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.