Had I been asked in late 2019 what would eventually break American global dominance, I’d have said the rise of China. Projections indicated that by 2030 or so, China would overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy. When was the last time the U.S. had not been the largest economy? According to the late economic historian Angus Maddison, it was about 1880. And what nation was the largest economy in that year? China.
My thinking, pre-pandemic, was that the psychic shock of America’s eventual demotion might trigger cultural and political turmoil, as the nation would find itself forced into a reckoning. Then came 2020. The true shock to our civilization has come not from our own self-image but from nature itself. Western elites were clearly not prepared for this turn, a shattering of our conceit that reality is ours to create. In the U.S., bickering about an appropriate official name for Covid-19, along with a sequence of bureaucratic blunders that led to dire shortages of diagnostic testing and medical gear, highlight the core competencies of today’s media and governmental elites: administrative turf wars and verbal jousting to burnish status in positional games. Even in this high-stakes moment, they cannot abandon unproductive old reflexes. In a strange turn of events, twenty-first-century American elites turn out to resemble the Chinese mandarins of yore, absorbed in intricate intrigues at court to advance their careers while European gunboats prowl the waterways.
The politicians who govern us and the media who tell us how the world “really is” acted as if the basics of economic well-being would be an everlasting bounty. Economists, those apex predators of social science, marshaled the evidence for efficiencies and gains in productivity due to trade and international supply chains. “Just in time” inventories reduced waste and made modern retail a lean, mean prosperity machine. Plentitude wasn’t some miracle achieved through hard work and focused attention; it was our birthright, a steady-state condition of the universe that we inhabited. A global pandemic wasted no time in making a mockery of many of these late twentieth-century assumptions. All our efficiencies melted away in the face of a man-made depression. Perhaps the world was never what we presumed it to be.
In January, empirical evidence from Wuhan should have caused alarm for anyone who bothered to look closely. Epidemiological frameworks are some of the most well understood theoretical systems in population biology, so the high average number of secondary cases was immediately worrisome to scientists, statisticians, and physicians. The WHO, the CDC, and independent observers hoped that Covid-19 would be slowed by the same factors that slowed and contained SARS and MERS in the past, but there was no guarantee. By late January, a small but vocal group of epidemiologists and infectious-disease specialists, along with an eclectic array of Silicon Valley figures, had begun raising the alarm. But these worries failed to gain broader traction in the U.S. media and political landscape for much of February. The media seemed more anxious about the possibility of anti-Asian racism than the threat of a deadly pandemic.
Scenes that played out in Wuhan were repeated with eerily specific similarity in Lombardy in March, and then in New York shortly thereafter. Despite the reality that we live in a world where China’s economic and geopolitical heft looms large, American elites, nursing a twentieth-century hangover, haven’t updated their understanding of the world. China may be remote, alien, and exotic, but it was too easy to dismiss the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan as sui generis. In a global age, we have become too parochial as a nation, held captive by our own particular history.
Too many of our elites lack the most basic analytical tools to understand the threats that we face from nature. The acerbic commentator Nassim Nicholas Taleb, however, saw the possibility of disaster from Covid-19 early on. He is notably a quantitative and formal thinker, versed in statistical distributions and exponential growth. By contrast, in early March, MSNBC’s Brian Williams, former anchor at NBC Nightly News, and Mara Gay, a member of the New York Times editorial board, were unable to divide $500 million—the figure that Michael Bloomberg had squandered on campaign advertising—by 327 million, the number of Americans. Repeating an innumerate tweet with wonderment, they asserted that the equation came out to $1 million per American. The actual sum would have been $1.53 each. Lacking the ability to perform elementary school arithmetic, how could such media figures grasp what exponential growth entails?
Meantime, esoteric forms of intellectual exercise that prioritize human subjectivity and the power of social construction have marched through academic institutions and metastasized into public spaces. Thinkers like Judith Butler of UC Berkeley, who argues that gender is a performance intelligible only in a social matrix, come to shape elite discourse more with every passing year. They would have us believe that the shape of the world is purely a function of our wills, and that reality can be bent to our ideology without limitation.
Now Covid-19 has thrust the untamed physical world back into our line of vision. It has brought post-materialist, twenty-first-century humanity face to face with one of the species’ deepest and most atavistic fears: pestilence and plague. The disease will not be defined away. It is not a social construction or interpretation. It is immune to critique or public shaming on social media. Covid-19 will not be “cancelled.”
This spring, even residents of the most stable societies are reminded that we’re at times little different from our medieval ancestors, trapped in an unpredictable world. And yet, over the past two decades, the field of genomics has emerged in biology, astonishingly powerful computing has grown ubiquitous throughout developed and developing societies, and a demographic transition in the Middle East—along with Western counterattacks—has diminished the threat of Islamic terrorism. Humanity has racked up epochal successes. But generally, the American system hasn’t been forward-looking; it has remained reactive.
For decades, scientists and thinkers have warned that our twentieth-century victories against infectious disease could be merely a pause. Covid-19 has brought this prophecy to life. Rather than attend to internecine arguments about the ideal marginal tax rate or the gendered nature of the English language, we need to face outward and confront a real foe. The American elite must stop treating science like inscrutable magic that provides its bounty automatically. Science and engineering are instruments that grant us insight and mastery only through massive investments of time, energy, and will.
We must acknowledge the importance of mastering reality if we are to survive and flourish as a civilization. Otherwise, governing and media elites’ lack of basic scientific and statistical literacy will doom us to fly blind in the face of future natural disasters. Our only hope is to turn our backs on an era where our only leaders are business executives and lawyers. Data journalism cannot remain a niche; it deserves to occupy a prominent spot on any editorial board. Scientists and engineers must step outside of their laboratories and make their voices heard in the halls of power. They must become part of the establishment that they once had the luxury of viewing chiefly as a source of funding and institutional support.
Earlier generations feared a nuclear holocaust. The atomic age was an ever-present reminder of nature’s menace. Between 1990 and 2020, an American generation has matured for whom the only threats were man-made or unimaginably distant. Covid-19 dispenses with our sophistry and low-information navel-gazing. The question for our society now is whether we’re ready to dispense with them, too.
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