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Breaking the Fever
Getting to the heart of what's wrong with a certain strain of conservative pandemic commentary
Last Wednesday, I published a piece in The Week where I tried to get to the heart of what exactly it is I’ve found unsettling about some of the pandemic commentary from a certain corner of the political right. I’m not talking about the conspiracy theory stuff or the off-the-wall nonsense, but rather some of the opinions coming from a certain corner of the intellectual and religious (in this case, mostly Catholic) right.
What got me started on this piece was an article in The American Conservative, headlined “Long Live the Common Cold,” that I quoted in The Week, and will quote here again. The author is a talented and respected right-leaning writer, not a kook. It’s an amusing piece, if you assume it is meant somewhat tongue-in-cheek, which it might be. But something about it helped me to get to the heart of what, exactly, I have found so distressing about a certain strain of conservative pandemic commentary. Here’s the TAC piece:
Do we really want to live in a world in which ordinary, run-of-the-mill cold viruses are forever extinguished? Setting aside the fact that the present cold and flu season — which has persisted in spite of mass masking and social distancing among the public — proves the unfeasibility of such a prospect, it seems obvious that most of us would miss the annual rite of passage that is catching a cold….
If colds disappeared, we would lose one of life's most valuable little trials. Coming down with a cold is invigoratingly unpleasant: the sandpapery throat, the overfull nostrils, the dulling of taste (this is spoken of as if it’s a coronavirus-specific symptom, but it's been a feature of every cold I’ve ever had). Yet it is good that we should suffer so. The experience not only gives the immune system a welcome workout but the soul a necessary lesson in endurance: We are reminded that life will never be entirely free of discomfort.
Those who wear masks and jitterbug in the bread aisle to avoid other humans think they have found a kind of elixir, a way to avoid even the slightest bit of discomfort.
And one last bit:
Before the coronavirus changed the way we thought about communicable illnesses, family members who came down with a runny nose, sore throat, or similar symptoms typically were treated with warm deference. Adults were given license to stay home from work and remain in bed all day—not out of medical necessity but because, the thinking went, their sickness gave them the “right” to slack off. Children, of course, were allowed to stay home from school. Chicken soup was generously ladled into bowls. Kleenex boxes were stockpiled. Motherly pleas to “take it easy” were made. The television set was switched on, even during hours of the day when the TV might not usually be watched. How many of us saw our first daytime talk show or soap opera while sniffling? These are habits worth preserving—call it the culture of the common cold.
In the six years of my professional life, I am not sure whether I have ever truly taken a sick day. As long as you’re conscious, you’re working. You might be in bed, but it’s with your laptop and phone logged into work email. And since when did a little cold give anybody the “right” to slack off? The more common conservative opinion I have always heard is that you should never miss work!
That we might take the spreading of potentially severe illnesses like the flu more seriously following this pandemic is a good thing. It is solidarity; it is considerateness. Some have viewed it as cowardly to try to avoid illness; I see it as complacent to court it. As an adult with a home to take care of, dinner to cook every night, a job, a wife, and one day children, a cold or flu that knocks you out for a week has serious, real-life consequences. And my professional situation is more secure and more flexible than that of many others.
Given the apparent harshness of what I’m about to write, I want to note that my own personal manner of dealing with COVID has been, I think, pretty normal. In early 2020, I got hold of some N95 masks—the ones that really do something—when it was still possible to do so. I counted how many days of food were in our home, back when the worst-case scenario was a severe but brief interruption of supply chains. I avoided unnecessary shopping and crowded indoor spaces. I supported the lockdowns in March 2020—neighboring Republican governor Larry Hogan was the first to enact them in our region. I never stopped taking walks, and never wore a mask outdoors. We visited my parents several times including for Christmas and Thanksgiving, but only after reducing potential exposures to COVID for 1-2 weeks.
My wife and I went to a distillery and a buffet on our first day of being “fully vaccinated.” Then we got triple-vaxxed. I still wear a mask if most people are—I see no point in provoking people whose risk assessment is different than mine, and who may be especially vulnerable, or have relatives who are. But I’m happy to take off the mask, just as I was happy to put it on when there was a point to it.
This last weekend, my wife and I took a long weekend in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and we found it refreshing to see lines and crowds at the Pennsylvania Dutch smorgasbord restaurants, lots of people out contradicting the idea that we will never return to normal. Others have handled this differently, but our own way of navigating it all has not been unusually strict or “fearful.”
And now to my broader point. Ever since spring of 2020, in pieces like the one quoted above and in many others, I’ve noticed a tendency to turn the very real and pressing situation we were facing into a very abstract thought experiment, divorced from the real questions, trade-offs, situations, and incentives that individual human beings faced and face every day.
There are any number of reasons for this—pandemic fatigue, politics, reaction to the extremities of the other side, wanting to say something more sophisticated than “I don’t care about COVID.” Probably other reasons too, not all of them bad ones.
Now this is also not my first time commenting on the pandemic. For example, back in June of 2021, I wrote about the interesting phenomenon that we were calling “reentry anxiety.” I wrote a two-part piece for The Bulwark (part 1 and part 2) on what my editor and I dubbed “the great unsettledness,” or the sense that lots of things were not quite right, a little out of whack. I wrote about how the pandemic could be exciting, in a certain way, and about the weirdness of seeing the hot bars at Whole Foods shut off and stacked with bags of produce, or seeing emergency hand sanitizer packaged in motor oil containers.
All throughout, I’ve tried to work through what this really weird, unprecedented couple of years has felt like for me and others, with as little abstraction and politicking as possible.
This piece is more or less the piece I’ve wanted to write for two years, but have not quite had the words for. Now I do, and here you go.
I should note that there are other conservatives whose overall pandemic commentary has been nuanced and reasonable: Tim Carney, Michael Brendan Dougherty, and Rod Dreher come to mind.
Rod Dreher early on wrote something that has stuck with me: contra the conservatives then arguing for a quick reopening of the economy, Dreher accepted the severity of the situation in 2020 and compared it to Lent: a period of deprivation that could teach us to be humble and do with less. I like that, and I think it’s a spiritual response that is clear-eyed rather than muddled.
Many others, however, seem to have allowed themselves to make their view of the pandemic merely the negation of whatever they think the left is thinking, or they’ve turned it all into an abstract, head-in-the-clouds thought experiment.
This may have started with “Church as a Non-Essential Service,” a March 2020 column by First Things senior editor Matthew Schmitz. Now, this is the same right-wing Catholic journal that in 2003 impugned the character and faith of writer Damon Linker—then its own employee—because he helped his wife take care of their new child. In that same year, as it happens, First Things was cheering the war in Iraq and arguing that we did not have to listen to the Pope’s pleas for peace.
Nonetheless, that magazine has been one of a handful of publications to set the tone on the pandemic.
Schmitz wrote, at a time when lockdowns had barely even been enacted:
Judging by the response of many religious leaders, church is a non-essential service. We are capable of taking prudent measures to keep our supermarkets open, but not our sanctuaries.
Coronavirus has shown what we value. In Pennsylvania, beer distrubutors [sic] are deemed essential. In San Francisco and New York, cannabis dispensaries are. The rules vary by jurisdiction, but they all aim at one overriding goal: the preservation of physical health.
Important as health is, things begin to look strange when it is valued above all else.
His actual point—reasonable enough—was that if stores, supermarkets, and other businesses or institutions could be left operating under certain restrictions, churches could be too. This was and is true, although the idea of limiting seats at Mass or entering parishioners into a lottery would seem to fit oddly with the ethos of communal worship: Look at me, I got the lucky ticket, now I get to receive Christ in the Eucharist while you have to watch Mass on TV!” Salvation may be individual, but it is not a competition. Rod Dreher, again, argued in this period that dispensations from attending church and even church closures were acceptable, in part because they took the weight and the guilt off of every individual parishioner.
In other words, maybe it was not necessary or advisable to make every churchgoing person craft their own public health policy.
But, back to Schmitz, my issue is not with his plain and reasonable argument that churches could find a way to hold services while minimizing risk, and that they should have been allowed to do so. It isn’t with the idea that some things are more important than full physical health all the time. My issue, rather, is with the turgid, heavy, obscurantist tone, veiled in the appearance of metaphysical and philosophical inquiry. And relatedly, with its quiet, and sometimes not so quiet, rejection of pluralism and classical liberalism. If public health were tasked with balancing spiritual health with physical health, well, you can imagine how that might go.
If this sounds a bit harsh, I’m referring not just to this particular article, but to the whole genre of commentary that has adopted this tone and style over the last two years. Unfortunately, I have read more of these kinds of pieces than I can count or remember. But here is one more.
R.R. “Rusty” Reno, editor of First Things, similarly wrote in March of 2020:
Cancelling church services is the wrong response to the coronavirus pandemic.
When we worship, we join the Christian rebellion against the false lordship of the principalities and powers that claim to rule our lives, including sickness and death. This does not mean carelessness about our health, nor does it mean indifference to the health of others. Instead, it means that as Christians we have higher priorities. Our end is in God.
One wonders whether any of this means anything. Do the writers at First Things, and other conservative writers expressing similar sentiments, really feel that real people, with their complex webs of relationships and duties to fulfill and negotiate—parents, jobs, children, spouses, keeping the home in order, etc.—must be willing to catch COVID for God? Has not taking measures to avoid a rapidly spreading infectious disease ever been a pillar of Christianity?
More likely, these writers did not, despite a few words on the seriousness of the pandemic, truly believe that there was any real risk at all. They were not willing to die; they just did not believe that they would. If the lions in the colosseum had been animatronic, there would have been many more willing to risk martyrdom, but it would have meant nothing. But a simple admission that one was not personally afraid of the coronavirus would not fulfill the need to produce content, nor would it kindle the culture wars.
Ever since March of 2020 there has been this odd contrast between those who have acknowledged the risk but cautioned us that only morally weak people seek to reduce it, and those who have dismissed the idea that the pandemic raised any real risk at all. But their end is the same.
Earlier I called this kind of language “abstract.” Maybe an even better word would be “bloodless.” It reminds me a little bit of a quote by the late Justice Anthony Kennedy: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
What would you assume he was referring to, if you had or have no idea of the context of this quote?
He was talking about abortion. And whatever you think about abortion, that’s a rather high-minded way of putting the question. I detect this same bloodless abstraction among the right’s COVID minimizers—ironically, many of whom are loudly pro-life—when I hear talk about risk or spiritual health or the flourishing of the human person. Cries of safetyism and tut-tuts about how life can’t always be safe or warnings that Americans have “embraced fear over fact.” When I hear questions like “what is really the meaning of ‘essential?’”, or when I see masks cast as symbols of the secularist’s fear of death or a worship of physical health. Etc., etc., etc.
These are all laborious, circuitous ways of avoiding the actual questions at hand, questions which are very specific and particular, and which in many cases—almost a million cases, as of this writing—have come down to life and death. They are examples of language crafted not to elucidate but to conceal, not to focus but to distract, and not to sharpen but to blur. It is the sort of writing one produces if he mistakes George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” for a style guide.
What do all of these weighty words mean for a working-class single mother taking care of an elderly relative? For families struggling to balance childcare with jobs that do not permit working from home? For people whose spouses have very different risk assessments than their own, or whose children are immunocompromised? What does it say for all of the thousands of deeply specific, embodied choices that actual people had to make through two years of disruption, uncertainty, and death? Absolutely nothing.
I’d like to dig a little deeper into the discourse of “safetyism.” This is the description that some conservative pundits have given to the risk-averse approach of the public health agencies throughout the pandemic, and also to those individuals who took a “better safe than sorry” approach to COVID, even when there were no vaccines and no terribly effective therapeutics.
It has been popular to characterize this risk aversion as arising either from weak character or from leftist ideology. But it is very likely that this risk aversion is not evidence of anything radical or leftist—and most likely it is not political or ideological at all.
Really, it is basic institutional, temperamental conservatism. The bureaucrats and PR flacks at the CDC—many of whom, like me, are young people not that long out of policy school—are not tasked, nor should they be, with working through the metaphysics of illness and suffering, or of probing the Platonic meaning of “essential.”
At most, they should be doing things like weighing the social and economic—and yes, health—costs of a lockdown against the same costs of a viral wave. They are mostly tasked with promoting a narrow, risk-averse, and really rather boring idea of physical health. It’s why they tell you to cook steaks till they’re shoe leather and tell women who aren’t on birth control not to drink. It’s why nursing homes serve food that’s cooked until it’s practically porridge. This is the boring, lawsuit-minded risk aversion of the insurance company, not the radical transhumanist secularism of the left.
As it happens, “safetyism” is a neologism drawn from The Coddling of the American Mind, a 2018 book on university and campus culture by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. They coined it to refer to the whole set of left-wing ideas like safe spaces, words as violence, and other things that consumed a lot of the discourse about liberal college students and universities throughout the 2010s. In other words, they were critiquing the amorphous extension of the idea of physical safety into the realm of things not physical: debate, disagreement, emotional contentment.
But they did not mean that physical safety was itself suspect or problematic. While conservatives bemoan the creep of boutique campus nuttiness into the mainstream of American life, here is an example where they have done something like it themselves.
And in any case, nobody is really against “safetyism,” and nobody can really explain what it actually means in real life, on the ground. It is likely, for example, that many of the people who see COVID caution as safetyism also avoid many urban neighborhoods, or public transit, out of fear of crime—neighborhoods that many others love or at least find safe enough.
This is why it is meaningless to talk about the necessity of risk or little trials for the soul or tools like masks as symbols of this or that ideology. When the rubber meets the road, everybody is a “safetyist” for the things that scare them. Risk assessment and comfort level with risk is a deeply and indelibly personal and specific matter. “Safetyism” is a muddled abstraction that muscles out real discussion about particular risks and benefits.
In closing, it is just very odd and disheartening to see so much right-leaning commentary on the pandemic devolve into this. There’s an old quip that the communists loved Man but despised men. This small but loud and hypocritical gaggle of conservatives love Life, but despise lives. They love The Family, but despise families. They love Babies and the Elderly—“life from conception to natural death”—but have evinced little concern for their real, flesh-and-blood incarnations. And worse, they seem to view this indifference as evidence of their superior faith.
And I write all of this as a Catholic, who in turn despises this brand of commentary not because it embodies the spirit of Christianity, but because it steals the language and symbolism of the faith in the service of disdain for flesh-and-blood human beings. It turns a communal faith into a zero-sum battle. It turns the flesh and blood of Christ into a cookie and the communicant into a petulant toddler—“give me my Eucharist, I want it now!” It warps a faith of real-world, embodied tradition into a turgid, pomous ideology alien to the spirit of the Gospel.
Maybe it’s all fitting, if you consider that, as noted above, most of these commentators don’t really see the pandemic as a problem at all. That is their right. But if they had simply said so plainly all along, they’d have saved themselves a lot of words, and spared the country a great deal of unnecessary division and culture-war bitterness at a moment when we should have been seeking solidarity.
I don’t know where all of this came from—but I do know what it should do, and where it should go.
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