Wednesday, March 31, 2021
5:40 a.m. A couple of days ago, we were discussing the virus and society, and you ended by saying, “Pay attention,” in response to my query as to what we might do. Yesterday we went off on a different tack, but I want to come back to that. You were comparing the virus and its effects to the world wars and their effects on society, and on individuals in society.
Yes, and that final phrase you added is important, and shows us (if we didn’t know it anyway) that you understand what we are talking about.
After all this time, I should! You have been telling us for years that the purpose of society is to provide an environment for each individual, as opposed to the idea that individuals are made to form and support a society. That’s clumsily said, but let’s get to your points for today, and just leave it as, “This world is made for the maintenance of individuals and not for the nurturance of abstractions like societies.”
We are very tempted to linger and address this, though. Bookmark it in your mind and we will gladly devote a session (or more if need be) to explicating it.
Okay, but not right now.
No. Very well, here is our point, and all else will be elucidation. It may be worth your while to consider this virus World War III, only not in the sense of one coalition of nations or empires against another; rather, in the sense of an international disruption of “business as usual” that in effect has its own agenda, transcending any and all human agendas. This is the key to many things.
I think some people sense the “agenda” part of it, and are tempted to ascribe it to human agency: to the Chinese, or to Bill Gates, or to whatever sinister force they suspect is really running things.
Like the analogy you and Hemingway developed and explored. Touch on that.
The sense of it was that the nature of technological development – what people call “progress” – instils a constant bias toward interconnection which then brings a need for greater regulation. People who sense the bias tend to ascribe it to some human secret intent, and only rarely see it as an unintended necessary consequence of greater integration of trade, communication, etc.
That same sense of bias leads some to think this virus is created and directed by humans for human ends. Surely you can see that this is a reasonable response.
Reasonable but inaccurate.
Exactly, reasonable but inaccurate. And that goes for every explanation of any phenomenon that transcends categories. You see the analogies to the world wars: Sketch them lightly.
Because less strain for me to do it than to take dictation?
Less emotional strain, for reasons discussed many times.
Okay. Joe Blow and careful historians and everyone in between cite the “real reasons” for the wars, and usually they are somewhat correct as far as they go. So, World War I: protection or growth of empires; competition for trade; personal antagonisms among emperors and statesmen; racial and ethnic hatreds; the sheer inability of older institutions to deal with new conditions; the arms race and its nurturance over decades by what came to be called “the merchants of death” (arms dealers). Even things like the railroads have been blamed to some extent – or, say, technology in general, including telegraph, telephone, and anything else that brought crowded Europeans into closer connection – hence into conflict – with one another.
None of these “deeper” explanations explain, however.
Of course not. Napoleon and Caesar were not created by railroads and telegraph systems. The Mongol invasions weren’t spurred by an arms race. There is no “one size fits all” answer to World War I, or any war.
Now World War II, again briefly, but stressing the difference between the two wars.
Well, that’s why they call it “II”: It was the second act that never would have occurred without the first act. In 1914 nobody in power really wanted war, though they all had their plans in place if war should come. But the second war was the result of a few individuals understanding the changed conditions and using them to attain power: This was the military in Japan, the fascists in Italy, and the Nazis in Germany, all following by a few years and all emotionally spurred by reaction to the Communist revolution of 1917 that marked the beginning of the end of the first war. The first war was a matter of societies bumbling their way into water too deep for them. The second war was an organized cadre in several nations who were out to get revenge for the results of the first, or were to take advantage of the opportunities offered by chaos, or were sheer orgies of hatred and lust for destruction.
In both these examples, this is very simplified, but – what you want?
It will do. Now, in a few words, the change from 1914 to 1945.
You don’t want much! For one thing, the destruction of empires – Russian, German, Austrian, Turkish – and the weakening of the ones like the British that survived and appeared to be among the victors.
The submergence of Europe and the rise of the U.S. and the USSR as superpowers. The beginning of the third-world revolts that would end the last of the European empires within a few years. The transformation of all-out war into an impossibility (though it took a while to be realized) because the atomic bomb would render the fruits of victory “ashes in the mouth.”
But perhaps more fundamentally, the transformation of the lives of ordinary people. The old master-servant relationship that was so taken for granted in Europe broke up, opening the ground for today’s more equitable social structure there. And I sense that this is what you really want to talk about.
You might have made explicit the elevation of technological requirements (what Europeans tended to think of as Americanization) and the continued erosion or demolition of folkways remaining from simpler times, but yes, this is the point that applies to your times in general and to this virus in particular. You are not going to send a generation to die on barbed wire or by poison gas, nor will you die in blitzes nor be subject to extermination campaigns. But you have your own ordeals ahead. And just as with previous ordeals, they will not be understood in advance. They never are. It is because they are transformative that they occur. What transformative event ever came with explanations? With omens, yes. With aspects that later lead you to say, “We should have been able to see,” yes. But never with explanation at the time, much less beforehand.
So, today. It won’t be the past, it won’t continue to be the present. It will be the unknowable future, which will transform society, but that is not something new: The future is always transforming society into something new. The question is: How will you deal with it?
Is that the question? I thought we were going to discuss the effects of the virus on society.
Are we not doing that? To really look at effects, you must understand causes, or at least, must understand the conditions from which the effects spring. And that is your society as it is.
We confine ourselves to America, given that you are an American with only second-hand experience of the rest of the world. Non-Americans ought to be able to apply our words to their situation.
Do you think your present situation is sustainable? (These are to be seen as rhetorical questions, yet real ones.)
Does a society that has as its unstated operative principle “Every man for himself” have a longer shelf-life than one that says “One for all and all for one”?
If technology produces wealth, but does not automatically distribute that wealth – who does? The “invisible hand” that older economists believed in? The dictatorship of the proletariat? Representative democracy? Some technocracy or government of “wise men” as has been suggested from time to time?
If some starve and others overeat, is that the ordained natural order of things or is it bad management or is it malicious indifference?
If the world’s intellectual and emotional treasures can be enjoyed only after a certain amount of preparation, does a society have a vested interest in seeing that its members have that preparation? Does it have a moral responsibility to provide it?
If “without vision, the people perish,” can vision be imposed? Can it be fostered? Transmitted? engendered?
Now, we have taken up your hour, and we know you feel we didn’t get very far, but we assure you, that glimpse at your near history is important for perspective. Your present moment always rests upon the near past, which itself rested upon its near past. It’s dangerous and futile to move in swinging, when you don’t know what has been going on. You can’t correct injustice or inefficiency or blindness by decreeing them outlawed. You don’t repair motors by tightening or loosening bolts at random. You don’t grow crops by good intent and no understanding of what they need. You know all this, but occasionally it is worth restating.
The meta-message today, that we didn’t get to, seems like “Your society is a mess, and it’s going to take something huge to shake up things enough that you start to fix it.”
That might be true in its own terms, but we remind you, the individual is realer than the abstraction you call society. We have to deal with abstractions to make larger statements, but that doesn’t make them realer than they are. This is about you, as individuals who are also communities. It is not about society except secondarily.
That’s my whole career here, as it turns out.
Could we have told you at the beginning, when you didn’t have the terms or the context?
No, I understand that’s always the constraint you work under: How much can we understand at any given time on any given subject.
Fortunately, in each case a person’s own non-3D component will help.
Well, this is 70 minutes. I could continue, but I get that we’re at a place to pause anyway.
We are. Thank you for your attention. We will continue when it is convenient.
Our thanks as always.