I think we’ve all observed that the COVID saga has been harder on some people than others.
I also think different parts of the saga have been harder on some than others.
Among the people the current moment is hardest on is one of my best pals. Which is particularly disturbing, because this is one of the most congenitally cheerful people I know, and also one of the most rational. He is a lawyer, and a good one. He is one of the most thoughtful and articulate liberals I know. And judging from the angry texts I’m getting in the middle of the day, he’s losing his goddamn mind.
Can’t believe we’re going back to blanket K-12 mask mandates. Offended by the safety theater, like having to wear a mask when standing up in a bar, but not sitting down. Infuriated at the ever-changing official guidance, beginning with the initial lockdown: “15 days to slow the spread. Then it was to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed. Then it was until there’s a vaccine. Then until everybody who wants the vaccine can get it. What now? We are never going to eliminate COVID. What’s the end point?”
He points out that “the odds of a vaccinated person being hospitalized with COVID are statistically zero,” and if I read him right, he believes everyone should get on with their lives, leaving it up to those who don’t get vaccinated, whatever their reasons, to protect themselves the best they can, and let COVID take the hindmost. (With the exception of measures to protect small children until they can be vaccinated.)
I think a lot of us feel that way. I know I do, a hell of a lot of the time. Members of my family who are in caring professions differ quite sternly when I start making Darwinian-sounding grunts. Of course, I respect that. Caring for other people is the reason they live. I also respect people who remind me—amid fulminations for which I do not apologize—that it’s always more complicated than I think, and I’m usually more self-involved than I know.
But it’s not protecting my own life that makes me feel so savage. I could easily clip my own wings for another year, another three years, another decade as our dysfunctional nation staggered stupidly along, beating back COVID this season and having it come back in waves and new variants next. I’ve already lived a lot of my good life, had a happy marriage and a wonderful child, enjoyed many friends, traveled in six continents and poured all that experience into a book that no one can ever take away from me. So if I never get in an airplane again, so what. Probably good for the environment anyway.
But that child of mine. We all say we’d lay down our lives to save our kids. But what will we do to give our kids a crack at a great life of their own? I won’t chain myself to a bulldozer to prevent my child from having to wear a mask (and try to learn from masked teachers) for her senior of high school, sad as that would make me. But I am afraid that another year or two of remote learning and major disruption could truly break her, and her generation. Stunt its learning, shatter its confidence in the future, scatter its focus and encourage it to trade in any remaining dreams for another TikTok video.
And to protect that, I’m inclined to be pretty callous toward the unvaccinated, and probably altogether too willing to accept the collateral damage that a “COVID-take-the-hindmost” policy would surely create. But collateral damage is a fact of war. And this really does feel like a war, to me. And not a war against Trump-loving anti-vaxxers, or incorrigibly suspicious Black Americans.
It’s a war against the particular dumbness of American culture, which has dulled all our minds, as one.
F. Scott Fitzgerald said the definition of intelligence is being able to “hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
Opposing ideas, hell. Most Americans can’t hold any two ideas in mind at the same time.
And the two ideas we are least able to process, privately or publicly, are:
We want to protect life.
We want to live life.
In my lifetime, America’s three biggest blunders were made possible by Americans’ inability to hold these ideas in mind at the same time—and thus see safety and risk on a continuum:
Americans believed politicians who told them we went into Vietnam to keep America “safe” from the spread of Communism. As if “safety” was a yes-or-no proposition.
We invaded Iraq on the basis of keeping Americans “safe” from weapons of mass destruction that we were sort of pretty sure that Saddam Hussein had his hands on.
And now we are madly, drunkenly, stupidly over-steering from one policy to another on COVID—even now, with a president whose personal foibles don’t remind us of King Lear with a comb-over.
Not just because we’re politically crazed, each of us starring in a huge national political version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe.
But also because for a very long time, “home of the brave” has been the land of, “If it saves the life of just one child.”
Which has forced it to also become the nation of, “To hell with your child, I’m going to live my life.”
Personal freedom and civic responsibility are not ideas easily juggled by the American mind, either. Which is a shame, because our entire system relies on their sensible interplay.
COVID is asking us, as a culture and as individuals, to be smarter than this. Anthony Fauci is asking us to be smarter than this. But he and the best-intentioned leaders and commentators are necessarily affected by this particular dumbness of American culture. Children need rules, and those rules must be cut and dried, and sometimes they feel draconian because, Am I really going to get a cramp and drown if I get in the pool 15 minutes after eating a hamburger rather than 20? I said 20 minutes!
And that’s the idea that I think my lawyer friend has a hard time holding in his large mind. He makes his living helping his client assess the risk of taking or not taking a certain action. He sees risk all day, every day, on a continuum, low, moderate and high. He makes million-dollar recommendations based on such thinking. He knows some of it is guesswork. And he helps his clients understand that, too. Taking some chances is just a part of doing business. (Lawyers really are good at thinking about this stuff even as it applies to the pandemic; I was impressed by the subtle, thoughtful approach a Houston law firm took, to keeping most of its employees in the office throughout COVID.)
So when my lawyer friend hears, “the odds of a vaccinated person being hospitalized with COVID are statistically zero,” that is a no-brainer for him. But to many Americans, that sounds like, “Oh God, there’s still a chance.”
I ride a motorcycle. I’ve ridden in the Andes mountains and, even more dangerous, on Ashland Avenue. I think that forces me to assess risk—and to accept some. And to constantly reassess, deciding which safety equipment to wear for which trips, in which conditions. When to let my daughter ride on the back, when not to. Motorcyclists wave to one another when they pass—whether they’re riding Trumpy Harleys or urban liberal Triumphs. I think one of the mutual understandings that wave communicates is that we’ve both thought a lot about risk in life, and come to similar conclusions.
Most Americans don’t think explicitly about risk, and so don’t talk explicitly about risk, and so can’t be talked to explicitly about risk—only about absolute “safety,” or reckless “danger.”
So they either stay away from motorcycles altogether. Or they ride stark naked in the rain.
Which is their personal right. Except the mindset got a lot of Americans (and countless others) killed or permanently crazed in Vietnam and Iraq.
And it’s making it absolutely impossible to deal intelligently and humanely with this pandemic, despite incredible medical science and all the resources in the world.
And it’s driving my lawyer friend out of his mind.
Me, too, it sounds like.