pirate wires #59 // covid narrative whiplash, the persistent craziness of lockdown forever squad, a little bit of insurrection, and maybe we should go outside
Covid’s last gasp. It never really made sense. Does the virus stop working while I’m drinking on a plane? At a restaurant, am I only at risk on my walk to the bathroom? There’s never been evidence of meaningful spread outdoors, but there’s quite a bit of evidence Vitamin D is an important tool in our fight against illness, so why are the beaches closed? Why am I being told to mask while I jog through the park? Why are any of these rules suspended in the middle of a protest, or a riot, provided the protest or riot is for a good cause? Where’s the evidence our schools should close? Our economy should shutter? And this year, how did the nature of the virus so fundamentally change in just ten days from Joe Biden’s “Merry Christmas, you’re all gonna die” to the blasé post-holiday “there’s honestly nothing we can do, but that’s fine,” and the CDC’s positively papalist editing of a ten-day quarantine to five? Most importantly, why do I feel like an asshole for asking what are basically midwit, obvious questions?
With few exceptions, Covid policy was never about reason. Covid policy was a demonstration of power. It was the North Korean military parade of public health, an elaborate performance that existed chiefly to sooth the concerns of a scared nation with the illusion of competent governance. To challenge the logic of authority was to challenge the existence of authority, which is never a popular thing among authoritarians, and especially not in a time of chaos. But with Virginia exit polls festering in the frightened minds of the Lockdown Forever Squad in Washington, and good news surrounding Omicron too impossible to ignore, it’s starting to seem, to the panicked dismay of neurotics across the country, that pandemic theater is finally close to curtains.
The turn came fast, over the course of just a couple days: from committed Covid histrionics to a righteous plea for reason, as if no such plea had ever existed. Three days after Christmas Biden revealed his new Covid brand direction, in what essentially amounted to the shrug emoji, rejecting the notion there was anything the federal government could or even should attempt to stop the pandemic. It was truly as if the White House’s prior message of doom was delivered only to ruin one, last family gathering before finally admitting the hysteria had gotten out of control, was best-case futile, and was in the case of our nation’s youth probably actually killing people. The partisan swarm activated.
Jennifer Rubin rushed to support the signal change. “As we recognize that Covid-19 is not a deadly or even severe disease for the vast majority of responsible Americans,” she wrote, “we can stop agonizing over ‘cases’ and focus on those who are hospitalized or at risk of dying.” It’s a completely reasonable argument. It’s also an argument sober-minded Americans have been making for over a year, to people like Rubin, only to be told they’re complicit in mass murder. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes characterized Omicron as no worse than the flu. CNN’s Leanna Wen admitted that cloth masks (as opposed to N95s) are basically useless, undermining the legitimacy of probably every mask mandate in the country. Dr. Fauci himself said many of the children tallied in hospital Covid numbers were simply there “with” Covid rather than “for” covid, a critical distinction implying what we already know, but have not until recently been allowed to say: the virus poses little serious danger to healthy children, and a non-trivial number of asymptomatic children are tallied in our hospitalization records under “Covid did it” entirely by accident. Might there be some parallels here among adults as well?
A dangerous question, let’s table it for now.
Despite the obvious concerted effort on the part of politicians and media personalities to quell a mass hysteria they themselves incited, the most interesting aspect of the partisan turnaround is that it hasn’t been universal.
Over the course of two dreadful years, social validation for neurotic Covid behavior has forged the stuff into habit, and that habit has become a part of our culture. This is especially true in American cities, which are overwhelmingly Democratic. I try not to dip too far into obvious partisanship, but clearly Democrats were especially open to the message of Covid neurosis — just as many Republicans, for example, were especially open to vaccine hesitancy — and so in places with high concentrations of Democrats the hysteria appears to have grown into something well beyond political opportunism, which is to say the craziest among us are no longer taking marching orders from Democratic leadership. It’s Game of Thrones’ Cersei Lannister empowering religious fanatics to destroy her enemies, only to be targeted herself by the deranged mob.
Today, almost a year after vaccination, and with a dramatically reduced risk of serious harm from infection, San Francisco is once again masked:
At the time of the announcement the correlation of death and hospitalization with infection rates was totally dwarfed by the correlation we saw from early Covid. We appeared to be safe, or at least much safer. When pressed on the issue, our local leadership simply reiterated the dogmatic fear: infections are increasing, conversation over. This is of course true. Infections are increasing. It also doesn’t matter — can’t possibly matter — in a world where the virus poses a dramatically-reduced risk of harm.
This week, in Chicago, the teachers union shut the schools down, sending over 300,000 students home to avoid a virus with almost no risk of seriously harming children, and roughly the risk of a bad flu for healthy, vaccinated adults. Mayor Lightfoot was irate, a frustration shared by many, and across ideological lines, summed up well in a fantastic piece by David Leonhardt in the New York Times: closing our schools was an unmitigated disaster for our children. Math and reading scores plummeted, behavioral problems spiked, hospital visits for all manner of mental health crises skyrocketed, and, most alarming, the rate of suicide increased — 51% among girls aged 12 to 17.
On the topic of further school closures, Leonhardt concludes with an ethical question: should we choose to protect the lives of adults who refuse to vaccinate at the expense of our children? But in an otherwise important piece this is barely a relevant question. In the case of Chicago specifically, an overwhelming majority of teachers are vaccinated. The decision to close schools isn’t a meaningful measure of protection, it’s just another capitulation to the 1% most neurotic men and women in the country, many of whom simply don’t want to return to the world before Covid.
And here’s the thing: I think I maybe sort of get it.
Last week, Covid hit me harder than I expected, and at an incredibly difficult time, just days now from a summit my team and I have tried to host for over two years. But Wednesday, finally a few days free of symptoms, and with a negative test in hand, it was time to go outside. It was time to open the door, to walk to the elevator, and to see other people. It was time to go back. Bizarrely, I found, I didn’t want to go back.
Two weeks into rituals, from supplement routines to rapid tests, isolated, working through headaches from the moment I woke until the moment I went to bed, I formed a new habit. It wasn’t exactly agoraphobic, but in that moment I kind of understood the stuff. My new habit was a barrier, not impossible to break, but it was real.
Standing in front of the elevator, legitimately working through a thing, I considered the scale of what we’ve been through these past two years. In the process of simply existing in this new environment, with these new rules, we naturally formed new habits. Our new habits shaped new identities. We’re new people, is what I’m saying, and new people not wanting to go “back” to a world that now feels foreign is perfectly understandable. My life before Covid would never fulfill me today. I don’t want to go back either, and I’m not even an actual crazy person.
Speaking of which:
Coup high holy day. This week marks the one-year anniversary of the Capitol riot, a religious day of observance for people committed to the fantasy that Donald Trump was literally a fascist dictator hell bent on destroying the world rather than simply the most successful clown in human history. Predictably, the party in power threw a commemorative day of speeches in honor of saving Democracy. Less predictably, the cast of Hamilton performed (God I wish I was kidding).
Altogether, the commemorative obsession with January 6th served only to illustrate the degree to which the sober facts of our world do not shape culture. Stories shape culture, and people believe the stories that speak to them on some deeper level I think we still don’t fully understand. The QAnon shaman, for example, believed an outlandish story of conspiracy. Donald Trump never explicitly told that story, but he seemed to be aware of it, if only intuitively, and it was certainly something he exploited. This was a dangerous game.
But the belief our country experienced an attempted coup last year on January 6th, and that American Democracy was in any way critically threatened by the Capitol riot, is likewise a wild distortion of reality. Kamala Harris, our Vice President, literally compared what happened last year to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, in which thousands of Americans were killed in the most viscerally horrifying display of my life, and Pearl Harbor, which precipitated the most destructive war in human history. The belief in this equivalency is as untethered from reality as anything the QAnon shaman ever said.
How did we get here?
I spent a lot of time alone in my apartment these last two years. At first, I was forced. But somewhere along the line it’s something I began to choose. It’s something I became. Disconnected from each other, most of us turned to the internet, a distorted looking glass of information. Here, the natural human impulse to seek out stories that correspond with our identity and values is hyper-charged. In this environment, anxiety is amplified, counter-narratives are more easily discarded, and neurosis festers.
This week, steeped in the teachers union drama, I stumbled on a video clip of a parent in Chicago that shook something loose.
“We don’t want to go back,” she said, furious with the union’s decision to abandon their students, “we want to move forward.”
This is the missing piece, I think. In terms of Covid specifically, the world feels stuck because our dominant ideas in conflict are lockdown forever or regression to the way things were, both of which people tend to clock as impossible. Forever Dystopia is untenable for obvious reasons, but picking up where we left off is impossible because we didn’t just blink and wake up in the future. We’re all different. These new habits have changed us, for better and worse, and we need to think of a new way to exist in this new world. Stories like QAnon and the Coup that Wasn’t are attempts to explain reality, and both hint at new potential directions. Obviously, these directions are deranged. We need something better.
For me, the future is a world of reason by necessity. I never really trusted authority, and now it’s clear we can’t. We have to actually look at the world around us, and assess it ourselves. But that’s also not a compelling narrative for the future. I’ve been stumped for a while now on what the exciting thing might be that brings us together, that gets us back to a place where extreme neurosis is reclassified as an unfortunate mental illness rather than a virtue, and that finally jumpstarts our culture. But all I can think about is this crazy party I’m about to host, this festival of forbidden ideas, and the fact that its existence, now, rather than the subject material, has become the controversy.
We’re not supposed to be living anymore, and maybe rejecting that implicit social law is good enough for now — just straight up having a nice time, unapologetically. Exploring. Trying to figure this bigger stuff out together, in person, with the people we love. It’s not a solve yet, but I do think it’s something, and the first step is fortunately not very hard.
We literally just have to go outside.
Link Library // January 7, 2022
Katherine Boyle wrote a characteristically great piece for the new year. It’s time to be serious.
Reason’s Robby Soave tackled the reality of obesity and Covid.
David Leonhardt introduced his piece on Covid policy and children with a thread worth checking out on Twitter:
Finally, Glenn Greenwald wrote an important piece on 1/6 histrionics.