Girardian Pictures of the American Pandemic
What is the meaning of American pandemic politics?
Here are three Girardian answers. An exercise in thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.
First, for those uninitiated, what is René Girard’s fundamental view?
In brief, we imitate others. Not just in their manner of speech, clothing, and cultural practices but in desire. We want the same things as our models. This results in conflict. This conflict leaves many with frustrated desires. At some point, this frustration must boil over. The natural way to bring about communal catharsis is with sacrifice. The community must find and punish a victim. Whether the victim is guilty or not is immaterial. After sacrifice, there is peace. The community is bound together. Calm continues until conflict requires another scapegoat. This cycle can span over years or minutes.
With the advent of Christianity, culture began to move away from master to slave morality. Master morality honors the accusers and powerful while slave morality focuses on the victims.. Concern for innocent victims is the ultimate value. We care more about the life of Briseis, than the glory of Achilles. At its best, politics is not about promoting “great” men, but about human rights and equality.
Girard, of course, has a deeper worldview than the above.
Some parts of the community, the left, want to protect victims of the virus. So, they advocate for measures ranging from vaccines to physical distancing. There’s disagreement over how to do it. But they try.
Others, the right, care less about victims. These people are on the right – by self-description, they may be more Christian, but by practice, they are not. They don’t take the cost to victims to heart. They either downplay the costs of the virus or don’t care.
David Brooks described this attitude as it revealed itself at the national conservatives conference in Orlando:
Their public posture is dominated by the psychology of threat and menace. If there was one expression of sympathy, kindness, or grace uttered from the podium in Orlando, I did not hear it. But I did hear callousness, invocations of combat, and whiffs of brutality.
Instead of caring for the victims, the right focuses their attention on “elites.” The vague things called “science”, the media, and the establishment spread lies and deserve punishment. The right sees themselves as the victims and accuse the elites of conspiring against them.
Many measures to prevent the virus are ineffective. The left uses the pandemic to justify their righteousness. Here’s a useful example:
A loved one dealing with a serious illness had a doctor's appointment cancelled because she was exposed to someone who was exposed to someone who has Covid, who was not vaccinated. Why not be generous, instead of selfish, and get vaccinated? It's not just about you.
There are two things interesting here. First, the accused are unvaccinated and impure. These åre the people the mob must condemn. They are endangering the community. Second, the loved one cares deeply about the victims. She pays the cost of compliance and forgoes a serious doctor's appointment.
A reasonable person would go to the doctor anyway. “Serious illnesses” are more dangerous than becoming exposed to someone who was exposed to Covid. But someone who takes the care to quarantine at a serious cost to themselves must truly care about the victim. That is heroic.
We turn our knowledge into a weapon, a means not only of perpetuating old conflicts but of raising them to a new level of cunning, which the very existence of this knowledge and its propagation in the whole society demand. In short, we integrate the central concern of Judaism and Christianity into our systems of self-defense.
Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning
The accusers are not Christian, they are hyperchristian. They distort care for the victim into the weapon of the accuser.
It is out of concern for the victim that there are interruptions to everyday life, disrupted businesses, and the necessary shaming of those who don’t comply.
A final frame.
The first picture takes the cost of the virus to the ill seriously. But the mitigation strategies are a mess. The left exaggerates the cost to healthy individuals and children. They worship an idol of Science – and wield it as a vague weapon of judgment.
True care would have sought a more effective response. Instead, the concern for victims is hijacked by existing cultural battles. This community is hyperchristian and uses victimism as a weapon.
The second picture takes the cost of political interventions to the healthy seriously. But they choose different myths, fictions about the efficacy of vaccines or invisible men with secret purposes running lockdowns.
This community avoids the trap of hyperchristianity, but sees itself as a victim and is hungry for vengeance. Actual victims are invisible.
These two groups are in conflict, but fuel one another.
If the unvaccinated and non-compliant right did not exist, the left could not wield victimism as a weapon.
If the right could destroy the elites, they would not know what to do next.
The victims are the elderly. They have been ignored in nursing homes for decades. Now, many of them have passed, the virus speeding up their death. Sometimes alone.
They continue to be ignored, casualties to a more captivating conflict.
These are just stories about pandemic politics. Much of the truth hangs on empirical details only gestured at here.
This piece was only an exercise. I have the sense that the lessons about imitation and victimism should apply more to one’s personal life than abstract cultural debates.