When I began writing this, Joe Biden seemed just to have pumped himself full of enough Donepezil to remember what year it is, dragged himself behind the nearest podium, and delivered a threat to 80 million Americans: get the vaccine, or lose your jobs. To the unvaccinated, he had a not so thinly veiled threat: “Our patience is wearing thin.”
This probably wasn’t a reference to when Joseph Goebbels said pretty much the same thing to the parts of 1930s Germany he found undesirable. But people may be forgiven for recollecting it.
The goal, of course, is finally to end the pandemic. At least, that’s what we’re told. And if that’s the goal, this attempt at achieving it is naturally doomed to fail.
The reason is simple. What is the coronavirus? It’s a plague. What is a plague? It’s an act of God. Lastly, what is an act of God? Well, to a god, it’s probably pretty satisfying. Maybe even funny. To the mortals upon which it’s being inflicted, though, it’s something to be suffered. A little less grimly, it can be endured or, at best, weathered.
Only a lunatic thinks you can fight it and beat it. So naturally that’s exactly what we’ve decided to do. And we’ll keep on making lunatic decisions with disastrous results until the kind of people prone to making these lunatic decisions are no longer in charge.
What’s the deal here, though? Aren’t we a bunch of Science Lords? Why, then, are we so bad with properly understanding situations like this, identifying that we’ve got an act of God on our hands, and that going to war against it would be as futile as declaring war on other forces of nature like the tides or the wind or poverty?
Bad news: it’s because we’re Science Lords. This was all well understood by none other than the late James Burnham in his seminal Suicide of the West. “Reason is man’s essence, and in a practical sense his chief and ultimately controlling characteristic,” he wrote in 1964, describing the way that modern people perceive the world and their place within it. Reason lies at the core of what it is to be human, and science is one of the highest expressions of reason.
Because science is of such high value in our culture, if you can’t be an actual scientist—or perhaps you are clever enough to understand that less power comes from being an actual scientist than from being the person who explains to the public what the science really means—then any profession that’s even remotely public-facing will eventually become more and more interested in sounding like it’s driven by pure science, too. Especially in the computer era, people will start to think like computers, or perhaps more accurately like they’re at a computer.
It’s inevitable. If your authority and status flow from your ability to participate in the core cultural value of doing science, then doing science is what you’ll maximize, and anyone who can do science better than the guy across from him wins.
Which is exactly what we’ve seen. It is without any exaggeration at all I say that in the 21st century, every single people, with the possible but not certain exceptions of the Pirahã and the Andamanese, has become full of policy-obsessed hyperwonks who view their nations as nothing more than real-life World of Warcraft simulations, where every stat just needs to be min-maxed to beat the game (here meaning something like ushering in the End of History). Biden’s Acela-swamped cabinet, Vox/Slate/FiveThirtyEight journalists (really, all journos), the entire sociology department of everywhere that has a sociology department—a vast class of people has become nothing more than button-pushers. Slider-nudgers. Knob-tweakers. Dial-fiddlers. Whatever the problem, it can be eliminated by looking at it, measuring what’s causing it, and determining which way we need to adjust the sliders to make those causes vanish.
I think you already know exactly what I mean by this. For instance, when you go over to the website of Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg (which I wouldn’t actually recommend), you’ll find yourself suddenly drowning in slides, graphs, and calculations explaining new policies designed to hack city streets into being less dangerous and racist (not a joke). Lower the speed limit by X, narrow the roads by Y, increase the size of corners by Z, and BOOM!, we’ve just saved ABCD lives. Big, if true! Big, if true.
And if you think our transportation policies are exciting, just wait until you hear about our educational policies. Education, of course, being the core of freeing a population of ignorance, it is the process that allows a people to do science in the first place. As such, the public K-12 education system is extremely well-funded, to the tune of $735 billion a year: that’s $14,000 per student on average. With that many resources and investments to work with, the same geniuses solving our pressing “stop getting run over in the street” problem must be min-maxing the hell out of those schoolkids. Those kids must be the smartest kids in history—all mass produced by a perfectly measured, nudged, tweaked, fiddled, adjusted, and remeasured system of education.
Except, for mysterious and completely inexplicable reasons, we are told it has to be completely torn down to the foundations and rebuilt from scratch every 10 or 15 years.
For it turns out no matter which way they twist the learning-knobs, the kids’ test scores aren’t going up. Their performances aren’t getting any better. Neither are their IQs. Lots of children are getting left behind. And no matter how many interventions they try (and to their credit, they’ve tried a ton), nothing makes the slightest difference. Nothing. We already squeezed all the blood out of that stone a long time ago. Pre-K, for instance, is one of those programs that just doesn’t matter to a kid’s future at all. In fact, all educational benefits of pre-K vanish by second grade. Yet Biden’s precise educational policy is to expand pre-K and community college to all students.
Doing things that are obviously doomed to fail doesn’t sound super logical or well-reasoned, which would seem to contradict our core cultural value of science. It sounds nonsensical, in fact. Luckily, I have a cheat code in appealing to more of Burnham, who was something of a liberal taxonomist. And one of the other things he identified about these people was something I glossed over earlier: They don’t believe their policies are really bound by any meaningful limits. As Burnham puts it, they believe “Man, in other words, is perfectible in the full sense of being capable of achieving perfection . . . If a limit [to this perfection] exists, it is so distant and so far beyond anything that man has yet accomplished that it has no practical relevance to our plans and programs.”
This is the moment in the horror movie when you finally get your first full look at the monster. Nature isn’t fixed, it’s fluid; all you have to do is bombard it with the heavy artillery of science and reason until it surrenders and does exactly what you want it to. There is no limit to this. Another way to define “someone capable of rewriting nature to his desires” is “a god.” And you know who can fight an act of God?
Hence it is obvious that not only can we weather the scourge of the coronavirus, we can stamp it out. We have the technology. We have peer-reviewed studies. All we have to do is wear masks, wash our hands, stand six feet apart, reach the magical x percentage of vaccination threshold, and so on. We do these things, and we can kill the plague.
All right, none of that is too annoying, and if it works, it’s probably better than the whole planet getting sick and one-in-200 of them or so dying . . .
Smash-cut to it not working. Things were looking promising for a while. Even those of us who say evil things on the internet hoped we were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. But then new infections started going hockey-stick, even in countries that should have reached vax herd immunity. People started dying again. The vaccinated are getting sick, too, and some of them are even dying as well. If you look at the results in such faraway lands as “Israel” or “the UK,” it’s clear that “99 percent of the deaths are among the unvaccinated!” is pure and shameless propaganda. While the vax isn’t worthless—it still looks like a good bet for anyone particularly vulnerable—it’s also far from the divine miracle we were promised. The would-be gods failed again.
When the miracle falls through, there remain reasonable paths forward. Those paths do not involve reclassifying the unvaccinated as second-class citizens and forcing them to endure a targeted second lockdown while also firing them from their jobs. Neither do they involve threatening your own people on national television nor making little kids wear masks all day while isolating in little hamster tubs at their desks because fully vaccinated teachers are terrified they’ll drop dead if one of their unvaccinated wards coughs in their direction.
Of course, what we’re experiencing here is only mildly cruel and insane compared to places positing they can remain corona-free forever, like Australia. Reverting to their prison island roots, their enlightened solutions involve locking citizens in their homes, subjecting them to random police check-ins to ensure they haven’t left their little quarantine zone, refusing to let them leave their apartments, not letting them have beer delivered until they get the vax, and slaughtering the nation’s shelter dogs in order to prevent people from traveling to adopt them. What happens when they eventually drop all these measures? Everyone will come in contact with the virus anyway, undoing whatever tiny gains these policies achieved, in turn rendering the pain they inflicted even more pointless and brutal.
I don’t think there’s an exit strategy here any more than there was for the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Policymakers have to look like they’re doing something, though, both to justify their roles in power and because their alignment of beliefs causes them to be certain that something always can be done.
But there’s also something a lot darker at work. If the plague is still ongoing even after we’ve attacked it with our most advanced scientific policies and technologies, then something has gone very wrong. It can’t be the policies or the vaccine itself—after all, these were made by the gods! And if the gods can’t stop a simple plague, they wouldn’t be gods. So we need another explanation.
Fortunately for the gods, it turns out we’ve got one ready: our lords’ efforts are being subverted and sabotaged by internal forces who are deliberately undermining our progress toward salvation. The Soviets called these people “wreckers.” We call them “deplorables.”
Within this frame, everything snaps into place. If the gods are trying to save us, but they’re being thwarted by a bunch of ignorant heretics who won’t even wear a damned mask, what are we justified in doing to stop the heretics? The answer is “anything.” They’re lucky if all we do to them is ban them from restaurants and fire them from their jobs. Their hands are stained with the blood of 650,000 dead Americans and counting. All of these deaths were preventable. We had the policies. All they had to do was follow them, but they couldn’t even do that. That we haven’t stained our hands with the blood of a single one of them is a sign of our great mercy.
“But our patience is wearing thin.”
When it turns out they can’t beat the plague, they will start beating you instead. Defeated by the limits of nature, but psychologically unable to accept the very existence of limits, their overweening optimism and self-confidence undergoes a psychic phase shift into thundering rage.
If they were real gods, that’s when things would get scary, because we’d all be about to feel the wrath. Pillars of fire smiting cities, swarms of scorpions falling from the sky, that kind of thing. We’d all have been arrested and forcefully vaccinated months ago. I wouldn’t be typing this from my couch, I’d be whispering it to you between swings of my pickaxe in the bowels of the mRNA mine, as I pray I’ll be able to produce enough for the next batch to spare myself another beating. We would be begging them to let us get jabbed.
Instead, the most they’re able to do is close the bars down a couple of hours early, strap a mask around your kid while she’s playing her clarinet, and make you show a test before you step inside the office. Aside from the people forced out of jobs they didn’t want to lose, these measures aren’t exactly the thunderbolts of Zeus. These are the snide little demerits of schoolmarms who think they can end a plague by putting you in detention. It makes me happy to think that, on some level, they understand this themselves, if only for fleeting and terrified moments.
The Russian literary thinker Mikhail Bakhtin had a theory that the tone and mood of a genre of storytelling is determined by the divinity, or lack thereof, of the protagonists tasked with taking on the great forces of nature. Myths about gods fighting other immortals are inherently triumphant, because it tends to be the demons and evildoing titans that get banished, leading to greater order. But epic poems of great heroes opposing the gods are inherently tragic, because they almost have what it takes to win, but some human flaw always undoes the hero just as he’s about to win. By contrast, novels are stories about mere mortals, and when you pit humans up against the strength of the gods, the power imbalance is so absurd the only thing you can do is laugh about the state you’re in and do your best to make it safely out to the other side. Novels are inherently funny.
The tale of our rulers in the struggle against the coronavirus is different from any of these. It’s the story of mortals who imagine themselves to be just as great and terrible as the divine forces they’re up against. Mortals who often spend more time turning around to assault the people they’re supposed to be protecting than they do attacking the monsters streaming down from the hills. What’s the inherent mood of a genre as warped as that?
Over the last 18 months, it looks to whip back and forth between high comedy and low horror, with all of us left to weather the war that can’t be won the best that we can.