberal arts as the most powerful tools of consolation in facing the universal human experience of loss — tools just as mighty today as they were in his day. Commending his mother for having already reaped the rewards of liberal studies despite the meager educational opportunities for women at the time, he writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngI am leading you to that resource which must be the refuge of all who are flying from Fortune, liberal studies. They will heal your wound, they will withdraw all your melancholy. Even if you had never been familiar with them you would have need of them now. But, so far as the old-fashioned strictness of my father allowed, you have had some acquaintance with the liberal arts, even if you have not mastered them. If only my father, best of men, had been less devoted to ancestral tradition and had been willing that you be steeped in the teaching of philosophy and not just gain a smattering of it: you would not now have to acquire your defence against Fortune but just bring it forth. He was less inclined to let you pursue your studies because of those women who use books not to acquire wisdom but as the furniture of luxury. Yet thanks to your vigorously inquiring mind you absorbed a lot considering the time you had available: the foundations of all formal studies have been laid. Return now to these studies and they will keep you safe. They will comfort you, they will delight you; and if they genuinely penetrate your mind, never again will grief enter there, or anxiety, or the distress caused by futile and pointless suffering. Your heart will have room for none of these, for to all other failings it has long been closed. Those studies are your most dependable protection, and they alone can snatch you from Fortune’s grip.

He concludes by addressing the inevitability of his mother’s sorrowful thoughts returning to his own exile, deliberately reframeing his misfortune for her:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThis is how you must think of me — happy and cheerful as if in the best of circumstances. For they are best, since my mind, without any preoccupation, is free for its own tasks, now delighting in more trivial studies, now in its eagerness for the truth rising up to ponder its own nature and that of the universe. It seeks to know first about lands and their location, then the nature of the encompassing sea and its tidal ebb and flow. Then it studies all the awesome expanse which lies between heaven and earth — this nearer space turbulent with thunder, lightning, gales of wind, and falling rain, snow and hail. Finally, having scoured the lower areas it bursts through to the heights and enjoys the noblest sight of divine things and, mindful of its own immortality, it ranges over all that has been and will be throughout all ages.

The full letter was later included as an appendix to the Penguin edition of On the Shortness of Life (public library) — Seneca’s timeless 2,000-year-old treatise on busyness and the art of living wide rather than long. Complement it with these unusual children’s books about navigating grief, a Zen teacher on how to live through loss, and more masterworks of consolation from such luminaries as Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin, Alan Turing, and Albert Einstein, then revisit the great Stoics philosophers’ wisdom on character, fortitude, and self-control.


A century ago, a prosperous Black neighborhood in Tulsa, Okla., perished at the hands of a violent white mob.

The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 killed hundreds of residents, burned more than 1,250 homes and erased years of Black success.

By Yuliya Parshina-KottasAnjali SinghviAudra D.S. BurchTroy GriggsMika Gröndahl, Lingdong Huang, Tim WallaceJeremy White and Josh Williams

May 24, 2021 (

Imagine a community of great possibilities and prosperity built by Black people for Black people. Places to work. Places to live. Places to learn and shop and play. Places to worship.

Now imagine it being ravaged by flames.

In May 1921, the Tulsa, Okla., neighborhood of Greenwood was a fully realized antidote to the racial oppression of the time. Built in the early part of the century in a northern pocket of the city, it was a thriving community of commerce and family life to its roughly 10,000 residents.

Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa, Okla., was the pulse of the Black business community.Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Brick and wood-frame homes dotted the landscape, along with blocks lined with grocery stores, hotels, nightclubs, billiard halls, theaters, doctor’s offices and churches.

Greenwood was so promising, so vibrant that it became home to what was known as America’s Black Wall Street. But what took years to build was erased in less than 24 hours by racial violence — sending the dead into mass graves and forever altering family trees.

Hundreds of Greenwood residents were brutally killed, their homes and businesses wiped out. They were casualties of a furious and heavily armed white mob of looters and arsonists. One factor that drove the violence: resentment toward the Black prosperity found in block after block of Greenwood.

The financial toll of the massacre is evident in the $1.8 million in property loss claims — $27 million in today’s dollars — detailed in a 2001 state commission report. For two decades, the report has been one of the most comprehensive accounts to reveal the horrific details of the massacre — among the worst racial terror attacks in the nation’s history — as well as the government’s culpability.

Greenwood Avenue, for years a thriving hub, was destroyed by racial violence in less than 24 hours.Department of Special Collections and University Archives, McFarlin Library at The University of Tulsa

The destruction of property is only one piece of the financial devastation that the massacre wrought. Much bigger is a sobering kind of inheritance: the incalculable and enduring loss of what could have been, and the generational wealth that might have shaped and secured the fortunes of Black children and grandchildren.

“What if we had been allowed to maintain our family business?” asked Brenda Nails-Alford, who is in her early 60s. The Greenwood Avenue shoe shop of her grandfather and his brother was destroyed. “If they had been allowed to carry on that legacy,” she said, “there’s no telling where we could be now.”

For decades, what happened in Greenwood was willfully buried in history. Piecing together archival maps and photographs, with guidance from historians, The New York Times constructed a 3-D model of the Greenwood neighborhood as it was before the destruction. The Times also analyzed census data, city directories, newspaper articles, and survivor tapes and testimonies from that time to show the types of people who made up the neighborhood and contributed to its vibrancy.


Perhaps no other collection of businesses tells the story of Greenwood and Black entrepreneurship better than the 100 block of Greenwood Avenue, rising near the southern tip of the neighborhood. This marquee block was the pulse of the Black business community.























More than 70 businesses operated in mostly one-, two- and three-story red brick buildings clustered along the block. All but a couple were owned by Black entrepreneurs.

In this stretch alone, there were four hotels, two newspapers, eight doctors, seven barbers, nine restaurants and a half-dozen professional offices of real estate agents, dentists and lawyers. A cabaret and a cigar shop were on the block, too.

You could shop for groceries, play pool, take in a theater show, eat dinner or get your hair styled — without ever leaving the block.

“My grandfather often talked about how you could enjoy a full life in Greenwood, that everything you needed or wanted was in Greenwood. You never had to go anywhere,” said Star Williams, 40, the granddaughter of Otis Grandville Clark, who was 18 during the massacre. “He talked about seeing Black success and how his sense of identity and pride came from Greenwood.”

The businesses on Greenwood Avenue were owned by people who were among Tulsa’s most prominent Black citizens.









Tulsa Historical Society and Museum

Loula and John Williams came to embody the entrepreneurial spirit of Greenwood. They owned a confectionery at 102 Greenwood Avenue, and the East End Garage around the corner on Archer Street.

The Tulsa Star

The couple also owned the 750-seat Williams Dreamland Theatre, at 129 Greenwood Avenue, the first movie house for Black people in the city. It offered both silent films and live shows, and was also a community gathering spot.

Dr. R.T. Bridgewater was a physician with a practice in the Woods Building, at 101-105 Greenwood Avenue. He owned 17 houses and was also a community leader. The Tulsa Star, a Black-owned newspaper, called his home on the affluent North Detroit Street “palatial.”

Tulsa Historical Society and Museum (left); Oliver Thompson, the great-grandnephew of Mabel Little, via Tulsa Historical Society and Museum

Several women set up shop as entrepreneurs in the same building. Mary E. Jones Parrish, left, was a teacher and journalist who operated a typing school. Mabel B. Little ran the Little Rose Beauty Salon.

Susie Bell ran an upscale restaurant called Bell and Little Cafe with her brother, Presley Little, Ms. Little’s husband. It offered six-course meals that were written about in The Tulsa Star.

Tennessee State Library and Archives

Buck Colbert Franklin, a lawyer, had an office inside a building owned by O.W. Gurley, one of Greenwood’s founders. After the massacre, Mr. Franklin provided legal services from a tent.

Tulsa Historical Society and Museum

James Nails, shown here, and his brother Henry ran a shoe shop in the Gist Building at 121 Greenwood Avenue. The shop carried Black Swan records, and the family also owned a dance pavilion and skating rink in the community.

A. J. Smitherman, a journalist and civil rights activist, founded The Tulsa Star, which was headquartered at 126 Greenwood Avenue. The paper reported on stories of racial violence and advocated for the rights of African-Americans.

Laurel Stradford, Stradford family historian

J.B. Stradford, shown with his wife, opened the posh 54-room Stradford Hotel at 301 Greenwood Avenue in 1918. It was considered among the nation’s best hotels for African-Americans at the time.


Mr. Stradford and Mr. Gurley — who purchased large tracts of land in the early 1900s — were among the founders of Greenwood. They began building on the northern side of Tulsa beyond the railroad tracks, forming the bones of the city’s predominantly Black neighborhood that was separate from the white side of town.

Greenwood was one of the few places in the country offering Black citizens — less than six decades out of enslavement — a three-dimensional life.




































By 1921, Greenwood had grown into a 35-block neighborhood with a bustling retail scene, as well as two schools, two newspapers and a hospital. Here, some of the community’s key places are shown in orange.

Tulsa Historical Society and Museum

Booker T. Washington School, which opened in 1913 with 14 students, had moved into its three-story brick building in 1920. It would serve as a hospital and relief center after the massacre.

Tulsa Historical Society and Museum

Mount Zion Baptist Church was among some half-dozen churches that burned. It was the city’s largest Black church.

There was also a small juke joint called Zulu Lounge owned by Isaac Evitt, who worked by day on a farm, but after dark, flung open the doors of Zulu.

In the evenings, residents had their choice of entertainment. Survivor accounts that were relayed to relatives recall neighbors getting “gussied up” to gather in Greenwood, with Thursdays being big because of “Maids’ Night Out.” Black domestics, many of them live-in workers who cleaned the homes of white residents across town, were off that day.

Many African-Americans migrated to Tulsa after the Civil War, carrying dreams of new chapters and the kind of freedom found in owning businesses. Others made a living working as maids, waiters, chauffeurs, shoe shiners and cooks for Tulsa’s new oil class.

In Greenwood, residents held more than 200 different types of jobs. About 40 percent of the community’s residents were professionals or skilled craftspeople, like doctors, pharmacists, carpenters and hairdressers, according to a Times analysis of the 1920 census. While a vast majority of the neighborhood rented, many residents owned their homes.


Book: “The Premonition”

Michael Lewis Chronicles the Story of Covid’s Cassandras

A Covid testing site in New York City in early April 2020 when the virus began raging in the United States.
A Covid testing site in New York City in early April 2020 when the virus began raging in the United States.Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

By Nicholas Confessore

  • May 6, 2021 (

A Pandemic Story
By Michael Lewis

We are almost halfway through “The Premonition,” Michael Lewis’s maddening account of America’s bungled response to the Covid pandemic, when an unsung health official in California, making her birthday resolutions, scrawls a foreboding note to herself: “It Has Started.” The official is Charity Dean, who sounds a little like the half-crazed scientist in a science fiction movie, suddenly realizing that the aliens are about to land.

It is December 2019. Dean, who will spend the next months trying and failing to prevent a national catastrophe, does not yet know what, exactly, has started. But we do. The coronavirus will spread from China to California, where Dean was then the state’s No. 2 public health official, and soon enough to everywhere else. As I write, Covid has killed more than three million people worldwide, including over half a million Americans, and is now burning ferociously anew through India.

We do not yet know how the movie ends. But Lewis, whose book is among the first wave of narrative accounts of the pandemic, is more interested in how it began. Believed to be the rich country best prepared for a pandemic, we ended up with almost a fifth of the world’s Covid deaths. Popular blame has centered, not undeservedly, on former President Donald Trump, who ignored his advisers’ warnings, publicly downplayed Covid’s dangers in the hopes of preserving his re-election chances and left states to fend for themselves. But Lewis has a different thesis. As one character puts it, “Trump was a comorbidity.” The rot ran deep through the American system of public health, and in particular the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, once considered a crown jewel of American government.

We learn this in a looping, indirect way, through the intertwined back stories of Lewis’s half-dozen or so central characters. When Dean was a young county public health officer in Santa Barbara, her efforts to contain a 2013 meningitis outbreak taught her that the C.D.C. could be useless in a crisis — part of a system “designed to foist political risk” onto an institution that “had no social power.”

We meet Carter Mecher, a doctor and an autodidact working at the Department of Veterans Affairs who has a knack for seeing how systems fail. Drafted by the George W. Bush administration to help develop the United States’ first real pandemic response plan, Mecher learns that, as the C.D.C. saw things, there was little the country could do in a pandemic but isolate the sick and wait for a vaccine. There is Joe DeRisi, a genius biochemist in California whose hand-built gene analyzer helps identify the first SARS virus, but who is met “with boredom and blank stares” when he presents his technology to the C.D.C. As always, Lewis likes brilliant odd ducks — people who don’t have the usual credentials or the “right” ideas, but who turn out to be right. His subjects here are Cassandras: Blessed with uncanny foresight, doomed to be disbelieved.

In “The Premonition,” Lewis makes the most of his conceit, flashing backward and forward through the decades to show us how and when the warning signs flashed. The central lesson of his book is that beating a pandemic means acting before the danger is clear — a mind-set that politicians and bureaucracies are terrible at embracing. It is Mecher and his colleagues on the Bush task force who rediscover the idea of social distancing and, after studying the 1918 flu pandemic, draft a plan to shut down schools and encourage Americans to work from home in the case of a pandemic.ImageMichael LewisCredit…Tabitha Soren

The C.D.C. at first resists such drastic measures, but in Lewis’s cinematic telling, Mecher and his co-conspirators essentially fool the bureaucrats into thinking that the new interventions were their idea. (At one point, Mecher sneaks into the office of a C.D.C. official and borrows a computer there to type out what would become the C.D.C.’s social-distancing policy.) Yet when the new protocol meets its first test, during the 2009 swine flu outbreak, politics overrides planning. Amid intense uncertainty about the new flu’s deadliness, President Obama decides against setting the pandemic plan in motion. When the virus proves less lethal than it first appeared, and the outbreak dissipates without widespread death, government learns the wrong lesson: that Obama was right not to overreact.

One big problem with pandemics, Lewis observes, is that human brains — and, by extension, human bureaucracies — are simply not wired to grasp exponential growth. If you take a penny and double it every day for 30 days, you’d end up with $5 million. “The same mental glitch that leads people to not realize the power of compound interest,” Lewis writes, “blinds them to the importance of intervening before a pathogen explodes.”

When the first Covid cases emerge in Wuhan, Mecher begins trading emails with his old comrades (nicknamed the Wolverines, after the scrappy American teenagers fighting off a Soviet invasion in the ’80s flick “Red Dawn”). Using back-of-the-envelope math — “redneck epidemiology,” Mecher calls it — the Wolverines realize that there are thousands more cases in China than acknowledged. Yet when the first American case is confirmed, Trump dismisses the danger, saying “It’s one person” and “We have it under control.” By then, the Wolverine email list includes people from all around the government who are supposed to be executing the United States’ pandemic response. But in those critical early weeks, C.D.C. officials repeatedly downplayed Covid. They wanted more data. They didn’t want to act until the danger was clear.

Some of this story has been told before, including in this newspaper. But Lewis brings a welcome gimlet eye to the Trump era, when government officials abused by Trump were instinctively deified by liberal Twitter and cable TV. When a C.D.C. official named Nancy Messonnier defied Trump and announced, last February, that the spread of the disease was inevitable, “people were soon saying how brave Messonnier had been to say that the virus could not be stopped.” The reality, Lewis argues, is that the C.D.C. did not even try.

But the lessons of the “The Premonition” apply to more than just the C.D.C. — they tell us why government bureaucracies fail. The problem wasn’t just in Washington, or with Trump. The bureaucratic disease of under-reaction, Lewis argues, runs deep in America’s fragmented, underfunded health system. After Charity Dean scrawled her prophecy in December 2019, the Covid virus broke out in Wuhan. Scanning Twitter and Chinese websites, Dean formed a picture of impending doom. She brought her urgent concerns to her new boss at California’s Department of Public Health, Sonia Angell, a former C.D.C. official who had little experience in infectious disease but a glittering résumé “righting racial injustice in health care,” as Lewis puts it.

According to Dean, Angell choked. She banned Dean from using the word “pandemic,” cut her out of meetings and yelled at her when Dean deliberately left a paper trail about the coming disaster. Angell insisted on deferring to the paralyzed C.D.C., where officials had by then flipped from claiming the virus was no big risk to insisting nothing could be done to stop it. (Angell would resign months later, her departure publicly attributed to a Covid-testing data screw-up.) Only with the help of a couple of Silicon Valley executives — who almost instantly realized Dean was right — did Dean persuade California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, to issue a stay-at-home order.

Not quickly enough. The aliens had landed. The virus was already among us. By the time it was politically convenient to act, the pandemic was already too late to stop.

(Contributed by Michael Kelly, H.W.)

Michael Lewis Is Asking the Right Question

Why did America’s pandemic response fail so miserably?

Tuesday, May 11th, 2021 (

By Ezra Klein

I’m Ezra Klein, and this is “The Ezra Klein Show.”

All right. Before we get into it today, a job announcement. We’re looking for a senior editor for the show. Someone who really understands the show, and the space it occupies, and the kinds of ideas and people that it focuses on. Someone who is really good, loves shaping and editing episodes. This is an editor role. And who will work with me to manage a team and to chart the future of the show. This is, as the title suggests, a senior role — a senior editor. So you need seven years at least of editing experience. It doesn’t all need to be in audio, but some of it should be. And at least two years of management experience. I’ll put the link to the job listing in the show description or you can find it by going to But to the episode today — I have to tell you I struggled with Michael Lewis’s new book “The Premonition.” Not the reading it, of course. It’s a joy to read, like everything Michael Lewis does. But I did struggle with its central argument. This book is asking exactly the right question and one we we’re not asking enough in America. How could we have stopped coronavirus from becoming a pandemic here in the first place? Because once you have a pandemic, everything you might do to stop it is either going to be draconian or it’s going to be not enough. So you need to do is not let it become a pandemic in the first place. And there were people who had that plan. Michael Lewis’ book — he’s following characters who saw this coming early and were trying to raise the alarms on it. Carter Mecher, a pandemic expert from the George W. Bush administration, who helped design the government’s pandemic playbook. And he saw really clearly, really early, and was trying to tell others what this was going to be. Charity Dean, a public health official in California, who was fighting her own bureaucracy, her own state, to get them to take this as seriously as the world-shaking event it would later prove to be. And there are villains in this book. And I would say one in particular. It’s the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And I don’t want there to be any doubt on my position on this or simply the reality of this. They screwed up in a profound way. First and foremost, by insisting on making their own test and then failing to make a useful test, costing us unbelievably crucial time and information right at the beginning of the pandemic. There is blood on their hands. And yet, for that, I am not sure that the kind of pandemic response Lewis is lionizing here was possible in America ever, because to do this, to have the kind of aggressive public health lock-downs he’s talking about, or his characters are talking about, it wouldn’t just be for this pandemic. We’d be locking down every few years, because every few years we see diseases that could become the next pandemic. And we never know which one it will be. So what would happen if regulators tried to lock us down each time? Would people listen to that? You look around at the way this country has fought shutting down, has fought school closures, fought masks, even when thousands of people were dying each day. You look at how many people won’t take a vaccine even now. And you ask, could we have really done what Lewis’ characters are saying we could have. What are the actual constraints of the public — the constraints the public imposes on public health. So the question then it’s not just what the right playbook would have said we should have done, but realistic, what could we do? And what’s the optimal strategy given what we’ve learned about people and politics in this pandemic? And then maybe what are the new strategies that have emerged now that people understand how bad a pandemic could be? So that’s what this conversation is about. I think it’s one of the most important policy questions we need to answer. As always, my email is

Here’s Michael Lewis.

This is a book that is centered around the failures of the CDC and why they happened. But before we get into the why, tell me the what. What were the CDC’s key failures in your view?

Michael Lewis

Key failure number one, not facing up to the severity of what was going on in Wuhan as early as you could have done it. I would say January 20, when my characters have a real bead on what the transmissibility and the lethality of it is. And they had connections within the CDC. They’re talking. They’re trying to get them to pay attention. The “head-in-the-sandness,” kind of, of it. Two, being proprietary about COVID testing so that they created in our government a single point of failure. So that when their test didn’t work, we had no test. And that’s not just the CDC. That’s the FDA, because the FDA was insisting that people use the CDC’s test. We have more microbiology labs than any other country on Earth. They could all have whipped up COVID tests and some of them did. We could have done it a completely different way. Not just that the tests failed, but instead of responding to the failure by saying, this isn’t working, we got to find a different way, clinging to the authority to create a test. That would be two. Three, in the midst of all this, not being able to stand up to Donald Trump and say, what you’re saying about this is false. You’d lose your job maybe. But there was a public information role that they failed repeatedly with. And they failed in both directions. It’s interesting. Saying that masks didn’t do anything, because they didn’t have masks. But also, remember early on there was an obsession with fomites. You can get this thing off of surfaces. And you were cleaning your newspaper before you got it off your front porch if you got

Ezra Klein

Yeah, people were Lysoling their groceries.

Michael Lewis

All that. Think about the expense that the whole society has gone to because the CDC only like last week said, actually, that’s not that big a deal. They could have said that last May. So the guidance has been bizarre.

Ezra Klein

You root a lot of these failures in a risk-averse culture at the CDC. So let’s ground this conversation in history there. Tell me about the 1976 flu outbreak and the fallout to the CDC’s response.

Michael Lewis

Yeah, because that’s the moment where the CDC starts to change. Fort Dix, New Jersey, end of the flu season in ‘76. Some soldiers become ill. One dies. Scientists isolate a new strain of the swine flu. To the best of everybody’s knowledge, they’d never seen a new strain of a flu that was so transmissible and lethal that didn’t result eventually in a pandemic. And so instantly there’s a crisis. The CDC gathers all relevant experts to talk about what to do. It’s presided over by the — and career public servant, David Sencer, who’s the head of the CDC. And there’s a consensus that they should go as fast as possible to vaccinate the American population against this thing, because in the fall it’s coming kind of thing. Sencer, who’s presiding over the meeting, drafts a memo with just his name on it to the then Ford administration saying that this is what we think you should do. And the Ford administration feels, I think, backed into a corner. But also, this is what the experts are saying, so they go and do it. Flash forward to the fall and the vaccine is administered to — I don’t know, I can’t remember — but many millions of Americans. And first, some people get sick. The illness is actually unrelated to the vaccine. Random chance alone some people are going to get sick after they get the vaccine. But the vaccine is blamed on the evening news. Walter Cronkite actually apologizes for that report. And then after that, people actually get sick because of the vaccine. So some people die because of the vaccine. And the swine flu doesn’t come. So overnight, David Sencer goes from trusted leader of the Centers for Disease Control to scapegoat. And the Carter administration has arrived. And they fire him and then commission a book. It demonizes Sencer. And it actually ignores the whole process that led to the decision, which was actually a good process. It was decision-making with a lot of ambiguity and conditions of uncertainty. No one has ever seen a highly transmissible and lethal new strain of the virus not result in a pandemic. The American people had no immunity to it. Everybody basically agreed that’s what you should do is vaccinate them. And if you don’t vaccinate and it happens, you’re going to have a lot of death on your hands. It’s the first step in what then happens over the next six to seven years in the CDC of the politicization of the CDC. Flash forward a few years later and the Reagan administration is starting to insist the CDC do things that are alien to them. I mean, shut down research programs because it angers aspirin manufacturers. That kind of thing. And the Reagan administration decides to change the job of running the CDC. It’s no longer a career civil servant who is basically bubbled up with the approval of his peers. It’s going to be a presidential appointee. That’s a moment where the culture changed. And you can see why, because it goes from being a place that’s run by someone who might run for 10 or 15 years, and who is not beholden to any particular president or White House, and who’s been selected largely because his field finds him highly competent, to someone who’s selected from a smaller pool of possibly very competent people, but who happen to please politically who happens — whoever happens to be in the White House. And that director is going to serve for on average a couple of years. And so it’s like giving a house to a renter instead of a homeowner. They’re just going to behave differently. Their concerns are going to be different. The decision-making is going to be on a shorter political leash. So this is at the end of the book, not the beginning. But it was my attempt to figure out how this institution, the Centers for Disease Control, had acquired this illustrious reputation for controlling disease and why it was so different from that reputation.

Ezra Klein

But I start with it, because it seems to me to frame the question of the book really well. Which is, how much do regulators and public authorities — public health authorities — have to worry about the public? And how much can they do things that the public may not want them to do? So I want to do one more historical story before we get into this pandemic, which is H1N1. Talk a bit about what almost happened during H1N1, which is a more modern precursor to coronavirus.

Michael Lewis

Right. That’s 2009. That’s an actual pandemic.

Ezra Klein

Actual pandemic.

Michael Lewis

An incredible number of Americans were infected with that strain of swine flu. The problem early on — and again, in the beginning of a pandemic, it’s very hard to tell what’s going on, which seems strange. You would think, oh, it’s easy to tell what’s going on. But waves of death inside an ICU in Mexico, gruesome reports coming out of Argentina. It looks like it’s really lethal and you just don’t know. And in the Obama White House sat one of my main characters, Carter Mecher, who had been a holdover from the Bush White House and who had essentially created the U.S. pandemic response. The Bush administration had invented the idea of pandemic strategy. Crafted one in the form of a booklet inside the CDC. And then left it to the Obama administration. And he was just supposed to be there for six months. And then when he trained up his successors, he would leave. But he’s there and he happens to be a pandemic savant. But he knew that he didn’t know what was going on. But he thought in an abundance of caution, we need to treat this thing like it’s lethal. And the CDC actually disagreed. The CDC — its advice was don’t rush to vaccinate. We want to wait and see and gather more data. That’s kind of the thing.

Ezra Klein

And he wants to close schools, right? He wants to do the whole thing.

Michael Lewis

In the very beginning, yes, until they know what they’re dealing with. And the problem generally with waiting to have more data is that by that time you have data, it’s over. The war is over. When you’re looking at disease in the society, you’re looking at star light, as Carter would say, or you’re driving by looking in the rear-view mirror. A death today is an infection from five or six weeks ago with a virus that’s multiplying exponentially. And so if you’ve got one death, you’ve got thousands of cases, kind of thing. And so he was trying to explain to the Obama White House that, yeah, there’s no evidence here that it’s lethal yet, but we don’t know. So Obama decided, rightly as it turned out, not to listen to him. The CDC’s advice to wait until they had certainty ended up being the smart advice. However, one of my other main characters, Richard Hatchett, another doctor who was in the Bush White House, was brought back in to help Carter Mecher manage this thing. He kept a journal through that time. And Hatchett, in the course of the journal, you see him realizing that, yeah, they created this pandemic plan, but had the swine flu actually been lethal, it would have been catastrophic given the response. And he tells Obama, it’s not that we dodged a bullet, it’s that nature shot us with a BB gun and we got lucky. And to his credit, the Obama White House learns a lesson from this. And the lesson is actually you’re not going to manage a pandemic out of the CDC. You’re going to get a particular point of view out of the CDC that is going to be afraid to stick its neck out, insisting on certainty. Whereas, if you wait until you have certainty, it’s too late. And so the Obama administration actually from then on elects to manage pandemics out of the White House. They put a pandemic manager onto the National Security Council, who is directly talking to the president and coordinating the various federal agencies. It’s a position Trump ends up getting rid of. But they learn all over again what the Bush administration learned on its own, which was that the Centers for Disease Control is not really equipped to control disease.

Ezra Klein

So I’m going to try to take the side of the CDC for some of this conversation, because this is a very critical of the CDC book. And I agree with a lot of the criticisms. I’ll be clear on this. But the weakness of them, I think, is that I am not sure an agency could do what these characters — your renegade epidemiologists — want to do. And that’s the part of this I want to push on. So we’ve watched during this pandemic that even when the virus is out there killing your friends and neighbors, there are people who will not mask. There are people who will not take a vaccine. There are people who will not socially distance. Kids will go to parties on colleges. The key argument made by a lot of your players — and it’s completely true. I mean, on the facts it is completely true. It is that when you do not know how bad this can be, that is the time to stop it. Lock things down.

Michael Lewis

You could contain it.

Ezra Klein

You can contain it. You can actually beat the virus. You don’t —

Michael Lewis

Australia did this.

Ezra Klein

Yeah, you don’t have to wait till the fire is raging out of control.

Michael Lewis


Ezra Klein

At the same time, a lot of these come up. I mean, H1N1 being another example. SARS was a possibility. We could have done a lot more here about Ebola and some people were arguing for that. A lot of things come up that you might implement the hard core pandemic playbook to stop and then they fizzle. And if you do that five or six times, the worry of the politicians, of the CDC is that you can’t take the public out of public health. And that there’s going to be a backlash. You’ll lose your seat. You’ll lose the government. The CDC will get neutered the way it was in the ‘80s under Reagan. And so they are not free to take this advice. And so this is my question for you, having talked to these people, do you think it would have been possible to do what they had wanted to do when they had wanted to do it? Do you think a different agency, a different presidential administration could have gotten Americans to go into that kind of lockdown before we knew how bad this was, when there was just a cruise ship docked, I think not that many miles from where we are now.

Michael Lewis

You mean, would we have to be a different society in order to pull this off?

Ezra Klein


Michael Lewis

How different are we from Australia? You would have to pull it off for a matter of a couple of months before everybody saw the wisdom of what you’ve done, because you’d be looking at other countries where there was raging disease.

Ezra Klein

But that’s this time.

Michael Lewis


Ezra Klein

If you had done this three or four times —

Michael Lewis

I thought we were talking about this time.

Ezra Klein

But I’m talking about all of them, because you would have — in a world where we listen to these folks who would have done it for H1N1, we might have done it for Ebola.

Michael Lewis

I think you’re imagining a response that even they’re not imagining. They’re not thinking shut down the society. Closing schools is a particular thing. One of the things that Carter Mecher and the inventors of pandemic response figure out is just how central schools are to disease transmission. So that’s a peculiar thing. And it’s not shutting schools for months. It’s shutting them for a couple of weeks. I could imagine a world where we build in as a society a kind of rapid response to a virus that is minimal. It’s like the least you have to do that doesn’t involve closing businesses, for example. That may involve some hesitation about mass gatherings in schools. So this is a matter of public education. I mean, I don’t think that you can be fatalistic about this. And I mean the leadership we had made it impossible. And it wasn’t just the leadership. Even if we had taken the action that these people would have liked to have taken, it has no purpose if you don’t have COVID testing. And we wouldn’t have had testing. But as a society, could we create a mechanism to respond more intelligently than we have in the past? Yes, totally. But you can’t just do it. You have to explain it. You have to say, look, this is going to happen again. It’s like a hurricane. Think about hurricane response. When I was growing up in New Orleans, nobody evacuated. And if you told people they would have to evacuate, they’d say, no, you could never pull that off. You’re not going to get everybody to leave New Orleans. Katrina happens. The meteorologists say it’s time to get in your car. People get in their car. So you can change the culture on these subjects. And when they’ve now had this experience, I think going forward it’s probably easier to change the culture.

Ezra Klein

Yeah, that I think it’s possible now in the same way that I think you see remarkable responses in South Korea and Taiwan and some of the countries that dealt with SARS and MERS at different points. But let’s go back. Let’s imagine a better political equilibrium. So let’s say that in 2012 the election had gone differently and Mitt Romney was in his second term. A lot of your main characters are Bush holdovers. They come back. What should we have done? What would the plan have looked like? And when would it have gone into place?

Michael Lewis

First, what they would have done is they would not have had this single point of failure at the CDC. So you would have had testing. You would have had it run out of the White House in a much more aggressive way. So let’s assume we have testing like everybody else. Very early on everybody coming into the country is tested for COVID. Everybody quarantines for 14 days. That’s the first thing. There would have been severe travel restrictions I think right up front. They would have closed schools.

Ezra Klein

When would they have closed schools?

Michael Lewis

January 20. There’s a constraint here that they may not have had if they— in a different world. They might have had better relations with the Chinese, so they would have had better data out of China. But even with the data that Carter Mecher is able to get off Chinese websites and from Chinese morgues, and the way he was trying to figure out what the transmissibility and the lethality of it was, he had a bead on the thing on January 20.

Ezra Klein

Do you think people would have accepted the school closure in January of 2020?

Michael Lewis

If you explain it badly, no. Do I think you could sell it with some pictures from Wuhan? Maybe. And if not January 20, February 20. I mean, but it’s event — maybe you need the pictures from Italy. I don’t know what you need. But you’re not necessarily closing the schools for good. You’re closing the schools to see where the virus is. And you wouldn’t have been in the position Carter Mecher was in trying to find all kinds of bizarre ways to find the virus, like testing people who have flu-like symptoms everywhere in America when they wander into clinics for COVID. So when you ask me those hypotheticals — would people have accepted — I always think what people accept depends on how they are led. Do I think that a leader could have led them there? Yeah, I think it’s possible. You lay out what you think might be happening. You scare the hell out of everybody. We’re not doing this permanently. We’re doing this until we know what this thing is. And then what we hope to do is contain it so we can have our economy back. So you’re asking me would we have taken a shot at containment? Could you have led people to have a shot at containment? I think it’s possible.

Ezra Klein

I’m pushing on this because I think it’s the core question. What I like so much about the book is you’re having the right debate in it. I think so far debates in this country about pandemic response are what happens once the fire is out of control, which I think you’ve got a great — I think it’s Carter who says, you can stop a grease fire with a fire extinguisher. You can’t stop a house on fire with a fire extinguisher. But the difficulty with starting when it’s a grease fire is you got to move people to a place, which maybe you can do in the future because we’ve lived through this unbelievable catastrophe as a collective. But I think it would have been very hard then. And you’re mentioning Australia, which I do think has certain unusual qualities as being as separated and an island as it is. But Europe, for the most part, didn’t. Europe doesn’t have the particular CDC history we do or they didn’t have Trump. And some of them did better for a while. Germany did better than we did for quite some time. But a lot of them didn’t. South Korea is the most interesting to me, because it did take off there and then they stamped it back out. And they’ve had I think something like 2,000 deaths in a society of tens of millions of people.

Michael Lewis

But we aren’t just like Europe. The Lancet did the math that back when there were — I don’t know — 480,000 American deaths. The Lancet calculated that if we’d done only as well as the average of the G7 countries, there’d be 170,000 Americans still alive. So there is the second question about how will you handle the house on fire.

Ezra Klein

Yes, absolutely.

Michael Lewis

And we didn’t handle that well. But it’s a fair point to say that maybe it was not culturally possible to sell containment. It would have been hard to do. The fact we didn’t even try is damning. We didn’t even try. The CDC doesn’t pivot and go from saying this poses little risk to American life to it’s now here and we can’t do much about it.

Ezra Klein

Yeah, can you talk about that pivot from downplaying to fatalism? That’s a really interesting thing you pinpoint in the book.

Michael Lewis

It’s February whatever — 23rd, 24th — when Nancy Messonnier at the CDC gets up and says that we’ve had domestic transmission and basically we don’t know where it is. It’s here and it’s moving. That’s the day the stock market collapsed and Trump called for her head and all that. What was interesting to me about it was that from the lay point of view, it looked very brave for the CDC to get up and do this. From the point of view of Charity Dean, public health officer, or Carter Mecher, who’s pandemic strategist — people who are really in on it — it was unbelievably cowardly to wait till then, because you could have done that on January the 20th. The CDC played the part of lulling the American people to sleep for a stretch. The public health authority, in order to do their job, they need cover from politicians. But they also provide cover for politicians. They are the experts. And they do what David Sencer did. We think this is dangerous. We think we’ve got to take precautions. We’ve got to do various things. And it enables the politicians to take action. And instead they do the opposite. They gave cover for complacency.

Ezra Klein

So there’s an interesting discontinuity in this book, which is — so I read and I loved your book, “The Fifth Risk,” which is about the government as a manager of risk for society, and how Trump and the Trump administration were coming in and basically taking a wrecking ball to that.

Michael Lewis


Ezra Klein

And one might imagine opening this book, that it’s like “The Fifth Risk,” part two. It all came true. Exactly what we thought would happen happened. And you note that when the CDC does eventually come up, even as late as they do, Trump basically sidelines them. That’s been, I think, the dominant story of CDC and Trump up until now. But Trump for a long time, as the head of government, is fighting the parts of the government that are going to come out and say, this is a big deal. He is trying to get people to downplay this, because he doesn’t want the testing. So one might imagine, having read “The Fifth Risk,” this book is going to be about, see, everybody, I was right. [LAUGHS] Michael Lewis was right. But you actually say Trump, obviously not a help, but not the core issue. That this might have been different, but it wouldn’t have been fixed by not having him. Tell me why.

Michael Lewis

I go where my characters take me. They took me on that journey. I would have loved to have been able to just write this as the sequel to “The Fifth Risk.” It was just messier than that. And even in “The Fifth Risk,” it was clear that, yeah, Trump is taking a wrecking ball to this machine that we have to deal with existential risks. But it’s like the one tool we have to deal with lots of problems. But that tool, that machine has been allowed to rust for generations. So it was easier to destroy than it should have been. And one form of the rust is like what happened inside the CDC. When I have a character who’s a local public health officer in Santa Barbara County — Charity Dean — this is the main character in the book who is fighting very bravely crazy outbreaks of disease in her county. It’s not COVID. It’s tuberculosis, or it’s HIV, or hep C, or measles in schools. And has little microcosms of the same experience we’ve seen writ large with COVID. Controversies, upsetting people to save lives. And she has — when she takes this job — this sense that there is this federal enterprise that’s there to help her called the Centers for Disease Control. She’s supposed to lean on them for academic help, but also to have her back in cases. And she realizes that they don’t have her back. That, in fact, just the opposite. Any kind of controversy that she causes, they run away from. It’s a premonition of what’s coming. If you had asked Charity Dean in 2015, before Trump is in the air, what’s going to happen if there’s a pandemic, she’d have told you there’s nobody to run it. The supposed institution on top is actually not engaging with the problems in a serious way and the system isn’t a system. It’s just 3,000 of me around the country unconnected, on our own, with no one coming to save us. So it’s a little hard to blame Trump for it all when you have someone telling you that. That it wasn’t working before. Now, there’s no question that Trump made it worse. I mean, there’s a body count you can just blame him for. But would we have gotten out in front of it with someone else? I think probably not. Probably not.

Ezra Klein

So “Fifth Risk,” the implicit view of folks in government is that they’re really competent and doing a great job. It’s a very pro-government book. This book I would say actually frames the opposite. Has your view of government changed in doing the two books?

Michael Lewis

Not too much. Both stories, if you back away far enough, are about good people and bad systems. There’s no malice in what’s coming out of the CDC. It’s screwed up incentives and the incentives were imposed on them. It’s changing an institution from having a really organic felt relationship with disease on the ground in America and a healthy appetite for taking risks to fight it into a kind of academic institution that is rewarded for writing papers. And we punish them horribly when they make mistakes. So my attitude has not changed at all. It’s true I shifted the light. I had the spotlight — in the first book was on these people who in spite of the systems they are in are doing these extraordinary things. In this case, we had gross system failure. And it wasn’t just at the federal level. I mean, the states are in a funky position, because the states would have assumed that this was going to be managed like a war on a federal level. They weren’t expecting to be told that the Russians are invading, figure out how to defend California. So it’s a little more forgivable at the state level. But it’s hard to write a story of government competence when you have this, which is a failure of systems. But the other thing the books have in common is that the heroes of this book are still government employees. [LAUGHS] They’re just people in a screwed up system trying to make it work and realizing eventually that it won’t, but behaving pretty heroically and doing their best in spite of it. What those guys did in the Bush administration, especially Carter Mecher and Richard Hatchett, two doctors who had hands on patients for much of their careers, in thinking about what we should do in the event of a new pathogen sweeping across our society, I mean that is a story of government triumph. It is the government working. So it’s not all dark. But you’re right, it is different. And it is not — if you’d asked me the last time we spoke what the next book after “The Fifth Risk” was going to look like, I would not have guessed it would look like this.

Ezra Klein

So the tone of the book is your characters banging their head on the wall of these failures, trying to get the CDC to move. I’m sure you talked to some people at the CDC who were on the other side of this. What was the most persuasive argument they gave you of why they acted the way they did?

Michael Lewis

All my interviews with people at the CDC are guerrilla interviews. And the people I interviewed felt ashamed. I did not get arguments back. What I did hear is don’t be too hard on us, because there are great people here and we’re not all like that. That was the defense. It was people feeling alienated from their own institution. It wasn’t, oh, yes, it was smart to have a test that didn’t work. It was smart to be proprietary about the test. Here’s another failure — and kind of incredible failure — we repatriate Americans from Wuhan. They are in National Guard barracks being quarantined outside of Omaha. There is a facility in Omaha that is a medical facility that was designed just for this, to send people with mysterious or scary illnesses, to treat them and also understand the illness. The guy who runs that facility, James Lawler, calls the CDC and says, we got to test these people who just came back from Wuhan. And it goes all the way up to Redfield. And Redfield says, you’re not allowed to test them, because to test them would be performing experiments on captive people — medical experiments on captive people. All the people in the barracks want to be tested. So they never get tested and they get released into the wild. How do you excuse that? I mean, you can explain it. That they don’t have a test. They’re embarrassed their test might not work. Whatever it is. But the behavior is just quixotic. [MUSIC PLAYING]Ezra Klein

My version of some of this reporting — I’ve done a lot more reporting on the FDA through this period —

Michael Lewis


Ezra Klein

— which I think has often been very far behind on some important things. But the answer I always get from the FDA on why it took so long to, say, clear rapid, cheap, repeatable at-home testing, or why do we still not have clearance on AstraZeneca despite the fact that it’s been used all over Europe and it certainly seems to be working out reasonably well is that they are so afraid of a mistake that they make — a sin of commission, as you like to put it, rather than omission. And what will happen then if the entire structure of public confidence in the regulatory decisions collapses, that they are working with a risk profile that seems completely different than the one I look at from the outside or that some of the people I talk to look at from the outside. And it infuriates some of the public health officials, and the health economists, and epidemiologists I know. But that their general view is that it’s all well and good to lob stones at us from the sidelines. But if we get it wrong, we can never get it right again. And I don’t really buy that, but it is how they see it.

Michael Lewis

No, that’s true. No, no, no, it’s absolutely true. The characters in the book make the argument that they have come to regard sins of commission as completely different from sins of omission. But when you’re dealing with a pandemic virus, a sin of omission is a kind of commission. That if you’re not looking for the virus, you don’t stop the virus. People die. So they ended up getting what they most feared. Inaction led to disgrace. And your attitude towards the fear — and maybe mine a little bit — is kind of forgiving. It’s like they’re that way because we’ve made them that way, because we punish them mercilessly when they commit a sin of commission. Charity’s attitude was this is life and death and I find it unforgivable.

Continue reading Michael Lewis Is Asking the Right Question