I thought of all this when I saw the social-media postings of protesters showing off their slightly cut-up or reddened knees, a mark that they had knelt on the hot ground for eight minutes and 46 seconds. I thought of it when listening to comedian Dave Chappelle’s recently released Netflix monologue on the death of George Floyd and the response in the streets. It’s a moving and sometimes confounding performance, featuring both heartrending accounts of violence and the spooky numerological coincidences that are a feature of the persecuted and paranoid mind. Chappelle rejected calls from news anchors for black celebrities like him to get involved and speak out in favor of something else. “These streets will speak for themselves whether I’m dead or alive,.” he says. “I trust you guys. I love you guys.”

Like the onlookers in the 14th century, Chappelle trusts the mass movement to confront evil.

We don’t face anything on the scale of the crises in the 14th century. But in the past 20 years, there has been a feeling of repeated failures in war and on the domestic front, and a frustration that the normal sources of authority are populated by men too corrupt and too stupid to confront the crisis at hand, and that the normal process of reform and improvement is broken. It may not even be strictly true. And when the organized civic and religious cult goes into failure, a disorganized caucus and passionate cult will rise in its place. Plague makes us feel vulnerable. It doesn’t pull us away from the other social troubles of our time but rather heightens our sensitivity to them.