Pandemic Dialogues: Conversations on Civic Crisis

Pandemic Dialogues is a new virtual series in the school’s Civic Discourse Project providing perspective on the current civic crisis through conversations among the school’s faculty and students, academic guests, and a wider community. Once the school’s regular speaker events had to be postponed, we sought to sustain the intellectual community we’ve built with students, ASU colleagues, and the wider community.

We offer the Dialogues in three modes: a series of live webinars, each discussing a great work of philosophy or literature on pandemics and civic crisis; a student reading group, and a podcast series, discussing Camus’ novel The Plague.  

Webinar Series    Podcast    Student Reading Group

Watch previous webinars

The Walking Dead, the Post-Zombie Apocalypse, and the American Capacity for Resilience

“The Pandemic Dialogues” turn finally to what American popular culture and, in particular, the post-apocalyptic zombie story of the television series, “The Walking Dead,” have to tell us about how Americans respond to civic crisis. Does popular culture provide an imaginative means for Americans to explore the ideas, myths, and tensions at the heart of American democracy and political life? Paul Cantor contends persuasively that pop culture provides a forum for investigating and expressing our fears and frustrations about the perceived dysfunction of our political, social and cultural, and financial institutions, but he adds that it also can and does portray the virtues, strengths and resilience of which citizens in American democracy are capable- perhaps especially when they confront high level challenges to our civilization. So, we might ask, while pop culture reflects our anxieties about a globalized world, in which infection can spread at swiftly, for example, does pop culture exacerbate our fears? Does it explain why we are so anxious? And does it ever suggest a way out, a means to remember and regenerate American virtues and self-reliance that have generally served us well — is pop culture only descriptive or is it prescriptive?

Speakers:  Paul Cantor, University of Virginia; Paul Carrese, Director, School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, Arizona State University and Carol McNamara, Arizona State University
Date: May 18, 2020
Time: 4:00 p.m. 
Location: Zoom

The Masque of the Red Death and the Common Good

The Masque of the Red Death is the story of an aristocratic party held at the castle of Prince Prospero. The Prince and his elegant guests try to outrun the plague by barricading themselves in a castle with provisions and entertainment, exhibiting callous indifference to the suffering of their fellow human beings being ravished by the plague outside the castle walls. But no matter how hard they try to outrun their doom, the plague follows them into the castle and pursues them from one room to the next, until at last, like “a thief in the night,” it assailed each reveler in the “blood- bedewed halls of their revel, and died each in the despairing posture of his fall.” In light of Poe's haunting tale, we will ask: what sort of leadership does civic crisis require? What happens to the elites and leaders when they fail to provide it? What does Poe teach us about recognizing our common humanity and the need to dedicate ourselves to the common good, always, but especially in times of civic crisis?

Speaker: Paul Crumbley, former EDIS President and professor of English at Utah State University;  Paul Carrese, Director, School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University; and Catherine Zuckert, Visiting Scholar, School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University
Date: May 4, 2020
Time: 4:00 p.m. 
Location: Zoom

Recommended reading. 

Social Disruption and Neglect: Boccaccio on the Florentine Plague

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) was an Italian writer and scholar, best known for the Decameron, his collection of a hundred tales, written in the aftermath of the Black Death which decimated Europe in 1348. The stories of the Decameron are told by a group of ten wealthy young people who are trying to find the most useful way to pass the time while quarantined in a Tuscan villa. Boccaccio lived through the plague in Florence, and in the Introduction to the Decameron he provides a first-hand description of the effects of the disease. While his account is literary as well as documentary (he uses Thucydides as a model), he gives a vivid description of the helplessness of medical and clerical authorities in the face of the epidemic. He is particularly concerned with the ways the plague disrupts social structures: children abandon parents; parents abandon children; the dead are not properly buried. He notes various differing psychological reactions to the disease, as well as the way it affects different classes of people: rich and poor, urban and rural.

Speakers:  Ian Moulton, Arizona State University, Paul Carrese, director of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University; and Theresa Smart, Arizona State University
Date: April 20, 2020
Time: 4:00 p.m. 

Recommended reading.

Ancient Athens in Crisis: Thucydides on the Plague

The series begins with Thucydides’ discussion of the Plague that swept through Ancient Athens and other parts of Greece during the second year of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides provides a good starting point for our conversations because he not only recounts the medical course of the disease in case it should appear again in the future in human society, but he also tells of the human toll it takes, the way the Athenians responded to the grievous attacks on the human spirit, the damage it does to the practice of religion, the rule of law, human ties of affection and community, and standards of civil society. All these continue to be concerns for us right now.

Participants: Clifford Orwin, Professor, University of Toronto; Catherine Zuckert, Visiting Scholar, Arizona State University; Paul Carrese, Director, School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University
Date: April 6, 2020
Time: 4:45 p.m. 
Location: Zoom 

Recommended reading.

Pandemic Dialogues Podcast

Plagues have occurred throughout recorded history and strained the fabric of civil societies, yet they don't break them irreparably. They also have provoked philosophers and poets to understand larger questions raised by such trauma. This podcast includes opportunities for similar discussion by focusing on passages from Camus' The Plague. Listeners can connect with the faculty via Twitter

Listen on iTunes.      Listen on Spotify. 

Student Reading Group

Social distancing doesn't have to mean social isolation! Students are invited to join us every other week for an hour via Zoom to discuss Thucydides's extraordinary account of the plague, excerpts from Boccaccio's Decameron and Edgar Allan Poe's haunting short story The Masque of the Red Death. Electronic copies of the reading will be provided.

Learn more.