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Let It Go

Barring some new evidence that the Omicron variant is more dangerous, justifications for social control are over.

Dear Reader (Especially the DCCC’s social media team, which for a brief moment managed to unite the warring factions of Twitter in joyful mockery),

I’m just gonna throw it out there: If I had to guess—and it’s just a guess—Omicron is good news. The panic and the economic tumult caused by the panic isn’t good news. But I’m betting that weird new spiky dude probably is.

Let’s say—as we so often do these days—you’re a maverick scientist with a god complex who plays by his own rules. You’re not interested in making death rays or finding a new place to put cheese on a pizza,  but you do want to help humanity by getting rid of COVID as quickly as possible. Maybe you’d make a vaccine you could slip into the water supply. Or maybe you’d make an aerosol version and release an army of drones to spray it over population centers. Or maybe, just maybe, you’d genetically engineer the coronavirus itself to be super contagious but also much, much more harmless; virtually no deaths and very few hospitalizations, just some sniffles and maybe a head cold. Gain of function for contagiousness, loss of function for killing people.

Now, this would obviously be super unethical, with lots of opportunities for you to say, a la Ron Burgundy in the bear pit, “I immediately regret this decision.” Pretty much any science fiction story with a premise remotely like this ends with the world plunged into a new ice age and the last scraps of humanity living out a kind of Marxist Hieronymus Bosch nightmare on a stratified-by-class super train or, more likely in this case, with the well-intentioned scientist screaming as the COVID zombies eat his face. So, I implore you not to try this at home.

But the point remains: COVID-19 is here. It’s not going anywhere. For quite a while now, the hope for the long-term has been for the virus to evolve into something relatively harmless, like the cold, or at least relatively manageable, like the flu. As of now, Omicron looks a lot like that.. Omicron might be—we’re still not totally sure—more contagious than the Delta variant, but also less harmful.

In an excellent recent edition of the Morning Dispatch, Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California-San Francisco, suggested this might—just might—be the case:

Gandhi sees a historical parallel. “It’s really hard for a variant to become more transmissible and more virulent,” she said. “For it to be more mild, that would be an amazing hope, because in a way, that’s how the 1918 influenza pandemic ended. It just became more mild and burned out.”

Obviously, I hope I’m right about this. And just as obviously, I might not be. But you know what? The evidence that has emerged over the last week or so since Omicron burst into the headlines is more supportive of my theory than the idea that Omicron is a disaster requiring consideration of more lockdowns, travel bans, mask and vax mandates, emergency declarations, and other forms of panic.

In other words, the immediate response from media outlets, stock markets, and government officials was more disconnected from reality than my hopeful scenario.

Now, I get it. Governments and markets often respond more immediately and impulsively to risks and threats than to potential good news. And you know what? The same is true of the human brain. The prehistoric dude who assumed every rustle of the bushes was a saber-toothed tiger ready to pounce might have been overly paranoid, but he was more likely to live long enough to pass on his paranoid genes than the always upbeat caveman who assumed every rustle was fresh evidence that the gods had just gifted him a puppy. If every day he shouted, “Where’s my puppy!?” and leapt toward the sound in the bushes, he’d eventually encounter a tiger, or a bear, or a snake, or a jerk with a spear.

Similarly, the government that responds to every possible threat—troop movements, pandemics, shoddy nuclear power plant design, terrorist fatwah, whatever—with Christmas pony optimism is going to run into trouble.

My only point here is that this thing has gone on long enough that a certain kind of elite panic has set in to the point where it has become institutionalized. Very broadly speaking, the people who didn’t take the pandemic seriously enough were in the wrong a year and a half ago. And just as broadly speaking, the people who can’t conceive of loosening their grip are in the wrong now.

Habit formation.

Cultures are formed by what Alexis de Tocqueville called “habits of the heart.” It’s a concept that I wish had more currency in current ideological debates. Ideas matter – a lot. But most people don’t get out of bed, get married, stay married, help their friends, work hard, or refuse to work at all because of abstract ideas. They do so because people are embedded in a specific culture, a rich cobweb of personal, familial, and communal expectations, instincts, and, well, habits written into their hearts.

I’m not going to go further down that rabbit hole right now. I merely bring it up because while macro-cultures are very hard to change, micro-cultures are a different story. They’re also hard to manufacture along predictable lines (despite what thousands of management and leadership books claim) but they are much more malleable. A bad apple can ruin the office culture for everyone. One jerk on the basketball team can make everyone miserable.

Various elites have their own cultures. For instance, for years, a significant slice of the conservative elite was stuck on a bunch of assumptions about politics and policy that were formed during the Reagan era. And while I think a lot of what is said about “zombie Reaganism” is wrong, that doesn’t mean such a thing doesn’t exist.

My point is that these factional subcultures often have a lag time. I’ve been listening to Mike Duncan’s podcast on the Russian Revolution(s), and it’s amazing how the court of Nicholas II held onto a set of assumptions about the facts on the ground that became wholly untethered from the rapidly changing reality on the ground. “The Russian people will rally to their czar!” Nicholas essentially said long after the Russian people were done with him. (I think this kind of elite disconnect dynamic is central to pretty much every successful revolution.)

Contrary to a lot of idiotic rhetoric out there, America is not in a pre-revolutionary mood, even if there are many who feel like a little revolting is in order. But I do think progressive elites and Democratic politicians have found themselves in a subcultural cul de sac. 

A lot of Democratic politicians live in a bubble. Reinforced by a friendly media that lives in the same milieu, they’ve concluded that the response to every new COVID development is to take action, to declare states of emergency as the governor of New York did in response to Omicron, to hold onto mask requirements, etc. This despite the fact the reality below them has moved on.

The way the left responded to the sudden arrival of COVID, particularly amid its already well-established freakout over Trump reminds me a little bit of progressives in the lead-up to World War I. They were already chomping at the bit to be social engineers and economic planners before the war broke out. Randolph Bourne noticed the “peculiar congeniality between the war and these men.” He added, “It is as if the war and they had been waiting for each other.”

Now, I’m on the record having defended a lot of the early responses to the pandemic—not because I think, or thought, they were all correct in every regard. But at the outset of a pandemic, laissez-faire-ness is not the right response. When you see the Chinese army welding people into their apartment buildings, American government officials shouldn’t say, “We should do that too,” but nor should they say, “There’s nothing to worry about here.”

Still, it feels like there was a peculiar geniality between a lot of technocratic liberals and the pandemic. And whatever the justifications for their gusto for social control might have been, I think those justifications have exceeded their shelf-life. Barring some new evidence—evidence not on display in the Omicron breakout—it’s time to let go.

The same goes for the Republicans who can’t give up on their strange obsessions with the plight of the unvaccinated. A bunch of Republicans tried to force a repeal of Biden’s vaccine mandates—some of which I opposed, too—in the recent fight over the debt ceiling. Now, I think all government shutdown fights are stupid. My indictment of these theatrics is total and bipartisan. I blame everybody involved, because even if you’re on the right side of an argument now, you—and certainly your party—were probably on the wrong side of the last one, or the one before that.

But as John Podhoretz recently noted on his niche podcast, the argument over vaccinations is amazingly disconnected with the reality on the ground. More than eight in 10 Americans (83 percent) over the age of 18 have received at least one vaccine dose, and 81 percent of the population over 12 years old has. The CDC even claims that 99 percent of people over 65 have. (I’m a bit skeptical, but if that number is true, that means for huge swaths of cable and talk radio audiences—like early bird customers at Denny’s, they skew old—this whole debate is fairly moot for them personally.) 

So what the hell is everyone arguing about? The 17 percent of the population that has received no doses may be disproportionately Republican, but plenty aren’t the MAGA hat wearing anti-vaxxers whom some Democrats are determined to demonize and some Republicans are determined to defend as civil rights martyrs. And remember, a significant portion of people who refuse to get vaccinated aren’t reluctant because they think the vaccine will make you magnetic or because it’s a deep state conspiracy of some kind. They reasonably—albeit incorrectly in my opinion—don’t want to get it because they already had COVID and thus think they don’t need it, or because they’re young and healthy and don’t think it’s worth the hassle.

In other words, this whole “debate” is shadow boxing among a bunch of elites who can’t let go of the argument even though reality has moved on. It’s like a bunch of Hungarians, Serbians, Austrians, and Italians arguing over who should control Trieste.

Indeed, most of the politicians and pundits getting worked up about the authoritarianism of vaccine requirements are vaccinated. If they say they aren’t vaccinated, I’m inclined to believe them. But if they refuse to say because that’s a “private decision,” I generally assume it’s because they’re afraid to admit they are vaccinated (It’s sort of like the old rule that if you meet someone who says they’re “European,” it means they’re German). And many of the politicians and pundits who insist on more mask mandates and bans on large gatherings are even worse because they don’t follow the policies they want to impose on others. 

At this point, if you don’t want to get vaccinated, I think you’re wrong. But I also really just don’t care. Similarly, if you really, really think everyone should wear a mask or that things can’t go back to normal unless everyone is vaccinated, I just don’t care (so long as you’re not a policymaker). If you want to stay home, stay home. If you don’t want to get vaccinated, don’t get vaccinated. You can deal with the consequences yourself. Don’t drag me into it. And please, until there are new facts worthy of freaking out over in either direction, just shut up about it already.

Canine update: A lot has happened since the last canine update. The dingo and spaniel have marked vast swaths of territory. They chased rabbits in Ohio and rats in Iowa. They played in snow in the Cascades and did some predawn urban exploring in Spokane. They gamboled throughout the heartland, took to being prairie dogs, and monitored the Columbia River for pirates. And everywhere they went, they relied on the kindness of strangers

At my hotel in Sturgis, the lady at the reception desk offered Pippa a biscuit, which she politely refused, opting to wrap herself around the lady’s feet and asking for a belly rub instead. I think they really liked Montana best, though it’s hard to say because they really, really love it here in the San Juan Islands, even on rainy days. When I took them to the beach for the first time, I felt like Morgan Freeman should be narrating the whole thing like at the end of The Shawshank Redemption. There’s tall grass for the dingo to hunt in and there are more sticks than any dog could use in a lifetime. 

Speaking of Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption, one unexpected concern is that they really got used to being in the car. One might even say, in Freeman’s voice, that they became “institutionalized.” When in doubt, they were happy to return to the car. For the first few days, every time I took them for a patrol around the perimeter, they asked to get back in the car instead of going back into the house. I could even leave the car door open and they’d just stay in the car. It’s worn off a bit. But as we’re getting back on the road soon, I worry the tendency will return. The upside is that I feel much less guilty leaving them in the car when I have to go to the store or eat at a restaurant. Other than that, I think these have been some of the happiest days of their pretty happy doggie lives.


And now, the weird stuff

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.