Democracy, Disobedience, and Derrida:

A Biopolitical Analysis of San Francisco's Response to the 1918 InflueNza Pandemic

By Jon Joey Telebrico

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  1. Introduction

1918 was a truly unforgiving year. Amidst the backdrop of the global conflict that was World War I, Americans found themselves fighting their own domestic battle: the influenza pandemic. This deadly disease was highly transmissive, ravaging urban areas where people lived and traveled in close proximity to one another. Much to the dismay of residents, many major cities such as San Francisco undertook numerous preventative measures such as business closures and gathering bans in order to stop the spread of disease—“[t]he public life of the city was disrupted and dulled.” On November 21st, 1918—just 10 days after Germany signed an armistice agreement with the Allies—residents of San Francisco had much to celebrate as Mayor James Rolph had annulled a mandatory mask ordinance, with “congratulatory libations… indulged in by thousands of thankful citizens,” tearing their masks off until “the sidewalks and runnels were strewn with the relics of a torturous month.” 

The high spirits of San Franciscans across the city was aptly captured by the San Francisco Chronicle the next day, reporting, “When the many chaptered epic of San Francisco’s share in the world war shall be written, one of the most thrilling episodes will be the story of how gallantly the city of St. Francis behaved when the black wings of this war-bred pestilence hovered over the city with its menace of death, sorrow and destitution.” Tragically, the characterization of San Francisco’s “gallant” response and the ensuing optimism was both short-sighted and short-lived. The city found itself once again engulfed in the black wings of influenza as it experienced a second wave, which led to the reinstitution of the mask ordinance just a few months later. Indeed, the case of masks demonstrates the premature easing of restrictions and the subsequent resurgence of the disease, which seems suggestive of both a failure in the exercise of political leadership and the collective’s compliance to policy interventions. By failing to take swift action, San Francisco emerged as one of the major American cities to be hit hardest by the pandemic, “[w]ith 45,000 cases and more than 3,000 deaths.” 

The present essay not only analyzes the efficacy of specific strategies employed by San Francisco’s leadership, but expands the scope of analysis to explore the relationship between democracy and the political power of the sovereign, drawing upon Derridean principles to demonstrate the difficulty in expanding biopolitics during a time of pandemic.

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