2020, the year of everything fake
"The only question left to ask was what would happen after everything familiar collapsed."
I keep thinking there is some German word, like Schadenfreude or Gemütlichkeit but different, for the inability to take the world you live in seriously. If so, I can’t find it. We live in the future where everything is wrong, but at least you can’t google ideas.
In some worlds, the inability to take the world seriously is a mental disorder. In other worlds, it is normal and universal. And in some, it is a sign of superb mental health.
All of us old sufferers from this old itch, certain as we were, were never quite certain that we didn’t live in that first world. As 2020 ends, there is a certain Schadenfreude in seeing tout le monde heading toward the second—a tragedy, but a hopeful tragedy.
There are probably still people who take the world seriously—or at least, take America seriously. (Since the world still takes America seriously, it’s the same thing.) Even if the tables are starting to turn, we still have a deep moral duty to berate these people. And tables rarely turn—though they often feel like they’re starting to.
2020, for America, was a disaster. For instance, 1/4 of all small businesses are dead. Now, a serious country would try to understand that disaster, the way it understands each and every airplane crash. Who loaded the live oxygen generators into the hull? Why was the passenger permitted to board with her “emotional-support viper?”
Any disaster investigation finds a long list of ultimate errors. One way to rank them is by stupidity. “IQ” is pseudoscience—no one is intelligent. There is no such thing as intelligence—just inverted stupidity. “SQ” works by using the natural stupidity of children as a ruler for the stupidity quotient, dividing chronological by mental age. So the stupidest mistakes are the ones the youngest children would catch.
For Covid alone, let’s zero in on three such mistakes. Each of these, an ordinary eight-year-old, a bright six-year-old, a brilliant four-year old, or a three-year-old John von Neumann would have caught—and the wisdom of this stupid kid would have spared us all or most of the 2020 experience.
First: while a new respiratory disease was breaking out in the Eastern Hemisphere, flying airplanes full of warm sniffly hosts from there to the Western Hemisphere.
Second: after it took two days to invent a defense against the disease, spending eleven months deciding to use it. Then, eleven months later, not already having made enough for everyone.
Third: doing Chinese-style “lockdowns,” but enforcing them on the American “honor system,” so that they don’t actually work and have to be imposed forever.
Fourth: caring intensely about making everyone wear a mask, while not caring at all whether it’s a real respiratory filter or a paisley do-rag bandana.
Sorry, I said three but that was four. You, dear reader, could probably stuff another one or five into the bag. Quam parva sapientia regitur mundus, said Oxenstierna, Chancellor of Sweden, to his son: with how little wisdom the world is governed! Let’s very quickly look at the specific causes of these errors, or at least the first three.
(Some readers may ask why I am not considering the failures of the White House, and making the case that the President is also a joke. The answer is that this point, always boring, would now be pointless. The worst possible President is at most a skin disease. Here at Gray Mirror, we medicate only the deep cancers of the national soul. And those cancers grow in its old institutions, to which any Presidency is a short, passing dream.)
The religion of global health
Why would global public-health authorities encourage intercontinental travel at the start of a pandemic? What?
It’s a rare and lovely day when we can rely exclusively on that most reliable of reliable sources—the New York Times:
When the coronavirus emerged in China in January, the World Health Organization didn’t flinch in its advice: Do not restrict travel.
But what is now clear is that the policy was about politics and economics more than public health.
Public health records, scores of scientific studies and interviews with more than two dozen experts show the policy of unobstructed travel was never based on hard science. It was a political decision, recast as health advice, which emerged after a plague outbreak in India in the 1990s. By the time Covid-19 surfaced, it had become an article of faith.
“It’s part of the religion of global health: Travel and trade restrictions are bad,” said Lawrence O. Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University who helped write the global rules known as the International Health Regulations. “I’m one of the congregants.”
Note that contradicting the WHO is now a good way to get banned from social media. In 2020, the Mayor from Jaws is more infallible than the Pope—who gets plenty of PR love, but still can’t keep Protestants or irresponsible sharkmongers off YouTube.
And after a year of trade without travel, it’s pretty easy to see the arrant and shameless strawman that is “travel and trade.” This is the world we’re supposed to take seriously? Let’s all give it up, with the Mayor from Jaws, to the international hospitality industry. Obviously, tourism and globalism are two great tastes that taste great together.
Your eight-year-old is not at all wise. But he is wiser than a corrupt political religion. (There are two kinds of pundits—the first kind raised this idea before February 2020. While, if the “rationality community” was actually rational, they would absolutely die of cringe before calling themselves that, many of them deserve credit on this one.)
Our yearlong journey to Mars
In the New Yorker, not quite as reliable as the Times but arguably even classier, we learn that
In Massachusetts, the Moderna vaccine design took all of one weekend. It was completed before China had even acknowledged that the disease could be transmitted from human to human, more than a week before the first confirmed coronavirus case in the United States.
By the time the first American death was announced a month later, the vaccine had already been manufactured and shipped to the National Institutes of Health. For the entire span of the pandemic in this country, which has already killed more than 250,000 Americans, we had the tools we needed to prevent it.
To be clear, I don’t want to suggest that Moderna should have been allowed to roll out its vaccine in February or even in May, when interim results from its Phase I trial demonstrated its basic safety. That would be like saying we put a man on the moon and then asking the very same day, “What about going to Mars?”
Imagine telling your eight-year-old that we had the tools to prevent 250,000 deaths, but we didn’t do it, and we shouldn’t have done it. The poor kid will assume he lives in some kind of insane Carthaginian death-cult. Let’s have a look at why he’s wrong.
The problem with your eight-year-old is that he will apply a puerile, pseudo-rational standard of mere risk-benefit analysis. He will reason that the risk-benefit profile of taking any of the vaccines is positive, because it might work; even if it doesn’t work, it probably won’t hurt you; even if a vaccine does start hurting people, the scientists will notice and stop giving it; and all these risks are way lower than the risk of the disease.
Your eight-year-old is stupid. He is only thinking about this patient and this disease. He’s forgotten to consider the interests of the really important party here. The New Yorker (which, though it casually libeled me earlier this year, is still a great mag I read every time I’m at the dentist) explains:
The name “Operation Warp Speed” may have needlessly risked the trust of Americans already concerned about the safety of this, or any, vaccine. Indeed, it would have been difficult in May to find a single credentialed epidemiologist, vaccine researcher, or public-health official recommending a rapid vaccine rollout.
The trust of Americans, that is, in—the public-health authorities. The problem here is that all these great experts have a conflict of interest—because they are part of—the public-health authorities. This is why they disagree with your eight-year-old, who, while he is stupid, has no conflicts of interest.
The experts are mostly doctors, whose interest should be the interest of their patients. A risk-benefit analysis of any human being’s interests reveals lower expected mortality and morbidity as a consequence of receiving any plausible vaccine candidate before, rather than after, inoculation with the pandemic virus. So says your eight-year-old, though probably not in this kind of language.
But the interests of the public-health authorities can and do conflict with the interests of the patients. For example, delaying a vaccine for a year may kill 250,000 people, but it does surprisingly little damage to the trust of Americans in the public-health industry. On the other hand, an experimental therapy that kills one person—as in the death of Jesse Gelsinger—can set back a whole field of medicine for a decade.
The event seared into the mind of every vaccine researcher is the 1976 swine-flu scare. 45 million Americans were vaccinated with an emergency vaccine for a “pandemic” flu strain that turned out to be a non-problem. 1 in 100,000 got Guillain–Barré syndrome.
True: giving 450 people a serious, even life-altering, even sometimes deadly disease, seems much smaller than letting 250,000 people die—forgetting even the crazy year it has given the rest of us. Or so an eight-year-old would think.
But again, your eight-year-old just has no clue. He is thinking only of the patients. For the institutions, however—who employ the experts, who have the lambskins they need to talk to the New Yorker and be unquestioningly believed—it’s the opposite. Actively harming 450 people is much bigger than passively letting 250,000 die. Sorry, Grandma!
And then—in a year, it was impossible to make enough of the stuff. Like the delay in deciding to use the vaccine, this would have utterly baffled any of our ancestors who happened to be involved in winning World War II. Hitler would have conquered the moon before 1940s America turned out a “safe and effective tank” by 2020 standards. But of course 1940s America treated everything, including medicine, like war. What’s stranger is: so did 1930s America.
Let’s be clear about what an mRNA vaccine physically is. It is an RNA sequence in a lipid nanoparticle. RNA is like DNA but different. “Lipid” means “fat” and “nano” means “small.” To make the vaccine, you cook a bunch of enzymes and reagents and stuff to make the RNA, then put it in a fancy mixer with some special-ass fat. Done.
An official course of the Moderna vaccine is 200 micrograms. The last time I took 200 micrograms of anything it was on a little paper square with a picture of Felix the Cat. 60kg of a chemical we’ve known how to make for a year would have averted this whole shitshow. Your mother could benchpress enough RNA to save America from Covid.
The problem is not that it takes a year to cook up a bathtub of RNA, which is basically just cell jism, and blend it with a half-ton of lard. It does take a year, though, to build a production line that produces an FDA-approved biological under Good Manufacturing Practices. It’s quite impressive to get this done and it wasn’t cheap neither.
The reader will be utterly unsurprised to learn that good in this context means perfect. As the saying goes, the perfect is the enemy of Grandma.
If 1940s America—or even 1970s America—had had some shortage of super-special surgical glass vials, or some such shit-tier excuse, they would have parked a bathtub of chilled cell-jism-lard in a reefer truck, picked up a couple of half-educated Air Force medics wielding filthy bulk jet injectors, and driven around town with a loudspeaker blaring icecream jingles. Grandma might have gotten hepatitis—but not pneumonia.
When we diagnose the effort that from end to end will get us all vaccinated in 18 to 24 months, the problem is not in the work or the workers, but the rules and assumptions. “Warp speed” simply meant doing everything by the book, but as fast as possible. This made it, like, five times as fast as usual.
While this is nice, a process improvement of any such magnitude is unlikely to be anywhere near the limit of diminishing returns. Rather, it indicates that something was seriously wrong with the efficiency of the original process.
In a situation like this—why should “usual” even matter? Why should there be a book? 1940s America would have thrown away the book and solved this as a one-off, and so would your eight-year-old.
What ‘20s America should have done was to find the equivalent of General Groves—someone who knew nothing about public health, and everything about getting shit done—and order him to win the war on SARS-CoV-2, with zero rules.
For example, such an effort would have used good manufacturing practices—but not perfect ones. Since perfect is the official standard, and good but not perfect does not exist, it would have to be invented. That’s something else ‘40s America was good at.
What was done was to find the best experts, and ask them how to run the process as fast as possible without cutting corners. What Groves would have done was to find the best experts, and ask them what corners could and could not be cut—in everything from “ethics” to chemistry. They do know this information, though they may have to be tortured to reveal it. The Fed can print money and bamboo skewers are cheap.
Again, the real problem is the inherent conflict of interest in the Hippocratic ethos. Hippocrates was no fool. The “Hippo” was a sharp operator. While he was always looking out for his patients, he never forgot about number one. His “oaff” made especially good sense in a world where anyone who could afford a doctor was a VIP. And anyone who was a VIP could get somebody to do something about somebody. When every patient is Tony Soprano, “do no harm” isn’t just a matter of philosophy. Capeesh? You can get out of here right now, kid, with your “risk-benefit analysis.”
Yet if medicine is to govern itself, having no king, president, CEO or general above it, this conflict of interest—with the fresh blood of a quarter-million boomers on its foul and official hands—will reign supreme forever. And only a child will call it what it is.
The cargo-cult lockdown circus
As we’ve seen, both the failure to isolate the hemispheres while a pandemic emerged in the other, and the failure to deploy a vaccine with appropriate speed, are not trivial or superficial errors, but the result of deep and structural institutional corruption—in the most fundamental sense of corruption, an improper conflict of interest.
While it is much more popular to criticize the American lockdowns, they are still worth criticizing—if nothing else, because they are still going on. But the cause of the first two mistakes was subtle and obvious. There are two right decisions here—to do a lockdown that works, or to not try a lockdown that doesn’t work. While your eight-year-old would probably get one of these, he could never understand why we didn’t.
In some ways, a pandemic in a population is like cancer in a body. There are two ways to beat cancer: local intervention (like surgery) and systemic intervention (like chemo). While no cancer therapy is fun, the worst possible cancer therapy is local intervention in a case in which only systemic intervention is effective—just chopping and chopping at your rotting, inoperable abdomen.
This is the American lockdown—the soft, eternal lockdown. How did we get here?
On March 11, the highly-respected specialty outlet STAT explained the thinking:
The notion that the curve of this outbreak could be flattened began to gain credence after China took the extraordinary step of locking down tens of millions of people days in advance of the Lunar New Year, to prevent the virus from spreading around the country from Wuhan, the city where the outbreak appears to have started.
Many experts at the time said it would have been impossible to slow a rapidly transmitting respiratory infection by effectively shutting down enormous cities—and possibly counterproductive.
“Travel and trade,” again. But the dragon proved them wrong:
But the quarantines, unprecedented in modern times, appear to have prevented explosive outbreaks from occurring in cities outside of Hubei province, where Wuhan is located.
Since then, spread of the virus in China has slowed to a trickle; the country reported only 19 cases on Monday. And South Korea, which has had the third largest outbreak outside of China, also appears to be beating back transmission through aggressive actions. But other places, notably Italy and Iran, are struggling.
For weeks, a debate has raged about whether the virus could be “contained” — an approach the WHO has been exhorting countries to focus on — or whether it made more sense to simply try to lessen the virus’ blow, an approach known as “mitigation.”
That argument has been counterproductive, Mike Ryan, the head of the WHO’s health emergencies program, said Monday.
“I think we’ve had this unfortunate emergence of camps around the containment camp, the mitigation camp—different groups presenting and championing their view of the world. And frankly speaking, it’s not helpful,” Ryan told reporters.
Because it’s just weird, isn’t it, when Big Brother speaks in two different voices? In any case, here we have a clear video of the exchange of DNA between these two strategies.
Lockdowns, which have proven themselves in China as a containment strategy—that is, a way to eradicate the virus from the population—are coming to the West in the totally different context of a mitigation strategy. This is like showing that eggplant can reduce constipation, then using it to treat mumps.
Even in early March, the idea of a soft lockdown is gathering steam:
“Even if we are not headed to zero transmission, any cases that we can prevent and any transmission that we can avoid are going to have enormous impact. Not only on the individuals who end up not getting sick but all of the people that they would have ended up infecting. And so the more that we can minimize it, the better.”
We also hear a completely different motivation—the one that was sold to the public:
“It’s really all borne out of the risk of our health care infrastructure pulling apart at the seams if the virus spreads too quickly and too many people start showing up at the emergency room at any given time.”
This is the familiar ICU-capacity, ventilator-shortage, “two weeks to flatten the curve” logic. You probably remember it. We even get a description of the future “lockdown”:
Those measures include banning concerts, sporting events, and other mass gatherings, closing movie theaters, telling people who can telecommute to work from home, and potentially closing schools.
No masks at this stage—in March, masks are still bad, except for doctors of course—and no mention of restaurants.
The point of my argument is not that either of the epidemiologists quoted above were proven wrong—although, since math is their business, they should realize that the hardest thing to do to an exponential curve is to flatten it.
It is very unlikely that the replication factor R will be exactly 1. If R is less than 1, you are beating the virus. If R is greater than 1, it is beating you. China’s hard lockdown took R far below 1 and killed the virus in two months.
Of course, China’s hard lockdown involved welding everyone in their apartments and bringing them food. If you went outside without a social-credit pass, a drone would harvest you for your organs. America’s soft lockdown involved randomly shutting down businesses, offices and schools. Sometimes egregious violators would get small fines. Result: right now, people in China are partying—inasmuch as they do party. They don’t care if they get a vaccine—and they have plenty of spare organs.
There is absolutely no reason to relax an eradication strategy. The closer you get to zero, the more progress you are wasting if you celebrate too soon. The only strategies are to accept the virus, or eradicate the virus.
If your strategy is eradication, any intervention that reduces R, whether R is above or below 1, is good and should never be stopped while it’s working. If your strategy is acceptance, the only relevant intervention is protecting the weak while the strong get inoculated the hard way. You might even want the strong to infect each other. And in mitigation, you try to reduce infections while waiting for a vaccine.
“Flatten the curve” was the most successful idea, because it solved the most important problem, Mike Ryan’s problem, the conflict between “mitigation” and “containment,” and not by compromise or reconciliation—just by ambiguity. Whatever strategy you believed in—“flatten the curve” meant that strategy. This is a classic DC move.
Of course, a significant factor in the success of the soft lockdowns was that, in the spring, the strategy seemed to work. It was only coronavirus seasonality. Sweden experienced the same seasonality, and mistook it for herd immunity. It wasn’t that either. But, even though epidemiologists know coronaviruses are seasonal (but not why), it was only human nature for them to believe their good advice was working.
Today, it’s clear that soft lockdowns are not actually an effective eradication technique. You still won’t see me eating at a restaurant. Ironically, now that vaccines are close enough that herd immunity will clearly be achieved through universal vaccination, not universal infection, the case for soft lockdowns as a mitigation technique may be as strong as ever. It might help a bit, sure.
I was a Covid hardliner when the NYT was a Covid denier. I always hate changing my mind. In principle, I have always preferred the hard lockdown to get to zero fast. But while I did demand a flight cutoff in January and human-challenge trials in March, I myself was by no means above illusions in this strange year. At first I thought the virus was a lot more like the Soderbergh virus, or even just SARS-1, than it turned out to be. In fact the age dropoff in its infection fatality rate is extremely steep.
Yet this isn’t the flu and you don’t want it, however old you are. The flu doesn’t attack random tissues around your body. Covid doesn’t kill healthy young people, but young and even middle-aged people have organs with an enormous amount of surplus and regenerative capacity. They might barely notice a significant depletion in their organ capacity. It seems quite plausible that even a not very serious case of covid could still take a few years off your life, fellow middle-aged people—but on the far end. And in fact, a very high percentage of middle-aged people report lingering symptoms.
But this is just my analysis. I’m not a doctor—I’m a hypochondriac. Even if I was a doctor, I would never impose this unscientific and unverifiable—though perfectly plausible—analysis on anyone else.
In any case, the prudence of the soft lockdown is neither here nor there. Rather, from the perspective of the political philosopher, the question is only of its legitimacy.
The American lockdown is illegitimate because, though it may be the right decision, it is a scientific decision in only one sense: it was made by scientists.
Americans were never sold any kind of long-term, undulating soft lockdown. They were sold temporary measures, enacted for temporary reasons, which turned out to be totally factitious—like the ventilator shortage. They were sold “two weeks to flatten the curve.”
The decision to handle the pandemic more like Sweden, or more like China, or like any point on the China-Sweden spectrum, was not and could not have been in any sense a scientific decision. While science is an input, this decision is in every way political, in the deepest and least pejorative sense: as the collective choice of a public community.
Moreover, when we look at the motivations behind the nonscientific decisions that our political system has entrusted to these scientists, we find again and again that they are very well-correlated with the political constraints on the scientists—almost as if power is using science itself as a sort of ventriloquist’s dummy.
Why did the soft lockdown actually prevail as the default American strategy—besides the accident of looking like it worked this spring, when what was working was spring? If this was not a scientific decision, we must not ask science. Since it was a political decision, we must ask power.
Accidents happen. The US would probably have gone the Swedish route, and looked set to, except for one man: President Trump. Until the President decided to become a “floomer,” Covid “doomerism” was a racist right-wing conspiracy theory. I certainly didn’t tell anyone why I pulled my kids out of Chinese New Year. Was it because I was a right-wing racist? Your honor, I’m going to have to go with the Fifth again.
If the President had been a doomer, or if soft or still worse hard lockdowns had been his strategy, any scientist endorsing this position would have been committing career suicide. You could already sense the “Covid civil-liberties” machine spinning up. But the instincts of any man are unpredictable, and this man acts only on instinct. And his record of being right is better than most people think, but not as good as he thinks.
So when he chose to be a Covid denialist and told us it was “just the flu”—which it later was for him, because he got the Regeneron—it was this position, which might, in the hands of the establishment, have remained perfectly sustainable through the spring wave—which became the unscientific position, held only by vile peasants.
Because of this human accident, it was foreordained that a lockdown would be the scientific choice of the American educated classes, and hence the world’s—except for Sweden, where a few stubborn people in the bureaucracy stuck to their old values, refusing to perform this epic Eastasia-tier ideological maneuver in proper sync.
Truly there has not been an Orwellian move in the American psyche like this, since Pete Seeger had to recall his own antiwar album in the summer of ‘41. And it was all Trump’s fault! I believe this sincerely.
But why did they go for the soft mitigation strategy? Why not a hard lockdown—an eradication strategy—which would have worked by July, and whose effects on the economy could have been mitigated in a far less shambolic way?
Because America is incapable of a hard lockdown. It is incapable of a hard lockdown because it does not really have a government. It does not have a government because the thing it calls a government cannot tell its people what to do, and make them do it, which is the basic function of a government.
As Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea showed, Covid could be beaten without a full lockdown—though their outbreaks never got as big as China’s. All four countries have one thing in common: a government. They have neither liberalism nor libertarianism. The government is completely in charge of the people, who are just sovereign serfs. While this is true everywhere, these countries have no ancient tradition of denying it.
Such governments can stop a respiratory epidemic the way a cattle rancher would stop an infestation of rinderpest, because they can wrangle their serfs like cattle. Since the government has no problem (a) knowing where everyone is at all times, and (b) telling anyone exactly where to go, “test, trace and isolate” can actually work.
For the United States Government to compile an accurate list of all the people in the country, with their actual cell-phone numbers, would take a small miracle. It would almost certainly be illegal. “Isolating,” whatever that means (doesn’t sound super inclusive) is clearly illegal. What? Maybe someone needs to read up on due process. As for tracing, you might as well trace eels through the Bronx sewers. The best bet might be to nationalize the collection agencies…
And obviously no one can force you to take a Covid test. What? Like something Hitler would do to Jews. Do they give you a tattoo, with the result? The Covid civil-liberties machine is still out there, waiting. This machine is also absent in Taiwan, South Korea, China, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, Japan, and other countries that have controlled the disease despite being next to its epicenter. (But maybe it also helps to be moist.)
State capacity for raw population control is a function of state tradition. The states that have handled Covid the best have been built on old authoritarian traditions—whether Napoleonic, Prussian or Communist. States in the British tradition are the next step down, and those in the American tradition at the bottom. And we like it that way, we insist—from behind our masks, which have not been racist since mid-April.
This scale corresponds to the capacity which James C. Scott calls “seeing like a state.” Professor Scott, a bit of an anarchist, in his famous book is notably cool to said power. “Seeing like a state” turns out to be pretty useful in a pandemic situation, though.
Needless to say, we hear a lot less about “test and trace” lately. We can argue all day about whether the limited state capacity of the USG is best attributed to principle or incompetence. Clearly it lacks the competence to violate its own principles, so the question is purely spiritual. But I think most critics understate the role of principle.
In any case, when we reread a classic text of early Covid like The Hammer And The Dance, we can make its mispredictions seem completely sensible by reminding ourselves that there is nothing wrong with its thinking, only with its assumptions.
The fundamental fiction of this essay and so many like it—not just a genre, but in the broadest sense a field—is that it is advising a competent and open-minded regime. The author, an effective and scientific-minded person, does check all his other assumptions. From his name he may be a foreigner—a type of person who often overrates America.
This fiction is enough to separate his advice from any country that would need it, for he is simply advising Western governments to be strong and effective. Generally, they are as strong and effective as they can possibly be.
Telling governments and/or the public what they should do, once they become much stronger and more effective than they now are, is less a public service than it may appear. What would be a public service is to tell the public that their governments, though immense, are weak and ineffective. But there is less market for this product.
Nor is this an individual flaw in one author or one genre—the author is only the best of his genre. It is a flaw in the world that demands, or demanded, such a genre.
The flaw is that the public conversation can diverge arbitrarily from reality, even at the highest intellectual levels. Extremely capable people can make plans which would be perfectly sensible in a world which does not exist—and should not be taken seriously. One totally understandable, but fictional, assumption is enough to do it.
F is for fake
So: as Chancellor Oxenstierna said, quam parva sapientia regitur mundus.
Normally, any sensible summary of a year would include more than one event. Ideally, the reader does not feel gypped. The simple fact of the matter is that in 2020, nothing besides Covid happened. Worse: we now know that in most years, nothing happens.
There are always plenty of “media events,” of course. If Covid, a real event, has no other effect than to provide a perspective that helps you keep yourself from being sucked into what Daniel Boorstin called “pseudo-events,” and the pseudo-narratives woven from them—maybe something good can come from a little spiky boi.
Here is something that just happened: “Brexit” happened. Great Britain left Europe! The political earthquake of the century! And Brussels, I read, is happy with the deal—which means that, in reality, nothing at all changed. Except for various random bureaucratic things that will get screwed up, but that’s normal and always happens.
It is not that “Brexit” became a pseudo-event. It is that “Brexit” was never anything but a pseudo-event. Britain was exiting? Where? What was it going to do differently, out there in the Atlantic on its own? Did it have some different national idea about the acceptable curvature of a cucumber?
“Brexit” never had any goal at all but “Brexit” itself. Trump never had any goal but Trump himself. Many people read many goals into these phenomena, many of which were interesting, exotic, and even compelling. None of them was even close to real.
Observing the failures of our most prestigious institutions, the failures an 8-year-old would have caught, we would be rash to assume that these failures are restricted to the institutions that Covid tested. If you drill into one foundation beam and find termites, the termites are probably not restricted to the path of your drillbit.
Yet the falsity of the feeble, doomed enemies of those institutions is no less plangent. Why would you leave the European Union, if you didn’t know where you wanted to go? Why would you elect Trump, who had no idea at all how to use his office’s powers? As for the counterinformation sphere around Covid, the election, etc, it makes Mos Eisley look like the College of Cardinals.
The final blow
It is easy to look at the folly and weakness of great powers, and find them vulnerable. The converse is usually the case. When the great are foolish and weak, it is because the small are even further beneath them—so foolish that they tolerate the rule of fools.
Suppose Oxenstierna is chancellor to a foolish king. If the Kingdom of Sweden has, by the bad luck of royal biology, some fool, madman, imbecile or drunk for a king, even the dogs in the street would know it. The king cannot go unobserved or unperceived.
And his kingdom would be unlucky. But it could still be taken seriously. If the Swedes drink his Kool-Aid, though—if they think he is the wisest king since Solomon—if the best people in the kingdom adore him most— can such a kingdom be taken seriously? Asking for a friend.
And this kingdom and its people would do fine, probably. Until something happened. Anything unexpected. Then, being incompetent and fake, the king would screw it up.
From the resulting disaster, many lessons can be drawn. From narrow to broad: the king’s pandemic strategy is fake. The king’s public-health service is fake. The king’s ideology is fake. The king is fake. The kingdom is fake. The historical period is fake.
This is exactly us, except that we have an oligarchy instead of a king. The oligarchy is what really matters, but we also elect a king—who is also fake. That’s why no serious person can take our kingdom seriously—or our period, whose center is our kingdom, whose center is our old and prestigious institutions, which are all or mostly fake.
Historians try to hide the fact that most periods are fake. The obvious inference is that we ourselves are likely to be in one of these fake periods—periods from which even the best and wisest thinkers have nothing lasting to add, because they are just not in touch with even their own present reality.
This systemic falsity is always a function of political power. When the intellectuals have nothing lasting to say, it is always because their minds are crippled by power. Like a magnet, power has two faces: one repulsive and one attractive.
In some periods, the best and brightest are repressed into obeying a deranged king. In other periods, they are seduced into serving a deranged institution. An oligarchy can also repress; a monarchy can also seduce.
Anyone who doesn’t take Plato seriously is a fool, but I don’t know how anyone could start to seriously respect Plotinus—the mystical guru of late antique Neoplatonism. Even the Monty Python caricature of the late Roman aristocracy, the world of “Biggus Dickus,” has enough truth in it to betray the Pythons’ posh educations. In the antiquity of the 3rd century AD, there was room for a Plotinus but not for a Plato.
Whole worlds can be fake, yet carry on. Our world will carry on. Maybe we will forget, probably we will forget, the level of fakeness it showed us here. Probably we will even become completely inured to it. This is the way things work in the Third World, where no one but a stone cold fool takes the world seriously.
Of course, this only means the “world” of the shared narrative your society lives in. The two things that you can still take seriously are physical and historical reality.
But you know nothing about the real present and past—because you can only experience reality through narrative, and you have no access to any narrative of present and past which is consistently connected to reality. You have nothing to trust. And if you take any story you don’t trust seriously, you have only yourself to blame.
They’re still doing it
Finally, what’s up with the cloth-mask thing? Simple: it’s another noble lie.
To admit that we all actually need real (N95 or at least KN95) masks, it is necessary to discredit lousy cloth masks—which will just make people stop wearing cloth masks. The truth is that the cloth masks are terrible (and worn terribly), but still often better than nothing. So telling the truth would make things worse—so goes the reasoning.
Which may indeed be true. However, it’s the kind of insanely marginal lie which can have only one real source: a psychological habit of lying. For no one but a habitual liar would even think of thinking this way. Nor do many scientists think it consciously, if anyone does—yet it is the reason we see everyone with these ridiculous face-bandanas.
(You can get a KN95 anywhere for $5. They are made in China and probably work. But: P100 king here. Wherever I rock the charcoal-gray 3M P100 with Oakley mirrorshade ski goggles and shoulder-length, Whitesnake-tier Covid hair, the staff know my name.)