Covid and our strange defeat
"We have just suffered such a defeat as no one would have believed possible."
I like posting my hard-line corona takes, because it always produces a small shower of cancelled subscriptions and even mild hatemails.
I never get left-wing hatemail—I don’t think it has happened once in almost 15 years. This suits me fine. Maybe it actually says something good about the left? At least it says something I am happy to believe: the left, being performative, does not perform when it has no audience to perform for. Dear leftists: since we must end by loving one another, we must start by ignoring one another. And indeed this is going well already.
But the right-wing version, also unusual but not extinct, is just a bit depressing. FYI: you will not change my mind—I was wearing a mask when masks were racist. Listen to me in February 2020 explaining how we’re all going to be wearing masks. (I only wear the good ones, too—I’m not just a maskfag, I’m a mask snob.)
I hate Covid, of course. But like all things sent by God, or by Nature, or Nature’s God, it has brought us plenty of good. I have personally benefited (knock on wood) and so have many, perhaps even most, of my fellow disgusting postmodern aristocrats. As one would expect, it is generally the best people who have suffered the most. This tells us that God does not exist, or is evil, or operates in ways too sick for us to understand.
But besides these mere material windfalls and catastrophes, a pandemic is a learning opportunity comparable to a major war. The French historian Marc Bloch, before his execution by the Gestapo, wrote a classic history of France’s three-week war in 1940, Strange Defeat: his explanation of how France, which on paper looked like it could handle the Wehrmacht easily, lost almost instantly and with hardly a struggle.
Like all great histories, Strange Defeat is not a textbook but a work of art. It’s also remarkably based. Bloch, whose name is just as Jewish as it sounds, was a French officer and WWI veteran. Hitler would not disagree with a word of this summary:
We have just suffered a defeat such as no one would have believed possible.
On whom or on what should be blame be laid? On the French system of parliamentary government, say our generals; on the rank and file of the fighting services, on the English, on the fifth column—in short, on any and everybody except themselves.
Old Joffre was wiser. “Whether I was responsible for the winning of the Battle of the Marne,” he said, “I do not know. But of this I feel pretty certain, that, had it been lost, the failure would have been laid at my door.”
He intended, by that remark, to remind us that a commanding officer is responsible for everything that happens while he is in supreme charge of events.
Whether the initiative for each separate decision comes directly from him, whether in each instance he knows what is being done, is beside the point. The mere fact that he has accepted the position of “Chief” means that he must take upon his shoulders the burden of failure as well as the panoply of success.
Trump? But no one in contact with reality ever thought Trump was the “commanding officer” of the government. A bull is not a horse. The rodeo cowboy doesn’t ride the bull—he sits on it. He cannot trot on bullback to the five-and-dime for a sarsaparilla. Nor does anyone really expect him to.
Only a few Internet nutcases wanted to make Trump the god-emperor of Washington. Trump himself had neither the idea or the capacity. He couldn’t even stay on the bull. And Covid was by far his best chance to do so.
No, this is America; the commanding officer of America is the Americans. Most of the people who voted for Trump did not want to give their power away to Trump. They wanted to apply their power through Trump. It was they, the voters, who were “building the wall” and “draining the swamp.” Trump was just the instrument of their power. Not a very reliable instrument!
And the Biden voter is no different. No one voted to give power to this husk of a man. The Biden vote was a vote of confidence in the system—in the old powers that be. The voter said: these institutions are our institutions; they belong to us, they serve us, they do the right thing; by voting for them, we are using our power to do the right thing.
Red and blue, it is we, the Americans, who were and are in command. Do you feel in charge? We feel in charge. And our results—well, don’t they speak for themselves?
Moreover, when we look at the vaccine supply chain that will pull us out of this hell, we observe that we are not in charge of it; that it is a whole bunch of corporations, each of which (so long as it respects our laws, or at least pretends to) is in charge of itself.
Curious, this! The big jobs that we are in charge of are all disasters. To get anything serious done, we have to give away our control of it; we have to let it control itself; we have to ask it only for its results, without telling it how to get them.
Worse yet: when we let a thing control itself, it always adopts that form of government which we know to be the worst form. It becomes a monarchy—an organization in which one single person guides the actions of all the others. Yo, what is wrong with people?
A restaurant is a monarchy. An auto company is a monarchy. A movie is a monarchy. None of them has so much as a parliament. Why does the private sector, when left to its own devices, always adopt this discredited abortion of medieval political science?Also, why is it that it takes a monarchy two days to invent a vaccine, and a democracy two years to get it to everyone? These mysteries keep getting curiouser and curiouser.
This brutally frank assertion
What are we doing wrong? Marc Bloch lived in a world with different difficult truths:
Whatever the deep-seated causes of the disaster may have been, the immediate occasion was the utter incompetence of the High Command.
I very much fear that this brutally frank assertion may shock many in whose minds certain prejudices are deeply rooted.
Almost the whole of our national Press, and the more academic portions of our national literature, have, as I see it, consistently upheld the conventional view in these matters. For a great many journalists and for a considerable number of “patriotic” authors, any general is, by definition, a great general.
If he leads his men to disaster, he is duly rewarded with a high class of the Legion of Honor. No doubt the argument runs that only by drawing a decent veil over the more glaring indiscretions of our public men can the morale of the country be kept at a high level.
Isn’t it funny how people, regardless of their faith in political forms, need to respect arbitrary authorities? Scientists have replaced generals—what else here has changed? Dr. Fauci funded and vigorously defended bat coronavirus gain-of-function research.
But we cannot let the buck stop with either scientists or generals—or even the still more culpable bureaucrats behind them. Like France in 1940, the United States in 2020 is a democracy, in spirit if not in practice. Sovereignty is where the buck stops.
We, the people, are sovereign. The voters are in charge of the government. So, if there is anything about our government that we choose not to change, we must like it. If anything about our government remains unchanged for decades, we must really like it. And since we are always right—it must be really good.
The French electorate expressed collective confidence in the High Command of 1940. Both Trump and Biden voters approve of Dr. Fauci, and agree that the permanent staff of CDC and FDA are doing a heck of a job. At least—whatever is actually in the voters’ heads, this is the information that their votes communicate.
So 2020’s brutally frank assertion is that we ourselves are to blame. We are our own High Command. We ate a dish that we served ourselves; we are still eating, and still serving. What did we do wrong? What did we think wrong?
Specific neurological malfunctions
If there is anything all Americans agree on, it is that good government is about having the right ideology. So when government governs badly, it is because the wrong people, who have the wrong ideology, won the election.
Covid threw two fat monkeywrenches into this model of ideology. First, although the Covid response rapidly developed its own ideologies, Covid ideology did not “settle” quite properly into the left-right framework, especially not across the Western world.
Trump voters wound up admiring Sweden. New Zealand tried fascism, and it worked. It is interesting to wonder what the West would have done if Trump had decided to be a Covid hardliner. Probably every Western country would have gone full Sweden. And, to be honest—that might even have been a better result. Or not, of course.
One of the fundamental axioms of democracy is that perspectives are deterministic. Your position on any issue must be a pure function of your ideological principles. Yet the ideology of New Zealand is quite indistinguishable from that of Sweden; and the Covid position of Sweden was the position of all progressives well into March 2020. It was only once Trump became a Covid denier that this position became unacceptable. The Swedes, it seems, were just too stubborn to follow the U-turn, and then got stuck.
The second monkeywrench was that no living Western ideology seemed to work. The Western countries that did the best were more isolated and had stronger governments with more homogeneous populations. Sweden, with its ultra-soft voluntary lockdown, even had a lower death rate than the United States—though much higher than Norway and Finland. (But let’s not forget that Sweden is a serious country with a real history, whereas Norway and Finland are no more than its backward ex-provinces.)
We could conclude empirically by looking at China, Taiwan and Korea that competent, unlimited authoritarianism could control Covid. We decided that 500,000 deaths was not as bad as competent, unlimited authoritarianism. (Cope: they were mostly old, sick people anyway.)
We could conclude theoretically by looking at the general success of all vaccine designs that unrestrained, unlimited libertarianism could control Covid. We decided that 500,000 deaths was not as bad as unrestrained, unlimited libertarianism. (Cope: maybe even more people would have been killed by unsafe scam vaccines.)
We could even conclude empirically by our own state-to-state comparisons that there was little strong evidence that any state’s American-style lockdown did all that much to discourage viral transmission. It certainly did plenty to discourage human existence.
Nothing on our political menu was good. Probably more GM readers are Covid softliners than hardliners—in fact, a couple months ago, I was at a conference in Vegas where pretty much no one was wearing a mask, except for me because I’m a maskfag—and at one point I realized that not only was I talking face-to-face with arguably the world’s leading Covid denier—but he appeared to have a cold. Live dangerously, said Mussolini. (To be fair to myself, I get to be a fag because my wife is high-risk.) I do feel that these people are idiots—but in their defense, so is everyone else—so are we all.
The relative strategic spectrum
If there is one general lesson from this shitshow, what is it? When we pull the camera way back and look at the Western response to Covid, what do we see? What we see is something quite amazing, I feel.
Since we are looking at the West from the West, our eyes are pointed forward. We start by looking at the center of legitimate, moderate opinion in Western Covid ideology—with the right edge of the windowframe as Sweden, and the left edge as NZ/Australia. (Or maybe left/right is the other way around lol.)
The window of American policy runs roughly between Florida/Texas and NY/CA. A beautiful test case is North Dakota/South Dakota, though bear in mind that neither of these states is at all culturally independent. But they have chosen opposite Covid ideologies, despite being almost identical in nearly every agricultural way.
When people send me hatemail for a hardline Covid take, it is because they have taken a side in this domestic conflict—the West’s cold Covid civil war. Doesn’t our system of government have to turn every problem into a cold civil war?
On the substance, I am generally agnostic. The statistical similarity between North and South Dakota—whose epidemic curves are almost identical—is strong. But isn’t less transmission better than more? But wouldn’t it be better to just pay waitresses for not waitressing? But have we demonstrated our capacity to do even that? And so on…
And there is an impressive statistical difference between Sweden and Norway—two countries that are culturally independent, but still culturally similar… the bottom line is that if God himself came down and told me that either of the moderate sides was right, in an impressive, high-production-values way that admitted no doubt whatsoever, I would simply not be shocked at all.
The absolute strategic spectrum
The most libertarian Covid response in the West was Sweden, which managed to muddle through without any rules but is full of prudent Scandinavians. The most authoritarian response was Victoria (Melbourne), whose Premier managed to sharply suppress a severe spike by absurdly-draconian measures which earned him the well-deserved nickname of “Chairman Dan.” (Of course, maybe it was a coincidence. You really never know with this damned disease.)
Sweden and Melbourne are the frame of the moderate Western window. But the trouble is: when we look outside the window, everything we see works even better.
“Chairman Dan” is strictly milquetoast by real Chinese standards; there was a bit of policing in Melbourne, but no Orwellian digital population control; and indeed, it is almost impossible to imagine suppressing an event like the initial Wuhan outbreak by any kind of mild Australian standards.
In China today, Covid is a memory. How again am I more free, when I’m basically under house arrest? If I give up a little freedom, so as to obtain way more freedom, is this some incorrect freedom math? Am I somehow not earning a freedom profit?
Sadly, there is no Asia on the libertarian side of the window. Asian countries have an enormous opportunity to leapfrog the West by going full libertarian; Western pundits (even those of Asian descent) who expect them to take it are just fooling themselves. Libertarianism is not how normal people think; and especially not how Asia thinks.
So those hoping for a Covid vaccine at Shenzhen speed were disappointed. The Asian countries have just as much medical red-tape as ours; their medical bureaucrats are no less risk-averse than ours, and in fact ours probably trained theirs. In the end, it may even be easier to cut corners here—especially if you want to do it sensibly and safely. The First World startup vaccines (mRNA) were certainly both the fastest and the best.
Yet the extreme libertarian side of the spectrum exists—even if it is uninhabited.
Imagine if, as soon as the pandemic was out of the box, the US government, or any government, had not simply abolished FDA approval for vaccines—but even patents. Anyone could make any kind of mystery biojuice and sell it, for any amount of money, a la 19th century, as a patent Covid prophylactic—fortified, probably, with laudanum.
How hard is it to make a stupid Sinovac style killed-virus vaccine? How quickly would production, of what we now know are perfectly safe and effective vaccines, have been scaled up? How many lives would have been saved? And how many people would have harmed and/or defrauded by unsafe or ineffective vaccines?
This is hardly a difficult “trolley problem.” As long as lives count the same on both sides of the equation—and, ethically, why would they not?—knowing what we know now, it is extremely difficult to imagine this math showing a loss.
Of course, we didn’t know the vaccines would work a year ago—but most experts did think they would. Sadly, that wasn’t good enough to save half a million Americans.
Stop thinking relatively
I really do sympathize with the people who send me hatemail (not many at all), because I feel like I know exactly how they are thinking.
When we look at either side within the window of legitimate Covid ideology, there is plenty to hate. Because the hardliners are in power, at least in America and most other places, they flaunt all the usual contemptible hypocrisies of the powerful. To despise them is trivial. And yet, because the softliners are out of power, they have no choice but to pander to the fickle and ignorant mob—a choice no less inherently degrading.
The normal reasoning process of a reasonable person will start in the center, then be captured by one of these aesthetic judgments and imprint on it, like a baby duck on its mother. One side strikes you, at a deep emotional level, as loathsome; and from that moment forward, the other side must be divine. Actually, both sides are loathsome; and both sides are divine. No one can really process this, so don’t worry about it.
Normally, people can make these hard choices by alignment with their left/right ideology. But the authoritarian/libertarian axis of Covid ideology is confusingly orthogonal to left-right. As we see from Dr. Tegnell and Chairman Dan, either can go either way. Which all too often forces people to actually think about the question.
And yet: though nothing is murkier than whether to prefer moderate libertarian or modern authoritarian Covid policies (except at near-zero levels, like New Zealand’s), nothing is clearer than the superiority of both extremes to the whole moderate window.
Extreme authoritarianism works, because viruses aren’t magic. Extreme libertarianism works, because a naked, completely unleashed market can adapt as fast as any virus. We have inductive evidence for authoritarianism. We have to deduce libertarianism. We can still argue about the moderate window between them—but we know it sucks.
Moreover, what if even these concepts of libertarianism and authoritarianism trap us within a simplistic frame? They seem to be opposites—but they both work. Suppose we could construct some kind of five-dimensional political geometry under which they were actually one thing? Libertarian authoritarianism might work even better…
At this point, the epistemic mistake should be clear. The mistake most people make—even very smart, very rational people who are trying very hard to think for themselves—is giving the present world the benefit of the doubt.
When you think about a problem like Covid, and your default prior is that the solution must be in the moderate spectrum—defined as the spectrum of what most Americans think—whether your default starting position is in the center of the spectrum, the left, or the right, you will struggle very hard to get back out of that spectrum.
This is especially true when, as in this case, there are legitimate arguments on both sides within the spectrum. Moreover, the spectrum includes its fringes; even if you are not within the window, you might still be crawling on the sash.
It is enormously difficult to get out of Plato’s cave. Many there are who think they have emerged, and are only on a different level—often, a lower level. The best way to get out is not to go in.
Not going into the cave means an epistemic strategy of starting from first principles, not starting from what everyone else believes—of thinking not about relative policy, but absolute policy. If it so happens that everyone else is right—it does happen—that truth is unlikely to hide itself under a bushel. So why start by assuming it?
Suppose we want to know what the government should do about Covid. The answer is that we are in no position to answer any such question. We have other questions that must be answered first.
We first have to know: what should a government do about contagious diseases? This in turn forces us to know: what is a government? Once we answer these questions—by actually thinking about them—we are ready to start thinking about what, ideally, an ideal government of this specific country would do about this specific disease.
Politics is the art of the possible
But suppose we want to know what our real government should do about Covid? Even this is not the right question—because, in most cases, the answer starts with “replace itself with a completely different kind of government.”
The practical question is what input into the policy process, individual or collective, might be productive—including, but certainly not limited to, existential change. This is indeed a very different question.
And not only is it good to ask both questions—it is good to keep them separate. What should be done, and what can be done, are completely different questions—especially in a time like this. The ideal and practical questions may reflect on each other; or at least, the ideal question may inform the context of the practical question; but it is fatal to confuse them with each other.
For example, when I say that the world, right now, should shut down travel between nations (or integrated blocs of nations), to keep from sharing Covid variants, I am not under any illusion that it is possible for me or anyone else to make this happen—just as it was not possible for me or anyone to shut down transoceanic flights in January 2020.
I was still convinced that this objectively should happen—and I am only a little less convinced now. And if “objectively should” is not a thing, philosophy is not a thing. Once you have a clear and separate sense of the ideal, it is easy to get your hands dirty with the real—without confusing the two. But good luck in the other direction.
Idealism and nihilism
The young dissident’s curse is that itching irritable desire to disprove default reality. True nihilism is the realization that the real world—the present moderate world—does not need to be disproved. This timeline does not even need to be taken seriously; and it is a serious epistemic mistake to give it even the benefit of the doubt. It can be right; but it is sufficient to consider it, like UFOs and Bigfoot, with a ready and open mind.
The pathological result of the desire to disprove our fake reality is an identification with part of the moderate narrative—usually with the underdog/heel. Under the pretense of fighting back against the powers that be (the hero/face), you enter the story and become part of it. You’re hooked! The monkey’s got you.
It may be that either side of the American lockdown conflict is just plain right. By any absolute standard, the distance between them is negligible. Once you become invested in this relative conflict—and, in the real world, for real peoples’ lives, relative conflicts matter!—your ability to see this disappears, and with it your ability to see the ideal.
Since relative conflicts matter—consider how much more absolute conflicts matter. Covid matters. Covid matters enormously. On the scale of history, which whether we like it or not is the real scale on which we must operate, Covid is a footnote; and what really matters is not the event, but what it teaches us.
Your mileage may vary. Everyone’s lesson is different. Mine is that when people invest collective energy in relative politics—fixing or improving the government they have— that energy would be more efficiently invested in absolute politics—replacing it with a new and ideal government. Which is how nihilism and idealism are one thing.
Whenever we think about the policies that the government we have should adopt, or even the principles it should hold—whenever we think about issues or even often ideas—we are unconsciously thinking about fixing or improving the government we have. By not being nihilists, we have made a choice; we have chosen the present over the future; we have chosen the real over the ideal.
And usually, we are fallen between two stools. Usually, we are not actually real enough to really be thinking about the real; we are not actually in the real loop; the things we think we can change, individually or collectively, are in fact unchangeable. Yet this false and idealized reality is the only ideal we know; so we are trapped in it forever.