Crises, even if they are manufactured ones, are great producers of linguistic mutation. Thucydides noticed this. In one of the most famous bits of his History of the Peloponnesian War, the great historian wrote that in a time of civil war certain words changed their usual meanings and took on new ones. For example, “reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question inaptness to act on any.”
It’s not only civil war that produces such linguistic deformations. Any crisis will do.
Our part of Connecticut was badly damaged by Hurricane (or, for the weather pedants among you, “Superstorm”) Sandy in 2012. Like many families, we had to move out of our house for months and were subjected to seemingly endless meetings with various local and FEMA officials who eagerly seized the chance to tell us huddled masses what we could and couldn’t do with our property. Just as every public official and talking head now is an amateur epidemiologist, so back in 2012 they were all expert meteorologists.
I remember one meeting in particular when it was explained to us that storms like Hurricane Sandy were “the new normal.”
“The new normal.” Is there a more nauseating flake of smug linguistic presumption? I think that the imperative “stay safe,” born of our coronavirus panic, comes close. But “the new normal” is worse because it pretends to knowledge not just solicitude. That wretched town official who was telling us serfs what we could and could not do with our homes did so on the hollow authority of knowing, or pretending to know, what the future would bring.
So it is now. At one of President Trump’s near-daily coronavirus press rallies last month, a media mouth began a question by noting the “new normal in which, you know, there’s [sic] smaller crowds in restaurants and bars and—” The president cut him off.
“Oh, that’s not going to be normal,” he said.
There’s not going to be a new normal where somebody has been having for 25 years 158 seats in a restaurant and now he’s got 30 or he’s got 60 because that wouldn’t work. That’s not normal. No, normal will be if he has the 158 or 68 seats, and that’s going to happen and it’s going to happen relatively quickly, we hope. . . . Our normal is if you have 100,000 people in an Alabama football game or 110,000 . . . we want 110,000 people. We want every seat occupied. Normal is not going to be where you have a game with 50,000 people.
Is the president right? Will we quickly revert to the status quo ante? No one knows.
As we warily uncurl ourselves and peek sheepishly over the parapets of our imposed isolation, we see governors and various local officials beginning to open, or at least talk about opening, for business. The general rule of thumb so far is that Republican-leaning localities are opening up more quickly than Democrat-leaning locales. The reasoning is, this pandemic has been an economic disaster. Who knows how many thousands of businesses have shuttered, how many millions of jobs have been lost. In a matter of weeks, unemployment has shot up from an historic low of some 3.5 percent to a near-historic high north of 17.5 percent.
The new normal? Incumbents are generally blamed for bad tidings, even if they happen because of factors beyond their control. So Democrats are eager to perpetuate the people’s misery long enough to assure they can destroy the people’s choice. The Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, for example, just announced that he is keeping the state shut down until June 4, two days after the already-delayed primary election.
Here are some questions to which we do not know the answers. Will people flock back to airplane travel? Will you? Will they crowd into theaters to listen to music or watch plays? Will they be allowed to? Will the old normal ever become the new normal, as the president suggested it would?
A California friend tells me that the restaurant trade association there has presented a reopening plan to Governor Gavin Newsom that, to me, looks more like an instruction manual for economic hari-kari. “Only family members or people who live together would sit at the same table. Buffets, salad bars and shared bread baskets would be out. Salt and pepper shakers could be replaced by bottles of hand sanitizer. And meals could arrive from food servers sheathed in face masks.”
My friend asks: “Only family members or members of the same household? Seriously? No dating couples (only cohabitating ones)? No friends visiting from out of town? Ridiculous.”
Ridiculous, indeed. Back in April—it seems like ages ago—President Trump said he was shifting from a blanket shutdown to an effort to protect “the highest risk individuals,” especially the fragile elderly people with relevant preexisting conditions. That message didn’t seem to get through to many Democratic Governors and some Republican ones. Yet with every passing day, the populace is becoming more frustrated and more angry. I think it is about to get a lot angrier.
The word “unprecedented” has been bandied about a lot to describe the unfolding of the coronavirus. The idea is that the virus is unprecedentedly lethal, but that is clearly not the case. What is unprecedented is our response. We cut off society’s oxygen because we were afraid more people would die if we didn’t. But what if we were wrong?
Last week at American Greatness, Julie Kelly raised a question that has to have been on the minds of many people. What if “social distancing” doesn’t work?
“We have,” she notes “been assured by the credentialed class that keeping a distance of six feet between healthy people for weeks on end was the only tried-and-true way to prevent the deadly spread of the novel coronavirus.”
But what does the evidence show? We’ve shuttered the economy for almost two months. We’ve destroyed trillions in wealth. We’ve put millions out of work. We’ve denied tens of thousands of people access to medical care for anything except treatment of the coronavirus. We’ve imperiled hospitals across the country. Yet we really do not know that “social distancing” has “slowed the spread” or “flattened the curve” of the virus.
In fact, Kelly argues, the practice of “social distancing” is “untested pseudoscience particularly as it relates to halting the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. On its website, the CDC provides no links to any peer-reviewed social distancing studies that bolster its official guidance.”
So: What if the whole rigamarole—the masks, the social distancing, the “sheltering in place,” the forced shutdowns of “nonessential” services—what if it was all theater instead of therapy?
I think I wrote my first piece on the Wuhan Virus towards the end of February. I drastically underestimated the number of lives it would claim (though it is worth noting that the number of COVID-19 deaths is artificially inflated because the government provides an incentive if the virus is listed as the cause of death). But I continue to think that the arguments of epidemiologists like Knut Wittkowski, Dr. Jonathan Geach, and Drs. Dan Erickson and Artin Massihi, urgent care doctors in Bakersfield, California, are correct.
Towards the end of their interview, Erickson and Massihi say, “If you’re going to dance on someone’s constitutional rights, you’d better have a good reason.” They note that an extreme national emergency might provide justification for extreme action. As I wrote, I think they are right that the new coronavirus, however nasty it can be for vulnerable parts of the population, is not an existential emergency but “just the vicissitudes of ordinary life.” Indeed, we should, as they all advise, “treat it ‘like the flu,’ not the Black Death.”
I do not know when the “new normal” will fade back to the old normal, when people will crowd into bars and restaurants, theaters and stadiums, planes and trains and schools. I suspect it will happen a lot quicker than currently predicted.
But I am much less sanguine about the resiliency of our national psyche. Our reaction to the coronavirus revealed the inner Gauleiters of many governors, mayors, judges, and sheriffs across the country. More worrisome was the inner Eloi it uncovered in a not insignificant part of the population.