Although the circumstances are somewhat different from today’s, in Albert Camus’ novel The Plague, there is one character, Monsieur Cottard, who illustrates what happens when a profoundly sad and lonely person encounters a horrible event that ravages his community. Cottard paradoxically finds new life and purpose for as long as the plague endures.
At the beginning of the novel, the friendless and misunderstood Cottard is thwarted in his attempt to commit suicide. He then makes a complete change when the plague hits, running a smuggling operation and cultivating friendships with his neighbors. When the plague finally passes away, he becomes angry and hysterical once again.
It is not an exaggeration to say that in the United States and much of the developed world today, there exists a whole population of Cottards. They are anti-social, unfulfilled, and paranoid. Sad with themselves, they feed off stories of doom. They may claim that they care about public health, but this becomes impossible to believe when they stubbornly cling to wildly inaccurate projections and desperately deny stories of cures or methods of preventing infections that don’t hurt vast swaths of people. Instead of resolving the chaos in themselves, they would rather normalize the chaos all around them.
It’s worth mentioning that there have been some positive exceptions to this with the Wuhan virus. Citywide shelter-in-place orders have ironically inspired people to come out of their houses and see one another for the first time. Families and married couples now take walks, play board games, and have conversations with one another. Neighbors will check on the elderly and buy them groceries. Residents in many towns have even made special efforts to keep local businesses afloat. Indeed, all the wholesome togetherness recalls a famous scene from “The Simpsons” where all the children of Springfield leave their houses and play outside when their favorite cartoon “Itchy and Scratchy” becomes boring and preachy.
More often than not, however, the Wuhan virus has brought out the worst in people, especially those in authority.
In the name of public health, governors and mayors have imposed indefinite shutdowns of their states and cities, thinking little of the actual effectiveness or economic consequences of such measures or how they have set a dangerous precedent for stripping Americans’ fundamental rights at a moment’s notice.
Mandatory quarantines seem to favor large corporations and government organizations, which are deemed “essential,” and condemn churches and small businesses as “nonessential.” Enforcing these orders has led to ugly scenes of police arresting pastors, pro-life protesters, and parents playing t-ball with their children in an empty field. At the same time, China-friendly monopolies such as Amazon grow by leaps and bounds and abortion providers are given a free pass to stay open despite the quarantine.
Contrary to the argument that these actions are unpopular, many people actually support this injustice and feed into it, as the hordes of COVID-shamers at any social media site will demonstrate. They faithfully report their neighbors who violate quarantine. They take pleasure in embarrassing and shaming people who have doubts about the virus or the extreme responses to it. They see no problem with so many people losing their jobs or with small businesses closing down. They couldn’t care less that their governments have effectively ruined Easter for millions of Christians. Whether or not these actions save lives, there is a feeling that it is all ultimately good for the world.
Long before coping with the Wuhan virus, Americans have been sick with other ills which have contributed to this widespread misanthropy. Despite its gains in comforts and affluence, the United States has become lonelier, shallower, and less logical. Fewer people attend church, marry, have children, keep up with family, or even maintain friendships.
Social Maladies Exacerbated
What results from these trends are whole generations of Americans who are more depressed, less empathetic, and thoroughly irrational. They don’t mind losing freedoms because they are not really free. They don’t mind the prospect of mass suffering, because they feel like they suffer already. They don’t mind if society breaks down because they don’t see themselves as part of society. And they don’t mind that none of this makes sense, because they never learn to think clearly about anything.
To such people, worldwide disasters are treated more like novelties than serious afflictions. Hence, they embrace elaborate doomsday narratives over concrete facts. Narratives make them feel important; facts make them feel like losers.
Nobody wants to hear that they’re overreacting, or that they’re being cowardly. Nobody wants to accept that they might have been wrong or misinformed. Nobody wants to realize that the government and media institutions they depend on are corrupt and dishonest. Nobody wants to hear how they played a key part in motivating politicians to shut down the economy and trample on people’s rights. Nobody wants to be told they look stupid in their N95 masks.
No, they want to hear that they are saving lives by staying home. That they are heroes for calling the cops about teenagers playing football. That they are brilliant for taking the virus so seriously. That the real enemy isn’t China; rather, it’s the conservatives, Christians, and President Trump who are all “anti-science” and deluded with false hopes.
Whereas emotionally secure people with friends and family to support them can dispense with the narratives and own up to their mistakes, insecure people fail miserably at this. Having nothing but their own ego, they must safeguard it at any cost. They have no friends to come to their aid, to motivate them, or to offer a much-needed reality check. Thus, doomsday narratives become appealing because they offer a kind of escape from their quotidian misery.
Among so many other things, the Wuhan virus has taught people that spiritual maladies can translate into physical maladies. A society comprised of so many individuals lacking community, faith, and reason will succumb all too easily to hysteria and nihilism.
No amount of propaganda, authoritarianism, and stimulus spending will cure this. Only a spiritual renewal among individuals and communities will bring salvation from the evils of this world. This is the message of Easter Sunday and happens to be the perfect one for Americans today.