Like you, I try to get out once a day to keep clarity of mind, whether out for a walk or, even better, to experience something of commercial life out there, truncated as it might be. Businesses doing business, wealth being created despite every barrier, is nothing if not inspiring.
Our cities look windswept but our overlords have deemed some businesses essential so at least there’s that. This weekend, the liquor store was hopping and happy but so too was the office-supply place. Smiles all around, especially from the workers who have never been happier to have a job and get a paycheck.
But even with this, you never know when you are going to bump into someone for whom this virus is not a disease to overcome but a philosophy to live. And so there she was, a twenty-something standing guard at a distillery that had been deemed essential because now they make hand sanitizer….
(Let me just pause and say that I suddenly feel like I’m writing the plot of a dystopian novel. I still can’t believe this has actually happened to us.)
This young woman – I’ve known her from before because I often bring people here – is usually dressed in hipster garb, a ring on her face somewhere, and she previously specialized in hyping the peaty flavor notes in their local whiskey.
This time, however, she was dressed head-to-toe like a Taliban wife, complete with loose-fitting cotton bodysuit, gloves, and a face mask. Faux-scrubs, as if she were headed to surgery. When she realized that I was not there as a suffering patient seeking hand sanitizer, she lit into me hard.
“It’s very irresponsible for you to be going on joy rides and socializing in the midst of this epidemic,” she barked. “You are taking up space. You could be infecting people.”
By infecting, I don’t think she meant coronavirus; it was my comportment of normalcy to which she objected.
I took it well, smiled a bit, and said “Wait, you are serious.” She said, “Deadly serious.”
That’s when it finally struck me. This is not just a virus. It’s a template. People paint on it with their own philosophical presumptions, their visions, their deep perceptions about the path of history, and pour onto this template every grievance against the world, every perceived slight and every hope for how the world should be organized. Their heavens and their hells are reflected in the goings on all around them. For them, this is not a health malady; it’s a chance to affirm their worldview and impose it on others.
I’m just guessing because I don’t know this person’s personal history, but she probably went to a Northeastern college with a soft major and loaded up on classes preaching the usual combination of postulates dear to the hearts of the academic ruling class that sees the world as fundamentally marred by appropriation, microaggression, identitarian denialism, and structural racism/sexism/imperialism. The world is deeply broken, this ideology says. Some people did this. Be very very angry at them.
That’s all she knows. Mostly she forgets about all this blather and just happily works at her job. Not now. The crisis is her chance to put her education to good use and shove it down everyone’s throats, maybe not in the particulars but in the general sense that the only way to fix the world is to be an activist for justice, whatever that means. Coronajustice.
This penchant for channeling one’s ideology was obvious from the beginning of this. Even back in February, you had people going to their corners into camps: this is all a lie vs. we are all going to die. The lie camp was occupied by the people who don’t believe anything ever. The die camp was merely exercising an apocalyptic vision of either left or right.
There have been some surprises here, pundits with no previous knowledge of anything medical much less epidemiological who were cocksure that this disease was the new Black Death. They couldn’t wait to explain it to the rest of us. Meanwhile, in the millenarian religious press, we heard that this is proof of the coming rapture, god’s vengeance against a sinful world, the fulfillment of prophecy.
There are those who shape everything they believe in opposition to Trump who is the Great Satan. These have been challenging times for them because Trump has whipsawed from one end to the other. He began as a dismissalist who couldn’t even be bothered to follow the news about it, much less look into the egregious failures of testing that were the fault of his own regulatory agencies. Then possibly sensing a chance to exercise the powers of an emperor, he flipped the other way. Now he is this extremely strange mix of opinions but with one overriding theme: he is the hero.
This flipflopping has presented problems for the anti-Trump media. Initially, there was a concerted effort to push back on his dismissals, and instead drum up a frenzy. Then the rap on him became that he was not exercising enough dictatorial power – this from people who had warned that Trump was an authoritarian in waiting and couldn’t be trusted with power. That was confusing, to say the least. As I write, he is once again flipping back and forth between “close it down” and “open it up,” while Andrew Cuomo, a new hero among Democratic activists, is blasting his desire to quarantine the whole of New York.
Still, there has been a theme to Trump’s seeming chaos, and it was evident from his first national address on the topic. He decided to cast the virus in the framework of his own nationalism, which he believes to be his great contribution to world history. The virus came from China. China, he kept saying. Call it the China Virus. Also, block all travel to the United States from Europe, he demanded. He got his way and thus caused a disaster at airports around the country, swarms of people crushed together for 8-12 hours in waiting even as the White House was telling everyone to socially distance. Even now, there are tens of thousands of people with lives and jobs in America who are trapped abroad, locked in and locked out.
For Trump and the Trumpsters, this is not a disease to cure; it is proof that globalism is wrong and confirmation that America needs to seal its borders to all people and goods.
And just as some ideologies have boomed, others have gone bust. I’m thinking in particular of the variety of environmentalism that favors reusing everything, eschewing functioning toilets and faucets, and expresses loathing of consumer culture. The plastic bags are now back at check-out counters, the toilet paper aisle is empty, and “impossible burgers” sit on the shelf unbought.
Yep, meat is back. So is cleanliness. It turns out that pro-dirt green ideology was a luxury good consumable only in peace and prosperity.
It’s been extremely difficult in these times to think clearly as a professional medical service provider might. To them, this is a virus and the people who contract it need to be identified, isolated, and treated. Maybe that doesn’t sound complicated but sometimes the hardest thing is to think simply. It’s darn-near impossible when a perfect storm of media mania, political ambition, and public ignorance combined to open up a barrel full of toxic ideology that has poisoned people’s ability to be rational.
Even now, many people aren’t reading news or looking at data. They are confirming their biases. Our political culture has fully bled – a tsunami of blood – into one of the most essential tasks of civilization: caring for and curing the sick, and hence drowning rationality, science, and medical professionalism, and doing so at the expense of a billion lives.
Yes, that’s the tragic cost of an ideologically obsessed culture. Instead of defeating the virus, we are using its presence among us to defeat each other.