.
I

n his new book, French author Bernard-Henri Lévy looks at the effect COVID-19 is having on the human condition and the way we live, offering a literary-based and philosophical polemic. Lévy waxes eloquently about the role of doctors in the pandemic; the challenges of isolation and self-confinement; and the response to the pandemic, and weighing its costs—peppering each with a hefty dose of literary criticism and philosophical grounding.

The Virus in the Age of Madness | By Bernard-Henri Lévy | Yale University Press | July 2020.

According to Lévy, the “principles that represent the best of our western societies, have been attacked by the virus, and the virus of the virus, at the same time people were dying.” It is certainly a novel approach, but while this framing set out in the prologue is an interesting consideration, it sadly doesn’t flow through the essay as well as it could have.

A key theme one draws from Lévy is just how much the pandemic has laid bare the human desire for certainty and absolutes—something that life assures will never happen, aside from the clichéd death and taxes. Humanity, unsurprisingly, is deeply uncomfortable with uncertainty and complexity. Look at the early days of the pandemic response and how much confusion there was about how bad the virus was, what the response should be, and the expected tally of its impact.

COVID-19 destroyed our false sense of certainty and absolutes. The world was the way it was and was going to remain unchanged until it changed. The restaurant scene, corporate travel, sports seasons, back-to-school—everything was ticking along as it did and was expected to do until this (not unexpected) event occurred. Much as recounted by Anne Applebaum in her Twilight of Democracy, the western model of liberal democracy was the law of the land and all but inevitable until it was not.

In his treatment of doctors, he notes this as well. The white lab coat-wearing doctor is a symbol of authority and expected to know all, but there are no certainties in science or medicine except perhaps the inviolability of the scientific method. Yet to put doctors in this position is to degrade their profession and the value of their expertise. An epidemic is at its core a political, human problem, infected with the variability and uncertainty of a virus. Indeed, epi demos, the word’s origin, means “what befalls the people.”

That the situation was evolving and complex was lost on much of the population. If a doctor said X but then said Y, then they couldn’t be trusted. Didn’t Dr. Fauci say this on Monday, but now he is saying this on Friday? He doesn’t know anything, they would argue.

This speaks also to the fundamental erosion of the value of expertise. “On the internet,” the old New Yorker cartoon goes, “no one knows you’re a dog.” Well, today, you can be a Facebook-certified epidemiologist accredited by likes. Your opinion and analysis receive just as much weight on the platform as your crazy uncle, your local doctor, or even the President (blue check marks aside). It creates a false sense of equivalence.

Tom Nichols chronicles this masterfully in his book The Death of Expertise how both social media and structural issues related to professions like scientists and doctors have eroded the value of “experts,” a trend occurring well before the current political environment, but certainly exacerbated by it. Indeed, today it is possible to find nearly any evidence to support one’s viewpoint. The credibility of that evidence may be in question, but at least it is something to which one can point to and claim validation.

It is not surprising that the response to the pandemic became politicized, but the degree to which it did, is. It was bound to be under any administration, but perhaps never more so than under this one. To be sure, the White House’s handling of the pandemic ignored long-established playbooks, science, and arguably good sense, but one could argue that there are few examples of successful government response to recent disasters. When has the government ever successfully responded to a disaster?

What developed was a false dichotomy—lives or the economy—with hyperbole and demagoguery soon following. The reaction (or overreaction, according to some) essentially shut down society to a degree never before seen. While this may have been a sensible and necessary measure at the outset, it was fundamentally unsustainable in the long-term, but to vocally consider that unsustainability was to be a pariah. To question the viability of an indefinite stay-at-home order was to be reckless, inconsiderate, selfish, or any number of other negative adjectives. But what could have been achieved if the political leadership (and society writ large) spent less time bickering and arguing about the necessity of a shutdown and instead, more time planning for the establishment of reopening protocols, testing and tracing measures, and planning for COVID-19 risk management? Arguably life would have returned to a better sense of normalcy and certainty than the current stop-go, reopen/close dynamic in which we currently find ourselves in.

Here again, we see the desire for absolutes and certainty, the desire to divide society into us and them. Neither the left nor the right has a monopoly on this; the entirety of the political spectrum—save perhaps the rare undecided and the true moderates—has a pox on their houses. It is less a “cancel culture” (if such a thing exists), and much more of a fundamental intolerance for views that do not align with one’s own. Now more than ever one can actively avoid seeing other opinions or alternative viewpoints, thanks to algorithmic sorting (discussed, below).

So much of society today is an either-or proposition. You either stay at home, or you are reckless—ignoring the fact that some people cannot afford to stay home (indeed the very people on whom the modern economy relies to function) and do not enjoy salaried incomes in stable industries. You are either a supporter of Blue Lives Matter or Black Lives Matter—there is no in-between; you cannot support law enforcement, recognize the untenable position in which they are placed as simultaneously enforcers of the law and social workers (in the absence of adequate social welfare and mental illness/addiction funding), and at the same time recognize that there is systemic racism and institutional injustice that must be addressed. You cannot support people’s right to protest peacefully and express their freedom of speech, and at the same time decry the destruction of property and vandalism. You are either with us or against us; absolutes and certainties. That is a dangerous condition for liberal democracy.

This is to say nothing of the proliferation of virtue signaling that is endemic to social media. Whether it is posting a filter with a catchy tag about wearing a mask, posting a black square to support Black Lives Matter, or posting a red hat emblazoned with MAGA, it matters more to be seen to support a cause or an issue than to do something about it—there are of course exceptions to the rule that should be applauded. But more often than not it is the cause célèbre of the day before the social zeitgeist moves onto the next issue du jour. Remember Kony 2012?

Yet, perhaps at no point in human history has it been so easy to find absolutes and certainty thanks to the internet and social media. This is something that Lévy sadly doesn’t explore. Truth is now relative and facts are subjective. If I don’t like your truth or the truth presented by a media outlet, I’ll find my own—or, thanks to algorithms, be driven to one that a computer thinks is more in line with my beliefs and desires, possibly even pushing me further down the extremist rabbit hole. There I will stay, comfortable in my bubble, confident that I won’t see anything that I disagree with and able to refute or reject things that are not in line with my political views or opinions.

Most notably Lévy comments on how the world in the public’s consciousness appears to have stopped with the virus. Except it hasn’t, merely our undivided attention is so fixated on the virus, the response to it, the politics around it, and the spectacle it is creating. We’ve simply stopped paying attention to anything else. Whether it is the erosion of liberal democracy in Hungary and Poland, the continued civil war in Yemen, the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar, the imprisonment of Uyghurs in China, or any number of other issues that have not paused with COVID-19.

Lévy’s polemic is not an optimistic one. It can be, at times, difficult to read, couched as it is with various authors, philosophers, and critics, but it is a rewarding one, nonetheless. It forces the reader to consider their position and perspective in light of this “age of madness” and reflect on just how much and how swiftly modern life has changed, possibly irrevocably so.

Perhaps by embracing complexity and nuance (and seeing the beauty in it), instead of running away from it, our response to COVID-19 will lead to a better and more resilient society. Perhaps by recognizing that humans are anything but absolute and certain, and understanding individual gray areas and overlapping Venn diagrams, we will be able to build a better and more just society. Doing so will take considerable energy, patience, and understanding, but the alternative is far more frightening.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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The Virus in the Age of Madness

Image by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) via Unsplash.

August 15, 2020

The Virus in the Age of Madness | By Bernard-Henri Lévy | Yale University Press | July 2020.

I

n his new book, French author Bernard-Henri Lévy looks at the effect COVID-19 is having on the human condition and the way we live, offering a literary-based and philosophical polemic. Lévy waxes eloquently about the role of doctors in the pandemic; the challenges of isolation and self-confinement; and the response to the pandemic, and weighing its costs—peppering each with a hefty dose of literary criticism and philosophical grounding.

The Virus in the Age of Madness | By Bernard-Henri Lévy | Yale University Press | July 2020.

According to Lévy, the “principles that represent the best of our western societies, have been attacked by the virus, and the virus of the virus, at the same time people were dying.” It is certainly a novel approach, but while this framing set out in the prologue is an interesting consideration, it sadly doesn’t flow through the essay as well as it could have.

A key theme one draws from Lévy is just how much the pandemic has laid bare the human desire for certainty and absolutes—something that life assures will never happen, aside from the clichéd death and taxes. Humanity, unsurprisingly, is deeply uncomfortable with uncertainty and complexity. Look at the early days of the pandemic response and how much confusion there was about how bad the virus was, what the response should be, and the expected tally of its impact.

COVID-19 destroyed our false sense of certainty and absolutes. The world was the way it was and was going to remain unchanged until it changed. The restaurant scene, corporate travel, sports seasons, back-to-school—everything was ticking along as it did and was expected to do until this (not unexpected) event occurred. Much as recounted by Anne Applebaum in her Twilight of Democracy, the western model of liberal democracy was the law of the land and all but inevitable until it was not.

In his treatment of doctors, he notes this as well. The white lab coat-wearing doctor is a symbol of authority and expected to know all, but there are no certainties in science or medicine except perhaps the inviolability of the scientific method. Yet to put doctors in this position is to degrade their profession and the value of their expertise. An epidemic is at its core a political, human problem, infected with the variability and uncertainty of a virus. Indeed, epi demos, the word’s origin, means “what befalls the people.”

That the situation was evolving and complex was lost on much of the population. If a doctor said X but then said Y, then they couldn’t be trusted. Didn’t Dr. Fauci say this on Monday, but now he is saying this on Friday? He doesn’t know anything, they would argue.

This speaks also to the fundamental erosion of the value of expertise. “On the internet,” the old New Yorker cartoon goes, “no one knows you’re a dog.” Well, today, you can be a Facebook-certified epidemiologist accredited by likes. Your opinion and analysis receive just as much weight on the platform as your crazy uncle, your local doctor, or even the President (blue check marks aside). It creates a false sense of equivalence.

Tom Nichols chronicles this masterfully in his book The Death of Expertise how both social media and structural issues related to professions like scientists and doctors have eroded the value of “experts,” a trend occurring well before the current political environment, but certainly exacerbated by it. Indeed, today it is possible to find nearly any evidence to support one’s viewpoint. The credibility of that evidence may be in question, but at least it is something to which one can point to and claim validation.

It is not surprising that the response to the pandemic became politicized, but the degree to which it did, is. It was bound to be under any administration, but perhaps never more so than under this one. To be sure, the White House’s handling of the pandemic ignored long-established playbooks, science, and arguably good sense, but one could argue that there are few examples of successful government response to recent disasters. When has the government ever successfully responded to a disaster?

What developed was a false dichotomy—lives or the economy—with hyperbole and demagoguery soon following. The reaction (or overreaction, according to some) essentially shut down society to a degree never before seen. While this may have been a sensible and necessary measure at the outset, it was fundamentally unsustainable in the long-term, but to vocally consider that unsustainability was to be a pariah. To question the viability of an indefinite stay-at-home order was to be reckless, inconsiderate, selfish, or any number of other negative adjectives. But what could have been achieved if the political leadership (and society writ large) spent less time bickering and arguing about the necessity of a shutdown and instead, more time planning for the establishment of reopening protocols, testing and tracing measures, and planning for COVID-19 risk management? Arguably life would have returned to a better sense of normalcy and certainty than the current stop-go, reopen/close dynamic in which we currently find ourselves in.

Here again, we see the desire for absolutes and certainty, the desire to divide society into us and them. Neither the left nor the right has a monopoly on this; the entirety of the political spectrum—save perhaps the rare undecided and the true moderates—has a pox on their houses. It is less a “cancel culture” (if such a thing exists), and much more of a fundamental intolerance for views that do not align with one’s own. Now more than ever one can actively avoid seeing other opinions or alternative viewpoints, thanks to algorithmic sorting (discussed, below).

So much of society today is an either-or proposition. You either stay at home, or you are reckless—ignoring the fact that some people cannot afford to stay home (indeed the very people on whom the modern economy relies to function) and do not enjoy salaried incomes in stable industries. You are either a supporter of Blue Lives Matter or Black Lives Matter—there is no in-between; you cannot support law enforcement, recognize the untenable position in which they are placed as simultaneously enforcers of the law and social workers (in the absence of adequate social welfare and mental illness/addiction funding), and at the same time recognize that there is systemic racism and institutional injustice that must be addressed. You cannot support people’s right to protest peacefully and express their freedom of speech, and at the same time decry the destruction of property and vandalism. You are either with us or against us; absolutes and certainties. That is a dangerous condition for liberal democracy.

This is to say nothing of the proliferation of virtue signaling that is endemic to social media. Whether it is posting a filter with a catchy tag about wearing a mask, posting a black square to support Black Lives Matter, or posting a red hat emblazoned with MAGA, it matters more to be seen to support a cause or an issue than to do something about it—there are of course exceptions to the rule that should be applauded. But more often than not it is the cause célèbre of the day before the social zeitgeist moves onto the next issue du jour. Remember Kony 2012?

Yet, perhaps at no point in human history has it been so easy to find absolutes and certainty thanks to the internet and social media. This is something that Lévy sadly doesn’t explore. Truth is now relative and facts are subjective. If I don’t like your truth or the truth presented by a media outlet, I’ll find my own—or, thanks to algorithms, be driven to one that a computer thinks is more in line with my beliefs and desires, possibly even pushing me further down the extremist rabbit hole. There I will stay, comfortable in my bubble, confident that I won’t see anything that I disagree with and able to refute or reject things that are not in line with my political views or opinions.

Most notably Lévy comments on how the world in the public’s consciousness appears to have stopped with the virus. Except it hasn’t, merely our undivided attention is so fixated on the virus, the response to it, the politics around it, and the spectacle it is creating. We’ve simply stopped paying attention to anything else. Whether it is the erosion of liberal democracy in Hungary and Poland, the continued civil war in Yemen, the persecution of the Rohingya in Myanmar, the imprisonment of Uyghurs in China, or any number of other issues that have not paused with COVID-19.

Lévy’s polemic is not an optimistic one. It can be, at times, difficult to read, couched as it is with various authors, philosophers, and critics, but it is a rewarding one, nonetheless. It forces the reader to consider their position and perspective in light of this “age of madness” and reflect on just how much and how swiftly modern life has changed, possibly irrevocably so.

Perhaps by embracing complexity and nuance (and seeing the beauty in it), instead of running away from it, our response to COVID-19 will lead to a better and more resilient society. Perhaps by recognizing that humans are anything but absolute and certain, and understanding individual gray areas and overlapping Venn diagrams, we will be able to build a better and more just society. Doing so will take considerable energy, patience, and understanding, but the alternative is far more frightening.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.