I moved to California last summer. There is a steep hill near my house, an open preserve where I regularly go for hikes. There are features of the trail that appear to have been added to make the course more interesting for mountain bikers: huge jumps and banked curves that flow nicely together. On my hikes, I often pause to mind-surf these features. I enjoyed mountain biking 30 years ago, but I don’t recall anyone being so enterprising as to cut such features into the landscape back then.
When our local, fairly porous version of the Covid lockdown began, suddenly there were more hikers on the trails — there are few other places to go. I also see knots of two or three teenage boys out on the trail with their bikes and shovels, adding new jumps and whatnot. But now the city has declared the trails off-limits to mountain bikers, saying this is somehow made necessary by the virus. The reason offered is that “group rides increase your risk of exposure”. But groups of hikers are benign, apparently.
In the larger sweep of the pandemic’s disruptions, this is surely a minor inconvenience. But the asymmetry in the city’s response can’t but make some residents suspicious, and such suspicion is clearly a wider phenomenon at this moment. In episodes of government by crisis, some interests find themselves more aligned with officialdom than others.
To take my local case, there has long been a pattern of hikers using the levers of local government against mountain bikers, and the virus would seem to provide a fresh pretext for this. There is an aesthetic objection to all things mechanised intruding on “nature” (even on a trail system that must be maintained by chain saws and gas-powered weed whackers), and this purity is more prized by some demographics than by others. But it doesn’t present itself as an aesthetic preference; instead it gets moralised as a concern for safety, or as environmental responsibility. To invoke these concerns is to don a bullet-proof halo of public-spiritedness.
Yet the costs of maximal deference to such concerns fall more heavily on some than on others. This makes virtue a little too easy. I haven’t yet seen hikers out there with shovels maintaining their own trails, as the mountain bikers do, or clearing fallen trees that bock the path. The English philosopher John Locke said that it is by mixing one’s labour with the land that one gains a just title to use it.
Because of the virus, the teenage mountain bikers find themselves expelled from the supervised social setting of school. To judge from the conversations I have overheard as they stop to survey a jump from the top of a ridiculously steep incline, and their exultations at the bottom, they have formed what the Dutch historian Johann Huizinga called a “play community.” Such a community sets its own challenges and adopts its own rules, internal to a group of players who set themselves apart from the larger community. At once rivals and friends, their typical talk consists of boasts and playful insults as they goad one another on to new levels of risk and skill, from which emerge new expressions of creativity. Huizinga found in such scenes the wellsprings of civilisation.
But these same scenes present an affront to the organs of social control. There would seem to be an inherent tension between the spirit of play and “safetyism” (I parse this tension more fully in my book Why We Drive, with the subtitle On Risk, Freedom and Taking Back Control). Safetyism is a disposition that has been gaining strength for decades and is having a triumphal moment just now because of the virus. Public health, one of many institutions that speak on behalf of safety, has claimed authority to sweep aside whole domains of human activity as reckless, and therefore illegitimate.
I suspect the ease with which we have lately accepted the authority of health experts to reshape the contours of our common life is due to the fact that safetyism has largely displaced other moral sensibilities that might offer some resistance. At the level of sentiment, there appears to be a feedback loop wherein the safer we become, the more intolerable any remaining risk appears. At the level of bureaucratic grasping, we can note that emergency powers are seldom relinquished once the emergency has passed. Together, these dynamics make up a kind of ratchet mechanism that moves in only one direction, tightening against the human spirit.
Acquiescence in this appears to be most prevalent among the meritocrats who staff the managerial layer of society. Deferring to expert authority is a habit inculcated in the “knowledge economy”, naturally enough; the basic currency of this economy is epistemic prestige.
Among those who work in the economy of things, on the other hand, you see greater skepticism toward experts (whether they make their claim on epistemic or moral grounds) and less readiness to accept the adjustment of social norms by fiat – whether that means using new pronouns or wearing surgical masks. I am regularly in welding supply stores, auto parts stores and other light-industry venues. Nobody is wearing masks in these places. They are very small businesses: an environment largely free of the moral fashions and corresponding knowledge claims that set the tone in large organisations. There is no HR in a welding shop.
A pandemic is a deadly serious business. But we would do well to remember that bureaucracies have their own interests, quite apart from the public interest that is their official brief and warrant. They are very much in the business of tending and feeding the narratives that justify their existence. Further, given the way bureaucracies must compete for funding from the legislature, each must make a maximal case for the urgency of its mission, hence the necessity of its expansion, like a shark that must keep moving or die. It is clearer now than it was a few months ago that this imperative of expansion puts government authority in symbiosis with the morality of safetyism, which similarly admits no limit to its expanding imperium. The result is a moral-epistemic apparatus in which experts are to rule over citizens conceived as fragile incompetents.
But what if this apparatus were revealed to be not very serious about safety, the very ideal that underwrites its authority? What then?
What if, say, the leadership of WHO and of the public health bodies of the EU were determined to manage Covid in the crucial, early stages of the pandemic in a way that is compatible with liberal internationalism (hence no travel restrictions), doesn’t offend China (hence no travel restrictions) and affirms our own anti-racism (hence no travel restrictions), even at the expense of arresting the spread of the virus?
What if, in the crucial early stages of the emergency, county health authorities in California, as well as the state’s Department of Education, indeed the whole institutional chorus, were more concerned with preventing “stigma” than with preventing, you know, mass death by asphyxiation?
What if the governor of California were to hold a press conference at the end of April to chastise people going to the beach in Orange County (a Republican hold-out in what is otherwise nearly a one-party state), days after we learned that sunshine kills the virus? What if police are so enterprising as to come out onto the water to arrest solo paddle boarders, but the confined spaces of libraries are re-opened?
We can’t help noticing that libraries are one of those public facilities favoured by… well, by the same people who find hiking virtuous and mountain biking reckless and egotistical.
One further word about beach closings. We see photos taken lengthwise down the beach with telephoto lenses, which has the effect of compressing the depth of field and making the beach look very crowded. The same scenes photographed from above show people keeping a good distance apart, for the most part. But they are not reproduced in the prestige press.
What if, while all this is going on, the most “responsible” voices in the news media dedicate themselves to transforming every factual ambiguity and rival model of the disease into an occasion for political warfare? For example, when Trump, in his clumsy way, repeats what he has heard about doctors experimenting with a low-risk malaria drug to treat Covid, the whole apparatus springs into action to heap opprobrium upon a chemical substance, openly hoping for the experiment’s failure, and calls this Science. But when some other doctors, “quickly acting on their hunches,” try giving men oestrogen to fight the virus, this, according to the New York Times, is the kind of out-of-the-box thinking required by the crisis.
One could go on indefinitely noting such asymmetries. They seem to form a pattern, and the upshot of the pattern is that the voices of the safety-industrial complex seem to defer automatically to the arbiters of high-prestige opinion, who are fully invested these days in political warfare against an avatar of evil, and against the half of the population who voted for him. They seem less concerned with the health of the whole populace than with drawing boundaries between the good people and the bad people, along lines that are by now all too familiar.1
Suppose this pattern were widely noticed. It is likely the pandemic would heighten the crisis of public authority that has been unfolding for some years now in the West. I recently heard David Brooks, one of our most prominent talking heads, express on National Public Radio his hope that the pandemic would give a comeuppance to all those populist haters of institutions, by showing us how important the institutions of public health are.
By all means, let us defer to technocratic competence in times of emergency. The suspicion, however, is that the leadership of “public health” (as opposed to actual doctors and nurses) doesn’t, in fact, take its bearings from the apolitical ideal of technocratic competence. Rather, they appear as party cadres labouring on behalf of the regime of liberal internationalism. Theirs appears to be the worldview expressed by John Lennon in his infantile song ‘Imagine’, or by Immanuel Kant in Perpetual Peace.
To recommend restrictions on travel from China in the early stages of the pandemic would have been ideologically impossible for the WHO, regardless of what epidemiology might dictate. Utopian ideals are not only compatible with callousness about actual human lives, they sometimes demand it — the main thing is to maintain one’s own moral purity. This presents an easy opportunity for a Chinese regime that neither believes in Kant nor listens to John Lennon, but understands perfectly well how a rival society based on abstractions and taboos can be manipulated: accuse various EU functionaries of racism and, voilà, they suppress their own report that details the Chinese Communist Party’s misinformation campaign about the virus.
There would seem some affinity between safetyism and political correctness. Recall the mountain bikers with their jumps. Does putting one’s body at risk in confrontations with the material world strengthen the reality principle in a person’s psyche? There is a certain rude immediacy to physical pain that has a revelatory effect; a broken bone chastises any conceit you may have had that you had a complete grasp of the situation. Political correctness, on the other hand, seems to be an effort to avoid the pollution that comes from noticing reality. This is certainly the safer course, for anyone whose professional life takes place in an institution. It is easiest to maintain this diligence against reality if one remains insulated from those ugly causal chains that unfold in the real world — perhaps as a result of one’s own diktats, if one is highly placed.
Because of our isolation under lockdown, communication between citizens is now more dependent on online platforms than ever. The captains of Silicon Valley are not in an indulgent mood. The CEO of YouTube has declared that “anything that would go against World Health Organization recommendations would be a violation of our policy” and therefore suppressed. Bad advice from misinformed people on the internet is a genuine problem, so one could make a convincing case for some such policy. At the same time, it is clearly also true that this episode of government by emergency has further whetted an appetite for control that has been blossoming among the Good People in the West. Two law professors now declare in The Atlantic that “In the debate over freedom versus control of the global network, China was largely correct, and the U.S. was wrong.”
The pandemic has revealed a growing affinity between Western institutional players and the authoritarian Chinese regime. It is easy to forget that the CCP was once a highly ideological organisation. Today it is basically a crime syndicate that looks upon the norms of “the international community” the way the Sinaloa Cartel might look upon the Girl Scouts.
So the question is, will our ruling apparatus follow a similar trajectory as the pandemic gives them a taste of extended emergency power? At what point do the ceremonies of political correctness become a mere façade, a set of dogmas that nobody actually believes, but which make a useful instrument of social control?
This article first appeared on 15 May, 2020