What is the 21st century going to be about? If you had asked me 20 years ago, on, say, Sept. 10, 2001, I would have had a clear answer: advancing liberalism. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of apartheid, Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in China, a set of values seemed to be on the march — democracy, capitalism, egalitarianism, individual freedom.
Then over the ensuing decades, democracy’s spread was halted and then reversed. Authoritarians in China, Central and Eastern Europe and beyond wielded power. We settled into the now familiar contest between democratic liberalism and authoritarianism.
But over the last several years something interesting happened: Authoritarians found God. They used religious symbols as nationalist identity markers and rallying cries. They unified the masses behind them by whipping up perpetual culture wars. They reframed the global debate: It was no longer between democracy and dictatorship; it was between the moral decadence of Western elites and traditional values and superior spirituality of the good normal people in their own homelands.
The 21st century is turning into an era of globe-spanning holy wars at a time when the appeal of actual religion seems to be on the wane.
Xi Jinping is one of the architects of this spiritually coated authoritarianism. Mao Zedong regarded prerevolutionary China with contempt. But Xi’s regime has gone out of its way to embrace old customs and traditional values. China scholar Max Oidtmann says it is restricting independent religious entities while creating a “Socialist core value view,” a creed that includes a mixture of Confucianism, Daoism, Marxism and Maoism.
Last week, the Chinese government ordered a boycott of “sissy pants” celebrities. These are the delicate-looking male stars who display gentle personalities and are accused of feminizing Chinese manhood. This is only one of the culture war forays designed to illustrate how the regime is protecting China from Western moral corruption.
The regime’s top-down moral populism is having an effect. “Today, traditionalism is gaining momentum among everyday Chinese people as well as intellectuals and politicians,” Xuetong Yan of Tsinghua University wrote in 2018. The Chinese internet is apparently now rife with attacks on the decadent “white left” — educated American and European progressives who champion feminism, L.G.B.T.Q. rights and such.
Vladimir Putin and the other regional authoritarians play a similar game. Putin has long associated himself with religious philosophers like Ivan Ilyin and Nikolai Berdyaev. In an essay for the Berkley Center at Georgetown University, Dmitry Uzlaner reports that the regime is casting itself as “the last bastion of Christian values” that keeps the world from descending into liberal moral chaos.
The culture war is going full blast there, too, with the regime restricting the internet, attempting to limit abortion, relaxing the fight against domestic violence and imposing blasphemy laws and a ban on supplying information to minors that supports “nontraditional sexual relations.”
Even wannabe authoritarians in America and Western Europe are getting in on the game. The international affairs scholar Tobias Cremer has shown that many of the so-called Christian nationalists who populate far-right movements on both sides of the Atlantic are actually not that religious.
They are motivated by nativist and anti-immigrant attitudes and then latch onto Christian symbols to separate “them” from “us.” In Germany, for example, the far-right group that aggressively plays up its Christian identity underperforms among voters who are actually religious.
In another Berkley Center essay, Cremer writes that right-wing American extremists “parade Christian crosses at rallies, use Crusader imagery in their memes and might even seek alliances with conservative Christian groups. But such references are not about the living, vibrant, universal and increasingly diverse faith in Jesus Christ that is practiced in the overwhelming majority of America’s churches today. Instead, in white identity, politics Christianity is largely turned into a secularized ‘Christianism’: a cultural identity-marker and symbol of whiteness that is interchangeable with the Viking-veneer, the Confederate flag, or neo-pagan symbols.”
These religiously cloaked authoritarians have naturally provoked an anti-religious backlash among those who understandably now associate religion with authoritarianism, nativism and general thuggishness. The rising and unprecedented levels of secularism in Europe and the U.S. over the past several decades have not produced less vicious cultural and spiritual warfare.
The pseudo-religious authoritarians have raised the moral stakes. They act as if individualism, human rights, diversity, gender equality, L.G.B.T.Q. rights and religious liberty are just the latest forms of Western moral imperialism and the harbingers of social and moral chaos.
Those of us on the side of Western liberalism have no choice but to fight this on the spiritual and cultural plane as well, to show that pluralism is the opposite of decadence, but is a spiritual-rich, practically effective way to lift human dignity and run a coherent society.
All anyone had to do was watch Donald Trump hold the Bible upside down during his infamous photo op in front of the church across from the White House to see how right Mr. Brooks comments are today. Using religion as a tool to manipulate the masses is sinful. No doubt that those who choose this path are equally without moral character.
If there were no religion, you would still have good people doing good things and bad people doing bad things but you need the cover of religion in order to get good people to do bad things.
My friend Rod Dreher recently had a blog post for The American Conservative called “Why Are Conservatives in Despair?” He explained that conservatives are in despair because a hostile ideology — wokeness or social justice or critical race theory — is sweeping across America the way Bolshevism swept across the Russian Empire before the October Revolution in 1917.
This ideology is creating a “soft totalitarianism” across wide swaths of American society, he writes. In the view of not just Dreher but also many others, it divides the world into good and evil based on crude racial categories. It has no faith in persuasion, or open discourse, but it shames and cancels anybody who challenges the official catechism. It produces fringe absurdities like “ethnomathematics,” which proponents say seeks to challenge the ways that, as one guide for teachers puts it, “math is used to uphold capitalist, imperialist and racist views” by dismissing old standards like “getting the ‘right’ answer.”
I’m less alarmed by all of this because I have more confidence than Dreher and many other conservatives in the American establishment’s ability to co-opt and water down every radical progressive ideology. In the 1960s, left-wing radicals wanted to overthrow capitalism. We ended up with Whole Foods. The co-optation of wokeness seems to be happening right now.
The thing we call wokeness contains many elements. At its core is an honest and good-faith effort to grapple with the legacies of racism. In 2021, this element of wokeness has produced more understanding, inclusion and racial progress than we’ve seen in over 50 years. This part of wokeness is great.
But wokeness gets weirder when it’s entangled in the perversities of our meritocracy, when it involves demonstrating one’s enlightenment by using language — “problematize,” “heteronormativity,” “cisgender,” “intersectionality” — inculcated in elite schools or with difficult texts.
In an essay titled “The Language of Privilege,” in Tablet, Nicholas Clairmont argues that the difficulty of the language is the point — to exclude those with less educational capital.
People who engage in this discourse have been enculturated by our best and most expensive schools. If you look at the places where the splashy woke controversies have taken place, they have often been posh prep schools, like Harvard-Westlake or Dalton, or pricey colleges, like Bryn Mawr or Princeton.
The meritocracy at this level is very competitive. Performing the discourse by canceling and shaming becomes a way of establishing your status and power as an enlightened person. It becomes a way of showing — despite your secret self-doubts — that you really belong. It also becomes a way of showing the world that you are anti-elite, even though you work, study and live in circles that are extremely elite.
The meritocracy has one job: to funnel young people into leadership positions in society. It’s very good at doing that. Corporations and other organizations are eager to hire top performers, and one sign of elite credentials is the ability to do the discourse. That’s why the C.I.A. made that widely mocked recruiting video that was like a woke word salad: cisgender, intersectional, patriarchal.
The people at the C.I.A., Disney, Major League Baseball and Coca-Cola aren’t faking it when they perform the acts we now call woke capitalism. They went to the same schools and share the same dominant culture and want the same reputational benefits.
But as the discourse gets more corporatized it’s going to get watered down. The primary ideology in America is success; that ideology has a tendency to absorb all rivals.
We saw this happen between the 1970s and the 1990s. American hippies built a genuinely bohemian counterculture. But as they got older they wanted to succeed. They brought their bohemian values into the market, but year by year those values got thinner and thinner and finally were nonexistent.
Corporations and other establishment organizations co-opt almost unconsciously. They send ambitious young people powerful signals about what level of dissent will be tolerated while embracing dissident values as a form of marketing. By taking what was dangerous and aestheticizing it, they turn it into a product or a brand. Pretty soon key concepts like “privilege” are reduced to empty catchphrases floating everywhere.
The economist and cultural observer Tyler Cowen expects wokeness in this sense won’t disappear. Writing for Bloomberg last week, he predicted it would become something more like the Unitarian Church — “broadly admired but commanding only a modicum of passion and commitment.”
This would be fine with me. As I say, there are (at least) two elements to wokeness. One focuses on concrete benefits for the disadvantaged — reparations, more diverse hiring, more equitable housing and economic policies. The other instigates savage word wars among the highly advantaged. If we can have more of the former and less of the latter, we’ll all be better off.
When one party becomes detached from reality.
In a recent Monmouth University survey, 77 percent of Trump backers said Joe Biden had won the presidential election because of fraud. Many of these same people think climate change is not real. Many of these same people believe they don’t need to listen to scientific experts on how to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
We live in a country in epistemological crisis, in which much of the Republican Party has become detached from reality. Moreover, this is not just an American problem. All around the world, rising right-wing populist parties are floating on oceans of misinformation and falsehood. What is going on?
Many people point to the internet — the way it funnels people into information silos, the way it abets the spread of misinformation. I mostly reject this view. Why would the internet have corrupted Republicans so much more than Democrats, the global right more than the global left?
My analysis begins with a remarkable essay that Jonathan Rauch wrote for National Affairs in 2018 called “The Constitution of Knowledge.” Rauch pointed out that every society has an epistemic regime, a marketplace of ideas where people collectively hammer out what’s real. In democratic, nontheocratic societies, this regime is a decentralized ecosystem of academics, clergy members, teachers, journalists and others who disagree about a lot but agree on a shared system of rules for weighing evidence and building knowledge.
This ecosystem, Rauch wrote, operates as a funnel. It allows a wide volume of ideas to get floated, but only a narrow group of ideas survive collective scrutiny. “We let alt-truth talk,” Rauch said, “but we don’t let it write textbooks, receive tenure, bypass peer review, set the research agenda, dominate the front pages, give expert testimony or dictate the flow of public dollars.”
Over the past decades the information age has created a lot more people who make their living working with ideas, who are professional members of this epistemic process. The information economy has increasingly rewarded them with money and status. It has increasingly concentrated them in ever more prosperous metro areas.
While these cities have been prospering, places where fewer people have college degrees have been spiraling down: flatter incomes, decimated families, dissolved communities. In 1972, people without college degrees were nearly as happy as those with college degrees. Now those without a degree are far more unhappy about their lives.
People need a secure order to feel safe. Deprived of that, people legitimately feel cynicism and distrust, alienation and anomie. This precarity has created, in nation after nation, intense populist backlashes against the highly educated folks who have migrated to the cities and accrued significant economic, cultural and political power. Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center calls this the “Density Divide.” It is a bitter cultural and political cold war.
In the fervor of this enmity, millions of people have come to detest those who populate the epistemic regime, who are so distant, who appear to have it so easy, who have such different values, who can be so condescending. Millions not only distrust everything the “fake news” people say, but also the so-called rules they use to say them.
People in this precarious state are going to demand stories that will both explain their distrust back to them and also enclose them within a safe community of believers. The evangelists of distrust, from Donald Trump to Alex Jones to the followers of QAnon, rose up to give them those stories and provide that community. Paradoxically, conspiracy theories have become the most effective community bonding mechanisms of the 21st century.
For those awash in anxiety and alienation, who feel that everything is spinning out of control, conspiracy theories are extremely effective emotional tools. For those in low status groups, they provide a sense of superiority: I possess important information most people do not have. For those who feel powerless, they provide agency: I have the power to reject “experts” and expose hidden cabals. As Cass Sunstein of Harvard Law School points out, they provide liberation: If I imagine my foes are completely malevolent, then I can use any tactic I want.
Under Trump, the Republican identity is defined not by a set of policy beliefs but by a paranoid mind-set. He and his media allies simply ignore the rules of the epistemic regime and have set up a rival trolling regime. The internet is an ideal medium for untested information to get around traditional gatekeepers, but it is an accelerant of the paranoia, not its source. Distrust and precarity, caused by economic, cultural and spiritual threat, are the source.
What to do? You can’t argue people out of paranoia. If you try to point out factual errors, you only entrench false belief. The only solution is to reduce the distrust and anxiety that is the seedbed of this thinking. That can only be done first by contact, reducing the social chasm between the members of the epistemic regime and those who feel so alienated from it. And second, it can be done by policy, by making life more secure for those without a college degree.
Rebuilding trust is, obviously, the work of a generation.
The consequences of Donald Trump’s inability to feel.
On Dec. 26, 2004, the French author Emmanuel Carrère, his girlfriend and their respective sons were vacationing at a cliff-top hotel in Sri Lanka. Their relationship was dying and, feeling out of sorts, they decided not to go down to the beachfront scuba diving lesson they’d signed up for. It was a consequential decision, for that was the morning the tsunami hit.
A family they knew was staying on the beach. That morning the grandfather, Philippe, was reading the paper while his 4-year-old granddaughter, Juliette, happily played in the wavelets nearby. Suddenly Philippe felt himself swept up by an enormous wall of black water, pretty sure he would die, certain his granddaughter already had.
In his memoir, Carrère bears witness to the days of suffering and endurance that followed the wave. When Philippe tells his daughter and son-in-law about the death of their child, Juliette’s mother, Delphine, screams. Her husband thought, “I can no longer do anything for my daughter, so I will save my wife.”
Carrère had lamented that he had always been unable to love, but in those horrific days he and his girlfriend stayed with the family, searched among the corpses, enveloped the family with compassion and practical care. He observes how at mealtime Delphine’s hand shakes as she brings a forkful of curried rice to her lips.
He is with Delphine when they come across a woman, Ruth, who was on her honeymoon and has lost track of her husband, Tom. For two days she sat outside the hospital, not eating or sleeping, convinced that if she nodded off Tom would never emerge alive from wherever he was.
“Her determination is frightening,” Carrère writes. “You can sense that she’s quite close to passing to the other side, into catatonia, living death, and Delphine and I understand that our role is to prevent this.”
Carrère’s memoir describes how a self-absorbed man is altered in crisis and develops a deep and perceptive capacity to see the struggles of others. The book is called “Lives Other Than My Own.”
I thought of that book this week because the sensitive perceptiveness Carrère displays is the opposite of the blindness Donald Trump displayed in quotes reported by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic and Bob Woodward in his latest book about the administration, “Rage.”
Goldberg says Trump told people that he sees the war dead as “suckers” and “losers.” Trump can’t seem to fathom the emotional experience of their lives — their love for those they fought for, the fears they faced down, the resolve to risk their lives nonetheless.
If he can’t see that, he can’t understand the men and women in uniform serving around him. He can’t understand the inner devotion that drives people to public service, which is supposed to be the core of his job.
The same sort of blindness is on display in the Woodward quotes. It was stupid of Trump to think he could downplay Covid-19 when he already knew it had the power of a pandemic. It was stupid to think the American people would panic if told the truth. It was stupid to talk to Woodward in the first place.
This is not an intellectual stupidity. I imagine Trump’s I.Q. is fine. It is a moral and emotional stupidity. He blunders so often and so badly because he has a narcissist’s inability to get inside the hearts and minds of other people. It’s a stupidity that in almost pure clinical form, flows out of his inability to feel, a stupidity of the heart.
In most times and cultures, people realized that understanding a person or situation is as much an emotional process as an analytical one. In the Bible the word “to know” covers a range of activities, from having a conversation with, to having sex with, to entering into a commitment with and much else — all the different ways we come to understand each other.
St. Augustine’s theory of
- knowledge begins with emotion.
- Love is a focus of attention.
- Love is a motivation to learn more about a person.
- Love is a reverence for the image of God in each person.
Through his own failures, Trump illustrates by counterexample that the heart is the key to understanding. To accurately size up a human situation you have to project a certain quality of attention that is personal, gentle, respectful, intimate and affectionate — more moving with and feeling into than simply observing with detachment.
Carrère achieved that quality of attention after the tsunami.
Maybe I spend too much time on Twitter and in media, but I see less and less of this sort of attention in America, even amid the tragedies of 2020. Far from softening toward one another, the whole country feels even more rived, more hardened and increasingly blind to lives other than our own.
Like other realms, American intellectual life has been marked by a series of exclusions. The oldest and vastest was the exclusion of people of color from the commanding institutions of our culture.
Today, there’s the exclusion of conservatives from academic life. Then there’s the exclusion of working-class voices from mainstream media. Our profession didn’t used to be all coastal yuppies, but now it mostly is. Then there’s the marginalization of those with radical critiques — from say, the Marxist left and the theological right.
Intellectual exclusion and segregation have been terrible for America, poisoning both the right and the left.
Conservatives were told their voices didn’t matter, and many reacted in a childish way that seemed to justify that exclusion. A corrosive spirit of resentment and victimhood spread across the American right — an intellectual inferiority complex combined with a moral superiority complex.
For many on the right the purpose of thinking changed. Thinking was no longer for understanding. Thinking was for belonging. Right-wing talk radio is the endless repetition of familiar mantras to reassure listeners that they are all on the same team. Thinking was for conquest: Those liberals think they’re better than us, but we own the libs.
Thinking itself became suspect. Sarah Palin and Donald Trump reintroduced anti-intellectualism into the American right: a distrust of the media, expertise and facts. A president who dispenses with the pen inevitably takes up the club.
Intellectual segregation has been bad for the left, too. It produced insularity. Progressives are often blindsided by reality — blindsided that Trump won the presidency; blindsided that Joe Biden clinched the Democratic presidential nomination. The second consequence is fragility. When you make politics the core of your religious identity, and you shield yourself from heresy, then any glimpse of that heresy is going to provoke an extreme emotional reaction. The third consequence is conformity. Writers are now expected to write as a representative of a group, in order to affirm the self-esteem of the group. Predictability is the point.
In some ways the left has become even more conformist than the right. The liberal New Republic has less viewpoint diversity than the conservative National Review — a reversal of historical patterns. Christopher Hitchens was one of the great essayists in America. He would be unemployable today because there was no set of priors he wasn’t willing to offend.
Now the boundaries of exclusion are shifting again. What we erroneously call “cancel culture” is an attempt to shift the boundaries of the sayable so it excludes not only conservatives but liberals and the heterodox as well. Hence the attacks on, say, Steven Pinker and Andrew Sullivan.
This is not just an elite or rare phenomenon. Sixty-two percent of Americans say they are afraid to share things they believe, according to a poll for the Cato Institute. A majority of staunch progressives say they feel free to share their political views, but majorities of liberals, moderates and conservatives are afraid to.
Happily, there’s a growing rebellion against groupthink and exclusion. A Politico poll found that 49 percent of Americans say the cancel culture has a negative impact on society and only 27 say it has a positive impact. This month Yascha Mounk started Persuasion, an online community to celebrate viewpoint diversity and it already has more than 25,000 subscribers.
After being pushed out from New York magazine, Sullivan established his own newsletter, The Weekly Dish, on Substack, a platform that makes it easy for readers to pay writers for their work. He now has 60,000 subscribers, instantly making his venture financially viable.
Other heterodox writers are already on Substack. Matt Taibbi and Judd Legum are iconoclastic left-wing writers with large subscriber bases. The Dispatch is a conservative publication featuring Jonah Goldberg, David French and Stephen F. Hayes, superb writers but too critical of Trump for the orthodox right. The Dispatch is reportedly making about $2 million a year on Substack.
The first good thing about Substack is there’s no canceling. A young, talented heterodox thinker doesn’t have to worry that less talented conformists in his or her organization will use ideology as an outlet for their resentments. The next good thing is there are no ads, just subscription revenue. Online writers don’t have to chase clicks by writing about whatever Trump tweeted 15 seconds ago. They can build deep relationships with the few rather than trying to affirm or titillate the many.
It’s possible that the debate now going on stupidly on Twitter can migrate to newsletters. It’s possible that writers will bundle, with established writers promoting promising ones. It’s possible that those of us at the great remaining mainstream outlets will be enmeshed in conversations that are more freewheeling and thoughtful.
Mostly I’m hopeful that the long history of intellectual exclusion and segregation will seem disgraceful. It will seem disgraceful if you’re at a university and only 1.5 percent of the faculty members are conservative. (I’m looking at you, Harvard). A person who ideologically self-segregates will seem pathetic. I’m hoping the definition of a pundit changes — not a foot soldier out for power, but a person who argues in order to come closer to understanding.
Imagining Covid under a normal president.
This week I had a conversation that left a mark. It was with Mary Louise Kelly and E.J. Dionne on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and it was about how past presidents had handled moments of national mourning — Lincoln after Gettysburg, Reagan after the Challenger explosion and Obama after the Sandy Hook school shootings.
The conversation left me wondering what America’s experience of the pandemic would be like if we had a real leader in the White House.
If we had a real leader, he would have realized that tragedies like 100,000 Covid-19 deaths touch something deeper than politics: They touch our shared vulnerability and our profound and natural sympathy for one another.
In such moments, a real leader steps outside of his political role and reveals himself uncloaked and humbled, as someone who can draw on his own pains and simply be present with others as one sufferer among a common sea of sufferers.
If we had a real leader, she would speak of the dead not as a faceless mass but as individual persons, each seen in unique dignity. Such a leader would draw on the common sources of our civilization, the stores of wisdom that bring collective strength in hard times.
Lincoln went back to the old biblical cadences to comfort a nation. After the church shooting in Charleston, Barack Obama went to “Amazing Grace,” the old abolitionist anthem that has wafted down through the long history of African-American suffering and redemption.
In his impromptu remarks right after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy recalled the slaying of his own brother and quoted Aeschylus: “In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
If we had a real leader, he would be bracingly honest about how bad things are, like Churchill after the fall of Europe. He would have stored in his upbringing the understanding that hard times are the making of character, a revelation of character and a test of character. He would offer up the reality that to be an American is both a gift and a task. Every generation faces its own apocalypse, and, of course, we will live up to our moment just as our ancestors did theirs.
If we had a real leader, she would remind us of our common covenants and our common purposes. America is a diverse country joined more by a common future than by common pasts. In times of hardships real leaders re-articulate the purpose of America, why we endure these hardships and what good we will make out of them.
After the Challenger explosion, Reagan reminded us that we are a nation of explorers and that the explorations at the frontiers of science would go on, thanks in part to those who “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”
At Gettysburg, Lincoln crisply described why the fallen had sacrificed their lives — to show that a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” can long endure and also to bring about “a new birth of freedom” for all the world.
Of course, right now we don’t have a real leader. We have Donald Trump, a man who can’t fathom empathy or express empathy, who can’t laugh or cry, love or be loved — a damaged narcissist who is unable to see the true existence of other human beings except insofar as they are good or bad for himself.
But it’s too easy to offload all blame on Trump. Trump’s problem is not only that he’s emotionally damaged; it is that he is unlettered. He has no literary, spiritual or historical resources to draw upon in a crisis.
All the leaders I have quoted above were educated under a curriculum that put character formation at the absolute center of education. They were trained by people who assumed that life would throw up hard and unexpected tests, and it was the job of a school, as one headmaster put it, to produce young people who would be “acceptable at a dance, invaluable in a shipwreck.”
Think of the generations of religious and civic missionaries, like Frances Perkins, who flowed out of Mount Holyoke. Think of all the Morehouse Men and Spelman Women. Think of all the young students, in schools everywhere, assigned Plutarch and Thucydides, Isaiah and Frederick Douglass — the great lessons from the past on how to lead, endure, triumph or fail. Only the great books stay in the mind for decades and serve as storehouses of wisdom when hard times come.
Right now, science and the humanities should be in lock step: science producing vaccines, with the humanities stocking leaders and citizens with the capacities of resilience, care and collaboration until they come. But, instead, the humanities are in crisis at the exact moment history is revealing how vital moral formation really is.
One of the lessons of this crisis is that help isn’t coming from some centralized place at the top of society. If you want real leadership, look around you.
We had to be set apart in order to feel together.
Screw this virus. Screw this virus that is already ravaging families, burying people in the hard isolation of the same four walls, leaving waitresses in anguish about how they’re going to pay the rent. If you don’t have a little hate in your heart toward this thing, you probably aren’t motivated enough.
While we’re at it, screw certainty. Over the past few weeks I’ve been bingeing on commentary from people predicting how long this is going to last and how bad it’s going to be. The authors seem really smart and their data sets seem really terrible.
I’m beginning to appreciate the wisdom that cancer patients share: We just can’t know. Don’t expect life to be predictable or fair. Don’t try to tame the situation with some feel-good lie or confident prediction. Embrace the uncertainty of this whole life-or-death deal.
There’s a weird clarity that comes with that embrace. There is a humility that comes with realizing you’re not the glorious plans you made for your life. When the plans are upset, there’s a quieter and better you beneath them.
We’re seeing the world with plague eyes now. We’re all going through the same experiences. People in Seoul, Milan and New Jersey are connected by a virus that reminds us of the fundamental fact of human interdependence.
Most of us are self-distancing at the same time. Most of us are experiencing the same pause in normal life, undergoing deeper reflections inspired by that pause, experiencing the same anxieties and fears, reading the same memes. So many human universals.
The great paradox, of course, is that we had to be set apart in order to feel together. I’ve been writing about the social fabric for years now, but you really see it only after you’ve lost it.
It’s like when you’re starving, and food is all you can think about. Suddenly everybody has human connection on the top of mind.
All the little acts of social contact we took for granted now seem like candy. I miss choruses and sports bars, the weird way we all used to stare straight ahead in crowded elevators.
Judging from my social network, the absence of social connection is making everybody more ardent for it. People are geniuses at finding ways to touch each other even when they can’t. On Twitter I saw a picture of a house where an older lady was self-isolating. Two neighborhood kids put on a cello concert on her front porch. Have you noticed that music and art are already filling the emotional gaps left by the absence of direct human contact?
Through plague eyes I realize there’s an important distinction between social connection and social solidarity. Social connection means feeling empathetic toward others and being kind to them. That’s fine in normal times.
Social solidarity is more tenacious. It’s an active commitment to the common good — the kind of thing needed in times like now.
This concept of solidarity grows out of Catholic social teaching. It starts with a belief in the infinite dignity of each human person but sees people embedded in webs of mutual obligation — to one another and to all creation. It celebrates the individual and the whole together, and to the nth degree.
Solidarity is not a feeling; it’s an active virtue. It is out of solidarity, and not normal utilitarian logic, that George Marshall in “Saving Private Ryan” endangered a dozen lives to save just one. It’s solidarity that causes a Marine to risk his life dragging the body of his dead comrade from battle to be returned home. It’s out of solidarity that health care workers stay on their feet amid terror and fatigue. Some things you do not for yourself or another but for the common whole.
It will require a tenacious solidarity from all of us to endure the months ahead. We’ll be stir-crazy, bored, desperate for normal human contact. But we’ll have to stay home for the common good. It’s an odd kind of heroism this crisis calls for. Those also serve who endure and wait.
I wonder if there will be an enduring shift in consciousness after all this. All those tribal us-them stories don’t seem quite as germane right now. The most relevant unit of society at the moment is the entire human family.
All those burn-it-down/destroy-the-system/anti-establishment tirades ring a little hollow, too. It’s not the angry outsiders who are protecting us right now, it’s the Establishment.
The whole culture of autonomy seems immature, too: I’m free to be myself! The people who are out there doing their own thing are at Spring Break threatening the lives of the most vulnerable around them.
We’ll need a great reset when this is all over. We need to start planning a great social festival and ask the obvious questions: Why did we tolerate so much social division before? Why didn’t we cultivate stronger social bonds when we had the chance?
In the meantime, as someone on my Twitter feed observed: Airport rules apply. If you want a beer at 9 a.m., go for it.