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Covid in short pants
Division, infantilization & the loss of mythos in a time of pandemic
“Bill Gates will walk down the road singing, while men and women weep.”– Robert Bly, from The Sibling Society, 1996
Nearly 16 months after Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization, a 24/7 deluge of lurid virus related headlines continues. Television, phone and computer screens bathe nearly every person on earth daily in the radiant glow of up to the minute death and case statistics, variant updates, vaccine and lock down news.
Rather than bringing people together in the face of a common threat, this non-stop publicity about the wreckage caused by the celebrity virus has had the opposite effect. A March, 2021, review of a year’s worth of pandemic polling by Pew Research concluded that “Americans have rarely been as polarized as they are today.”
Similarly, a recent survey of global pandemic attitudes in Nature found that
The pandemic highlights how we intuitively structure and make sense of our social worlds based on ‘human kinds’ that differentiate ‘Us’ from ‘Them,’ viral categorisations of the desired in-group (not infected) and out-group (infected). By such inter-group differentiation, we judge and treat people as members of groups rather than as individuals.
Whether the subject is masks, distancing, pandemic data or vaccine trust, the divisions are obvious in everyday life. A sense of community (communitas) is difficult to discern during a headlong global rush to achieve its philosophical opposite – immunitas.
The Latin meaning of immunitas is exemption from taxes or public service, while communitas is the very spirit of community predicated on humanitas, a moral ideal of humanity based on learned kindness, courtesy, culture and civilization. In a race to make ourselves exempt from both nature and one another (immunitas), we may be doing irreversible damage to the civilizing, community building legacies of humanitas and communitas.
Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito warns that during the time of Covid:
“…politics has become medicalized, treating the citizen as a patient in need of perpetual care and turning social deviance into an epidemic disruption to be treated or suppressed. Of course, this has very significant consequences. Giving doctors the task of political decision-making, on the one hand, strongly reduces the scope for political action and, on the other hand, radically transforms the political arena, making deviance a pathological condition.”
With all allowances for the exigencies of an epidemiological emergency and the necessity of robust public health policies in response, the speed and ease with which a divided public has surrendered core political and human rights while breaking into hostile camps during the Covid pandemic needs deeper scrutiny.
I believe the social divisions playing out on screens worldwide in real time are not being caused by Covid. They are, rather, being exposed and exacerbated by Covid while simultaneously being exploited to consolidate political and economic power in ways unrelated to public health.
The old axiom “divide and conquer” (divide et impera) has never been easier to act upon. Half the work had already been done before the pandemic started.
THE CONSOLATION SOCIETY
French sociologist Robert Ebguy published “La France en Culottes Courtes” (France in Short Pants) in 2002, nearly two decades before the arrival of Covid. Ebguy was exploring the emergence of what he called “adulescents,” biological adults who were regressing into the “sweetness of childhood” to avoid dealing with the harsh realities of a world that had spun out of their control.
In a 2009 interview that presaged Covid lockdowns, Ebguy characterized the life of these adulescents.
“I take refuge in a cozy cocoon with my comforts, my soft toys, and I go out to find the others when I want. Or, if I'm more paranoid, I lock myself in a bunker that cuts me off.”
Covid quarantine was not a jarring change for those already living in “cozy cocoons” of their own making. Ebguy was not judgmental about this regression, which he hoped was a temporary coping tactic, a form of consolation for loss of genuine political agency and a way of buying time to imagine a new path forward.
“I see it as a strategy, a process of learning new rules of the ‘I’ and the game against globalism, to prepare for what comes and adapt gradually to modernity.”
But he also saw the potential pitfalls in what he called a “Consolation Society.”
“The temptation of cynicism, total distancing, the ‘I'm only interested in myself,’ the adulescents who refuse to grow up, or the depressive withdrawal where one is not even interesting to oneself.
We dream of fusion. Yet we are less and less supportive. In case of aggression in the street, passers-by hasten to look elsewhere! Prisoners of this jungle that is the current world, we are too busy ensuring our survival to be in solidarity. What wins out is the feeling of being vulnerable, the urgency of being less afraid.”
Add the specter of a new, poorly understood virus causing a global pandemic and the “urgency of being less afraid” appears to be the primary emotion driving what too often seems like complete political capitulation. This surrender is happening in the face of often fantastical official narratives and officious government diktats that are imperious and anti-democratic in equal measure. A March 2021, report from Human Rights Watch concluded:
The first year of the Covid-19 pandemic precipitated human rights crises around the world. The pandemic’s social and economic consequences have been widespread and devastating. While the…pandemic’s public health threat justified some restrictions on rights, many governments ignored public health guidance and even used the pandemic as a pretext to grab power and roll back rights.
It is likely this political capitulation has happened so quickly because globalized consumer culture was already transforming social life through its reliance on various forms of infantile and depoliticizing emotional regression.
In 2018, US sociologist Simon Gottschalk asked:
Can entire societies succumb to infantilization?
Frankfurt School scholars such as Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm and other critical theorists suggest that – like individuals – a society can also suffer from arrested development. In their view, adults’ failure to reach emotional, social or cognitive maturity is not due to individual shortcomings.
Rather, it is socially engineered.
Ebguy observed that 21st century men and women in possession of the most sophisticated products and technologies in human history were opting not for adult mastery of the world, but to travel in groups (tribes) on roller blades and scooters with like minded adulescents connected by cell phones,“Rosseau’s new children coiled up in a world they would like to be motherly.”
Although socially engineered infantilization was being discussed before Covid, deconstructing the underlying political, psychological and economic mechanisms propelling this regression take on new urgency in a world at risk of falling under the sway of permanently medicalized politics, ongoing political-economic hysteria (nocebo effect) and paternalist authoritarianism flying under the banner of both public health and an elusive sense of security.
THE SIBLING SOCIETY
In his 1996 book, The Sibling Society, poet Robert Bly used myths and fairy tales from across the world to deconstruct modern pre-pandemic social life.
In the process, Bly exposed a world in which adulthood had nearly disappeared. Society in the developed world had turned into a kind of permanent food fight among a generational cohort of equal but squabbling siblings, a society that was “adolescent in tone and horizontal in direction” with vertical hierarchy displaced by a “vast horizontal sameness.”
We defeat ourselves by the simplest possible means: speed. We see what’s coming out of the sideview mirror. It seems like intimacy; maybe not intimacy as much as proximity; maybe not proximity as much as sameness.
When we see the millions like ourselves all over the world speaking a universal language that computer literacy demands, our eyes meet uniformity, resemblance, likenesses, rather than distinction and differences. Hope rises immediately for the long-desired possibility of community. And yet it would be foolish to overlook the serious implications of this glance to the side, this tilt of the head. “Mass society, with its demand for work without responsibility, creates a gigantic army of rival siblings,” in Alexander Mitscherlich’s words.
There is little in the sibling society to prevent a slide into primitivism, and into those regressions that fascism is so fond of. It is hard in this society to decide what is real. Some sort of trance takes over if enough people are watching an event simultaneously. It is a contemporary primitivism, a participation mystique…of all the clan.
Bly saw sibling society moving “toward a primitive, humorless savagery.” Publisher’s Weekly summarized in their review of the book.
Adolescents can be cruel, [thus] our current cutthroat competitiveness in businesses that feel no responsibility to the community, environment or their employees, and hence the rise of viciousness in the media and on the street.
Enter a global Covid pandemic in 2020, the greatest participatory media spectacle in human history. How did the global “community” of virtual siblings express a sense of participation? By following orders – wearing masks, staying socially distant, living in virtual cocoons, opening soft bodies to scarcely tested injections of experimental mRNA vaccines incubated via R&D funding from DARPA.
Those who dare to deviate or ask uncomfortable questions quickly experience the “humorless savagery” of sibling society.
When asked in a 2018 interview why a sibling society had emerged, Bly said.
It’s too much work to be an adult, and we don’t want any standards, we don’t want anyone to say: “You’re acting childishly.” We want everyone to act childishly. And then we all feel at home.
TRUMP, BIDEN & SIBLING SOCIETY
Could there possibly be a more perfect leader of Bly’s “Sibling Society” than Donald J. Trump? A sitting president as Adulescent-in-Chief. Did anyone think the mass abandonment of adulthood would be a free ride?
Oh how the political and media classes hated Trump even as they were mesmerized by his outsized id! All those sibling political foes who played by the rules of official decorum were left vanquished in his flamboyant wake. Legions of fact-checking celebrity journalists, his theoretical equals (or superiors) in social standing within Sibling Society, were brought to trembling impotence by his rise over their sputtering objections. They had no power to stop him, a gauche über adulescent with his own Boeing 757-200 sporting gold-plated bathroom fixtures.
Mr. Trump seemed impervious to their attacks because half the voting public saw something quite different. A majority of voters reject both political parties and want to send the entire system up in smoke. In Gallup’s poll of Jan. 21 through Feb. 2, 2021, voters who identified as “independent” registered an all time high 50%.
As an example of how this plays out in national politics, a post-election analysis by The Washington Post found an electorally significant percentage of Obama voters switched to Trump in 2016. The NY Times called their votes “decisive.” They shared comments such as, “We need to change everything,” and “I’m excited to see him blow the place up.”
Matt Taibbi characterizes US presidential elections as “basically just a big reality show.” This empty political consumerism, the ultimate sibling food fight, has been drained as nearly as possible of meaningful political agency, leaving voter-consumers in a position of civic impotence. Having been reduced to mere spectators, putative citizens argue furiously over tribal (woke vs. unwoke) virtue signaling as consolation for their seeming political irrelevancy.
Many voters can be convinced to switch political parties as easily as consumer brands based solely on over-the-top marketing blandishments offering the cheap thrill of taboo-breaking. In 2016, Trump’s carnivalesque campaign, with its unbridled fascistic exaltation of nation and race above community and civil life, gave them a vehicle for doing so. Mr. Trump was, after all, a top reality TV star who shone brightest at the center of the ongoing spectacle of adulescent squabbling that is Sibling Society politics.
During the pandemic, as social and economic life have been undemocratically reconfigured by government fiat in much of the world, the emotional and political regression of sibling culture has been thrown into glaring relief. As Trump’s riotous reality TV interlude came to an ignominious end, “adult” supervision was reimposed via the installation of 78 year old Joe Biden as his successor.
Replacing an id-driven adulscent lacking impulse control with a neurologicially damaged faux tribal elder as president is the ultimate sibling joke, the available options reduced to either bellicose infantilization or a simulacrum of adulthood through a titular father figure. Neither consumer preference demands genuine civic engagement.
HUMANITAS & THE TRIUMPH OF MARKETING OVER MYTHOS
Czech philosopher Erazim Kohák worried four decades before Covid that:
“We pay little attention to the art – not the nature, the art – of living as free moral persons. We mask it with a sophistication which is little more than distraction. Beneath it, we are becoming a race of amoral, technologically advanced savages.”
The divinity of the human mind is a central tenet in the Latin concept of humanitas. Becoming fully human is not a natural state of affairs but a moral ideal. Per Cicero and other ancients, it requires the cultivation of virtue and entails not just rights, but moral obligations.
This conception of humanity arose in societies steeped in myths (Latin mythus, Greek mythos) that were revered as sacred. If the link to the sacred were broken, myth descended into folklore, and “the actors in the story [were] not regarded as gods but as human heroes, giants or fairies.”
What might the ancients make of modern sibling society with its relentless marketing of celebrity and gossip leavened with spectacle and fear-mongering? Even with allowances for the inequities and injustices of their own societies, it is conceivable they would see modern narratives as something even lower than folktales, an entire industry selling reductive, often freakish and degrading, spectacle rather than engagement, elevation, enlightenment.
The Covid pandemic has given new urgency to such discussions and to an overdue re-evaluation of the idea found throughout Native American mythology that spiritual forces permeate the natural world and can be sensed by humans.
Woniya wakan, holy air which renews all by its breath. Woniya wakan, spirit, life, breath, renewal. Woniya, we sit together, don’t touch, but something is there; we feel it between us as a presence. Talk to nature. Talk to the rivers, to the lakes, to the winds as our relatives. You have made it hard for us to experience nature in the good way of being part of it. You have raped and violated these lands, always saying “Gimme, gimme, gimme,” and never giving anything back.
Americans want to have everything sanitized. No smells! Not even the good, natural man and woman smell.
Erazim Kohák’s explorations of our relationship to both the humanitas ideal and the Latin natura, which means literally "birth," from natus, "born,” led him to observe:
[S]olitude need not be loneliness: it can also be the cure of loneliness. It is not a matter of “learning to live without others,” but rather of learning to live with nature and others, not outshouting them with our insistent presence, but being instead ready to see and hear, in love and respect. For, in understanding as in sense perception, it is when we stop speaking that we begin to hear; when we stop staring, things emerge before our eyes; when we stop insisting on our explanations, we can begin to understand.
In Kohak’s view, our intimate connection to nature only enhances the importance of humanitas.
If humanity were no more than a biological species, it would deserve no more concern than the dinosaurs. The humanity whose fate concerns me is something far more fragile and precious, the moral ideal of humanitas, humanity as an ideal rather than a fact. When we spurn art in the name of nature, we risk losing both. This conviction is neither natural nor universal, but a European cultural achievement which we shall lose if we simply take it for granted.
When we now speak of universal human rights and values, we take three millennia of moral effort for granted.