Yesterday, the State of Mississippi rescinded all local stay-at-home orders about coronavirus. ‘We reject dictatorship models like China.’ Three days ago, Liberty University re-opened, ‘ and Jerry Falwell Jr. said “I think we have the responsibility to our students… …to not interrupt their college life.” On the same day, Dan Patrick, Lieutenant Governor of Texas, became an international celebrity for suggesting on Fox News, where all Republican talking points are aired, that old people are ready to die to save the economy for their grandchildren. And of course, on still the same day, our international celebrity President suggested in a press conference that he wants America back to normal by Easter.
We ultimately have no idea how resilient this virus is, but the conservative estimate of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) is 470,000 deaths in 18 months, and it could be as much as 2.2 million deaths. 470,000 is almost exactly how many people died in the Syrian Civil War so far over nearly ten years. So looking at how things are going now, let’s just assume that since we’re a week or two behind Italy, and the curve in Italy has just begun to flatten. Italy’s had 8,000 deaths from the coronavirus. So obviously Italy will easily reach 10,000 deaths, probably reach 12,000, could reach 15,000, and still might reach 18,000 or 20,000. Italy is sixty million people, the US is three-hundred-thirty million. The US is 5.5 times the population of Italy. So proportionally, our curve this time around would probably begin to flatten at 45,000, probably reach 65,000, ccould reach 80,000, and still might reach 100,000. But this is an eighteen month disease with no vaccine, this could come back at the beginning of the next flu season with much, much more virulence.
It may not happen that way. The average of the US population is ten years younger than Italy, smokes much less, and believe it or not, the US still has a more government than Italy and better sanitation. We even have better healthcare than in Italy, and we have rough parity on environmental cleanliness.
On the other hand, according to the Bloomberg Global Health Index, Italy is literally the second healthiest nation in the world, and they still had the worst outbreak of this disease. We are, I believe, the #33 healthiest, right between Chile and Bahrain. By the World Bank’s estimates of income inequality, we are the 51st most unequal country in the world, while Italy is #98. Not very impressive, but we are as unequal as the Ivory Coast, a country literally named for its imperial plunder. In the world of public health, you are only as free of infectious disease’s threat as the lowest in your society, and if germs pollinate this well in New York, which has never in its history been richer, how will the virus feast on hosts when it comes to Newark, Rochester, Hartford; Mississippi, Arkansas, West Virginia? It’s come to Detroit, and Detroit hospitals are already at complete capacity! What will it do when it comes to the West Side of Chicago? And my god, what would it do when it comes to Puerto Rico??
In spite of the fact that Trump’s abject stupidity was in front of us every day for four years, every progressive in America was focused on Trump’s potential for authoritarianism, and that occasionally includes me, when it was clear the whole time that his true destructive potential lay in his incompetence. And with incompetence Trump lays the track down for an authoritarian train with all of us tied to the tracks.
Trump, over and over again, was called Hitler. Conservatives, over and over again, were called fascists. Trump rallies, over and over, were compared to Nuremberg. But it’s so clear that modern conservatives aren’t Nazis, and Trump isn’t even necessarily a fascist. But he is our Kaiser Wilhelm, our Louis XVI, our Nicholas II: as resentfully temperamental as Willy, as spoiled as Louie, as stupid as Nicky. And the conservatives who support and enable him are as ideologically poisoned with venom and notions of honor and humiliation as the Kaiser’s General Staff.
At this point, I have to venture a guess that the coronavirus and whatever events follow it may be, in some senses, our living memory’s equivalent to World War I or the French Revolution: orgies of death brought about not by dictators, but by the blindness of rulers who could have prevented it at every single step, but the system which rose them to power was so old and sclerotic that it did nothing to stop the country’s leaders from implementing their most destructive assumptions about how the world works. In both cases, the weaknesses that destroyed these powers, giants of the world who dominated their eras, were precisely the strengths that enabled their rise.
What destroyed Bourbon France was belief in the divine right of the sovereign: an inviolate belief which held sovereign word as law; and if the sovereign refused to listen to the demands of the French populace for reform until well past the time when demands for reform became demands for revolution, the sovereign’s will must nevertheless be obeyed.
What destroyed Imperial Europe was their belief in honor: that a promise from one man of honor to another was as sacred as a blood oath, and an unfulfilled promise is the conduct of a man without honor. The ententes of nations to aid each other in wartime were considered so crucial to fulfill that if it entailed spilling battlefield blood of millions, the price of honor to their countries was nevertheless small.
What will ultimately destroy America is its unshakeable belief in liberty – the belief that United States of America is a country where freedom of speech, press, worship, movement, and money, must remain so completely inviolate that even if our country is beset by a plague that will never have an opinion on our first amendment rights, our freedom is so precious a commodity that tens of millions ought die for it rather than see it violated.
Trump is not the disease, he is just the latest symptom of this belief in liberty. Isaiah Berlin; along with Machiavelli my favorite political thinker, says that there are two kinds of liberty. Libertarians and objectivists often try to coopt the famous Oxford don into their ideological service, but when Berlin was speaking of positive liberty, he was speaking of people with beliefs exactly like theirs. They always seem to forget a few crucial quotes of his:
It follows that a frontier must be drawn between the area of private life and that of public authority. Where it is to be drawn is a matter of argument, indeed of haggling. Men are largely interdependent, and no man’s activity is so completely private as never to obstruct the lives of others in any way. ‘Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows’; the liberty of some must depend on the restraint of others.
“Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows.” Does the pike have the right to so much money of the sea that the minnows can’t pay for fish food? Does the pike have the right to speech so free that when minows patronize his business he may refuse service? Does the pike have such right to freedom of worship that he may impose his views on social issues upon all of society? Does the pike have so inviolable a right to freedom of assembly that he can bring weapons to intimidate the crowds into enacting his bidding? Does the pike have the right to freedom of press so great that he can make death or rape threats to any minnow he wants?
Personally, I’m a pragmatist. I do not believe any belief so inviolate that it can’t be discarded if the necessity presents itself. And I believe as Berlin believed:
If you are truly convinced that there is some solution to all human problems, that one can conceive an ideal society which men can reach if only they do what is necessary to attain it, then you and your followers must believe that no price can be too high to pay in order to open the gates of such a paradise. Only the stupid and malevolent will resist once certain simple truths are put to them. Those who resist must be persuaded; if they cannot be persuaded, laws must be passed to restrain them; if that does not work, then coercion, if need be violence, will inevitably have to be used—if necessary, terror, slaughter.
99% of overarching systems of beliefs that apply to all situations will, by their very definition, lead us to doom. Maintaining balance in the torrential winds that blow through the world is an act of virtuosity, requiring endless reservoirs of flexibility and compromise. One more passage from the great don of Oxford:
The notion of the perfect whole, the ultimate solution in which all good things coexist, seems to me not merely unobtainable–that is a truism–but conceptually incoherent. ……Some among the great goods cannot live together. That is a conceptual truth. We are doomed to choose, and every choice may entail an irreparable loss.
And by not choosing some irreparable loss of freedom, the United States will lose all of its freedom, and eventually consign itself to history’s dustbin just as every dominant civilization has before it. All memory of what we are and were vanished along with the memory of everything and everyone we ever loved.
I have family and friends who believe in American conservatism very deeply, and no matter what other kinds of fanatics say, you can’t stop loving people just because they believe in bad things. In some ways you love them more because you wish you knew how to help them. You view them a bit like lost souls. Many beliefs, leftist beliefs held by other people I love, are similarly pernicious, and one day they will be vilified by the ‘intelligentsia’ too, whose fashionable beliefs always change like the wind. But the left is certainly not our immediate threat, however much they enabled it.
The problem is certainly not that conservatives are evil people. Evil is everywhere, it’s in everyone, and good people fall into evil’s temptations all the time, usually without realizing it, and often mistaking evil for good. The problem is that American conservatism, like the vast majority of ideologies, believe in simple solutions to mysteries that will never stop remaining mysteries, and believe that their solutions apply to every situation. The only solution that applies to every situation is death.
Passionate beliefs applied to every situation are how many people get through their lives. Everyone needs certainties, and the more certainties they have, the more willing they are to fight for them. So because ideologies believe that a solution applies to every situation, there is no action ideologists are not able to mentally justify. And because what they believe is inevitably wrong for many situations, it has a terrible effect on all the issues which ideological solutions are supposed to improve. And then the situations don’t improve, so the fanatics double down and say that some of us haven’t sufficiently committed to their vision of how the world is supposed to be.
This is how religion ends up burning heretics, this is how communism ends up shooting and starving millions, this is how Western countries end up enslaving millions from other parts of the globe and killing millions more, and this is of course how Hi….,
And this is how American conservatives let disease run rampant in a country with more scientific knowledge than any society in the history of the world, this is how American conservatives let companies pollute until the planet becomes so uninhabitable that millions of species die off and billions of humans among them, and this is how Republicans let corporations control more and more and more of American life until the private sector becomes the true government of the country – perhaps even the real dictators that inevitably rise in the chaos following a world power’s decimating event. The poor become an expendable labor force at best, and at worst, a nuisance on their bottom line that must be disposed with.
The more true believers have free reign to deposit their toxic selves and instincts into their beliefs, the better-natured and nicer they are in their personal lives because their everyday interactions are not beset with the anguish of doubting that whatever they do is ultimately for the good. And if you’re not doubting that all the time, there’s something deeply wrong with your belief system.
Realistically speaking, I don’t think there’s a solution at this point, I’m pretty sure the only way out is for people to realize how tragically large the end result of their beliefs are, and we will have to lose so, so very much.