Yes, the epidemic is real. However, the rate of coronavirus infection, Covid-19, is dwarfed by the rate of infection with the less publicized seehowworriediam virus, Goo Goo-12. Like others in the Goo Goo family, the pathogen is spread by listening to conventional and electronic media.
Some people are already saying that social distancing should become permanent – not just while the coronavirus runs its course, but forever. If it's good for the coronavirus it's good for the common cold, right? While we’re at it, let’s ban large public gatherings permanently. Someone might get sick. Holiday festivals, musical concerts, political rallies, worship services, sporting contests – mass events are just superspreaders of disease. Who needs them?
Maybe the agoraphobics have been onto something all these years. Popular culture is just another name for germ culture. Ugh.
I obey the law, and I am pretty careful. I could tell you about people who are demonstrably less cautious about infection than I am, but who are convinced that I must be reckless just because of my attitude toward public panic. My sin isn’t my behavior, but my beliefs. Since I have suggested that some of the most extreme and inconsistent social distancing rules reflect agendas having nothing to do with public health, they think that I ought to be isolated.
Some people think it is okay to visit all friends and relatives except those who think it is okay to visit friends and relatives.
Many writers have commented on the incredible level of hypocrisy among journalists and public officials who stand to gain from mass hysteria. But what does this hypocrisy tell us? Consider just two of the many examples.
What does it mean that a big city mayor threatens to put people in jail for congregating, shuts down a variety of businesses including beauty parlors, and then goes out to get her hair done? It means that she doesn’t believe the rules are really necessary.
So we must ask: What does she gain by imposing them?
And what does it mean that public officials in three of our largest states moved coronavirus patients into nursing homes, even though their hospitals were not overburdened? It means that they don’t much mind deaths among the weak and elderly.
So we must ask: If not protecting the most vulnerable, what could their objective be?
Reluctance to suspect bad motives without evidence is right and good. But refusing to pay attention to the evidence is merely blind.
There was an insane sanatorium
Whose inmates set up an emporium
They hawked all their manias
And taught their inanias
Holding class in a big crematorium.
And in this ersatz institution
They prated with circumlocution
For right was a fable
And wrong was unstable
And ethics mere irresolution.
You see this is all about power
For reality’s just a bit sour
Solipcism’s a hoot
When it’s done in cahoots
But this sure ain’t the ivory tower.
One of the high points of Western civilization was the invention of the university, an institution for contemplating truth. These days universities are under the shadow of various creeds – postmodernism, identity politics, pragmatism, moral antirealism, a whole tribe of them -- that deny the reality of objective truth. There are differences among the members of this tribe, but they all either affirm, or in the end come to, what I say of them here. Some, like critical legal theory, are frank about it. Others are not.
By objective truth I mean correspondence with reality. As the logician Alfred Tarski remarked, the proposition “Snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white. Those of whom I speak deny this. In their view there is no reality to which thoughts must conform. They use the word truth for what the powers that be say that it is, and nothing more.
Or they use it for something that in the end comes to what the powers that be say it is. For example we may say that truth is “what works,” but since there are different ideas of how things should work, someone has to define what counts as working. Or we may say that truth is “consensus,” but since we aren’t actually in consensus, someone has to announce what will be treated as though it were consensus. “All of the people who matter say that ...”
This is supposed to be liberating.
If we examine these ideas we find mires and paradoxes.
One might think those who propound them were merely trying to criticize the hypocritical pretensions of the powerful. But to say that the claims of the powerful are hypocritical pretentions is to say that they distort objective truth. This in turn supposes that there is an objective truth to distort, which is just what they deny. How exactly does such a doctrine help the powerless? It baffles me that its proponents could be taken seriously.
They would do better to give up speaking and take up cawing, like crows. At least crows don’t claim to be uttering meaningful propositions.
The craziness goes deeper still. Logically, someone who thinks truth is nothing but what the powers that be say it is should acquiesce to power, shouldn’t he? Since the powers that be define the truth. Yet the proponents of these creeds typically make a great show of standing up to power.
The solution to the paradox is that for all their talk of standing up against the powers that be, in contemporary universities such folk are the powers that be. They are the ones who say what works. They are the ones who say whose consensus matters.
They are not standing up to power. They are trying to secure and extend it.
To them, I suppose, this seems just. For justice, like truth, is what those with power say it is -- and that means them.
I can doubt that there is a Vermont
I can doubt that I eat my croissant
Though it comes as a shock
And a startling knock
I can doubt anything that I want!
I can doubt whether life is a dream
And whether a song is a scream
Whether girls correspond
To manes red, black, and blonde --
Perhaps nothing is just as it seems.
If I could have truths for a penny
Then surely I’d have a great many
Were they clear, then I’d know
Every one, even though
I just don't, so there must not be any!
And if I could clearly conceive
What were true, then I’d surely believe.
It would matter a lot
What I put in the pot
Of the thoughts to which intellect cleaved.
But since I can’t plainly perceive it
I’m not dutybound to believe it
Since belief is just chatter,
It just doesn’t matter,
I can equally take it or leave it.
This being the case, I’d be stressed
To think any thought I detest.
Since truth’s not a question,
And just an oppression,
I’ll think only what I like best.
So far as my mind can construe
I know this, I’ll know it, I knew
It’s simple and sheer
Giving nothing to fear
And undoubtedly all of it’s true.
Golly, I can doubt anything whatsoever. Therefore there is no good reason to believe anything. If there were clear truths, then I wouldn’t have these doubts. But I do, so there must not be. Logically, then, it doesn’t matter what I believe. It would be especially silly to believe anything that would interfere with my desires. All this, undoubtedly, is true.
As I’m sure you are aware, the governor of Illinois has stated that church services cannot begin until there is a Covid-19 vaccine or effective therapy. Yesterday the governor of Michigan outlined her own draconian plan.
Waiting until there is a vaccine or effective therapy means having no church services in such states for more than a year. Of course abortions have been permitted the entire time of the pandemic. Surely it’s obvious even to the most pessimistic and atheistic epidemiologist or infectious disease expert that such differences in treatment have nothing to do with slowing the spread of illness. They simply favor abortions over worship.
When commanded by the authorities to stop preaching about the risen Christ, St. Peter said “we must obey God rather than man.” Hasn’t the time come for our church leaders to be asking whether they should say the same thing?
I think the time is long past when they should be asking that question. As to the answer, though, dramatic responses short of civil disobedience are still possible. Suppose worshippers scrupulously obeyed ten-person or fifty-person rules, but in selected churches, priests celebrated Mass after Mass after Mass, ten or fifty congregants at a time, so that everyone who wished could participate. To reduce the heroic demand on overworked priests and ministers, variations could be worked out. Perhaps not all the services could be Masses.
Wouldn’t that be a strong witness? Why isn’t it happening?
In places where no indoor meetings at all are permitted, another possibility is to hold church services outdoors, for example in parks or in parking lots, with the congregants six feet away from each other, wearing masks. My own parish, in the diocese of Texas, is resuming public indoor Masses on a small scale, but asking those who are over sixty-five not to attend. So another advantage of holding some worship outdoors is that more could attend and even older people who might otherwise be at risk could participate.
As I mentioned in a previous post, in some places worship is already being held outdoors. Why isn’t this being done everywhere that indoor services aren’t possible? I would like our bishops to tell us that.
Suppose these things were more widely done. It would be interesting to see whether officials in the more draconian states treated such worship as though it were an act of civil disobedience, even though no state regulations had actually been broken. In some states, as in most of mine, the authorities would be – have already been – cooperative. In others, they would be – have already been -- tyrannical.
Actual disobedience to the law should not be considered until all things short of disobedience have been tried, so that it would be difficult for even the most confused citizens to think that worshippers were merely hooligans who cared nothing for public health. Give official bullies a chance to show their true colors. The time to plan disobedience is when the authorities refuse to allow worship even within the bounds of reasonable public health restrictions.
But even so, there is a right and a wrong way to practice disobedience. In the first place there must be no disobedience except to rules that are actually unjust. Worshippers would have to rigorously keep that six-foot gap, and wear those masks, so everyone would understand that they did not reject public authority for the common good.
Priests would have to cooperate with their bishops, publicizing widely ahead of time what their churches would be doing, why they would be doing it, and why nothing less would suffice. They would have to do whatever was necessary to avoid giving the appearance of disrespect for just laws. Force and insult would have to be met with prayer and blessing. Any who were arrested would have to offer no resistance, no shouting, and no hard words. As during the Civil Rights movement, it would be necessary for the participants to be prepared ahead of time spiritually, because otherwise such discipline would be impossible.
Let us hope it does not come to this!
But let us not just wait to see what happens either. The precedents being set for the oppression of faith during the epidemic will some day be invoked when there is no epidemic. Why is there no sense of urgency?
You shepherds of the flock, are you paying attention?
I see in the news that the government is clamping restrictions on the use of electronic parts supplied from abroad for use in our electrical power grid. The purpose, of course, is national security. One would not want the grid to be hacked by a hostile foreign power.
This raises an interesting question. We have long known that all sorts of crucial domestic systems, not just the power grid, are vulnerable to being hacked. In fact, there already have been numerous intrusions and thefts of information on a small scale, as though our defenses were being tested. We have adversaries who might take great satisfaction in seeing our fragile setups collapse. Why then hasn’t that happened already?
One possibility is simply that they aren’t ready. Another possibility is that the ability to crash our systems is cherished not as a first-strike weapon but as a last resort; hostile powers might hesitate to do us too much damage, because in an interlocked global economy their own countries would suffer too.
But there is another reason besides unpreparedness and fear of economic harm why hostile powers might hesitate to bring us down. Even though our government is not very good at protecting the country against foreign hackers, it is no slouch at hacking hostile foreigners. For example, the United States and Israel are widely believed to have collaborated on the development of the subtle Stuxnet computer worm that damaged the centrifuges used by the Iranians for processing nuclear fuel back in 2010.
The stalemate among the competing hackers of the various great powers brings to mind the old theory of Mutual Assured Destruction, called MAD, current at the height of the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union. “We too have nuclear weapons and ICBMs, and we can launch ours before yours arrive. Be sure that if you destroy us, within minutes you too will be destroyed.”
Some of those involved in security debates opposed (and still oppose) the development of defenses against incoming missiles, on grounds that no one will murder if he knows without a shadow of doubt that by doing so he will accomplish his own suicide. The devil is in that shadow of doubt! But leaving aside the devil -- can one ever leave aside the devil? – the theory holds that the utter, helpless vulnerability of each nation to every other is the only hope of peace. Let us all brandish razors, and all bare our throats.
I wonder whether those who take this view will oppose the development of greater computer security for the same reason.
"So, J., what do you think is the bare minimum a person must believe for salvation?"
Thus my new friend began our first serious conversation, the moment he passed through my door. That was a quarter of a century ago. We were both Protestants. He still is.
I didn’t mind his question a bit, and I still don’t. Its quirky abruptness, and his waste-no-time, take-no-prisoners desire not to dissipate the evening in small talk, made me smile. In seven seconds, his question gave me a sharper idea of his personality than I had been able to form during the previous seven months. I saw him again not long ago. He hasn’t changed.
Although his training had been in theology, not philosophy, the minimalism of his question was thoroughly in keeping with the philosophical method of the day, which is also minimalist.
Minimalist how? We do philosophy as though people can consider reality only one shaved-down proposition at a time. Sometimes, I think, the very opposite is true. A single lonely proposition may be difficult to accept just because it does stand by itself. In order to stand firm, a proposition must have context, as the single stone requires the arch.
My friend’s conversation-starter also brings to mind one of the great differences between the Catholic and Protestant ways of thinking about God. Protestantism asks how many of all those pre-Reformation beliefs can be jettisoned and still have Christianity. Except in a certain special context, Catholicism isn’t very interested in how few truths one can get away with believing. Instead it wants to know all of them. Tell me everything, everything! Are there more?
And there are a lot of them! Creation, Fall, and Redemption! The three Persons of One God! The two natures of One Christ! Not only an Old Testament, but a New! Not only a natural law, but a divine! Not only worship, but veneration! Not only precepts, but counsels! A covenant with day and night, yet miracles too! Holy saints! Bad popes! Sacraments! Graces! Gifts! Virtues, infused and acquired! Prophets, priests, and kings! The Incarnation, Cross, and Resurrection! A crown of thorns on the brow of God made Man! A sword through His mother’s heart! Suffering! Blessedness! The beatific vision! And we are only warming up.
Writing about Christ’s statement to St. Peter that he would give him the keys to the kingdom of heaven, G.K. Chesterton wrote,
“The shape of a key is in itself a rather fantastic shape. A savage who did not know it was a key would have the greatest difficulty in guessing what it could possibly be. And it is fantastic because it is in a sense arbitrary. A key is not a matter of abstractions; in that sense a key is not a matter of argument. It either fits the lock or it does not. It is use useless for men to stand disputing over it, considered by itself; or reconstructing it on pure principles of geometry or decorative art. It is senseless for a man to say he would like a simpler key; it would be far more sensible to do his best with a crowbar .... it is enough to say here that there was undoubtedly much about the key that seemed complex; indeed there was only one thing about it that was simple. It opened the door.”
CYA, short for Covering Your Anatomy, is the strategy of choosing one’s course of action in such a way that if it goes wrong, someone else gets the blame. Dealing with the problem at hand may take second place.
We all know that CYA can affect governmental policy. What’s not so often noticed is that it can also affect the Constitutional balance of power.
I used to think CYA worked only against the balance of power. For example, although Congress, not the courts, should make the laws, in some cases legislators are only too happy to let the judiciary set policy, just so they won’t get blamed for it. This is just the opposite of what the Framers expected, for they thought that each branch would jealously guard its powers.
But I was wrong. Ironically, CYA can work either for or against the balance of power.
For example, some of the current president’s critics have accused him of following a CYA policy by allowing state governors to decide for themselves when to roll back coronavirus restrictions in order to get their economies moving again. Whether or not his motive is CYA, in this case it works in favor of the balance of power, because under the Constitution, that really is a state prerogative.
On the other hand, some of the critics of state governors have used them of following a CYA policy by speaking as though the response to the coronavirus depends entirely on federal decisions. Whether or not their motive is CYA, in this case it works against the balance of power, because it encourages them to shirk their own constitutional responsibilities.
Irony doesn’t usually prompt belly laughs, but isn’t it funny how things work?