Drawing from Boccaccio’s Decameron, I posted some thoughts on how the bubonic plague transformed European culture to reflect on how our current pandemic might transform our way of life.
Despite their political differences, left and right share threads of “liberalism”: relativism and laissez-faire. The right wing has adopted small government and “liberty” as ends in themselves. Hence, rightists believe that in a marketplace of ideas, as in a marketplace of goods, the best will naturally win out.
The left wing has adopted a statist version of the same thing, believing that with open borders and no preferentiality in sexual, social, artistic, or spiritual mores, each person will find happiness and reach his fullest potential. As the right wing abhors big government, so the left wing abhors borders and religious dogmas, even as leftists tend to rely on powerful entities (most often the government) to provide each individual with his needs so everyone can prosper.
These versions of liberalism may look opposite. Nonetheless, they rely on value neutrality and natural selection to arrive at “flourishing.” That term’s been in vogue among philosophers; it’s wonderfully vague and open to interpretation. Both left and right claim that this is their goal.
COVID-19 renders “flourishing” on both sides a meaningless concept. Let’s start with the easy part — the left’s shortfalls — and then move to the right.
The left’s downfall: Identity politics, open borders, schools, and the sexual revolution
The bubonic plague exposed Europeans to naked human flesh and drove them to reject chivalric modesty and hierarchy. So, too, has COVID-19 brought us into a showdown with the brutal realities of biology. The left’s identity politics look offensively trivial when everyone has to fear the same virus, regardless of one’s class, race, or sex.
The USA has spent untold billions on the pursuit of “equality,” even though we can’t measure it. It used to mean equal protection under the law, then it came to mean equal financial means, then it came to mean equal “dignity” as perceived by the attitudes of others. Rolling back Jim Crow was never enough. Electing a black president twice was not enough. Nor even did capitulating to the alphabet mafia of LGBTQIA+ ever seem to placate the need for equality.
The coronavirus forces us to see that we already have equality. It came from nature. Rich and poor, male and female, black and white — all can catch a virus and lose everything that they have tried to horde, including their lives. I lost my job at a Baptist seminary in December 2019; three and a half months later, that seminary campus is closed, the students kicked out of the dorms, classes canceled or forcibly transferred to online platforms nobody can be sure will work. Graduation is canceled. The virus was a wakeup call for me. All that it seemed I lost by my firing has amounted to chaff.
We have wasted far too much time and treasure struggling to equalize what is already equal. Our humanity is relentlessly biological. In Leviathan, Hobbes noted that what most equalized people was the fact that the smallest and weakest human can kill the greatest and strongest if given the chance. The coronavirus’s response to Hobbes is that the smallest of all living things, a few strands of RNA, can kill the weakest and greatest in a day.
It is true that the old are more vulnerable, but guess what: all of us, if we don’t die young, become old. Everyone old was once young. Before this natural equality, our obsession with relative fairness for specific identity groups seems frivolous, even offensive. The best example would be people tut-tutting about the supposed racism in calling the virus the Wuhan virus. Who cares? The virus can kill any of us.
Our equality among contemporaries extends to the equality between the moderns and the ancients. This undoes the left’s assumptions that old notions of nation and custom are trifles to toss aside. Actually, the anatomies of male and female haven’t changed, species-wide, since antiquity. What do we do, then, with the left’s case for open borders? No human community has ever existed in a state of constant change and transience. Our bodies’ relationship to our physical world makes constant uprooting a death sentence.
Every human being is born into a biome, a climatic and cultural habitat. Today we have high-speed trains, televised migrant caravans, and air travel. Yet our basic biological reality mirrors that of the many centuries that came before. We cannot survive with open borders because the constant traffic of microbes alone will overwhelm the natural limitations of our bodies to adapt. Trump didn’t do everything right with the coronavirus emergency, but he did make the right call about shutting down travel. This reaffirms the correctness of his position from the beginning: a nation needs to control who enters and leaves, who is going to be a long-term citizen, and who is a poor match for the nation. We do need a wall after all.
The left barraged us with images of children in “cages” at the border as a way to vilify any national policy. Now, as we face the reality of being confined in our homes, and as we picture mass triage centers with the sick and elderly kept in pens awaiting treatment, those border images do not settle arguments quite so quickly. We saw the cases of sick children dying at the border, but at the time, it did not occur to many Americans that some communities, overwhelmed with migrants, were already dealing with overcrowded emergency rooms and overwhelmed health care systems.
Now that’s everyone nightmare come true.
Connected to the left’s folly over open borders is the left’s folly over the sexual revolution. Male-male intercourse will never be as safe as heterosexual intercourse; heterosexual promiscuity will never be as safe as heterosexual monogamy. Imagine the moment when a virus emerges with as much lethality as HIV and as much communicability as COVID-19. The whole human race could die. It could happen tomorrow.
Adultery, fornication, and homosexuality did not receive such censure from civilizations for no reason. The penis and vagina exist in biological equilibrium with each other; the mouth and anus cannot serve as erotic zones for each other or for genitals. Viruses and bacteria can become lethal when we mix body parts designed for eating and defecating with body parts that function to exchange gametes and shed semen and menstrual blood. Yet even the penis and vagina cannot cope with exposure to the complementary bodily fluids of many individuals, which is why heterosexuality without the safeguard of monogamous marriage can be equally harmful.
The vulnerability to viruses and bacteria that come with sexual deviance is reflected in culture and social mores. As a Christian, I believe that when we deviate from God’s obvious design, we risk the consequences of rebelling against Him, consequences that can manifest as harms to our own health. Someone who doesn’t believe in God can infer the same basic rules about how to use the body simply by looking at our anatomy and seeing what happens when we misuse our body parts. We get sick. Human beings occasionally discard rules about sexuality in an overconfident assumption that now they can get away with doing things differently. But those rules point back to the preservation of healthy civilizations. Sex is a contact sport, never an individual activity.
The left has bet the viability of its dysfunctional sexual mores on condoms, abortion, and penicillin. This is folly. At any moment, a new glitch like a coronavirus or resistant bacterium might come into existence and render these “safeguards” impotent. The tragedy comes when people have become so accustomed to the cultural guarantees of open sexuality that biological reality not only harms their health, but also crushes the faith they once had in the left’s social promises.
When people deviate sexually, they harm others because the whole community deals with the epidemiological consequences. A year ago, the average American might have thought it was an outrageous thing to ask a homosexual to sacrifice the pleasure he got from sodomy merely to protect America from the fallout of STIs. Now Americans are being asked to lock down in their homes and close schools to protect the elderly from COVID-19. Who can still go along with the left’s defense of the sexual revolution?
Finally, the left has banked much of its influence on its predominance among schoolteachers. Yet in America, schools are closed from nursery school to college. Hundreds of millions of Americans are now confronting the reality that schools are not truly capable of raising anyone. In the end, they have to go home to be truly safe. I can’t imagine that the impact of this shock won’t extend into the future as Americans question whether it was a good idea to depend on educational institutions. If they take a closer look at what they’ve been teaching their children, the entire educational apparatus may be traumatically downsized or junked.
But now for the right wing’s wakeup call
Let’s move on to the right wing, the harder points to face. For as long as I can remember, right-wing camps could deviate on many specific issues (defense, abortion, etc.) but to be conservative, people had to favor small government and the free market. “Classical liberalism,” with its value-neutral laissez-faire posture, was beyond question. “Socialist” was the ultimate slur. Remember the Tea Party of 2009 and the take-back of the House of Representatives by the GOP in 2010; both positioned themselves entirely against socialized health care. Being against universal health care has defined the right wing for decades.
This will be one of the hardest things to write in my career as a conservative, but it must be said: we are getting socialized health care. The coronavirus will put an end to that debate. Right-wingers have to refocus on traditional social mores and stop trying to argue for a free-market, laissez-faire, or small-government response to this pandemic. This pandemic will not be the last, and the public knows it. Americans are not in the mood to be lectured about how bad socialism is. They don’t want to hear about how long hospital wait times are in Canada or Sweden.
The Democratic base did not invent popular unrest over health care out of thin air. An enormous swath of America lives in terror of illness because these Americans have no insurance, bad insurance, or no paid sick leave. Life is scary for millions of Americans in situations like that, and the Republican response to the health care issue has been atrociously insensitive. Perhaps we could plod along with Mitt Romney’s answers to health care, but now we are at a breaking point. The collapse of the Dow Jones Industrial Average came as brutally as it did because so many Americans live in a state of fear about their health. This fear translates into consumer and investor anxiety; the panic will poison even the most robust economy.
We’re traumatized by the realization that consumers, investors, and employers do not behave rationally. If they don’t, much of laissez-faire won’t work. Contagious diseases are a wild card with so much unpredictability — and such infinite possibility of proliferating — that we can survive as a civilization only by behaving in ways that classical liberals would deem irrational. We have to make collective sacrifices, disregard considerations of economic efficiency, betray our self-interest, and trust in competent leaders to lay out an action plan. I speak for many Americans when I say I don’t care if this looks like socialism, moderated capitalism, or some other economic model. We don’t want to live at the mercy of a biosphere that nobody has a financial interest in protecting us from. We want society to care more about us than about making money.