Covid as Liberal 9/11
"Covid is not over, or have you forgotten?"
The Omicron wave has caused mass infections of Covid-19, but appear more likely to produce asymptomatic infections or mild illness than the virus always has. (Even prior to the arrival of the vaccines the vast majority of infections were asymptomatic or mild.) Meanwhile the evidence that the vaccines keep you out of the hospital and alive grows and grows, and now it appears that “long Covid,” if real, is much less of a concern for the vaccinated. Get vaccinated, please.
The purpose of these vaccines is to allow us to go about the work of being human beings. It would be a bizarre and sad not to take advantage of the blessings of medical science, obtained at great cost, by living as much as you can. Most people appear to be doing so. But there remains a very vocal contingent of people who do not want us to take advantage of the affordances of vaccines. These people are typically explicitly pro-vaccination but functionally anti-vaxx, as they insist that vaccines do not provide the kind of protection that could permit people to live anything akin to normal lives. It remains unclear what they want us to do that we aren’t doing. They speak about Omicron the same way they spoke of Delta, despite the former being less deadly; they speak of the pandemic now the same way they spoke of the period before the vaccines, even though the arrival of the vaccines was the turning point of the Covid crisis. And the people who act this way are, shall we say, of a type. Would it surprise you that those most fearful of Covid are also more likely to be generally anxious and intolerant of uncertainty?
I must remind myself, though, that their preferences do not rule; they’re simply loud. I read this by Alex Pareene, and it strikes me as both right in important ways and also really obtuse about the larger discursive environment. Pareene points out that people who feel the way I do are winning and the Covid truthers are losing, and asks us not to act as though we have lost. I think there are obvious exceptions in K-12 schools (between mask requirements and closings and loss of services) and elite colleges (where the Covid response has been frankly insane). But the larger point is food for thought, and it’s true that we need to have perspective. I’m free to do much of what I want to do as a vaccinated adult. The piece also leaves me wondering, on the other hand, if I've been hallucinating people like this and the tens of thousands of people who agree with her:
I suppose there’s still time for this prediction to come true, but here in Brooklyn both the emergency rooms and 911 are functioning normally. But this person, however extreme an example, is an avatar of a whole world of self-appointed Covid police. They’re the ones The Atlantic described last year as “The Liberals Who Can’t Quit Lockdown,” and also the ones who raged for weeks about that article after it was published. And they remind me, uncomfortably, of the lunacy of the post-9/11 world.
Forgive me if this others have made this comparison, but it’s remarkable how this moment echoes that one in the obsession with mutual surveillance and moral hygiene, all enforced with constant reference to a real crisis and imagined dangers. It’s not just the serial overreactions, the threatening intensity, the constant reference to dramatically worse events supposedly yet to come. It’s the feeling of mandatory panic, the insistence that anyone who does not allow the crisis to dominate their internal life is somehow guilty of causing it, the desire to blame a disaster on people who are thought to not take it seriously enough. This self-impressed doomsaying reminds me so much of the people who constantly said, after 9/11, that al Qaeda was all around us, that the big attack was yet to come, that sleeper cells planned to nuke shopping malls…. 9/11, too, produced a type of proud Cassandra, haughty and contemptuous, who simply lived to let the rest of us know that the rest of us just aren’t serious enough, who believed that the crisis meant that every single moment of our lives was now a character test, one that we failed if we did exist in a permanent state of anxiety and fear.
Ours is a discursive atmosphere in which (a year into the pandemic) a mainstream magazine published a piece where the author gradually became more and more convinced by a legitimately deranged prepper’s rantings about Covid as the end of days. (When said deranged prepper says “SARS-2-CoV-19 is to the human race what an asteroid was to the dinosaurs,” the author says that this prediction is likely half-right, then suggests it may be even closer than that.) People openly salivate over the prospect of another, more virulent strain. They do! Look on social media. The sheer white-knuckled excitement when they predict the next brutal wave…. These are ostensibly warnings but they sure sound like yearning to me. If 9/11 taught me anything it was that there is such a thing as a national mood, and that it can have serious consequences.
Covid-19, like 9/11, has functioned as all-encompassing excuses to justify the preferences of people who want those things anyway. After 9/11, the call went out that the country was soft and fat, that we were not sufficiently devoted to national defense, that we needed to be more aggressive in foreign affairs, and that the country had grown insufficiently nationalistic and militaristic, that we all needed to toughen up and salute the red, white, and blue. These were of course beliefs held by many conservatives long prior to 9/11, and they exploited the moment. The ritualistic expression of anger at those who wanted to live in a post-9/11 world was really the defense of a new regime. Now many on the left of the political spectrum are attempting to do something like the same, turn disaster into opportunity. Even if it’s merely the opportunity to do the only thing that gets them out of bed these days, the opportunity to judge others.
Some of this opportunism, such as using Covid to press the case for a more humane and efficient healthcare system, I agree with. Some I don’t, including a dismayingly common tendency to treat all of life and politics as a never-ending exercise in placing people on the naughty and nice lists, the ceaseless cataloging of people who are Good and people who are Bad. And this exercise has become so central to what liberalism is, so core to its culture, that I struggle to think of what liberalism might be now if not that, the drive to sort goodies and baddies. But of course a pandemic is exactly when we should be most eager to set petty tribalism aside, and the ultimate casualty of our binarism is any hope for genuine united collective public action, which is just what we need now.
Mercifully, this overreaction has much much lower stakes than 9/11, which justified a massive expansion of the defense and intelligence infrastructure and inspired two horrific wars. 9/11 worked directly towards the interest of the Republican party and the defense industry; Covid panic helps the drug companies but is otherwise less valuable to establishment power. But I worry over this catastrophizing tendency anyway, as it’s a serious pathology in an American left-of-center collective psyche that seems to be made up of nothing but pathologies. Especially given the left’s current desire for doom.
For those on the far left, I think, Covid has been particularly seductive. In the last several years I have watched as the nihilism and anger that have never been rare in the socialist left have metastasized, curdling into this terrible black pit in the heart of people who have ostensibly revolutionary politics but who believe that no positive change is possible. So many people I know, including many very good people, have given up; so many are resigned to the idea that the system cannot be reformed from inside. But they are also not so deluded as to think that armed revolution could possibly succeed. (As I am fond of reminding people, the state has satellites that can read your t-shirt from space.) So a lot of people who are ostensibly socialists and radicals have succumbed to this grinding nihilism, this black, lol-nothing-matters defeatism. And so they stock whatever’s left of their hopes in extreme events - in Charlottesville, which they insisted was the start of a new street war against fascism, all sense to the contrary; in January 6th, which they hoped might present them with the opportunity to resist a totalitarian government; in climate change, which they imagine will bring us a post-apocalyptic world of endless possibility, rather than the far more likely future of a hot and unpleasant and environmentally devastated world where the powers that be nevertheless still rule and where inequality only grows.
Then Covid came and, for a brief moment they convinced themselves that it was the big one at last, and everything was possible. Now they are forced to confront the fact that the system is more powerful even than a pandemic, and that no disaster is coming to save us from our miseries.
I think many, many people in our culture, socialist and liberal and other, are profoundly unhappy with the state of the world, and with good cause. And their despair over the seeming impossibility of positive change is understandable as well. But the only way out is still through, and all we can do is work. We can’t hope for the end times to save us. Late capitalism has integrated Covid-19 just perfectly, thank you, and the rich are getting richer. The house always wins. We are left to muddle forward in the shadow of an immense tragedy, and we are tasked with beginning to do the work of getting past it. For over a decade after 9/11 we were told to remain in a state of eternal vigilance, and as more and more people moved on with their lives the diehards got angrier and angrier. But special times never stay special, and we must be strong enough not to worship disaster.