"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, March 21, 2020

The Disastrous Corona Virus Shutdown–The Disassembly Of American Institutions And A Loss Of Faith

The longer the shutdown of America continues, the more fear and anxiety will increase – a legacy of doubt, uncertainty, and concern from which will be difficult to erase. The panic is not so much for fear of catching the Corona virus or even dying from it, but of being left alone on uncharted waters.  In a world where private equity is disappearing, public sector institutions are being dismantled and disassembled with assembly instructions long ago tossed in a dumpster; and where communities are being broken into inchoate parts because of me-first identity politics, there cannot be much hope for ships to be made seaworthy again.

This is what anxious fear is all about – the sense of powerlessness in the face of a disaster which is not of any one person’s making and over which no one has control  The Corona virus is like metastatic cancer, spreading, infecting, destroying everything in its path with no brakes or sea anchors, and no guidelines to point out where its path of destruction will go next.   And in the face of such irrational disorder, one can only act irrationally.  When the moorings which tether ships at port, strong tight lashings woven to last out the worst storms and rising tides, come loose, and ships are pushed out to open waters, hope quickly fades.  There will be no Coast Guard to the rescue, no flotilla of shrimp boats to pick up survivors, no flood tide to bring them back to shore.
A free-floating anxiety, a nameless, frightening, universal feeling of desperation, of certain loss, of never-to-be-recovered well-being.

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R.R. Reno wrote in the journal First Things (3.20.20) about the consequences of long-term shut down of America.  Not only will there be dire economic consequences from which the country will take years to recover, he writes, but social ones as well.

As Warren Buffet says, when the tide goes out, you discover who has been swimming naked. He meant to capture an economic truth. When credit tightens in a down market, the indebted and improvident are exposed. But the quip holds true more broadly. The shutdown puts stress on our economic system, to be sure, but it can damage our political and social systems as well. In the end, the latter are more important.

State-encouraged “self-isolation” and restrictions on public gatherings have paused institutional life. There are no Boy Scout meetings, no Little League practices, no Rotary Club or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Most book clubs are suspending their evening discussions, even though these small gatherings are permitted. Closed restaurants dissolve informal coffee klatches. Some institutions, organizations, and fellowships will rebound when the draconian limits on social life are lifted. But some will not. And the longer those limits last, the more will wither and fade away

I worry that this will not be the case in 2020. Imbued with the illusion that, if we but muster our collective will, we can master nature and tame death—an illusion Pope Francis warned against in Laudato Si’—we risk going mad. We are being seduced into adopting methods of “total war” to fight COVID-19. I fear that, if we continue down this path, our wartime mentality of mass mobilization will have untold consequences, many that we will deeply regret.

The response to Corona has shown just how far we have come from the days of Jefferson and Hamilton, the Enlightenment, and St Paul.  Christ’s promise to free us from our bondage to death was profound even if the underlying sentiment of salvation and redemption is not considered.  In earlier days when life was short and death sudden, both were looked at very differently from today. On the one hand, courage, bravery, and honor and death in battle were far better than dying from an infected foot.  A short life expectancy made fear unnecessary and remote.  On the other, as Sartre wrote, only doing good in a short, meaningless world, validated human existence.  Man must “always choose the good and nothing can be good for any of us unless it is good for all.”  The burden of such responsibility, Sartre admitted, would not be easy, but it was the only human activity of any worth.  Death was not the horrible finality that it seemed, only an end to either a morally fulfilled or unfulfilled life.

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Young Americans surprisingly are capitulating to the exaggerated demands of government and are willingly self-isolating as the right thing to do even though infection is unlikely and convalescence relatively sure.  Meanwhile such isolation is causing untold hardships to fellow workers, businesses, and industry – the engines of the economy and the sine qua non of social stability and prosperity.  Is not the greater good an American principle? Are not sickness and death part of the equation of doing such good? Is our moral contract with others so limited in scope?

Fatalism and acceptance are two very different philosophical constructs.  Fatalism implies a moral demurral while acceptance implies that individual enterprise must necessarily exist within a moral, social, and spiritual context.  Our fate might be determined, but our actions between birth and death must be accounted for – either to ourselves, others, or to God.

The right, moral, socially ethical, right decision concerning Corona would have been just this – for young people to go about their business unafraid of death; and for older people who are near death, to make one final gesture of doing what is good and right.

There is a moral equation to every important decision.  Despite loud arguments to the contrary, there are indeed such things as fundamental, universal moral principles; and they can never be set aside.  There is a philosophical and spiritual dimension to birth, life, and death and it cannot be dismissed or ignored. Secularism – the belief in a wholly human-engineered progress and a better world – is corrosive and disruptive.  Secularism confers unreasonable and indefensible authority to the State and to the marketplace.  It assumes that dying and death are matters only of morbidity and mortality; that birth is only reproduction; and that suffering – far from its importance to Christian theology – is unnecessary, diverting, and totally removable.

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In an earlier article in First Things, R.R. Reno reflected on this descent into secularism and a loss of faith. The response to the epidemic as Reno noted, is due in large part to a severely imbalance between faith and secularism.  In the early days of the Republic, individual enterprise was encouraged, but as part of a larger cosmic order. The Pursuit of Happiness, Jefferson reminded new Americans, was not a matter of selfish pursuit, but one rooted in community and faith.  Individualism was key to the economic development of the new nation, but not at the expense of others.  Only if communities prospered and were built on mutual respect, and on moral and religious principles could the vision of a grand America be realized.

Yet these very communitarian and religious principles seem to have been lost.  A sense of moral responsibility to others has been superseded by secular authority.  We could easily survive the Corona virus if older people accepted the responsibility to self-quarantine and to take all measures to protect themselves and those around them from the disease; and if younger people accepted the risk of illness and refused to live in fear.

In his current article R. R. Reno goes on

Society is a living organism, not a machine that can be stopped and started at our convenience. A person who is hospitalized and must lie in bed loses function rapidly, which is why nurses push patients to get up and walk as soon as possible after sicknesses and operations. The same holds true for societies. If the shutdown continues for too long, we will lose social function.

Undoubtedly “shelter in place” will slow the spread of disease, but at what cost to the body politic? Beware public health officials who advise burning the village in order to get rid of the pestilence.

And beware those who pronounce that we should save lives “at any cost.” That’s a dangerous falsehood, one that leads to barbarism and slavery. There are many things more important than physical survival—love, honor, beauty, and faith. Anyone who believes that our earthly existence is worth preserving “at any cost” will accept slavery. As St. Paul teaches, he is already a slave, spiritually speaking.

It is important if not necessary for all Americans to reconsider their obedience to what have become authoritarian, doctrinaire policies regarding Corona.  As Reno and many others have pointed out, draconian measures such as the ones put in place may indeed slow the virus, but at what cost?  The economic consequences alone are enough to give one pause. The Wall Street Journal editorial (3.20.20), notes Reno, “warns of the economic consequences of a prolonged lockdown. We could be heading toward a drastic decline in GDP. This will dislocate the lives of tens of millions and exact human costs, not just economic ones. Already, federal officials are gearing up to spend one trillion dollars. Central banks have committed nearly two trillion dollars to stabilize markets. These extraordinary measures indicate how perilous the situation has become.”

If Reno is only partially correct in his observation about the dislocation of American society, the disappearance of institutions, and the chaotic loss of community, the country is in for serious, lasting systemic, social, and philosophical consequences.

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