In the essay below, I’m not going to question the necessity of the lockdown, so skip the outrage. The consequences follow regardless, not just economic depression and poverty (about which I have no special expertise), but social and spiritual ruin, which is what we especially concern ourselves with at the Orthosphere.
A study once found that weather predictions are, on average, less accurate than the prediction that tomorrow’s weather will be the same as today’s. Weather forecasts are still useful though, because only they can warn one about upcoming extreme weather events. So it often is with predictions. Suppose I must guess the value of some y in the future. The simplest among us, myself included, use dy/dt=0. The slightly more sophisticated notice that y is changing and extrapolate from its current rate: dy/dt=constant. The really smart reason that the slope is itself likely to be a function of y and so guess at the linear form dy/dt = k y. Exponential growth (or decay, for negative k)! I’ve noticed smart people are always jumpy, always saying the world system is about to crash. And, 99% of the time, it’s the dumbest people, who assume stasis, who are right. The world system has been around for many times 1/k, so presumably there are higher derivative terms, and/or there are nonlinear terms providing negative feedback that our puny minds don’t comprehend. I admit to being on the lower-IQ side myself, so I always assume tomorrow will be like yesterday. 99% of the time I’m right, but occasionally I’m spectacularly wrong. For example, I didn’t see the pandemic and lockdown coming. This gives me no reason to reconsider my way of thinking; I expect it to be spectacularly wrong from time to time.
The media poisons every debate it enters, because it moralizes everything. According to journalists, there is never genuine uncertainty or ambiguity; there is never a case of balancing competing legitimate goods or interests. Everything is a battle between absolute light and absolute darkness. Social life, or at least the online simulacrum that is all we have left, is a scramble of each man to prove he is one of the good people with the good opinions. Notice how much interest there is in deciding who bears the blame for the coronavirus, a natural phenomenon. The media consensus is, of course, that it’s all President Trump’s fault. Right wing media counter by blaming the China. Few entertain the natural assumption, that through no one’s fault a novel threat emerged, and the right response was–and is–not clear. The media is pushing hard for “shut down everything indefinitely”, making dissent–or even uncertainty or grumpiness–risky. That’s one reason lifting the lockdown will be difficult.
There’s also the legitimate quandary that most people still haven’t caught the virus, including most of the percent or so whom it would probably kill; if the world’s lockdown were to end, cases would begin growing exponentially again, so that we would only have delayed those deaths. Delaying those deaths was, I thought, the original justification, but even spreading them out over a year–so the virus would “only” something like double the normal death rate–would surely require massive quasi-totalitarian restrictions for many months.
I don’t claim to judge the contents of men’s souls. Leave that to the prophets! I needn’t even judge their wisdom. When I say that shutting down religious services for months to years will be absolutely ruinous to the Catholic Church, I needn’t argue that the bishops did it from a lack of faith. Grant if you like that they had no choice, or that they made the right choice. The consequences will follow nonetheless. Perhaps the global elite did not intend, did not want, to pull off a totalitarian coup. Perhaps they were forced to do it as selfless servants of the common good. Nevertheless, they have unquestionably done it. Organized religion has been outlawed. Social life has been crushed, its online replacement under the control of a small number of large corporations in the hands of ideological zealots. Small businesses will soon all but cease to exist. The wildest dreams of every centralizing technocrat since the time of Comte have been realized.
Let us deal with the Catholic Church then, because it is the most important of all institutions. The Church has been hemorrhaging members since Vatican II, but even by those standards this will be bad. As JMSmith pointed out, many people who have for months or years gotten out of the habit of going to church will not be persuaded to get back into the habit if they are ever again allowed to. As Bruce Charlton has pointed out, it has been impossible for bishops to avoid leaving people with the impression that the Church is inessential. (Again, it does no good to argue that they had to do it to save lives; the impression remains even so.) Impressions evolve with practice. In a year’s time, it may be the accepted belief among all high status people that religious services are inherently unsanitary, public health menaces that perhaps (for archaic constitutional reasons) cannot be outlawed but ought at least to be discouraged.
Really, though, it all comes down to basic logic from premises every Catholic must accept. Do you grant that (all other things equal) attending Mass is beneficial? Then it follows that (all other things equal) not attending Mass is detrimental. I had certainly always been told that the Mass, and not merely obedience to ecclesiastic authority enjoining me to go, is beneficial. True, we are not completely without the sacraments. The graces of baptism, confirmation, and (for some of us) marriage presumably remain. However, to the extent that what we have always been told about public prayer and liturgy and reception of the Eucharist being important were true, to that extent we must expect that as the months go on our faith will weaken. The goal of all our home prayers and services is to slow this weakening. Even so, we will be more vulnerable than ever before. It is not unlikely, for instance, that I will be an atheist by the end of the year. None of us knows to what extent we have been sustained by the ordinary life in the Church.
Some may counter that God can employ extraordinary means of grace. By that same line of reasoning, there was no reason to shut down the churches, because God can employ extraordinary (miraculous) means to protect His children from diseases. We all think it would be foolish to simply expect God to suspend on a mass scale the ordinary sequence of cause and effect in the physical realm; neither should we expect it in the spiritual realm.
And yet, the Catholic Church is not yet dead. Even if we are deprived of the Mass for years, some would return afterward, perhaps even a majority of those who were going before. Then we could continue self-destructing at the previous rate.
My old nemesis, liberalism, is certainly not in a good way either. I am surprised at how much of my writing at Throne and Altar is obsolete–not wrong, but directed at an enemy we no longer face. Like many conservatives and communitarians, I had long presumed that the single great enemy is liberalism, in its fully-developed, Rawlsian form: the idea of government as a neutral arbiter between competing belief systems, exclusively concerning itself with promoting individuals’ material comfort and safeguarding their liberty against the community. This ideal was on the way out even before the pandemic. It was already being criticized for having no interest in historical grievances. The liberal strives to balance rival interests that he does not presume to judge. Today’s Leftists never think this way. When two interests clash, they identify one as that of the oppressor and totally illegitimate, the other as that of the victim and unquestionably righteous.
No one believes in freedom of speech anymore. They may acknowledge it as a constitutional right, but they will consider its exercise harmful and will be pleased when private sector forces work to discourage it. We have to fight “deniers” and “haters” of various stripes, because lives are at risk. No one anymore thinks that the free “marketplace of ideas” serves to promote truth. If anyone did, he would encourage vigorous debate and dissension especially in matters of life and death, where it would presumably be most important to have this epistemological advantage. (And really, what political question of great concern isn’t a matter of life and death?) Freedom of speech is not something we enjoy, but something we suffer.
Even the capacity to entertain different points of view is no longer valued. I’m an advocate of public censorship, but even I seem to have a higher opinion of this capacity than most. I know university professors who boast of their inability to understand dissent from Leftism. It is considered a mark of virtue. Not only is it considered wrong to hold dissenting views; it is considered wrong even to engage respectfully with or “give a platform to” those who do hold them. And this pre-emptive closed-mindedness applies not only to matters of fundamental principle, but even to empirical questions like the causes of global warming, the potential side effects of this or that vaccine, IQ distributions of different races, the number of victims of the Holocaust, and now the dangers of the coronavirus. I’m often tempted to ask Leftists if there is any question that they consider a matter of legitimate debate.
One notes the loss as well of a less ideological form of liberalism, which one might call “conservative liberalism”. This based itself not on commitment to some variant of the theories of Locke but on an appreciation for our political inheritance from classical and medieval times–the “traditional rights of free Englishmen”, and that sort of thing. Concerns over the Bill of Rights and Separation of Powers now seem quaint. Such niceties are set aside in times of emergency, and now everything is an emergency. Presumption of innocence has been repudiated in the name of Believe Women and Protecting God’s Children. Freedom of assembly has been taken away for an indefinite time in the name of Flatten the Curve. Presidents and governors largely rule by decree. Democracy is meaningless when experts tell us what to do, and it’s considered irresponsible to question them.
Even if all of this is justifiable, the remarkable thing is that it is all uncontroversial. Being a liberal now just means docility toward experts and victim groups. The old heart of liberalism has been completely excised. Religion has been abolished, so liberalism has served its purpose and can be retired.