Let’s Pretend

I believe retaining  a vision of how you viewed the world in earlier moments  of life is an essential element of navigating mindfully through the challenges of the present. It is only through a thoughtful and unsentimental rendering of how one’s patterns of cognition have evolved—or not—that we can gain—or not—the capacity to  face new  challenges with equanimity, wisdom  and confidence.

For example, I remember quite clearly how I viewed the world at age 6, how I tended to see people in rigidly binary terms, as either comforting or threatening, and that I imbued the former with infinite nurturing powers, and the latter, people like teachers and school principals, with the capacity to obliterate my being at the drop of a hat.

I also remember how single-minded I could be about things like candy and  donuts, and how, when on  their frequent  Sunday dinner visits to our house my grandparents, uncles and aunts would bring one or both of these magic substances and place them in the kitchen, I had little  ability to concentrate on anything else that was taking place in the house that day,  the day before, and needless to say, on what might happen the day after.

I recently pondered how that same binary, monomaniacal and context-challenged 6-year old brain might process the inputs we are currently receiving regarding the COVID crisis sweeping across our country and the world.

If I still thought with my 6-year-old brain, I would probably believe:

That I, along with my brothers and sisters and parents in their early 30s (remember I’m 6) are probably all in some sort of imminent mortal danger, despite the fact that statistics demonstrate quite forcefully that this is not  even remotely the case for us, or indeed,  the vast majority of people under 60.

That the now oft-repeated mantra  that “saving lives” in the present is, as has always has been, a paramount goal of our society, and one, moreover, that has never been subject to unseemly and frankly unthinkable cost-benefit analyses like the ones  actuaries from the Pentagon and health insurance companies, to name just two examples,  regularly carry out  concerning the trade-offs between  deaths and the achievement of  strategic and financial goals.

That the norm in the  history of healthy societies  is not  to think first, and above all,  about how to guarantee  long-term  opportunities  for the young, but to do everything it takes,  regardless  of the damage it might do to those same young, to preserve the  lives of the elderly who have already had the privilege of living long and, in the context of world history,  very rich lives.

That to even posit the existence of  this moral calculus, which has been present and actively contemplated by both individuals and collectives for millennia, and indeed, has impelled human beings  to some of their greatest acts  of heroism, is in and of itself  a grave  moral affront which,  translated to twitter-think,  simply means  that the speaker is a sadist that just want to see the old suffer and die.

That the threat we are facing is “unprecedented” and is probably best compared the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, when millions died when, in fact, the death rates in the US from COVID are much more comparable to standard, and generally unremarked upon, annual  fatalities for pneumonia.

That scientific “experts”  working out of a tradition  that, among other things, proudly brought us Eugenics, lobotomies, thalidomide and agent orange, are always right and that to question their wisdom is tantamount to carelessly enabling massive death as well as  declaring one’s self a science-hating white supremacist. This despite the fact that the widely-heeded predictions of COVID deaths provided by one of the more supposedly esteemed members of the expert club, the British epidemiologist Neil Ferguson,  have, so far,  proven to be wildly off the mark.

That listening to anecdotes of horror from doctors immersed in an intense and exhausting treatment battles on the front lines in the country’s relatively few heavy hit areas, or alternatively, highlighting distressing tales of the families heavily affected by the disease in the same places, is the best  and most wise way to accurately assess  the overall threat that  COVID poses to the 330 million inhabitants of the US. You know, just like that age-old military practice of having the impressions of a corporal involved in fighting at the busiest point in the enemy front dictate the overall strategic vision of the General responsible to the overall design and implementation of the war plan.

That governments, most notably  US Italian and Israeli governments over the last seven or so decades, have never provoked, ignored  or exaggerated threats to their own people, including some that have resulted the large scale slaughter of innocent citizens, in order frighten citizens into greater allegiance to established, if also increasingly discredited, centers of power.

That stay at home orders are about “keeping us all safe” when, in fact, they only protect the already protected and put the poor, who are the vast majority of our population, in the position of  either going hungry or working like dogs under bad conditions so that the rest of can ride this thing out in relative comfort.

That the “Looting and Money Printing” bill proposed by Trump and passed nearly unanimously by congress, together with the near wholesale suspension of environmental rules,  won’t have very real mortal effects in the not-too-distant future and basically handicap our children’s ability to ever climb out of the fiscal hole we’ve dug for them.

That when the assuredly many more  illnesses,  deaths and suicides resulting from the bill materialize, the media, with its clear and demonstrated  belief in the idea that each and every death is a tragedy that must not be glossed over or forgotten, will surely catalog them the same breathless attention they have used to catalog the numbers of cases and deaths caused by the COVID virus.

That the same Trump bill will not, as it was designed, result in the further  concentration of wealth on Wall Street and in the offices of the major corporation at the expense of the already greatly debilitated middle class and  small business sector.

That the desire to catch up to China in the day to day implementation of AI, something that is being  greatly and rapidly facilitated by the present massive COVID-induced shift away from face to face retail to on-line entities like Amazon,  does not have anything to do with issuing  social isolation orders whose severity has no logical relation to the actual dimensions of the mortal threat posed by the virus.

That long term  planners in Washington never posit the belief that anything that further divides the EU is a good thing for the US as the West’s pre-eminent hegemon and that they never once thought about how engendering a  particularly overwrought reaction to the COVID virus would enflame nationalism within that multi-national polity and thus further this goal while simultaneous rendering more difficult to execute moves by the bloc to further  conjoin its economic destiny to those of Russia and/or China.

That getting  majority of the people to believe in the dubious benefits  of social distancing, which to say a reflective distrust of one’s fellow citizens is not—in light of the fact that all revolutions, and even radical reform movements,  begin with intimate meetings rooted in an essential trust of the other (the word conspire comes for the Latin term for “breathing together”)—an enormous  tactical  triumph  for a plutocratic class faced with an increasingly impoverished and restive population.

That the moving of so many more activities formerly carried out in the relative privacy of offices and classrooms to online platforms like Zoom, won’t provide the already out of control privacy invasion industries,   managed  through a well -articulated condominium between  Big Tech and the intelligence community,   with the ability to know virtually  everything about our thoughts on just about every possible subject  and that his information won’t be used  to try further  blunt our ability to act, or even conceive of ourselves, as autonomous moral actors.

As you can see, facing complex  issues like the COVID crisis with the one-dimensional cognitive  outlook of a 6 year-old is perilous business. Glad to know that when faced with constant media bombardment, most Americans, especially well-educated ones,  almost  never regress  to thinking as  I did in the presence  grandma’s box of  donuts.


Thomas S. Harrington is a professor of Iberian Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and the author of the recently released  A Citizen’s Democracy in Authoritarian Times: An American View on the Catalan Drive for Independence  (University of Valencia Press, 2018).