This is not an easy time for either optimism or humanism when considering the depths of depravity to which human nature can plunge (with a thought of Calvin’s complete pessimism and that of Jansenism). I came across a very interesting article about the current situation by Dr John C. Rao, a conservative Catholic intellectual.
Since the 11th May when the French government partially lifted the lockdown, I have been struck by the contradictions and culpable ignorance about this virus. I recently read a New York Times article that contrasted the humility of scientists specialised in viruses and epidemics and non-scientists (politicians) who seemed to know everything. Indeed, viruses are mysterious things, coming somewhere between brute matter and conscious life. I will take care not to assume certitudes that I cannot attain through not having scientific knowledge or trying to force reality into the mould of wishful thinking.
From the beginning of the epidemic in Europe in February, when it was all happening in Italy but not yet in France, I started to become jittery and moderately hoarded a few non-perishable foodstuffs and hygiene products. I got 4 FFP2 masks, the ones that protect the wearer (to some extent), alcohol hand sanitiser and latex gloves. One should make an effort to take precautions in the face of a very real disease that was killing large numbers of Italians, many more than seasonal flu. All in all, viruses follow a known pattern. Some are less contagious but are very deadly, like Ebola – the stuff of horror films. Others go from person to person like the common cold or the flu. My wife and I bought some things from the Fnac in Rouen, and were coughed at by the person who took our payment at the till. It was a severe cold, bronchitis and laryngitis that lingered on until January. It is that easy!
In history, there have been many epidemics of diseases that man understood even less than now, the plague, cholera, smallpox, tuberculosis, AIDS, the list is endless. Most of those diseases still circulate in Africa, Asia and South America. The terror is a destroyer of civilisation, down to the family home and children confined to their home and deprived of education and outdoor life. I have tried to come to some philosophical understanding of the virus, but I am likely to be even more in the dark than the most advanced scientific specialist. They represent the ultimate in negative “waves”, terror and depravity. AIDS was no exception with its mode of transmission via sexual relations and blood, two taboos of our civilisation. SARS-CoV-2 is a social destroyer. We have to look at other people, not as potential friends and new social experiences, but as potential sources of infection. I joked the other day in the supermarket about drawing a smile on my mask! Perhaps we can “smile” with the eyes, but we all become stereotypically autistic in that we no longer have non-verbal language. No wonder that so many people are not wearing masks!
It is now transpiring that those who should have known better have overreacted. They panicked and threw their countries into lockdown, from the metropolitan cities to the remotest village at the tip of Brittany. During the two months of lockdown, during which I actually obeyed the rules with intention of respecting the “social contract” and the common good, it was all so surrealistic. The appearance of the world was normal. I did not once encounter a person with a hacking cough, let alone the people dying in hospitals and retirement homes. A virus is invisible and can only be seen with an electron microscope. Are they there or not? Are they like demons? Invisible but virulent? Seeking whom he may devour? The invisible enemy stimulates the imagination, that same imagination that can create as well as destroy. At the time of the plague, people saw the sick die and the terror was real. Now, it only happens on the internet and the news feeds, or on TV for those who still watch it.
Over the past couple of months, we have been subjected to lies and quackery. Surely, doctors know what masks can do and not do. They have been used for more than a century by surgeons to protect the patient from being infected by bacteria in their breath, and during epidemics. They were used during the Spanish Flu a hundred years ago. So, when questions are asked whether they protect the wearer or the person face-to-face with the wearer, blood begins to boil. Sometimes, I have the impression of knowing more than doctors, just by using logic! Politics got into it, and politicians are reputed everywhere for playing fast and loose with truth. The prime example is Dr Neil Ferguson of Imperial College who got his statistic models all wrong, recommended debilitating lockdowns everywhere, and then had hanky-panky with his married girlfriend and thus broke his own rules. Hypocrisy is a very ugly sin!
As with climate science and questions of global warming, I am not a denier but a sceptic. Scepticism means the reserving of judgement until I have knowledge from evidence that gives me a degree of certitude. Even then, not every science is perfect in giving infallibly repeatable results from the same experiments. There is always an element of doubt. I am very afraid of people with excessive certitude, because what they often believe is wrong or based on ideology.
We have had a little bit of a taste of Orwell’s 1984. All sorts of rules came in, and the police were fining people for going for an innocent walk in the countryside, often using drones to keep a watch. We even developed a kind of Stockholm Syndrome in regard to the Big Brother watching us. It all seemed to be a childish game, except it was ruining our livelihood (I haven’t had a single translating order since 16th March). Have we been living in a science fiction film, some kind of Matrix? I haven’t because I have learned in my life to be free even if outwardly confined – my six months in a monastery, seminary, marriage, so many alternative truths and realities that twist and manipulate consciousness of reality and truth. German Idealism has been a great help to me…
I am not an “anti-vaxxer”. I received most vaccinations current in the 1960’s and 70’s. I had a tetanus booster a few years ago when I trod on a rusty nail. I have never had a flu vaccination. I last had a mild flu in January 2011, and quite a severe one in Paris in the mid 1980’s. I dare say I will have to consider it as I get older. Vaccines have protected me against polio, smallpox (now eradicated), tuberculosis and many other child-killers. I caught measles and was ill from it and recovered, so the disease vaccinated me. However, they have their limits. The present frenzy to come up with a Covid 19 vaccine will take so long that it will be moot in a year’s time. How futile and how academic!
This experience has showed the very real danger of acquiescing with totalitarianism and agreeing to surrender all our freedoms, including our innocent pleasures and pastimes. How would we relive a revolution like 1789 or 1917, or the Nazi Occupation of 1940 that blackened France for four years? Viruses can be human too, and very anti-humanist! I have refused to join the drumbeat about churches being closed. The pandemic in France was largely caused by gatherings of large numbers of people in an Evangelical mega-church, American style, in Mulhouse in the east of France. The bishops went along with the closure, and groups of clergy and laity attributed it all to singling out the Church for persecution. Then, some came up with clever methods for distributing Communion, effectively cheapening the Sacraments. What is the point of it all? Politics or spirituality. In the case of the latter, we can manage without churches, liturgical services and Sacraments for a while as happened during the Plague. There have been excesses from both sides, from the overreacting State and those claiming that the entire crisis was a conspiracy to bring about the Orwellian dystopia.
Dr Rao has a point when he sees the meltdown of human civilisation since the end of World War II and the collapse of Communism in 1989-1991. I too am very concerned about slogans and expressions like “New Normal”, “post-modernity” and even “post-humanism”. He takes a very typical conservative Christian attitude towards the Enlightenment, blaming it for all these dangers and “human viruses”. As someone of a Romantic world-view, the Enlightenment was necessary as was the Renaissance. Science and reason needed, not to be abolished in the name of Christian totalitarianism, but to be re-humanised by restoring the imagination to its dignity as a reasoning and creative principle. This is my big difference, as an Idealist, with the adepts of Christ the King.
There are big problems. I had an intuition from the beginning of the pandemic that the virus itself was an expression of “political correctness”, perhaps even an instrument of genocide that absolved humanity from all moral responsibility. Perhaps it was even following Greta Thunberg’s campaign against climate change by bringing down a leaden cloak against all human pleasures – real pulpit-thumping stuff. These were fleeting ideas in my mind that I reasoned into something a little more coherent. There was an element of a viral disease – and an element of human quackery and political ideology, even of crime and delinquency in governments. A conspiracy to some extent without the wild imagination of the likes of David Icke and his shape-shifting alien reptiles!
What will be the “new normal”? Like many other careful people, I wear a mask to the supermarket, keep six feet away from people and abstain from shaking hands or la bise even with people I know well. Some others do the same thing, and most don’t bother with either a mask or the low risk of catching the virus from the next person in the food shelves. Eventually, more people will drop it. There may be a second wave like the Spanish Flu, or a damp squib. None of us is certain. We seem to be dealing with a force above humanity but inferior to God, some kind of nether-region. What is a “safe” life? We still have cancer, heart attacks and car accidents. We are all mortal – Alles Menschen müssen sterben. Flu kills about 0.01% of those who catch it, and SARS-CoV-2 kills about ten times that. There are other diseases that kill a higher proportion of those who catch it. Where is the line drawn between acceptable and unacceptable risk? For modern bureaucracy and Cartesian rationalism, no risk is acceptable. Is life itself acceptable?
Many people are afraid to return to “normal” life. Trains and buses stuffed to the gills with commuters with all the windows shut! Crowded places of work with the same old corporate totalitarianism. I am lucky, because home is not my “new normal” but my normal. I go out, but don’t commute to work. I live in the country. I think I would be as afraid of crowds and thousands of anonymous human beings in urban spaces. The “flattening of the curve” and the reduction of numbers of new infections is bringing the risk to an “acceptable” level like that of the flu in winter. The “Swedish Model” is quietly being ushered in to replace the excesses of the lockdowns (the risk of infection in a Breton fishing village being somewhat less than in the Paris Metro).
There is an interesting article, Sunetra Gupta: Covid-19 is on the way out. I can’t say whether I agree or disagree with these ideas. Dr Gupta is Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology at the University of Oxford, so knows a bit more about it than I do, and the diametrical opposite from the now-discredited Dr Ferguson of Imperial College. We either stand at the doorway of the monstrous second wave, or it’s nearly over. I hope and pray the latter. Read the article with an open mind and compare it with other scientific ideas.
Dr Rao has some good things to say, but is quite simplistic. I see both sides between the notion that everything that happens can be blamed on human civil liability, and the wild conspiracy theory. This experience must serve as a lesson for us all who live in neither normality nor “post-normality” or “post-anything”.
I return to that wonderful little book I have by Rob Riemen, the Dutch thinker, To Fight Against This Age. He calls the ideologies of our time a form of Fascism, and I sympathise with his thought. Fascism is a form of Socialism, collectivism over the individual person. It incites resentment, anger and fear, a need for scapegoats and hatred of personal thought and spiritual life. Other than Christian authors, we need to learn from philosophers like Thomas Mann and Albert Camus with their experience of totalitarianism in the 1930’s and 40’s. The solution to the virus, our quacks and lying politicians, our lockdowns and “new normals” is a return to Christ and to European humanism with its universal values of truth, beauty, justice, and love for life―values underpinning any democratic civilization.
Nobility of Spirit…