Eugene’s Silver Linings Thoughts, Second Edition:
“On the paradox of self-quarantining.”
Eugene Jarecki • Wednesday, March 18, 2020
I hope you read this whole note, because I think there’s a bunch of good stuff in it. But if you’re short on time, I leave you with this single thought: The paradox of self-quarantining is that while people may think of it as isolation, it’s likely the most collectivist thing they have ever done. Why? When else have individual people looked at their every action as if it matters, as if every cough matters? When have people, en masse, self-limited for the sake of the collective on this scale? Once again, I would argue that alongside the fear and pain it will no doubt cause, this is one thing that Covid-19 has already done for us and will continue to. It has given us a chance to decelerate, to look at the world less as something we control and more as something of which we must be mindful, to be in awe of the power of nature, and to recognize our place in it in vivid terms, as well as our deep responsibility toward one another. As Willy Loman said, “isn’t that a remarkable thing?”
Okay, so if you read this far and gotta go, I understand. For everyone else, here’s the rest:
Since my first note, I am thrilled to say, first, that a ton of people have expressed a wish to join this line of thinking AND second, that the world, from the windows of Siena to the balconies of Seville to the supermarkets of Iceland, is seizing this moment as the incredible turning point it can be for all of us.
These are visible, Romantic expressions of humanity and collectivism, but it’s on the individual level that I think we are seeing the most significant step of all. It’s inside each of us, where we all have a chance, symbolized in the paradox of self-quarantine (above), to redefine that collectivism is not the leisure of social life, it is the work to be a mindful member of society on far more levels than most of us have grown accustomed to. You can see and hear about it happening in wonderful examples and anecdotes every day. (Yes, there are still monsters in the world, we see them clearly, engaged in small and large acts of selfishness and brutality, but those are ALWAYS there. What’s NEW is the profound groundswell of positivity that is happening.)
Where does this bring us? What, as Eisenhower said, is the best to be imagined and the worst to be feared? Well, if we sustain it, I think it means a chance to truly push restart on the world. Reagan once lied to America and told us “we have it in our power to start the world all over again.” This wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true now. We cannot entirely undo the sins of the past. But what we can do is push reset within ourselves, and this will have far-reaching, unknowable, consequences for our world and future.
None of us invented the world of industrial capitalism we live in. We were just born into it, and it has been steamrollering forward all our lives, shaping where and how we live, and the value system that dominates life. Suddenly, it’s stumbled. The markets are plummeting, and the gears of major industries are grinding to a halt. Before Covid-19, what we saw repeatedly from the movement to slow the climate crisis is that not even the burning of the Amazon, Australia, or California, not even the drowning of Venice or the melting of Greenland, nor mass die-offs of species, nor the melting of glaciers was enough to slow the machine. What it has instead shown is that its profit-driven self-denial stops at nothing and then, on top of this, turns the results of its mass-destruction into new opportunities for derivative “disaster capitalism” (as explained so well in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine). So we can thank Covid-19 already for generating a crisis that not even our willfully-ignorant global system can ignore. We can’t predict the future, so we do not know where this situation will lead, but what we can say, right now, is that the virus is having a massive, daily impact of reducing industrial emissions, and this has a huge implication, also, on human life. I am under no illusion about the possible severity of this pandemic in terms of the number of lives it and its domino effects (e.g. poverty, hunger, homelessness) can ultimately cost for millions around the world. I do not, by looking for any bright side, in any way underestimate the devastating economic and survival effect this virus will likely have on millions, far beyond those who directly lose their lives to it. But we would be naive, as this Forbes article points out, if we believed that business as usual in our industrial society does not have a massive global annual death toll.
This environmental side-effect has been echoed by CNN this morning and even in this piece about how the tourism-blockade has cleaned up the canals around Venice. Again, these are symbolic examples, but they memorialize the message that the universe is sending us at this moment. Look how it has dropped the stock-price of the mighty Criminal-in-Chief as he heads for an attempted repeat of his 2016 seizure of power. Look how it has suddenly moved the endless history-repeating quagmire of the U.S. election to the back pages. Even Netflix has halted production, for crying out loud. And Louis Vuitton has switched from making handbags to hand-sanitizer. Look how usually corporate-mainstream-political-figures have suddenly becomes advocates for programs in democratic socialism (sorry, I couldn’t resist). Even the overnight re-nationalization of public institutions suddenly looks good when we see how a profit-driven universe leaves us unprotected. And in an update hot off the presses, the White House today has expressed support for making immediate cash payments to Americans as part of a Corona stimulus package. (DJT better watch out, or he’ll be called a “Democratic Socialist” soon.)
This last note will be my first contribution to the Silver Linings Action Team when we have our first get-together, but here is an idea for anyone who is still reading: As I mentioned in my previous post, I think events and institutions that are “canceling” or “closing” outright are missing a huge opportunity to advance society and should instead think more creatively about “adapting” whatever they were planning to serve a newly identified social need. This is where I suggested (and I wish someone would whisper it to them) that the Tribeca Film Festival reorganize its interns and staff and resources, etc. to become the Tribeca-Feed-Kids-Who-Need-Lunch-Because-They-Rely-On-Their-Now-Closed-School-For-This-Festival. If anyone knows the leadership there, please pass this on. For everyone else, please take a moment to jot down here other institutions and events (like festivals) that you can think of (particularly upcoming events) that we could brainstorm about re-purposing to meet this crisis and turn it into a fantastic opportunity for betterment.
Before anyone thinks I have gone totally Pollyannish and lost my usual suspicions toward the powerful: Of course, I am under no illusion about how, if it not carefully watched, Covid-19 may prove a dress-rehearsal for a significant assault on civil liberties around the world. When we see the images of compulsory temperature-taking at Chinese and Italian train stations and see DJT’s flirtation with domestic travel controls, for example, we see how certain measures made necessary by an epidemic could, in the wrong hands, be used as a pretext to suggest that personal privacy and bodily sovereignty are outmoded artifacts of a kind of democracy no longer practicable in the modern world. These examples are harmless enough of course; it’s where they lead that we must be concerned about. To say nothing of the backdoor mischief that certain corporate and political actors are surely engaged in while everyone is distracted by the crisis. All of this is a form of Shock Doctrine thinking to which we must be ever-vigilant.
But for now that is some of the worst to be feared. The best to be imagined is up to all of us, in our continued, daily attention to living mindfully and, not just through self-quarantine but all the community-oriented thoughts and action that can come to us with this sudden deceleration of life, to making this world the best it can be.
Oh yeah, and when this is all over, I think we should all support the poor Corona corporation by celebrating the end of the pandemic with a worldwide series of Corona parties. They are really going to need it. Peace to everyone. ❤️