The Plague Year
Top Stories of the Year: #1
Over the past week, I've been counting down the Top Stories of 2020, as covered in The Tracinski Letter. So far we've looked at the Great De-Alignment within the right, the Great Purge in the name of racial politics, the Neo-Classical Liberals who are beginning to explore ways to make common cause against illiberalism on both the right and the left, and the Split Ticket election in which voters booted out Donald Trump, but without sweeping Democrats into power.
But there's really no question what 2020 will be remembered for. This is the plague year, the year of the COVID-19 global pandemic.
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The pandemic is the overriding factor that influenced everything else. For example, it was clearly a contributing cause of Donald Trump's election loss, though not in the way you might think. It's not just that the pandemic induced a recession and prevented Trump from running on the strength of the economy, as he had planned to do. Any president could get sideswiped by an unexpected emergency, yet this is not what hurt Trump politically. In fact, polls in the early days of the pandemic showed an increase in his approval ratings thanks to a "rally around the flag" effect in which people tend to turn to the president for leadership in times of crisis. They will only turn against him if they think he is failing in his response.
For Donald Trump, such a failure was almost inevitable because of a phenomenon known as "authoritarian blindness," the way a "strongman" leader tends to insulate himself from knowledge about new threats and challenges and therefore render himself incapable of responding effectively.
A fascinating article by Zeynep Tufekci described how this phenomenon was a factor in the Chinese government's initial response to the COVID-19 outbreak. Because an authoritarian system is designed to suppress information, rather than absorb it, the doctors on the front lines who initially warned about the disease were ignored and sometimes punished: "If people are too afraid to talk, and if punishing people for 'rumors' becomes the norm, a doctor punished for spreading news of a disease in one province becomes just another day, rather than an indication of impending crisis."
Donald Trump does not preside over an authoritarian surveillance state, but he managed to induce his own form of blindness by way of the concepts "fake news" and "deep state," which insulated him against any information coming either through the media or through the government's own bureaucracy. "The practical effect of these two concepts is that they create a voluntarily accepted, self-induced authoritarian blindness, in which the administration and its circle of sycophants will accept no information from outside their bubble."
You can already see this blindness manifesting itself in the administration's muddled messages about COVID-19. As recently as Monday morning, Trump was still offering what one observer called the "mayor from Jaws routine," exulting that COVID-19 is not that big a deal because so far it's smaller than the regular flu—as if this were the end of the outbreak and not the beginning.
That was published on March 12, and more than a quarter of a million deaths later, boy does that last line bite.
I was going to say that the other top stories of the year were also influenced by the pandemic, but it would be more accurate to say that our response to the pandemic was conditioned by the trends in those other top stories. Rather than setting aside their various culture war narratives to deal with the pandemic, a lot of people tried to adjust the pandemic to fit their narratives.
We saw this with the rise, very early on, of the "social distancing culture war" and partisan coronavirus "trutherism" from the right. All of this was roundly condemned by the left—until the summer's riots and protests, which revealed that some political causes are just too darned important to continue maintaining pandemic rules.
So does this mean all that stuff about social distancing, all the disruption to the economy, was all a scam—that the experts were just making this up to begin with? Well, no. We know a lot about how this virus spreads and the risks involved. We have hundreds of thousands of people, worldwide, who have died to demonstrate the consequences of doing nothing to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
But we also know that people can allow themselves to be driven by their emotions and will suspend their rational judgment to conform to social pressure. That is true, it seems, of some public health experts—and many members of the press. Our 'thinking class' of intellectuals and commentators is notoriously unthinking, and that's why they can just turn on a dime and adopt the very same arguments they scornfully dismissed a week earlier.
By the time the third wave of the pandemic hit this fall, I lamented that we were politicking ourselves to death: "Just about everyone decided that there was something more important than preventing the spread of the virus."
If you were one of my subscribers, however, you were not in this position. You were informed about the virus early and often and from reliable sources. I presented not only the scientific facts but also a comprehensive look at the philosophical context of the pandemic in all branches of philosophy, including esthetics. I viewed it as my job to rise to the occasion and provide a lot of useful facts and help put them in a rational perspective.
Looking back, though, I think the best information I gave my readers was the three words of the headline of my first big coronavirus roundup: "The Plague Year."
Note that word "year." There was a tendency early on to think that we would just have a two- or three-week lockdown and then it would all be over and everything would go back to normal. From the beginning, I was warning you that this was going to last for at least a year.
The key word here is "normal." As I explained, "normal" in this context is a metaphysical term. I cited what Ayn Rand had to say on this in writing about the "ethics of emergencies."
By "normal" conditions I mean metaphysically normal, normal in the nature of things, and appropriate to human existence. Men can live on land, but not in water [i.e., a flood] or in a raging fire. Since men are not omnipotent, it is metaphysically possible for unforeseeable disasters to strike them, in which case their only task is to return to those conditions under which their lives can continue.
That is why it was so inappropriate for people to try to apply all the formulas and assumptions of our normal politics to the pandemic.
But note the necessity of getting back to normal life as soon as possible. With vaccines now approved and being distributed, 2021 will be the year in which we return to the metaphysics of normal life, and the only question is how soon in the year it will happen. It will definitely take longer than we would like, and it will probably take longer than it has to.
When it happens, and we finally get the all-clear on the pandemic, one consequence we will have to deal with is that the pandemic has made it more acceptable for us all to stick our noses into how other people live their lives, and some people will not want to give that up. In my overview of the political philosophy of the pandemic, I quoted a British politician explaining his vote for lockdown measures but warning that it created a "dystopian society" that should not "endure one moment longer than is absolutely necessary." I followed that with my own observation.
In the previous edition, I quoted someone who compared our response to the pandemic to Germany in the 1940s. I think that's the wrong comparison. It's more like America in the 1940s. Then, too, we saw a vast expansion of government power—both legitimate wartime powers and many illegitimate ones. There were those who loved the mass regimentation, the central planning, the idea of everyone drafted by the state and taking orders, and who wondered why we couldn't keep all of that in place and apply it to other favorite causes that were "the moral equivalent of war."
What actually happened is that the moment the war was over, the American people were incredibly eager to get back to normal life and sweep away all vestiges of wartime regimentation.
I hope and expect the same thing to happen again.
The goal of stopping this pandemic is to return to normal life: to what is metaphysically normal, to the normal activities and goals of human life, and to the normal scope and powers of government in a free society.
That is one of the things we will be looking for in the next year: not just the end of the pandemic, but the unwinding of the social and political measures conjured up to deal with it.
I will continue as one of your guides and advocates in that process. If you haven't already done so, please consider renewing or subscribing and also giving The Tracinski Letter your financial support.