At the beginning of book VII of Virgil’s Aeneid, auspicious winds send the ships of the Trojan hero and his warriors to the mouth of the Tiber, where they put ashore. An oracle has foretold their coming. Aeneas is welcomed by the king of the Latins, and an alliance is forged. The king’s daughter is promised to Aeneas in marriage. Peace and a bright future seem secure.
But the goddess Juno hates Aeneas. His cousin Paris didn’t pick her as “fairest,” and Aeneas jilted the queen of Carthage, Juno’s beloved city, so she has stymied his destiny throughout the poem. Anguished by the favorable turn of events and wishing to disrupt the alliance, she decides to “rouse the world below.” Going to the underworld, Juno calls forth one of the furies, Alecto, the engine of rage and bloodlust.
Over the course of two hundred lines, Alecto runs through the ranks of the Latins like a fast-spreading contagion. Faced with a cool response from Turnus, the greatest warrior on the Latin side, Alecto hurls a burning brand into his guts. Turnus’s anger rises like a boiling cauldron overflowing with scalding fluids and hissing vapors. He buckles on his sword and inspires the Latins with reckless fury.
This passage from the Aeneid was often on my mind in March. It was a time when panic and hysteria overtook New York City. The young Wuhan doctor had died. Hospitals in Lombardy were in chaos. Death swept through a nursing home outside Seattle. Bodies were reported on the Princess cruise ship. Fear built like steam in a pressure cooker. Then, on March 16, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London modeled the disease and predicted millions dead in the United States. The pressure was released, and it charged like galloping cavalry, swords flashing, through the eight million residents of New York.
There were voices of sanity. On March 17, Stanford epidemiologist John Ioannidis warned that we were being stampeded into society-wide lockdowns (“A fiasco in the making? . . .”). There is no sound scientific basis for assuming worst-case scenarios, he argued. And he observed that we don’t know if quarantining entire populations will end up doing any good.
But those words were for naught. By late March, reason and debate no longer had roles to play. Every pillar of the American establishment rushed to shut down. Corporations told employees not to come to work. Universities plunged headlong into closure. Churches locked their doors. Twitter was aflame with roving mobs, eager to hunt down dissent. Media somberly announced that “science tells us” the radical measures of mass lockdown are urgent and necessary.
It was not Alecto and bloodlust that whipped through society, but rather Phobos and Deimos: fear and panic, terror and dread. The two were admired by the Spartans, because as children of Ares, the god of war, they are patrons of victory. Terror clouds the judgment of one’s enemies; panic leads to rash, imprudent decisions. When Phobos and Deimos are ascendant, armies collapse and men run from the field of battle.
The two gods were hard at work in New York and elsewhere in the final weeks of March. Everyone seemed to shudder, as people do in anticipation of an avalanche about to overwhelm them. Wide swaths of the population imagined themselves facing immediate mortal risk. Politicians were terrified that they would be blamed. By late March, nearly the entire country was shut down. Our leaders told us we were waging “war” against the virus.
Wars are serious business. Viewed historically, they often serve as the fulcrum on which history turns. It will be interesting to see how the present “war” unfolds, especially as the rising economic toll feeds into our collective hysteria over disease and death. How will it change our society? What will be the lasting consequences? What have we learned about ourselves? About our religious communities? About our late-modern culture?
Along with talk of war, we’ve all had recourse to the rhetoric of crisis. It is a Greek word, translated as “judgment.” In John 3:19–20, Jesus says, “This is the crisis [judgment], that the light has come into the world, and men love darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.” A crisis exposes and clarifies. It brings things hidden into sight, separating the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the chaff.
In the coming months, we need to think about what this crisis has brought out of darkness and into the light. I’ve made personal discoveries. I did not fully recognize how deeply I resent the power of death—its ability to terrify and control how we live. There are other themes to ponder: the condition of “emergency,” our solidarity as citizens, the relation of spiritual and bodily goods, and much more. I look forward to the coming months. Together, we can deepen the conversation in the public square. There is no doubt that what we have experienced shapes and is shaped by our attitudes toward death. First Things is uniquely capable of addressing the issues that drove events—and will continue to drive them.
Expertocracy and Our Ruling Class
Phobos and Deimos moved most powerfully amid those in leading positions. By this I do not mean only people in elected office. I’m referring to the top 20 percent of society, the people Charles Murray labels “Belmont.” Belmont prides itself on being well informed. It’s populated by people who read and trust the prestige press. Few are scientists, but nearly all endorse the authority of science. As professionals, they believe in professionalism and the authority of experts in their fields. When the Imperial College issued a prediction of 2.2 million dead in the United States, Belmont shuddered.
More was at work, however, than a belief in experts. Early in the panic, Theodore Dalrymple noted that science had little to do with the panic triggered by the predictions of extensive fatalities. Wealthy, well-positioned people are attracted to worst-case scenarios: “Catastrophism comes naturally to people who have lived in security all their lives.” If Belmont must decide between John Ioannidis and his early calculations (which have turned out to be far closer to the truth) and the dire warnings of Neil Ferguson, they’ll take the latter. This is understandable, argues Dalrymple, for they have a great deal to lose. The old saw comes to mind: “Better safe than sorry.” This has a special urgency when you are at the top.
The power of worst-case fear is not new in Belmont. The university class has been trying to minimize health risks for a long while. Years ago, they were putting helmets on four-year-olds riding tricycles. They are on the leading edge of the turn away from football. The game might cause permanent brain injury. This possibility, even if statistically minimal, is becoming decisive.
Dietary manias surge through Belmont on a regular basis: probiotic, cleansing, paleo, and others. They promise to make us attractively slim, as well as healthy and long-lived. Exercise, diet, yoga, meditation—Belmont has been engaged in a long-standing war against aging and death. In a recent issue, Andrew Taggart described some of the extremes to which this war now goes (“Secular Monks,” March 2020).
Most of us know Belmont people who have overturned their lives in order to follow a new diet with intense rigor. They think nothing of dictating the terms of their participation in picnics and dinner parties. I’ve seen Belmont denizens fiercely interrogate waiters about details of the food they plan to order, so much so that, in New York, waiters at restaurants that cater to Belmont people officiously ask if anyone at the table has food allergies or other “issues the chef should know about.” The ease of imposition and imperious behavior indicates that Belmont people have little regard for settled cultural habits and social norms. It’s not surprising that in late March they would find it reasonable, even admirable, to lock down an entire society to make people “safe.”
Christopher Lasch identified the split between Belmont and Middle America long before Charles Murray wrote Coming Apart. In The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy, Lasch described the “young professionals” who “subject themselves to an arduous schedule of physical exercise and dietary controls designed to keep death at bay—to maintain themselves in a state of permanent youthfulness, eternally attractive and remarriageable.” This project of self-management stands in contrast to the working-class recognition that “there are inherent limits on human control over the course of social development, over nature and the body, over the tragic elements in life and history.”
Our society has changed since Lasch made these observations in the early 1990s. Growing drug use, illegitimacy, and family breakdown make it difficult to sustain his confidence in the everyday wisdom of working-class culture. In any event, what survives among the working class is now derided by Belmont people, who over the last generation have taken firm control of public life. Less-educated Americans are chastised for eating fast food and drinking Big Gulps. They have been subjected to vigorous campaigns to sanitize their speech and purify their thoughts. Delicate locutions such as “African American” and “chairperson” were introduced decades ago, as well as “gay” and other terms. More recently an entire vocabulary of political correctness has emerged, which aims to manage and discipline non-elites in the same way that former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg hoped to restrict their consumption of sugary drinks.
The coronavirus pandemic is real, just as the problems of obesity and adult-onset diabetes are real. The virus spreads and sickens. People die real deaths. But the “crisis” was constructed by elites, just as other health crises are constructed. There is a Belmont narrative. It describes the problem (“bad eating habits”), diagnoses the causes (“urban food deserts”), and proposes remedies (“better health education”). The notion of construction does not mean invention or willful manipulation. Belmont denizens share key assumptions. The “narrative” emerges from those assumptions and evolves in a largely spontaneous fashion.
For example, many in Belmont accept and repeat a narrative of widespread and pervasive discrimination. This depends on notions such as institutional racism and intersectionality. On its face, the narrative would seem hard to believe. It has the characteristics of a wild conspiracy theory, for the Belmont-sponsored discrimination narrative supposes forces of injustice are operating powerfully but invisibly in all our social relations.
But many educated people who dismiss wacky conspiracy theories do believe the discrimination narrative. This is because they believe its underlying assumption: Inequalities are signs of underlying injustices. Therefore, even if we can’t identify a specific act of discrimination or an intention to discriminate, instances of inequality by their very existence indicate that a wicked power such as “patriarchy” is at work, or that society is deformed by the legacies of past discrimination.
The coronavirus crisis narrative deals with facts and data, much as the discrimination narrative is anchored in observations of real inequalities. But like the discrimination narrative, its power arises from the certainty of its key assumption. In the case of the COVID-19 narrative, the assumption is that all, or at least most, deaths are preventable.
On the basis of this assumption, the Belmont view of the pandemic unfolded quite naturally. Data analysts modeled the disease’s progress, coming up with shocking death counts in advance of real fatalities. Reporters and editorialists mediated to the public the presumed wisdom of the draconian measures adopted in Wuhan, which was juxtaposed to the turmoil in the Italian hospitals. This established the narrative’s arc. America’s hospitals will be overwhelmed (worst-case scenario). Tens of thousands of people will die unnecessarily (grave moral failure). Lockdowns are the only viable alternative (responsible experts need to assert control).
With just a few cases diagnosed in the United States, the professional class accepted all the elements of the narrative as established facts. Anyone who suggested that the death rate remained unproven and might be significantly lower than predicted was shouted down as “anti-science.” Those who cautioned against panic-driven measures to lock down society were derided as valuing their stock portfolios over the lives of the vulnerable.
As soon as the first fatality was recorded in New York, the narrative was vindicated. A death had occurred—a death that was presumed to be preventable “if we had acted early enough.” The pressure rose. We must do everything possible to prevent more people from dying! The stain of negligence threatened to pollute every act that failed to meet this absolute standard. If I make an “inessential” visit to a friend, to whom I unwittingly transmit the virus and who, in turn, sees another friend who sees yet another friend who visits his grandmother, then I’ve committed the moral crime of culpable negligence. Conversations and even thoughts are now policed by an anxiety that one is (or is seen as) insufficiently ardent.
This anxiety—am I in danger of doing something that might cause someone to die?—makes normal life impossible, as we’ve all experienced in our condition of mandatory self-isolation. To a lesser extent the same is true of the familiar anxiety that attends situations dominated by the discrimination narrative. In those instances we don’t act “normally,” but instead carefully monitor what we say and do, not wishing to discriminate (or to be seen as discriminating) on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation. In that respect, too, we’ve been doing a fair amount of social distancing for years.
Utopias are attractive because they depict life without its usual ugly defects and stubborn limitations, which is to say life not as it normally is. Picturing most deaths as preventable is utopian. The same is true for imagining all inequalities remediable. To a striking extent, Belmont believes both. Lasch was right. Infatuated by what they presume to be their power over finitude and misfortune, Belmont people are enemies of normal life, which they increasingly see not as normal, but rather as deplorable.
Wars are not just consequential, often reshaping societies in important ways. They are also often difficult to end, as we learned in Vietnam, and more recently in Afghanistan and Iraq. The same holds true for a war to prevent “preventable deaths.”
At present, I am compelled in New York to wear a mask in public places. This covering of the face contributes to social atomization, intensifying the anomie of mass society. It harms our civic culture, blocking the softening courtesy of smiles. In view of the fact that tens of thousands die every year from the common flu, public health officials in coming years may urge the use of masks during peak flu seasons—a sign of responsible citizenship! Although self-evidently an impediment to interpersonal communion, in all likelihood surgical masks will become a regular feature of civic life in the West. (They became commonplace in Asia a decade ago.)
As our societies open up, bars and nightclubs will be places where people return to close contact with others. Deprived of this basic human need for so many weeks, these experiences will be joyous. Meanwhile, anxious church leaders and pious moralists will require people to wear masks at worship services, injecting distance and sterility into our renewed communion as the body of Christ.
As we go back to work, the gods of Phobos and Deimos will continue to oversee our lives. In meetings, colloquia, and conferences, the person most anxious about getting or transmitting the disease will have veto power of when, how, and under what terms we are permitted to gather. The most phobic and fearful people will be in control, setting standards for everyone as to what is deemed “safe” and “responsible.”
At the end of his presidency, Dwight Eisenhower warned of the perils of putting a society on permanent wartime footing. Entire industries develop that have a vested interest in worship of Phobos and Deimos. Calls for national COVID-19 testing are a harbinger of further expansion of the medical-industrial complex, which treats our mortality as a perpetual emergency, requiring us to mobilize more and more resources—economic and social—to wage war. The health regime is likely to expand and become more obligatory. Liberals will insist upon it for paternalistic purposes. Conservatives will endorse it as the best way to prevent another crisis and economic catastrophe.
Perhaps none of these unfortunate legacies of the coronavirus crisis will come to pass. Sometimes wars end and people kiss in the streets, eager to return to normal life. May it be so!
I have more confidence, however, in this prediction. The Belmont crisis narrative will persist. In 1951, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted of espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union. They were executed in 1953. The case split American society. Most accepted the court’s verdict. But many university-educated liberals were convinced that the Rosenbergs were innocent. They deemed them victims of McCarthyism, an irrational, paranoid anti-communism. These people, the Belmont of an earlier generation, believed in the Rosenbergs’ innocence with an almost religious passion. The narrative had such power that, when Soviet files were opened in the early 1990s and it was established beyond doubt that Julius Rosenberg was a Soviet spy and his wife was a willing accessory, the Belmont crowd of that generation was not persuaded.
A similar invincible conviction will characterize those who insist that lockdowns were indispensible. They will assert with utmost confidence that deaths would have been much greater without these unprecedented measures of social control. Indeed, many will self-righteously announce that the lockdowns were inexcusably late in coming. The counterexample of Sweden will be explained away. Antibody studies suggesting that the highly communicable disease was already widespread before late March will be dismissed. No amount of scientific analysis will sway them.
For those who believe that most deaths are preventable (as Belmont people do), the lockdowns can never be a mistake. On the contrary, because many did die, by definition we failed to do enough. This conviction—that we should have acted earlier and with sterner measures—will dominate our ruling class. Belmont people will deride as “anti-scientific” and cold-hearted “killers” those who say otherwise.
More than twenty-six million people filed for unemployment in four weeks. Over the same period of time the federal government spent more than $6 trillion. These were unimaginable figures in early March. As I type them, I can only shake my head. Who can begin to comprehend the realities they betoken—businesses bankrupted, careers derailed, lives put on hold, rent payments missed, households dissolved, relationships fractured, suicides, drug addictions, mental trauma, and more.
As I write this column, in New York the homeless have largely disappeared from the streets, along with the office workers and passersby who once gave them a dollar here and there. Gone where, I wonder? I don’t think anyone can answer that question. And I don’t think anyone in the university class, so committed to science and confident in expertise—not least their own—has the slightest idea what shutting down the entire country has meant and will mean for the tens of millions of Americans who have no savings. There never was a place for these people in the crisis narrative, and therefore they are invisible.
This is a recurring pattern. The same people who stampeded our country into the lockdowns had another narrative, almost universally believed until recently. It concerned globalization. The power of openness will make the world richer, freer, and more peaceful. That was its guiding assumption. Democracy would become China’s irresistible destiny. Market efficiencies would enrich us all. In accord with this narrative, the structure of wages and distribution of wealth in the United States was profoundly changed over the last generation. As Tom Friedman popularized and championed this narrative, the same people being crushed by the current shutdowns were invisible. It took the shocking political success of a reality TV star to force Belmont residents to open their eyes and reckon with the fact that their cherished globalization narrative had largely destroyed the American working class.
In The Age of Entitlement, Christopher Caldwell details the failures of the expertocracy and the Belmont class. They led us to dead ends in Vietnam and Iraq. They destroyed public education and debased higher education. They soured male-female relations. They created a large, dependent underclass. They complacently oversaw an opioid epidemic that killed hundreds of thousands over the last decade, during which time they legalized marijuana rather than shutting down the entire country. Now their self-complimenting solicitude for our well-being, their penchant for catastrophism, and their confidence in their expert management are likely plunging the world into an economic depression.
I hope I am wrong—that the recovery will be rapid, the damage limited. But I also hope we learn that we need to find new people to run our country. The Belmont ruling class, well educated, well informed, and always on the side of right thinking, has shown itself very expert but wildly imprudent. No doubt they are competent managers. But they cannot lead.
During the coronavirus lockdown, I was eager to read material unrelated to the events unfolding around me. So I was delighted to receive a review copy of Figural Reading and the Old Testament: Theology and Practice by Don C. Collett. The book offers a thoughtful study of theological reasons for reading the Old Testament as Christian Scripture.
Modern historical-critical study of the Bible takes as its first principle the evil of anachronism. In an influential essay, the nineteenth-century scholar Benjamin Jowett said of the intellectually “responsible” reader of the Bible (he had himself in mind): “The simple words of that book he tries to preserve absolutely pure from the refinements and distinctions of later times.” Keeping things “absolutely pure” requires the cleansing solvent of historical-critical study. This approach, Jowett promises, will “enable us to separate the elements of doctrine and tradition with which the meaning of Scripture is encumbered in our own day.” Once separated, we can toss out the impure later elements and get to the immaculate “original meaning.”
When we take this approach—dominant in the last century—the use of Old Testament prophecies in the New Testament perversely becomes prima facie evidence that what the ancient prophets “really meant” must be something quite different. The same holds for the Gospel of John, which is assumed by modern scholars to have been written a generation after Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Whatever is said in those earlier three Gospels can’t mean what the more explicitly theological passages in John say. And, of course, the later Creeds must be thrown out. They distort the “original meaning.” As countless modern biblical scholars have insisted, there is no doctrine of the Trinity “in” the New Testament.
Faithful scholars have worked within the modern tradition of biblical study. They labor mightily to reknit the Old and New Testaments. They strive to find historical-critical ground for reuniting Scripture and doctrine. But to do so they must run uphill in sand. Collett outlines a better way.
The key concept is divine providence. What Moses said to the Israelites (or what the author of Exodus intended in having Moses say what he said, or what the redactor of the textual tradition of Exodus was trying to emphasize when he had Moses say what he said) has its own specific historical reality. Yet this reality—whether framed as event, authorial intention, or ancient tradition—is shaped by God to serve as part of a larger plan. Collett: “The LORD’s providential ordering of history is the authorizing context in which the Old Testament prophecy speaks a word to the future generations, as well as to the people in its own day.”
The notion of providential ordering is implicit in Irenaeus’s insistence that we read the Bible in accord with an overarching hypothesis. He uses the analogy of a mosaic. The individual tiles are different colors. Taken by themselves, they can seem quite different, even discordant. But the workman installing the mosaic has a schematic drawing of the whole. He arranges the tiles in accord with a plan, a hypothesis. And when each distinct tile is put in its proper place, the image of the handsome king becomes clear—the image for which the tiles were fabricated in the first place.
The analogy of the mosaic has limits. Sometimes, the tiles constellate to give us the image of the crucified slave, not the handsome king. Or the image is that of a triumphant warrior or slain lamb—or both merging together, as we see in the Book of Revelation. God is, finally, beyond images. My point (and Collett’s) is that providence arranges the individual tiles of biblical meaning, and this undergirds the tradition of figural or typological reading. The figure or type is something in Scripture that takes on importance and deeper meaning in light of what comes later—its fulfillment or antitype.
The passage of the Israelites through the Red Sea serves as a classic example. Many Christian commentators take this event as a figure or type of baptism. Just as the Israelites were delivered from death at the hands of Pharaoh’s army to life in God’s service at Sinai, so does the Christian pass through the waters of baptism from bondage to sin and death to new life in Christ. And just as the men of Pharaoh’s army were drowned by the waters of the Red Sea crashing upon them, so is the power of Satan and his minions destroyed by the waters of baptism.
When making this figural connection of the dry-shod passage through the Red Sea to baptism, the classical interpreter is not denying that the Exodus account speaks of a real event that happened long ago. The interpreter, moreover, can adopt modern interpretative sensibilities and speak of the “textual tradition” of Exodus rather than historical events. The point concerns divine providence. The passage through the Red Sea—however we frame or express its reality in historical terms—has its distinctive character and meaning because it is shaped by God as part of a larger sacred pedagogy ordered toward our salvation in Christ.
Jesus’s colloquy with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus is a canonical affirmation of this pedagogy. Confused by the crucifixion of their master, the dazed disciples can’t make sense of the divine plan. Jesus, however, breaks bread with them (an evocation of the Eucharist), and their eyes are opened. They see the handsome king for which each tile of Scripture was created. With the hypothesis before their very eyes, Jesus is able to unfold the meaning of the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms—in effect, the whole Old Testament.
Biblical scholars often worry that figural interpretation ignores the literal sense of Scripture, leading us to think in lofty theological concepts rather than in terms of the gritty reality of the texts of the Bible. Perhaps this is a danger. As Collett observes, however, “The irony is that historicized accounts of the authorial sense end up privileging a reconstruction of the literal sense over Scripture’s provision of its own words.” J, P, Q, and other reconstructed strands within the Bible can too easily supersede and replace the literal sense. Modern historical criticism has its own perils.
More than a decade ago, Michael Legaspi observed that modern critical interpretations operate according to their own conception of providential ordering. A feminist reading presumes the providence of patriarchy. The tiles of the mosaic, when properly arranged by feminist interpretation, depict the oppression of women. A Marxist reading has a different providential scheme, one keyed to class oppression. A postcolonialist reading has still another scheme, as did the older, now-superseded demythologizing project of Rudolf Bultmann. As Legaspi notes, the university is the cultural context that gives plausibility to these forms of providentialism. The university is the secular church, and “critical reading” enacts various liturgies of liberation.
Interpretation always takes place against a horizon of meaning, a hypothesis (to use Irenaeus’s term) that is either implicit or explicit. A consensus is growing that the university and its secular schemes of providence derail Christian (and Jewish) readers of the Bible. Don Collett is surely correct: Christ died for our sins and rose from the grave, and Christians must make this affirmation the horizon for their interpretation, not just of Scripture but of all things. This does not detract from the evident heterogeneity of Scripture (or life). Rather, it provides an incentive to enter more deeply into the details and depths of historical particularity so that we can see each tile anew, discerning its color, shape, and place in the mosaic of the handsome king.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ In the archdiocese of Chicago, a twenty-four-man response team was formed to ensure that clergy could attend to the spiritual needs of those suffering from COVID-19. They were ready to begin in March as the medical crisis was building, and their job was to be what Fr. Manuel Dorantes called “first responders on the spiritual side for Catholics in Cook and Lake county.” Cardinal Blase Cupich has a reputation for being an effective administrator. This foresight and preparation are evidence that it is well deserved.
♦ Cardinal Pell is exonerated. I commend to readers my colleague Julia Yost’s review of the flimsy case against Pell, written when this sad saga of injustice was in its early stages (“The Case Against Cardinal Pell”). You can also listen to Mark Bauerlein discuss the case with George Weigel on the “Converstions with Mark Bauerlein” podcast.
♦ Harvard (endowment at $40 billion) declined to accept the $9 million in emergency funding it was eligible to receive as part of the $2 trillion relief bill enacted in late March. The richest private university in the world faced pressure from Trump, who tweeted that the funds should be “returned.” It seems Harvard decided the optics were not good. Other over-endowed institutions are also backing away from taking CARES Act funding. Yale’s sanctimonious statement:
Yale is eligible for an allocation of $6.9 million from this fund toward support for students and university operations. Though Yale is experiencing great budgetary pressure as a result of the pandemic, the university has decided not to seek these emergency funds. Instead, we hope that the Department of Education will use Yale’s portion of the funding to support colleges and universities in Connecticut whose continued existence is threatened by the current crisis.
♦ The spectacle of taxpayers ensuring the preservation of the capital of the super-rich reminded me of an ironic twist on Jesus’s words: “For to everyone who has will more be given” (Matt. 25:29).
♦ On April 22, Sen. Josh Hawley introduced legislation prohibiting universities with endowments in excess of $10 billion from receiving emergency relief funds unless they spent ten times the amount received from the federal government from their own assets. It’s about time. For too long taxpayers have been subsidizing wealthy universities.
♦ I advocate eliminating student loan guarantees for superrich universities. Students attending should not receive Pell Grants. Professors should be ineligible for federal funding. Charitable deductions for those donating should be eliminated. When I was a teenager, higher education offered a varied and diverse environment. Over my lifetime, it has become a rigid hierarchy with just a few massively endowed institutions at the top. At the same time, higher education has become a degraded, politically correct monoculture. Correlation does not prove causation, but it deserves attention. We owe it to the next generation to break up the monopoly power of the twenty or thirty fantastically rich elite universities.
♦ As long as the federal government is saving corporations, universities, and other institutions from the consequences of ruinous lockdown policies, I propose stern measures against the cancer of political correctness. No company or university that requires “diversity statements” as a condition for employment should be allowed to receive federal aid.
♦ Giorgio Agamben is an Italian philosopher. He has engaged classical Christian sources in ways that I have found illuminating. At the same time, he is frustratingly blind to the fact that theological discourse is oriented toward God. After reading some of his books, I judged him captive to postmodern materialism. It was striking (and perhaps evidence of my misjudgment), therefore, that he emerged as an articulate voice against the tyranny of public health during the coronavirus crisis. This from mid-April:
I would like to share with whoever wants it a question on which for over a month now I have never stopped reflecting. How could it happen that an entire country has, without noticing it, politically and ethically collapsed in the face of an illness? The words that I have used to formulate this question have been carefully weighed one by one. The measure of the abdication of our own ethical and political principles is, in fact, very simple: it is a matter of asking ourselves what is the limit beyond which we are not prepared to renounce them. I believe that the reader who takes the trouble to consider the points that follow will not be able not to agree that—without noticing it or by pretending not to notice it—the threshold that separates humanity from barbarism has been crossed.
1. The first point, perhaps the most serious, concerns the bodies of dead persons. How could we have accepted, solely in the name of a risk that it was not possible to specify, that persons who are dear to us and human beings in general should not only die alone, but—something that had never happened before in history, from Antigone to today—that their cadavers should be burned without a funeral?
2. We then accepted without too many problems, solely in the name of a risk that it was not possible to specify, limiting, to an extent that had never happened before in the history of the country, not even during the Second World War (the curfew during the war was limited to certain hours), our freedom of movement. We consequently accepted, solely in the name of a risk that it was not possible to specify, de facto suspending our relationships of friendship and love, because our proximity had become a possible source of contagion.
3. This was able to happen—and here we hit on the root of the phenomenon—because we have split the unity of our vital experience, which is always inseparably bodily and spiritual, into a purely biological entity on one hand and an affective and cultural life on the other. Ivan Illich demonstrated, and David Cayley has recalled it here recently, the responsibility of modern medicine in this split, which is taken for granted but is actually the greatest of abstractions. I know very well that this abstraction was actualized in modern science through apparatuses of reanimation, which can maintain a body in a state of pure vegetative life. But if this condition is extended beyond the spatial and temporal confines that are proper to it, as we are today seeking to do, and it becomes a sort of principle of social behavior, we fall into contradictions from which there is no way out.
I know that someone will hasten to respond that we are dealing with a condition that is limited in time, after which everything will return to how it was. It is truly strange that we could repeat this other than in bad faith, since the same authorities that proclaimed the emergency never stop reminding us that when the emergency has been overcome, we will have to continue to observe the same directives and that “social distancing,” as it has been called with a significant euphemism, will be society’s new organizing principle. And, in every case, what we have accepted submitting to, in good or bad faith, cannot be cancelled.
♦ The essay by David Cayley referred to by Agamben is among the best I read last month. It offers thoughtful reflections on the human issues at stake in the coronavirus crisis: “Questions About the Current Pandemic From the Point of View of Ivan Illich.” Strongly recommended.
♦ Sweden did not resort to lockdown measures, as did so many other countries. The Great and Good were appalled, and the expertocracy tut-tutted about the dangerous, even (dread word) “unscientific” course of action adopted by the Swedes. Swedish economist Fredrik Erixon offered this sensible defense:
At the centre of our debate is Anders Tegnell, the “state epidemiologist,” and Johan Giesecke—an epidemiology don (and one of Tegnell’s predecessors) who has captured the country’s attention with his no-messing attitude. Both advise caution—and common sense. As in Britain, many scientists have appealed to the government to close schools and impose curfews. Unlike in Britain, the authorities have calmly responded by explaining how this wouldn’t really help. They publish their own models of the virus spread. It shows how many people will need hospital care: the system, they say, can cope. And when asked, they say they don’t think Imperial College has made a better call.
Perhaps Tegnell and his team will turn out to be wrong. But their point is that the people deserve policies that work for longer than a month. Managing the virus is a long game, and while herd immunity is not the Swedish strategy, it may well be where we all end up. The theory of lockdown, after all, is pretty niche, deeply illiberal—and, until now, untested. It’s not Sweden that’s conducting a mass experiment. It’s everyone else.
♦ Tegnell and his team were right. The Swedish hospitals coped and the disease followed a trajectory not unlike countries that adopted the untried and untested methods of indiscriminate mass self-quarantine.
♦ A COVID-19 report from a friend living in suburban Philadelphia. He took his sons to a local playground. It was officiously encircled by police caution tape. A sign announced it was closed “due to COVID-19 pandemic.” The adjacent dog park was open, full of adults and their frolicking dogs.
♦ In a law review article, Harvard Law professor Elizabeth Bartholet argues for a new educational regime: “The new regime should deny the right to homeschool, subject to carefully delineated exceptions for situations in which homeschooling is needed and appropriate.” And those exceptions must be carefully policed: “Parents should have a significant burden of justification for a requested exception. There is no other way to ensure that children receive an education or protection against maltreatment at all comparable to that provided to public school children.” One laughs at the assertion that we can trust public schools to educate children. Falling test scores suggest otherwise. But the assertion of control is sobering, though not surprising. As Douglas Farrow has explained, gay marriage marked a shift. In the past, the law has recognized and honored natural relations between men and women, as well as the natural relations of parent and child. Now the law claims to create those relationships. Government is the source of marriage. It assigns patrimony, and even gender. For a full account of this deep perversion of our law, which is ongoing and Bartholet would like to see advanced, see Farrow, Nation of Bastards: Essays on the End of Marriage.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.