Notes from the Great Plague

Shoppers at BJ’s Wholesale Club market at the Palisades Center mall in West Nyack, N.Y., March 14, 2020. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Put stress on a society and it will reveal the truth of itself. Perhaps someone will deliver a sermon on that, when the churches have reopened.

Today in plague news: My favorite Presbyterian church canceled its Sunday worship services for this week.

That probably is wise: I am admittedly a little fuzzy on the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, but why take an unnecessary risk? If Americans are, as I hope they are, turning to prayer in these anxious times, then they will be obliged to do so as the earliest apostles did, in their homes and in small groups. Thomas Merton argued that the monastery is not a retreat from the world but the very center of it, the place where truth is encountered and where real life is lived genuinely. If we are to have retreats necessitated by public hygiene, we might enter into those retreats with something of Merton’s spirit. We are not running away from anything but toward something. Stocking up on canned soup and Lysol is not the only preparation that is needful.

But that is under way, too: As I write, the president of these United States and sundry captains of industry are on television assuring a grateful people that the nation’s real houses of worship — Walmart, Target, CVS — will be open for business.

Texas governor Gregg Abbott made an announcement earlier today instructing Texans that there is no need to stockpile supplies. I like Governor Abbott and think well of him, but a politician is a politician is a politician, and if that is not a signal to panic, I don’t know what is.

In God we trust — all others put up sufficient collateral.

I have spent a great deal of energy and hundreds of thousands of words documenting and combating Americans’ increasingly sacral view of the state and, particularly, of the presidency and the person of the president himself. Caesaropapism, George Will calls it. This habit of ours is superstitious and, beyond that, idolatrous. We are little improved on the primitives who believed that the king, by ritual scrupulosity, propitiated the cereal gods and thus ensured the health of the crops.

Presidents generally encourage that kind of thing — until they don’t. If a Walmart distribution center in Plainview, Texas, adds a few extra shifts and takes a dozen part-timers full-time, then the president is there, in fact or in spirit, grandstanding and taking credit for the improved unemployment rate. If the U.S. government fails and fails badly to get a jump on a public-health disaster, it’s a different story: “Well, what did you expect him to do?” Live by the sword, die by the sword — the same goes for the wheedle.

Trump’s song-and-dance show on Friday was — how would he put it? — awfully low-energy, meaning Joe Biden–on–Xanax low-energy. The kingpins of the Fortune 500 hovered around him like the conniving regency council sizing up nine-year-old King Edward VI. You could, if you listened closely, almost hear the voice of Al Hedison at the end of The Fly, squeaking, “Help me! Help me!” Who knew back in 1958, when that movie was made, that the spider we’d come to fear in 2020 was an S&P tracking fund?

Trump has, of course, invited — practically begged — Americans to consider the performance of the stock market a judgment on his presidency. On Friday, the market surged about 2,000 points: Hail to the king. Who knows what Monday will bring? We should try to look a little farther ahead than that, if we can.

Most people will not be in church this Sunday — my local Presbyterians are not alone in suspending corporate worship, with Catholic dioceses around the country doing the same. But perhaps on this Sunday, after all the huffing and puffing and bumbling in the capital city, even our nonbelieving friends will join us in meditating on the great truth — which is a religious and political truth — of Psalm 146: “Put not your faith in princes.” Or presidents, or senators, or speakers or the House, or governors, or mayors.

Some of us already have entered into a period of voluntary social isolation. (Some of us are writers and barely notice the difference.) This presents a classic coordination problem. If only a few of us isolate, then that provides essentially no value: Transmission of the virus will proceed unobstructed among the non-isolating population, and the social disruption and collective risks associated with the uncontrolled outbreak will be borne by all of us. We Americans are not very good at these kinds of voluntary-coordination challenges, usually, but the cancellation of major sporting events and the shuttering of Broadway (initiatives from the two poles of American popular culture) suggest that many of our institutions are, in fact, taking this seriously. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban’s proposal to provide financial assistance to hourly workers put out of a job by the suspended NBA season is the right kind of thinking — you’ll know his colleagues are serious when the checks clear.

The great American longing for a generation-defining crisis — Pearl Harbor envy — is strange and enduring, and it shapes thinking on both sides of the great sociopolitical divide: On the left, global warming is the Third Reich, the so-called Green New Deal is the moonshot, and whatever unnecessary immiseration and chaos is unleashed by the fantasies of progressives are only sadly inevitable casualties on the beaches of this new Normandy. On the right, it’s an Islamic caliphate, the coming civil war (there’s always one), the nation’s being overrun by hordes of Spanish-speaking people, or — it is almost a relief to consider it — Armageddon itself. With everything from right-wing survivalist novels to ironic hipster zombie shows, we have been preparing ourselves, in our low-impact way, for just such an eventuality.

And in the plague, we see whatever we want to see: the need for a universal health-care system and paid leave, the need for a wall and for severing our relations with the Chinese. It is important to avoid the sin of presumption; one does not want to end up like the Reverend Jerry Falwell, claiming the 9/11 attacks were God’s judgment on the ladies and gentlemen in Provincetown. But it is worth keeping in mind (if only as a literary exercise, if the religious one makes you uncomfortable) that the biblical plagues were didactic. Put stress on men, individually or in society, and they will reveal something of the truth of themselves. Perhaps someone will deliver a sermon on that, when the churches have reopened.

Until then, we have Walmart. We’ll always have Walmart.

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