Did the Black Death do more good than harm?
An American think tank named the Center for Strategic & International Studies recently published the results of a poll they conducted, which revealed that half of the ethnic Russians living in Estonia think Stalin did more good than harm. It’s an interesting point, and one that deserves exploration — by someone else.
The question that comes to my mind is how far this logic can be stretched: if the Man of Steel, responsible for the deaths of between 3 and 60 million people through execution, gulag imprisonment, deportations to Siberia, deliberately-imposed famine, and a laundry list of other chapter titles from the Sociopath’s Quick-reference Guidebook did more good than harm, what else can we say the same about?
Can we pick any random historical tragedy and try to claim that its net effect was positive, without actually identifying any positive effect it had and instead ambiguously insisting that it simply changed the course of history for the better? Hey, it’s Monday morning — why not.
The Black Death did more good than harm.
In the middle of the 14th century, a plague broke out across Europe that wiped out between 30 and 60% of the continent’s population and reduced the world’s population by about a quarter. The plague is generally accepted to have traveled to Europe from China via rodents, who carried plague-infected fleas with them as stowaways on merchant ships. Early symptoms of the plague included swollen sores on the inner thighs which oozed puss and spewed blood when dissected. Most of those afflicted died within two to seven days of infection.
But was the black death really all that bad? Every movie I’ve ever seen set in medieval Europe makes it out to be a crowded, filthy, prostitute-ridden hellscape. Reserving a table at a restaurant must have been a chore. Rent prices were probably sky high in the centers of towns, and the transportation choices for a morning commute were limited. And can you imagine the state of public bathrooms? Yuck! Sure, for those experiencing puss-oozing crotch sores and days of agonizing pain and endless vomiting, the black death was pretty miserable. But the net effect of a large-scale population decline in overcrowded urban areas was a more comfortable life for the lucky few who survived — which sounds like a win to me!
What about the effect of the black death on culture? Had the plague never gripped Europe, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the classic 2010 British horror film, Black Death. Which would be a shame — because Black Death stars Sean Bean, who plays Ulric, a knight obsessed with killing the necromancer responsible for summoning the plague (the movie isn’t entirely historically accurate). One year after appearing in Black Death, Sean Bean graced our television screens as Eddard Stark in Game of Thrones — one of the greatest TV series of all time.
So had the black death not cut the population of Europe in half in the mid-14th century, the world would be without the film Black Death. And if the world was without the film Black Death, Sean Bean may never have been “discovered” and subsequently cast as Eddard Stark, the main character in the first season of Game of Thrones. And without a lead character, the producers of Game of Thrones may have never embarked upon creating what I consider to be the grandest achievement in human history. Obviously that would be a far greater tragedy than the loss of life on a massive scale.
So why not apply this “butterfly effect” argumentation to every tragedy or madman in human history and claim that nothing catastrophic was truly bad — merely transformative. Pol Pot? Chernobyl? Pinochet? Why not claim that these people and disasters did more good than harm in the long run?
Two reasons. The first is that no human being is able to comprehend and evaluate the symphony of infinite events unceasingly taking place in unison. Therefore, it’d be impossible for anyone to say that any one event or person made the world a better place than had they not existed or happened. It’s pretty much the theme from every time travel-based science fiction movie ever made.
And the second reason? It’s because saying Stalin did more good than harm makes you look like an asshole.