One of the few positive things about terrible events is the way in which they reveal our priorities, not just as societies but as individuals. We might live our lives in the twenty-first century imagining ourselves to be reasonable, rational beings, but then something elemental is thrown at us — a natural disaster, a virus, a plague — and we have a chance to remember what we actually want and what we actually are. These disasters reveal the atavistic faultlines that run through us all, for good and ill.
Consider those people who have found occasion in recent days to start bulk-buying particular products. A certain amount of hand sanitiser might make sense, but what is one to make of the footage of stores in major cities across the West where a new delivery of toilet rolls arrives and is greeted as a celebrity might have been treated only weeks before.
The crowd gathers, soon people begin to jostle and eventually push each other around in order to get a vast multi-pack of loo rolls. Why do certain items become especially essential? Primarily because others begin to deem them so, and once they do we worry we might be missing a trick and want anything other than to be left behind. So we join the stampede just in case.
In recent days, as the Italian public have found themselves in lockdown, unable to leave their houses other than to go to the supermarket or pharmacy, a number of people have started to reach back in time to make sense of this. Alessandro Manzoni’s 1827 novel The Betrothed seems to be having a resurgence of a kind, as people turn to the chapters on the Italian plague of 1629-1631 to see what might await. In France, sales of Camus’s La Peste have likewise soared. Perhaps inevitably it transpires that in the modern world some people behave just as they always did.
America has given us one of the most prototypical examples. Some readers will remember the evangelical televangelist and huckster Jim Bakker, who ran a television programme hosted by his then-wife Tammy Faye, and turned out to be a poster boy for that type of moral preaching in which the preacher turns out not to be capable of living up to himself.
On top of this he was also found guilty in court of defrauding viewers of millions of dollars. Perhaps at a time like this we should expect such frauds and chancers to slime back out of the woodwork, but even so the re-emergence of Bakker is something to behold. The man of God is back in trouble with the state of Missouri after flogging a product to viewers, which he claimed was exclusively available through him and the only known cure for coronavirus.
The product in question turned out to be a liquid with silver in it, silver allegedly having a special anti-corona component which only he was aware of. Could anyone have imagined a better prototype of a fraudster at this moment, than a religious conman caught selling potions with precious metals in them as a cure for disease? Geoffrey Chaucer knew this type, as old as religion itself.
But perhaps the most interesting aspect of our current crisis is the way in which the presumptions of the age suffer a battering, or at least are shown to need some degree of reassessment when faced with reality. In no area has this become clearer than in the misguided way in which our age understands the nature of bigotry.
From the beginning of this tragedy various right-wing politicians in Italy and France had argued that their country’s borders should be closed. They were not the only ones, but it was striking that in these states, as others, the politicians who urged this were immediately shouted down, called the worst names you can be called in this era, including — of course — ‘racist’ and ‘bigot’. Such proposals are deemed unpleasant, and indeed they do feel unpleasant — but then necessity strikes and something else happens. Something more important than following the customs of the age reasserts itself. Reality hits.
What was alleged to be racist a few weeks ago has now become government policy in Italy, with the borders shut and the whole nation in a quarantine. What does this mean, when something can move from anathema to official policy in only a few weeks or days? Perhaps that we have a degree of reassessment.
One of which is the way we treat language. Over recent decades the word ‘prejudice’, like the word ‘judgement’, has had an almost exclusively negative connotation in the West. If somebody expresses a prejudice it is something of which they must necessarily be ashamed. Just as if somebody is guilty of judgementalism that person is almost certainly being described negatively rather than positively.
And yet both words are — or should be — morally neutral. A judgement may be good or it may be bad, but it is not wrong in and of itself. Likewise one may have a prejudice which is correct or a prejudice which is incorrect, one that is lovely or unlovely, justified or unjustified — but it is not wrong in and of itself to express or hold such a thing.
In Europe and America in recent weeks there have been reports of many things that might be described in our age as prejudiced. The most rare, and unacceptable, have been cases of violence against Chinese-looking people. More commonly, at the lesser end, are reports of people moving away in a train carriage when they see a Chinese-looking person sneeze nearby. Then there are the reports of the Chinatown areas of various cities — including New York — being effectively deserted long before people choose to stay away from other public areas.
A number of the age’s leading clerics have issued fatwas against every variety of this behaviour, including the least assertive. The crusading American Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez released a video on Wednesday where she condemned people who were staying away from Chinese restaurants.
She declared that such restaurants “are feeling the pain of racism”. According to the Congresswoman, “People are literally not patroning [sic] Chinese restaurants. They’re not patroning Asian restaurants because of just straight-up racism around the coronavirus.”
Elsewhere in America there have been racism rows breaking out about whether politicians ought to refer to the fact that Corona virus started in China. Politicians who have called it a “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan flu” have been “called out” for this alleged bigotry. Likewise we’ve been lectured to on how the biggest danger that threatens us with regards to coronavirus is “prejudice” — rather than the actual, fatal illness.
This is one of the clearest examples of the delusion of our age, a delusion that remains right up until the point that necessity asserts itself.
Because of course if a particular virus originates from China it is not unreasonable for people to wish to stay away from Chinese areas of their cities. It may be a wise judgement call or an unwise one, a cautious one or an over-cautious one. But it is not an example of racism. In the same way it may be a sensible policy solution for the Italian government — and now the American government — to close its borders.
But it is not an expression of prejudice. Preventing people coming into Italy — or, now, Europeans entering America — is simply an attempt by governments across the world to do what they think necessary to protect their populations. To label these judgment calls of governments as bigoted is like discussing whether the judgment calls of some members of the public as racist. It is an attempt to keep the ideal and cause of anti-racism aloft, just as reality exposes how much that custom has been the subject of terminological overstretch to the point of meaningless.
We will likely learn a lot of things in the coming days and weeks — they will include things about human beings which we might have liked to forget. But we may also learn that the presumptions and principles of our modern age are luxuries, which the necessities brought on by a pandemic might force us to re-evaluate.