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  • stephen schecter

Observations on the Pandemic (III)

Yesterday a friend phoned to wake me up and ask how I was. He wanted to talk because we have not seen each other for at least ten days now and we usually see each other three times a week at the swimming pool which is now closed. We talked about the coronavirus, the government’s response, social distancing. He asked if I thought people would learn anything from the whole experience. He thought it might leave a mark. I did not. I said that people would pick up where they left off after the pandemic was a thing of the past. What have they learned from the preceding century? Look at how many people are sympathetic to the doctrines that turned Stalin into a hero of the Soviet Union. See the discourse of the racism vigilantes in western democracies who support Palestinian thugs over democratic Israel because for them putative victims are enough to justify vicious anti-Semitism. Does Europe understand what the Holocaust really meant? Do Jews? It was said 9/11 changed the world forever. But did it? Western intellectuals and cultural elites continued to assert Islam is a peaceful religion, fourteen centuries of historical evidence and sex grooming gangs in contemporary Britain to the contrary. A President of the United States cozied up to the Iranian mullahs, the Democratic Party went cravenly along, and the Jews still extolled him and voted for the person who would have been his successor. No, people do not learn. Especially our cultural elites do not learn. And especially most sociologists who teach these elites the stories about how the world works, which they then peddle to the rest of us until finally someone like Trump comes along and the people, the deplorables as one of the clerics’ spokespersons called them, suddenly say no. No, we are not racists and homophobes and misogynists and rednecks and ignorant victims of our interests. We are people who know what is going on around us and are tired of being lectured about our sins. The people who are doing their job as a functioning democracy works its magic.


The progressives have it all wrong. So do the sociologists who teach these young people to be progressive. Why do they have it all wrong? Because democracies really are a magic trick. Organized according to difference by function, they have no choice but to include as many people as possible in every area of social life. Everybody loves somebody sometime. Kids can have credit cards. Prisoners get the right to vote. Advertisements have people of all skin color selling everyone anything. Even gay couples get cameo appearances for a few seconds. Democracies do this because the society would not function if it did not include differences of all sorts. It worries about how to include differences without having differences tear us apart. That is a democratic problem. Not inequality, the levelling of which aims to obliterate difference. And since society can never do that, only drive difference underground, democracy would wind up like the gulags of Soviet Russia and Maoist China and their offspring if it did. But if you watch programs like FBI, the menace to modern democracy consists of white supremacists, as if their mindset is typical of their viewers who need to be warned and re-educated. Deplorables once again.

Democracy indeed does something magical. In the first place, it produces a government, not an easy job when people have rights but governments have the task of mobilizing resources to make collectively binding decisions. Look at the responses of western democracies to the coronavirus. In the second place, democracies teach people to do something rather implausible: put themselves in the place of the other. In kinship societies, anyone outside the network of family relations does not command sympathy. In societies organized along lines of status differentiation, everyone knows their place. They belong or do not belong. Only in democracies are people expected to understand the other person’s plight: the homeless, the underdog, the poor, the refugee, to name but a few. And so democracies become charitable societies, more charitable than any of their predecessors. We are all in this together, the leaders of the coronavirus response keep telling us and reassuring us. And so we like to think, and think the lesson will linger once the crisis is over.

But putting yourself in the place of the other is as difficult as making love last. Everyone has his or her own biography, his or her own emotional responses to life’s vicissitudes, and no one can really get inside the other person’s head or heart. What we get, what we see, are their passing passions: love, rage, seduction, sadness. Untrustworthy, and hence not a good basis on which to found a society or think society reposes. The more direct democracy you have, the more these passions get mobilized, which is why small associations are notorious for infighting and bloodletting even if they also offer succour in distress. Indeed, the indictment of representative democracies for betraying the people is simply a call for unleashing these passions on a terrible scale. Instead of denoting a hallmark of progress, such calls are a form of regression to kinship-based societies where blood vengeance runs rampant. And the only way to stop that is for some family patriarch to emerge and take matters in hand. Or some chieftain, easily transformed into a dictator. That is why Palestinian society is as pathetic as it is and why Syria could never develop a modern liberal opposition to Assad. And that is why democracies are more powerful societies: people in democracies can sympathize with the other through indifference. They send aid to their enemies when natural disasters occur. They get tax deductions for charitable contributions. They worry about the homeless for public health reasons. They hold live-aid concerts and their young hike around the world. But they do not see that China sent us Covid19 because the Chinse government lied about its inception and spread. Democracies do have their downsides.

If you want to know how people function, become a psychologist. If you want to know how societies function, become a sociologist. Psychologists observe people. Sociologists study societies. But you cannot study societies if you also want to indict them and change them, even if you think the change is for the better. Marx wanted to do that, but all he was was a preacher, whose theory was wrong and whose moralism proved disastrous. His acolytes, who dominate the social science and humanities departments of western universities, are no better. In addition to claiming to champion the working class, they now champion women, people of color, the suffering middle class, gays, lesbians, transgendered, the sexually curious, Muslims, and the earth. But since all but the last have not responded to the call, the earth has become their victim of predilection and climate change the moral, indeed existential – to use their political allies’ term – crisis of our times. In short, they have anthropomorphised the earth. In making themselves the saviours of a victim that does not talk back, they are now able to mobilize human passions on a terrifying scale. Anyone who doubts their prescriptions is made to seem both stupid and heartless and deserving of ostracism. For they have the truth, these Elmer Gantrys of climate change, even if beneath their truth lies an evangelism more odious than the evangelism they habitually denounce. Passions unleashed are dangerous and ultimately lethal. The Bible show us that. Unfortunately, these intellectuals no longer read the Bible, nor do their students. Nor, it seems, do they read history, not even contemporary history. Or they might finally understand why the gap between theory and practice, which the Marxists used to call praxis, has never been and can never be properly resolved.

Sociology observes society from the standpoint of science. Sociology does not do politics. It does not change the world. It does not cure anybody of anything, for society does not come to lie down on its couch. It offers observations on how society works. If its observations are correct, they should make sense of what goes on. They should indicate points of stress or tension, and if people want to listen to the conundrums or paradoxes they identify, all the better. But sociology cannot transpose its observations into the realm of action. People are the internal environment of society. They are inside the democracy which sociologists observe, whether as governors or governed, and respond to the functional logic of the political system. Ideas nonetheless do circulate, and bad ideas circulate every bit as much as viruses. It would seem that the elites in western democracies have been well inoculated with the progressive agenda, while the functioning of these societies leads even the governed to give it an ear. Moreover, now that the progressive agenda has worked its way into the high school curriculum, we can look forward to even more of the same. And so we learn nothing, and will learn nothing once the Covid19 crisis is a thing of the past. Nothing about society, that is, and for a sociologist, what else is there to learn?

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