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1. Calculating a tragedy – Josef Stalin once observed that, “The death of one is a tragedy, the death of a million is a statistic.” While dark and cynical, Stalin’s observation about human nature is fundamentally true. We attach meaning to narratives. The more people involved, the more abstract and difficult to relate to that narrative becomes, thus inviting doubt, disbelief, and a strange indifference.
Stalin would use this quirk of human nature to his advantage during his reign of terror. Today, it just kind of explains why people lose their collective minds over a public shooting or a terrorist attack that kills a few, but their eyes glaze over and hit the back button when confronted with statistics of hundreds of thousands (or millions) killed by an invisible virus.
I bring this up because last week was the one-year anniversary of this newsletter warning everyone about the impact of COVID-19. It’s strange now to look back and see so much obsessive energy focused around the first few cases, the first few deaths. Yet, here we are a year later, over half a million deaths in the US alone, and the pandemic feels so abstract and… normal—like a fish trying to notice the water it swims in.
Looking back, I naively hoped that the virus would be a common cause that would bring people together rather than push them apart, that maybe we’d all get on a massive Zoom call together and sing “Kumbaya” or something.
I really should have known better.
2. Nothing new under the sun – One of the ways I kept myself sane this past year was by reading a number of history books and discovering that pretty much nothing the past year—the conspiracy theories, the rioting, the fake news, etc.—was particularly new or unprecedented. In fact, if you read about pandemics throughout history, things like people arguing about masks or protesting to open up schools or refusing to believe official statistics are classics of the genre. Every pandemic has them.
As I predicted last May, the pandemic accelerated social and economic trends that had already been occurring. Perhaps the most significant yet under-reported of these trends was the deterioration of social trust.
I wrote a lot in the fall about the importance of social trust and how it makes pretty much everything work in society. But this too, doesn’t seem to be novel or unexpected either. In fact, a recent paper found that social trust declined during the Spanish flu in proportion to the number of deaths there as well.
When confronted with uncertainty, everyone loves a scapegoat. Yet, that surge of scapegoatization (just made that word up) produces a surge of something else: distrust. Distrust in government. Distrust in medicine. Distrust in science. Distrust in each other.
3. Carpe diem, motherfuckers – There are a lot of side effects of deteriorating trust, but one of the more interesting ones is how a lack of trust can decrease people’s ability/desire to delay gratification.
And delaying gratification is like, pretty much what makes us functional, civilized human beings.
If you think about it, it makes sense. If I don’t trust that the bank is going to give my money back, if I don’t trust that my boss is going to reward me with a promotion, if I don’t trust my government is going to tax me fairly, then fuck it—YOLO. Spend all the money. Eat all the food. Go to all the parties.
I learned this when I lived in Brazil. The first few months, like any typical American, I was shocked at how people spent all their money, didn’t plan for the future, and seemed to live with a wild abandon in the moment. It should be noted that this makes Brazilians excellent at parties. But it also made them terrible at getting anything procedural or bureaucratic accomplished.
But the more time I spent in the country, the more I saw that there was a strange logic to it.
Brazil has suffered multiple government collapses, military dictatorships, hyperinflation, monetary crises, insane tax regimes, not to mention an unfathomable amount of corruption.
Of course you spend your money as soon as you get it. Of course you go full YOLO on a Thursday night. Of course you learn to enjoy every moment as much as possible. Because there’s a legitimate chance that anything good that is happening is not going to be around for long.
I’ve long noted this same kind of impulsiveness growing among American culture. When I’ve written about it, I’ve blamed it on consumer culture and toxic social pressures and people just being immature on the internet.
But perhaps there’s that same temporal logic undergirding it that there is in Brazil. And as the world opens up in the next few months, I expect to see that duel attitude grow—a general distrust that anything good is actually happening, on the one hand, followed by an indulgence in each and every moment on the other.
Get your party shoes ready. You might need them.
Until next week,