“Make no mistake; we are in a war, and wars tend to be easier to win when it is generally acknowledged that they are happening.”
here have been many arguments put forward as to why some countries have dealt with the coronavirus well and others poorly. The individualist vs. collectivist answer has been a popular choice. Other common suggestions include centralized vs. decentralized decision-making, as well as democracy vs. authoritarianism. I even saw modernism vs. postmodernism posited, which probably deserves its own essay. I want to put forward an alternative that I have not yet come across, which I do not think is an exhaustive explanation but certainly has some independent value. It is also ugly, which I think may be why so few have been willing to face up to it, gravitating instead towards the essentially academic debates listed above. As such, my alternative explanation is that contemporary Anglosphere culture is objectively awful in exactly the ways that pose a mortal danger.
Take a look at this recent Wall Street Journal story, with the telling headline “A Generational War Is Brewing Over Coronavirus.”
To be clear, our culture is wonderful in many, many ways. I am very happy to be British and to live in the U.K.—in normal times and in virus-wartime-lockdown alike. By the end of this piece, I will return to how I hope and believe that we will snap out of our nonchalance and pull together with a selflessness and courage we will never forget. But we cannot deny that, on the surface, our culture has certain dimensions of unprecedented awfulness. In normal times, this awfulness is mostly of aesthetic concern, to be grumbled about in letters to the editor of highly respected but lowly-circulated broadsheets. But, right now, it is deadly. And it doesn’t seem to me to have subsided much since the outbreak. And so, I fear that though this will get a lot better, it may first get a lot worse.
What is this awful culture of which I speak? I don’t know if there is a precise name for it, so I will point out a few of its salient characteristics, all of which strike me as interlocking to a greater or lesser degree.
We intellectualize away responsibility: We clamor for rights. A right to this, a right to that. This group’s rights, that group’s rights. Do not get me wrong: I fully support fighting to secure rights that are deserved and have been withheld. But this, alone, is a shallow and narcissistic conception of justice. The easiest way to guarantee your rights will be infringed is to contribute to establishing a socialized consensus that responsibilities are, at best, an entirely secondary consideration—or, at worst, are not important at all. This is also the easiest way to catch a deadly virus.
We are geared towards unsustainable consumerism: We consume without having produced. Consumption is our right, but production is not our responsibility. We encourage children and young adults to build their identities almost exclusively around conspicuous consumption: “Do you like to travel? Do you like to eat? Do you like to party? How exciting!” That makes you an interesting person—nay—a good person! You are an influencer now. Go and spread the good word of hedonism; good luck turning around and telling such people to please stop all of that right away because it’s contributing to a pandemic.
We are immune to shame: Not only does shaming patently not work as it should, but even the concept of “shame” has increasingly attracted a cancellable stigma. It is no longer Grandma’s wisdom, passed down through generations and stress-tested through the uncertain and unpredictable vicissitudes of life; it is now internalized oppression, and Grandma needs to get woke. If we can’t shame conspicuous consumers into social distancing, or even the more general concept of personal and social responsibility, then Grandma is far more likely to get sick.
The implicit acceptance of this awfulness has been evidenced in much of what Boris Johnson has said at his recent press conferences. While not at all downplaying the medical seriousness of the situation, one widely shared quotation from last Thursday was, “at all stages we have been guided by the science, and we will do the right thing at the right time.” I don’t want to be accused of taking this out of context—or even of disagreeing with it. But note the subtext: You have no responsibilities because we are taking responsibility. When we tell you what to do, you will believe us not because of what is morally right but because of what is scientifically true. Later, Johnson said, “there is very little epidemiological or medical reason at the moment to ban [mass] events.” This may be true, but neither is there epidemiological or medical reason not to ban mass events. There are only commercial reasons. The public has a right to its football.
Boris Johnson is afraid of what Brits will think of him if he stops them from going about their business. Bulgarians are afraid of what General Mutafchiyski will think of them if they try to go about their business.
It is often much easier to see the excesses of one culture (particularly your own), if you are exposed to another, quite different culture. I have some familiarity with Bulgaria, for example. I would say that—while certainly inferior to Britain in some important respects—Bulgaria is vastly superior in terms of prioritizing responsibility, encouraging accumulation of assets at the expense of consumption, and liberally wielding shame. On Friday, Bulgaria announced a state of emergency, banned all public events, and used police enforcement to close cafes, restaurants, and nightclubs. On Saturday, Major General Ventsislav Mutafchiyski (Surgeon General, President of the Bulgarian Military Medical Academy, and Chief of the Bulgarian National Operations Headquarters) addressed the nation. He spoke with a gravity and a deservedly moralizing tone that I sincerely wish were politically possible in the U.K. Select quotations include:
“My observation is that we slipped into trivialities after announcing the measures. The focus shifted towards topics like, ‘is the beauty salon going to be open?’ This shows that we haven’t matured enough and we don’t understand what is to come. All day I receive calls: What’s going to happen to my gym? What’s going to happen to my bakery? And I answer them: Try to save your elderly parents. Try to save your grandfathers and grandmothers. Your little store will survive after this storm is over.”
“I’ve seen horrible pictures of doctors in Italy and China working on the edge of their abilities getting sick and dying while treating patients and I am sure they are not asking themselves whether or not the beauty salon will be open.”
The actual information in these statements is not so different to British press conferences or any other press conferences around the world. But the shame, the disapproval of unnecessary consumption, and the stern reminder of responsibility are sorely missed in the U.K. Boris Johnson is afraid of what Brits will think of him if he stops them from going about their business. Bulgarians are afraid of what General Mutafchiyski will think of them if they try to go about their business. The streets of Sofia were empty last weekend. The streets of London were being cleaned up following St Patrick’s Day celebrations.
My Bulgarian girlfriend and I watched this speech, somewhat shaken, and couldn’t help but compare it to events in the U.K. We had earlier that day read in disbelief that the rationale for not going into lockdown right away—one thousand cases and twenty deaths behind Bulgaria—was that the population allegedly would get grumpy if forced to isolate for too long and would defy a lockdown at the worst possible time. Her assessment was priceless (I quote with permission): “The U.K. government is treating the population exactly the way a modern Western parent would treat their bratty kid: ‘If I take measure A, the kid will just do B, and according the latest advances in the behavioral science of parenting…’ No! Just slap it behind the head and say, ‘This is how it is.’ No discussion.”
Thankfully, the tide looks like it is finally turning. Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock wrote an excellent piece in The Telegraph on Sunday entitled “We Must Do Everything In Our Power To Save Lives.” This was really brilliantly written and I encourage readers (British readers, in particular) to go through it meticulously. It handily dispels the “herd immunity” rumor and—with admirable compassion—dismisses the trope of “underlying health conditions.” It is Mutafchisyki-esque in its deadly seriousness and is even tiptoeing in the direction of deserved moralizing, though Mr. Hancock will never quite be able to pull off the angry Slavic dad vibe. Hancock writes: “Everyone will be asked to make sacrifices, to protect themselves and others, especially those most vulnerable to the disease.” It’s not quite as far as it needs to go, but he does write that everyone will be told to make sacrifices, to protect others. So that’s a huge step in the right direction.
Hancock explicitly mentions the Second World War, not just to make the point that our generation has never been tested as the virus will test us—but also that “our grandparents were.”
Most encouraging of all is the explicit language of war. Make no mistake; we are in a war, and wars tend to be easier to win when it is generally acknowledged that they are happening. Mr. Hancock says at the outset this is not at all like peacetime, and, at the article’s conclusion, he takes a valuable step towards the requisite shaming and imploring of responsibility. Hancock explicitly mentions the Second World War, not just to make the point that our generation has never been tested as the virus will test us—but also that “our grandparents were.”
Robert Peston reported soon after in The Spectator that many more measures are expected in the coming weeks—almost all of which read like wartime measures, intentionally or not: the requisitioning of hotels as private hospitals, the emergency manufacture of respirators by the private sector, directing Uber and Deliveroo to bring food to the elderly, refusing to rule out total lockdown of cities, and more. Johnson’s announcement on Monday confirmed much of this sooner than was previously expected.
This is why I have enormous hope. We cannot snap our fingers and change our democratic tradition or our individualism. But we can snap into a wartime mentality and towards a culture suited to war. Our in-some-small-ways-awful popular culture may have no concept of war, but Britain damn well does. Our popular culture of incessant superficiality will, hopefully, be shown to itself to be superficial and, then, be swept aside by real leaders when the shock of mounting deaths becomes too great to ignore. Such people may not be celebrated in normal times; they have nothing worth tweeting or putting on Instagram, but they are out there. They will rise to this. We will rise to this. This will be our finest hour.
Allen Farrington lives in Edinburgh. He writes at Quillette, Areo, and Medium. You can follow him on Twitter @allenf32.
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A piece about collectivism vs. individualism vis à vis the coronavirus