THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
by Barry Edelson
The Fever in Our Minds
Strong wind, strong wind
Tonight it could be you
Welcome to the Dark Ages
From the Bible to "The Andromeda Strain", from Armageddon to "Twelve Monkeys", the specter of apocalypse by pestilence has haunted mankind forever. Actually, not forever: the terror of the invisible enemy most likely began when humans turned to farming and domesticating animals. There were no pandemics among our hunter-gatherer ancestors, since they didn't encounter many other people, or travel widely enough, to spread germs very far. There were plenty of other dangers that could wipe out a whole tribe, but worldwide infectious disease was not a particular worry. But then we settled into villages, some of which grew into cities, where we lived in close proximity to our neighbors and our livestock, and started trading what we produced farther and farther afield. We picked up microbes from our sheep, cows, goats and pigs, and then shared them generously with each other. The epidemic was born. Many individuals did not survive, but those who did passed genes for more protective immune systems down to their offspring. Generation after generation, millions were brought down by one plague or another, but the majority carried on.
And here we are again.
If you instinctively choke on the expressions of false fellowship mouthed by politicians ("We're all in this together") and have the stomach to learn how exactly a society truly comes apart in a biological calamity, try Barbara Tuchman's classic A Distant Mirror. In endlessly entertaining detail, she recounts how Europe's fatal encounter with the bubonic plague, in the middle of the 14th century, combined with other factors to destroy the promise of a complex and burgeoning culture, and indelibly disfigured Western civilization. Writing from the vantage point of the 1970s, in the midst of another era in which material excess, starry-eyed idealism and deep pessimism ran in parallel, Tuchman uncannily captures the underlying anxiety of both her own day and of the historical period she is writing about.
A good historian's greatest gift is perspective. Tuchman's book makes it painfully clear that the later decades of the last century and the early years of this one are part of the same historical period. We may think we've made great social and technological strides since the mid- to late-20th century, but nearly every new generation congratulates itself on its superiority over previous ones. Today's particular hubris takes the form of believing that we are more enlightened (how 'woke' are you?) and informed (really? Twitter?) than the poor benighted souls who were forced to toil in the dark ages of wired telephones and radios with antennas. It is the folly of every era to imagine that humankind has just recently changed for the better in fundamental and lasting ways. Have we so soon forgotten how recently we were able to drink tap water, and get vaccinated without being chided for a foolish disregard for "science"? Portents of doom feel astonishingly similar across the varied stages of history.
It may be comforting to believe that, with a common threat, people will rally for the sake of survival. When has that ever happened? Perhaps for the briefest moments, as in the days immediately after Pearl Harbor or 9/11. Does anyone remember how Harry Truman made his reputation in the U.S. Senate? By investigating war profiteers. He had no shortage of targets, even during the most patriotic episode in American history. It gained him notoriety and ultimately the presidency. Less than a decade after the war, our supposedly united country descended into the morass of the anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1950s. Similarly, in the after-glow of the 9/11 attacks, flags hung from porches everywhere, and rescue workers from red and blue states alike flooded New York City to help their fellow citizens. Not even 20 years later, we have become divided more ominously than at any time, perhaps, since the Civil War. Once the immediate peril subsides and the enemy is subdued, solidarity dissipates like the hot air it is.
Moments of widespread anxiety may resolve in any number of different ways, but a permanent elevation of the social compact is never one of them. No matter the circumstances, generous people give, and selfish people take. There are no limits to man's inhumanity unless limits are imposed. If you doubt this, you have not been to a supermarket in the last two weeks.
The Germ Knows Not Who It Kills
From the perspective of microbes, animals are nothing more than mobile colonies of bacteria. How useful for evolution to have produced so many different kinds of hosts for the breeding and dispersal of so many different kinds of parasites. One species' pestilence is another's home-sweet-home. The next time you see a large tree or an ant colony, try to think of it as a fun-house mirror of the human body: it seems to be a single, discrete object but is in fact populated by thousands or even millions of distinct creatures who are more or less oblivious to the larger edifice to which they subjugate and sacrifice their being. They live, they work, they die. They know nothing.
The comparison has its limitations: the tree or the colony as a whole has no more awareness of itself than the individual insect or fungus, as the case may be. Humans are cursed with the illusion of self-ness. It's been 2,500 years since the Buddha realized that the self does not really exist, and that we will forever be in conflict with ourselves and one another until we achieve enlightenment concerning this fundamental fact of nature. To date, we have not. The empty shelves during a panic, like the empty tills in a bank during an economic collapse, are testament to the overbearing imperative of keeping oneself, and only oneself, alive.
In such times, we turn to the practice of medicine in the quaint belief that it exists for our benefit. In fact, it is a heedless global industry encompassing academic, governmental and corporate research; large-scale production of drugs and equipment; huge, complex organizations of hospitals, doctors, nurses and other professionals in the business of tending to patients; and legions of actuaries, insurers, publishers and lawyers employed to calculate the cost, pay the bills, disseminate data and argue over mistakes.
Living as we do in the shadow of the healthcare leviathan, we could be forgiven for thinking that we have entered into a golden era of medical science, in which disease is in retreat and our species faces an increasingly worry-free future in which death by infection or genetic defect is consigned to the dark past of superstition and ignorance. But we are frequently jolted from that complacency by the emergence of some lethal virus du jour — HIV, SARS, Ebola, and now novel coronavirus — and there is no apparent end to them. As in every other scientific field, nature mocks our efforts to understand, let alone control it. While there is no denying the enormous benefits to human health from the discovery of antibiotics, vaccines and numerous other medications and life-saving procedures, the medical-industrial complex is far from putting itself out of business. On the contrary, it could not have grown so large were there not an insatiable demand for its myriad forms of intervention.
It is entirely likely that our descendants a century or more hence will look back on our self-proclaimed medical prowess with the same horror with which we gaze through the mists of history at our predecessors. Some day enlightened practices such as chemotherapy, open-heart surgery and skin grafting may be seen (hopefully) as archaic and barbaric as applying leeches or performing amputations without an anesthetic. It is only man's incurable tendency to believe he has discovered the font of all wisdom that prevents him from realizing that he is perpetually stumbling in blindness from one small improvement to the next.
An Epidemic for the Digital Age
An erstwhile defense secretary of the last decade, in an attempt to deflect criticism from his bungling of an unpopular military occupation, infamously said, "You go to war with the army you have, not the army you wish you had." The same, of course, could be said of the commander-in-chief. Even if we acknowledge (reluctantly) that the virus cannot be blamed on the incumbent in the White House, is it too much to suppose that the level of anxiety and panic, including the frantic reaction of the financial markets, would be somewhat lower if the country had greater faith in our leader's ability to manage it? It goes without saying that we would be better served by a president who was less concerned with winning the daily point tally for "best president ever" than with actually helping us stay alive. But this is the hand we have been dealt.
By now we ought to know better than to focus on the president's inane brain squirts, and instead turn our attention to questions we would have to confront no matter who occupied his seat. For instance, is it unreasonable to ask if the record-setting asset prices of the last three years were not in fact built on a foundation of sand, and were destined to collapse from one shock or another? In retrospect, the economy always looks more wobbly during a storm than it seemed while the outlook was sunny. Every decade or so, we go through some economic maelstrom against which the individual worker or investor is powerless. We continually veer between irrational fear and unreasonable optimism ("irrational exuberance", in the immortal phrase of a decidedly mortal chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank). Neither position is ever justified entirely by reality. Looking at the "the fundamentals", as economists generally refer to their mountains of data, is a euphemism for ignoring the profound influence of human psychology on supposedly cold calculations of financial self-interest.
The ubiquity of digital communication renders the scourge of panic potentially more devastating than at any time in history. The unprecedented volume of data is so overwhelming that, instead of inducing enlightenment among the general population, it sends us scurrying back into our burrow holes like so many high-strung rodents. There are literally too many clues for any one person to follow. Our reaction to this crisis, or any other, increasingly depends less on reasoned analysis of risks and rewards, and more on the flimsy word of "experts" of questionable authority or veracity. When a president who likes conspiracy theories and shows sympathy for vaccine deniers, suddenly expresses optimism (falsely) that a vaccine for COVID-19 is around the corner, will the skeptics actually avail themselves and their children of a vaccine when it does eventually arrive? Once a false notion sets off around the globe on the internet, it will hit you from behind as it makes its way around. The clatter of infinite information leads not to wisdom and knowledge but to confusion and division. In such a feverish climate, talking up a vaccine is no more effective at calming an anxious public than talking up stock prices is effective at buoying the larger economy. Fear, like the virus, is self-replicating. Once you set it in motion, it will stay in motion for a good long time.
And so we are left, as a writer once defined it, with the twin stupidities of human inertia: we decide that the problem is so small that no action need be taken, or so large that no action can be taken. Name the disaster: climate change, toxic pollution, tens of millions of refugees, drug-resistant bacteria. With an avalanche of detail and no clear way to distinguish insight from propaganda, it is less stressful just to pretend the crisis isn't there.
The Dispensable Individual
A warm winter, and an early spring. Snowdrops in February, but without snow. Green shoots and splashes of color on the still-barren ground, weeks before their time: crocus and daffodil, violet and buttercup. The Earth mocks us with its indifference. Even that is too generous: "indifference" suggests conscious thought, the act of turning away. But of course the Earth knows nothing of our existence. Our legacy is one thin layer of dust among the millions of accumulated strata on the surface of the planet. The mountains and seas rise and fall, with or without us.
The parasite needs a host, so no epidemic kills everyone. But the survival of the species is not the same as the survival of any particular community or society, nor its endurance in the same form it previously assumed. In the end, a mighty civilization may be felled by a microscopic speck of genetic mischief — and not for the first time — leaving its ruins behind as a curiosity for a future species of geologists and archaeologists.
The anthropologist puts it this way:
Because diseases have been the biggest killers of people, they have also been decisive shapers of history. Until World War II, more victims of war died of war-borne microbes than of battle wounds. All those military histories glorifying great generals oversimplify the ego-deflating truth: the winners of past wars were not always the armies with the best generals and weapons, but were often merely those bearing the nastiest germs to transmit to their enemies.
–Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs & Steel
And the poet this way:
One falls, and another falls. The soldier drops, sinks like a wave — but the ranks of the ocean eternally press on.
March 21, 2020
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