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Flowers of Evil Wrap
I tried to gin up a measure of optimism this week, with limited success
The brobdingnagian white peonies of Lightscape at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden
I spent the earlier part of this week writing a piece (not yet published) about how there is no legislative solution to our really deep fears of election subversion, something I’ve written about before in this space. In an effort, perhaps, to improve my mood a bit after that, I spent a surprisingly large chunk of time later in the week ginning up optimism about other things, for which this techno-optimist post from Noah Smith proved invaluable. But deeper I went into that piece, the more pessimistic I actually got. The reason is simple: while there are, in fact, plenty of good trends to point to, the pervasive feeling that the system is falling apart is coming from somewhere real.
And I don’t think, contra the piece I wound up writing, that at bottom it’s all about polarization. I think that’s an essential part of the story, but it’s not the whole story.
We had an older friend over for dinner on Friday night who teaches English in a public school, and in the course of our conversation we wound up talking (like you do) about the pandemic. She articulated the conventional (in my circle) view that we need to keep crushing the virus until it is defeated, and if that required coercion then so be it. Yes, there would be a time for pushing back against state overreach, but we weren’t there yet.
I, perhaps betraying a bit of emotion as I did so, argued that we in fact already there. First of all, I disagreed that it was still possible to “crush” the virus. Delta and now Omicron were far too infectious to be contained and our society was unwilling or, in many ways, unable to sustain the kinds of measures that would be needed to keep it at bay. We have amazing vaccines that work, and really all our focus should be on getting people vaccinated (and boosted). Even there, though, I worried we were pushing the envelope too far. Mandates should be related to occupation, I said; it made sense for health care workers, police, schools, the military, and it made sense that businesses that wanted to prevent disruptive outbreaks in their offices or factories would require vaccination. But it was important to keep that connection to the nature of the job alive so that it made sense as a job requirement, so that people didn’t think they were simply being coerced, which was already prompting stronger and stronger resistance.
Anyway, she betrayed a bit of emotion herself in her response, saying that she was already fully back at work and that anyone who wasn’t in a similar situation didn’t really have any standing to debate these questions. Which is a feeling I really do get. But it felt to me like a synecdoche for a larger cultural problem.
The New York Times reports that, around the country, schools are cutting school days and doing more remote learning, not for public health reasons but because of staff shortages and burnout. For a year and a half, teachers were working harder than ever both on their jobs and in juggling their own family obligations, and delivering vastly poorer results (because remote schooling simply doesn’t work well enough for most students). Now, with winnowed staffs, they have to help students make up for their COVID-related deficits, and they’re starting to break from the strain. But any attempt to relieve teachers puts an additional burden on parents, who are also breaking from the strain of dealing with the same disruptions—and is rapidly undermining support for the public schools as such, something I predicted would happen over a year ago.
But it’s not just schools. Hospitals, which began bracing earlier in the fall for a wave of new COVID-related admissions, are suffering from widespread staff burnout, with the result that they will likely be delivering worse and more rationed care. Crime is soaring nationally, breaking records set in the 1990s in a number of major cities like Philadelphia, and a major driver of the homicide surge is interpersonal disputes that increasingly turn fatally violent. The public is simultaneously evincing widespread distrust in the police (a significant driver of gun purchases) and calling for more policing in their neighborhoods. But police departments are themselves facing massive attrition due to vaccine refusal and demoralization in the wake of the George Floyd protests, and have also become increasingly antagonistic toward their civilian bosses.
At my synagogue this past weekend, there was a blow up between the rabbi and a congregant over a trivial miscommunication. I could parse the measure of fault on either side, but it’s glaringly obvious to me that the deeper cause is this broader phenomenon. We have no more patience left. The country is exhausted. We’re exhausted from COVID, yes, but we’re also just exhausted from having to deal with one another. It’s not just partisan polarization; it’s any kind of disagreement, any kind of demand for attention.
We need a break. But for us to get a break, someone else has to pick up the slack. And there isn’t anyone else. There’s just us.
Me, Here and Elsewhere
Only two new pieces this week:
At The Week, I wrote about how our increasing pessimism ignores the many reasons for optimism about the future, and concluded that partisan polarization is a major reason why we can’t see the portion of the glass that is full, nor focus on filling it further. Notwithstanding the caveats above, I still stand by the arguments therein, and I encourage you to read it.
On here, meanwhile, I wrote a lengthy piece about liberal internationalism, its internal contradictions, and what might be salvaged from it in a moment when it seems to be passing from the scene.
Not a new piece, but apparently Voice of America has rebroadcast my discussion with Prof. Jennifer Oast about reparations for slavery.
To end on a happier note, Lightscape at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden really is lovely. If you’re in New York, you should pick a night and go, before the lights go out (on January 9th).