This Pandemic Will Change Us. We Just Don’t Know Quite How Yet.
Looking back at the Black Death can give us a few clues, though.
Dear Reader (including those of you who might get a literal Get Out of Jail Free card from Bill de Blasio),
When World War II was just gearing up, the British were ill-prepared. They couldn’t just wait for factories—at home or in America—to start churning out the arsenal of democracy. They had to get ready with whatever was on hand. To that end, they de-mothballed some light field artillery last used during the Boer War and assembled the five-man crew required to fire it. But when they drilled with the equipment there was something not quite right. According to procedure, three seconds before discharging the weapon, two of the men would stand at attention off to the side and hold position until after the shot was fired. No one knew why they did that. Ultimately, they had to call in an old retired artillery officer.
He watched the exercise for a while, and then a spark of an old memory struck and he recognized what they were doing: "I have it. They are holding the horses."
They could tell the choreography didn’t make sense, but (like Chesterton’s fence) they couldn’t quite figure out why it was required.
This story comes from Robert Nisbet’s wonderful book, Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary (which inspired my (underrated) second book, for what that’s worth). In it, Nisbet writes, “Habit and convention are so native to human beings, as to every other organism, because all behavior is purposive and adaptive. It is aimed at the solution of problems which beset the person or organization from the environment or from within.”
The problem, as Nisbet’s invisible horse story illustrates, is that there’s a lag time—like the afterburn in your retina from a bright flash.
On Conan O’Brien’s podcast—which is fantastic—Tina Fey recounted how, to this day, the breakneck, last-minute-all-nighter schedule for Saturday Night Live skit-writing makes no sense unless you understand that the protocols were set up in the 1970s, when it was simply assumed that the writers would be using vast quantities of cocaine. The writers don’t do much coke anymore, but the schedule is still set up as if they do.
This is a scalable phenomenon. It happens in our own lives—habits are hard to break—and it happens to civilizations, and at every level in-between.
For long periods of time, the facts on the ground line up with the habits and purposes of human organization. The flow of human events moves like a river, constrained by the banks that the river itself cut through rock and soil through the ages. The adaptations we make to deal with these familiar events become so ingrained that we often cease to see them as conventions or traditions. Rather, we see them as natural facts; the way things are. “Women stay home to manage the home and raise children” may, from our vantage point, seem like a cultural or political statement, but it was understood as an observation about the nature of reality for generations in numerous societies.
I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes from Lord Hugh Cecil … wait a second. That sounds really pretentious. I don’t have at my fingertips a huge stockpile of favorite quotes from Hugh Cecil, a now obscure turn-of-the-century British politician and intellectual (also the 1st Baron of Quickswood, which sounds awesome). So let me rephrase: one of my favorite quotes comes from Hugh Cecil’s book, Conservatism. “Before the Reformation,” he wrote, “it is impossible to distinguish conservatism in politics, not because there was none, but because there was nothing else.”
But here’s the thing, rivers can stay on course for ages and then, in a comparative blink of an eye, change direction thanks to an event—an earthquake, a landslide, an asteroid strike, the up-tunneling of the mole people, whatever. The entire ecosystem must then adapt to the new normal.
Similarly, sudden events in human affairs can undermine the ecosystem of habits and institutions that seemed to be bedrock reality. The century-old Fourth of July picnic no longer fits reality after the zombie apocalypse begins. And the dude who shows up with his hot dog cart will likely learn that fact, both quickly and too late.
I bring this up because this stuff is scratching around inside my head like a scarab in a coconut. But also because I keep wondering—and worrying—about what stuff from before the pandemic is going to endure, what stuff created by it will last beyond it, and what the new normal will look like.
Most of my friends and colleagues are spending their time turning into amateur epidemiologists and economists—when they’re not figuring out how to be homeschoolers, preppers, day drinkers, or all of the above. But I keep thinking about this stuff. In an early draft of my LA Times column this week I wrote that this aspect of things is the most interesting part of the COVID crisis and my editor sent back a note of incredulity. Really? With all of this stuff going on, that’s what you think is most interesting?
I tweaked the language, but the more I think about it, the answer is yes.
A plague on your comfort zones.
By now my joke that this should be called the Confirm Your Priors Virus has become almost a banal observation. But that won’t last. There are still people who think the pandemic proves they were right all along about tax cuts—or socialized medicine or the Green New Deal—but they’re learning to shut up or change their tune. As the crisis worsens, medically, economically, or both, even once-loyal dogmatic voters will start to lose their patience with politicians who refuse to leave their comfort zones—or try to steer the conversation back to them. At some point, they will look at these politicians like the old artillery officer staring at the men holding the horses that weren’t there.
I don’t think this is necessarily good news. The West’s commitment to liberal democratic capitalism was already fraying (which is why I wrote a book called Suicide of the West (now out in paperback!)). It’s easy to imagine events going in a direction that tears that commitment even more—or severs it entirely. One could also imagine events going in a direction that is altogether inhospitable to those who only know how to talk about intersectionality or identity politics. I don’t think any of these are the most likely outcomes, but like everyone else I have no idea what the future holds. Unlike a lot of people, I’m willing to admit it.
I’ve been thinking all week about how things that happen in a moment of crisis become the new normal. You know that “crawl” of headlines that glides by at the bottom of cable news networks? That began when the buildings were still smoking after 9/11 and has never left. Poor Milton Friedman helped create paycheck tax-withholding as an emergency measure to scoop up revenue for the war effort. Like a bad case of herpes, Uncle Sam has never gotten rid of it. (No doubt Milty had this in mind when he said “There’s nothing so permanent as a temporary government program.”) The vast sprawling bureaucracy of the imperial presidency was created to help FDR during the Great Depression. Heck, the New Deal itself was supposed to be an emergency effort to combat the Great Depression. How much of that did we dismantle afterward? Before you send me an email, that was a rhetorical question. The answer is: Not that much.
I am absolutely positive that at this moment there are progressives looking at this just-passed relief measure and plotting which parts of it they can hold onto forever, from direct cash payments to government “partnership” with corporations. This is not a condemnation of the legislation. I am all in favor of a policy of using water hoses on house fires; I’m just also in favor of turning off the hoses once the fire is out.
But because I am sure about this prediction, I also have every confidence that we can argue about all that later.
Instead let’s talk about the Black Death, another Asian import.
This pandemic is nothing like the Black Death in terms of its lethality, and the world today is nothing like that of the 14th century. But it’s worth recalling how much that pandemic changed the world—sometimes for the better (at least for the survivors, though not the Jews). For starters, we owe the plague credit for giving us the word “quarantine.” “During the Black Death, the Italians devised a 40-day isolation period for the sick, likely inspired by biblical events that lasted 40 days (the great flood, Lent, etc.),” notes the website Ranker. “The concept of isolating the sick pre-dates the Black Death, but the term ‘quarantine’ originates from that time.”
The plague killed a lot of people—estimates vary between 75 and 200 million in Europe and Asia. That’s something like one- to two-thirds of the global population at the time. The peasants left behind were left with a lot of land, and a lot of demand for their labor. Wages grew enormously and working conditions improved in order to attract labor. One lasting benefit of this new prosperity was that beer became less of a luxury and more of a commodity, giving rise to one of mankind’s greatest inventions: The British pub.
When aristocrats later tried to turn back the clock, waves of peasant revolts shook Europe, laying the groundwork for future uprisings.
The Catholic Church was forever wounded by the plague. First and foremost, the plague undermined the legitimacy of the church because it dealt a grievous blow to faith in God. It had more corporeal consequences as well: So many priests died—often the best ones—that the church was left with worse and more selfish leaders, and it grew more corrupt as a result. Bereft of quality manpower and with weakened credibility, the church retreated literally and figuratively from much of Europe.
Had this not happened, the Protestant Reformation may never have happened. That might be overstating things, but it’s a safe bet that it wouldn’t have happened the way it did.
Another—admittedly conjectural—benefit was that America didn’t become a Nordic country. The Vikings in Greenland were wiped out by the plague, making their eventual conquest of North America impossible. Just imagine, in some alternative timeline, a Danish Bernie Sanders could be ranting about how we need socialism like they have in Texas (or whatever name the Vikings would give that part of their dominion). Okay, now I’m just getting silly.
Regardless, none of this was predictable when town criers were shouting “Bring out your dead!” And the totality of what happens next in our own time—which will surely be less gloomy—can’t be predicted either. But that doesn’t mean you can’t prepare. And I don’t mean in a fill-your-basement-with-toilet-paper-gold-ingots-and-Dinty-Moore-beef stew sense.
I know I plug the idea of the Remnant a lot. But I think people need to be prepared for the arguments to come. As I said, the air was thick with bad arguments—grounded in ingratitude for the Miracle—just a month ago when the economy was roaring. During the Plague, the church had a Remnant of sorts in the monasteries who kept the faith alive and written down, until it was safe to go out among the masses again. Nothing so dramatic is in store this time, but when we all emerge from quarantine, some of us need to make the case for what needs to be preserved, salvaged, or restored from the time before the river changed course.
Various & Sundry
Tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. I’m going to be doing a live, cocktails-included video podcast “event” for GLoP, the podcast I do with John Podhoretz and Rob Long. The live feed, on Zoom, will be available to paid members of The Dispatch (as well as Commentary and Ricochet). You’ll also get a private link to the video if you can’t make it then. The audio will be released as a regular podcast next week. If you’re paid up, look for an email tonight with instructions. If you’re not, maybe this will be the inducement you need.
Canine update: The doggers are fine, but every day I feel like I am losing my alpha status. Both Zoë and Pippa are constantly making demands of me, mostly to rub their bellies and the like. The daily corona news conferences are, in their minds, Spa Hour. In other news, I finally got clarity on Pippa’s brace—which she definitely needs. There was confusion at the vet. They thought they were waiting to hear from us to see if the steroid shot had the predicted effect—it did. We thought they were going to call us when it was ready. By the time we called to find out what the holdup was, the vet’s office was in corona-lockdown mode (the virus didn’t hit them, but it completely messed up their staffing and procedures). Anyway, it should be coming soon. A lot of people on Twitter see the videos from the park and think her leg has healed. It hasn’t really, it’s just that when Pippa gets excited she becomes oblivious to pain. She pays for it later, which is why I don’t do the big tennis ball fetching routines anymore. The videos you see are the bare minimum of what she would do healthy, but the absolute max I let her do now. I’m torn about even letting her do this much, but if I don’t let her burn through some of her energy she’ll just start zooming around on her own which is worse. Anyway, we’re on top of it. Thanks for the concern. In yet other news, Gracie is finally starting to socialize again (though she’s still not properly mustering for formal treattime yet). I’m not sure it’s all about relations with Zoë anymore either. I think she may be squabbling with Ralph, who is adjusting to the absence of The Fair Jessica in all sorts of unpredictable ways. I live in a Disney cartoon. Last, fresh Fafoon content!
And now, the weird stuff
Photograph of a closed theater in Montana byWilliam Campbell-Corbis via Getty Images.