“War is a violent teacher.”—Thucydides
Before this virus has passed, those of the New York Symphony, like the defeated Redcoats at proverbial Yorktown, will be playing the real “The World Turned Upside Down”:
And then strange motions will abound.
Yet let’s be content, and the times lament,
you see the world turn’d upside down.
Before the virus, apparently we were prepping for our brave new progressive, centrally planned dystopia.
During the Barack Obama years, government agencies had begun to chart a new inclusive future for hoi polloi Americans. We were lectured frequently that the Obama arc of the moral universe was long, but it always bent toward his sense of justice. Translated that meant, like it or not, we Americans had a preordained moral rendezvous with a progressive destiny.
Suburban lifestyles, yards, grass, rural living, and commute driving were to be phased out. High rises, government run-buses, and high-speed rail were in: more people in less space, with less energy consumed, meant less trouble. Granny was better off in a green rest home, not the back bedroom.
Ohio was over; the EU was our future. Clean coal was a 20th-century embarrassment; the next and future Solyndra would be cutting-edge. The idea that the United States ought to be self-sufficient in energy and food seemed worthy of yawns.
Instead of the backyard barbeque and a lawn, apartment dwellers would enjoy shared green belts around their communal towers—albeit not as large as the Martha’s Vineyard estate of Barack Obama or the palazzo of Nancy Pelosi.
Universities were to speak truth to power in new race/class/gender missions and diversity/inclusion/equality agendas. The old boring curricula of math, science, engineering, literature, language, history, and Western Civ were sputtering out, or recalibrated to include social activist themes.
After all, China and India would supply the world’s next boring generation of rote engineers. But they could not invent, compute, or formulate without our brilliant peace studies and ethnic studies geniuses to give them moral instruction.
“Knowledge” became a relative construct, not an absolute that could be roughly calibrated. Students needed to appreciate that traditional curricula and grades were merely models of leveraging power by arbitrarily setting “standards”—pathologies that could only be understood by appreciating how the marginalized “Other” was victimized by them.
Being “woke” meant fathoming how unmet personal expectations ought always to be attributed to the fault of someone else—and, even worse, that “someone else” might be dead or alive. The Squad just told us so. Now Chairman Xi agrees.
Billions of dollars of university capital and budgets were diverted to new administration and faculty investments that might focus on how young people thought of themselves rather than what they actually knew. Everyone understood the job of vice provost for diversity, equity, and inclusion might easily disappear in a nanosecond and never be missed. No one dared to hint at the suggestion.
All were cynically aware that the vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion made enough money to avoid living in a “diverse” neighborhood, put his own kids in a school where all were equally not poor, and wanted to be included among the elite.
There were new winners and losers in a transnational United States, and such university administrators were among the winners.
Globalization was to be seen as some sort of ultimate talent meter that finally told us not only who was talented but, more important, who was worthy. The dumb un-globalized losers could not figure out how to code, or lacked a communications major or international relations degree, or had not spent a semester abroad in China, or did not understand global investment. They clung to some ancient shibboleth—“Made in America”—as if producing stuff here really mattered.
So the deplorables and Lysol drinkers more or less deserved the hollowed-out manufacturing landscape, closed assembly plants, and industrial wasteland of the nation’s interior that anachronistically and foolishly had bet that muscular labor still had a place in the postmodern world.
Dummies! Fitness comes from the Peloton, not mastery of masonry or welding. Drones, artificial intelligence, and robots could easily crawl under the house and fix the drainpipe, or shimmy into the attic to wire a new kitchen. No more need for plumbers or electricians.
In the minds of the new citizens of the world, the ossified working classes, when they were not smelling up Walmart or hiding their missing teeth with corny smiles, were written off as a basket full of deplorables and irredeemables, or the dregs of the earth, or the clingers who always retreat to their guns and religion—the worst nightmare of Robert Mueller’s dream team and all-stars.
The more refined and bigger winners in the global crapshoot were unafraid to tell us that our fates really had been predetermined by “grey matter” (as in lots of theirs) that adjudicated who did “anybody-can-do-them” rote things like dropping seeds in the ground—or, in contrast, who excelled in capitalizing Chinese Communist companies.
The ancient principles of autarchy and autonomy—economic self-sufficiency and political independence—became passé. Borders, fair trade, and the U.S. Constitution paled in comparison to models like the Schengen Agreement, outsourcing and offshoring, and transnational organizations.
After all, who could ever imagine a time when you might need a constitutionally protected gun? Even if one could ever conceive of the unlikely act of letting prisoners out en masse, they were likely to return to productive lives, proving they never belonged in jail in the first place.
And we were assured by experts and science that the World Health Organization would warn us in plenty of time if a dangerous flu-like bug popped up 7,000 miles away.
Inventories were old and in the way. Just-in-time supply chains needed just enough Chinese products to arrive the day before they were sold out in stores. Who wished to pay for useless stuff stacked sitting on shelves for an excruciating 72 hours?
The idea that the United States might wish to be self-sufficient in pharmaceuticals, medical supplies, and rare earth minerals was written off as an update of Bonaparte’s failed continental system.
For the global Right, the market would adjudicate borders (when entry-level wages dropped below sustenance level, immigrants would wisely stay home).
For the Left the greater the number of the “Other” who arrived illegally, and the poorer they were, the more fodder they’d have for flipping those bad-people red states into good-people blue states.
If there ever was some sort of zombie apocalypse-like collapse, the survivors in New York would show the doomed yokels in Texas the consequences of being Texas and not New York.
No one was supposed to want his children to be a skilled plumber, a master electrician, an effective teacher, or a heroic nurse. Better it was instead to owe $100,000 in student loans to land an environmental studies degree, branded by a supposedly hard-to-get-into college. Even our Hollywood geniuses knew that—and were willing to go to prison to prove it.
Slick, shiny modern living magazines advertised the latest stone counters, metal refrigerators, and wood floors. Today’s in-brands and tastes became, in a blink, tomorrow’s proof of mundanity. Rarely did our elite wonder, much less care, from where the stone, the ores, and the timber came—much less who were the miners, the smelters, and the ax-men who harvested the stuff of their kitchens.
The Violent Teacher
Then the virus hit.
Panic ensued. Former madness was declared genius. More were needed in overalls, fewer in yoga pants. A Chevy van was preferable to a year’s pass on the metro. A first-class ticket to Milan was nothing but a trip to nowhere.
Roomy yards were again correct, nice elevators not so much. The bigger and more “mine” the car, the better to get away from “them” and “theirs” in the subway.
Driving wasn’t all that bad; flying apparently was. The quaint country cabin three hours from Manhattan was now a brilliant last redoubt. But living in Utah was even cooler than in Brooklyn Heights.
For some reason no one wished to vacation in Tuscany or see the Great Wall; all dreamed of an isolated lake at 7,000 feet in the Rockies, or the Sierras.
Vegas odds-makers, independent stock junkies, and the expert toilet-paper finder were deemed savvier than Ph.D. modelers from the Imperial College and the University of Washington. When the former’s numbers were screwed up, they at least paid in real-time and money, when the latter’s did, they sighed and screwed up again.
Toilet paper became bitcoins, hand sanitizer more valuable than Chanel.
Bankers were stuck in apartments trying to figure out a circuit breaker from a toilet baffle, and in Shakespearean fashion cried to spouses, “A handyman, a handyman, My kingdom for a handyman!”
For this moment at least, a ventilator producer, a bleach brewer, and a mask maker were our hoplites. The “I wouldn’t want to be him” slob with a big belly and big arms was abruptly needed to drive all night to get arugula and asparagus in Whole Foods by morning—and did.
Travel bans, the “wall,” and passport control were OK. Not so politically correct caravans of thousands of foreigners crashing through decrepit wire border fencing, nor those recently inaugurated direct flights from Wuhan. Take-out from MacDonald’s, grease and all, was wiser and safer than a choice reservation at Le Coucou.
Our best and brightest policymakers now said it would have been nice to trust China less, and Western Pennsylvania more. Just having Augmentin seemed wiser than did the chance of paying less for it.
Some 360,000 Chinese children, mostly of Communist elites, in American universities were no longer touted by universities as proof of their diversity, but shamelessly lamented as a vanishing herd no longer to be targeted and price-gouged.
Zoom, Skype, and online courses proved to be the little boy who looked at the parading gaudy professors and asked why they went naked? Was it all that bad to see just the professor’s videoed head without his strut?
There likely won’t be much of a “new normal.” Because when all the data is in, all the panic ended, the antivirals appearing, all the vaccinations working, the herd immunity growing, and the real lethality rate dropping, most of us, despite the tough barroom talk of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the dreams of governors Andrew Cuomo and Gavin Newsom, will go back to business as normal.
Yet we should hope not quite normal, either.
For a brief season in time, we glimpsed from the awful epidemic what was wheat and what was chaff, what was mahogany beneath and what a scrapped thin veneer above, who were the V8s and who the mere gaudy, tail fins—and how America ultimately got by and how it almost didn’t.