In a Senate hearing, Rand Paul said plainly to Anthony Fauci what everyone knows and is the most easily documented fact in the US experience of the pandemic: “You are the one responsible, you are the architect — you are the lead architect for the response from the government.”
Fauci very quickly protested: “Senator, first of all, if you look at everything I said, you accuse me of, in a monolithic way, telling people what they need to do. Everything that I’ve said has been in support of the CDC guidelines.”
This is the model that will consume all public discussion of the pandemic response in the future: seeking but never finding anyone to bear responsibility. This is typical for episodes in history that are characterized by mass frenzy and distorted fanaticism. Once the mania is gone, it is hard to find anyone who is willing to accept responsibility for feeding it and acting upon it.
The historical precedent for this is eerie. Stefan Zweig, writing in the 1930s and 1940s, described the mood in Vienna at the beginning of Europe’s first attempt at collectivist self-destruction – the Great War, or World War I:
“It soon became impossible to converse reasonably with anybody in the first war weeks of 1914. The most peaceable and the most good-natured were intoxicated with the smell of blood. Friends whom I had looked upon as decided individualists and even as philosophical anarchists, changed over night into fanatic patriots and from patriots into insatiable annexionists.”
We search in the past for some inkling of what, however horrific, may lay in the cards for our future. Zweig’s romantic and well-written story, The World of Yesterday: Memoires of a European, is one of the most powerful and celebrated accounts of what went wrong with the golden age before 1914.
Many of us today can relate to the quote above. Once more we try to find our way out of a collectivist self-destruction. How does one engage with those so riled up by bloodlust and out-group intolerance, those who, just a few years before, had been both respectful and affectionate?
When something big changes in the world, the kind of thing that demands and mainstreams everyone’s attention – for Zweig and his friends, a nationalistic war; for us a pandemic of unstoppable domination – uncrossable divides seem to turn friend into foe. However do we mend these wounds?
Most of us just give up, and check out. Zweig certainly did: “Nothing remained but to withdraw into one’s self and to keep silent while the others ranted and raved.” This too shall pass. Or so one hopes – but does it take a few months or years? What if it takes decades?
The impossible question from realizing that this personal and societal gap won’t heal, is whom to hold responsible once the mad rush ends. Jeffrey Tucker observers that the buck doesn’t seem to stop with anyone, and those who make some of the critical pandemic decisions are quietly – and not so quietly – exiting the scene:
“Everyone had an alibi. It became one big mush of bureaucracy with no accountability. […] The buck is always passed on and up in the chain of command but no one will accept the blame and bear the consequences.”
In an upcoming book, Vaclav Smil, the prolific Czech-Canadian energy theorist, remarks on this unaccountability. The closing chapter of the modestly titled How the World Really Works asks its readers to think back to the Great Recession in 2007-2008, and try to remember to whom we assigned the blame:
“Despite the promises of new beginnings and bold departures, old patterns and old approaches soon resurface to set the stage for another round of failures. I ask any readers who doubt this to check sentiments during and immediately after the great financial crisis of 2007-2008 — and compare them with the post-crisis experience. Who has been found responsible for this systemic near collapse of the financial order? What fundamental departures (besides enormous injections of new monies) were taken to reform questionable practices or to reduce economic inequality?”
All we seem able to agree on is that somebody, somewhere, did something wrong – what exactly that was and who, therefore, was to blame remains unclear.
Think tanks, of this or that ideological flavor, wrote long and exhaustive reports of what had gone wrong, including names of the guilty – who either ignored the accusation or disputed them. The government had an Inquiry Commission, a 600-page report, including dissenting statements by members of the commission who couldn’t agree with one another.
The word “blame” is used 22 times, but never levied at an identifiable person, only institutions: the SEC; mortgage-brokers; the underwriters Fannie and Freddie; “the complexity of the supervisory system”; or the Fed’s low interest rates. Political parties pointed fingers at one another, and spun reasonable-sounding stories for how they, if only they had been in power, would have prevented this obvious disaster – or at least dealt better with the aftermath. An easy thing to say; not so easy to prove.
Of course, the banking-finance-money system was too complex to conclusively decide “who did it,” even with all the cards on that splendid hindsight table. About ninety years later, scholars still argue over what caused the Great Depression; two hundred (three hundred?) years later, historians can’t conclusively establish which of the half-dozen or so most prominent explanations for the Industrial Revolution best fits the facts – and it’s only the minor question of why we are rich.
The same thing will happen to the origins of Sars-CoV-2 and the pandemic debacles in the last two years. On this, I fear Smil is right:
“Nobody will ever be found responsible for any of the many strategic lapses that guaranteed the mismanagement of the pandemic even before it began.”
Some people will blame certain officials,
“but those will be promptly ignored and will make no difference to deeply ingrained habits. Did the world take any resolute steps after the pandemics of 1918-1919, 1958-1959, 1968-1969, and 2009?”
In the spring of 2020, the analogies didn’t go to the pandemics of the 1950s and 1960s – comparatively mild and uneventful that almost nobody remembered them fifty years later. Instead, we brought out the Spanish Flu from 1918, the dragon-king extreme of power law events to which pandemics and earthquakes both belong. It wasn’t a reasonable comparison to make, but who acted reasonably in those dreadful months?
Throwing mud is easy; building bridges is hard. How we return to the latter after years in the mud pits is far from clear. Our best bet rests with people like Vaclav Smil – or Joe Rogan, or Sam Harris, if he decided to open his pandemic-closed eyes. People without a clear ideological position, and who can thus appeal to audiences across the political spectrum. People who ask reasonable questions, have a modicum of independence from captured institutions or political influence, and are willing to change their minds when presented with convincing evidence to the contrary. People who don’t have an ax to grind or an ideological audience to cater to.
Above all: people who share a commitment to truth.
It’s a long shot, and with a world this dark it seems pretty hopeless. Zweig’s example isn’t encouraging: he took his own life in 1942, but only after most of his adult life was spent witnessing madness after violent madness.
However tragic his ending, I find comfort in his story – comfort that we’re nowhere near the extent of societal collapse, despair, and targeted extermination that characterized his adult life. No matter how often we make the analogy and how often today’s clouds at the horizon look like those of the 1930s, we must remember that we’re very far off.
We still have plenty of bridges to build.
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