The Political Theology of COVID-19

There’s a case to be made that the pandemic broke everyone’s brains. I very much include myself here. Compared to my pre-pandemic self, I feel more irritable, less resilient, more on a hair trigger generally. Everyday social activities feel intimidating and even scary. I feel more disconnected from people, more continually worried that I’ve inexplicably given offense or alienated someone. We’ve been told repeatedly that we would finally be getting our lives back again, and it never panned out and now feels like it never will. And I am one of the lucky ones! I had no childcare obligations, I didn’t lose anyone close to me due to COVID, My Esteemed Partner and I were able to keep our jobs — we even used pandemic relief and savings from no student loan payments to put together a down payment for an apartment. On paper, everything is good and fine, even better than before. But it doesn’t feel that way. The world is broken.

Obviously I’m not the only person who feels this way. The pandemic has produced a pervasive crisis of meaning and authority. The latter has been much discussed, particularly in the context of distrust and even outright rejection of public health authorities around essentially every pandemic mitigation measure. But the crisis of meaning seems to me to be potentially more serious and more foundational. Everyone is asking themselves: why am I even doing any of this? Why do I want a job? Why do we want school? Why are we so eager to get back to “normal”? What is even happening? What is any of this for?

And that is happening, it seems to me, because every aspect of our shared life is charged with a new hostility. We always knew we were exploited at work, but now in many workplaces it feels like the boss literally doesn’t care if we live or die. Service work was always exhausting and degrading, but now customers seem to behave with a new degree of entitlement and malice. In the education world, it seems like the spell is broken and it’s increasingly difficult to expect students to do work — or to remember why we think it’s so important that we should. In a way, Biden is actually the perfect man for this moment, since he doesn’t appear to know why he wanted to be president in the first place — and meanwhile, his likely opponent is motivated by little other than spite.

A big part of the problem is of course that our social lives were all massively disrupted in March 2020. Even if the shelter in place orders — which, pace some of my online correspondents, did actually happen — were unevenly enforced and looser than in many other countries, they led to the closure of shared public spaces like schools, libraries, churches, and (seemingly most crucially and controversially) restaurants. Many people were forced to work from home while putting their children through some semblance of online education.

After a couple months of that, people were obviously going stir crazy — and many people (like my household) kept up the same basic lifestyle for much longer. My Esteemed Partner has never returned to the office since March 2020, and in fact left her job and found a new one because they were going to require office work. I taught online all through 2020-21. We only very slowly began doing our accustomed activities after we were vaccinated and still haven’t really returned to our pre-pandemic “normal.” Everything we do requires a calculation and negotiation, a weighing of risks, in a way that it didn’t before. That knocks off a small percentage of the fun and makes everything feel somehow less “worth it.”

This voluntary asceticism, mostly on the part of liberals, has produced its own resentments as we watched everyone else disregard even the most basic precautions — scorning masks, spinning conspiracy theories about vaccines, claiming to be the greatest victims of the pandemic even as their lives were apparently unaffected. We are doing the right thing, at great cost to ourselves, and they are ruining it for everyone. I get those feelings. I share them. I am viscerally angry at anti-vaxxers in particular. But as Lacan says, even if your spouse really is cheating on you, your jealousy is still pathological.

In this case, moral disapprobation has taken the place of any kind of systemic analysis. In point of fact, we all know Americans very well. We know that they are often selfish and foolish — as are all humans — and we know further that they tend to be more individualistic and distrustful of the government than people in other countries. The behaviors we castigate are morally bad and worthy of criticism on an individual level, but they were also fully predictable. A vaccination plan that assumed everyone would happily line up to get their shot — or rather, that they would scour the internet for appointments at various semi-random locations not connected to their usual health providers, etc., etc. — was not a good plan.

I think that something similar is going on with masking. I wear my mask more often than most, in large part out of respect for My Esteemed Partner’s greater caution about COVID. We wear our masks in shared areas of our building (which means that, in a way, we are masking in our own home), in retail stores, on planes, and so forth. We opt for outdoor dining whenever possible. My righteousness quotient is pretty high on this front, and I think it would be great if everyone behaved like we do (even if we both wound up getting COVID a few weeks ago despite our good works).

But they won’t, and we know that they won’t. Mask mandates were always going to produce resistance, and they were always going to produce half-assed levels of compliance. The burden of enforcement tends to fall on individual service workers, which is a recipe for disaster given that a certain percentage of our fellow citizens have decided masking is oppressive and they’re making an important political statement by refusing to mask up — a reaction that was, again, predictable. Enforcement by police seems unlikely since in Chicago, the police themselves refuse to wear masks. I have literally never once seen a police officer wearing a mask. And if the police did enforce it, that would only wind up putting more people in the prison system, which has been one of the biggest incubators for the pandemic.

Even if we presuppose that everyone is basically well-meaning, masks are uncomfortable. They hurt your ears. They fog up your glasses. They make conversation more difficult. They impoverish our interactions by not allowing us to see each others’ faces and all the non-verbal cues that go along with that. And they do — though liberals love to mock these complaints — sometimes make you feel like you’re not getting enough air. They are also a constant visual reminder of a deadly plague, everywhere you look, which is emotionally draining. It is understandable that people would sometimes cheat, wearing it loosely, wearing it below their nose, etc., etc. — all the things we are very familiar with. People are also likely to use crappy or ineffective masks, or keep reusing a mask too long.

None of this factors into the online Discourse around masking, though. It’s always assuming 100% compliance by people wearing a fresh, well-fitting KN95 mask at all times. And that would indeed be amazingly effective. The death toll would have been much lower if we did that. But that was never going to happen and is never going to happen. The best realistic case is a situation where most people are wearing much less effective masks, often improperly, and where a small but stubborn group will continue to be absolute assholes about it. It’s a situation where service workers and flight attendants will continue to risk verbal abuse and even assault from those assholes. Is the difference between a realistic mask mandate and making sure people are higher risk have access to well-fitting KN95 masks really worth all that?

Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t — but for asking that question, I have basically been told that I am condemning people to death. The people making those pronouncements are almost exclusively the kind of people who can work from home. They are not going to have to wear a mask for 8 hours straight. They are not going to be the one who has to face getting yelled at by an irate anti-masker. In fact, they regard masking as absolutely costless. The only reason to resist it is sheer malice.

And this brings me to my next explanation for the breakdown of our social world: all of us have been spending, like, way, way too much time online. I’ve written before about how social media is an engine for producing moral judgment, and the pandemic obviously kicked that machine into overdrive — especially for liberals. Conservatives could indulge in the fantasy that they were fighting for freedom against pandemic totalitarianism or whatever, but liberals could imagine that they were literally saving lives through posting online. I am not exaggerating here. I recently had a discussion about the real risk level for Long COVID, in which my interlocutor threw down the trump card that they were trying to save lives — and invited me to examine my own, presumably sinister, motivations for posting non-life-saving content. That is the ultimate righteousness high, and a small but significant number of our compatriots are still chasing it.

Meanwhile, you may have noticed that I became less charitable and more exaggerated when describing this online discourse. That’s because social media is also designed to make us angry at each other. A world in which our primary social engagement took this pathological form — even if only for a few months for most people — is a world in which conflict is bound to become more intense even as it became more meaningless.

For instance, I will admit that when I first returned to in-person teaching, I briefly became an anti-masker. The reason was that I was teaching in a sweltering hot building — which made masking much more uncomfortable, even as student engagement plummeted. Wrongly attributing the effects of the heat to masking as such, I concluded that it simply wasn’t going to work — a conclusion that was all the more devastating since I had so looked forward to teaching in person again.

These big emotions produced an online tirade that I later deleted and repudiated. Even now, I’m embarrassed. But I’m not sure I did any actual harm with that tirade. I’m skeptical that anyone was teetering on the edge of indecision so that my posts made them turn anti-masker — and remain so even after I thought better of my position. Anyone who was inclined to change their behavior based on what I said was surely already convinced for other reasons, and most respondents completely rejected what I was saying. I didn’t kill or endanger anyone with my stupid venting. The only harm done was to my reputation.

By the same token, though, none of the online COVID doomers who so irritate me are in a position to influence public policy (or even institutional policy at their own universities, for instance). They’re just venting, too, and the main effect it has is that people feel scared or angry or anxious — emotions that they are, paradoxically, seeking out by logging into Twitter. We’re all consenting adults who have freely chosen to make others and ourselves miserable, over nothing. I find it more than a little irritating that they seem so incapable of extending the same empathy and understanding to people who are harmlessly venting about their frustration with pandemic restrictions as I am extending to them right now — but even so, the material effects of their annoying discourse can be found primarily in my blood pressure rather than in public policy.

Yet even if their particular side of the argument (or mine) is unlikely to have any concrete effect, the thwarted dialogue as a whole does have the material effect of rendering impossible — even unimaginable — any reasoned democratic deliberation about pandemic policy and the attendant trade-offs thereof. Instead, we are all actively participating in a medium that makes us hate and distrust each other and that we know to be incompatible with discourse that aspires to something beyond boastful self-righteousness or scornful dunking.

To take an example, one question I have is: does it make sense for schools to mandate masking unilaterally, even when no one else is doing so? Is the public health benefit worth the damage to the educational experience? That is a tough question. I don’t know the answer. But a social media conversation about it — even and especially with my fellow highly-educated academics who engage with tough, complicated ideas for a living — will never get off the ground, because someone will inevitably point out that my superficial enjoyment of unmasked teaching could never be worth a life. Then if I’m lucky, I’ll be endlessly dunk-quote-tweeted until I’m the “kill grandma for my seminar class” guy. Maybe they’ll even decide that I want to see my students’ faces because I’m a creep who wants to leer at them! And I don’t even want to contemplate what happens once the conservatives get ahold of it….

You can’t run a democratic society like that. You can’t get popular consent like that. No authority is legitimate when your public sphere is structured like that. That’s how COVID broke our world — not so much by shutting down our shared public spaces and shared social life, which was in any case temporary, but by accelerating the process by which social media cannibalized what passes for public discourse in America. And in the short- to medium-term, I don’t see how that’s fixable.

2 thoughts on “The Political Theology of COVID-19

  1. Readers should keep in mind that I define political theology as the study of systems of legitimacy. This post may also bring to mind Agamben’s COVID “interventions” — you can find my response to them here.

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