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.

Diagnosing the Pandemic Conspiracy Theories

People are trying to sort through conflicting information on the coronavirus pandemic. How did the virus originate? How serious is it? What is the best treatment? How long should lock-downs continue? Should we encourage herd immunity or keep flattening the curve with stay-at-home orders? How likely is it that we will be able to develop a safe, effective vaccine?

I’ve never claimed to have all the answers, but I believe we should be allowed to ask these questions. Intellectual freedom starts to die and groupthink becomes the only option when you’re not allowed to ask questions.

Here’s another question we should be asking: Why are so many people willing to entertain ideas that others dub “conspiracy theories” regarding the pandemic?

I don’t think it’s because we’re stupid or uneducated. Some people seem to be suggesting that we all just turn off our own brains and do whatever the “experts” advise. (Because the experts have never been wrong before, right?)

I believe it stems from a fundamental loss of faith in our democracy.

In the last thirty years, an enormous gulf has opened up between the common people and the elites. Globalization has created winners and losers, with the winners moving to insulate themselves from the effects of their own policies (for example, by moving to privileged enclaves where communities and institutions still function), leaving the rest of us feeling unprotected. The biggest losers of globalization (whites without a college degree) responded to this perceived divide by voting for Trump in 2016.

Globalization has been a mixed bag of costs and benefits, but any way you spin it, it does pose a challenge to democracy. How can a people make decisions for itself (one definition of democracy) when the old borders between nations and economies have eroded?

During the Cold War we knew who the enemy was, even if our perception of the enemy often resembled a cardboard villain. Now the children of American politicians sit on the boards of energy companies in Ukraine, giving the appearance of corruption.

While the Internet has seemingly increased access to information, it has also resulted in a new kind of inequality: Facebook, Google, and YouTube (which is owned by Google) now have the power to kill a story by taking it down or bury it within their algorithms to minimize views.

Then there’s the classic case of FOLLOW THE MONEY.

We are told that profit is the only way to motivate people to innovate. So we allow pharmaceutical companies and medical device manufacturers to make billions of dollars treating diseases.

The American people are not stupid. We know there is more money to be made in treating disease than curing or preventing it. It’s not that we don’t trust our doctors. But we know that they are operating within a paradigm that has been at least partially designed to profit large corporations.

Just watch the Netflix documentary “The Bleeding Edge” to meet some of the people who have been harmed by these profit-making products (Essure birth control, vaginal mesh, chromium cobalt knee replacements). Or consider the fact that pharmaceutical companies benefit from taxpayer-funded research and tax breaks for themselves, while charging exorbitant prices for essential drugs like insulin.

Remember the opioid crisis? 399,000 Americans have died between 1999 and 2017 as a result of drug overdoses involving prescription and illicit opioids. While drug dealers and individuals bear some of the responsibility for this, so do “experts” in medicine and government – you know, the ones who prescribed the Oxycontin and assured consumers that it was only minimally addictive.

Medical errors contribute to more than 250,000 deaths in the U.S. per year, according to a Johns Hopkins study. Other studies put the figure as high as 440,000. That makes them the third leading cause of death in the United States.

To recap: globalization, inequality, Big Data censorship, crony capitalism, widespread corruption, documented cases of medical malpractice and product liability.

This is why your friends are sharing a video about a doctor with dubious credentials.

This is why we don’t trust the experts.

This is why we are trying to think for ourselves, taking in the information from all sides and weighing the evidence as best we can.

If you don’t want people to believe in so-called conspiracy theories, you need to start by restoring faith in democracy. This can only occur by breaking up the monopolies that currently control our media, our medicine, and our government.

That is all.

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