The current worldwide pandemic of insane terror is an interesting phenomenon. Never in human history has a period of unparalleled safety been accompanied by a rampant sense of florid insecurity. Until about a century ago, life for most people was short, oppressed, and impoverished. Then in a triumph of liberty, science, medicine, and capitalism life for most of the world’s population was improved beyond any human precedent. To be sure, there were wars and famines – but they were the result of bad politics. So why did the advent of of a serious respiratory infection, one that by the standard of prior contagious diseases was average or less both in severity and lethality, send the world into an orgy of aberrant behavior?
I think the outsized demand for safety that has possessed at least half the people in the developed world and almost all the politicians in any part of the world is a manifestation of a generalized inability to cope with prosperity and leisure. Life for all humanity up until the last instant has been a struggle for survival. Our ancestors from the the advent of the first hominid until yesterday developed those traits that were necessary to cope with an angry world. Then mirabile dictu we were living to 80 and beyond, were rich by any previous standard, and had a lot of time to devote to activities unrelated to survival. The result? Social media, iPhones, Netflix, and reliance on the government for expensive and inefficient services that previously were part of family life and independent activities. And then fear. Fear undifferentiated, unreasoning, and pervasive.
Many seem to react as if immortality is a choice if we can just avoid roadblocks to eternal life. The search for security in a world about as secure as it can be leads to acquiescence or even demands for more government control of the quotidian activities of life; even those previously considered most private are likely to be thought subject to regulation from above.
The response to a plague played out over the past two years was not an example of spontaneous generation. It grew from a well watered and fertilized field – a field of foolishness. A quixotic quest for safety overwhelmed reason and scarred communal life. The economy was lacerated, children abused, education already a monstrous chimera miraculously came to consume vast hordes of treasure while providing negative value. Medicine managed to be in total disarray. Bands of professional leaders and commentators spewed dollops of misinformation while accusing those of differing opinions of spreading misinformation to the point where a disinterested observer could wish that the germ theory of disease had not been enunciated.
A face mask was purely of symbolic significance; it came to be the equivalent of a MAGA hat, though obviously for an oppositely disposed group. There are those who are so attached to them and so afraid of the future that they will, like Japanese taxi drivers, wear them to the grave.
The response to COVID-19 seems to have satisfied a deep yearning for submission to authority. This descent to post-lapsarian blind fealty, to rigid rule devoid of nuance is part of a larger phenomenon in the United States that aims to rewrite the country’s foundational documents. There are many Americans who value safety and security, no matter how illusory, over any other virtue.
A life suffused with meaning is dangerous. Many would prefer masks, doles, directions, and unquestioned obedience rather than embracing liberty and chancing the risk of failure. The current simultaneity of epidemic, disorder, crime, violence, and suppression of dissent is not accidental. Those who would reorder society based on prejudice and a belief system of religious rigor, though without God, will not abide by the limitations and compromises that allow for the orderly operation of a democratic and decentralized polity.
Life has become so risk free and bountiful that instead of producing contentment it has unleashed terror. Things have been so good that the absence of struggle has left a vacuum at the core of society. Fear has filled the void. A terrified population is easy to manipulate and will accede to folly and chains if disguised by false labels. The debasement of discourse is achieved by the distortion of language such that nothing is exempt from lunacy once you’ve convinced people that words have no intrinsic meaning – that they mean what those who would direct society intend, irrespective of their real significance. Hence justice is not the goal, social justice is what we should seek. Once you modify justice it ceases to be justice. Personal pronouns are as plentiful as grackles in a cornfield and make less sense. Not only is gender fluid, but so are brains. People wear masks not to fight infection, but to hide blank expressions.
What can we take away from all the nonsense that pervades the enlightened parts of the world, places that should be doing better than they are? First and more important, nonsense is nonsense no matter how disguised or renamed. Second, remember Santayana’s admonition: “There’s no cure for birth or death save to enjoy the interval.” There’s safety only in the grave.