The last three and a half years have been times of enormous upheaval. It has affected politics, economics, culture, media, and technology. It’s not just about the spreading of economic, cultural, and demographic decay. Millions and billions of lives have been wrecked, to be sure, but there is also a big impact on the way we see the world around us.
What we once trusted, we now doubt and even disbelieve as a matter of new habit. The simple categories of understanding that we once deployed to make sense of the world have been tested, challenged, and even overthrown. Old forms of ideological commitments have opened their way to new. This particularly pertains to intellectuals.
Or should in any case. If you have not shifted your thinking in some respect over these years, you are either a prophet, asleep, or in denial. The way social media works today, influencers are reluctant to admit it lest risk their followings built out of a prior cultural landscape. This is really too bad. There is nothing wrong with changing, adapting, migrating, and calling out truth even if that contradicts what you once said or how you used to believe.
There is no need to change your principles or ideals. What should change in light of evidence is your evaluation of the problems and threats, your outlook on the relative priorities of focus, your perceptions of the functionality of institutional structures, your awareness of issues and concerns about which you had limited prior knowledge, your political and cultural allegiances, and so on.
These days, this intellectual migration seems mainly to have affected the left. Nearly daily I find myself having the same conversations with people in person, on the phone, or online. It is from an Obama voter and someone with traditionally “liberal” allegiances.
The Covid era utterly shocked them in what they discovered about their own tribe. They aren’t liberal at all. They supported universal quarantine, forced face coverings, and then mandatory jabs pushed by a tax-funded corporate monopoly. Concerns about human rights, civil liberties, and the common good suddenly evaporated. Then of course they turned to the most blunt instrument of all: censorship.
The trauma felt by principled people who imagined themselves to be “on the left” is palpable. But the same is true of people “on the right” who were aghast to observe that it was Trump and his administration that greenlighted lockdowns, spent many trillions forcing Covid compliance, and then threw public monies at Big Pharma to rush a shot by bypassing all standards of necessity, safety, and effectiveness.
The promise to “make America great again” ended in wreckage coast-to-coast. For Trump partisans, this realization that it all happened under their hero is hard to take, a triangulating rope-a-dope. Even more strangely, it was the “never Trumpers” on the right who most strongly supported lockdowns, masking, and shot mandates.
The libertarians are another story entirely, one that nearly surpasses understanding. Among the higher echelons of this faction in academia and think tanks, the silence from the start and even years later was truly deafening. Instead of standing up to totalitarianism, as the whole of the intellectual tradition had prepared them to do, they deployed their clever heuristics to justify outrages against core freedoms, even the freedom to associate.
So, yes, observing one’s own tribe collapse into craven careerism and coercion is disorienting. But the problem goes even deeper. The most striking alliance of our time has been to observe the lockstep of the elites in government, media, tech, and academia. The reality blows apart the traditional binary of public vs private that has dominated ideological discussion for centuries.
This binary is nicely represented by the sculpture in front of the Federal Trade Commission.
It shows a man holding back a horse. It’s man vs beast, completely different species and totally different interests, one demanding to move forward and the other holding it back. The point of the sculpture is to celebrate the role of government (man) in controlling trade (industry). The contrary position would condemn government for controlling industry.
But what if the sculpture is pure fantasy even at its very structure? In reality, the horse is either carrying the man or pulling a cart that carries the man. Are they cooperating together in a partnership that is allied against consumers, stockholders, small businesses, the working classes, and people more generally? That realization – the very essence of what was revealed to us in the course of the Covid response – utterly shatters core presumptions behind the dominant ideologies of our times and going far back in time.
That realization requires a recalibration from honest thinkers.
I’m glad to start. I was going through an archive of writings from the 2010s in search of some insight or possibly something to reprint. I found many hundreds of articles. None of them jumped out at me as necessarily wrong but I found myself rather bored with their superficiality. Yes, they are entertaining and fascinating in their way but what precisely did they reveal?
There was no consumer product unworthy of rhapsodic celebration, no pop tune or movie that didn’t reinforce my biases, no new technology or company undeserving of my highest praise, no trend in the land that was contrary to my conception of progress all around us.
It’s exceedingly difficult to recreate an older state of mind but let me try. I saw myself as a composer of hymns to material progress all around us, a cheerleader of the glories of all market forces. I lived with this public-private binary. All that was good in the world came from the private sector and all that was evil came from the public sector. That easily became for me a simplistic and even Manichean conception of the great struggle, and also blinded me to the ways that these two ideal types play together in real life.
Armed with this ideological weaponry, I was ready to take on the world.
And so Big Tech came in for massive celebration from me, even to the point that I completely ignored warnings of capture and surveillance. I had a model in mind – migration to the digital realm was emancipatory while attachment to the physical world was mired in stagnation – and nothing could shake me from it.
I had also implicitly adopted an “end-of-history” style of Hegelian thinking that befits the generation that saw freedom win the great Cold War struggle. And so the final victory of liberty was always at hand, at least in my fevered imagination.
This is why the lockdowns came as such a shock to me. It flew in the face of the linear structure of historical narrative that I had constructed for myself in order to make sense of the world. This happened to many writers for Brownstone, whether traditionally associated with the right or the left.
This is why the best comparison of the Covid years might be to the Great War, the global calamity that was simply not supposed to happen based on the wild optimism cultivated during the Gilded and Victorian epochs of decades earlier. The very foundations of peace and progress had gradually eroded, and prepared the way for terrible war, but that generation of observers did not see it happening simply because they were not looking for it.
To be sure, and uniquely so far as I can tell, I had been writing about the prospect of pandemic lockdowns for the previous 15 years. I read their research, knew of their plans, and followed their germ games. I drummed up awareness and called for hard limits on what the state could do during a pandemic. At the same time, I had become accustomed to treating the academic and intellectual worlds as something exogenous to the social order. In other words, I never once believed that these cockamamie ideas would ever leak into our own lived realities.
Like so many others, I had come to regard intellectual discussion and debate as a challenging and most enjoyable parlor game that had little impact on the world. I knew for sure that there were crazy people extant who dreamed of universal human separation and the conquering of the microbial planet by force. But I had presumed that the structures of society and the trajectory of history embedded too much intelligence to actually implement such delusions. The foundations of civilization were too strong to be eroded by gibberish, or so I had believed.
What I had overlooked were several factors.
First, I didn’t understand the extent of the rise, independence, and power of the administrative state and the impossibility of controlling its authority through elective representatives. I simply did not anticipate the fullness of its reach.
Second, I had not understood the extent to which private industry had developed a full working relationship with the structures of power in its own industrial interests.
Third, I had overlooked the way consolidation and cooperation had developed between pharmaceutical companies, public health, digital enterprises, and media organs.
Fourth, I had failed to appreciate the tendency of the public mind to drop knowledge accumulated from past wisdom. For example, who would have believed that people would forget what they once knew, even from thousands of years of experience, about exposure and natural immunity?
Fifth, I did not anticipate the extent to which high-end professionals would give up all principles and curry favor with the new policy priorities of the government/media/tech/industry hegemon. Who knew that nothing about the main themes of patriotic songs and movies would have stuck when it most mattered?
Sixth, and this is perhaps my greatest intellectual failing, I had not seen how rigid class structures would feed conflicting interests between the professional class of laptop workers and the working classes who still need the physical world to accomplish their goals.
On March 16, 2020, the laptop class conspired in a forced digitalization of the world in the name of pathogenic control, and this came at the expense of some two-thirds of the population who depended on physical interactions for their livelihood and psychological well-being. This aspect of class conflict – which I had always chalked up to be a Marxian delusion – became the defining feature of the whole of our political lives. Instead, the lack of empathy from the professional class was evident everywhere, from academic opinion to media reporting. It was a society of serfs and lords.
For those who are researchers, writers, academics, or just curious people who want to understand the world better – even improve it – to have one’s intellectual operating system so profoundly disturbed is an occasion of profound disorientation. It is also a time to embrace the adventure, recalibrate, and set about correcting and finding a new path.
When your ideological system and political allegiances fail to provide the explanatory power we are seeking, it is time to improve them or give them up entirely.
Not everyone is up to the task. Indeed, this is a major reason why so many want to forget about the past three and a half years. They would rather close their eyes to the new realities and default back to their intellectual comfort zones.
For any writer or thinker of integrity, this should not be an option. As painful as it might be, it is best just to admit where we went wrong and set out to discover a better path. This is why so many of us have adopted a paradigm called the “Covid test.” Few pass. Most fail. They failed in shockingly public and inexcusable ways: left, right, and libertarian.
The influencers who flopped so badly in these years and have yet to own up to it deserve neither attention nor respect. Their attempt to pretend they were never wrong and then move on as if nothing much has happened is embarrassing and disreputable.
But those who come to terms with the wreckage all around us and seek to understand its causes and the way forward deserve a listen and appreciation. For it is these people who are doing their best to save the world from another round of disaster. As for the rest, they are taking up air space and should, in a just world, be tutoring the children with learning losses and delivering meals to the vaccine-injured.
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