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Virus Without Borders : Chapter Seventy-One

Conversations With Anti-Vaxxers



Nobody is voiceless.  There are only people whose voices are not heard.


-Margaret Reukel, "Late Migrations"



I suppose it is a progressive writer's prerogative to assume she has the right, even the mandate, to tell the stories of the voiceless under-educated, semi-literate populace. Of course, in this assumption there is unacknowledged condescension and judgment. A friend of mine on a diet regimen said to me the other day, "I no longer judge anyone who obviously needs to lose weight. I need to lose weight." There is a lot of wisdom in that decision. And if we apply this wisdom to the anti-vaxxers, we may get to a place in our body politic we have not as yet imagined.


So, with this approach in mind, I decided to do some anecdotal reporting in my small town. I began at one of my local laundromats, owned by Yusef, an entrepreneurial Palestinian-American. All through the height of Covid, he provided pick-up, delivery and curbside. There are benches and chairs outside, a working bathroom, and helpful attendants during the weekdays who I started to talk to after I was vaccinated. One is vaccinated, two are not vaccinated. One has an autoimmune disease and her doctor is worried she might have an adverse reaction, the other is pregnant, working flat out, because she has to, until delivery day. "I don't want to take any chances," she said. Therefore, we can't exactly say that these two hard-working women, who haven't had the luxury of not working despite their exposure to Covid during the height of the pandemic, are "anti" anything. They have both made personal, informed decisions. And they both are still wearing their masks, as am I in certain situations.


A laundromat is a shared communal space, a level playing field; you need to be here, and I need to be here. And though I usually read one of my door-stop books —this  month, Louis Menand's, "The Free World"—or  answer some emails, I also like to chat to people I wouldn't meet in my everyday professorial life. Most customers are not reading books—they are watching the TV, or talking on their cell phones, or folding their laundry with care. One day I noticed a very large woman with lots of tattoos. She'd been outside smoking, and then she was next to me as I was loading a machine and she was unloading a machine.


"So how are you doing?" I asked.


"Fine, nearly done with this machine if you'd like it."


"Great, that size is the one I need. This one is too small. Family good?"


"Yeah, we are okay."




"No, scared of needles."


"Oh, sorry to hear that. I have a friend who is scared of needles. They put him on a gurney, and before he knew it, he'd had a shot."


"Oh, so in case he fainted, he was already lying down."


"Exactly. And they turned his head away."




"I guess I should get a shot. I've got a weak chest."


"That sounds like a good idea."


Anti-vaxxers. They may well be friends, family, colleagues, or neighbors. They are not monolithic, and  hard as it may be for those of us who have been vaccinated, they deserve our consideration, compassion and respect.


That said, no one in my immediate circle has hesitated to get a vaccine, or refused to get a vaccine, or doesn't "believe," in a vaccine, or thinks there is a chip that will be injected into their bodies. So I am fortunate, privileged in fact, to have a body of knowledge that allows me to think clearly about my choices. The confusion and conspiracy theories that abound are a consequence of an educational system that has never accommodated the egregious divides in the United States between class and caste.



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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Seventy







Imagine there's no countries

It isn't hard to do

Nothing to kill or die for

And no religion, too

Imagine all the people

Living life in peace…


-John Lennon


Dedicated to all children growing up in war zones.




Malak Mattar, my young friend in Gaza, put up this FB post today: "I survived. I'm officially a four Israeli attack survivor by the age of 21."  But is this Le Fin, the end of this horror movie? Probably not.  Geopolitics, realpolitik, real lives underneath those falling bombs and rockets. Children in Palestine and in Israel and in Afghanistan growing up in war zones, suffering from PTSD, learning to hate, dreaming of escape or revenge. And what about the soldiers and flyers and bombers, what about their PTSD as they become yet more efficient killing machines?


Did the bombing in Gaza wipe out Covid? Of course not. But now that there is a ceasefire, the humanitarian agencies can get back in to do their work: house the homeless, provide medical assistance, vaccinate, even set up temporary schools and play spaces for the children.


I spoke to MacKay Wolff, a former relief worker for UNRWA, the UN agency set up in 1948 to serve  the Palestinians –and  Jews—displaced  by the war against the British colonial regime. "I hope they are using the 80 schools UNRWA set up as shelters," MacKay told me before the ceasefire. UN workers are tasked with protection—of everyone—to treat all those in need equally. It is not always easy, but that is what they are trained to do.


Gaza is flat, and unlike Israel, has no bomb shelters, my Palestinain friend Ahmad told me.  I had not realized that the terrain was indefensible, and was shocked to hear there are no shelters. In that case, I hope the Israelis are not bombing the schools, I thought. Did I say that thought aloud? I'm not sure. I was feeling distressed that day, and so was Ahmad. I knew that my Israeli cousins were safe, or safe enough, in shelters.


MacKay had written a story for my book, "Another Day in Paradise," about his posting in the West Bank during the first intifada. How many years ago was that? Too many. There are now 5.6 million Palestinians—the original refugees and their descendants—registered with the UN agency. How many refugees? Too many.


Strange that this very week the citizens of New York State began navigating without masks, enjoying freedom of movement and a renewed sense of safety. Most of us—if we have not lost a loved one, or our jobs, or have long term effects of Covid—are feeling positive, even euphoric, about our survival. I wish the same for Malak, her family, and all her wonderful activist friends. May they live in peace.

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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Sixty-Nine


Cri de Coeur



any man's death diminishes me, because I

am involved in Mankinde,

 and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls

It tolls for thee.

-John Donne


Bombardments and rampaging mobs in Israel and Palestine. And how desperately sad this is. Just over a year ago these adversaries who, in truth, are cousins, all children of the desert, were cooperating. The UN had reminded Israel that they are the occupying power and have responsibility. They had done well with the pandemic, but Gaza and the West Bank were rabid with Covid, aid and vaccine distribution was necessary, obligatory. Now the cooperation is over, and all medical aid has stopped.


It began with threatened evictions of an already displaced refugee population in East Jerusalem, police actions, retaliatory actions and more reactions, escalation to war. It has to stop. Finalement, as the French say, it has to stop. An intervention is needed, and very soon, someone as adept as John Kerry, a skilled diplomat and humanitarian; he did wonders as a mediator in Northern Ireland.


To understand we must return to an historical timeline and our interpretation and telling of this timeline will depend upon our point of view, our politics. So let me make mine clear: I am a descendant of Holocaust refugees and survivors, a secular non-observant American Jew, and I am not a Zionist. So I say, with a note of sarcasm, even contempt, bless the imperialist enterprise dating back to the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, and the pursuant scramble for spheres of influence. Bless the Brits and their mandate, the displacement of the Palestinian people, their cynical promise to the desperate Jews for Britain's own oil-greedy, strategic, geopolitical benefit, a sordid history. Dear reader, if I am getting some of the timeline wrong, forgive me. I have family in Israel, dear Palestinian friends here in the US. I want them to know: this writer is paying attention.


Every so often, I receive a Facebook message from a desperate person who is a friend of a friend living in the underdeveloped world. This week it was from a young woman in Gaza, a friend of Malak Mattar, the twenty-something artist I have written about before. Another of her images graces this post; her work is as powerful as Picasso's Guernica or Diego's murals. She was studying in Istanbul and returned to her family in Gaza in time for this new war. Together with other activists, she has started a Go Fund Me for the children of Gaza. I have not been able to corroborate their bona fides, as yet, so will not post the link here, but hope to do so soon. Needless to say, it's difficult to stay in touch, internet service in and out. 


In the meantime, these hashtags:


#GazaUnderAttack   #endtheoccupation #savethechildren #truthandreconciliation  #twostatesolution


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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Sixty-Eight


The Minnewaska Ridge in May © Carol Bergman 2021


Get Away



The world was ever,



way where we were

was there


-from "The Long Song," Nathaniel Mackey





A dear friend died this week. It wasn't a Covid related death, except it was. The facility where he had been living for a while had so much Covid these past months that his family could not get in to see him enough. Isn't it time to rethink how we "house" the sick and the elderly? And because it's no wonder that a virus can spread like a wild fire in multi-generational households and communities—slums and close-to habitations, institutions, all of the residents and workers at risk—it leaves me wondering what's best in the long term for our survival, and the survival of the planet. In it together? Only partially so.


60 Minutes on Sunday had an item on the flight to Mars, a mini helicopter hovering over the surface searching for boulders that might contain fossils of living or once living organisms. It's breathtaking, this achievement, this get away to another planet. It takes our minds off what we need to do here. Between my lines there's also the worry: If we ever do get there to form a "colony," will we replicate the insane violence, war, and callous disregard for our environment we have managed to perfect here on Planet Earth? Will Mars become a war zone?  According to the Council on Foreign Relations, there are twenty-five wars raging on our planet as I write. Yet, we carry on creating havoc in the world, letting ships carrying desperate migrants flounder at sea, selling arms to militant nations, spilling sewage into our rivers. And what's this about not sharing vaccination patents? Really? Do the words "global pandemic" register? In another time, Dr. Jonas Salk released the patent of the polio vaccine, no discussion.


Post-vaccination, I've started to hear friends, colleagues, students, and family mumbling and grumbling about the need, the absolute necessity, of getting away. How awful has it been for most of us? Really, how awful has it been? If we haven't had Covid, or we are not mourning a loved one who has died of Covid, how awful has it been? The answer is rhetorical, in part—not that awful compared to many others. Scary enough, awkward, too, as we navigated the logistics of everyday life, I'll concede that. But if we've had food in the house, a job, access to medical care? Not that awful.  Most people I know have survived very well indeed. Cooking fancy NY Times recipes: that's a luxury of the privileged few. Selling a home for a gazillion dollars when others are living in dire poverty? Not that awful. Having the technology to Facetime and Zoom? Not that awful. Silver linings? Plenty of them. I even took care of my tooth ache. My dentist had outstanding protocol and expensive protective equipment. Thank you. Apart from the medical necessity, it was a place to go, someone to talk to, and something to do. Dentists talk a lot. Don't they know we can't answer? Usually I mind not being able to answer. Not this time.


Missing people was the worst for me, not being able to touch and hug, enjoy micro-connections with strangers, but travel, no, I didn't miss that. I was already upstate when the lockdown in New York City started. I didn't need to get away, and I don't need to get away now; I am away. All I have to do is step outside the door and breathe.



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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Sixty-Seven

Writers and the Writing Life in a Plague Year




Removing a published book from circulation because of the authors' conduct and resulting adverse public opinion against the author or the subject, no matter how strong and justified, contradicts important principles of free speech and open discourse.


                               -The Authors Guild



I'm about 200 pages into Blake Bailey's mesmerizing, beautifully written biography of Philip Roth. Withdrawn from distribution because of some horrendous allegations, it is already a collectible. And if, heaven forfend, the allegations are true, Blake Bailey's publishing career is over. Worse, much of Roth's archive has been sequestered until 2050—a contractual arrangement between Roth and Bailey—which means that no other biographer—perhaps even a female biographer (and wouldn't that be interesting) will be able to access them until then.


Many men of Roth's generation, coming of age before the women's movement, are notably stunted in their relationships with women. They still use foul language, or stare and glare, or have expectations of a woman's role. This is a given. So, when two guys get together and schmooze, who knows how they'll boast, make up stories, smear the women who have hurt them, distort their own emotions because they cannot express them clearly. Bailey wanted Roth to feel safe enough to give him access to everything—his papers, his tapes, his drafts, so he probably let Roth rip. And if Bailey, too, had some shame about past behavior, it's interesting to wonder if he shared any of it with Roth, or remained silent. I am sure that neither Roth nor Bailey anticipated that a Roth biography would be silenced.


Philip Roth had a strong social conscience. His masterwork, The Plot Against America foretold the Trump presidency and the political and social tensions that have followed in the public sphere. I think he would have been heartbroken that his biographer has been cast out by his publisher and his agent without his day in court. I am almost certain he would have spoken out for him fiercely, as I am today. I had thought we were all innocent until proven guilty. I was wrong.


Cancel culture, denouncement, unproven allegation and accusation, is every writer's—indeed, every American's—nemesis, or should be. We do not live in China, we do not live in Russia. This is, ostensibly, a country with a free press absent the pressure of the marketplace. And that's a big statement. "The business of America is business,"  someone said as advertising chatter started to permeate the radio air waves back in the 1920's. The FDA regulated that chatter for a while—a certain amount of ad minutes per hour—now it is totally deregulated. But that's radio. What about books, newspapers and magazines? Deliver the reader to the consumer is the mantra. Unless a publication is privately funded, or grant funded, there is no immunity from economic pressure. More so now during the pandemic as companies fail, falter or consolidate.


As it happens, Roth wrote a book called Nemesis, one of his best as it is not over-written or adolescent in its sexual longings; it's a mature book about a polio epidemic. Indeed, he wrote many fine books, and many not so fine books, using the events and people in his life as inspiration, and creating a narrative persona that was very close to his own. It's an unusual body of work spanning many years. Like Roth himself, it evolved.


My sense thus far in my reading of the biography is that Bailey understood Roth, without judgment, which is why, in my estimation, he was chosen as an "authorized," biographer, not that "authorized" means that much these days. But the two writers' affinity is unmistakable, despite the age difference. Although he did a lot of interviewing, Bailey lets Roth and his work speak without much direct questioning in the text, a bit like a cinema verité movie without an interlocutor. Perhaps this was not the best decision in the current circumstances, as it leaves the biographer open to accusations of misogynist complicity. But it's the narrative device Bailey chose to tell Roth's story, and it is successful. I can't put the book down. What a shame that others may not get to read it. Will it become contraband like Henry Miller's  Tropic of Cancer, smuggled into the United States in the dead of night? That is what happens when a book goes underground: it becomes samizdat as in the days of Soviet repression and censorship.


It is a "complex fate" to be an American, Henry James said, from the vantage of  a life abroad where—as a gay man—he  felt emancipated from the Puritanical persecuting spirit. Many Americans have suffered from this persecuting spirit—think of the Salem witch trials, or the House Un-American Activities Committee. Lives and reputations have been destroyed needlessly. And they are still being destroyed today.

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