The Dangerous Lie of Shut Down or Die

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False dichotomies pop up everywhere in the political discourse. You are either pro-life or you are a raging homicidal baby-killing feminist monster and, alternatively, you are either pro-choice or you are “at war with women” and would turn the world into “The Handmaid’s Tale” if ever given the chance. Of course, both sides of that dichotomy are grossly misrepresenting those on the other side. Some of the most vocal proponents of pro-life that I know are of the female gender, would rather not have their lives ruled by men or be treated like baby-making slaves. Likewise, many on the pro-choice side are intelligent and compassionate people who follow a different dogma as far as what does or does not constitute a separate human life.

Where you stand on the recent Covid-19 forced closures probably has much more to do with your politics than it does with your personal level of scientific sophistication. Sure, there are many, blinded by their own confirmation bias, who see everything they believe as being scientifically based and rational, but that is to be in denial of the role that their own emotions play in their judgment. The decision to shut down the economy due to the virus had has much to do with fear as fact. How do I know? Well, there weren’t a whole lot of reliable facts to go on when the decisions were being made. We had models, yes, but models are only as reliable as the data entered and the accuracy of the assumptions that they contain. Their predictions are not facts. What likely had a big influence is the scary stories coming from Italy and the lack of good information from China.

The Changing Understanding of Covid-19

I had been in favor of the shutdowns, initially, to give time to make a more accurate assessment of the actual threat and also to give time for our medical professionals to gear up amidst global shortages of personal protective equipment. Sure, many Americans are of the pigheaded mentality that they will drive eighty miles per hour into a blinding fog bank and then have massive pileups as a testament to their inability to slow down for anything. But it is only prudent to enter into a potentially deadly new situation, with many unknowns, with an abundance of caution. The arrival of Covid-19 onto the world scene was such a circumstance. The idea of social distancing to “flatten the curve” made sense at the time.

However, as a couple of weeks morphed into a month or more and the language of state politicians mysteriously shifted from slowing the spread (as we were told was the reason for the shutdowns) to trying to stop it entirely, while at the same time the there was growing evidence that the virus was not as deadly as first thought, was likely here earlier than had been previously known and may have actually reached the peak (unflattened before the shutdown measures had been implemented) in some places, I kept waiting for decision-makers to shift their policies according to the actual evidence. But they did not. Frozen by fear or too stubborn to revisit their previous decisions (or maybe even wanting to punish those opposed to their lockdowns and show who is boss, who knows?) there was no change. They were determined to plow ahead with their prior decision based on bad data, economic consequences be damned, so wear your masks, go to Walmart like good little citizens and shut up.

We all have an idealogical team we are pulling for, whether we realize it or not, and it can cloud our perspective of an issue. Sure, you might believe that your ignorance of virology is “common sense” (which, unfortunately, is probably common and yet good sense is not always common) and refuse to take reasonable precautions. Or you might think your own opinion (and that of the experts whom you agree with) is some kind of “scientific consensus” and an irrefutable fact. But the reality is that you might just be too arrogant (in your little knowledge or, rather, knowing just enough to be dangerous) to understand that there could be perspectives greater than your own. The frustrating part for me was always being caught between the false choices put out by those on either side of the political debate. Those calling the virus a hoax, dismissing the effectiveness of masks, and being generally ignorant only armed those pushing for control with a false moral imperative to double-down on their shutdown or die mantra.

Covid-19, while certainly deadly for many and even if those terrifying early estimates of a 2-4% death rate had held true, is nowhere near the Spanish flu. The real number, given growing evidence gathered by antibodies testing and from various ships where everyone was tested, shows a true death rate closer to 0.5% which isn’t too different from the seasonal flu over the course of an average year. Yes, it did certainly stretch our medical resources thin, and likely would’ve with or without the shutdowns, yet there is little evidence to show that our economic self-sabotage actually saved lives. No, if anything, we may have simply destroyed opportunity for those most vulnerable here and around the world for no real gain. It is quite possible, even probable, that more will die as a result of the forced shutdowns than were saved. In the end, the decision to shut down the economy was never a question of shut down or die. For many, it may very well be shut down and die.

False dichotomies are dangerous. They are lies. This polarization of our many choices can come with tragic results.

Economic Shutdowns Also Kill People

In my many discussions about Covid-19 I’ve run into many reoccurring and economically illiterate sentiments, like this one: “I’m sorry but I can’t believe I’m reading this. No compassion for human life and suffering?” That in response to a well-written article weighing the benefits against the costs of the economic shutdown. Apparently, in this person’s emotion soaked and one-dimensional brain, the only way you can show compassion for human life and suffering is to keep people caged in their homes and unable to feed themselves?

As a starting point, there was never a scenario where there could be zero deaths from Covid-19. That ship had sailed long ago, in China, when the authorities there continued to let people from the epicenter travel around the world (although not domestically) and sailed when many Western leaders were more concerned with things like “xenophobia” than the virus. Maybe had Europe joined the Trump administration in banning travel from the source of the outbreak there may have been a chance of containing it. But it was already too late by the time concern about the virus and death tolls had finally exceeded worries about political correctness and virtue signaling about race. Places like New York City and Los Angeles were going to see tens of thousands dead regardless of what was done at that juncture.

When the shutdowns began, in earnest, the virus was already deeply entrenched. The first verified case in France, for example, has been recently discovered to have been back in December already and much earlier than initially thought. It had likely spreading while some politicians here were still encouraging people to crowd the streets of Chinatown and was definitely being passed around while Italian leaders were telling people to hug Chinese people (from Wuhan, no less) in a misguided effort to prove they weren’t racist. The die had been cast and we were in for a wild ride.

But what we did have a choice over is how we responded to the threat. Certainly, the virus had not reached us all, and we could not know (without significant testing) if the peak of infections was a couple of weeks out or still months ahead. If the virus had reached relatively few of us and the death rates were already skyrocketing then the most desperate measures were completely justified even if it cost some lives. On the other hand, if the virus had already been in circulation for months and the hospitals weren’t already jampacked, there was very little to be gained and plenty to be lost from sweeping anti-economic measures. Those with strong social networks and a fat wallet, like the Hollywood celebrities urging us plebes to stay at home while they sip martinis in their hot tub, might not get it, but there are serious consequences to economic shutdowns even if you do not personally experience them.

For those who still think that there’s no harm done by shutting down (simply because they are amongst the privileged less affected and able to put food on their own tables), keep reading.

This idea that the economy is about Wall Street and stock portfolios is complete and utter nonsense. The concern many have about the shutdown has nothing to do with the fiction you hold of Scrooge McDuck swimming in his vault full of gold coins and perpetually worried about losing his wealth. Not at all. First, no billionaire (other than the Hollywood fantasy villain version) actually has moldy money, billionaires are billionaires because they make good investments and their investments are often in life-sustaining industries, like healthcare. Second, most of the economy is Y-O-U. The economy is, simply put, our transactions together, the labor we use to produce things of value to trade with others for our wants and basic necessities.

That out of the way…

Domestic Abuse, Drug Overdoses, and Suicide Rates

Shutdowns have consequences and the consequences are often much more devastating for those most vulnerable. I think often of my waitress and waiter friends, people in the restaurant industry, who have suddenly without warning had their entire income stream dry up by the executive fiat of someone who gets their paycheck via the state treasury or through an accumulation of assets. Sure, Trump and Congress have taken action to offset some of these losses by direct payments, unemployment compensation has been extended to many who might not otherwise qualify and yet that will do nothing for those permanently unemployed.

For many in the world, in the same way that Covid-19 is deadly to those with comorbidities, an economic shutdown is (or will be) that proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Sure, you can say that the guy devastated by the bills piling up and his bank account drying up, his business being shuttered, should see the bigger perspective. But that is no different from saying that we should not care about Covid-19 deaths because those most impacted were dying anyway and that their comorbidities actually killed them. The fact that not everyone is as financially healthy as you are or as emotionally able to weather the storm caused by the shutdown doesn’t undo the damage done to those who are more vulnerable.

The socio-economic cost of the shutdowns should be factored into the decision as much as the potential gain. Sure, there is a possibility (although it is not proven) that the shutdowns may spare a few that would otherwise have perished from the virus and accompanying complications. But there is definitely an uptick in things such as domestic violence and child abuse that comes with forcing weak and emotionally vulnerable people to stay confined together, away from their sources of stress relief and friends, for months. Believe it or not, not everyone shares your advantages in mental health, not everyone can keep doing their work via Zoom, we aren’t equal in this together as some will proclaim, some are isolated alone, and with only their suicidal ideations to keep them company for the duration.

And, for those of you looking down your noses in condemnation of the shutdown protestors at state capitals, thinking that your own rationality and compassion is what is guiding you, think again. True compassion would have some sympathy for those who are suffering from the economic consequences of the hasty and arbitrarily enforced shutdowns. Unlike you, they might not be able to afford to shelter in place for months at a time. The truth might be that you, in your fearful overreaction to Covid-19, simply do not care enough about their livelihoods being ripped out from under them and are too ignorant of the economic consequences, the increase in domestic abuse, drug overdoses, and suicides that accompany economically dire circumstances.

It is certainly no more dangerous to do a couple of laps around a state capital, than it is to go to Home Depot, Walmart, or the grocery store. I suspect the real issue some have has to do with political affiliations. It is a moral superiority contest between them and those who decided that the risk of government overreach and economic ruin is greater than the virus. Some would rather live in denial of the serious economic consequences they’ve imposed on others, ignore the evidence of the suffering caused by their selfish demands for safety at all costs (to their neighbors), and maintain their dangerous tunnel vision?

Of course, who knows, in the current political climate, maybe some would rather the protestors killed themselves than peacefully vent their pent up frustrations?

But this is far bigger than domestic politics…

Economic Downturns, Food Shortages, and Starvation

The most troubling and continuing consequences of the imposed shutdowns is the impact it is having on the agricultural industry and food supply chain. It was very early on when the stories started to cross my newsfeed about small farmers, in the Philippines, being forced to dump their produce. If one understood the labor that it took (most Americans can’t even imagine), that these farmers would give up their meager profits, it is hard to understand. But that is what happens when the market is closed down, there is no refrigerated warehouse to store their vegetables until things reopen again. And, sure, some of it is distributed to their neighbors, and yet the real demand comes from the cities. So the cities are cut off from their suppliers and the poor farmers from their buyers and only source of income.

Vegetables dumped in Benguet

I’ve realized recently that many people can’t understand logistics even at the most basic level and see the actions of agricultural producers here as being greedy or suspicious. When I mentioned how producers were culling herds due to processing plants being closed over Covid-19 concerns and the possibility of people starving, I had a guy respond with the following, “If we don’t want people to starve let’s start by distributing this food that is being wantonly destroyed by the factory farms.” His ‘solution’ may seem reasonable at first glance. I mean, why not? But then you have to considfer that these big producers would not just throw away their profits. They aren’t that stupid. And if they can’t process this protein then you can be 100% sure that government or anyone else is going to replace their production capacity. They are the specialists.

Sure, like in rural parts of the Philippines, the neighbors to these massive barns will get all the pork or poultry they will ever need. However, that’s nibbling around the edges of the problem. The real reason we have these “factory farms” is not to supply Union County and the surrounding communities. No, not at all! The real market for this meat is the big cities. So, while it is great that some rural neighbors get to fill their freezers at a below-market price, that is going to do very little for the needs of those downstream and cut off from their food source. A couple of “community gardens” in Brooklyn can’t offset the literal tons of beef, pork, and vegetables that are imported into that city every day. Don’t get me wrong, I love a ‘feel good’ story as much as the next guy, but this isn’t an issue that will be solved by a couple of generous farmers.

The abrupt shutdowns and closures are causing incredible bottlenecks that cannot be easily resolved overnight. Closing down schools and restaurants, for example, meant that all of the food in that pipeline, packaged for that kind of usage, was now jammed up. There are some grocery stores now selling meats that were originally intended for restaurants. But the retooling cannot happen like the flip of a switch. That is why some dairy processors, what specialized in supplying schools, had to dump their milk at the same time grocery shelves had run dry of the staple. That is why potatoes are piled up to rot in Idaho. When networks within the supply chain break down, when the market is majorly disrupted without warning, there are shortages in some places and over-supplies in other places.

Those big animal operations need to keep moving things along, the whole process can’t be held up for long before there are major problems, finished pigs need to be moved along or there is no room for the feeder pigs to go. Sure, they can change the feed to try to keep the finished pigs at a particular weight for a period of time. But eventually, something as to give. That is why there are piles of dead pigs a hundred feet long, going to waste, and soon enough the shelves will run empty as well. It will seem strange. Many won’t understand how it is possible, but it is happening and it is happening like a slow-motion train wreck.

That all said, I’m not afraid for myself or most Americans. We might miss out on a steak or pork chop. We will likely pay a little more for our food in the coming months. However, my real concern is for those in the many places around the world where people work hand to mouth. The rickshaw driver in Mumbai can’t afford to pay more for his family’s food and especially not after being locked in his own house for months. The person in a Manila slum, already living on “pagpag” (a Taglog term meaning “garbage chicken” or literally food pulled from the trash) will not do well when others are fighting over the disappearing scraps as food becomes scarce. Many in the world live on a very small ration, meat is a luxury to them, and now have been deprived of their income in a desperate fight against a virus that may not even be stopped by their sacrifice.

Making the Right Trade-offs…

There is no question about the seriousness of Covid-19. I have a close friend in NYC who lost two friends. They were both my age and died in their own homes. It is not a virus that should be laughed off or treated as no big deal. Tens of thousands have died and tens of thousands more will likely die and in a relatively short period of time. Sure, many of these people may have had comorbidities and yet they would very likely have been with us for many more years had they not had their encounter with this deadly virus.

It is possible that some could be saved from Covid-19 through the shutdowns. There is no solid evidence that this is the case. Nevertheless it is possible. That said, it is also possible that our efforts only prolonged or even worsen the pandemic by preventing “herd immunity” from ever happening, which means we could suffer more deaths from Covid-19 and also the experience the hardships of the economic shutdown.

Whatever the case, the “shut down or die” mythology needs to be confronted. Those looking for a perfect solution here are living in fantasy land. The hope that a vaccine will be developed quickly and then become widely available is (sorry, anti-vaxxer conspiracy theorists) basically a Hollywood fiction. We still don’t have a vaccine for SARS or MERS and may never have a vaccine for Covid-19. So, this idea that we can just hunker down and wait this out is not realistic. Sure, I would be glad to be proven wrong, it is possible, but there are also huge trade-offs to our waiting that need to be discussed.

Speaking of trade-offs: According to ASIRT, 1.35 million people die in car accidents every year (over 38,000 in the US) and an additional 20-50 million are injured (4.4 million US), some with permanent disabilities as a result. This, unlike Covid-19, is a ‘pandemic’ that disproportionally impacts the young and with no pre-existing health conditions. We could, quite easily, in the name of safety, ban all automobiles and save far more lives in a couple of years than the shutdowns ever would. Of course, we would never do that, we have valued the freedom of movement and economic advantages over the risk of serious injury or death. I suppose people feel more in control behind the wheel, but if we were really in control of the outcome of our trip then nobody would leave home knowing that they would get into a fatal car crash, would they?

Based on what we now know about the virus and death rates we should not have shut down the to the extent that we did. We may have saved a little on the front end, compared to Sweden who remained open, and yet will very likely end up in the same place as far as Covid-19 and far worse off in terms of the economic consequences. My fear is that many more will perish as a result of the shutdowns than from the virus. Millions of the world’s young and most vulnerable are suffering right now, as I write this, and could die of starvation. A good analysis must weigh all factors. We cannot be zoned in so much on one problem and only one solution that we cannot see any others. The virus from China is bad, but the panicky response of governments around the world may have made it many times worse.

Fear Is Contagious. Fear Is Deadlier Than Coronavirus.

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Spanish flu of 1918 was unusual, amongst modern influenza outbreaks, because it killed young and otherwise healthy people.  One of the possible reasons for this is an immune reaction called “cytokine storm” in which overreaction of a bodily system leads to a cascade of other failures and eventually to death.  I’ll let my friends who are medical professionals correct me on the details, but that is the basic idea and sufficient explanation to set the stage for this blog post.

The Herd Reacts…

The psychology of human behavior, in particularly how it pertains to people in groups, is a fascinating study.  We are social creatures and because of this our own response to anything can be easily influenced by the reaction of group.  If one person or several, who are considered credible by the group, start to do something new, it won’t be very long before there are many others copying them.  That is how fads and fashions are born, that is why religious people conform, we want to share in the credibility of the credible by doing what they are doing.  We do this unconsciously, like the contagious yawn, and can help explain what happened last week.

All of the cancelations of the past few days may very well come down to the actions of one man.  Rudy Gobert, days before becoming the first NBA athlete to positive for the Covid-19 virus, decided it would be funny to deliberately touch all the mics and recording devices in a news conference.  This led to the NBA suspending their seasons and, like Mrs O’Leary’s cow kicking over the lantern starting the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, one man’s caviler attitude could very well have triggered the response of the NBA and the long list of other cancelations that soon followed.

It goes like this: The NBA canceled because 1) a few of their players tested positive, 2) they realized they were no longer in control of the situation, and 3) they could possibly be held liable if the death of someone’s grandpa could be traced back to one of their sporting events.  So, in the name of public safety and all things good and right, they decided to approach this unknown risk by abruptly ending their season.  This, in turn, very likely influenced other leagues to follow suit for fear of their own inaction, despite knowledge of risk, becoming a heyday for trial lawyers everywhere or simply a public relations disaster.

The more leagues and events that cancelled, the more others felt pressured to do the same.  Sure, this was something rationally justified, the idea of “flattening the curve” or slowing the spread of a disease by “social distancing” soon became common parlance, and yet the spread of this idea to start canceling events seems also to be very much like the simultaneous run on toilet paper.  Anxiety disorder is something I know a little about and, while I’ve never been tempted to hoard toilet paper, it certainly has gotten in the way of my better judgement. 

So is the reaction to Covid-19 wholly rational or was it post hoc rationalization and basically a collective panic attack?

Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself…

I have a friend who was an Air Force medic during the First Gulf War.  He told me an anecdote you’ll never hear reported in the news, a behavior that doesn’t make any rational sense and yet is something he encountered a few times in the lead up to combat in Iraq. 

Apparently some of the young soldiers were so keyed up and anxious that they couldn’t take the pressure of the wait anymore, they would find a place where they had a little privacy (the porta-potties as I recall) and take their own life using the firearm issued to them.

It makes absolutely no sense.  Why would someone, facing the danger of death, be so anxious that they would actually kill themselves?

In times of crisis people want to do something, anything, to lose that feeling of powerlessness.  That is probably the reason why many people have recently started to stock up on things that really would not help them.  That is why young soldiers, concerned about losing their life, took their own life rather than continue to wait in fear.  Fear often leads to an irrational response.  And our most educated and elite, given responsibility to make decisions, are not immune to this kind of irrational “do something” impulse either.  Our leaders are capable of panic as much as any of us.

It reminds me of the story of Easy Company, told in the series “Band of Brothers,” where the Company Commander, 1st Lieutenant Norman S. Dike Jr. (or “Foxhole Norman”), was portrayed as being frozen by combat and unable to make a decision.  He had obviously been talented enough to rise up through the ranks and become an officer, but apparently he lacked the calm and collectedness to be an effective leader outside of a controlled predictable environment.  He had to be replaced by a more common and practical man, with the right instincts to get the job done:

During the assault on Foy, Dike had ordered a platoon to go on a flanking mission around the rear of the town. During their charge, he ordered them to take cover. His subordinates informed him they were going to get killed because they were sitting ducks.  At the same time, Captain Richard Winters, former commander of Easy Company and the Battalion executive officer, tried radioing him to tell him the same thing. Having no idea how to control the situation, Dike froze. Carwood Lipton, at that time the company’s first sergeant, later put it: “He fell apart.” He was relieved during fighting at Foy by First Lieutenant Ronald Speirs under orders from Captain Winters, then moved on to become an aide to Maxwell Taylor, 101st Airborne Division.”

Military Wiki, Norman Dike

Could it be those whom have power in our institutions are men (and women) of similar caliber to Dike?  Smart, capable of working their way up through the established system, and yet lacking the courage necessary to lead society through uncharted waters?  Some of them freeze in fear, others overreact in their anxieties, while others (seeing the bigger picture) are more more able to make good decisions and navigate the stressful circumstances of the present moment.  Running the NBA or being at the top of a government agency does not mean that a person is qualified to manage a crisis and in some cases those in those positions are probably going to make matters worse rather than better.

Self-sabatoge, Fear-based Overreaction and Titanic Failures…

It is really hard to know, actually, in a politically polarized time, when many are willing to cut off their nose to spite their face, what is a real crisis and what is merely an opportunity to try to undermine a political opponent.  In fact, there are some in this country who seem quite willing to destroy the economy in a desperate bid to get their power back and a few who even seemed to cheer the plunge in the markets.  When some see personal benefit in feeding hysteria and panic, it is hard to know who too trust when clearly not everyone is on the same team anymore.  

But that said, I would tend to see the fear as being real and the reaction a sincere effort to prevent the worst case scenario from happening.  It was easy, as Covid-19, ravaged China, to deny the severity of the situation.  For one, the Chinese government is not the most trustworthy source of information (add to the that they had every reason to minimize the outbreak as not to scare away investment dollars) and, two, it is very easy to dimiss China as a them rather one of us.  The real wakeup call was Italy, a country clearly on par with our own in terms of medicine, and how quickly a few isolated cases suddenly exploded.  And, unlike China, where the government kept a tight lid on information, the truth was allowed to escape.

What has happened since I see as being similar to when a driver dozes off, wakes up while crossing the rumble strips, and reactively jerks the wheel.  Their immediate reaction may spare them a trip into the trees, but it could also be an over-reaction that takes them head-on into an incoming tractor trailer.  It could be too little too late.  There are those right now who call the idea of “flattening the curve” a “deadly delusion” an that only complete containment strategy will make a difference.  But then I begin to wonder has the opportunity to save those most vulnerable been missed a month or so ago when we failed to close our borders when it was clear that China was dealing with something unprecedented in our own times?

They say had the HMS Titanic ran straight into the iceberg, rather than barely grazed it, some would’ve died from the violent collision and yet the ship would likely haved stayed afloat.  It is also strong possibility that they could have avoided a collision with the iceberg altogether if they had only used the rudder rather than try to reverse the engines.  The Titanic, unlike many ships of the period, had two outer propellers run off piston engines and one in the center that was powered by a turbine.  The outer propellers could be reversed quickly, the inner could not, and the result of their attempt to reverse being turbulence over the rudder which made the magnificent ship unresponsive.

Sometimes I wonder if it is too late to spare the lives that will be lost if we slam headlong into Covid-19 and let be what will be.  Yes, people will die.  But people will die regardless and crippling the economy may only add to the death count.  Don’t get me wrong, I believe cancelling unnecessary activities and avoiding large group gatherings is a precaution worth taking, as is practicing good hygiene, washing hands, wearing masks and self-quarantine.  However, I would also argue that wrecking the economy will only make matters far worse and must also be avoided at all necessary costs.

In my own mind there is a vast space between paralyzing fear or irrational over-reaction and blinding arrogance.  We can and should be getting prepared, but with deliberate calm.  We are at war, the strength of our enemy is not fully known, we must not recklessly expose our vulnerable flanks, we dare never freeze in fear.  It would be wise to buy some time, to allow better countermeasures to be deployed and that does mean social distancing, less travel, more cleanliness, and really what should be common sense.

What Is Coming?

Despite our best effort, war is coming. We can expect that in the coming weeks that case numbers will jump dramatically and, not only that, but ICU beds will begin to fill at an alarming rate.  We could see abandoned shopping centers and malls converted into makeshift hospitals.  We will probably see some “wartime medicine” or triage, where those most likely to survive are given access to treatment over those who have only a slim chance are basically left to die, so snap out of your dismissive stupor and conspiratorial denial now or you will not be prepared for the battle of the coming days.  

That is the truth. 

We are emotional beings, not wholly rational. 

We make poor decisions, both collectively and individually, that can turn a dire circumstance into an absolute disaster.

If you are seeing this only in terms of politics, who gets blamed or who benefits, you are the problem more than the virus.  If you have filled your cart with toilet paper because suddenly you feel vulnerable and don’t know what to do, stop thinking only about yourself and stop feeding into the anxieties of others.  It is time to buckle down, put aside partisan differences, selfish ambitions, and act together as one nation again.

In the end, remember, like the case of many who caught Spanish flu and died because of their strong (yet unhelpful) response, overreaction can be more deadly than the actual threat.  We cannot bring the economy to a grinding halt out of fear, instead we must thread the needle with a prudent and properly measured reaction.  There is no point in stopping the virus by killing the patient.  We should pray that our leaders are given extraordinarily wisdom and calm for this unprecedented event.

God bless!

The Church In the Age of Narcissism

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The idea of individual rights and liberty has evolved into a defiant “nobody can tell me what to do” attitude. This toxic individualism can be in reaction to abuse, a response to the failures of authority figures or simply a person’s naturally narcissistic disposition.

As a product of American culture, I’ve always believed that people should be free and still believe this. It seems that totalitarian states, while certainly able to build great monuments and copy the innovation of their rivals, do often stifle creativity and limit the potential of individuals. A right to self-determination has enabled many to pursue their passions and helped in bringing about progress in terms of technology and medicine.

However, there does seem to be a point where unchecked individualism begins to be a threat to our collective advancement. And we are now to the point that it is not safe to so much as assume an individual’s gender based on the evidence without potentially triggering a violent, over-the-top and completely abusive backlash.

In this age of narcissism, it does not matter what has been established for centuries. It also doesn’t matter what the consensus is on a given topic or what the various authorities tell us. No, all that matters is how the individual imagines themselves.

Narcissism Enters the Church

In the church, this narcissism is often hidden under a mask of spirituality and sanctimonious blather. Sure, many will claim the Bible as their ultimate authority, yet they will reject anything it says about respect for the elder and submission when it is convenient for them and their own ends.

It is absurd, truly, that people are rejecting the very foundation of the rights that they assume. They tear down structures and institutions without realizing that they are unraveling the very things that have produced and protected the concepts they take for granted. They are dangerous in that they are too dumb to realize that everything they believe currently did not originate within them. Everything, even their ingratitude, and resentment of authority is a product of the times they are in,

They are not free, they are just ignorant of the collective consciousness that nourished and created their grand delusion of independence. Or, worse, they only recognize the negative contributions of the system without ever considering the benefits. They are not so pure or undefiled either, they have their own motivations and are woefully lacking in self-awareness. It is only a lack of humility, an idea that there is nothing to be gained in deferral to an elder or expert, that the individual knows all simply because they have basic reading comprehension and elementary knowledge.

Sadly, the erosion of confidence in the collective, mistrust of authority in general, does not make the individual any more competent than the system that created them. It doesn’t mean that they are themselves better qualified to be arbiters of truth than the hierarchies of flawed individuals that they aim to replace with their papacy of one. But it does destroy our chance for unity, it does make individuals extremely vulnerable to the deceptions of their own ego (“The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.” Jeremiah 17:9 NIV) and boiled down is nothing more than self-worship.

How the West Was Lost

In the West, this ego trip may have started with the Pope asserting his own authority over the church, to unilaterally decide matters for himself without counsel and led to the Great Schism. But eventually, it trickled to ordained men doing the same in protest, relying on their own individual authority and understanding of church tradition to start their own denominations—before their attitude spread to the laity who rejected their authority as well.

The reformers, in their exuberance, eventually denied the very tradition that established the canon of Scripture and yet, through circular reasoning, still clung to the book as being authoritative simply because they believed it to be so. This led to others, more enlightened, who saw the irrationality, went a step further, rejected even the book as written by men and written by men whose authority they could not accept. The cold might be preferable to those lukewarm, at least they can’t use “well, the Spirit led me to [insert whatever]” and must attempt a rational argument instead.

At least the secular scientist is subject to peer review. They can’t simply declare something for themselves or rely on their cohort of like-minded advisors, like king Rehoboam who reject the advice of the elders, ran with that of his unwise cronies, and ended up creating division. A biologist, unlike the windbag pontificator in the men’s Sunday school class, has at least had to earn his credentials and must carefully make a case with evidence or will be treated as a joke by colleagues. Those feeding their own individual tastes from the Biblical smorgasbord, oblivious to their own biases being read into the text, can’t be made accountable.

Unfortunately, science and human rationality have also reached their limits. The intellectual enterprise could never answer questions of why we exist, an accumulation of facts could never fill the void left by religion, most people can’t keep up with the brightest minds in various fields and yet many (on both sides of any issue) speak more boldly than those who have spent years of rigorous study, confident because they read something on the internet. There is a growing mistrust of all authority and structure. Political ideologies push the research and echo chambers have replaced serious discussion.

For example, in climate science, there is plenty of grey area between Greta Thunberg’s emotional alarmism and the actual evidence. Sure, there may be some consensus on a current temperature trend and human contribution, but there is no such thing as settled science. At very least there is no reason to assume that warmer weather is automatically a catastrophe or the cause of all things bad. And there’s definitely some hysteria involved when you have a CNN anchor speculating, on-air, about a possible connection between an asteroid and climate change. Is it any wonder that more are dismissing the whole thing as nonsense?

On the opposite side of the coin are those who use the above, the misuse of science by media sensationalists and political activists, as a reason to dismiss all science. I’m talking, of course, of those (often religious fundamentalists) who deny what is well-known about the general shape of the planet and physics. They use a form of reasoning, they are not wholly irrational individuals and yet seem to be motivated more by their mistrust of all authority and undying trust in themselves. They are much like the far-leftist who refuse to see gender differences as real (while, in contradiction to themselves, claiming that a man with feminine traits is transgendered), they have made their own opinion an article of faith.

Eventually, if things do not change, we may soon not be able to hold civilization together and return to our roots of tribalism. Christendom was the force that once brought Jew and Greek, man and woman—people of vastly different social status—into fellowship with each other through their allegiance to Christ. From the beginning, the church had a definite structure and also ordained leaders to decide the weightier matters. But that order has dissolved, often in reaction to abuses and always to be replaced with increasingly arrogant smaller entities. The current narcissism is only the final step before the total collapse.

How To Break the Trend Towards Narcissistic Chaos

Groups of people, institutions, can certainly fall victim to their own collective confirmation bias. Again, authoritarian regimes that stifle independent thought destroy innovation and limit potential. But the individual, especially the individual who resists all authority, is even more vulnerable to being blinded their own biases.

Yes, certainly authorities do fail, alas even the President of the United States is human and makes mistakes, but that does not mean that individuals are all equally qualified for every role. It is always good to question the experts. Doctors, lawyers, and engineers can miss the obvious, laypeople are not all total idiots because they lack a degree. At the same time, this overreaction to abuses and failures is even more dangerous.

No, the Titanic disaster does not mean engineering is untrustworthy nor does the 737 MAX being certified by the FAA before a couple of deadly crashes make the whole institution a waste. The alternative of everyone being right in their own eyes, being their own expert, will do absolutely nothing to improve the quality of life. The reality is that we are better off with authorities, those who have made a career trying to understand specific issues and can be held accountable. Sure, even the professionals can be wrong, but there are greater consequences that go along with their license.

The church also needs elders and examples. The church should have those ordained and more respected. The idea that spirituality is a free-for-all is utter nonsense, not founded in Scripture nor the church tradition that canonized and established what is Scripture. The person who sees no need for any authority in their lives besides their own understanding or that of their cohort are the dumb beasts condemned by Peter:

This is especially true of those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority. Bold and arrogant, they are not afraid to heap abuse on celestial beings; yet even angels, although they are stronger and more powerful, do not heap abuse on such beings when bringing judgment on them from the Lord. But these people blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like unreasoning animals, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like animals they too will perish. (2 Peter 2:10‭-‬12 NIV)

True Christianity starts with repentance. Repentance comes with an attitude willing to voluntarily sacrifice some self-determination and take advice. It means humility and realizing that the universe does not revolve around your own individual understanding of things nor is truth a matter of your own personal opinion. It isn’t so hard to submit to an elder—even when you do not fully agree on everything—when one realizes their own fallibility and need of a savior.

Sure, hierarchies do fail and especially when they cease to be accountable to the bodies that they represent. A Christian leader always had authority, like Peter or Paul who spoke in a manner that commanded respect, but was never supposed to be a tyrant like Diotrephes. Leaders, like individuals, can be terrible failures and must be disciplined or removed as needed. But to overreact, to pretend everyone is on the same level, is no different than the pride that led to the fall of heaven’s highest-ranking angel. To reject authority besides one’s own is to repeat that same sin.

We need order, we thrive when we are able to specialize and let individuals reach their full potential, and that requires us to acknowledge our own limitations. We need an order that keeps authorities even more accountable than others, that does not give them a free pass as part of a good ol’ boys club, and actually requires that they are more submissive (as an example) than those who they hold charge over. Ultimately a church with no submission to others is a church without love, only self-love, and will offer nothing to those trying to escape the narcissism of our age.