Last week shattered all my sense of stability and permanence in New York, the city I’ve called home since 2012 (though I’ve spent some of those years in London). The looting mobs that rampaged through Gotham’s streets — including my block — put me in mind of my native Middle East; it’s a phenomenon I thought I’d left behind ‘over there’, not to be encountered except on the occasional reporting trip to Iraq or Egypt. But no. An unjust police killing in Minneapolis — combined, no doubt, with the effects of a prolonged lockdown — Arab Spring’d the United States, if you will. Or rather, the riots revealed that America’s advanced liberal society isn’t all that different from the client Arab states Washington likes to lecture. It was all so grim — and terrifying, if you witnessed firsthand the NYPD’s sheer impotence in the face of mass disorder, as I did. On Lexington Avenue, a stone’s throw from my apartment, I watched police officers stand around like schmucks as rioters openly looted. Add the iconoclastic frenzy sweeping America (and Britain), and I wonder if we are witnessing a slow-motion regime-collapse scenario. My wife, who’s Chinese-born, says it reminds her of the Cultural Revolution, which damaged her family grievously.
The joy of being a dad has been my principal escape through the riots and lockdown. Fatherhood and nostalgia are tightly bound up. I see this clearly now, as I rekindle my friendship with Tintin and introduce him to my three-year-old son, Max. My earliest memories of books involve lying in a sun-bathed room somewhere in my childhood home in Tehran, tearing through those crisply illustrated tales of the Belgian boy-reporter, his loyal dog and his sweary, alcoholic sailor friend, Captain Haddock. The Persian editions were tattered hand-me-downs from the Pahlavi era, before the mullahs cancelled Hergé and other icons of western ‘decadence’.
One of the great marvels of immigrating to America was that I could buy brand-new Tintin comic books here. Max is especially fond of The Shooting Star, about Tintin’s quest to recover a fragment of space rock that plunges into the Arctic. My boy can’t get enough of the giant mushrooms that mysteriously swell out of the meteorite’s surface before spontaneously vaporising. I, meanwhile, have been struck by the apocalyptic gloom that pervades the book, now freshly resonant in my adulthood, what with the virus, the lockdowns, the New Great Depression, the riots and, above all, the hysteria of scientific and political elites.
Hergé first serialised The Shooting Star in 1941-2 in a Belgium under occupation. (He sadly marred the story with a sop to Nazi anti-Semitism; Tintin’s and Haddock’s rival in the race to find the meteorite is a bulbous-nosed financier named Blumenstein.) It’s a comic book about the (almost) end of the world, created when Hergé’s own genteel, boring Wallonian world had collapsed. This lends it a verisimilitude I only now appreciate, amid our own crisis.
As the meteorite nears the Earth, the temperature suddenly spikes, rats stampede, tyres blow out, asphalt melts, tremors rip through the roads, glass shatters, mad prophets preach repentance. No human power can put a stop to this chain of events — that is, until it becomes clear that the scientists who predicted doom had made mistakes in their calculations; the meteorite just misses the Earth.
That accelerating procession of hitherto unthinkable or uncanny events should by now be familiar to us: which New Yorker three months ago could have predicted the emptying out of Times Square and Midtown? Which of us could have seen double-digit unemployment coming, after the historic jobs gains of the past three years? Who could have foreseen how the city of 50,000 restaurants would end up with zero open tables? Yet here we are. And the agonising fact, for a father especially, is that unlike in Tintin’s ligne-claire universe, where all things always go back to normal, there is no going back after a near-miss apocalypse in the real world.
One amusing tidbit in Hergé’s apocalypse-that-wasn’t is the disappointment of the scientists with the outcome. While Tintin cheers the survival of the world, the astronomer Decimus Phostle is downright glum. ‘The meteorite,’ he tells the reporter, ‘has passed 30,000 miles from Earth, instead of colliding with it and causing the magnificent cataclysm I’d hoped for!’
Would that our reigning expert class were as honest as poor Phostle. Over the past week, as Black Lives Matter protestors have defied every social-distancing nostrum, the scientific establishment has shifted its stance with eye-watering alacrity, positively encouraging the gatherings on the grounds that ‘white supremacy is a lethal public-health issue’, as a statement signed by some 1,200 public-health experts, including from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, put it.
But what about those earlier protests calling for an end to the job-killing, soul-suffocating lockdowns? ‘This should not be confused with a permissive stance on all gatherings, particularly protests against stay-home orders. Those actions not only oppose public-health interventions, but are also rooted in white nationalism and run contrary to respect for black lives.’ Got that? ‘Science’ apparently shows that the novel coronavirus can somehow detect whether a protest is progressive or conservative — attacking the latter while sparing the former. It targets especially working-class and middle-class workplaces and industries — while, again, sparing gentry liberals gathering for protest.
I’m throwing a dinner party this Friday and calling it a protest party.
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Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor of the New York Post.
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