Is This Coronavirus the End of the End of History?

I recently finished Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society, a compelling argument that we live in a world that has become incapable of fundamental change.

From arts and culture (endless reboots – think Star Wars and Marvel) to political gridlock to technological stagnation (as Peter Thiel says, we wanted flying cars and got 140 characters), the world has remained shockingly same-ish since the 1970s. The international order in place since the end of World War 2 has continued with no significant signs of change, in what Francis Fukuyama once called “the end of history.”

Douthat ponders what might cause “the end of the end of history” toward the end of his new book. Could we finally break through with space travel, gene modification, or some other fundamental technological change? Will we have major religious revivals that stir the stale secular air? Will some new political ideology emerge to shake up how government is done locally and internationally? Douthat suggests it might be some combination of many scenarios, each feeding from the other. But he also argues that decadence – that fundamental lack of change – may be more resilient than we think. The inertia may continue for only God knows how long.

He may have spoken too soon. One of the more interesting things about the COVID-2019 coronavirus pandemic is how it might change the stable, comfortable routines that have existed in the US and the West largely untouched since the end of World War 2.

This does not necessarily entail good things. If large numbers of people are infected or die, or if quarantines continue long enough to kill of large sectors of private enterprise, or if governments or major corporations collapse, or if governments seize and hold major new powers over civil society, or if cities convulse with looting or martial law, or we will emerge into a different world and culture. This may seem hypothetical, but we’ve already seen a whole US state declare (relative) lockdown and major steps by the government to occupy voids left by the quickly evaporating economic sectors impacted by social distancing and home isolation.

Whatever happens, if trends continue, the world of the next few years will be very different from what has come before. And that is at least an interesting thing to watch.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Coronavirus: Politically Created Panic is the Real Pandemic

As of early March, there were fewer than 200 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus in the United States. Nonetheless Congress passed, and US president Donald Trump signed, an $8.3 billion “emergency funding” bill theoretically related to containing the disease.

Had the federal government done nothing at all, the “beer flu” might have conceivably have ended up killing a tiny fraction of the number of Americans who will die of influenza during the same period.

Now that the federal government is blowing $8.3 billion, the chances of that happening will likely decrease — not because coronavirus will kill fewer people, but because influenza will kill more. Attention paid to, and resources thrown at, victims of the predictable annual flu epidemic will decrease in favor of the minor but newly lucrative COVID-19 nuisance.

Yes, nuisance. Even the US Centers for Disease Control, a big beneficiary of health panics, says that “information so far suggests that most COVID-19 illness is mild” (especially among those without underlying serious health conditions), that the virus “is NOT currently spreading widely in the United States,” and that “[f]or most of the American public, who are unlikely to be exposed to this virus at this time, the immediate health risk from COVID-19 is considered low.”

So, why are people losing their minds? In a word, politics. Congress and the president are throwing $8.3 billion worth of gasoline onto an already raging fire of unjustified panic.

Rahm Emanuel’s Law: “Never let a serious crisis go to waste.”

Every Politician’s Corollary: “Even if you have to manufacture  that crisis out of whole cloth.”

Panic kills people, and politicians are just fine with that as long as it increases their stature among, and power over, the survivors.

At this point, the main protective measure I recommend is laying in a couple of weeks’ worth of food and water. Not because you need to stay home to avoid the coronavirus, but because the panic might result in shortages or even idiotic government measures like mass quarantines. And having some food and bottled water around is always a good idea anyway.

If it makes you feel better to avoid travel and large crowds, wear a mask when you can’t avoid those things, and wash your hands 80 times a day, knock yourself out. But stay calm and be aware that you’re just going through self-comforting motions. Politicians, not viral nuisances, are the biggest threat to your survival.

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American Fictionalists

It is both fun and informative to consider lists.  To debate the list is a sign that you have engaged with someone who knows what she is talking about.  This morning, I asked Google to find web pages that opined as to whom might be included on a list of the greatest American fictionalists (novelists, short story writers, poets, and playwrights).  Google and I found a page at NoSweatShakespeare.com, which contained a list, 20 Best American Writers. I’ll not quibble with the score of authors enumerated, but I might have substituted others (Jack London, Robert A. Heinlein, Ayn Rand, Robert Penn Warren, Dashiell Hammett, Robert Frost, for instances).

At any rate, these scriveners became famous because they could voice the sentiment of a people at their best. My goal is to present each of the 20, along with a quote that typifies this:

  • Nathaniel Hawthorne 1804 – 1864
    Nathaniel Hawthorne was a novelist and short story writer. Hawthorne’s works have been labelled ‘dark romanticism,’ dominated as they are by cautionary tales that suggest that guilt, sin, and evil are the most inherent natural qualities of humankind. His novels and stories, set in a past New England, are versions of historical fiction used as a vehicle to express themes of ancestral sin, guilt and retribution…

    No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.

  • Edgar Allan Poe 1809 – 1849
    Edgar Allan Poe was an American writer, editor, and literary critic. He is best known for his poetry and short stories, particularly his tales of mystery and suspense. He is generally considered the inventor of detective ficiton. Poe’s work as an editor, a poet, and a critic had a profound impact on American and international literature. In addition to his detective stories he is one of the originators of horror and science fiction. He is often credited as the architect of the modern short story…

    All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.

  • Herman Melville 1819 – 1891
    Herman Melville was an American writer of novels, short stories and poems. He is best known for the novel Moby-Dick and a romantic account of his experiences in Polynesian life, Typee. His whaling novel, Moby-Dick is often spoken of as ‘the great American novel’ ’vying with Scott Fitgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn for that title…

    It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.

  • Walt Whitman 1819 – 1892
    Walt Whitman was a poet, essayist, and journalist who transformed poetry around the world with his disregard for traditional rhyme and meter and his celebration of democracy and sensual pleasure. His masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, a collection of poems, is widely studied by poets, students and academics, set to music, translated into numerous languages, and is widely quoted. His influence can be found everywhere – in contemporary best seller lists to feature films and musical works, both “serious” and popular…

 … re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul …

  • Emily Dickinson 1830 – 1886
    Unknown as a poet during her lifetime, Emily Dickinson is now regarded by many as one of the most powerful voices of American culture. Her poetry has inspired many other writers, including the Brontes. In 1994 the critic, Harold Bloom, listed her among the twenty-six central writers of Western civilisation. After she died her sister found the almost two thousand poems the poet had written…

We turn not older with years but newer every day.

  • Mark Twain 1835 – 1910
    Samuel Langhorne Clemens , far better known as Mark Twain, was an American writer, businessman, publisher and lecturer. He progressed from his day job as pilot of a Mississippi riverboat to legend of American literature. His work shows a deep seriousness and at the same time, it is hilariously satirical, as seen in his many quotes on all aspects of life. His masterpiece is the novel, Huckleberry Finn, which is regularly referred to as ‘the great American novel.’…

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So, throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

  • Henry James 1843 – 1916
    Henry James is regarded as one of the key figures of 19th-century literary realism. He is noted for writing from a character’s point of view’ which allowed him to explore consciousness and perception. His imaginative use of point of view, interior monologue and unreliable narrators brought a new depth to narrative fiction, all of which were influential on the writing of the novelists who followed him. He was nominated for the Nobel prize for literature three times….

Cats and monkeys — monkeys and cats — all human life is there!

  • T.S. Eliot 1888 – 1965
    Thomas Stearns Eliot was an American-born, British, poet, essayist, playwright, critic, now regarded as one of the twentieth century’s major poets. He received more rewards than almost any other writer of the past two centuries, including the Nobel prize, the Dante Gold Medal, the Goethe prize, the US Medal of Freedom and the British Order of Merit…

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald 1896 – 1940
    Francis Scott Fitzgerald was an American novelist, widely regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, American writers of the 20th century. He is best known for his novel, The Great Gatsby, which vies for the title ‘Great American Novel’ with Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Fitzgerald’s place on this list is justified by the fact that his great novel is actually about America…

Either you think — or else others have to think for you and take power from you, pervert and discipline your natural tastes, civilize, and sterilize you.

  • William Faulkner 1897 – 1962
    William Cuthbert Faulkner was a Nobel Prize laureate, awarded the literature prize in 1949. He wrote novels, short stories, poetry, and screenplays. He is known mainly for his novels and short stories set in the fictional Yoknapatawpha Country, Mississippi. Faulkner is one of the most celebrated American writers, regarded, generally as the great writer of the American South…

Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world…would do this, it would change the earth.

  • Tennessee Williams 1911 – 1983
    Thomas Lanier Williams III, known as Tennessee Williams is one of America’s most popular playwrights and now regarded as one of the most significant writers of the twentieth century. He wrote more than thirty plays, some of which have become classics of Western drama. He also wrote novels and short stories but is known almost exclusively for his plays. His genius was in the honesty with which he represented society and the art of presenting that in the form of absorbing drama…

I think that hate is a thing, a feeling, that can only exist where there is no understanding.

  • Arthur Miller 1915 – 2005
    Arthur Miller was a playwright and ‘great man’ of American theatre, which he championed throughout his long life. His many dramas were among the most popular by American authors and several are considered to be among the best American plays, among them the classics, The Crucible, All My Sons, A View from the Bridge and, above all, the iconic American drama, Death of a Salesman. He also wrote film scripts, notably the classic, The Misfits…

 … life is God’s most precious gift; no principle, however glorious, may justify the taking of it.

  • Joseph Heller 1923 – 1999
    Joseph Heller was an American writer of satirical novels, short stories and plays. Although he wrote several acclaimed novels, his reputation rests firmly on his masterpiece, the great American anti-war satire, Catch 22. Because of the quality of the novel and the impact it has made on American culture it has catapulted Heller into the ranks of the great American writers…

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.

  • Ernest Hemingway 1899 – 1961
    Ernest Hemingway was a novelist, short story writer, and journalist. He published seven novels, six short story collections, and two non-fiction works, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. More works, including three novels, four short story collections, and three non-fiction works, were published posthumously…

Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.

  • Raymond Chandler 1888 – 1959
    Raymond Chandler was a British-American novelist who wrote several screenplays and short stories. He published seven novels during his lifetime. The first, The Big Sleep, was published in 1939. An eighth, Poodle Springs, unfinished at his death, was completed by another great crime writer, Robert B Parker. Six of Chandler’s novels have been made into films, some more than once…

I knew one thing: as soon as anyone said you didn’t need a gun, you’d better take one along that worked.

  • Toni Morrison 1931 – 2019
    Toni Morrison’s novels are known for their vivid dialogue, their detailed characters and epic themes. Her most famous novel is the 1987 novel, Beloved. She was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1988 for Beloved, and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993…

Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.

  • Vladimir Nabokov 1899 – 1977
    Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was a Russian-American novelist, and also a famous entomologist, specialising in butterflies, a topic on which he wrote several academic books. He wrote nine novels in Russian, but it was when he began writing in English that he achieved international recognition…

I know more than I can express in words, and the little I can express would not have been expressed, had I not known more.

  • Flannery O’Connor 1925 – 1964
    Mary Flannery O’Connor wrote two novels and thirty-two short stories, and also several reviews and commentaries. Her reputation is based mainly on her short stories. She was a Southern writer and relied heavily on regional settings and typically southern characters. She was strongly Roman Catholic, which informed her exploration of ethics and morality…

The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.

  • John Steinbeck 1902 – 1968
    John Ernst Steinbeck was the author of 16 novels and various other works, including five short story collections. He is widely known for the novels, East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, and particularly, the Puliter Prize winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath, his masterpiece, which is one of the great American novels: it has sold more than 15 million copies so far…

All war is a symptom of man’s failure as a thinking animal.

  • John Updike 1923 – 2009
    John Updike was a novelist, short story writer and poet. He was also a literary and art critic. He published more than twenty novels, numerous short-story collections, eight volumes of poetry and many children’s books. He is most famous for his ‘Rabbit‘ series – novels that chronicle the life of his protagonist, Harry Angstrom – in which Updike presented his progress over the course of several decades…

They can be wonderful bastards because they have nothing to lose. The only people who can be themselves are babies and old bastards.

  • Kurt Vonnegut 1922 – 2007
    Kurt Vonnegut was an American writer who published fourteen novels, three short story collections, five plays, and five works of non-fiction. He is most famous for his novel ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ (1969) which has become an American classic. It’s a semi-autobiographical novel based on his experience as a prisoner of war who survived the allies’ bombing of Dresden…

So it goes.

 

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On Airplane Reclining Seats

The one thing that makes flying just a tiny bit more comfortable is the reclining seat. If I were perusing airlines and prices and saw the offering of a ticket without a reclining seat, I would refuse to purchase that ticket! The fact that the airline offers and that I expect a reclining seat means that you can be damn sure I am going to use it. I will not ask permission from any other customer to use my product as I see fit. If you don’t like it, then you may offer to pay me a sum of money to stop using it. I always entertain such offers. What you may not due is attack me or my contracted property for doing so. And that’s today’s two cents.

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Being Forced to Help Not Helping

I want you to hunger for liberty; to crave the freedom to do everything you have a right to do, even if you choose to not do it all. I want you to want liberty as much as I want it.

I also want you to respect the liberty of others. To govern yourself and no one else — this is your primary obligation to others.

I realize some people are scared by the thought of liberty or freedom. I’ve even seen people complain that libertarians want to “force people to be free.” This has become something of an in-joke among libertarians; we want to take over and leave you alone.

No one can be forced to be free, and I wouldn’t if I could. This would defeat the purpose without accomplishing anything.

If liberty isn’t freely chosen, it’s worthless. It won’t be valued and it would be easy to give it up the first time some creepy politician says you need to give up some liberty so you can be safer.

You’ve got to want liberty bad enough to fight for it against those who want to violate it. You’ve got to want it bad enough to do whatever it takes once you discover that protesting and voting don’t work.

If you don’t value liberty this much, you won’t care enough to make an effort to protect it. You’ll never make liberty a priority.

I can’t change your priorities.

What I can do is remind you of everything you’re cheating yourself out of, hint at all you are missing, and tease you with the possibilities you may not have considered. I can also share with you my confidence that you don’t need to be governed or controlled. You can handle life.

To say I’m willing to leave you alone means I wouldn’t try to run your life. It doesn’t mean to leave you without social support. There’s no reason you can’t ask for help; nothing to prevent you from reaching out to help others without being forced to “help” them by legislative threat.

Being forced to help isn’t helping. Complying with a threat doesn’t make you a compassionate or moral person. It shows you can be manipulated and easily scared into doing what someone else thinks you should instead of acting on your own values.

I’m not willing to do this to you. I want liberty and I respect you too much to violate your liberty by forcing it on you.

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“Our Government” is a Lie

There’s “my government” and there’s “your government“, there is no “our government“.

My government is me. It is not political. It is not a State. I don’t share it with anyone else, I don’t impose it on anyone else, nor do I accept anyone else’s government as my own.

Your government is you– even if you don’t recognize yourself as such. Even if you imagine you have a spare government lying around somewhere. A political government. Your government has no hold on me or anyone else.

Every time someone says “our government” it is a lie. The lie may be calculated to manipulate– to hypnotize you. Don’t fall for it.

Now, maybe you believe you share a government with someone else. I hope not, but people believe weird things. In that case, you’d need to have a conversation with the other person before you started flinging around the words “our government” to see if you truly do share a government of some sort with them. But don’t assume. It’s rude at best, and a dangerous lie at worst.

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