Long piece on COVID from almost 2 years ago
Just for the record, here’s the long version of the piece I wrote at the start of the pandemic. I think it holds up well and doesn’t contradict anything I say about the anti-vax right in the more recent piece.
The Failure of the New Class under the Test of COVID-19
In his March 20th New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof opined about COVID-19. His title seemed balanced: “The Best-Case Outcome for the Coronavirus, and the Worst.” But the message was of impending doom, and the method was a perfectly partisan selection among competing narratives crudely brushed up to look like an objective appeal to scientific expertise and truth. Kristof relied heavily on a British epidemiologist he tagged as “one of the best disease modelers in the world”: “I asked Ferguson for his best case. “About 1.1 million deaths,” he said. When that’s a best-case scenario, it’s difficult to feel optimistic.” In his conclusion, he gave the last word—or cough, as it were—to this pessimistic expert, who predicted the US might well be facing more than 2 million deaths: “The Big One is approaching, whether now or later, whether we’re prepared or not. Dr. Ferguson, the infectious disease modeler who predicted deaths in the United States might reach 2.2 million, came down with a cough and fever a few days ago. He tested positive for the coronavirus.”
Kristof was not alone. By late March, a powerful consensus had emerged among the nation’s cultural elite, and it was claimed to be the only reasonable and scientific position, endorsed by all experts. The United States was facing a potentially catastrophic pandemic. The only rational response was an unprecedented lockdown of very nearly the entire nation. Some, such as Zeke Emanuel, the main architect of Obamacare, suggested it would have to last at least a year and a half, perhaps longer. This was not, we were told, an interested, political decision, but a fully scientific, dispassionate, expert conclusion to an epidemiological problem. And so we did exactly that, and anyone who dissented from the dire predictions or questioned the wisdom of shutting down an entire society for many months was derided as a benighted fool who rejected the truth. We were urged to #Stand with the Experts.
Many have died from COVID-19, though many, many fewer than the late-March consensus assumed. The economic and social consequences of the lockdown are still unfolding. There will be much to learn as we gain more experience with the disease. Social scientists will sift through the wreckage caused by mass quarantine. Inconclusive debates will rage about whether the lockdowns were necessary—or too late. But one thing is clear: this spring, we witnessed an astonishing assertion of influence and control by the cultural elite, the class generally referred to as the intellectuals, over civic, economic, and even personal life. And the evidence to this point strongly suggests that, far from competent in that role, those whom we honor as experts consistently demonstrated their captivity to ideology, their self-serving duplicity, and their utter disdain for the ideal of selfless commitment to truth with which they cynically self-define before the public.
The New Class
The term ‘intellectual’ first begins to be used to describe those who work in the knowledge industry in France at the end of the 19th century. Writers, thinkers, and cultural producers in earlier times had participated in political conflict only indirectly, as the protégés of aristocrats and monarchs, but a transformation took place here. The rhetoric of liberal democracy emphasizes meritocracy and claims that reason governs decision-making, but the actual distribution of power within the ruling classes does not privilege the intellectuals. Instead, political and economic elites stand astride society.
As the gap between liberal democratic ideals and political realities became more evident, a crisis of legitimacy simmered. In the face of this crisis, intellectuals—people who had mastered (or appeared to have mastered) the newly prestigious modes of expert discourse—became politically valuable. They could legitimate the power of political and economic elites. As debates in the 19th and early 20th century about political authority, social order, individualism, secularization and faith heated up, the intellectuals began to openly deploy their academic and intellectual capital in the service of political and social struggles. They even came to conceive of themselves as having a privileged capacity to speak authoritatively about all the urgent political and social issues of their day. In the words of Jean-Paul Sartre, the true modern intellectual "gets involved in what does not concern him." Some were famously appalled by this development. The turn-of-the-century French philosopher Julien Benda described it as ‘la trahison des clercs,’ the treason or betrayal of the clerics, that is, the priests of the scholarly realm. But the critics were drowned out in the tidal wave of intellectual movement into politics, armed with their degrees and claims to expertise as their capital. For better or worse, the modern intellectuals as a class emerge as political actors, through and through.
By the mid-20th century, the intellectual classes had grown substantially larger and more diverse, developments driven by the postwar expansion of higher education and the new technical demands of advanced industry. The American sociologist Alvin Gouldner, in his influential book, The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class, sketched out some of the broader implications of these changes. His ‘New Class’ is an aggregate of literary intellectuals and technical intelligentsia with high formal educational credentials in the humanities and in the sciences. They were the cultural elite: those working in the knowledge industries, including teachers and professors, researchers in labs and industry, and writers at think tanks and on editorial boards, but also those employed in the professionalized news media organizations. This officer class enjoyed a growing cohort of loyal followers, the large majority of which had been in educational institutions long enough to have been awarded at least a bachelor’s degree.
This New Class, aligned in an uneasy but potentially powerful coalition, now moved from its earlier role as an adviser to power and entered into direct competition with other groups for control of the overall direction of social policy. Gouldner thought there were several potential outcomes to this competition. The New Class might take up the role of “benign technocrats” and help enlighten the old dominant class so that the whole social order might become more just. Or it might become the lapdogs of those old elites and help entrench their rule with their brainpower. Gouldner’s hope was that the New Class would operate as a “flawed universal class,” still to some degree self-interested but nonetheless the most objectively enlightened class history had yet given us. It is in his view therefore to be celebrated for its considerable cultural promise.
The failure of Gouldner’s hoped-for trajectory for the New Class has never been more evident than in its way of asserting claims about expertise during the COVID-19 crisis. The cultural elites repeated constantly in the COVID-19 crisis that expertise is the defining characteristic of those to whom we should listen. Yet it was only too frequently patently obvious that their claims about expertise were misleading, and occasionally straightforwardly deceitful. A frequent tactic was to refuse to categorize expert sources who presented predictions that were at all consonant with the desires of the White House to move toward ending lockdowns as experts at all. When the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, which is directed by a chair in Health Metrics Science at that university with an Oxford PhD and a Harvard MD, produced a model that suggested the pandemic might begin to disappear by the end of May, much national media reporting immediately sought out expert views in opposition to this model and obscured the IHME’s scientific status. The president was sympathetic, and in the epistemological system of the New Class, this practically required that the model exist outside the realm of science and expertise altogether.
Another aspect of elite opinionating on COVID-19 is alarmism. The default position of the modern cultural elites in times of general crisis is criticism of the existing American state and prediction that the consequences of the crisis will be grave, perhaps even the collapse of the entire system. This default tendency is especially exaggerated when the current political administration is perceived as hostile to the interests of the cultural elites. No recent president has been as combative with elements of the intellectual class as Trump, and the desire on the part of this class to narrate COVID-19 as a catastrophic failure on the part of the Trump administration, with crushing consequences for the broader society—half of which, it must be recalled, voted for the enemy—is palpable.
Why would cultural elites adhere to such a position? Intellectuals as a class emerged in the late-19th century as fundamentally partisans of the political left, and all available data indicate that the skew of this subgroup in an increasingly tilted leftward direction has been steadily increasing for at least the last half-century. For progressive critics, crises are often seen with barely stifled satisfaction at the prospect of systemic failure, which validates the constant stream of left utopian assaults launched by cultural elites on virtually all existing—and therefore imperfect—social orders. It also offers opportunity for radical change. New Class cheerleading for such measures as the nationalization of health care, the forgiveness of all student debt, the elimination of rent and mortgage payments, and the immediate release of all prisoners currently litters the print and online media and social media.
A pristine early version of the alarmist New Class stance appeared on March 19th in The New York Times—one day before Kristof’s speculation that COVID-19 might well be “the Big One”—in form of an opinion piece by a pediatric surgery fellow named Cornelia Griggs. It summarized the cultural elite perspective in pithy brevity: “A New York Doctor’s Coronavirus Warning: The Sky Is Falling.” She was quick to qualify that “[a]larmist is not a word anyone has ever used to describe me before. But this is different.” She also posted on her Twitter account a photo of herself in a medical gown and mask with this message: “My babies are too young to read this now. And they’d barely recognize me in my gear. But if they lose me to COVID I want them to know Mommy tried really hard to do her job. #GetMePPE #NYC.” On a subsequent CNN appearance, she informed viewers that she and her husband, also a doctor, had just completed their wills as a result of their fears of their own imminent deaths.
The discussion of Liberty University’s response to COVID-19 offered another telling example. When college closings began in March, Jerry Falwell Jr. was ridiculed by the media and pundit class when he chose to allow Liberty students to return to campus after their spring break. The New York Times labeled him part of the “far right” and predicted doom for Lynchburg City, describing it as “particularly ill-prepared to become a hotspot.” Some professors on his own campus denounced the decision, claiming, in the words of English professor Marybeth Davis Baggett, that he had put “Lynchburg community…health and lives at risk.” But nearly two months later, Lynchburg City is at just over 70 diagnosed cases with only one death. Coverage of these developments has been almost non-existent.
Politically conservative members of the New Class were not immune to this alarmism. Bret Stephens of The New York Times predicted a Trump dictatorship as the chief consequence of the COVID-19 crisis. American Conservative writer Rod Dreher is now referring to it as “the apocalypse virus.”
The magnetic pull of this messaging for New Class members could be seen most powerfully in the quick adjustment by some who had initially spoken in more measured terms about COVID-19 once the alarmist narrative had become widespread in the ranks of their class. The Insitome podcast of the celebrated geneticist and public intellectual Spencer Wells dedicated three podcasts to COVID-19, on February 19, March 31, and April 16. In the earliest, the hosts, Wells and Razib Khan, were measured and calm. Wells offered the following: “In the grand scheme of things, at the moment this is not a huge killer, it’s nothing like the bubonic plague, it’s much less deadly…This is not as scary as something like Ebola virus…this is something that we can get under control…I’m about to hop on a plane in a week to fly to Singapore and I’m not that worried.” He even did what New Class members now routinely denounce as the hallmark of scientific benightedness: he compared COVID-19 to the common flu in a manner that downplayed its likely consequences. “The seasonal flu is a much larger cause of death,” he said. “We’re not approaching anything like the seasonal flu.”
By the March 31st podcast, a full shift into the alarmist mode established as the dominant discourse in the New Class had occurred. Wells and Khan repeatedly denounced the American government’s response as “unconscionable,” “utterly reckless,” and “woefully unprepared.” They predicted “multiple waves” of the virus that would kill millions in the US because, they asserted, the President and Congress would be too sanguine and would end the lockdown too early. They claimed, against the recorded evidence of their first podcast, to have been alarmed from the beginning, and they attacked others who were doing the same thing they were in the process of doing, that is, changing their earlier measured tune to get in line with the New Class curve while pretending that no change had taken place. Khan caustically referred to “some conspiracy theorists out there saying ‘oh, it’s just like a flu,’” apparently not recalling that his partner Wells had made the COVID-19/flu comparison just quoted in his company only a little more than a month earlier.
In their April 16th podcast, their alarmism is still more extreme. By this point, Wells was suggesting that even talking about lifting lockdowns in place was “potentially genocidal…this is something that the Geneva Convention or a Nuremburg-type trial should be looking into if it comes to pass because it’s just insane. So many people will die and you know that going in.” The killing ability of COVID-19 was described in horrific terms (“this is a really, really scary bug”). They then got into a discussion of what would likely come economically and politically in the long term. Wells said things would not be able to return to anything approaching normal until 2021, perhaps 2022. The economic consequences, they predicted, would perhaps bring on a greater catastrophe than the Great Depression. They even compared contemporary America to Weimar Germany, insinuating that the fall into political extremism of the variety of Nazism is around the corner. Wells suggested that people start growing vegetables and raising chickens in their own backyards and become as self-sufficient as possible. Khan offered that he had purchased a year’s supply of toilet paper and had guns to protect it. By this past week, Wells was Tweeting his desire to “bitch-slap” the President, whom he referred to as “monkey man,” and suggesting that he will leave the U.S. altogether, as one is forced to eventually give up on a drug addict, when a predicted second wave of the virus hits and lockdown is refused. “You can’t save people from themselves,” he solemnly intones.
A popular shift within the alarmist discourse in the wake of the leveling of the rate of death from COVID-19 nationally that began in the second week of April, when it became apparent that the dire predictions of millions were going to be far off from the facts, was simply to ignore this important development and instead hit on a new alarmist talking point: the purported racial inequity aspect of the fatalities. Charles Blow at The New York Times pushed in this direction in the first week of April, when the national curve began to flatten, with an article denouncing “social distancing” as a “privilege” and announcing that “the idea that this virus is an equal-opportunity killer must itself be killed.” Many in the New Class quickly and diligently followed this change of trajectory. This shift was done of course without acknowledgement that the overall fatality numbers were leveling and pointing down, undeniable good news for everyone, including racial minorities.
And conveniently overlooked in the race to find political categories of sufferers who could be shown to bear an unequal disease burden was the fact that the single population most vulnerable to COVID-19, and this is overwhelmingly so, is the elderly. Older Americans are also the most politically conservative demographic in the country, again by a large margin. It was and is inconceivable of course that New Class members or institutions could report on this interesting possibility: Trump voters might well bear a higher COVID-19 fatality burden than non-Trump voters.
Conformity in Alienation
Beyond the scenarios previously mentioned, Gouldner discussed one more possible future for the New Class. It was the most pessimistic of those he presented. Here, the New Class becomes the latest in an historical series of dominant classes, “a socialist intelligentsia that brings little new to the world and continues to exploit the rest of society as the old class had, but now uses education rather than money to exploit others.” The moral authority of the New Class has to do with educational degrees, and in the supposed expertise they grant. The ultimate claim, though, is that the degrees are a symbol of membership in a culture that distinguishes its practitioners from the rest of the society in which they live. This culture is based on what Gouldner called careful and critical discourse, or CCD. In the CCD, all claims to knowledge must be made free of attachment to speakers and they must stand and withstand scrutiny on their own merits. Reasoned debate and consideration of evidence alone will decide truth, and all claims that cannot stand against the compulsion of the facts must be swept away. Members of this speech community learn not only how to engage in reasoned consideration of evidence in the movement toward truth, but they also become competent at recognizing the truthful claims of other experts.
This is in any event how it is imagined to operate, theoretically. In crude reality, things are much more complicated. Anything approximating the CCD is, under the best of conditions, an exceedingly difficult cultural practice, as much of its understanding of practice runs so strongly against the current of much in human nature. The practical activity of science is accurately classed, most of the time, and in all realms, as a game of dueling experts struggling to build consensus for their often greatly differing views. The philosophy and sociology of science have demonstrated in conclusive detail how little most scientific activity looks like the naively selfless pursuit of truth of academic stereotype and how much it resembles just about every other human activity, that is, intricate and at least partially self-interested struggle between competing teams, each trying to get its own interests realized. Scientists do occasionally change their minds in order to accommodate themselves to opposing ideas, but the frequency with which this happens must not be unduly overestimated. As the philosopher Thomas Kuhn put it, the funerals of adherents to the old paradigm on a given scientific question are typically a requirement of the establishment of a new paradigm.
The minority of the New Class who have troubled themselves to learn something about science beyond clichés and truisms will sometimes acknowledge this. But most members of the New Class, notwithstanding their educational pedigrees, lack any significant training in scientific method or the history of science. So how do they make determinations as to which experts are the real experts when there exist competing accounts by different groups, each of which can claim pedigreed expertise? The same way all humans typically choose which ideas they prefer among competing ideas: they have an a priori preference for those that bolster and support what they already believe.
Members of the New Class are remarkably monolithic in their values and politics, and despite their rhetorical embrace of the shibboleth ‘diversity’ they are exceedingly socially uniform. The kind of people who spend long years in institutions of education tend to be relatively economically well-off and culturally secular and liberal. Lengthy stays inside a formal educational system that since the 1970s has skewed heavily culturally leftward tends to further increase their ideological tilt. Those who have spent much of their lives in such social environments—where people are culturally similar and therefore find it easy to get along—are prone to see progressive values as true in an unarguable way. If people will just be reasonable—that is, adhere to the progressive secular values of the group in which they exist—then they see it as the simplest of matters to avoid the evils of conflict, hierarchy, and domination. In any conflict among experts over some important issue, say, the likely long-term consequences of a prolonged lockdown during a pandemic, it will not be a difficult matter to find experts who are more skewed toward progressive values than others. And indeed, the overall cultural tilt of the New Class means expert positions that are not overtly consonant with such values will be much rarer than those that are.
The New Class is, almost by definition, alienated from the society that surrounds them and from many of its values. Commitment to the abstract disembodied culture of the CCD inclines them toward a cosmopolitan, decentered view of the world. They are frequently attached to no place and no one in particular, preferring theoretical idealizations to the messiness of the real. They are, in the language David Goodhart has popularized, Anywhere people, contrasted to those who remain attached to places and persons who are real and concrete, Somewhere people. Politically, the two peoples divide consistently, with Somewheres leaning rooted conservative, Anywheres globalist leftist. Broadly speaking, the two peoples have reacted to COVID-19 in vastly different ways that correspond to their conditions of life and ways of seeing the world. I rub shoulders on a daily basis with Somewhere people in the small central Pennsylvania town in which I live. They are remarkably unpanicked by COVID-19—concerned, yes, but not at all despairing in the way that is de rigueur in among the New Class. They talk matter-of-factly about how we will get through this, as we have gotten through other crises. They offer to help neighbors who cannot make it out themselves to get necessary things at the store. What they are definitely not saying is: The sky is falling.
Somewheres are demonstrably less terrified by death than Anywheres are. They tend to see the world as in important ways outside the control of humans. A life is a gift, it is unknown how long it lasts, and no complaints can be made that it is not quite what one desired. Such things must be borne. A view of religious transcendence helps make this possible. Anywheres are much less likely to find any notion of transcendence convincing, and they are more likely to believe that humans have very great ability to manipulate the world, and indeed to crave that ability as the way to assuage their alienation. If there is a pandemic that threatens death, it can be controlled with the proper exercise of state power. Death and suffering are in this view largely social problems that could be all but solved by sufficient human effort. Even if governments cannot keep people from dying altogether, they can at least spare no expense to give everyone their birthright of an ideal death, a peaceful send-off in the 8th or 9th decade, in a bed at home, surrounded by loved ones, at the time of one’s choosing.
A big part of successfully confronting a difficult situation is an attitude that it can be successfully confronted. Predict doom and gloom enough, especially when the predictions are being sent out through influential media sources with access to millions of people, and you perhaps help ensure the realization of doom and gloom. Though they know that an end does inevitably come, to each of us, the Somewhere people are not presently preparing for the end. They are mostly of good cheer, for they believe we can weather this, and they are looking out for and mutually encouraging one another, in their families and in their neighborhoods.
Early during the COVID-19 lockdown, I went to the local Wal-Mart superstore to buy some things. Employees were putting some just arrived pallets of bottled water on the shelves. I heard one of the customers ask the clerk “Can I grab one of those please? Save you the trouble of putting it up on the shelf?” The clerk responded “Sure! And thanks for being nice! A few people were yelling at me earlier because there wasn’t any water up yet.” The customer said “Yeah, some folks are a little uptight right now. I’m sorry you have to deal with that kind of thing. I apologize on their behalf!”
They both laughed. I did too. I much preferred the feeling I had walking away from that exchange to that which descends on me like a pall after perusing the morning’s news. A recent Pew survey shows that many Americans agree with me: nearly half of us report being depressed by daily cultural elite discussion of COVID-19.
One of the things that happens to you, as you read more on the global impact, the regional differences, the seemingly inexplicable variation across and within populations, is that you are led to intellectual humility. How little we know with certainty at this point, and how much that we need to know still eludes us. But this is not the New Class’ cultural attitude, and it never was. Western philosophy begins with Socrates realizing that the Delphic oracle’s claim that he was the wisest of men could only be true in the sense that he, Socrates, had the advantage over other proclaimed wise men that at least he had no illusion about his own wisdom. This view on wisdom is long dead by the time of the emergence of the New Class. It knows, and it knows that it knows, and it knows, especially, that benighted others do not know and so they must be commanded by those who do. And it will exert its power accordingly.
The rare examples of humility among New Class members were hard to find and all the more remarkable for their rarity. The Stanford M.D. Peter Attia noted in late April on his podcast that he had moved from his much more dire earlier predictions to the view that “American fatalities from COVID-19 will be more in line with a very bad, perhaps the worst, season of influenza…This suggests COVID-19 will kill tens of thousands in the U.S. this year, but likely not hundreds of thousands, and definitely not millions, as previously predicted.” The reasons the predictions are so far off the mark is either that the original models were wrong on the virus’ power to sicken and kill humans, or they were right and our preventive measures were effective. Only adequate knowledge of the virus’ lethal capacity will enable choosing between them. Suggestive evidence is already available in the form of a number of studies revealing a remarkably high percentage of COVID-19 infections as completely asymptomatic. One in a New York City hospital revealed that as many as 14% of the pregnant women in the facility were infected without any symptom. If this result is found to be general in the population, it means the lethality of the virus was significantly overestimated early on.
There will likely be few other examples in the New Class who will admit they were wrong if the data continue to pile up in that direction. Most will simply recalibrate and maintain their ideological commitments, untroubled. It must be recognized that, notwithstanding the utility of his analysis of the New Class, Alvin Gouldner’s vision for them has come to naught. The New Class offers no transcendence of partisan politics into the rarefied realm of disembodied and scientific truth. It operates as other classes have, masking naked ideology and pursuit of class interest with obfuscating claims to selflessness, seeking to crush enemies, mercilessly dissimulating about the unresolved state of expert disputes and mobilizing distortions masquerading as objectivity and goodwill. We cannot even mourn the loss of a purity the New Class never had. In moments of crisis such as we are presently living, the evidence of its failure to fulfill the ambitions Gouldner set for it is of a particular clarity.
The New Class expresses constant dismay that we are in a world in which their claims to expertise are increasingly viewed with skepticism. But this is precisely the world they have made, through their deep partisanship, their contempt for those outside their ranks, and their failure to accept the limitations of their own claims to truth.