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Against Abstractions in a Pandemic - Issue #169

MLA: I promise I won't burden you with 1500 words three times a week. But I had a thing or two to say
The Path Before Us
Against Abstractions in a Pandemic - Issue #169
By Matthew Lee Anderson • Issue #169 • View online
MLA: I promise I won’t burden you with 1500 words three times a week. But I had a thing or two to say tonight, apparently.
Rusty Reno has issued the first of his responses to his critics. Or at least I hope it’s the first: it is so underwhelming that it is hard to believe he won’t have more to say. It includes this paragraph which, candidly, I find incredible:
This is not an argument against the present “shelter in place” policies. Perhaps they are the wisest course of action. But it is not morally serious to suggest that our present policies are obligatory—and that if one dissents, one is a moral monster.
It is almost as though he forgot that his opening salvo was to frame such policies, and the church’s adherence to them, as positively Satanic. It’s good that he’s backing off his position: in a time like this, we’ll take what we can get. But until Reno owns up to what he said, I don’t think he has any basis to be lecturing people about what is “morally serious” and what isn’t.
Substantively, Reno’s clarification is no better. He appeals to the distinction between killing and letting die, which he then conflates with the social question of how we should distribute resources right at this moment. The question of whether we must undertake ‘heroic means’ to save a life has been reserved to the domain of medical ethics: should we give the 85 year old a heart transplant because he’s at risk of congestive heart failure? But the social question we now face is completely different: we are not 'saving’ lives that are actually sick, but seeking to prevent additional lives from becoming sick and dying. The moral question is whether the cost of doing that is too high. But that is not a question to which the 'heroic means’ standard applies. Instead, it is a question requiring an evaluation of the entirety of a situation, including the details of how we arrived at this place, in order to make a prudential judgment about how to go forward.
This is why the abstractions that Reno employed are so crucial: his second essay avoids them, but also fails to address the central moral question his view must answer: how many lives whose death should we accept for the sake of going back to work? That question can only be answered responsibly by taking into account the empirical facts about our medical systems’ readiness to handle new patients. But instead, Reno simply punts, suggesting that he doesn’t know what the 'prudent’ response is. That’s fine: it’s hard to tell. Maybe then don’t describe our current response as satanic?
Similar abstractions appeared in another op-ed today, by Dr. Russell Moore. The title is similarly incredible (though I’m sure Moore didn’t write it): “God Doesn’t Want us to Sacrifice the Old.” Only two paragraphs in we read this:
We already are hearing talk about weighing the value of human life against the health of the nation’s economy and the strength of the stock market. It’s true that a depression would cause untold suffering for people around the world, hitting the poor the hardest. Still, each human life is more significant than a trillion-dollar gross national product. Stocks and bonds are important, yes, but human beings are created in the image of God.
I’m glad that he acknowledges this will hit the indigent the hardest. But that is a qualification on his fundamental point that people who are worried about them are….favoring the gross national product over “human beings created in the image of God.” There’s no real pathos, no bleeding here: it’s the GDP or Grandma, and nothing in between.
A few weeks ago–check that, an eternity ago–I wrote one of the bleaker paragraphs I have ever penned. I wasn’t sure whether I believed it when I put it down, and I’m not sure I fully believe it now. Ironically, it came near the end of an essay in which I tried to help churches see ways they might be able to still gather in the midst of this:
Those practical proposals may be wrong. Yet whatever direction our path takes, we must begin by asking for it to be illumined by the great light of God’s grace. A pandemic could easily exacerbate the divisions that have wrecked America public life: it might allow the seeds of hostility to grow, turning neighbor against neighbor in more explicit and violent ways. The presence of the people of God in its midst, though, is the only antidote to the ruinous distrust in our institutions and each other that this pandemic threatens. The church may act in ways that will appear foolish, by subjecting ourselves to danger while saving others from harm.
How we reason in public about our response to this situation is going to either inflame those divisions, or help mitigate them. Reducing real concerns about people’s livelihoods to wanting to “sacrifice” old people offers the warm comfort of righteous indignation, but simply solidifies the very people we desperately need to persuade that they might need to prepare for this to go on longer than we’d all like.
No one is going to confuse me for a Trumpian. In fact, I get animated when I think about his comments in the early days of this crisis–especially when I compare it to how seriously my local grocery store took their preparations. My objection to the Trumpian worries about our current effects on the economy is similar to my objections to their original support for the President: I think it would be against everyone’s interests, including their own, if we restarted the economy en masse.
But I’m also not sure any of them are saying that, precisely. And it seems clear to me that we’re going to need to economy in a prudential way, with lots of ongoing social distancing and handwashing and the like–and that doing so will impose risks on our neighbors. We’ll be more prepared for those risks, to be sure: we will have a health care system with adequate masks and ventilators. But we’ll still have to take some risks. Doing that prematurely could be devastating to both human life and the economy–especially in places where Trump’s voters are concentrated. One fifth of this country lives in rural areas, and while they won’t get this virus quickly, they also have far fewer resources to deal with it. We need to think soberly about what risks we must take, so we’re prepared when the time comes.
But to have a serious argument about those matters, we’d have to have leadership who could trade in sweeping bromides about a “culture of death” or ageism or whatever the latest rotten fruit of our dessicated modern world happens to be, and instead patiently and deliberately come to substantive, prudential counsel that could actually help people make real decisions. And to have an argument that doesn’t exacerbate our precarious social divisions at just the moment when we need to be most divided would require careful parsing of what is said and not said by the other side, and an attempt to rebuild someone’s position so that it becomes more tenable than it seemed when first delivered (much as Jake Meador has done consistently).
And that is what disturbs me most about our current moment. We have on the one side a gross and palpable absence of anything like statesmanship in the halls of Washington D.C. We are supposed to rejoice that the Senate unanimously passed a bill cutting checks to Americans in need, and forget that it has been a full week of dithering and negotiations (for which I blame both sides of the aisle). During that time, the inevitable 'lockdowns’ have rolled through this country. It will be three weeks before anyone sees a check–and longer for those who don’t have bank accounts on file with the IRS (which I’d wager is a good many people).
And we have on the other side a commentariat that has in many quarters on the right and left insisted on thoroughly politicizing this, and in many other quarters has offered either hyperbolic paranoia or hand-waving dismissiveness. The temptation to stake out contrarian positions and inflate them with loaded rhetoric is strong. The commentariat and those who listen to it are largely at home right now, and websites have the chance to do gangbuster business. But those are temptations that should be resisted, forcefully, as much as we can. We urgently need arguments that aim to unify, even when they disagree. And we desperately want an intellectual leadership that charts a sober, sensible course toward thinking and acting prudently and responsibly during this time. For without such leaders, more people may unnecessarily perish. And that should animate us all.

On Unrelated Matters
Look, it’s been a long week. I was going to simply send a “Clips and Comments,” but instead I worked through my frustrations about the world in 1500 words. So here’s one of the best things I’ve seen this week. Read this entire thread on Twitter.
The Penultimate Word
“The cross of Jesus Christ tells us that identity with God and identity with teh satanic realm are absolutely incompatible. If a man shares in the life of God, hsi real life will be found in the act of offering himself in adoration to God, and in obedience to God, through service to his neighbours. The cross demonstrates that such offering involves a real letting go of the self. It involves dispossession, loss of identity in the satanic terms of possession and identity.” – Arthur McGill
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