We are both preachers and our faith tells us the well-being of any nation’s soul is tied to the welfare of its most vulnerable people.
– William Barber and Liz Theoharis, What Biden and Harris Owe to the Poor, NY Times, 12/31/20
The virus has returned in full and terrifying force. But public goodwill seems not to have done so to the same degree as in spring. The [claims from covid deniers] cause outrage among staff exhausted by shifts, only to have their lived experience, their sacrifice and their suffering, and the suffering of the patients in front of them, denied.
– Jeeves Wijesuiiya, To exhausted healthcare workers like me….The Guardian 1/1/21
I’m remembering a favorite rejoinder of my mother to a kid’s complaint on a rainy day, particularly when it followed a period of summer drought. “The farmers are happy. They really needed the rain.” This made no sense to me. Why did I care what made the farmers happy? I did not, for the life of me, believe she really cared either. I doubt it would have made any difference had she made the connection between the farmers’ happiness and the food on the table. In those moments, I would have been a ready candidate for denial of the reality of farmers needing rain! If my parentally monitored vocabulary had allowed for it, I might well have said “To hell with the farmers! I want sunshine so I can go outside and play!”
In this way, I do understand covid denialism, without granting it legitimacy. Alarmingly, as covid numbers go up in our region, covid and mask denialism is growing, its tendrils creeping forth into our local mainstream. During a good portion of our safe New Years’ Eve dinner, the four of us talked about the anti-pandemic conspirators among us whose existence we can no longer ignore. Our son Nick read from a local physician’s posting on Facebook which says in part: “I have no idea why the media isn’t reporting what is really going on within the hospital. We are full. And I mean FULL. we have patients on portable vents, surging on all the floors, and NO STAFF……Special care surging and having 8-9 patients, med surg having 11-12 patients. It’s terrifying in here. Tonight we also have 25 holds in the ER (4 of which are vents)….” Nick showed us as well a social media promotion for a locally held conference for mask deniers that several mutual friends were behind; this isn’t going away, as we’d hoped.
All during the long lockdown, never did any of us, even those of us who understood the mask mandate may have obscured the reality of how to be safe, entertain the notion that the coronavirus was a hoax, the danger and the deaths greatly exaggerated in order to fulfill a political agenda of some kind of international elite conspiracy. On the contrary, for those of us obeying the restrictions, there was a kind of solidarity in knowing others across the state were voluntarily suffering isolation as we were, for the greater good of limiting the contagion and bringing down the number of deaths.
However, once the lockdown was lifted, this sense of solidarity diminished, at least for me. Being at home with neither work nor my in-the-world projects to preoccupy me, (and without social media or Zoom), pandemic isolation began to be not “just” the pain of social deprivation, but the rockier feeling of uselessness. That is, I point this out not because I long to feel “usefully productive” at a paid job (though sometimes I do), but to say that without the sense of participation in a shared sacrifice for a greater good, pandemic sacrifice loses its meaning and purpose; it becomes a tomb.
I can testify that this condition, that is, being inescapably aware of the truth of one’s vulnerability, is unbearable! And it’s so, I propose, not because one is brought down to the truth of existential aloneness in the philosophical sense, but the vulnerability threatens to expose something more terrifying: i.e., that one’s being is unconnected in the universe, one is not “included” in this world. This “hunch,” as long as its repressed in the unconscious, gains its great power from the total negation of the truth of interdependence in our individualist, materialist, imperialist order. In fact, the “hunch” is an invasive “lie” implanted in the soul of each person born in liberal white society. In successfully undermining personal worth it serves neoliberalism at the expense of human beings. Though a lie, it never can be revealed as such unless/until people will seek after the larger truth that can expose the lie.
But what we do instead, being incapacitated for believing in the vision of the interconnected cosmic whole, is to believe in the half-truths and downright lies of the neoliberal order. We hope desperately for things post-Trump to go back to “normal” despite normal’s being an atrocity of billions spent on armaments while health care for everyone is off the table, of bombing darker-skinned people, of the 1% of rich and professional class people flying all over the world making a grossly disproportional contribution to total global carbon emissions, etc.
It’s no accident that since the lifting of the lockdown, conspiracy theories have sprung up into mainstream – or at least social media – representation, similar to the way that fascism under Trump has done. In NYS, once that initial top-down (gubernatorial) authority was removed, all alike faced the quandary of how, then, am I to see my awful sacrifice as meaningful? Without authority connecting us to others in service to a common good, the pandemic stagnation of our social lives brings us face to face with our worthlessness, too terrible to be faced. Given how we’ve been raised and educated in liberal society, where doubt comes more naturally than belief, and now left to our own devices in facing the pandemic, the attraction to conspiracy theory makes sense. It offers the opportunity especially to the young to find pseudo-transcendent comfort and meaning in a virtually shared anti-authoritarianism.
The unitive power conspiracy theories have to draw people together makes them, at the same time, powerfully divisive when they appear among the liberal progressive left. This is because, on one hand, for many people, especially people who don’t read, conspiracies are all that can be positively believed in. In the absence of belief in the truth of “Onedom,” their anti-authoritarian thrust alone is enough to propel zealous belief. And on the other, those of us who cannot join them find ourselves, in relation to the deniers, in the uncomfortable role of defending official authority! This role is so uncomfortable we hesitate to take it up; for we, too, do not believe its authority is legitimate (i.e., the CDC, the state government, the Governor, the scientists, the NY Times? – all have, justly, come under our skeptical scrutiny many times over). And what other authority is there? What can be said to the deniers? “ I hear you, but you’re wrong.”(?) “But people are dying from covid.”(?)
Orin wants to say to deniers, “That’s bullshit,” but knows, for his pronouncement to have persuasive weight, depends on face-to-face encounter (unlikely and unwise in the pandemic), and on the force of his own personality to command a bit of “elder” deference. Since such deference is in short supply (outside of Italian-American culture!) we’re left, then, with the depressing fact: in the neoliberal context, deniers’ truth is as valid as mine.
The Lost Capacity to Discern
Recently I “reached out” to a mask-and-covid-denier friend via email. He replied, “its good to hear from people who disagree with you, it helps you clarify your position.” Then, thoughtfully, he asked me if I wanted his 6-page response all at once or in smaller segments. With mixed emotions I declined because, knowing myself, I would not read his “tract.” In responding so, however, I felt the risk that I was coming across as closed-minded and intolerant and thus, from the perspective of mask denialism it might be implied, a hopeless case, acceptable sacrifice to achievement of herd immunity. (Not that this implication would necessarily even occur to our young (forty-ish) friend, I hasten to add)
Unbeknownst to my friend – and this, I feel, is the basis for the inexplicable chasm between our understandings – his position rests upon the Cartesian-originated liberal void in relation to “believing” thought. That, is the lost capacity to believe in the contemplative and literate traditions, from Classical Greece onward, that we collectively inherit in liberal society. The culture of learning we once honored held out against western society’s total descent into heartless barbarism. With deconstruction having dealt a perhaps fatal blow to the authority long placed in it, the legacy from “dead white men” is ever suspect. Consequently, with the loss of traditions of idealism, philosophical thought, or just plain thought and study, we can defend nothing, every idea is just as good (or as fake) as another, including mask denialism, election denialism, holocaust denial, Sandy Hook denial, climate change denial, evolution denial, on and on.
Contrary to popular wisdom, “elite education” is not at fault for the rise of Trumpian nihilistic ignorance in America. Fault lies in the fact the liberal arts tradition cannot be taken seriously enough by those who benefit from having had it. Relativizing the value of its own tradition, liberalism has wiped out any chance we had of defending unpopular-but-necessary truth against skepticism and mob rule. Most of us growing up post-WWII had to accept the unwanted truth of the Holocaust, despite having to rely upon the witness of others, and were incredulous when we learned of Holocaust denial. But today, upon what basis can people learn things that upset preferred reality? For an answer to this question, I hold up moral philosopher Cornel West’s description of education as “paideia” as the Greeks called it, a process of continually questioning what one currently takes as indisputable fact – one’s dogma. And not for the purpose of saying “You lied to me!” “It’s all a fake!” but for opening one to a higher, more unitive and inclusive truth.
And who, among “educated” Americans, practices this anymore? Even the academicians who are responsible for maintaining the humanities tradition fail to defend its intrinsic, non-negotiable and humanity-defending worth from the priorities of predatory capitalism. It’s nobody’s fault, everyone must have a job. But pretty soon STEM classes are on a par with the liberal arts, and then you’re more than halfway to voting the lesser of two evils, and perilously close to being open to arguments against mask wearing because nothing matters more than another (except the sanctified wheel of progress)!
In his book The Sibling Society (1996), poet and men’s movement leader Robert Bly took this problem of authority in liberal society all the way back to its mythopoetic roots in the fathers. People were not ready to hear, back then, that in a society lacking the authority archetypally embodied in fathers, social relations are left ineluctably horizontal, rife with ceaseless bickering, estrangement, triangulation and mutual suspicion that incapacitate people to work together on behalf of the common good. Here is not just the Cain-and-Abel foundational myth of murderous sibling rivalry, but the slouching-toward-Bethlehem paradigm. The paternal object of sibling rivalry’s been deposed, leaving us not with liberty, equality and fraternity, but the world in which the best lack conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity. (Picture Congress, or America under arch-anti-authoritarian Trump! )
Moreover, in the sibling paradigm, the converse is equally true – those with passionate intensity invariably ally with the worst. Under rationalism’s banishment of the imaginatively real, the heart’s ideal of interdependence and the common good has no power to draw from people the very real sacrifice called for by change. Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, demand no sacrifice. They’re bullish against change. Full of the heady juice of unconscious feelings – the anger, sadness, betrayal felt by so many is not, as they imagine, at some all-powerful “they” – a trilateral commission, a 9/11 conspiracy, a fluoride and vaccine conspiracy, a rigged electoral system, a rigged pandemic (any or all of which have elements of validity) etc. Rather, the strength of feeling, the passionate intensity is linked to something beneath consciousness, from the very seat where myth originates. It issues from the betrayal of the heart occurring at the beginning of every human life in materialist, consumerist, profits-first society which requires the “beheading” of the unyielding, resolute, decisive aspect of the father role that, otherwise, would defend souls in its care against the dehumanizing invasion.
This mass, unacknowledged orphaning leaves a vacuum in which suspicion flourishes. It bequeaths a capacity to put one’s full and “passionately intense” trust only in doubt and skepticism. The common good, that relies upon legitimate moral authority, becomes unimaginable, therefore unlonged-for, therefore unattainable. In Dostoyevsky’s Demons, wherein conflict is focused centrally on that between liberal fathers and their nihilist sons in revolutionary Russia, Stepan Trofimovich is driven to despair by the rejection of his ideals by his son’s generation. Chastising them for being “mistaken about the forms of the beautiful,” he rails, “And if you take it that this was proclaimed by a crushed, insulted father, how then… is it possible to stand in impartiality and tranquility of vision?…why, why do you not want to make peace?”
Though we celebrate the Enlightenment’s having deposed God from His throne and the liberal and feminist toppling of patriarchy, in only partially understanding what our anti-authoritarian fervor has brought down, we’ve given birth to something worse and more beast-like.
The bottom to this “worse” won’t be hit until the problem of authority is brought into consciousness, a pain-laden but rewarding process. Neither the insatiable grudge-holding of anti-authoritarianism, nor the entitled, exceptionalist and gung-ho “goodness” of liberalism, can bring into being the world our hearts long for; in them, divisiveness is not an unfortunate by-product, but constitutive. Only the “third way” of transcendence can overcome the stalemate of siblingism. The unitive (love) potential existing within individuals tells us that no matter how divided the society, nor how potent the hate that’s been unleashed, hate and fascism need not have the final word. But love will be authoritative only for those willing to trust in it all the way and join society’s discards to defend the truth of our own vulnerability, not just theirs.