The Return of the Plague: An Open Letter to Our Students

11/16/2016 07:43 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2017

Dear Students:

I write with some unwelcome news: the plague has returned to America.

The rats have crawled out of their holes and are swarming over our bustling cities and our sprawling suburbs. They have infested our peaceful small towns and our bucolic farms. They have spoiled our pristine pastures and meadows. I'm sure that you would prefer to receive better news, but I feel it is my professorial obligation to give you an idea of what to expect from this new round of the plague.

Maybe you feel that I'm being an alarmist or overly dramatic. But I've been around long enough to have seen and experienced the vile nature of the plague. You see, when I was coming up in the 1950s and 1960 the rats came after me--and many, many others. They taunted us with epithets. On several occasions they physically attacked us just because we were different.

When the plague comes social life is transformed. Even if you think you are one of the good ones--the good Muslim, the good Asian, the good Latino, the good African American, the good LGBTQ person, the good Jew, the good woman, or even a good ol' boy-- sooner or later the rats will come after you. Their appetite for hate is insatiable.

If you don't believe me, consider what happened one day after the upset election of Donald J. Trump. In his recent The Verge report, Sean O'Kane listed the following hate incidents:

--A swastika and the words "MAKE AMERICA WHITE AGAIN" were spray painted on a baseball dugout in Wellsville, NY (p. ~5,000). A black baby doll was also found with rope around its neck in an elevator on campus at Canisius College outside Buffalo, NY. -- The Buffalo News
--A reporter for CBS North Carolina posted a photo of a wall in Durham, North Carolina where the words "BLACK LIVES DON'T MATTER AND NEITHER DOES [sic] YOUR VOTES" were spray painted. -- Derrick Lewis, CBS North Carolina
--A swastika and the words "Seig Heil 2016" were spray painted on a storefront in South Philadelphia. The Anti-Defamation League issued an official statement in response to the incident, saying that "while we view this as an isolated incident, we cannot allow this behavior to become routine. Everyone has a role to play in combating bigotry -- we must advocate, educate and investigate until hate is no longer welcome in our society." -- Philly.com, The Anti-Defamation League
--Also in South Philadelphia, the words "TRUMP RULES" and "TRUMP BLACK BITCH" were spray painted on an SUV. -- Philly.com<

According to "Hate Watch," which is maintained by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) "....between Wednesday, November 9, the day after the presidential election, and the morning of Monday, November 14, the Southern Poverty Law Center collected 437 reports of hateful intimidation and harassment." The SPLC stated that....

Most of the reports involved anti-immigrant incidents (136), followed by anti-black (89) and anti-LGBT (43). Some reports (8) included multiple categories like anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant. The "Trump" category (41) refers to incidents where there was no clear defined target, like the pro-Trump vandalism of a "unity" sign in Connecticut. We also collected 20 reports of anti-Trump intimidation and harassment.

These ugly incidents, which are likely to increase exponentially during the Trump Administration, are signs of the plague's return. It is a return baited in large measure by the silences, words, choices, and behavior our President-elect! Such news dims the bright light of your future.

What can you do to combat the plague?

How can the light of your future be brightened?

When I confronted the plague as a young man I took solace in the wisdom of a great work of literature, The Plague (La Peste) by the legendary Albert Camus. In this book, Camus described how the plague changed the lives of the people of Oran in Algeria. The Oran authorities were slow to appreciate the gravity of the situation even after thousands of rats had died in the streets, even after people began to sicken and die. Only when the death tally reached 30 people per day did the authorities finally recognize the severity of the situation. They quarantined the city.

The townspeople became depressed. Violence spread. Hoodlums looted city shops. People lost their husbands and wives. Babies died. Oran became utterly chaotic. Eventually, the rats returned to their holes and the plague retreated. In time, people reunited with their loved ones and reestablished and reinforced their ties of love.

For Camus, the plague comes and goes but can never be completely eliminated. The Plague is, of course, allegorical. Camus wrote his masterpiece in response to the rise and fall of Nazi Germany The recent empowerment of hate groups in Europe and the overt bigotry of Donald J. Trump's presidential campaign underscores the timeless wisdom of Albert Camus. Is it any wonder that Trump's unexpected win unleashed a torrent of hate crimes directed at Muslims, Jews, African Americans, immigrants, the gay community, and women?

In these troubled times what can you do?

Should you act like the elders of Camus's Oran and ignore the presence of plague in our midst?

Should you do nothing and let the plague spread?

Camus's message is clear. First you have to recognize the plague when you experience it. Second, you have to fight it back with all your resources. Third, once the plague retreats you need to be vigilant because given the right circumstances, it can always come back.

In the end, though, Camus's novel celebrates human resilience. Toward the end of the book he writes: "...once the faintest stirring of hope became possible, the dominion of the plague was over." He goes on to say that love trumps hate. Once the plague has been beaten back you know that "...if there is one thing one can always yearn for and sometimes attain, it is human love."

The times are troubling and difficult and the plague always gets worse before it gets better. In time the rats will go back into their holes, the plague will retreat, and you will realize fully the power of love to overcome hate.

Your professor