Skip to main content

People Who Know Stuff

Berkley MI
Monday

I have no intention of rereading The Stand, Stephen King’s apocalyptic novel of a virus that obliterates most of the U.S. leaving a smattering of survivors to pick up the pieces. I read it twice — I was a bigger fan then than now — but only because he released a second “original” version which was longer and not subject to the editorial restrictions of his earlier career. This version (longer indeed, but not discernibly better) is now trending on Amazon. Why wouldn’t it?
It was never my favorite book, but it is certainly a page-turner, and if the thought of plague fiction doesn’t make you queasy in the current circumstances, you could do a lot worse. But pieces of it have stayed with me — one mark of a good novel — particularly an idea that I’ll sum up as “People Who Know Stuff.”
The survivors in the novel — all of them immune to the virus for unknown, seemingly random reasons — are faced with the dilemma of a world suddenly devoid of expertise. The people who once knew how to run things or make things have mostly died off. There’s nobody to work the power stations, water treatment plants, steel factories, oil refineries, or any of what we now think of as essential infrastructure.
While the survivors can find food easily enough just by rummaging through empty houses, they can’t, alas, turn on the lights. The firing up of a perfectly intact and operational power station is simply beyond them. They also understand that the food situation will not be sustainable long-term.
So sooner or later they will be forced to re-invent agriculture—not to mention hydroelectricity, internal combustion, metallurgy, and pretty much the entire Industrial Revolution—without a clue how to do any of it. The People Who Know Stuff have been taken off the table.
You see where I’m going with this. The metaphor for Trump-era dumbfuckery is irresistible. King was warning us, even back in the seventies, that we reject expertise at our own peril. That simple competence is a valuable commodity. That civilization is a thin veneer easily pierced by existential threat. It’s been said that we are all just six missed meals away from total savagery. If this is true — and I have no reason to doubt it — we are a lot more fragile than we think.
Who among us can start a fire without a match? Even as a Boy Scout I could never pull off the flint-and-steel thing. Who even knows what flint looks like, much less how to find it? And the rub-two-sticks-together idea always seemed fanciful. Yet what would we do if we couldn't make a fire?
Personally, I would have a hard time starting a fire to cook the animal that I’d already had a hard time killing, with a weapon that I’d had a hard time making. And while Peggy can grow pretty decent tomatoes, our survivalist skills are less than finely honed.
So competence matters. And lack of competence matters even more. We can see this playing out in real time, as we try to fight off this virus with little or no federal help. A disaster compounding a disaster.
And it’s not just that the government won’t help. It can’t help. While the basic bureaucracy remains in place, despite its hollowing out, most of the leadership is now in the hands of people who are both incompetent and malignant — a lethal combination. They’ve systematically taken over every agency, and they were already doing incalculable damage to our institutions long before the virus. They have no idea how to manage a pandemic, they’ve purged most of the people who might have helped, and they don’t seem to have either the intellectual or moral bandwidth to care.
Even worse, there seems to be no mechanism in place for learning from this experience. When the next wave of contagion hits us, possibly as early as the fall, we could easily be caught as flat-footed as we are now.
Will there finally be enough masks and PPE six months from now? Don’t bet on it. Will we have our testing act together? Will enough ventilators be in place even then? Will we have effective treatments? Will a vaccine really be in the pipeline? These questions are in no way hypothetical, and there’s little to indicate we’d be happy with the answers.
Yes, there are experts working on these things. Yes, there are competent and dedicated professionals on the case. Yes, there are, even now, People Who Know Stuff, and I for one am really glad to see them. But their ability to launch an effective defense has been crippled, deliberately and methodically.
It’s not just failure of leadership. It’s sabotage of leadership. And expertise. And science. And responsibility.
So the answer to all those non-hypotheticals, as Stephen King would surely agree, is a distressingly tentative maybe.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Branding the Party of Stupid

Let’s talk about the Republican brand. An unpleasant subject, I know, but well worth watching as it turns rancid. Marketing has always been a strength of the GOP. They don’t do policy at all, and they’ve stopped even paying lip-service to reality. But they’ve always had a singular knack for mass manipulation. From Lee Atwater to Karl Rove to Roger Ailes, the party has long been a showcase for brilliant but bent marketing talent, people who understood their target audience and knew what messages would resonate. Those messages have always been deeply fraudulent, and for good reason. They know they can’t tell their audience the real story. The one about who they are and what they stand for. Because the real story is tax cuts and deregulation, nothing else. That’s what they want their brand to be about, but it’s a lousy product. Nobody with a net worth of less than $10 million has any interest in it. So rather than promote it, they’ve had to put up smokescreens to divert attention

The Long Lost Center is Staring Us Right in the Face

Lately there has been much written — and more than a little hand-wringing — about the fate of the fabled American “Center,” that vast majority of sensible people who just wish we could all get along. In particular, there was an op-ed in the Times last week by Thomas B. Edsall — a seasoned, generally respected journalist — that goes to great lengths to lament the neglect of this supposed Center. Edsall places the blame for said neglect on “polarization,” on an electorate that’s been “pushed by political extremes.” He cites an impressive number of recent studies to show us how big but politically powerless this Center appears to be. One of these studies makes the point that: Bipartisan majorities consider the following to be “essential rights important to being an American today”: ‘“clean air and water” (93 percent); “a quality education” (92 percent); “affordable health care” (89 percent); and the “right to a job” (85 percent). These high levels of demand for

Both Sides Now

Back in the nineties, Holocaust denial enjoyed one of its periodic but thankfully brief revivals. It was an old idea given new life, thanks to some shrewd but cynical PR and a few credulous members of the media. Spread virally, or what passed for virally at the time, the “story” — that the Holocaust never happened, that six million Jews were never exterminated — actually percolated up to the mainstream media as a “controversy” for a while. TV news and talk shows, both national and local, worked hard to fan the flames, actually giving serious airtime to the charlatans perpetuating this sludge. But the producers of these shows, sensitive sorts all, couldn’t believe how hard it was to recruit actual Holocaust victims to sit across from the charlatans. They were offering good money, after all. Why would these old folks not want to go on camera? Why would they not want to relive those unimaginable horrors that scarred them for life, listening to some toxic putz who’s trying to conv