#12: The reality issue

On Covid denial, "hyperfreedom," and hoping reality will stage a comeback

November 17, 2020 • Day 250

I skipped last week’s newsletter because, frankly, there were already too many takes flying around, and I didn’t have the energy to shoot one off myself. You’ve probably heard the oft-quoted saying, “don’t talk unless you can improve on the silence.” Researching this just now I’ve seen it attributed most often to Jorge Luis Borges, but also to American politician Edmund Muskie, spiritualist Anthony de Mello, generically as a “Spanish proverb,” Anjelica Huston’s character in the movie Ever After, and really to whoever someone heard say it last. I think I heard it last from designer Mike Monteiro, or maybe on Instagram.

Anyway, there isn’t nearly enough silence in our lives right now, so maybe we need a corollary saying: don’t talk unless you can somehow improve on the noise. One advantage of this being a small list for about 25 friends, as opposed to (say) a paid newsletter going out to hundreds or thousands of subscribers, is that I can take a week off without having to tell anyone about it if I don’t think I have anything interesting to add.

After skipping a week, I decided to hold this one for a couple of days to mark a milestone—250 days since my family began staying home because of Covid. Everyone else’s ‘lockdown’ may have begun at different times, usually a bit later, some a bit earlier. But we’re all at or close to hitting 250 days of this. Sometime in January it’ll be 300; in March, which is not far off at all, it’ll have been a full year.

The best news of the past two weeks, other than Biden winning the election, has been that the first two U.S. Covid vaccine trials have returned early efficacy data — and both look really, really good. Pfizer’s vaccine looks 90% effective, and Moderna’s looks 94% effective (and theirs remains stable under normal refrigeration, unlike Pfizer’s which requires cold storage and special handling). In an interview this week, Dr. Fauci subtly revised his estimate for when the U.S. will return to normal from late 2021 to “the second or third quarter,” based on the strength of these results.

But this ray of hope depends on people taking the vaccine, which in turn depends on some entity like the U.S. government coordinating a vaccination program, and citizens being willing to show up to get vaccinated.

The biggest threats to the former are Donald Trump’s continued lack of interest in doing his job, and stubborn, dangerous refusal to hand that job off to Joe Biden. The biggest threat to the latter is many Americans’ wild belief that Covid, and this whole pandemic, are a political hoax.

Trump and Republicans have now spent over a week refusing to concede. GOP leaders keep saying they want to “count every LEGAL vote” (which, like most of what they say, is doublespeak), that the election isn’t over and they’ll honor the result when it’s finalized.

More reasonable Republicans (a group that apparently includes Trump’s National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien) have adopted this wishy-washy, ‘Schrödinger’s election result’ position, saying that there should be a smooth, stable transition to a Biden administration — if he wins, when (or if) the election is finally settled. This way people like O’Brien get to acknowledge norms and probabilities, while also stating a preference for an outcome that has already been ruled out.

In a New York Times op-ed published today, Portuguese politician and author Bruno Maçães proposes that what Trump is selling to his rabid fanbase — which other Republicans are trying to leverage and get a piece of — is an extreme form of freedom, which Maçães calls “hyperfreedom:”

What Mr. Trump promised was the power to create imaginary worlds and the freedom to unleash a selfish and extravagant fantasy life, free of the constraints of political correctness or even good manners, the limits imposed by climate change and the international rules tying America to the ground. This extreme form of freedom — call it hyperfreedom — appealed to Greenwich, Conn., financiers no less than to West Virginia coal miners. It was also, as we found out in the election, attractive to some minorities.

In the traditional way to think about freedom, we want to limit or even eliminate obstacles to individual choice, but ultimately we must deal with reality. Mr. Trump’s example is to take it an extra step: Why not be free from reality as well? Indeed, this may be the ultimate goal of contemporary America: a society that is pure fantasy life, free from reality.

Covid-19 is perhaps the best lens through which to view Mr. Trump’s hyperfreedom — and its limits. Mr. Trump seemed to take the pandemic’s arrival on American shores as a personal insult. If only he could wish it away, re-election would be assured. He tried: the questions about its seriousness and lethality; the outdoor and indoor rallies and gatherings (sometimes, as with the announcement of Amy Coney Barrett as his Supreme Court nominee, both on the same day); the refusal to model simple public health tactics like masks; the drumbeat of assurances that it would soon pass.

It’s worth noting that Maçães, while (apparently) anti-Trump, is not necessarily a friend. His recent book History Has Begun imagines a bright post-liberal future for America; it’s been described as “brilliantly contrarian” and has blurbs from folks like Niall Ferguson (a scholar at the same conservative think tank that gave us Scott Atlas) and Marc Andreessen.

But Maçães does at least appear to be pro-reality, and with this phrase and framing he elegantly explains the lens through which Trumpers (and anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, Birthers, truthers, and other reality-deniers) view the world.

Trump and his most ardent followers believe in whatever reality is most convenient, whatever requires the least of them. It’s an extreme but also extremely lazy kind of libertarianism. Where ‘classic’ libertarians have to struggle to form a political and moral framework within the bounds of real-world society, hyperfreedom fans can just do whatever the fuck they want, without regard to constraints or consequences, because none of that shit is real to them. Hyperfreedom is the freedom to not think.

A few weeks ago, my wife’s parents (both over 75, one in poor health) attended an indoor party near their home in Michigan. This despite their children asking them to please take Covid seriously, for the sake of their ten grandchildren. About 2 weeks after this party, my mother-in-law had to be hospitalized with pneumonia; it turned out two other people who attended also came down with pneumonia. None of them tested positive, and one doctor suggested it could be Legionnaires Disease. Maybe it was Legionnaires Disease. But when three people develop a severe respiratory disease around the same time, during a global pandemic of a respiratory virus, how likely is it that this wasn’t a mini-superspreader event?

My in-laws don’t have a good answer for why they attended an indoor gathering during a pandemic. As far as I know, they don’t regret it, because it doesn’t occur to them that they made a choice that may have had consequences — they just did what felt right and normal. You can’t feel guilty for something you don’t recognize that you did.

That’s hyperfreedom for you. Hyperfreedom makes everything someone else’s problem, which in practice means it’s no one’s problem because the problems aren’t real. Either way, hyperfreedom means the freedom for important things to be none of your business, even if the world would be better off if they were your business a little bit.

This tweet thread has been making the rounds today, from an ER doctor in South Dakota who’s treated many Covid patients who, despite them or their loved ones suffering and dying from Covid, still do not believe that Covid is real:

It’s become a cliche to call Republicans and their supporters a “death cult,” which seemed a bit of an extreme label before Covid, but now seems tragically apt. It seems there are two kinds of right-wing viewpoints on Covid:

  1. It’s real but not a big deal, liberals and the media are exaggerating it to score points and take down Donald Trump

  2. It’s not real, liberals and the media invented it to destroy freedom and take down Donald Trump

I worry this is a bit reductive — I’m reading WaPo literary critic Carlos Lozado’s book What Were We Thinking, a survey of Trump-era books, where a recurring theme is authors and pundits using Trump and Trumpism (which may not even exist as a coherent ideology) as support for whatever viewpoint they held previously. Religious conservatives think the Trump era means we need more religion; progressives think it means we need to go all-in on progressive policies.

No one seems to have adequately done a root cause analysis on American’s extreme distrust of one another along partisan lines — obviously race and class are factors but neither racial nor economic resentment work on their own to explain how we got here.

So, on one hand, I’m hesitant to paint “conservatives” with any particular brush (other than expecting they think I hate them and want to take away their freedom).

On the other hand, clearly some strain of “conservatism” has broken with reality and — either out of a sense of hyperfreedom or a cultivated hatred of liberals — will deny Covid is real even as it kills them. If they won’t believe in Covid while being treated for it, the odds of them willingly being vaccinated for it seem impossible.

And while those people lay claim to the freedom not to believe in the virus, unfortunately, the virus can still lay claim to their bodies. As far as I know, several of our extended family members are still gathering in Michigan for Thanksgiving next week, and in the meantime are still going out, meeting up, living their hyperfree lives. The winter is going to be very, very bad.

I don’t remember where I heard this line, but it’s stuck with me: you should tell the truth, if for no other reason than it’s easier to remember than whatever lies you’ve told.

In a recent Gallup poll — conducted after the election, but before Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna’s vaccine results were made public — 58% of Americans said they would take a Covid vaccine, up from 50% before the election. Progress!

What’s changed since then? Covid has gotten much worse, and lies about it from Trump and mainstream Republicans have slowed. Also, people can see a near future under the Biden administration, where the FDA and CDC are not politicized and can be trusted again. Word that the vaccines are approaching readiness is coming not from Trump — who nonetheless is trying to claim credit for them as if he’s still running for something — but from pharma companies and science reporters. Reality is resurgent, at least a little bit.

To be sure, Republicans are still nutso on this issue — when MI Gov. Gretchen Whitmer reinstituted quasi-lockdown in response to the rapidly rising infection rate, Trump’s favorite quack Scott Atlas tweeted that people should “rise up” and resist the public health measures. Trump himself has not changed his mind, but may be too distracted by his election loss, whatever graft he can get done before January, and golfing to be as aggressive about spreading misinformation.

Many people are being admitted to Covid wards and ICUs not believing Covid exists. Some of them will never be discharged, leaving the hospital in a body bag to be loaded onto a refrigerated truck. Some will come home still believing the virus is fake but Joe Biden’s plot to hand America over to communists is real. But some will come home having been reminded firsthand what is real. Hopefully they’ll tell their friends about their experiences, and that their friends care enough to listen.