2020: The Year that Broke Us

There’s a certain kind of adversity that bonds people together, a brand of struggle that brings out the “better angels” of our nature. We experienced just such adversity after the September 11th attacks: a unifying moment when strangers comforted each other and American flags seemed to wave from every home. It’s hard to imagine that the unity experienced on September 12th was just nineteen years ago; in the odd manner of nostalgia, it feels like “just yesterday,” and yet another era entirely.

There have been other such moments throughout history: the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Space Race against the Soviets, the Revolutionary War. Other countries have also shown a similar capacity to rally around a cause, and yet America’s example is somehow more remarkable given our incredible diversity and democratic ideals. Coming from everywhere, we seem to represent both the best and the worst of what humanity could be.

2020 has been full of adversity and struggle, but – just in case there were any lingering doubts – no unity, no common cause, no better angels. While there have certainly been individual cases of heroism and sacrifice, America as a whole feels more divided than ever. As I reflect upon the past nine months, it seems more likely that 2020 will go down as the year it all finally came apart, the year that broke us.

It started with the COVID-19 pandemic, the “coronavirus” that seemed so far away in January and February as it ravaged Italy and China. It seemed that way because we didn’t know that it was likely already here. We didn’t have the daily death counts plastered across every news station to remind us, inspiring the terror that we or our loved ones might be next.

Then suddenly it was “here,” though “here” felt different in New York and New Jersey than in rural Virginia where I live. We went from “schools might close for a while” to “we’re shutting down for two weeks” to “we’re not coming back in person this school year” in what felt like a matter of days. New phrases like “flatten the curve” entered the American lexicon as we admonished each other to practice “social distancing.” We were told this was the biggest challenge of our lives, and all we had to do was stay home.

Surely this was easier than storming the beaches of Normandy or sheltering with Washington through the winter at Valley Forge. We might have endured a toilet paper shortage, but there was no rationing, no gas lines stretching around the block. In the Internet Age, we had Amazon to supply us, Netflix and Hulu to entertain us, and Zoom to interact with friends and coworkers. How could we complain?

Slowly the weeks became months, and still the children were kept inside, the elderly kept isolated in nursing homes, schools and churches shuttered. Workers who had initially enjoyed a nice break from the daily grind were furloughed, then fired, then unemployed. Businesses began to close. The market crashed, then recovered. Stimulus checks, beefed-up COVID unemployment, and the Paycheck Protection Program provided welcome relief, but they could not stop the overall economic situation from deteriorating.

By May, a good half of the country seemed to have had enough of lockdowns and distancing measures. Deaths were declining. The weather was warming. Worst case scenario predictions of over two million U.S. deaths no longer seemed possible, let alone likely. COVID-19 was shown to be less deadly than initially predicted (or at least declining in its virulence), not more. Yet as repressive measures continued, people began to protest the undemocratic edicts of overzealous governors and demand a return to business as usual.

But there remained another half of the country who – for whatever reason – did not want the restrictions to end. Maybe they had experienced a personal loss due to COVID; maybe they still feared for their family’s health. Maybe their political leanings spurred them to defy Trump, who was clearly on “Team Reopen.” If Trump wanted the schools and businesses open, they had to close. If Trump promoted hydroxychloroquine as a possible treatment, it had to be banned. Whatever their reasons, Team Lockdown condemned Team Reopen as reckless and selfish, while Team Reopen responded with charges of tyranny and excess. And yet people still spoke as if summer might bring a return to normalcy.

It didn’t. Instead we had the death of George Floyd, following other high-profile victims like Ahmad Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Born after the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the Black Lives Matter movement roared to life, gaining an army of new converts. Video evidence showed Officer Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck. Floyd later died. Who now could challenge BLM’s narrative that America was racist to the core, with an army of racist cops wantonly hunting African Americans in the streets?

This was not the time to conduct careful statistical analysis of the evidence, not the time to bring up the fact that more unarmed whites are killed by cops in the United States than blacks, and that far more blacks are killed by criminals than by law enforcement – making them a much greater threat to black lives. This was not the time to ask tough questions about why certain disparities persist across racial lines, despite tremendous progress in recent decades.

Oh no, not by a long shot. This was the time to search one’s soul for any vestiges of unconscious bias, to post black squares on social media, to declare one’s allegiance to the cause. If you were white, this was the time to be an “ally” – which basically meant shutting up and conceding to ever more radical demands:

Confess your white privilege. Kneel. Beg forgiveness for the sins of your ancestors, or at least other peoples’ ancestors who shared a similar skin pigmentation as you. Defund the police. Don’t criticize the young people looting Target; it’s “just property.” Pay no attention to the smashed windows and burnt buildings in New York and Chicago and Portland and Kenosha.

Oddly enough, the people making these demands tended to be white liberals, while many ordinary Black and Hispanic folks were begging for an end to the looting and rioting.

Their pleas fell largely upon deaf ears. America had gained a new national religion – one that had been steadily growing in power for some time but needed an event like the death of George Floyd to hit the mainstream. The dying civic virtue of old and a much-diluted Christianity proved incapable of pushing back against the Cult of the Woke.

The summer of 2020 saw over a billion dollars in property damage due to rioting, including small businesses that may never rebuild, many minority-owned. At least twenty-five people died in the violence, including David Dorn, a retired cop who happened to be African American. He was defending a friend’s pawn shop from looters when his murder was livestreamed on Facebook.

America seemed to have lost all sense of dignity, propriety, and respect. The very goodness of our existence was called into question, as statues celebrating American history (not just the Confederacy) were attacked and destroyed.

If there was one silver lining to the early summer “unrest,” it at least seemed to normalize leaving one’s home. Here were crowds of people in the streets: day after day, night after night, and no one seemed to be stopping them.

When asked to assess the danger, the same public health officials who begged us not to hold funerals or visit elderly relatives in nursing homes now declared that protesting racism was a worthy reason to gather in large numbers. George Floyd was given multiple funerals. Civil rights icon John Lewis had a large service attended by several prominent politicians with minimal distancing. And yet the little people were expected to continue living by draconian edicts flouted by their very architects.

Two events in the summer of 2020 served to lift my spirits: the release of Hamilton on Disney+ and the Republican National Convention. Of course, both were attacked by the woke for the crime of celebrating America, for not dwelling enough on its sins. But they reminded me that America is still a land of patriots, that we have a great history that has carried us forward to this moment. There are still a lot of good people in this country who believe in the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Fall rolled around, but few students went “back to school” in the traditional sense. Having been initially dismissed and then encouraged, masks were now mandated almost everywhere. Their donning took on an aura of almost religious observance, with the unmasked attacked in the public square.

The 2020 presidential campaign ratcheted up, exacerbating an already polarized climate. Big Tech revealed its bias in the censoring of the New York Post story on Hunter Biden’s incriminating laptop, after demonstrating an earlier willingness to censor stories critical of the COVID party line. It was enough to make one wonder just whose interests these mega-corporations existed to serve — those of the American people, or of the Chinese Communist Party?

People hoped things would go back to normal after Election Day. Unfortunately, this has not been the case.

After months of cautionary Facebook memes (“If you can wait in line at the grocery store, you can wait in line to vote”), it soon became clear that many states had radically altered their election laws in potentially unconstitutional ways. It had to be done, we were told, to keep people safe from COVID. Then on Election Day, the word went out that it was okay to vote in person… even if you had COVID.

When most Americans went to bed on Election night, Donald Trump seemed to be cruising to reelection. He had already won big victories in Florida and Ohio, Republicans were holding the Senate, and Trump had commanding leads Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The following day, we learned that these states had all decided to stop counting the votes around the same time, only to continue in the absence of poll watchers. A mysterious “pipe burst” had halted the counting in Georgia… a story that was later revealed to be a lie. Accusations of voter fraud and “shenanigans” abounded, though often with the helpful Facebook or Twitter tags that such claims were “disputed.”

You know the rest. The media decided to call the race for Joe Biden the Saturday after the election, despite ongoing recounts and lawsuits. Rudy Giuliani has been leading the legal fight for Trump, who has yet to concede the election. In the meantime, the charismatically unorthodox duo of Sidney Powell and Lin Wood have alleged even more widespread and nefarious election stealing.

In the meantime, Trump’s supporters are being urged to “unite” around Joe Biden; this after four years of being harangued as a bunch of deplorable racists and bigots. The same media that pushed unsubstantiated allegations of Russian collusion for three years now swear by the integrity of our electoral process. Their hypocrisy is not lost on conservatives, who are in no mood for unity.

If Biden is inaugurated, at least a third of the country will always doubt his legitimacy. If Trump somehow prevails, America’s cities will likely have to put back up the plywood to protect stores and property from the mob, now that they have had a taste of their own power. Say what you will about Trump supporters, but even their belief that a presidential election has been stolen from their anointed leader has not prompted violence, nor is it likely to do so.

To recap, almost everything fun has been taken away: parties, festivals, big weddings, concerts, sporting events. The small pleasures we are still allowed come with a multitude of distancing requirements and distrustful glances from behind blue surgical masks. Even news of a record-fast vaccine has not prompted the likes of Dr. Anthony Fauci to suggest we are anywhere near to regaining the old normal, if it ever returns.

We have gone from at least aspiring to color-blindness to the opposite extreme of becoming color-obsessed. The old civic religion glorifying the Founding Fathers and the U.S. Constitution has been replaced by a new religion that sees racism everywhere, just as the Puritans once viewed sin. But unlike the Calvinism of old, this new religion offers no forgiveness, no possibility of atonement, no unity of purpose. It is reductionist and militant and joyless.

Our electoral system is a mess. Millions of Americans have lost faith in the process.

Throughout this entire screwed up year, I have still enjoyed moments of great happiness and joy, and I know I am not alone in this. The sun still shines. Nature is as wonderful as ever. The blessings of marriage and new life remind us that there are some things no pandemic or election can take away.

But through all the ups and downs, I cannot help but grieve for America: for all that we have lost this year, including the loved ones we have lost to COVID. I feel as though I have been in a state of low-grade grief since April, and it’s exhausting. Nothing is as it should be, nothing makes sense. How does one remain sane in an insane world?

From the perspective of heaven, we Christians know how the story ends. We are promised that the “gates of hell shall not prevail” against the Church, but the Bible offers no such assurance of America. The Titanic was supposed to be unsinkable, and yet it was brought down by an iceberg. How will these new fault lines be repaired?

How do I get over the the dehumanizing experience of being regarded as potentially infectious material, or the realization that many of my fellow Americans would turn me in for hosting an illicit gathering in my own home? It’s a deeply unsettling thought to share a country with millions of people who care nothing for basic human freedoms, who would give it all up in a heartbeat for the promise of safety. Even when the current madness ends, what happens the next time there’s a crisis?

How do we get back to the point where we respect each other as individuals and fellow humans, not just representatives of privileged or oppressed groups? As this highly contentious election continues to play out, how can our faith in American democracy be restored?

Of course, it’s still possible that we can come together: masked and unmasked, black and white, liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat. But based on the evidence alone, and barring some dramatic new development, it seems highly doubtful.

2020 may instead go down as a turning point in American history, the year that finally broke us. They say “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” and a certain kind of adversity can serve to strengthen the body politic. But what doesn’t kill you can also leave you weakened, diminished, and traumatized. The trauma of 2020 is bound to leave deep scars upon both our collective and individual psyches, wounds only divine intervention can heal.

The Loss of Fatherhood and the Rise of the Nanny State

Is it possible that almost every disturbing trend in American society shares a common theme – one that is both obvious in its harm, and yet politically unspeakable? If so, then Mary Eberstadt has named it for us in this brilliant essay just published in First Things. The culprit: a veritable epidemic of fatherlessness.

A wave of violence gripped the United States over the past summer, causing over a billion dollars in property damage and claiming at least twenty-five lives. While it is easy to pin the blame for this “unrest” on the usual suspects – Donald Trump, the coronavirus pandemic, racism, political polarization, etc. — Eberstadt sees it as “but the latest eruption along a fault line running through our already unstable lives,” as “deprived of father, Father, and patria, a critical mass of humanity has become socially dysfunctional on a scale not seen before.”

The social science research could not be clearer: statistically, children do best when raised by married biological mothers and fathers. Eberstadt notes that “absent fathers predict higher rates of truancy, psychiatric problems, criminality, promiscuity, drug use, rape, domestic violence, and other less-than-optimal outcomes.” And yet today, almost one in four children in the U.S. grows up without a father in the home, a figure that includes 65 percent of African Americans.

Of course, such an environment is not possible for every child. Divorce and death have long separated parents from their children, and even a two-parent home does not guarantee a healthy family dynamic free from abuse and neglect. Demography is not destiny. Success stories abound of individuals who have overcome difficult childhoods to attain great success as adults: consider two-time president Barack Obama or Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance, just to name a couple.

However, one could compare these success stories to people who have lost a limb: the fact that it is possible to live a happy, fulfilled life without an arm or a leg does not meant that having two arms and two legs is no more advantageous than being an amputee. People survive absent, abusive, and/or neglectful fathers, but the wound remains. And it hurts. And in their pain, many seek out dangerous father substitutes like gangs and extremist groups like Antifa.

While Eberstadt is Catholic, her argument also accords with the eastern wisdom of Confucianism. She makes frequent references to “filial piety,” the traditional Chinese virtue of respecting one’s parents and ancestors. Confucius taught that the father-son relationship was at the core of all other relationships, including that between ruler and subject. Moral duties and obligations flowed both ways, whether one was in the dominant or subordinate position. The virtue of empathy (shu) was meant to counterbalance the need for loyalty (zhong).

Eberstadt speculates that the decline of fatherhood has accelerated the decline of religion (loss of God the Father) and patriotism (love of the father-land and respect for the Founding Fathers), dubbing this the “threefold crisis of paternity.” Deborah Savage laments: “they have been left alone in a cosmos with nothing to guide them, not even a firm grasp of what constitutes their basic humanity, and no means of finding the way home.”

Fatherlessness results not only in aimlessness, but also anger and resentment. This is the rage fueling the destruction not only statues of Confederate fathers, “but of Founding Fathers and town fathers and city fathers and anything else that looks like a father, period.”

Police officers certainly fit this category as well, be they male or female, black or white. Since the death of George Floyd and even before, they have been subject to countless brutal attacks and assassinations. Recent demands that we deploy social workers to the scenes of conflicts instead of police may be tantamount to “keeping Dad out of it and letting Mom handle it.”

Almost all of our institutions have been feminized, from school to church to the workplace. While some of this has been for the better, in certain cases it has been for the worst.

In our schools, offending students are offered seemingly endless “second chances” by well-meaning teachers, counselors, and administrators. While zero-tolerance policies represent a likewise undesirable extreme, the lack of consequences is also destructive — to both the bullies and the collective, who must put up with their ongoing misbehavior.

Sometimes kids need a cookie and a hug and to be told everything will be okay. Other times they need to be challenged and disciplined and made to take responsibility. Usually (but not always) mom is the “good cop” to dad’s “bad cop.” In the memoir now movie Hillbilly Elegy, it was J.D. Vance’s grandma (“mamaw”) who stepped into the role of father.

Many people – but especially young men – are desperate for someone to demand more of them, not less; to insist that they clean their room, stand up straight with their shoulders back, and take some damned responsibility, bucko! How else can we explain the phenomenon of Jordan Peterson, best-selling author of Twelve Rules for Life? People don’t just want hugs and cookies, they want rules! And rules tend to come from Dad.

The sad truth is that even kids being raised in homes with their biological fathers are often missing out on just such “tough love” and guidance. It is within the maternal instinct to shelter one’s children from physical harm. Fathers understand somehow intuitively that children need to roughhouse and wrestle, even if it means getting hurt. But they are often overruled.

Considering the evidence presented in The Coddling of the American Mind, it would seem mothers are getting their way more of the time. Children are no longer allowed the same kind of free play and structured risk-taking enjoyed by previous generations. While this approach has resulted in fewer accidental deaths, it has also led to rising anxiety and diminishing self-reliance. Earlier generations of college students once protested for more free speech; now they demand trigger warnings and safe spaces.

Mary Eberstadt traces the decline of fatherhood and the family back to the launch of the birth control pill in the 1960’s, certainly a monumental development. But perhaps it is time for the feminist movement to consider how some of their tactics and messaging may have discouraged men from taking responsibility. When men constantly hear “women don’t need you; we can do everything just as good as men,” they will more often than not simply shrug their shoulders and fade into the background. Respect was historically the price men were paid for the immense responsibilities they shouldered on behalf of the family. Why assume this burden in the first place when the only rewards are insults and mockery?

Men, and especially fathers, should be respected and celebrated, alongside women and mothers. The unique needs of boys and men should be acknowledged in our schools, our churches, and our workplaces.

Of course, there is a limit to this course correction. Celebration of masculinity should never be used to denigrate femininity. Male or female, each of us contains both a masculine and a feminine nature, the exact balance of which may change over time. Recall the Chinese yin yang symbol. Yang represents the masculine, the orderly, and the known; while yin symbolizes the feminine, the chaotic, and the unknown. Though opposites, yin and yang are also complementary, relying on each other for their very existence.

I don’t want to live in a world where my sons are coddled, mocked, or ignored, but I also don’t want to live in a world plagued by sexism and male chauvinism. Masculinity itself is not “toxic,” but by repressing the healthy expression of masculinity, we force it into such unproductive channels as violence and machismo.

As a culture, we have grown to associate masculinity with the negative effects of its excess. However, femininity is not without its dangers; it can become “toxic” as well. Consider the storybook characters of Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel. Sleeping Beauty’s parents sought to shield her from all danger, thus their refusal to invite the Evil Queen to her baptism. But Maleficent was not to be thwarted; her revenge was to cause the princess to fall into a deep sleep, just at the point when she should have been reaching maturity. Likewise, Rapunzel’s mother locked her away in a tower.

The rise of what we may accurately call the “nanny state” shows that government need not wear a masculine guise to become tyrannical. Likewise, the fact that Anthony Fauci and Gavin Newsom and Joe Biden happen to possess Y chromosomes has not kept them from embodying and encouraging the worst of the “feminine” vices – lethargy, neuroticism, and cowardice.

Here we now sit – asleep in our towers, walled off from others, admonished not to work or play or worship or gather. It’s okay, we are told; the government will take care of us.

And yet we all – men and women – desire something more, some greater purpose than mere survival to give our lives meaning. Only by returning to the traditionally masculine virtues of fortitude and perseverance and responsibility can we free ourselves from the grip of the nanny state.

Trump vs. Biden: Who Do You Want Flying the Plane?

This is the question Americans should be asking themselves right now; that is, aside from the fifty million who have already voted. Which of these two men – both in their seventies, both unafraid to go on the attack, and yet with two very different visions for America – do you want flying the plane at this particular moment in history?

This election is not about the offensive comments Trump made in an Access Hollywood tape in 2005. It’s not about the fact that Biden plagiarized his way through law school and lied about his academic record, forcing him to drop out of his first presidential campaign in 1988. We now have 2020 Trump and 2020 Biden. There are no realistic alternatives at this point; like it or not, these are the choices.

The Pandemic

Of course, the biggest political boon to the Democrats has been the COVID-19 pandemic; in the words of Jane Fonda it was a “gift from God.” Democrats have built their entire campaign around the pandemic, requiring them to make it seem as bad as possible, death and case numbers as large as possible, and economic and social life as miserable as possible, all in the hopes that Republicans will be hurt. They have tried to pin each one of the 220,000 U.S. COVID deaths on President Trump, suggesting that all 220,000 would still be alive were it not for his ineptitude.

This is patently absurd. The pandemic was certainly not handled perfectly, hindsight being “2020.” In the final debate, Trump noted that even Anthony Fauci was downplaying the threat and discouraging masks as late as March. The biggest credible charge Democrats have against Trump is that he was briefed on the disease’s severity in January, and did not communicate this to the American people. In the VP debate, Kamala Harris suggested that Americans could have used this time to “prepare”… but by doing what exactly? Buying more toilet paper? Shutting down two months earlier?

We cannot ignore the role of the media in all of this. If Barack Obama were still president, they would have been touting the “2 million American lives saved.” Recall that in late March some models were predicting 2.2 million deaths, with 200,000 presented as a “best case scenario.”

Far from winning on this issue in the final debate, Biden came across as incredibly pessimistic. To hear Biden tell it, there is no end in sight, not even a glimmer of the “old normal” at the end of this long tunnel. He remained open to future lockdowns, especially of areas where cases are rising. In Biden’s words, Americans are facing a “dark winter.”

Trump, by contrast, sounded optimistic on America’s chances of recovering from COVID-19, both medically and economically. Having personally survived the disease thanks in part to new therapeutics, he reassured Americans that we know a lot more about the coronavirus than we did last spring. Trump returned to a familiar refrain that “the cure cannot be worse than the disease,” something that likely rings true to the millions of Americans suffering from mental and other health-related issues, their lives thrown into chaos by school closures.

How bizarre and telling that after insisting upon the need for a vaccine, liberals and media elites are so uninterested in the fact that one may be just weeks away. Andrew Cuomo is even suggesting (on the basis of no evidence) that Americans should not trust a vaccine that is developed under the Trump administration. Behavior like this only reveals the extent to which the COVID media hysteria has been about damaging Trump.

Foreign Policy

While Biden did not quite appear to be a bumbling dementia patient for the entire debate, Thursday was not a good night for him, eliciting some rather bizarre statements. In criticizing Trump for working with Kim Jong-un to avoid nuclear war, Biden claimed America “had a good relationship with Hitler before he invaded Europe.” This is untrue; FDR was president at the time and under no illusions about the Nazis. Obama was praised for making a (very bad) nuclear deal with Iran, an oppressive regime and state-sponsor of terrorism.

While I am personally disgusted by the North Korean regime – likely the most totalitarian state in the world – I am also glad that we did not go to war with them. In fact, we haven’t gone to war with any new adversaries under Trump’s presidency, the first time this has happened since Eisenhower. We did however, defeat ISIS — a threat that emerged after Obama’s premature withdrawal from Iraq and mishandling of the civil war in Syria.

We cannot forget that the North Korean regime only survives because of support from China, a country that in this and so many other ways is no friend of the United States.

This brings me to the elephant in the room: recent revelations about Hunter Biden suggesting massive corruption and unethical behavior at the very least. As the New York Post recently reported:  

Hunter Biden introduced his father, then-Vice President Joe Biden, to a top executive at a Ukrainian energy firm less than a year before the elder Biden pressured government officials in Ukraine into firing a prosecutor who was investigating the company, according to emails obtained by The Post.

The never-before-revealed meeting is mentioned in a message of appreciation that Vadym Pozharskyi, an adviser to the board of Burisma, allegedly sent Hunter Biden on April 17, 2015, about a year after Hunter joined the Burisma board at a reported salary of up to $50,000 a month.

“Dear Hunter, thank you for inviting me to DC and giving an opportunity to meet your father and spent [sic] some time together. It’s realty [sic] an honor and pleasure,” the email reads.

An earlier email from May 2014 also shows Pozharskyi, reportedly Burisma’s No. 3 exec, asking Hunter for “advice on how you could use your influence” on the company’s behalf.

The blockbuster correspondence — which flies in the face of Joe Biden’s claim that he’s “never spoken to my son about his overseas business dealings” — is contained in a massive trove of data recovered from a laptop computer.

Hunter Biden also received 3.5 million dollars from Yelena Baturina, the richest woman in Russia and wife of the former mayor of Moscow, to help gain access to American markets. Several members of Biden’s family have grown rich trading off of his name. This is incredibly relevant to the election for multiple reasons. While the issue obviously speaks to Biden’s character, it is also concerning that hostile regimes like Russia and China might be able to use this leverage to get Biden to enact policies in their favor, to the detriment of average Americans.

The Biden campaign is literally trying to run the clock out on this story, a strategy that can only work with the help of a totally compliant and dishonest media. Big Tech recently obliged the Biden campaign by killing the Post story on twitter and suspending their entire account, while Facebook also slowed traffic to the story. The media is so desperate to avoid a repeat of 2016 that they have dropped even the façade of objectivity in their reporting.

Millions of Americans are waking up to the fact that Trump was impeached for something Biden allowed and that his son did… colluding with foreign governments in an apparent “pay-for-play” scheme and then lying about it shamelessly. Biden repeated the debunked claim that the whole Hunter Biden laptop story was just Russian disinformation… something you can apparently do these days with no supporting evidence.  On the contrary, Trump cited his record of getting NATO allies to contribute more to the common defense, an alliance that mainly exists to guard against Russian aggression.

Domestic Issues

Biden has likely grown so accustomed to the kind media treatment that he now believes he can spout outright lies with impunity and won’t be called on it. In the debate, he repeatedly claimed that he was never against fracking, despite video evidence to the contrary. Whether this was enough for the good people of Pennsylvania who care about this issue, Biden went on to commit his biggest unforced error of the night, claiming his goal would be to get rid of the oil industry. As any rational thinker knows, this can’t happen without destroying millions of jobs, eroding the foundation of our economy, and sacrificing our hard-fought energy independence.

On the economy, Biden had little more than recycled platitudes from the 90’s. When he started talking about average Americans sitting around their kitchen tables wondering if they could afford new tires that month, I half expected him to bring up the high cost of VCR’s. Trump called him out on it hard as empty politician-speak. Biden’s effort to connect with the American voter by referencing the “kitchen table” and the “empty chair” at the dinner table fell incredibly flat. It is also hard to imagine how raising taxes or upping the minimum wage would help small businesses right now who are currently struggling to make ends meet, a point Trump again hammered him on.

Demeanor

Biden was visibly angry by the one-hour mark. Either his medication was wearing off or the seventy-eight-year-old was simply wearing out after an hour and a half of actual work. The media likes to present Biden as a foil for Trump’s abrasive personality, but Biden has never been a “nice guy.” He gets incredibly hostile whenever the issue of his son is brought up. At a town hall, he even called an average citizen a “damn liar” and challenged him to an IQ test. He lashes out in the same way to journalists, as if the mere question of impropriety is an unwarranted attack.

As the debate wore on, Biden seemed increasingly unfocused and unhinged. At one point he called Trump a racist Abraham Lincoln. He claimed he only couldn’t do immigration or criminal justice reform in his eight years as Vice President because Obama was president and there were Republicans in Congress. To this, Trump reminded him that you have to persuade people. You have to negotiate.

Biden tellingly fell back on his standard interjection: “C’mon, man,” a crutch he uses whenever he gets frustrated. There were even accusations of “malarkey,” a clear sign that Biden has nothing substantive left to say.

By contrast, Trump was calm but tough, complimenting the moderator for her performance but routinely raising a finger to demand a response. He repeated his promise to replace Obamacare with something better that would cover pre-existing conditions.

Trump attempted to pin the cages at the border on the Obama/Biden administration, repeatedly asking “who built the cages, Joe?” This issue is probably Trump’s biggest liability among suburban women; more importantly, it does have important humanitarian implications. No one wants to see parents separated from their children. But it is also true that some adults were “renting” children from other families to gain entry to the U.S., hoping to take advantage of the catch-and-release policy that Trump ended. See more evidence of this here and here.

Heaven and earth must be moved to reunite the 500+ children to their families, but the fact remains… this election is about who we want flying the plane right now, not the mistakes of the past.

On race, Trump passed on a chance to empathize with Black parents who reportedly must have “the talk” with their children about how to behave in police encounters. Based on my twitter feed at least, this is a talk that many white men receive as well… keep both hands on the steering wheel and address the officer with “yes, sir” and “no, sir.”

Trump is no Bill Clinton. I think he does feel the pain of many average Americans, but he has no interest in saying so for political gain. He is not a Counselor-in-Chief, but rather a Commander-in-Chief. So instead Trump touted his record of helping the Black community through record pre-pandemic employment levels, full funding of HBCU’s, criminal justice reform, and Tim Scott’s plan to create opportunity zones.

Trump did not attempt to walk back his criticism of BLM, referencing their anti-cop chant of “Pigs in a blanket, fry ‘em like bacon.” But while almost every major corporation has rushed to embrace the BLM movement, Trump has attempted to reach out to middle class African-Americans and Latinos likely tiring of the constant protests and now-routine violence. Trump has tried to address the material concerns of Black Americans without pandering to a blatantly political and quasi-Marxist group… one that has received millions of dollars in donations without improving the material condition of a single Black American.

By the end of the debate, Biden was checking his watch, with his campaign staffers likely counting down the seconds.

Unlike Mike Pence, who brilliantly concluded his debate performance with a heartfelt call to unity, Trump missed a chance to do so in his last question. He mentioned how Democrats had been coming to him to work together on issues before the pandemic hit and election season started heating up. Trump’s performance was sharp and effective, but not necessarily “presidential” or unifying. But at this point, does it really matter?

By now, we know who Trump is. He is a bold but flawed man: one who tends to take things personally, though he has recently shown some capacity for self-deprecation. Trump built a business empire on the basis of his own image: his brand, his name. It should be no surprise, then, that he more often sells himself as the solution rather than detailing overly-specific policies.

Again, imagine you are stepping onto a plane. Who do you want in the pilot’s seat: the guy with the detailed knowledge of aerodynamics and a plan that looks good on paper? Or the one with the right experience, the right instincts — someone who can take advice when needed, but also commit to a decision when necessary?

Would you even get on a bus, much less a plane, being piloted by Joe Biden? By electing a Biden administration, voters have no idea who would even be in the driver’s seat: Kamala Harris? Nancy Pelosi? The DNC? The extreme, progressive left wing of the Democratic Party? BLM? Antifa?

One thing is for sure – it would not be Joe Biden, not alone anyway. Between his old age, visibly declining cognitive faculties, history of aneurisms, and now the Hunter Biden scandal, Biden would almost certainly not complete even one four-year term as Commander-in-Chief. It was an insult to the American people and electoral malpractice for the Democrats to even put him forward as their candidate, as Democrats talk brazenly of using the 25th Amendment to replace him. It was dereliction of duty on the part of the media not to challenge Biden in any serious sort of way, as they should for any candidate seeking the highest office in the land.

You don’t have to love the character of the pilot flying your plane, or agree with all of his past actions; you just have trust that he is capable of getting you safely to your desired destination. There are stormy skies up ahead; we need a strong and capable leader to guide us. The final presidential debate was a clear win for Donald Trump, as he proved himself up to the task.

Memento Mori and Be Not Afraid

October is paradoxically both a favorite month for many and also a time typically associated with fear and death. Leaves turn orange, gold, and crimson before falling to the ground to shrivel and decay. The faint chill lacing the morning and evening air is a clear warning that summer, with all its easy lethargy, is over. We know in our bones what this means, despite modern technology’s insulating effects: life is about to get harder, days shorter, survival less certain.

And yet there is an undeniable beauty in the dying. The end of the month brings Halloween, a holiday based in part on the Celtic festival of Samhain – a disorienting, ambiguous time when the traditional boundaries between worlds could more easily be crossed. For Catholics, this became the night before All Saint’s Day, or “All Hallows Eve” – saints by definition being both deceased in body and spiritually present in heaven. The following day is All Souls Day, when we pray especially for dead loved ones. It is a time to memento mori (remember your mortality) and to ask “considering that I must die, how ought I to live?”

We may be the first culture in history to deny the basic fact of our mortality. The most cursory of glances at American life in 2020 reveals that we have forgotten how to live. Sooner or later, death comes for us all, no matter how wealthy or powerful. No one is immune from this most human of conditions. Illness and old age are but its precursors. We were recently reminded of this yet again when it was revealed that President Trump tested positive or COVID-19.

I feared for the president and the country when I heard President Trump was flying to Walter Reed, as he checks a lot of high-risk boxes. Like millions of others, I prayed for his good health. This Saturday, I was very happy to hear he was doing better, though he is clearly not out of the woods yet.

I was annoyed but not surprised by the media reaction. Many leftist individuals and outlets could not restrain their schadenfreude at the president’s diagnosis. This is what you get, they said, in more or less words. Serves you right for not “taking the virus seriously.” Now they are attempting to present Trump’s Rose Garden announcement of Judge Barrett as needlessly reckless, running tape of people talking and hugging and shaking hands (The horror! Pearl clutch! Gasp!). 

But I’d rather live in a world where people talk and hug and shake hands and even spread germs on occasion than a sterile, controlled, “safe” world… where people still spread germs (though perhaps more slowly), where they still get sick and still get old and ultimately, inevitably die.

The media did not cover the recent COVID diagnosis of Virginia’s governor Ralph Northam (a Democrat) with near the same level of scorn or hysteria. Millions of people have contracted this disease, many of whom followed all the recommended steps and precautions. You can wear a mask and maintain a “social distance” of six feet and avoid crowded areas, but unless you are prepared to live in a completely self-contained, total isolation bunker, you can still catch this virus and you can still get sick from it.

If you choose to stay home or take other steps to minimize risk, that is your freedom and your right. But with hospitals in no immediate danger of being overwhelmed, by what logic do you get to tell others to do the same? 

The “new normal” has never become normal for me. Every day begins a new struggle to adjust to a world that has forgotten such fundamental truths. It is not normal to blame people for getting sick. It is not normal to pretend we can do this forever, either maximal prevention (a short-term stalling tactic at best) or a vaccine (a long-term strategy, if it ever gets here).

It would be far better to focus on treatment and improved overall health. COVID-19 is here to stay. We could have done more to slow its spread in our country, but it would have gotten here eventually. Now it’s going to be similar to the common cold; we’re all likely to get it, eventually. Even so, CDC statistics show that it is no more deadly than seasonal influenza for younger Americans. For those under 49, survival rates are 99.997%. Those 50 to 69 have a 99.5 percent chance of surviving COVID, while for those over 70 – a long life by historical standards – it’s still 94.6%, and likely to increase with better treatments.

Considering these numbers, how ought we to respond to COVID?

To put it briefly, we should resume our normal lives. After the September 11th terrorist attacks, we implemented a few sensible (and some unnecessary) restrictions and regulations, and then more or less got back to work. To do less, our leaders cautioned, would be to “let the terrorists win.” During the Cold War, we faced the challenge of nuclear annihilation not with despair but with action – again, some sensible and some ill-advised, but all with a certain level of resolve. In World War II, we took the threat of Nazism and Japanese aggression incredibly seriously… so seriously that we sacrificed over 400,000 American lives to stop them.

The majority of us are called to live normal lives, lives as filled with kindness and compassion and purpose as possible. Our lives are not insignificant in their ordinariness, assuming we live them well.

But some of us are called to heroism. In the Revolutionary War, Nathan Hale’s only regret was that he had “but one life to lose” for his country. A hero is someone who shoulders the risks of others while refusing to hoard their rewards. Heroes display all the traditional virtues of temperance, prudence, justice, and courage, virtues our depraved culture has almost completely forgotten. In their place we have “niceness” and “safety,” which are really fake virtues that prevent the development of others.

In this extra spooky election-year October, many Americans are more afraid that their side will lose the upcoming election than they are of catching COVID. I put myself squarely in this former camp. But like fear of death, fear of political defeat can become paralyzing, depressing, and if we let it soul-destroying.

The ancients of every civilization knew better, be they Greek, Indian, and Chinese. So too did early Christians. Saint Augustine wrote City of God as the Roman Empire was crumbling around him. He didn’t know then that five centuries of darkness and destruction would follow. Still, he urged Christians to focus on building the City of God: certain, fulfilling, and everlasting, not the City of Man: uncertain, unfulfilling, and temporary. Every empire, every polity will in time prove itself just as mortal, just as fleeting, as every human life. Politics, while often necessary, is thus a poor focus of our concern. Even if America crumbles, our true home is in heaven and we will not be fully happy until we get there. 

In the meantime, memento mori, and Happy Fall.

Viewing the COVID-19 Pandemic through the Lens of Fragility

I recently read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s four-book Incerto collection.

In the first book, Fooled by Randomness, Taleb posits that we know much less about the world than we think. Published just months before 9/11, he infamously floated the scenario of terrorists flying planes into the Twin Towers.

In the second book, The Black Swan, Taleb discusses low-probability, high-impact events like the 9/11 attacks and explains how our current models (investment, economic, political) fail to account for them. Published a few months before the Great Recession, Taleb confidently asserts that the financial system of the United States will to crash, as it has simply built up too many risky bets.

The third book, and I would argue Taleb’s best, is Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. While the first two books mainly describe the world we live in – a world dominated by uncertainty and subject to Black Swan events – Antifragile lays out concrete tips for how to survive and thrive in the face of this uncertainty.

Incidentally, in Taleb’s fourth book, Skin in the Game (published in 2015), Taleb asserts matter-of-factly that the world will experience a global pandemic in the coming years. The current COVID-19 pandemic is thus not a “Black Swan” event, but rather something that anyone paying attention could have seen coming.

While Taleb has gained fame for his predictions, he cautions that the key is not to predict the future, but rather to structure our lives in such a way as to best handle the inevitable uncertainty and randomness of life.

According to Taleb, everything can be divided into one of three categories: fragile, robust, and antifragile. Fragile things, like teacups, break under stress and uncertainty. Robust things, like rubber balls, can withstand stress and uncertainty. Antifragile things, like human muscles, actually get stronger when subjected to stress and uncertainty (but only up to a point).

To use some examples from mythology, fragility is the sword of Damocles – hanging over our necks, just waiting to hurt us. Robustness is the phoenix, rising from the ashes. But antifragility is the hydra, growing back two heads for every one that is severed.

Common sense dictates that we arrange our lives, our societies, and our world in such a way as to at the very least minimize fragility and maximize robustness, with the added goal of antifragility. However, many of the things we are currently doing actually “fragilize” the system. The natural world understands robustness and antifragility, and the complex workings of many moving parts. The modern, man-made, globalized world oversimplifies things into models or theories that then break when subjected to stress.

Corporations prefer optimization to redundancy. In the words of Apple CEO Tim Cook, “Inventory is evil.” Well, maybe — when things are going according to plan. But in the face of a pandemic, when supply chains are disrupted, inventory is a blessing; its lack a curse that costs lives.

Here are some additional takeaways from Antifragile that we can apply to the current coronavirus pandemic:

  1. Don’t interfere with things you don’t understand.

Our first instinct is often to intervene in a crisis. However, certain interventions actually do more damage than the situation they are trying to address. Examples of this phenomena include unnecessary surgeries, micromanaging forest fires, urban planning, and overprotective parenting.

Often it is better to leave the system alone and let nature run its course. Let your body heal itself, let smaller forest fires occur, and let your kids make some mistakes every now and then.

Now, in the current crisis it would appear that non-intervention is actually riskier than intervention at the macro-level. However, at the individual level, most people who contract COVID-19 will be perfectly capable of fighting it off without needing to visit the hospital at the risk of spreading the infection.

Furthermore, we should seriously weigh the costs and benefits of any major interventions to our economic and political systems, carefully considering the downstream effects.

  1. Embrace Stoicism.

Stoicism has often been described as indifference to fate. However, Taleb views it more as antifragility to fate. Success brings fragility, as a successful person has more to lose than to gain from the unknown. This fact is compounded by the negativity bias, whereby we feel losses more deeply than gains. Many of us feel we have much to lose from the current crisis.

To counteract this predicament, Taleb directs us to Seneca, the famous Roman philosopher and statesman, who advised mentally writing off one’s possessions in advance. This way, if we indeed lose them in real life, it hurts less. In other words, assume the worst, and be happy when the actual result is better.

Many people are financially stressed by the recent blow to their stock portfolios, or just depressed at the cancellation of sporting events and concerts. But as long as we have our basic needs met, we should view surplus income and recreation as icing on the cake.

Don’t take anything for granted.

  1. Adopt a “barbell strategy.”

Taleb uses the metaphor of the barbell as an antidote to bell curve thinking. Barbells take the extremes into account, while bell curves largely ignore them.

How does one survive in an uncertain world?

First, decrease your downside by lowering your exposure to negative events. Second, increase your upside by making some limited, high-risk bets. Taleb advises putting 90% of your money in boring, safe investments like bonds, while investing the other 10% in high-risk, high-reward options. His own options-heavy portfolio is structured so as to benefit from volatility. Banking on this strategy, he was one of the few winners in 2008.

Taleb illustrates the concept of optionality using the example of Thales of Miletus. Tired of being derided as a do-nothing philosopher, Thales put a down payment on the seasonal use of every olive press in the region, thus taking on a small risk. When the olive harvest turned out to be extremely bountiful, he released the owners of the olive presses on his own terms, earning himself a large reward.

Barbell-style investors like Taleb are probably doing just fine during this crisis, while the bell-curvers are suffering.

  1. Embrace trial and error.

Historically-speaking, more innovations have come from tinkering than from formal research. According to Taleb, “America’s asset is, simply, risk taking and the use of optionality, this remarkable ability to engage in rational forms of trial and error, with no comparative shame in failing, starting again, and repeating failure.”

This latest coronavirus outbreak was not the first, and will not be the last. We have to be prepared to learn from our mistakes. If history is any guide, we will not be saved by central planning, but by grassroots trial and error.

  1. Understand that fragility is nonlinear.

In other words, negative effects increase not arithmetically, but rather exponentially. Much like infection rates from COVID-19, they compound over time. Anyone who has ever sat through a traffic jam understands this.

We should identify the potential traffic jams in our supply chains and act accordingly. Resisting globalization might cost more in the short-term and/or when things are running smoothly, but localism is a more robust long-term strategy.

  1. Follow the Via Negativa, or addition by subtraction.

Let’s say you have a problem: you are overweight. It is both cheaper and more effective to eliminate the unhealthy things from your life – junk food, smoking, drinking – than to add in healthy options – expensive gym memberships, diet plans, etc.

Simpler is better.

Less is more.

Increasing complexity also increases fragility. Hopefully the coronavirus pandemic will help teach us to simplify our lives where we can by showing us all the things we really can live without.

  1. Avoid neomania; opt instead for what has stood the test of time.

Taleb defines neomania as being too quick to embrace the latest (often-untested) thing. For example, books have been around for a long time, e-readers much less so. While the e-reader user might seem smarter in some situations (consider how many books you can fit on one device!), the traditional book-reader does better in the event of a power outage.

  1. If something is too big to fail, it should be too big to allow.

Taleb notes that large corporations and nations are actually weakened by their alleged advantage – their size – as they are more subject to Black Swan events. Smaller entities like city-states and small businesses are often more robust in a crisis. We should remember this during normal times, when people start advocating mergers, acquisitions, and various other economies of scale. It is easier to turn a small ship than a large one.

(Anecdotally, I can attest that smaller school systems have responded better to the coronavirus pandemic than larger ones. Likewise, larger businesses will likely have to lay off workers first.)

  1. The need for skin in the game.

Heroes take on the downsides of others, putting themselves at risk for the greater good. Charlatans and frauds keep the upside for themselves while passing on the risk to some larger group. Ethically speaking, we should not allow any entity to privatize its profits while socializing its losses.

Conclusion

This is not a pointless philosophical exercise. All of this matters; it matters a lot. According to Taleb:

Black Swan effects are necessarily increasing, as a result of complexity, interdependence between parts, globalization, and the beastly thing called “efficiency” that makes people sail too close to the wind… The world is getting less and less predictable, and we rely more and more on technologies that have errors and interactions that are harder to estimate, let alone predict.

We must consider – individually, communally, and globally – how best to navigate an increasingly unpredictable world. We can take steps to increase our resilience, and even antifragility, but this will likely necessitate certain sacrifices that seem unnecessary or even detrimental in the short-term.

At the micro-level, relying on the medical system makes us fragile. Learning basic first aid makes us more robust. Improving our body’s health through exercise utilizes our natural antifragility.

At the macro-level, there is a natural inclination to prop up the existing system. But perhaps we should utilize this crisis to build in various redundancies and fail-safes. This way, when the next crisis comes rolling inevitably along, we will all be better prepared to manage it. Instead of trembling in anxiety at the fragilities inherent in our daily lives, we can draw strength from traditional sources of wisdom and comfort – our communities, our families, and our faiths.

 

Featured Image Credit: DonSpencer1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=87998491