Threat Level: Bat Guano
Also, let's talk about the definition of 'greatness.'
Dear Reader (Including the ancient Japanese haruspexes, who were quite literally “Deer Readers”),
The inestimable Matt Ridley wrote in the Wall Street Journal this week:
“In Shitou Cave, south of Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, they found viruses in the bats’ droppings and anal swabs that were more similar to human SARS than anything found in palm civets, the small mammals that until then were presumed to be the source of human infection.”
There are a lot of observations about the weirdness of these times that have become era-defining clichés. I use—or have used—many myself. “We live in a reality TV show.” “I wonder what’s happening on Earth 2?” “This isn’t the timeline I chose. “Let’s touch the orb; what could go wrong?” And, of course, “If you wrote this in a novel, people would reject it for being too unbelievable.”
But can we take a moment just to marvel that at the beginning of the fourth season, when the plot took a wild turn, the telltale heart, the Chekov’s gun, of the massive plot twist in this batshit crazy time turned out to be actual batshit.
I’d say this is too on-the-nose, but, as any halfway decent bat anus swabber could tell you, that’s not the relevant anatomical bookend.
Over at Politico’s “Playbook” newsletter, they open with a bit of righteous table pounding:
IN THE GREATEST COUNTRY ON PLANET EARTH, the vice president is suggesting that doctors "recycle gowns" because hospitals don't have enough.
IN THE GREATEST COUNTRY ON PLANET EARTH, states are sending ventilators to other states when this disease seems to recede because the medical devices are scarce.
IN THE GREATEST COUNTRY ON PLANET EARTH, a fund meant to rescue small business is running out of money—by next week, according to some estimates—and Congress can't figure out a way to fix it.
IN THE GREATEST COUNTRY ON PLANET EARTH, the president said "we have the best" system for testing people for the coronavirus, even though other nations have tested a far higher percentage of their population.
It goes on like this for a while, and while I think the complaints have merit, the formulation is kind of gross.
I want to know: What definition of “greatness” are they working from that arouses their ire? What, precisely, is the contradiction they are implying but not articulating? What standard of greatness are we falling short of?
If we had a massive stockpile of masks, ventilators, and gowns prior to this pandemic, would that prove our greatness? I mean, it would be great if we had enacted George W. Bush’s pandemic contingencies years ago, but I don’t know that having done so would be evidence of greatness. Good planning? Sure. Responsible governing? Absolutely. Let’s say for the sake of argument that, say, Singapore had an enormous stockpile of masks sitting in warehouses for just such an eventuality. Am I supposed to say, “Now that’s a great country!”
Similarly, it’d be nifty if the government could have figured out how to deal with this two-headed monster of a crisis—both the pandemic and the economic toll it’s taking—from Day 1. But lots of other governments—democratic and authoritarian alike—are struggling with the very same problems. When Boris Johnson asked Donald Trump for help finding ventilators, was that proof that we’re greater than the U.K.? Or was it proof that, say, Britain needs ventilators?
What bothers me about the assumption here—echoed all over the place—is that the measure of a nation’s greatness resides in its technocratic expertise and its ability to centrally plan the provision of material stuff for citizens. For more than 20 years now, I’ve been peeing from a great height—ironically often from my basement office—on virtually all of the ideas embedded in this assumption. Tom Friedman’s envy of China’s authoritarianism, the progressive fixation on planning, positive liberty, the knowledge problem, etc. But I won’t descend down those rabbit holes here.
Again, I’d like a competent government as much as the next guy—if the next guy wants it a lot. But competent government is really a small part of what my understanding of greatness includes. And my definition of what a competent government looks like is very different than that of people who grow tumescent at the idea of America being “China for a day.”
The Founding Fathers didn’t opt for a constitutional republic because they thought it was the most efficient form of government or the best way to stock up medical gowns. They chose this form of government because it was the best way to ensure freedom and protect rights. Their vision had blindspots of course, and we’ve spent two centuries fixing them. It was also the form of government that best conforms to actual American greatness.
In Democracy in America, Alexis De Tocqueville notes how, when a wagon overturns and blocks a road, Americans don’t wait for the authorities to show up—the way they do “in the most civilized nations on the globe.” Americans just rolled up their sleeves without waiting for permission. “The inhabitant of the United States,” he writes, “learns from birth that he must rely on himself to combat the ills and trials of life. He is restless and defiant in his outlook toward authority and appeals to its power only when he cannot do without it.” At the same time, however, when some “unforeseen misfortune strike a family, the purses of a thousand strangers open up without trouble; modest but very numerous gifts come to its assistance in its misery.”
I’m the first to lament that this version of America has deteriorated somewhat. But I think it’s still there. And if I were to campaign on making America great again, figuring out how to restore that conception of American greatness would be front and center, not some bumper sticker notion of greatness being delivered by a politician promising, “I alone can fix it.”
I often recount the story of Seymour Martin Lipset comparing America and Canada. The Canadians descend from loyalists and royalists, the Americans descend, literally and figuratively, from rebels. In the 1970s, when both of our governments told the public we were switching to the metric system, the Canadians said “Okay, eh.” The Americans shrugged and kept clinging to their inches and pounds.
As the great student of American culture, John Winger from the movie Stripes, says:
We're all very different people. We're not Watusi, we're not Spartans, we're Americans. With a capital "A," huh? And you know what that means? Do you? That means that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world. We are the wretched refuse. We're the underdog. We're mutts.
My point is we set up a system to make governing Americans more difficult because the last thing we wanted is governing to turn into ruling. Good government begins with self-government. As it says in America the beautiful, “confirm thy soul in self-control.”
Freedom makes things harder.
One of the drawbacks of this decision is that it makes it harder to mobilize the country on those blessedly rare occasions when mobilization is necessary. Frederick the Great’s Prussia was a state designed for mobilization. Frederick—a devout atheist—considered himself the “first servant of the state” and was easily the most impressive administrator in the history of Europe. His militarized state was a ruthlessly efficient war machine, even in peacetime. During his rule, one out of every 28 Prussians was in uniform. In Britain, the greatest military power in the world at the time, the ratio was one soldier for every 310 citizens. One of Frederick’s aides famously said, “The Prussian monarchy is not a country which has an army, but an army which has a country, in which—as it were—it is just stationed."
Frederick the Great would have been a great leader during a pandemic, but a crappy one in a free country.
Would it be great if Trump were a better administrator? Sure. He used to promise he could be presidential but chooses not to because that would be “boring.” Now would be a good time to prove it. Mike Pence is always boring. But he’s playing the role required.
But it’s almost as if many in the media have started licking the Shitou Cave bat anal swabs. We’ve been hearing for three years that he’s a would-be (or just plain-old) dictator. And now the cries go forth: “Be one!” Bill De Blasio, who by any measure screwed the pooch at least as much as Trump is said to have, was denouncing him for not deploying the army on the streets of his city. Maybe that would have been a good idea, but you’d think these people would show the slightest acknowledgement that they want Trump to play the role they’ve claimed for three years he was already playing.
American greatness is all over the place right now. The people doing small acts of kindness, the people making masks and sending meals for health care workers, the people voluntarily staying put when staying put has enormous consequences, the countless corporations and universities dropping everything to work on ventilators, masks, vaccines, tests, etc., and the countless charity groups and voluntary associations leaping into the fray: These are examples of American greatness.
In my column today I continue an argument that Lyman Stone made on TheRemnant earlier this week. I won’t repeat it all here (and you really should listen to our conversation), but his basic point is that the COVID-19 “curve” is getting flattened because people are changing their behaviors on their own. People are wearing masks, staying home, and practicing social distancing first and foremost because they think they should—not because the government told them to. The stay-at-home orders and business closures are a lagging indicator in most places, intended to deal with the Americans who rejected sound advice. The airlines aren’t shut down, but people aren’t flying. At The Dispatch and AEI, we closed our offices weeks before the D.C. government told us to. No bureaucrat told my kid’s school to shut down (though governors in many other states did just that), no politician ordered the NBA to cancel games. I’m not saying government action hasn’t played any role, of course it has. But the primary driver of events has been reality and the people who have responded to it.
This gets us to the weird irony of the debate between those who want Trump to “open the economy” and those who want Fauci to keep it closed. First of all, Fauci didn’t close anything. He is not Fauci the Great. He’s a respected medical bureaucrat offering advice. Second, Trump can’t open up the economy by diktat. He often says, correctly, that the governors are taking the lead. They’re the ones with most of the power in this crisis. But only some closed down the economy in their states, and of those who did, it was often more like they were ratifying what was already happening on the ground.
But here’s the weird irony. The people who denounced Trump for being a tyrant before the crisis and now want him to be one because of it—as well as the people who cheered Trump at every turn before the crisis but now lament that he’s being bamboozled by Fauci the Great—agree on one thing: The president could turn the economy back on if he wanted to. They just disagree about whether he should. The truth is that he doesn’t have that power. Some people would march back to work if he said “Go for it,” but way too many people aren’t going to go back to normal unless things are actually normal—i.e. the pandemic is dealt with. They—we—are the ones who will turn the economy back on because that power resides in the people, where it should. And that’s one of the reasons we’re a great country.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: So I have been deluged with requests to explain what happened with Pippa and the law. First, some context. We don’t normally walk Pippa on a leash for several reasons, the chief one being that she’s too crazy and will not learn how to walk on a leash properly. She’s a dynamo like no dog I’ve ever known. On a normal walk, even when both of them are off leash, Pippa probably takes 20 steps for every one of Zoë’s. She wants to flush birds, real or imaginary, from the bush. The shortest distance between any two points for Pippa is three figure-eights and a half-dozen pirouettes. There are other reasons. She chokes herself straining against the leash and pulls out chest fur. She gets it tangled with Zoë’s leash. And most importantly, it’s not necessary. She is arguably America’s Most Harmless Dog. She gives other dogs a wide berth. She doesn’t have an aggressive bone in her body. And she listens to commands to come, to stay out of the street. Also, so long as you have a tennis ball she will follow you blindly. Now, if you think this makes us bad dog owners, fine. If you think you can get her to walk on a leash, I invite you to try. Between the Fair Jessica and me, we’ve had a dozen dogs and over a half-century of experience with dogs, and we’re comfortable with our choices.
Now Zoë is a different matter. We have dedicated hundreds of hours to civilizing the feral, white trash swamp dog we adopted under false pretenses. And she is now a good dog. On the trail, when off leash, she comes when called and will submit to being leashed whenever we deem necessary (with the possible exception of when she’s in full pursuit of a critter). The one exception is when we walk in our neighborhood. She’s very territorial and there are a lot of dogs around us, including small and easily digestible ones. So she hasn’t been left off leash in our neighborhood deliberately for years. It’s just not worth the risk that she will open a can of whup ass on someone’s dog (she’s utterly docile towards people, btw), particularly a small dog. Zoë just gives a “What’s up?” nod to big dogs, but little dogs have notorious Napoleon complexes and talk a lot of smack, and Zoë may not be interested in starting fights anymore but she’ll be damned if she won’t finish them.
Anyway, someone in our neighborhood, who apparently holds a grudge against Zoë for a scrap with their dog several years ago, went and filed a complaint with the police against Pippa, America’s Most Harmless Dog. My wife was served with some formal notice by the Dog Police insisting that Pippa was witnessed off-leash and now we have to jump through some legal hoops. Our view is that dog owners should be held responsible for what their dogs do. I understand that people disagree about this. But what is so annoying about all this is that Pippa didn’t do anything. She’s being held to account for the Dingo’s alleged misdeeds in the past. It’s a classic example of the ingénue falling in with a tough crowd.
For now, though, both doggers are fine and oblivious to the machinations of busybodies and the police state. And they’re doing their part, keeping the crows at bay, encouraging safe practices and in a peculiarly popular pandemic service, reminding people what day it is, as one day bleeds into another during quarantine. They also don’t really mind the new shelter-in-place regime, even if the usual disputes occasionally arise. Even treat time is getting back to normal.
In literary criticism, the word “verisimilitude” is often used by people who think words like “realistic” or “believable” are too lowbrow. When a novel reads like it could be nonfiction, that’s verisimilitude. But we don’t have a similarly pretentious word for the opposite: when real life feels like a novel or a movie.
And now, the weird stuff
Photograph of a volunteer passing out toys to kids who were coming to pick up meals by Lauren A. Little/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle/Getty Images.