A New Normal?

A New Normal?

I have seen multiple signs saying “we’re going to get through this!” These signs convey what seems to be a common feeling and attitude: that COVID-19 is a temporary state of affairs, and that as hard as it is, we’re going to come through to the other side, and on the other side, life as normal will resume.

But what if life has been altered? I am not suggesting that life will not go on (it will), but rather that “regular life” might be permanently changed by the experience of this global pandemic and the subsequent quarantine.

What comes to mind for me is 9/11. Many readers here may have been born after 2001, and may have no memory of airport security practices prior to that year. Back then, you could show up 10 minutes before your flight and make it. There was no TSA, no frisking or broken locks on luggage.

You could take a handgun on a plane.

We have now acclimated to these procedures, and the security restrictions that came into being after 9/11 — along with the massive overhead in manpower and and equipment that those measures entail — have become a “new normal.” Things never went back to normal; normal moved.

I think that in a similar fashion, the corona virus may shift our normal in a number of ways. Perhaps it already has. We are going to get through this, but I don’t think this will ever leave. Even if it does, we won’t be the same as we were before.

A few of the more obvious changes: now that hundreds of thousands of people have started working from home, I expect that many will decide that they like working from home, and that there is no good reason to return to an office, with its commute and so forth. This is not just a shift in business culture, but perhaps in family culture too. Working from home is hard when your family wants your attention. Perhaps people will realize that the office was a kind of escape from their family and from having to set boundaries.

Many people have noticed a steep decline in petty grievance-culture complaints. Not much has been heard of from the blue-haired brigade. Whatever happened to the rampant oppression of the cis-male-white patriarchy?

Chuck Pahlaniuk had a great line in his most recent novel Adjustment Day where he said that predators understand true value. The scene was one where hundreds had died and their bodies were laying in the street, many with expensive jewelry on. Wolves and wild dogs had gone through and stripped away the protein, ignoring the gold and diamonds. I think it’s an apt metaphor for the way in which COVID-19 seems to have caused people to leave behind the stuff that really doesn’t matter.

I don’t exempt my own passions and hobbies. No one gives a shit about detailed theological quibbles when the food is running dry. I’ve become a lot more interested in gardening and farming recently, and have been questioning the value of philosophy, particularly after reading Mishima’s Sun and Steel. This questioning began before the virus, but it has become a little bit more tactile since. Ultimately, I still think that philosophy can be valuable, but academic philosophy — which I will define here as “philosophy which begins prior to experience in the real world” — is escapist bullshit, not unlike video games or fantasy pulp-fiction.

Another significant change is immigration. What decades of right-wing argumentation was unable to successfully communicate as far as the dangers of open societies and free immigration, a single virus was able to persuasively accomplish in a matter of weeks. Not only are borders shutting down, but people are “socially distancing” themselves even within those borders. Close friends and family are suddenly, manifestly distinguished from strangers, contra all moral posturing prior to the present moment, and verbiage alluding to a kind of universal “human family.”

See their morals, their “code,” it’s a bad joke, dropped at the first sign of trouble.

Joker, The Dark Knight

Another interesting observation has been the swamping of the social services system. I am not sure how unemployment services are doing elsewhere, but in my own county, I have heard that things are pretty swamped. How long people can continue to collect without going to work (because social distancing) is anyone’s guess, but the music has to stop at some point.

Curiously, I don’t see any interest in rioting or protesting. Even the Bernie Bros and their promise to burn down Milwaukee seem to have faded into irrelevance. Actually important things have arisen. Rather, instead of crying to the government, people seem to be leaning further into a kind of libertarian attitude of self-reliance, taking matters into their own hands by gardening, raising chickens, side-hustles, and so forth.

Overall, there is no indication that the corona-virus is going away any time soon, and it looks as though America will emerge from that realization as a solidly second-world nation. The optimistic futurism and first-world problems of the 90’s, of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” of liberal academic culture and self-help pyramid cults, all of that is probably going to wash away in a new flood of real challenges and struggles, of the kind we used to speak about romantically in association with the “Greatest Generation.” That generation was one which was shaped by their trials and tribulations, and which was permanently altered by them. As with 9/11, I think the corona-virus will almost certainly have a similar effect.

With that in mind, there is much still to be grateful for, and worse outcomes we could imagine.

Perhaps among them: the absence of the virus.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Thanks for this post. I agree with your general point about the shifting “normal” and the human tendency to wish to “go back to how things were”, seeking some sort of known stability in uncertain times. However, I would like to defend philosophy here. It is understandable that during a period of crisis we focus on the essential things. Like the quote you gave about hunters knowing the real value. When we are hungry we seek food, not abstract thoughts (and philosophy is mostly an abstract discipline by its nature). Yet, the human mind is, I think, curious, willing to understand. Whenever the opportunity arises it starts asking questions about more than survival needs (even if these questions are so silent and deeply hidden that they are hardly heard). This very post you’ve written is, for me, a great example of the value of philosophy. You question the assumption that we will get back to our familiar normal, you explore what can change, you venture out into the world of potential new values we might adopt and so on. Most importantly, you pay attention and don’t blindly accept what you are being told. All of this, I think, is the value of a curious, probing, inquiring, critical mind, which is what philosophy at its core is about, in my view.

    1. I’m very glad that you enjoy these and find them in some way sustaining.

      To be clear, by own suspicions are specifically of academic philosophy because it’s problems extend beyond merely being abstract or intellectual. One can philosophize meaningfully from a basis of experience (Matthew Crawford is my favorite contemporary example). But the market for academic philosophies, which usually begin with some a priori moral axiom (like utilitarianism) and then criticize everything up to and including reality itself on the basis of their own preconceived theory. That is what more or less defines academic philosophical culture today, and that is what initially brought me into philosophy.

      Ultimately, “philosophy” comes from philo (love [of]) and sophia, which is usually translated as “wisdom,” but can mean cunning or skill too. A philosophy that connects to action in this fashion IS valuable, and not merely a petty distraction, as was the case with most of post-Socratic philosophy which required a leisure class. That’s the leisure I think we’re moving away from with this virus.

      1. I would be interested in reading more about this view you describe by contrasting “reality-based” and “academic” (~merely distracting) practice of / approach to philosophy, as I feel I do not fully grasp your point. Perhaps you will elaborate on this in one of your future articles. Until then – I think that if one opts for escapism due to whatever reasons it is perhaps at least less harmful to escape into distracting philosophy than most other escape routes chosen today.

      2. Perhaps so. Not all escapes are aesthetically equal (and some are downright destructive).

        Probably the best introduction to my opinion here is Mishima’s essay on “Sun and Steel” (linked in the post). But the gist is that there are some things which cannot be understood a priori. This is something that Nagel actually sort of addresses in his famous essay “What it is like to be a bat.” It’s impossible for young people to truly understand what it is like to have children, for example, and so it is hard for them to fit children into their worldview and value-hierarchy. A philosophy which attempts to speak about the value of children coming from someone who has not had them may make some interesting arguments, but because it is not grounded in the understanding of experience (an understanding that takes place prior to verbalization), there is a high chance that that philosophizing is bullshit… at least as far as children are concerned. So the philosopher does best to accumulate many experiences prior to beginning his or her philosophizing.

      3. Thanks, now I understand your point better. In this case I suppose you are not a fan of the thought experiment method used by many philosophers. Yet, it is somewhat paradoxical that we can come up with thought experiment of something we’ve never experienced and use that as a proof that there are things we cannot understand without having first-person experience (like what Nagel so elegantly does in his bat essay you mention – I love it by the way!).
        Thanks for engaging and exchanging with me here in the comments, I really appreciate that.

  2. Vox Day had an interesting take on CoronaChan with his latest darkstream “Q is for Quarentine”. By ‘interesting’, i’m not implying ‘convincing’, as I’ve never been quite onboard with his Q conspiracy stuff.

    On a spiritual level, I think Coronavirus has brought the gods of the copybook headings back into forefront of the collective unconscious. I’m sure the preppers must be feeling awfully smug right about now.

    1. Gods of the Copybook headings is the perfect summarizing poem for the moment.

      TBH, I was never really persuaded by the whole Q thing. There’s so much Barnum ambiguity in the claims that it’s almost unfalsifiable. But my understanding of Vox’s support for Q was that it was (at least for a time) morale-boosting rhetoric. If he’s gone back to believing it has predictive value, I think that’s probably a mistake, but who knows. He’s been right before.

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