Column: The coming struggle over 'normal'
The coming struggle over ‘Normal’: when pandemic lessons are erased, forgotten, or falsified – what is to be done?
There’s something that I’m watching, means a lot to me.
It’s coming for me darling, no matter where I go.
Its duty is to harm me, my duty is to know. — Leonard Cohen, Banjo
Writing about it
Are you tired of the flood of expression and data about Covid? Me too. How do I explain why I am adding to this deluge? It is how writers, educators, and journalists cope. I count myself among them.
Please understand that; doing what I feel comfortable doing, most engaged with the world, is how I am finding some good in a tense and uncomfortable time. Possessed of a mind fascinated with human history, I have reacted to the Covid event by welcoming the chance to be a witness to History Under Construction, so to speak. I am privileged to be present as things happen, people act, react, and emote, knowing that the history of this will be written during my lifetime, and imagining my own role in some way contributing to the foundation of the historical narrative we will tell.
You too ought to do whatever you feel best helps you cope with the pandemic and its effect on your normal life. You and I, readers, have to find viable paths through this to a new normal.
Lessons from History: a fool’s delusion, or a labour of love?
When we get through the crisis, what will normal lives be? Here is where historians might apply their perspective. People are asking constantly, ‘what have we have learned?’ and ‘how will we change?’ – the kind of forward-looking questions that people who study human behaviour in the past (historians) might well expect to comprehend.
Here is what I know. Historians are like everyone else in this mess; we’ll all be trying as best we know how to tell ourselves and one another what the ‘Lessons of the Pandemic’ are. We’re a species needing meaning in life and life’s spectacular events.
Here’s what is likely — there will be no consensus. It’s a delusion to think you can claim one undisputed truth about we must learn from these times and events. There’s no such thing.
A great deal of the past has not been recorded well, told in only one or two sources, and scarcity of records has given us a false sense of knowing the main facts. Historians know this. There is so much we do not know, yet since only one voice has survived in written form to tell us about, say, how Caesar conquered Gaul, we foolishly say we have the story, when what we have is a story. A fraction of a whole.
There will be most certainly be no dearth of records about this time; rather, the problem will be a surfeit of data and an inability to synthesize and process it all. To tell the story will be the labour of many, and today’s journalism will be one source.
To my mind, it is a labour of love to try and make sense of this Covid event for others. Consider: parents’ love for their children is revealed in how they try to help the child’s understanding of a trauma. All of us reveal we care for our fellow humans when we try to explain the meaning of this period of challenges none of us have ever experienced before. “I care, therefore I inform.”
Journalism and Information
Historians are not the only ones who labour on the project of explanation. Every day, people in journalism, government, education, and science try in specific ways to advance the same project. I admire and respect their good intentions.
I must still offer criticism of the news media; their good intentions are not enough. I am sadly unimpressed with news-filtering by journalists in this crisis.
It cannot be acceptable to ignore all other news just because Covid is clearly on our minds. How is it acceptable to erase all mention of the stories that were so important until Covid arrived?
Is there peace in Syria and Yemen? Are there no more weather catastrophes? Are there no mass revolutions, protest movements, regime changes, happening anywhere on earth? Have Africa and Latin America gone to sleep? Has climate change dropped from our future prospect? Either these were unimportant before, or are still significant yet ignored and neglected by our media professionals.
Journalists are gratified just now to be regarded as essential workers. They hold their heads high as they tell us how important their reporting is to us. They work closely with governments now, as unofficial departments of scientific education and public enlightenment. They bring us the faces of grief and fear and anger from people who face the pandemic up close, as caregivers to, or family members of, the victims. We are grateful for their role as knitters of the social fabric.
CBC has been airing a message to say “Canadians are one family” that is heartwarming but wrong-headed. It is propaganda for one sententious perspective. I wish they’d drop it.
When the crisis passes, I expect large changes in how media personnel do the job of “news.” CBC must surely examine how inflated their self-importance has become. I know they mean well, but they have gone too far toward believing their own hype.
“War is a force that gives us meaning”
I borrow the title of this section from a worthwhile book by Christopher Hedges.
The military metaphors about the effort to terminate the pandemic crisis are exhausting me. It is a war, battle, campaign, etc. Victory will come and The Enemy will be undeniably conquered. War gives ordinary life more meaning, as many have said, because the nearness of death adds intensity. Ask people who lived through WWII. They are likely to think of that time of their lives as a positive one if they lived in Britain, Canada, or the USA. They may say they loved the sense of unified effort.
But surely we can find meaning in our lives without the threat of mass death confronting us? No more talk of war – on drugs, terror, disease, poverty, tyranny, ignorance, or any other abstract foe. We can for certain improve our communication skill here. And by changing the words, we change our consciousness of the solution.
Science and Opinion — the broken consensus
If one had any doubt as to the authority of Western science over the public mind in advanced wealthy democracies, this crisis time should supply a perfect opportunity to answer the question. Science is not our standard for truth or fact any longer.
‘The ‘Western Enlightenment project’ (as philosophers and political intelligentsia would say) aimed at engineering a humanity of rational beings, ruled by the truths science, education, and the application of reason can provide. The French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions variously tried to construct utopian social orders by political means. Some deep thinkers were convinced of the possibility of a New Human, homo novus. The mass culture of the West, shared by elites with the people through state-funded public education and a vigorous mass press, was founded on a consensus about real facts. Science had immense authority over the idea of truth.
That dream is dead. In our present, opinion about what is true has established itself as debatable. We are invited, by strong forces within our mass popular culture, to ascertain truth for ourselves. Your truth, my truth, their truth: you have heard this.
No matter how many voices I personally seek out to provide “science-based evidence” and “truths established through scholarship” — there are masses of human beings with different methods and personal measures for fact and veracity. Call it the post-modern mind, but we are not in 1960 or even 1990 anymore when it comes to an agreed reality within which we share our lives. The book to read about this is by Kurt Anderson, Fantasyland.
What was Covid virus, and is some human agency responsible? Why did it happen, and why was it managed as it was? Who profited? Who lost most? Are we safe now?
I will not say more about this, other than note the possibility we will never agree. Charles Eisenstein states it baldly: “We will never know.”
Public Interest: Good People sharing Common Humanity
Our political leaders and scientific luminaries and cultural celebrities have used a phrase during the crisis that we do not hear so much in less fearful times: The Common Good. These are fine people earnestly persuading us to remember we the ordinary people are doing the right thing when we stay safe and practice hygiene.
And even as we hear it and nod agreement with the noble intent of the speaker, we know that the phrase does not mean the same for everyone. You define it according to your scale of values, and I in mine. Therein lies a problem.
The virus was not a peril for all people equally. Solid data reveals that African Americans, Latinos, poor women, the homeless, the aged, died disproportionately.
So, since some were far more at risk than others, what exactly was held in common among us? Our common humanity has never, ever bound us all in unified action for one goal. That did not change with the crisis. The UN, our one global agency for coordinated action, was not up to it. National governments tried to do the job.
Private Interest: Bad People plotting against conformist Sheeple
My interest in continuing to live, and to assist my family, is private rather than public. It is not at odds with the public good most of the time. But if it were, what should I do? Be like Mr. Spock, declaring “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”… ? Or, try to pursue my private need, letting The Public fend for itself?
Adam Smith, Enlightenment philosopher of market capitalism, introduced this phrase to our fund of concepts concerning economic behaviour: “enlightened self-interest.” This is the notion that if each human sought his/her good and was intelligent enough to know how each depends on society as well as self (intelligent, hence “enlightened”) there need be no contest of the individual against the collective.
In the marketplace, all would turn out well for the community. How? “The Hidden Hand” of human give-and-take, in economic equilibrium, would make all turn out for the best of the community. Does such behaviour lead to good outcomes during a pandemic? At time of writing this, I certainly will not say it is the optimal strategy.
It must be stressed that Smith drew boundaries around “the community” that were political boundaries of his nation, England. Who is your tribe? Boundaries mattered in the Covid pandemic.
It is not a surprise to find theorists of conspiracy who believe a tiny secret few are behind this or that policy, an occult cabal whose boundary of community is not the majority but themselves alone. They care nothing for us except as we are useful to them, and they like best a conformist population easily manipulated by fear and obedience. Capitalism has a slogan – caveat emptor! Be aware of liars and cheats. Sure, I find a lot of conspiracy chat absurd. But then again… Even paranoids have enemies. A broken clock tells correct time twice a day. After the pandemic, I for one will be vigilant over Canadian civil liberties.
The policies of each jurisdiction on earth – nation, state, province, federal unit etc. — were astoundingly varied. Sweden did one thing, China another, Quebec a third. Leaders mattered, enormously. Women leaders were exemplary for intelligence.
I thought, two weeks into the crisis, that this was the event that must educate Americans about the man they call President. His deficits of intelligence, character, ego, and talent, were daily revealed. He manifested his absolute unfitness for his power – didn’t he? I thought so. But, in this as in other things, truth and fact are one reality for me and another for his partisans.
Denial, defiance, diversion, distraction, and the usual arsenal of presidential behaviour, were turned to practical effect. He will not be destroyed by this crisis, despite so many predictions he would be. In the eyes of very many Americans, other people or agencies will bear the burden of responsibility that I think belongs to the president. I can’t change it, and neither can all the other forces trying to bring him down. US voters can. Covid will turn out not to be very significant in their choice.
As for Canada, most of our leaders are doing pretty well; the US president looks awful by comparison to Canada’s policy-makers. But around the world, in Russia, China, India, Brazil, Turkey, Hungary, the Philippines and elsewhere, the vast ego and narcissism of male supremos keep company with the Donald. The pandemic has not revealed anything very novel about this phenomenon. I grieve, but won’t obsess.
Alberta: the aggressive problem-child
In a sane world, as I define it, the Covid event would be a godsend to Canada, helping to bury the oil-production industry here and ensuring no revival of it when the health crisis passes. The combination of the pandemic and the abysmal price of oil could, if we desired it, mean our fossil fuel would be left in the ground. Albertans, already bereft of this source of economic activity for corporations and workers in the tar sands, could say, “let it wither, let’s not go back, let’s build the next economy.”
That won’t happen. Many Canadians will go racing back to their previous resource-sector employment, happy the pandemic is over, and eager to earn the paycheques they enjoyed before. The argument to oil-industry workers is that their particular source of income — which pays lucrative earnings even for uneducated workers — must go down to ‘natural market death’ with no governmental intent to revive it. This won’t plausibly persuade people dependent on the resource to leave in in the ground. Premier Jason Kenney is an indomitable champion for resurrection of oil to enrich Alberta.
Which brings me to the title of Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything. Does it really, Ms. K? Has the COVID 19 pandemic begun the process of dismantling capitalism? Can we imagine lives without capitalist foundations?
(To be clear, Klein argued that climate change, not the virus, heralds the withering of capitalism; but she says the present crisis is changing things in the economy too. See her critique of Jason Kenney, easy to find online.)
Capitalism: Abandoned, Reformed, or Triumphant?
Sociologists who poll public opinion know that there are majorities of populations who agree that “capitalism is morally bankrupt” and want another system, but who are unable to agree what the alternative is. The Covid event is giving us all glimpses of capitalism rendered incapable of operating normally and being rescued by their government’s actions, such as printing vast sums of money for citizens to pay rent and collect wages while unable to earn income from employment.
Will we abandon capitalism because of what we learned in the pandemic? No.
But perhaps we will reform it? Canada and Denmark enacted legislation to help business pay employees while the workers stayed home; 75% of wages would be covered by government funding. Canada’s CERB program handed out cheques in the amount of $2000 per adult; can a guaranteed-minimum-income program be far behind? Richard Canning, MP for Kootenay-Boundary, has declared the monthly cheques can become permanent when we enter The New Normal. Is he correct?
Look south, Canadians, for another view of normal. The USA has not supported the unemployed and small businesses with government hand-outs. People are desperate for want of money. Food, rent, fuel, and medical expenses drive them to despair. Millions of Americans are reported demanding the end of regulations stopping them from going back to work. Their President wants to open the economy again, turn the switch on. Texas, that state that has shaped Alberta’s culture due to the link of oil, is one place people are loud about no more lock-down; Michigan is another. The President tweets out, “Liberate Minnesota!” from Covid-control rules.
So, what is coming after the crisis? In a phrase, Capitalism wins again! That is what I see as the effect of Covid. All the many words I have seen and heard from people who want a new normal, cannot alter the outcome. The entrenched path is our master: work, earn, collect pay, spend pay, repeat. We follow, as water flows in a pipe. It is just not the case, that this pandemic has the power to transform us.
The inertia, the momentum, of economic habit and its system-power over human consciousness, means we will be back to the old normal in two years. You read it here first, or maybe second…
In the past, there was a notorious example of momentous change wrought on an entire civilization by a plague; it happened in Europe between 1345 and 1353. The Black Death changed European society, because it killed so many. Covid has not killed anything like the numbers needed to make such change. I describe only the West; I cannot yet say what’s going on elsewhere.
“After the Black Death, the survivors… learned to control population growth… learned to enforce ruthless quarantines. In time, they learned to develop vaccines… They had invented guns, clocks, printed books, new kinds of ships, new forms of art and of religion, new philosophies, new sciences… And they did all this before the French and Industrial revolutions accentuated the differences between Western Europe and the rest of the world even further.” –– George Hubbert, After the Black Death
Europe’s population was cut by half; lords fared better than bourgeois and peasant.
Note this historical coincidence: the medieval economy was transformed by the mass deaths in the bubonic plague; the earliest spores of infant capitalism developed in Italy thereafter. Capitalism, its social order and institutions originated after the epidemic of the fourteenth century, not as the effect of one cause, but still related.
Social Class, unnatural selection
“People say, ‘the virus does not differentiate.’ But society differentiates.” These words from an English doctor say something important. The virus might kill anyone. But as per usual in human affairs, the probabilities of its lethality were not evenly distributed, nor random, in human society. The people already having least, situated at the bottom of social hierarchies, living in Earth’s poorer nations with desperate economies, were far more likely to suffer death when Covid became epidemic among them. Covid was an agent of human population reduction, but not randomly.
Darwinian “natural selection” hypothesizes that better adaptation by species to an environment determines which species survive and which will be “chosen” for extinction. Social Darwinism argues that people who rule, who sit atop social pyramids, prove they are better adapted.
Thomas Malthus, an Englishman contemporary with Darwin, argued human populations are controlled by Nature with events such as war, famine, plague, or natural catastrophes. Covid is being hailed by some, as HIV/AIDS was previously, as a malthusian event. Earth is overpopulated by humans. David Suzuki has been referring to mass die-offs of species, and people speak casually about the Sixth Extinction.
Humans and their organization, economies, politics, are responsible as much as the virus for who was marked to die. This isn’t just nature at work; it’s human history working its effects across societal structures where the few thrive, masses strive.
One of the most enduring patterns of human behaviour is our capacity for kindness and unselfishness in a time of crisis and desperate need in our communities. This might be called Human Nature. We are social beings. We have compassion and empathy for other humans. “We are all in this Together” was almost an official pandemic slogan in English. Stories of exceptional sharing, gratitude, and kindness, have been broadcast across all media and consumed by the publics of all nations.
But humans are vastly complicated. Feeling for others, desire to help, is not the only outstanding quality we have revealed in history. What else have we learned about humans’ darker side during the pandemic? Nothing, I would say, we did not already know. Attempts by hoarders of essential products to sell them at panic prices, make profit from the crisis, were surely notoriously well-reported.
Individualism: live free or die, collectivist forces be damned
Historians can observe changes in human culture over long periods of time. One phenomenon around which there is consensus, is this: human beings since ancient times have evidenced a growing sense of individual selfhood across millennia. The human animal, its thinking and doing, has not existed in a constant condition. Cattle or fish may have the quality of consistent being, but our kind of consciousness is a work in evolution. We can participate in that process knowingly.
A human mind of the time of Abraham was quite unlike minds of people of Buddha’s time a thousand years later, and from the era of Jesus to our own day people have become far more conscious of their individuality and inward character. Socrates said “know thyself.” That thought was unthinkable for a Sumerian around 3,000 BCE.
Ultimately we arrive at twentieth-century humanity, when we each hold hard to an ideal of our own uniqueness, each of us with our gift only one person has, each of us encouraged to share our gifts; I call it the Oprah Winfrey gospel, and I am as much under its spell as anyone. This column has been my forum to promote the ideology.
But when “we are all in this pandemic together” and are told to act responsibly toward our community and even our species, individualism has not prepared us to embrace the unselfish act and the undistinguished role of an ordinary, average person. The American president is only an extreme example, a narcissistic freak, of how humans in Western culture learn to understand our character and identity as special individuals.
From this fact of our socio-psychological formation proceeds the trouble we witness now when people do not calmly do as authorities and experts ask. Defiance of rules and disobedience to bans is an expression of personal liberty and characterological strength in the minds of many. The protest messages of Americans who want an end to stay-at-home orders and physical-distance laws reveal how some people justify their behaviour: they love freedom, they are fiercely attached to liberty, etc.
Whole regions and nations of the world have manifested this shadow side of individualist values. The US South has a peculiar and particular history underlying the defiance of that area to pandemic-control measures; thus we see crowds on Florida beaches and mass street protests in Texas. On the other hand, Sweden has not attempted to regulate people by law, believing that the Swedish character is so well-formed its citizens will themselves do what is best because they understand what that is.
Where an entire cultural formation, what is termed Western civilization, has come to value the independent judgment of the free person, these are some consequences. Of course the book to read is by Charles Eisenstein, The Ascent of Humanity.
Climate, Extinction, Penitence
Readers will already anticipate my take on whether the pandemic has taught us to stop abusing our environment, stop putting filth from economic activity into our habitats, stop extinguishing other species.
No, we will not stop, merely because we saw how our inactivity was so beneficial for the air, water, and land. We feel badly, we may repent, but we cannot stop. Eight billion humans want to live. One economy has been keeping the population alive and increasing. That will continue. Observe China: it’s the examplar-teacher here.
As I wrote above, there will not be a globally-shared consensus narrative to describe the events of this year, the virus and its consequences. What one thinks one knows will depend in large part on where you live and work, your education, your politics and religion, your class, and your intrinsic temperament. Optimists will differ with pessimists. Perhaps your ethnicity and culture will have an influence.
China’s ruling Party has a party line on Covid; in Russia, Putin’s regime will propagate another. Those two versions will have a lot of traction outside their nations where people have reason to want good relations with these large powers. Inside the US, political differences will determine a lot about one’s perspective, with Republicans differing markedly from the Democrats’ orthodoxy. The UN and its agency the WHO will publish official accounts. Canada’s schools will have a version.
In democracies, the anti-vax movement will contest official narrative of governments and health authorities. There are tendrils of this movement in most Western nations now, an acknowledged subculture of resistance to Big Science and Pharmaceutical corporations. A vaccine for the Covid virus will be welcomed by many, not all. What to do with vaccine resisters is a question of huge significance for public policy.
Justice Delayed, Law Frozen
A note is urgently in order about how shutting of our courthouses and the delay for people needing court services, lawyers, trials, and justice, must affect many lives.
Canada’s Charter of Rights recognizes the principle that “justice delayed is justice denied.” Crime rates elevated in the crisis, domestic-abuse statistics also.
If ever there were lessons to learn from the shut-downs caused by the pandemic, surely we can learn them in the institutions of our justice system. I look forward to a serious inquiry into how the system can work better; it begins with a commitment to spend much more on it, as we must do for healthcare systems in all provinces.
Economics Primer: our supply chain is vulnerable, our workers underpaid
It only requires a note here, that we have learned a lot of “economic science” in this crisis. We know what a supply chain is, and that Canada must ensure we can produce a domestic supply of essential goods and services in future; we know we have underpaid healthcare workers, transport drivers, and retail clerks because they are in fact lifesavers in a crisis, and high pay is how we can show we value them.
Will we reconstruct our capitalist system in the light of these learnings? Stay tuned …
The Inner Life and the Worldly Mind
“Few people today take the time to think about what goes on within them. Even fewer attempt to do something about what they feel.” –– J. H. Loria
I had much to say in the latest Arc on the subject of the interior life and what use people might make of the enforced social isolation and quiet solitude during the pandemic. As this period has lengthened and the experience of time alone with oneself has added up, I have noticed a fair bit of new commentary on the topic. The internet is not the solution to all ills of being alone at home, and many have learned this. We are led to lessons of the interior life, a new frontier for many among us.
For me this development of inner resources among people previously solely focused on the outer world, is a positive. It is here, in the alteration of each person who is one thread in the social fabric, that real, fundamental changes in society, economy, and politics, might emerge. Being worldly and materialistic was the mainstream default of big majorities of people before this crisis. Now we can come back out into the world with new learning acquired by the challenge of enforced lack of outward activity. Or we can go back to sleep, rush headlong backward to what was normal before now… No doubt, some will revert and some will be forever transformed.
Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose ?
It is possible that whatever alterations we witness as a result of the pandemic, of our policies, our emotions, and our learning – reality will feel fundamentally unchanged. The French proverb is wise: the more things change, the more it’s the same thing. I understand how quickly I personally assimilate a change and soon feel nothing has been transformed, so well does the human mind adapt thanks to the effect of brain neuroplasticity. This is why effort to stay conscious, to remember, to contemplate, will be so very imperative for us. I’m an educator. I want people to learn.
Conclusions: Making your contribution, feeling the difference
My perspective and my prejudices have been made explicit and transparent as I wrote this, or so I intended. I have laid bare my intention to contribute to understanding what the pandemic has done and to put some content into the narrative of this time. You, reader, might be of a mind to think about your work.
As for what difference I may have made, only someone looking back from the coming age will be able to assess it. As with my children, I don’t know what effects I’ve had on the identity and character that is theirs.
Befitting a strange new time, today I wrote my Conclusions before I’d written anything else. I feel the powerful urge to Make This Count. I mean to turn this unprecedented opportunity offered by our global health crisis to good purpose.
I feel relatively powerless to do that. I offer words, thoughts in print, because that is my habit and my skill, but this crisis has revealed to me the colossal dimension of the problem of steering human history. Few people read or hear my words. Fewer still act on them.
So, why would anyone – a great teacher like Gautama or Jesus or Confucius, or a powerful leader like Gandhi or Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela – believe their actions would have value? Because that is what humans do. Try to make a difference for their peers. Whatever one feels is one’s talent, gift, or capability, put that to some purpose. Now’s the time.
I am not a Hegelian “world-historical man of destiny” as Napoleon, Alexander, and Adolf knew themselves to be. I’m happy not to feel such egotist insanity, for I am certain such people harm far more than help. There are plenty of those types now at large in our world, still doing what such minds always have done: lead by domination and force, not by the hard, slow path of persuasion.
The pandemic will be in retreat by the next time I compose a column here. Its effects will not be worked out. Those will take a long time, decades, perhaps a century.
You, reader, must believe that you have your part in steering where we go from here.