Pandemics can alter the course of history through their death tolls alone. “Justinian’s Plague,” killing perhaps one-third to one-half of Byzantium’s population, sabotaged the emperor’s campaign to reconquer Western Europe. The plague’s 14th-century return so depleted England’s labor force that serfdom ceased to be tenable. The Spanish Flu of 1918 hastened imperial Germany’s collapse.
Not so COVID-19. Its visitation has been marked less by biological than social morbidity, making all too plain the “underlying conditions” of our body politic. Whether these are terminal remains to be seen. But even if the patient recovers he’s clearly no longer the man he used to be.
What this viral epiphany renders unmistakable is the depth of America’s—and the West’s—civic decay. And like all such abrupt revelations, it has triggered a flurry of vulturine behavior preying on what’s been laid bare. As we watch, our Constitution, our economy, our entire social order are self-destructing.
Epiphanies are recurrent historical phenomena. Something long-brewing suddenly surfaces changing everything with harrowing results. The classic case is troops refusing to fire. The reveal: a loss of regime legitimacy. What’s triggered? Revolution. Or an offer, confidently made, elicits no bids. The reveal: demand has finally been exhausted. What’s triggered? Market collapse. Or a great principle of governance is invoked to no effect. The reveal: a constitution has lost its grip. What’s triggered? Tyranny.
The last six weeks have seen not one but a succession of jaw-dropping epiphanies. And they disclose that many things long taken for granted in America—and to an extent the Western world—have become very seriously depleted. For the well-wishers of a free, enlightened civilization the implications are immense.
So just what stands revealed?
Idiocracy: Any minimally competent government should be able to weigh competing interests intelligently. The course of this epidemic made it clear that while no one was free from risk, only a few categories of people were seriously imperiled. Under prudent governance, remedies would have been tailored to their protection. But prudence, alas, has been in very short supply.
Absent a reprise of something akin to the Black Death, the dangers of infection pale in comparison to those of crashing the economy, something our worst enemies would have rejoiced in if accomplished via bombing or blockade. Other than through nuclear attack, no enemy could have damaged as much of America’s manufacturing, retail, and even health and hospital facilities as we have now done ourselves. Pogo prophesied truly, “we have met the enemy and he is us.”
The hardest-hit Americans have been small businessmen and the working poor, but the consequences for those of the less developed world, fragilely governed and always near the margin, are likely to be calamitous. Couldn’t decision-makers see that the magnitude of these eventualities dwarfed whatever they thought they were preventing? And if not perhaps at the very outset when data was scarce, at least by now? Couldn’t they have simply sequestered the infirm, gathered data, and provided needed medical supplies, while enjoining the rest of us to keep calm and carry on?
That’s what we did during the Asian Flu of 1957-1958, the world’s last great pandemic, and during the Spanish Flu, whose huge death toll reflected the dearth of treatment options available a century ago. Where is the mature sobriety of those earlier generations of leadership? Certainly not in the trillions of funny money politicians of both parties have been indiscriminately shoveling to build a paper barrier against depression.
The scientific “experts” come off even worse than the politicians, pontificating grandly from half-baked models and inadequate data, myopic about everything outside their purviews and not particularly wise even there, more dispensers of fright than information. Modern civilization requires the scientific mind, but its limits, arrogance, and overreach have never been so grotesquely on parade.
Hysteria: America has become a place of recurrent panics and manias, though none till now sufficient to implode it. Some have been launched “to get” Trump—Russia collusion, the Kavanaugh furor, and the “Ukrainegate” impeachment. But quite besides these, nonstop existential alarms also have been sounding over climate change, “Me-Too,” transgender discrimination, pervasive racism, sexism, etc. Our public squares are now lynching grounds for Twitter mobs. Habituation has made us a nation exquisitely easy to spook.
Some of this is no doubt due to the softness bred of unprecedented mass wealth. But we should also credit those academic programs which for the last two generations have specialized in the inculcation of frenzy.
Although the great bulk of university students graduate with their good sense intact, they march into society alongside cadres of drumbeaters who fill America’s media and politics with their denunciatory din, setting off stampedes whose crush toll mounts. These mini-Savonarolas too often succeed in leading our stupefied leviathan by its nose, drawing it toward paroxysms anew, blinding it to the obvious, and making all but the boldest realists duck and cover. Part-howling infants, part-licensed haters, these initiates continually put the scare in America’s collective mind, turning men into mice.
Rights desacralized: Clearly, nothing remains sacred—especially the cultural hand-me-downs from pre-postmodernity. These include those strange things once called rights, at the moment almost reduced to nullities.
Our lives and liberties, to say nothing of our sacred honor, have not so much been seized—as might befall something well entrenched—as cavalierly dismissed. We have seen churches shuttered by an authority apparently higher than their own, assemblies banned, house arrest and property seizures decreed en masse, casual informing encouraged, even fathers arrested for bringing their children into parks—all on the slenderest of legal warrant.
This coup against the Constitution, though largely the work of minor-league pols, has nonetheless been revolutionary in sweep, purging owners from their businesses and workers from their trades.
(None alas, like Sewall Avery in 1944, resisting to the point of being carried away by soldiers.) In a nation born to protect, among other things, the rights of property, businesses, and jobs meekly have been surrendered.
Civic sociopathy: The most fundamental test of social health is unity in crisis. This crisis may be far more hype than hurt, but a crisis perceived is no less a test for that. And we’re abjectly failing it.
America was able to pull together during most past moments of high danger. The World War I slogan “politics is adjourned” and the early Cold War aphorism that “politics stops at the water’s edge,” even if never completely realized, proclaimed a strong national impulse to rally ’round the flag. That impulse appears to have been completely interred.
Our loyal opposition and its media confreres have treated COVID-19 as a political opportunity and weapon, holding emergency measures hostage to their ideological wishlists. Worse yet, America’s political and cultural establishment is using the crisis as its last pre-election chance to bring anti-Trump hostility to a boil, relentlessly attacking the president for whatever he does or doesn’t. Exhibiting shades of Russia’s 19th-century radical intelligentsia—history’s most consequential class of sociopaths—their motto seems to be “the worse the better.”
A nation of sheep, or only asleep: Is the citizenry’s docile response to these unprecedented abrogations simply the quiet preceding a storm? Of all the questions raised by the “great reveal” the answer to this one is the least certain and the most important.
There are growing rumblings of mutiny, but on the whole acquiescence reigns supreme. This is to be expected perhaps from authority-addicted Europeans, but not in the land of the free and the home of the brave. In describing these days will future historians employ as metaphor a pressure cooker about to explode or sheep being led to slaughter? The jury is still out.
We fear this virus rightly. It’s a nasty bug. But we’ve soldiered through much worse, when necessary offering up our young in hecatombs to preserve a way of life held dear. Now that way of life is the first to go on the block. The measure of a society is what it’s ready to die for. It’s been glory for some, honor for others, pelf and power for many; but for us it’s been liberty, fought for both at home and abroad.
The risen curtain, unfortunately, presents an altogether different scene: a witless, clumsy behemoth, set upon by ravening hounds, trampling the harvests off of which it feeds, while the cultivators cower.
“Death by government,” that scourge of the 20th century, seems no longer the specialty of totalitarians alone, but something even democracies can visit. We’ll likely pull out from our current nosedive before absolutely flattening, but the great reveal is telling us that, short of some galvanizing reforms, this will be but the first of many.