Friday. A crush of work has me at my computer at 8 a.m. I edit a piece about the seduction of expertise. Drawing on Alasdair MacIntyre, the author argues that technocratic expertise legitimates power and, as an added benefit, insulates public officials from criticism if things go sour: “I was following the advice of the best experts. . . .”
The weather is wonderful. Lucy is grumbling at me as I work beyond her usual time for a walk. I relent. The warmth of the day is already invading the city. We pass workmen on 56th Street carrying rebar to a construction site as they prepare to pour concrete. People are already lounging on benches in my neighborhood park. The doormen are sunning themselves on 57th Street, standing in front of the gracious redbrick pre-war buildings. Shutdown discipline will be hard to maintain today.
My inbox fills. A friend writes, noting a recent First Things essay, “Professors as Propagandists,” and observing that Trump has declared a national emergency and assumed wartime powers. Yet none of those who spared no rhetorical excess to warn us that Trump was an authoritarian in the making and would bring fascism to our shores has said a word. Alexander Riley’s analysis is vindicated: The warnings were nothing more than political propaganda.
I run out the door to get to the subway. I have a late morning “park appointment” in Astoria, Queens, with the First Things director of development, Eduardo Andino, who lives nearby. Long wait for the N train. Trains are on a reduced, weekend schedule. I work on editing an open letter to the bishops of France. It’s a strong and eloquent challenge to the Church’s leadership, a warning that by making herself absent, the Church underlines her irrelevance.
The subway rumbles through the tunnel under the East River. We emerge above ground in Long Island City. The Jet Blue office across from the subway platform is empty. As the train heads to Astoria, we make a long, arching turn north. Manhattan’s crenelated skyline is vivid against a sharp blue sky.
I meet Eduardo at Di Lugi’s bakery. I order an almond pastry and cappuccino. We sit on a park bench in the sun in Astoria Park and develop an emergency plan to sustain financial support for First Things.
I clank back to Manhattan on the N train, going to Times Square so that I can walk over to my office, picking up a spare Lenten lunch on my way.
At 1 p.m., Pope Francis speaks in the empty St. Peter’s Square and delivers an urbi et orbi blessing. He evokes our fear, the weapon of the “adversary.” But God can turn evil to good, and our fear exposes the weaknesses and false promises of our worldly preoccupations—our “prepackaged ideas,” not the least of which is the illusion of self-sufficiency. We need to hand over our fears to Jesus “so that he can conquer them.” Francis ends with one of St. John Paul II’s signature phrases: “Be not afraid.”
The Holy Father is right. Fear runs through our society like a powerful current. It’s not just that we fear our own deaths. As powerful, maybe more so among some, is the fear of causing another’s death, being a “killer” by communicating the virus to someone who is in poor health, old, and vulnerable. And there is a fear that the widespread shutdowns will crash our society.
This is not just a fear of financial loss, but rather an undifferentiated fear that our way of life will be damaged, even destroyed. Or it’s a fear, not articulate but real, that we are sliding toward a postmodern barbarism in which more and more of our lives will be organized along the Hobbesian principle: life at any cost. Over the last two weeks, this last fear has harrowed my soul more than the others. I pray: May the good Lord conquer my fear so that I can approach the challenges we face as a society with serenity and charity.
In the early afternoon I join a family Zoom meeting. My brother and sisters are in good spirits, as are their children, even those in quarantine (though they report symptoms of boredom). My father is 86. He, too, is cheerful, enjoying long walks with my stepmother on the deserted roads of rural Prince George’s County.
A friend sends a link to Timothy O’Malley’s response to “Say ‘No’ to Death’s Dominion,” my cri de coeur against the “life at any cost” rhetoric. As a statement of principle, “no sacrifice is too great for the sake of preventing death” accords with Thomas Hobbes. When Christian leaders and intellectuals echo this sort of rhetoric, they risk knocking away the foundations of the faith.
O’Malley emphasizes solidarity, and calls for a “sacrificial orientation towards society.” Both are necessary, and perhaps this crisis will strengthen these impulses over the longer term. I hope so, as he does. But while an emphasis on solidarity and a spirit of sacrifice point us in the right direction, they do not tell us what is permitted, prohibited, or required. That demands other, less rhetorically exalted concepts. When this crisis passes and we’re not ratcheted up into a state of moral panic (understandable in these circumstances), we’ll need to give some sober thought to what should not be sacrificed to preserve lives. We’ll need to remind ourselves why Hobbes was wrong—even if we had to follow him for a short season.
My daughter sends me an email with the subject line “IMPORTANT video.” It’s a short documentary about a zoo lion and his best buddy, a miniature Dachshund. (Lucy, our dog, is a miniature Dachshund.) I write back: SO cute.
The sun is setting. Time to sign off. I head home and cut through Grand Central Station. A little girl is running across the marble stone of the empty lobby, the electric lights in the soles of her small shoes blinking brightly with every stride. I buy some grape tomatoes at the Grand Central Market to go with the Friday-in-Lent tuna melts we’re planning for dinner.
At 49th Street and 3rd Avenue, a group of ten or twelve young people on motorcycles rev their engines and roar across town as the light changes. A few blocks from my apartment building I hear cheering and whooping and clapping echoing up and down 2nd Avenue. I’m confused. Where is the sound coming from? I realize that it comes from above.
On this mild evening, people are on their balconies and leaning out their windows, each adding to the clamor. The scene lacks the elegance of Italians singing, but it’s a wonderful and reassuring sound—the sound of life seeking communion.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.