When I read this NYT op-ed by David Brooks, after gagging at the title (how can a plague have a “moral meaning” in itself?), I suspected he might be religious. For the entire article is marinated in the idea that the plague not only has a “higher meaning”, but also that that meaning is instantiated by inspiring good acts by those suffering from the threat. In other words, it’s like Christianity, but without God. After I read it, I looked up Brooks in Wikipedia and found that he “is Jewish but rarely attends synagogue.”
In other words, he’s probably a secular Jew like me. So why is his piece infused with Christian tropes like “redemption” and “the soul”? I can only suppose that he can’t live with the idea that we’d be so afflicted as a result of natural selection and other purely naturalistic processes, and has to find “higher meaning” in the pandemic. I have no objection to people trying to leaven our group distress by pointing out good stuff. The selfless acts of first responders and healthcare providers, for example, are heartening. That is true biological altruism: risking your lives for those who aren’t related to you.
And, to be technical, “plague” doesn’t refer to a viral pandemic but only to the “Black Death”: the disease caused by the bacterium Yersina pestis. “Plague” refers specifically to that disease, not to a spreading infectious disease in general. (The New York Times doesn’t seem to be fact-checking this issue, as in another op-ed there, Alain de Botton referred to the black plague in Camus’s La Peste as caused by a “virus”). If you’re reading this, Carl Zimmer, could you send a note to your newspaper? Virus and bacteria are completely different organisms.
But never mind the biological quibbling. Here we have another mindless waste of electrons and trees as Brooks trawls for the silver lining in the pandemic. Click on the screenshot:
It turns out that what Brooks sees as “moral meaning of the plague” isn’t that at all: it’s the responses, altruistic or otherwise, that people are showing during this pandemic. He lists only the good ones, but doesn’t mention the hoarding, the blathering of religious people that the virus is a punishment for sin, the refusal of college kids to stop crowding on beaches or in parks, and the heartless calls for old people to sacrifice themselves for the good of the economy. Disaster brings out both good and bad, but we prefer to read about the good, and, truthfully, I see both sides of this. Taking Brooks’s viewpoint, you could say that any disaster, like the 9-11 attacks or a big plane crash, have a “moral meaning”—the same one as does this plague.
But somehow Brooks manages to infuse this whole disaster with a “moral meaning”, using the language of faith (read all the quotes, which are indented).
It can all seem so meaningless. Some random biological mutation sweeps across the globe, murdering thousands, lacerating families and pulverizing dreams.
Life and death can seem completely arbitrary. Religions and philosophies can seem like cruel jokes. The only thing that matters is survival. Without the inspiration of a higher meaning, selfishness takes over.
This mind-set is the temptation of the hour — but of course it’s wrong. We’ll look back on this as one of the most meaningful periods of our lives.
Yes, here Camus was right: it is meaningless in that there is no higher power in charge here. And yes, it’s a biological phenomenon involving mutation and causing apparently arbitrary deaths (not really: there are characteristics that make one prone to death or survival). Selfishness has taken over to some extent (have you been to a pharmacy or grocery store lately?), but not completely, thank Ceiling Cat.
But “the most meaningful periods of our lives”? Well, maybe the most stressful period of our lives, but, truth be told, I’d prefer to do without the meaning and bring back the lives of the thousands who died. Would their families and loved ones see this as a “meaningful” period? How callous can one get?
What makes this period “meaningful” to Brooks are these behaviors (note: it’s human behavior, not the plague itself that has “moral meaning”):
1.) “The plague brings forth our creativity”. He refers to the great organizations of the future being spawned during economic and social depressions. Maybe sometimes, but again, do we need these bad periods to get the good stuff? I suspect that the relatives of the dead would beg to differ.
2.) “A new energy [is] coming into the world.” He refers to people singing and dancing together “across distance.” This is creativity, but it’s not moral meaning. It’s the behavior of a social species forced to deal with a lack of social togetherness.
3.) A “shift of values”. Brooks mentions “keeping up our human connections.” Again, this is not a moral meaning, but a response of a social species. See #2.
4.) “New action coming into the world”. Brooks refers to people growing vegetables for their neighbors and putting up holiday lights. This is altruism, which in some is activated by crisis. And those people are admirable, but again, there’s no “moral meaning” in the plague itself, or even in the response. Some people are good, others bad, and these traits are exacerbated in times of crisis. And, Mr. Brooks, we already know about this stuff without your pious blathering.
5.) “There’s a new introspection coming into the world.” Brooks says that people are having deeper conversations, and, as examples, mentions people pondering their mortality, their actions in the crisis, and confronting their own fear.” Yes, you get the same thing when you’re sentenced to death and execution approaches, or when you’re diagnosed with a terminal disease or have a death scare. But is impending death a good thing because it makes you ponder your mortality and, like some healthcare workers, revise their wills? I admit that one’s priorities can be shifted by these terrible events, but how many of us would wish recurrent epidemics on society as a way of helping us periodically recalibrate our values? Again, Brooks is making virtues of necessities, and completely neglecting the bad things people are doing.
What I most object to, since the stuff above is just pious blather, is Brooks’s use of religious language to make us think that, all in all, the pandemic is a pretty good thing. Is that what he’s really saying? If not, why does he talk repeatedly about “moral meaning”, using quasi-religious language like the following:
. . . .I’ve had a pit of fear in my stomach since this started that hasn’t gone away. But gradually you discover that you have the resources to cope as you fight the fear with conversation and direct action. A stronger self emerges out of the death throes of the anxiety.
Suffering can be redemptive. We learn more about ourselves in these hard periods. The differences between red and blue don’t seem as acute on the gurneys of the E.R., but the inequality in the world seems more obscene when the difference between rich and poor is life or death.
So, yes, this is a meaningful moment. And it is this very meaning that will inspire us and hold us together as things get worse. In situations like this, meaning is a vital medication for the soul.
Thanks for the vital dose of medication, Mr. Brooks, and for your spoonful of puerile journalistic sugar to help it go down. The trope “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is, as we all know, palpably false. I am not “redeemed” by the suffering of myself or others in this situation, and, if I had my choice, I’d rather not get the virus, and I’d wish the pandemic never struck. As for the “redemption” of society, well, this might teach us to be better prepared next time, but I strongly suspect that the “lessons” of inequality will be forgotten as soon as the plague abates.
Am I wrong, or is Brooks being like Mother Teresa here, arguing that suffering is actually good? This brings to mind an anecdote about the old charlatan related by Christopher Hitchens:
[Mother Teresa] described a person who was in the last agonies of cancer and suffering unbearable pain. With a smile, Mother Teresa told the camera what she told this terminal patient: “You are suffering like Christ on the cross. So Jesus must be kissing you.” Unconscious of the account to which this irony might be charged, she then told of the sufferer’s reply: “Then please tell him to stop kissing me.”
Give me less suffering; I’ll live with the lessened “redemption.”