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A Sicilian message for the year that was
This has been a light writing week, in spite of the fact that I’ve had plenty of time and little to do, as I’ve been isolating all week after testing positive for COVID. It’s not that I’ve been too sick to write; my symptoms haven’t been any worse than a bad cold, and have largely abated as of days ago. No, it’s more that I’ve just found being confined to quarters itself profoundly enervating. I fully expect that this is the pandemic’s last gasp, and I am not at all worried about my own health. But it’s just bringing up too many sense memories of the spring of 2020 for me to be able to get the perspective necessary to write anything worthwhile. I’m confident I’ll be back in the saddle come next week.
In any event, wrapping this week is simple. All I have to link to is a single column at The Week, which happens to be about getting COVID, and why more readily-available rapid tests would still be helpful even though they would likely do nothing to slow the march of Omicron, because they would make it easier for vaccinated people to continue to visit the most-vulnerable people, who do still have reason to worry about getting COVID, even as the rest of us should just get vaccinated and resign ourselves to getting exposed. Check it out if you are so inclined.
So instead, I’m going to recap the year by looking at what I predicted at the year’s start, what I’ve primarily been writing about, what I’ve seen and read, and what I resolve for the year to come.
Marking My Book
The next Congress will be surprisingly productive, in spite of divided government, because — much as in the 107th Congress that followed the 2000 election — the leadership of both parties have powerful incentives to show accomplishment. Deals will be struck, and the group that will be most upset by those deals is the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, as they see their priorities repeatedly sidelined in order to win Mitch McConnell's support, even as successful dealmaking boosts the economy, and therefore Republican chances to retain control of the Senate.
Well, the premise of this prediction—that the Democrats would narrowly lose the two Georgia Senate races—proved false. Nonetheless, I am going to count this as a correct prediction. This has been an incredibly productive term, and one of the most important bills passed—the infrastructure bill—was a prominently bipartisan effort that earned Senator McConnell’s support. I gave the bill three cheers at the time, and I haven’t changed my views a jot. And who’s been most upset by the term that just ended? Progressives, though their primary targets are neither McConnell nor President Biden but Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
The current delays in vaccine distribution will lead to enormous popular pressure for a faster rollout, and governments will respond. Unlike the effort to contain the virus, governments will not be cross-pressured, and this really is a problem you can solve simply by throwing money at it — so money will be thrown. As a consequence, the coronavirus pandemic in America and Europe will be largely over some time between June and October, and the epicenter of concerns about the virus will move south — to Brazil, India, and other developing nations.
This one didn’t fare as well—for two reasons. First, I was completely blindsided by the persistence and depth of opposition to vaccination on the part of a sizable minority of Americans, egged on by a chunk of the populist right. I really just didn’t see that coming. We did, indeed, spend more money and put more real muscle into the vaccination effort, and it bore real fruit pretty much on the timetable I predicted. By the spring, America was a world leader in vaccination. But then we stalled, and for months after opposition began to congeal, I remained convinced that the main obstacles to vaccination were practical rather than ideological. Those practical obstacles were indeed significant earlier in the effort, and I don’t think I was wrong to highlight them—but I was simply wrong that they were all that mattered.
Had I realized that hard core opposition to vaccines really was forming, though, I don’t know that my prescriptions would be much different. By July, as the Delta variant began its deadly march, I argued that a limited use of mandates—on public employees, and on a voluntary basis by companies worried about outbreaks at work—was the main tool to use to push vaccines on the unwilling. Otherwise, we really had to stick to saying to the refuseniks: it’s your funeral. I never really changed my mind about that either.
The second reason this prediction was wrong, though, was precisely the emergence of those new variants, first Delta and now Omicron, both of which emerged from precisely the less-vaccinated parts of the Global South that I predicted would be the new centers of the pandemic once the Global North was vaccinated. But since vaccines actually worked quite well against deadlier and more contagious Delta, and are working well against the milder but even more contagious Omicron to prevent serious disease or death, I actually think there’s a case to be made that, in fact, by late last spring the pandemic was effectively over in heavily-vaccinated areas, in the sense that the case for non-pharmaceutical interventions was no longer convincing. I made that argument in August in the teeth of Delta, and I’d make it even more strenuously today with Omicron rampaging.
So I’ll give myself part credit. The pandemic didn’t end when I thought it would in North America and Western Europe—but the era of social restrictions should mostly have ended on my schedule. Hopefully it will finally and belatedly come to an end as Omicron wanes over the winter.
Thanks to both of the foregoing, the economy will be very strong in 2021, a much more rapid and robust recovery than we have observed from other recent recessions. The contours of that recovery will be different from either of the last two recessions as well, with major cities like New York lagging relative to the suburbs and second-tier cities, and with the big tech firms lagging the economy as a whole as a consequence of market saturation and greater legal and regulatory scrutiny.
I’m giving myself full credit here even though the “greater legal and regulatory scrutiny” of big tech is mostly still notional. The economy has come roaring back, to the point that we’re facing serious inflation for the first time in over a generation, and New York is indeed lagging significantly. That should mean a real shift in the economic debate—one I really look forward to, since free-lunch politics actually results in pretty bad decision-making. The people to watch—whether coming from the left or the right—are those who can articulate a politics of abundance while recognizing the reality of tradeoffs, rather than those who deny the existence of those tradeoffs or who prefer a politics of scarcity.
Last but not least, prediction four:
Finally, the Biden administration will face an early and significant foreign policy test from China, which is coming out of the pandemic year stronger and wealthier and increasingly convinced of its superiority, while also aware of the significant demographic headwinds that will start to slow its growth in just a few years. The first months of a new administration is the perfect time for such a test, as it maximizes the chance of tripping up a new team still trying to find its feet.
This hasn't happened yet, and in general 2021 featured less in the way of frontal foreign policy challenge to the Biden administration than I expected. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen in 2022—and the first major challenge, a Russian invasion of Ukraine, seems fairly likely to happen then.
Instead, what has happened in 2021 is that the Biden administration was remarkably consistent in challenging China, to the point of very nearly ditching America’s one-China policy. Before Biden’s election, I predicted that he would be far more of a China hawk than many assumed, but he’s been even more hawkish than I expected. As a consequence, I think the right context in which to understand any action China takes next is that they genuinely face an America that is politically united across both major parties on restraining and containing China, challenging its pretenses to economic dominance and diplomatic parity, and preventing it from achieving its primary foreign policy aim since the regime’s founding of reunification with Taiwan.
That may prove to be a good policy that achieves its aims or a bad policy that provokes war—or it may simply be an unachievable policy. But I think it’s the right way to describe America’s policy today, and we should recognize it. I’m sure Beijing does.
Looking Back, Looking Forward
Looking back over the year, there were some very consistent themes to my writing, here and elsewhere.
By far, the most frequent topic of my columns at The Week was COVID, accounting for roughly a quarter of all of my columns for the year. Partly because of that, I talked about COVID somewhat less on this Substack, except in my weekly wrap-ups where I would frequently expand on a column at The Week on that topic.
Foreign Policy was another common topic, both in my columns and on this Substack, and the most frequent subject in that area was America’s policy towards China. Even columns and posts that weren’t about China—whether about Biden’s approach to Europe or the Russian threat to Ukraine or the withdrawal from Afghanistan—America’s turn to restrain China was always implicitly in the background and frequently explicitly part of the argument. I’m fairly proud of a long retrospective piece I wrote here about liberal internationalism; I would love to hear reactions to it from actual established practitioners.
Within my writing about domestic politics, certain themes emerged: the persistence of right-wing populism; the need for a cross-partisan sense of belonging; the vital importance of democratic accountability; the political dangers of meritocracy; and what a post-progressive center-left might look like. Most of my political columns and posts were about America’s national politics, but there was a vital mayoral election in New York City this year, and I wrote a bit about that, as well as about the fall of our governor, and I occasionally wrote about politics in Israel and Germany. I hope that, in the coming year, I’ll do more of that: writing about political topics that aren’t Washington-focused.
I wrote fairly frequently here on religion, as well as on non-religious Jewish topics, ranging from the historically extraordinary extent of Jewish achievement, to the importance of ambiguity in liturgy, to the biblical rebel Korach, to Yakov Gens and Creon and making deals with evil, to ongoing arguments with Ross Douthat about religion in general. Plus I had a piece at the Jewish Review of Books on Hamlet and Ecclesiastes. I hope to continue writing in this vein, perhaps even more frequently.
By contrast, I wrote less of than I expected about film, theater, literature and art. I do, of course, write about these topics for Modern Age, and I had four pieces there this year, a critical piece on The Queen’s Gambit, an interpretation of the Godfather trilogy, a reading of three of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels (including his most recent, Klara and the Sun), and a piece pairing film and theater on The Green Knight and Pass Over. But I count only five posts on this Substack devoted entirely to works of art. Moreover, only three of them were about specific new works: one on Sound of Metal, one on Nomadland, and one on a production in Central Park of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor. To these I can add two posts I’m quite proud of that range more generally on artistic subject, one on Holocaust movies, bad movies, and bad Holocaust movies, and one on Jasper Johns and the limits of conceptualism. The last in particular I wish would find a larger audience.
That’s not nearly enough, though, considering how important I think art is, and how often I think about it, both as a reader or audience member and as a creator myself. I have a lot of goals on the creative side of things for the coming year—most importantly, finally directing a feature film. But I also hope to write much more about the arts in the coming year, here and elsewhere, particularly on film but really on anything.
The piece on here I’m probably most proud of this year, though, is a free-form essay titled “Fertility, Fear and Futurity.” In terms of this Substack, what I hope more than anything this coming year is to write something that exceeds it, something that deserves and then finds a real and substantial audience.
But I also want to hear from you. What do you hope I write more about in the year to come? I can’t promise I’ll deliver, but I can promise I’ll listen, with interest, to what you are interested in from me.
In the meantime, I wish you all joy and well-being in 2022.