A FEW QUESTIONS FOR… CHARLES C. MANN

“A Few Questions For…”  is an occasional feature of the Indy, aimed at helping our readers get to know the folks who make things happen in our town. We’ll be featuring members of  Town government and key Town employees, along with civic leaders, activists, local educators, prominent volunteers, and residents who are not necessarily well-known. 

It’s exciting to see an Amherst resident on the national stage and reading “Pandemics Leave Us Forever Altered” by Amherst journalist and author Charles C. Mann in The Atlantic (June)  is a well-deserved respite from our slightly drab world of social-distancing, almost like a person-to-person connection.

Mann, who specializes in scientific topics, wrote 1491, New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus about the pre-Columbian Americas, 1493, Uncovering the New World Columbus Created about European colonization of the Americas and how it ushered in globalization, with cascading biological and economic impacts, and The Wizard and the Prophet about two scientists with opposing approaches to the looming question today; How can we save the environment and sustainability (the world) specifically in the arenas of food, water, energy, and other worst effects of climate change?

Charles C. Mann

Indy: How did you come to live in Amherst? And do you happen to know what district you’re in?

Mann: We lived in New York City but wanted to look for a place outside the City. My agent, Rick Balkin, had moved here and I’d gone to school here at Amherst College, although I hadn’t been back here for since I’d graduated more than a decade before. We came here in 1990. And we’re in District 1.

Thanks, I’m asking people about their District because it is very important here now. Did you get a chance to look at that chart from The Boston Globe (May 23) of COVID cases, based on state Department of Health statistics? The highest hit segment is not people over age 70 or even 80 and over. Not even combined. The most cases are age 50–59, then 30–39. The hardest hit in a 20-year segment are age 40–59! Doesn’t that mean that younger people are more at risk than older people?

Not at all. I look at that chart of cases here and say, “Holy crap, look at all those 80-year-old and older people!” because if you correct for age, it’s very high. The median age to die is something like 76, so the numbers show a very high percentage of 80-year-olds.

But it could be underlying conditions, not age itself…

Sure but by the time you’re 80, most people have underlying conditions…conditions related to immunity, the circulatory system, diabetes, heart disease, cardiovascular problems. Something like 40 percent of the adult population take statins, something like a third have diabetes. To me, the surprise is the relatively small number of people in their 70s who got it, and I’d assume that’s a statistical blip or it could be a difference in the way people who got tested were tested. It could be all kinds of reasons.

In The Atlantic, you wonder if COVID-19 is bringing people together to put aside their differences in Hong Kong…

That was my hope! It’s anecdotal though, just what I personally see—it seems more socially cohesive and it’s kind of inspiring to think that that’s possible.

What about here in Amherst? I’ve been feeling more hopeful that we can start working better together on things like what our priorities are, what we want, what to spend our dollars on.

It isn’t crazy to hope for that. One thing I’d like is to at least explore the idea that as much as possible we can do things outside. It seems to be much harder to spread this virus outside than inside. In Europe, a number of places like Vilnius [Lithuania] are reducing the size of their streets to reclaim some of that space so that more things can take place outdoors, things like restaurants and shops can be pulled outdoors. Some cities have suspended parking on one side of the street.

As someone who writes about history and epidemics, can you put to rest the story about Lord Jeffery Amherst, whether he approved of giving smallpox-infested blankets to Native Americans?

It’s probably wrong to identify him as sort of the patron saint of biological warfare, but the actual story doesn’t exactly cover him with glory either…. This was during Pontiac’s War [in 1763], when an indigenous coalition was assaulting Fort Pitt. Amherst, the commanding officer, was in Philadelphia. He initially dismissed using smallpox, then changed his mind and told his subordinates to infect some Lenape Indians at the fort. There’s no record that anybody actually did this, that he followed up on the order or, if the troops tried smallpox, that it had any effect. Meanwhile, others at the fort tried to infect people with smallpox without telling him. This also had no known effect. Historians disagree on whether Amherst’s order was an atypical, quickly forgotten outburst or a sign of something more common and more malign. At the very least, we can say Amherst didn’t react in horror to the idea of infecting populations that had already been badly affected by disease. Maybe he worried that actual germ warfare would backfire and affect white people, which it very possibly could have. 

Does that problem, back-firing, relate to research that might be done here in Amherst? In the 1980s there were big protests against Pentagon-funded anthrax research at UMass that could be used as a biological warfare agent.

People should not be developing anthrax as an offensive weapon anywhere, regardless of safety in the immediate vicinity of the research! Saving lives from dangerous diseases like coronavirus, however, does require research with those microorganisms. I assume researchers here would follow all [safety] regulations for that kind of research.

You’re a contributing editor to Science, The Atlantic, and Wired. Can you comment on the importance of the press, locally and elsewhere?

Of course, I believe the free press is really important! And it’s also important for people to recognize that it’s extremely hard to tell what’s going on. Reporting has always been inaccurate, reporters get things wrong all the time because it’s really hard! They have an important function and they’re often wrong, and often biased. Personally, I’m more comfortable working with places like The Atlantic, where you have more time [than around-the-clock or daily reporting] and are more likely to get it right. 

But the worst threat, as I see it, is not freedom of the press but lack of funding for it. People aren’t paying for reporting, and almost half of their revenue has been lost. From the loss of classified ads. Gone! to Craig’s List. The next biggest income, display ads from department stores? Gone! to Google, to Facebook. They’ve lost huge chunks of their revenue and it hasn’t been replaced. Something like three-quarters of journalists have lost their jobs. There’s incredible financial pressure.

Worst hit are the midsized papers like The Boston Globe. It used to be that these midsized papers vetted people, but now they don’t have anyone to do it, and someone can get up to a national position with no one investigating them. People like Scott Pruitt from Oklahoma, the Trump administration’s first EPA administrator, who had to resign because of misconduct, but that misconduct was only revealed because of ongoing in-depth investigations conducted by The Oklahoman.

And the press is so important locally. I think anyone would be willing to agree, for instance, that the government and police force of Springfield have had their problems over the years. But it’s been the local newspapers, like the Republican, that uncovered it. It wouldn’t be covered otherwise. The press used to be, in their own inefficient way, really important civic institutions, and they’ve been so badly hit. I hope people here subscribe to and support the Gazette and other local media!

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