U.S. professor of history at John Hopkins University, Mike Vlahos, in a series of short interviews with John Batchelor, tells us how Coronavirus has become a fiery pivot, pushing different leaders in the U.S. to take existential stands on how to deal with this virus. With various separate American states insisting to pursue directly polarised paths: Mandated ‘sheltering’ (the U.S. term for distancing) versus economic opening; States versus the Federal government; Blue versus Red; Dems versus GOP; ‘authoritarianism’ versus Laissez Faire and traditional American liberties – and now, internal state, Blue-Red conflicts (i.e. Ventura County versus California’s Governor, on the burning issue of open or closed beaches); and even, counties versus states.
Vlahos notes the point is that that the battleground, thanks to the virus, has turned existential. No more is Blue/Red just a crafted rhetorical flourish – It is embodied; it is of biological flesh; it cuts into flesh – even as the virus’ future is unknown. In fact, the unknown deepens fears. The choice: ‘food on the table’ in a re-opened the economy (even at the real risk of those ‘doctors of death’ returning), or to play safe, passively, with distancing. The collective psyche is split; passions are raised; weapons are flourished, and militia parade. This is not theatre: Its fervour is suffused into daily life: masks or not; socialise or not; work or not.
“The U.S. constitutional order is fissuring before our eyes: That we have skirted constitutional crisis for the past quarter century, is no reassurance: [as] each new test is yet more bitterly contested, and still less resolved”, Vlahos explains.
“Today, two irreconcilable visions of American life believe that they can continue only if they own the whole order”, Vlahos argues. “Yet, ours has been a shared constitutional order … The single-minded drive toward this goal – especially now by Blue state Democrats—has embrittled our constitutional order, and is creating the basis for a full-scale legitimacy crackup”.
The Executive – initially claiming sole authority over Covid practice – has backed down, in the face of governors asserting (correctly) that they enjoy co-sovereignty with the Federal government. The Blue and the Red governors – both – are at entirely cross-purposes, yet both are exercising their respective sovereignties – flagrantly.
Trump, meanwhile, is astride both horses: He cheers on the Second Amendment libertarian rebels, whilst at the same time, putting in place a wholly authoritarian, Federalised, bail-out economy, at the apex of which he will preside – having completed his ‘coup’ through merging the Treasury and Fed together, as a single (dollar) printing press – and atop a cascading monetary cornucopia.
Today, there are two irreconcilable visions of American life. After 1992, the two parties alternated presidents every eight years. Yet, with each succeeding administration, the political milieu has grown yet more rancorous and divided. There is no relationship between parties now — save as sworn enemies, Vlahos observes.
On the one side, we have ‘Unionists’, who expect public deference towards the judgements and authority of the élite technocracy (whether financial or medical), and on the other, a tradition of state sovereignty, dating back to the 1871 (the Articles of Confederacy), which grant no deference towards the Federal authorities – but rather is suffused with disdain for them. Hence the culture of (often armed) militia, ready to fight ‘the Feds’ for their ‘liberties’.
This latter touches a deep skein of emotion: the ancient fight against the tentacles of the British Imperial Octopus to secure America’s ‘liberties’. Thus, lockdown, and the medical world’s dire predictions necessitating economic shut-down, smack of ‘another agenda’ (the octopus agenda) – a backdoor, by which the globalists can complete their (imagined) project to feudalise an otherwise free people. One consequence of this is that, post-virus, the lockdown and the epidemiologists will be widely blamed for the coming depression – and the risky bubbles in the economy that were already inflated before virus, will be forgotten.
Vlahos is a tad coy on whether, or how, some reconciliation of these estranged parties can come about. The New Yorker opines in a similar vein: “The pandemic has dangerously deepened divisions across America—a nation already riven in recent years by race, class, religion, and trash-talking politics. The concept of ‘one nation, indivisible’ seems ever more elusive, even unattainable, in these anxious days of deadly pathogens, soaring joblessness, and food shortages. For many, the future seems so uncertain. So does survival, a privilege taken as a virtual right by the majority of Americans courtesy of economic and medical achievements since the Second World War.”
In this context of a ‘nation fissured’, the U.S. military have issued some catchy posters, urging national unity and the wearing of face-masks. (They can be seen here). And they all crib a notably nostalgic WW2 style: “It’s a woman’s war too”; “Fight the spread of coronavirus”, and “Let’s all fight” (as a GI lunges forward, in attack mode, his gleaming bayonet fixed).
Ok, Ok, everyone today is employing the military meme. That’s not the point. Ask historian, Professor Vlahos. He will tell you the salient point is that the American Civil War never really ended, and is still there, latent, today – except …
Except … during FDR’s term in office, when America fought WW2 – that’s the point. Only then was America a unitive state: ‘one nation, undivided’. That is, when it was fighting a war. So how to reconcile America’s split psyche? How to win re-election? Well … Blame China. Hot or cold? Who knows? It’s going to be a long, fraught six months ‘til November.
At one level, the targeting of China, might be viewed as a defensive change-the-narrative ploy, when blame for any U.S. poor handling of the Coronavirus contagion inevitably will be exploited electorally. But at another level, the danger is that the White House and Pentagon seem to be pivoting towards giving substance to the rhetoric. In this election year, someone must be blamed (that is the standard practice in politics), but in so doing, we are rapidly moving in the direction of the unknown.
What we suspect is that this is likely to become a ‘war’ of system-fragilities. This is China – no small fry. Nassim Taleb makes the point that it is easy to detect system-fragility: Fragility (and its opposite) can almost always be detected, using a simple test of asymmetry: Anything that sustains itself through sudden change (or shock), is resilient; the reverse is fragile. Washington, by its own liberal market metrics, believes the Chinese economy to be extremely fragile. We know however, that China has been long preparing for just such an (expected) moment.
Will China prove the more fragile? Both have undoubted fragilities to their economies; and yet, a political system that is “fissuring before our eyes”, is that not an obvious fragility? Will a sudden ‘shock’ fragment it into parts? Or, will escalation against China bring about another FDR ‘moment’ of healing for its split psyche? China, on the other hand, enjoys a certain popular solidarity, and the experience of regimentation. The Party remains a formidable ‘machine’, reaching into all spheres of life. Are these not the signs of resilience? Many unknowns.
Europeans will have no call to be smug about these U.S. fissures – for they have their own. Did not the 2016 Presidential election prefigure today’s rise of states-sovereignty-ism in the U.S.? Did not 2016 and Brexit prefigure today’s ‘populism’ in Europe? Will the virus bring these ‘fissured’ European visions to an open assault on an EU ‘octopus’ already found wanting in the face of Covid-19?
In the U.S., the Virus has spun-off ancient, irreconcilable differences about the nature of the State and the nature of power in the wake of their civil war. European thinking, between the two world wars, fell into relativism, nihilism, and the brooding existentialism of an Albert Camus. It also witnessed massive, blood-stained, governmental intrusions into every facet of civil society – with the rise of national-socialism, Trotskyism and Stalinism. Europe consequently finds itself today immobilised with its own (apparently) irreconcilable polarities – but lacks the means to lean inwards, toward some transcending framework that might make intelligible these conflicts, and allow them to be surpassed.
The attempt to develop some impersonal philosophical standard by which to adjudicate has failed, precisely because the attempt to free ethics from history, with its stress on personal autonomy, obstructs any answer to the questions: by whose justice; by which rationality; by whose narrative are we to decide.
So the story of the Coronavirus in the West, is also the story of Nassim Taleb’s tale of that extraneous event and ‘sudden shock’, exposing our hidden fragility of presuming upon life to be both secure – and predictable. Modern Man takes himself after Prometheus: the latter is celebrated as winning Man his freedom from ‘the tyranny of the gods’. What Prometheus did however was to teach man to regard himself as autonomous; to regard nothing as sacred; to ‘strike wounds in the divine environment’; to relegate nature to a heap of raw materials; to regard technology as the highest achievement; to probe nature’s deepest secrets, and not hesitate to play with fire.
WB Yeats once said ‘God save me from thoughts men think in the mind alone. If thought were a matter of mind only, man would be a windowless monad, an ego-bound monstrosity’. Yes. Just as polar-opposites never unite at their own level, a supra-ordinate ‘third’ is always required, through which the two, artificially warring, parts to the psyche can come together in synthesis. And since Nature derives as much from the unconscious as the conscious, perhaps the unexpected intrusion from Nature, underscoring our human precarity, and the shocking reality that constitutes Life, may be able to unite the severed spheres.
Ted Hughes, the celebrated poet and student of Shakespeare, tells his own story of escape from arid intellectual anomie in academia through The Burnt Fox, in which he remembers struggling as an undergraduate at Cambridge University with a tutorial essay. Abandoning the task in despair at two in the morning, young Ted goes to bed, and dreams that he is visited by a strange figure, half-man and half-fox, ‘just now stepped out of a furnace’ and in terrible agony from the burns that cover its body from head to foot. This enigmatic creature moves towards the desk and places its paw on the sheets on which Hughes is forlornly attempting to concoct an essay, leaving a bloody print behind, and says:
‘Stop this – you are destroying us’. Hughes wakes up a sadder and a wiser man.
And with the advent of the Coronavirus, maybe the burnt fox it is who laughs last?