Sunday, March 29, 2020

Searching for Meaning in the Time of Pandemic

Since David Brooks has set out to discover the meaning of it all, especially the meaning of the pandemic, we should know, to a high degree of certainty, that we should not go searching for the meaning of a disease.

Didn’t Susan Sontag say as much in her book Illness as Metaphor? As Ian Buruma reminds us, Sontag pointed out that once you start making illness meaningful, once you fold it into a guilt-punishment narrative, you will start thinking that you can stop it by inflicting punishment on those responsible.

There has always been a strong temptation among humans to lay the blame for epidemics on more fanciful things than fleas, rats or other carriers of deadly viruses. The idea of divine punishment is almost invariably lurking in the background. The Black Death was seen by many Christians in Europe as divine retribution for human greed, fornication and blasphemy. But usually punishment falls on one’s enemies. God punished the Egyptians with 10 plagues because they refused to liberate the Jews.

Today, everyone considers that China is at fault. And certainly China bears considerable responsibility. Wuhan officials failed to understand the virus and did not take early action against it. And yet, we ought at the least to be able to distinguish between errors made by bureaucrats and an intentional act to infect the populations of both China and the world. To say, as one thinker has, that China is an arsonist, is to say that that nation  intentionally sent the virus to invade the West. 

The alternative, which we have discussed in prior posts and which we will discuss in subsequent posts, has it that Western Civilization is engaged in competition with China and the East, for civilizational dominance. In the matter of the invasion of the West and the will to destroy it, examine the effect of Muslim migration in Western Europe.

Buruma is correct to warn us against this effort to fold the virus into a narrative. If only because, those who are consumed by a narrative tend to set out to affix blame and to punish. This makes them inferior competitors. And when they fail to stop the virus by their punishment regime, they have a serious problem.

Thus, Buruma says:

President Trump and some of his allies have made a point of calling the coronavirus a “Chinese virus,” the “Wuhan virus” or, simply, a “foreign virus.” Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas even suggested the Chinese had devised the virus as a biological weapon. They would like us to believe that the disease is like a foreign invasion, an alien attack on the people of the United States.

The reality of the virus is biomedical. And the response involves government and business. The role of a leader is to take charge of the situation. In New York City the mayor and the medical authorities were telling people to go out and socialize, to have a good time. Will anyone hold them responsible for the fallout of that advice? On the other hand, New York’s governor Cuomo has inspired some level of confidence, if only because he appears to be in charge of the situation.

In truth, President Trump has inspired some confidence for putting himself in front of the pandemic, by facing the press every day. Much has been made of the lack of equipment needed to fight the virus, but we are beginning to learn that government bureaucracies at the CDC and the FDA have been slow to move against the virus.

As for the Democrats, they have been doing everything in their power to render the Trump administration ineffective and dysfunctional. At the time when the  coronavirus first appeared in China, the Democratic Congress was mired in its impeachment hoax, a wasteful and useless exercise in political posturing.

As for President Trump, his Achilles heel is as it always has been: poor communication skills. Trump thinks out loud, and thus confuses people and the situation. Opining about a quarantine for New York and surrounding states was simply irresponsible, suggesting poor communication skills. 

Anyway, those are what matters, in civilizational competition and crisis management,

Brooks, who pretends to be a moral philosopher, but who is, in his own words, a “narcissistic blowhard” wants to fold it all into a theological narrative of suffering and redemption.

The reason, he whines, is that it would otherwise all be meaningless. I would note that the solution to the crisis lies in science and in social organization, not in concocting a new guilt-punishment narrative. The latter counts as a distraction, or it harkens back to an old time when we did not have science-- as in the time of the bubonic plague. We know how that worked out.

Examine what Brooks says:

It can all seem so meaningless. Some random biological mutation sweeps across the globe, murdering thousands, lacerating families and pulverizing dreams.

Life and death can seem completely arbitrary. Religions and philosophies can seem like cruel jokes. The only thing that matters is survival. Without the inspiration of a higher meaning, selfishness takes over.

Of course, this is mental drool. One can certainly prescribe a higher meaning, but the alternative is not selfishness, but science and organization.

The word “meaning” is anything but redolent of meaning. It is used and misused by thinkers large and small. One does well not to compare the current crisis to the Holocaust, so naturally Brooks does so. He quotes survivor Viktor Fankl:

Viktor Frankl, writing from the madness of the Holocaust, reminded us that we don’t get to choose our difficulties, but we do have the freedom to select our responses. Meaning, he argued, comes from three things: the work we offer in times of crisis, the love we give and our ability to display courage in the face of suffering. The menace may be subhuman or superhuman, but we all have the option of asserting our own dignity, even to the end.

Obviously, we have far more freedom of action today than we would have if we were locked up on a concentration camp. 

But, Brooks is not finished drooling. He wants us all to tell better stories. In particular, he wants us to see suffering as the royal road to redemption. Again, this is theology. Take it for what it’s worth. At the very least, it ought to take place within the context of a religious institution. Still, we are not going to manage the crisis or to compete against China by telling stories. 

I’d add one other source of meaning. It’s the story we tell about this moment. It’s the way we tie our moment of suffering to a larger narrative of redemption. It’s the way we then go out and stubbornly live out that story. The plague today is an invisible monster, but it gives birth to a better world.

In fact, we do not know whether or not the plague will give birth to a better world. Seeing such an outcome as inevitable might very well distract us from the task of building such a world. 

Now, Brooks is correct to note that a divided nation, a nation where politics has become a blood sport will have trouble organizing to fight a plague.He suggests that we define ourselves too much by our careers, when the truth is probably that we do not value work sufficiently. We are too busy telling stories and getting in touch with our feelings.

As for his point that the plague might produce new social organizations, it contains a germ of truth, as long as we do not believe that this requires creativity. It requires efficient management, but it also requires, as noted in the case of Italy, a population that is willing to obey the dictates of authority.

This particular plague hits us at exactly the spots where we are weakest and exposes exactly those ills we had lazily come to tolerate. We’re already a divided nation, and the plague makes us distance from one another. We define ourselves too much by our careers, and the plague threatens to sweep them away. We’re a morally inarticulate culture, and now the fundamental moral questions apply.

In this way the plague demands that we address our problems in ways we weren’t forced to before. The plague brings forth our creativity. It’s during economic and social depressions that the great organizations of the future are spawned.

But, Brooks cannot resist the temptation to say something that is truly dopey. He suggests that we find solace in the fact that people around the world can now sing and dance together:

Already, there’s a new energy coming into the world. The paradigmatic image of this crisis is all those online images of people finding ways to sing and dance together across distance.

Those videos call to mind that moment of Exodus when Miriam breaks into song. “It is the dance that generates the light,” Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg writes, “the women produce an energy in the light of which all participate equally in the presence of God.”

One might also evoke another festive moment in the Bible, in Exodus, 32, when the Israelites, led by Moses's brother Aaron, backslid into pagan idolatry and produce festivities around a golden calf. When Moses saw that people were running wild and had become a laughing stock, he destroyed the golden calf. Eventually, God sent a plague to punish those who had strayed from the monotheistic faith.

Anyway, what we need to recover is the sense of belonging to one nation, and to feel proud to belong to one nation. This requires small gestures of care and concern. It does not require what Brooks calls deep conversations about profound metaphysical matters:

I was on another Zoom call with 30 Weavers, and each one of them had begun some new activity to serve their neighbors. One lady was passing out vegetable seeds so families could plant their own vegetable gardens. Others are turning those tiny front-yard libraries into front-yard pantries. Some people are putting the holiday lights back up on their houses just to spread some cheer. You can share your social innovation here.

There’s a new introspection coming into the world, as well. Everybody I talk to these days seems eager to have deeper conversations and ask more fundamental questions:

Are you ready to die? If your lungs filled with fluid a week from Tuesday would you be content with the life you’ve lived?

Do you believe that envisioning your lungs filling with fluid will provide inspiration or meaning?

Here is his conclusion:

So, yes, this is a meaningful moment. And it is this very meaning that will inspire us and hold us together as things get worse. In situations like this, meaning is a vital medication for the soul.

This is obviously blather, purported to be profound. Since Brooks does not know what meaning is, and certainly does not know the meaning of meaning, we can only suspect that it involves something theological, like redemption. Don't worry about dying, don't worry about the end of civilization as we know it: you are on your way to Heaven.

While this shift in focus might work for Brooks, who has a job that seems not to be affected by the pandemic, it will be cold comfort to those who have lost their jobs. 


UbuMaccabee said...

Perhaps David will soon encounter a young and attractive research assistant who is committed to Christian Quietism.

Or maybe he will fall in love with a young man committed to a traditional school of Zen and David will join him in silent meditation. That would move him off from both Judaism and Christianity and make him somebody else’s responsibility. I hope they hit him with sticks when he slumbers.

Nice dissection of a spiritual humbug.

Ubu the Pious

trigger warning said...

Why is it that whenever I read David Brooks I am tormented by echoes of the "It's a Small World" theme from Mouse World?