Thomas Harrington: How Did Our Society Become So Fearful?
Early on in the pandemic, the data was clear. There was a thousand-fold difference in fatality rates for the elderly versus the young. Yet public policy and public health messaging largely ignored this. In fact, many Americans, when polled, have a highly exaggerated estimation of the risk COVID-19 poses to them.
So what explains this disproportionate reaction?
One man who’s meditated on this very question for the past several months is Thomas Harrington, a professor of language and culture studies at Trinity College and a contributing writer for the Brownstone Institute.
We explore the cultural ills in our society that may explain some of its illogical responses to the pandemic and that created what Harrington calls, “the frightened class.”
Jan Jekielek: Thomas Harrington, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Thomas Harrington Ph.D.: I’m very pleased to be here, Jan.
Mr. Jekielek: So you’ve come to my attention through reading one of my favorite new websites, Brownstone Institute site, brownstone.org. And you penned a piece a while back and I’ve been reading multiple columns of yours, The Frightened Class. That must have been something like four or five months ago. I can’t remember right now. But we’re kind of in the midst of seeing, again, the fruits of what you wrote about back then enacted, or at least in my eye.
Mr. Harrington: The Frightened Class, I think was a meditation of my own, trying to make sense of the fact that there seemed to be so much fright around, so many people being scared and that it didn’t seem to correspond in any real way to the level of threat we were facing. And so the mind then goes through a number of possibilities as to how we’ve gotten into this situation.
And one, of course, is that there are a lot of inputs, the so-called fear porn that is generating this. But then the receptor is also a key element in the dialogue between the fear porn and the person, and what has made us susceptible to this sort of whipping up of our sense of fright. And I began to think about some of the things that have changed in the course of my life, some of the aspects of our culture that have diminished and might have led to our being this, predisposed to this sort of thing.
And so there are a number of things that I think that came to mind. One of them strangely enough was physicality. It’s one of the things that I talked about in the article and it’s, have we become divorced from certain elements of physicality that keep our wheels from going into overdrive, that allow us to test the anxieties we have against palpable reality?
And why have we become theoretical in our approach to the world when in fact there were palpable things that could reassure us? And how is it that we’re living inside what Debord calls the spectacle? And what have we lost, or what antidotes to living in this psychic tunnel have we lost?
Mr. Jekielek: So, let’s jump into that, Debord’s spectacle. This is really fascinating. And please expound on what you mean by that exactly.
Mr. Harrington: Guy Debord was a French scholar, activist, the situationist movement. In ’67, he wrote a book called, “The Society of the Spectacle.” It’s a book that is very interesting, and he seems in some ways to see the coming of consumer culture and it’s voracious hold upon our attentions. And he proposes a view that says that the spectacle wants us always to be attentive to it, and always wants us to be responding to it. And we get sucked into it and begin to lose any ability to measure our authenticity, for lack of a better term against it.
And it’s very interesting. I’ve taught this text a number of times in my classes and my students after reading are often very astonished and they say, “This is what I’m living through.” And then when I ask, “Well, what are the solutions?” They often say, “I don’t think you can do anything about it. I don’t know what to do, but I know what I’ve just read corresponds a lot to the way we live today,” and that’s troubling.
And so then the question is how do we get back to discovering activities that it can at least allow us to pierce this tunnel of the spectacle that we’re constantly living in, in various ways before screens and it seems to feed upon itself? And I think a lot of that has to do with simple things. What have we lost perhaps, being in touch with other people across a table, eating, staring into the eyes of others, having a conversation.
I’m from one of these families with very long Irish generations. I say to people, “My grandmother was born in 1890.” People say, “What?” But I grew up listening every Sunday to my grandmother tell stories from 1890 about how the world was.
And she repeated. She changed certain elements of the story. I heard them once and again, but in the process of hearing those stories and collating them and then creating my own narrative out of them, I was engaging in an important skill. I was creating the ability to narrate my own life, or at least a version of it. And I think some of those things are lacking, especially in a visual culture. That visual culture is a very different one than active listening with a human being in front of you.
Visual culture washes over you. You can be passive. One of my students yesterday said … I said, “How did you like the documentary?” So he said, “It was great. It was easier than that reading.” And I said, “Well, that’s true, isn’t it? It washes over us. It enters easily.”
But what does reading give us that physical engagement with the page? What does it give us and what does it demand of us? It demands an active engagement. It demands a sense of imagination. You need to piece it together yourself. And I think that idea of piecing together yourself is being diminished, and it’s maybe one of the antidotes to this idea of being, or this dilemma of being caught in the spectacle.
Mr. Jekielek: How does this concept of the spectacle, I guess, impact the creation or the existence of this frightened class?
Mr. Harrington: I think it creates a reality outside of our own empirical experience. After all, we’re always in a dialogue or we at least assumed ourselves for many years to be in a dialogue between our inner life and the world beyond us. What the spectacle does is it mediates between, and that’s why we call it the media, right? It mediates. It creates a lens between the self and the world.
Now, we were always having lenses between the self and the world. But this particular lens of fearfulness seems to have a debilitating effect on us and lead to a distrust of our own ability to overcome difficult problems—the fear of death, the fear of sickness. And it presents them in a way that they’re anomalous or it presents them in a way that they’re something that we shouldn’t have to deal with, and that if we only do all the right things, we’ll be able to get rid of.
And in fact, there’s no getting rid of these things. So then the question becomes, what about the discourses or the trains of thought that lead us to learning how to live with these things, learning-
Mr. Jekielek: Like existential fear, fear of death-
Mr. Harrington: Fear of death.
Mr. Jekielek: Fear of loss.
Mr. Harrington: Fear of loss. This is what all great religious traditions and many social traditions have always done. These are the perennial questions. And it seems consumer culture aided by fear culture creates an odd situation where people are caught off guard, are caught unaware of the fact that these are possibilities in their life. And then, like someone who touches you in the middle of the night on the back says, “Oh, I have to think about that?”
And you don’t have any machinery or any cognitive machinery available to you to process that. And this is what I think has happened throughout a lot of the COVID crisis. We have an inability to put things in their place because it seems that for many years, and I would argue under the influence of consumer culture, we’ve been taught not to think about these things.
Consumer culture basically says your life should be happy. It should be relatively problem-free. And by the way, if it isn’t, there’s a product that I have for you that can resolve it. Well, that doesn’t train someone to look into the problems that will inevitably come up in life and develop a dialogue with those problems and develop a series of strategies psychologically, spiritually, if you want to call it that in other ways, to be prepared when it comes.
And I think this element of surprise of not having pondered these things or not having an educational system that has forced many people to actively ponder these things might be part of the reason.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s absolutely fascinating. The other piece, just I have to mention this is you mentioned that in the spectacle, there’s this kind of quest for authenticity. Or it seems like that’s what everyone is actually gravitating to. If someone has a social media presence that is deemed authentic. Those are the people that get the most audience, I suppose, right?
Mr. Harrington: Well, it’s more complex than I would think. The spectacle consumes authenticity and maybe this is what you’re referring to. It’s completely voracious. When authenticity appears, it consumes it and renders it part of the spectacle.
Mr. Jekielek: Commodifies it.
Mr. Harrington: Commodifies it.
Mr. Jekielek: Yes, fascinating.
Mr. Harrington: Commodifies it. And so how do you break out of that? You are trying to be your most honest self, but you live in the consumer society. And no sooner have you become recognized for authenticity, then the system consumes it and sells it back to us. And this is really a vexing problem, right?
So what are the tools at our disposal to transcend that dynamic? And this is where it gets really interesting. And I use the word transcend advisedly, transcends in the sense of going above. What can I appeal to in value terms, that will give me an anchor outside the spectacle, or at least one foot outside it that will allow me to look back at it with some critical distance?
And that’s a big question. We live, I think it’s safe to say, in a largely transactional culture. Transactional cultures are not transcendent cultures. And of course, we’re a secular society and for many good reasons, religions have been shunned to the side. So then the question becomes, what are the sources of something, a value system that will allow you to step outside the spectacle and in some way, defend your integrity and your dignity before it?
Mr. Jekielek: Well, it strikes me though that it’s often people who do have strong spiritual or faith grounding that are the ones who are able to do that. I’m not saying that’s everybody, but that trend is certainly apparent to me.
Mr. Harrington: I’m, in my daily life and my daily practice, a pretty secular person. I was brought up in a household, but if I look back on it, it was fairly secular. But we were also being secular in dialogue with a tradition that was at least seeking to point my mind to the possibilities of transcendence. And at this stage in my life, I’m very grateful for that experience because it doesn’t have to take me to the tradition I was born into. I don’t have to go running back to it.
But it implanted, obviously in my mind, the idea that there could be something transcendent of our transactional society, and that if it felt good to pursue it, I would do so. And I am troubled sometimes by the seeming sense I get from especially younger people that the idea that you can even point towards something to it. In other words, if you don’t have a vocabulary of transcendence, can you seek it? Do you know it conceptually as something that you might pursue?
In my particular case, I found many forms of transcendence. One of them we’ve talked a little bit about is for me learning a language and beginning to speak to someone in their own language. Full control of that language gives me a high, a transcendence that is extraordinary still to this day, after all the years of what I’ve done as a professor, simple example. But it was a model of being able to do that and wanting to do that someday. Meaning someday, I can sit down and colloquially talk to someone in a language that’s not my own?
But you could come up with many, many other examples, but it’s important to have the idea that it’s possible to strive for. And I sometimes wonder whether we’re helping our young to have that model of the possibility of being transcendent. Joseph Campbell, the great scholar of comparative religions and myth, he talks a lot about this. He says, “Are we giving our children sufficient mythic education?”
So we live in many ways by myths, which in some ways connects with some of the things I’ve been interested in my study of nationalism. We live by myths. Myths are there to draw us, to draw our sense of wonder, our sense of wanting to go beyond where we are. And I wonder if we’re giving enough mythic instruction toward wonder, toward thinking of things outside of the game.
Mr. Jekielek: And you also make this case, I think, that also in understanding them collectively, they author some of these tools to deal with these moments of panic where an unknown virus is coming out of communist China with maybe terrible repercussions and how the society responds to that, a society that doesn’t have that grounding in, I guess, stories. Stories, powerful stories of history and heroism and overcoming and so forth might just simply not deal with it very well and turned into a frightened class.
Mr. Harrington: Yeah. It is stories. I’m a huge believer in stories and storytelling. And if you get down to brass tacks, a lot of what we do even in the humanities is storytelling. We sometimes want to dress it up in pseudoscientific terms, but ultimately, we’re taking the knowledge we’ve read about and piecing it together in a narrative.
And those narratives give shape to our lives, give shape to the possibilities we see in our lives. And their absence also gives leave to the absence of seeing possibilities in your life. We talk a lot about … I’m very interested in words, words and vocabulary, and I’d like to talk sometimes about vocabularies.
We have various vocabularies of how to confront difficulty in life. But if we don’t know them and we don’t know that story of the person who had great difficulty X many years ago, well, we’re going to think, “Well, this is the worst thing that could happen to me. No one else in the world has ever been through this. We’re all going to die.” But if we have stories that tell us these things, that tell us how other people have coped, it gives a perspective.
But I should not leave stories without saying that the other thing I spent a lot of my time in academia looking at is nations and nationalisms. And they’re all about stories too. There’s a book that probably many people who are listening might know of, but it’s called “Imagined Communities” by Benedict Anderson. And it was really a groundbreaking book in the history of nationality studies.
And he said, what we’re really doing when we’re creating nations is we’re creating an imagined community that exists in your head and my head, and there’s a simultaneity that’s created between us through elements like the press or shared texts that we’re all reading at the same time. I sometimes joke when I’m teaching Benedict Anderson to my students that I grew up in Boston. I’m a Red Sox fan and a Bruins fan. I read the Boston Globe sports page, but I know at any given time around New England, other people are reading that same sports page, and that if I enter into a coffee shop, I can assume someone might be able to talk to me about last night’s game.
So, the text that we share creates a simultaneity, which in turn keeps the idea that we have something in common alive. In fact, it’s fundamental to that idea. And so nations are stories that are then institutionalized. Can they be bad stories? Yes. Can they be aggressive stories? Yes. Can they be resentful stories? Yes. But there also can be affirming stories.
One of the hurdles I faced early in my career was there was a trend that wanted to see nations as something of the past. And this was coming out of the Marxist tradition of historiography that basically said the nation is not something we need to worry about any longer. And I had to fight back against that because I said, “No, people always need these stories. You can’t just dismiss it.”
The question is, how will we study it and understand its dynamics, and how it comes to be and gets into the minds of many people to create what is a reality in their lives? And so stories and the coming together of stories and creating, for lack of a better term, notions of reality that are collectively shared is something that’s always fascinated me.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, so speaking of stories, the thing that’s fascinating to many of us, and I know it has been to you because I’ve read a number of your thoughts about this. It’s been to me and many others perhaps watching is how this story of COVID, which is so really different from any semblance of reality based on the scientific work that has been done on it, has come to dominate our consciousness almost without questioning.
Mr. Harrington: How has it come about? Maybe I’ll go back and tell you how I came to think about certain of these collective identities in certain ways. When studying nations and nationalism, the first thing you come up against is this idea that nations are spontaneous, that they just occur from the land, and there’s a swelling up of feeling and that people decide to become Germans or to decide to become Polish or the Polish state emerges, or the Spanish state emerges.
I had a real change in my way of thinking in the course of my work on looking at how insurgent nations were formed. And what I found was that it was often a very small group of people who had the idea of the imagined community, much like a clerical group in the church. In fact, one of the things that’s interesting when you study nations and nationalism is that the age of the nation state comes almost exactly at the time that societies are becoming secularized.
And so I would suggest that there’s a strong need for transcendence that was provided previously by religious tradition, that as the society becomes secularized, the nation steps into the breach and provides a new story of how to be transcendent, to go beyond the self. But back to the story of looking at how they’re formed. Oftentimes, it’s a very small group of intellectuals who come up with the idea of the nation and you see this in a lot of central European national movements.
I was particularly interested in the ones in the Iberian peninsula, like the Galicians or the Basques or the Catalans. And you realize it’s four or five people, 10, 15, 20—they create the narrative. And then the question becomes, does the narrative get picked up by power or does the narrative not get picked up by power?
And so there’s a symbiotic relationship between financial and political power and the creation of imagery. My mentor in this is an Israeli scholar named Itamar Even-Zohar. And he talks about these people as socio-semiotic entrepreneurs; social, semiotics, the study of signs and symbols, entrepreneurs.
And so this is the class that generates the signs or what he would call the repertoires of culture that surround us and that point our gaze to certain notions of reality. And he insists that this has been going on since the time of Sumer in the Middle East, that the political elites have always had socio-semiotic entrepreneurs working at their disposal to create repertoires, to surround the human being with signs and symbols that direct their consciousness towards certain ends and away from certain other ends.
When I finally began to see this theory born out in archival research, oh, my goodness, there were four or five of them. And not only that, they’re often stealing tropes from the nationalist movement next door. It changes your whole idea of culture. And it gets to this idea of constructed culture that nations and nationalism or many other social phenomenon are just, they just don’t appear.
There’s always someone setting at the very least the channels within which the signs and symbols are going to flow. And once you begin thinking in terms of this constructed nature of almost all cultures around us, it’s a short leap in the role of elites within them. It’s a short leap to begin applying that analysis to what you see in other realms of life. And of course, what we’ve done and it’s been very effective is we call people who go toward these things, conspiracy theorists.
And we say, “Well, come on smoke-filled rooms, small group of people, can’t be,” conversation ends there. But in fact, there are people who do plan about how to deploy cultural tropes in order to get certain social ends. And we need to kind of denature it and take it out of the realm of the crazy people and begin to soberly look at what are the channels through which the cultural signs and symbols we consume arrive to us.
And I think conspiracy theory as an epithet is designed to prevent us from doing that. There’s a wonderful quote I always get it a little wrong from Michael Parenti, who’s a radical leftist scholar. And he says something to the effect that well, teachers unions get together and decide what they need as a collective. Carpenters unions get together to do this. Guilds get together to do this. But when someone talks about powerful people, perhaps getting together to cooperate and find ways to further their interests, we go, “That’s a conspiracy theory.”
And so there’s this sort of barrier that prevents us from looking at how people in power, just like all other people, are conspiring. And I know that makes people go crazy, but are conspiring in the sense of breathing together in the original sense of the word, are coming together to pursue interests collectively.
Why should that surprise us? And especially when you look at some of the simultaneity with which some of the stories are rolled out, you’ve got to ask questions. Does it mean I have a key to knowing who deployed them when and where? No, but it means that it might be worth my looking into the channels that have delivered those signs and symbols to me.
I’ll give you a concrete example in the COVID thing that struck me. In March of 2020, I was reading the Italian newspaper and the Spanish newspaper especially what’s going on in these places. And then they had this statistics from the Italian Ministry of Health. And right there, the age gradient was perfectly clear. The role of comorbidities in all of the fatalities was perfectly clear. This is in March 2020.
And yet the same papers that were running those statistics were all running stories, anecdotes about the 38-year-old or the 42-year-old who just dropped dead from this terrible virus. And then I started looking at the U.S. papers and all these anecdotes about people 38, 40, 42, but then you had the statistics which showed us these were anomalies.
But why were these anomalies being highlighted with such vigor in all of the journalistic traditions that I customarily look into? Coincidence? Maybe it is, maybe I’m crazy. Maybe I’ve got a fertile imagination. But you’ve got to know that we live in a society of branding where the whole idea of branding is to decontextualize something and say, “This is what it is.” If you can imprint the image of a 38-year-old dropping dead in the minds of many people at once, that can brand itself, in the sense of branding literally, onto the minds of people.
And it can obliterate the ability to look at those statistics that show clearly for most people who are under 70, who are not in poor health. This is a terribly difficult disease to overcome, at least on the level of life and death. So again, I’m asking questions and I guess I’m making a call for us to open up discussions that seem to have been foreclosed by the use of these sort of epithets and cajules that are designed to stop.
I think what’s interesting about the whole COVID media thing is that these attempts to stop thinking, which used to be by curling epithets at someone calling them a conspiracy theorist or calling them an antisemite or calling them whatever you want to call them. It’s clear that the media system has decided those aren’t enough any longer. And we’ve gone from those rhetorical attempts to shut down discussions to actual heavy-handed censorship. And that leads me to ask other big questions. Maybe those things aren’t working as well as they once did. And the next line of discourse shrinkage showed tools had been brought into effect.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s fascinating. And so you mentioned the elites constructing the stories and so forth. So, recently a good friend of mine very thoughtfully said, “Listen, Jan, you keep talking about elites. Who are these elites?” Aren’t you elite? Who are these elites that have their own agenda here?
Mr. Harrington: I am part of the elites, so are you. When I teach the cultural theory of culture planning as understood by Even-Zohar and others, I often say to my students, “You are socio-semiotic entrepreneurs relative to the rest of the population, because you’ve been given the time to spend four years in a nice college learning how to manipulate texts, language, and other things.”
So yes, we’re part of the elite. But then the question is when does that socio-semiotic elite ally itself with power and how does it ally itself with power? And that’s where things get interesting. There’s a sociologist in France, Pierre Bourdieu. He’s passed on now, but he talks about, for example, academics as being a middling class, that we have lots of cultural capital but we lack actual pecuniary capital.
And so in a certain sense, we exist at the pleasure of the pecuniary elites who allow us to do our thing and then serve themselves of some of our skills in creating the pedagogies of collective identity that can be very helpful to their ends.
And so I think this is one of the things that’s very interesting being an academic, and I think I’ve tussled a little bit. I don’t pretend that I’m not working at the service, or I will not pretend that my job has implicit in it the idea of a service to a certain very powerful elite in the society.
And like so many things, I think the key lies in how conscious you are of that potential, of that power to co-opt you. And have you thought about it enough so that you don’t slide into a position where you are co-opted without you knowing it. One of the things that I think, and you see it in journalists as well, is when you tell them they’re aligned with power, they say, “No one tells me what to write. No one has ever asked me what to do.” And I go, “Wait a second. That’s not how it works.”
There’s all sorts of things floating in the air of the sociology of the place you’re in that are telling you what to do or not to do, what things can be said or not be said. And this is how these attitudes toward power are shaped. There are questions you don’t ask. And that’s true. We all have to survive, so we sometimes don’t ask them. But at least be conscious on some level that you are.
One of the things I do with my students sometimes is, I come from Boston and I suspect I had a Boston accent growing up. And I will put on the accent of what I probably spoke like with my friends on the hockey team in high school. And then I’ll say, “Would I do very well in academia talking like that?” And then I put on the clipped accent of academic speech, and I say, “Isn’t that sounding? Well, why don’t I speak like that anymore?”
Well, maybe I made a conscious decision, but my environment told me to speak to that that way would be to lower my value within that particular sociology, or at least there’s an idea that there’s a certain academic way of speaking that one needs to accede to.
And it’s these processes that often are very subtle that lead us into positions, and that oftentimes belie our belief that we’re acting completely as free agents within these institutions. None of us are free agents, but the question is how, as I said earlier, how conscious do you want to be about the strictures that may be taking you to a place that you don’t want to be?
Mr. Jekielek: Also, this just makes me think of, when one of your more recent pieces you argue how there seems to be this change that’s being kind of inserted step by step through media. And so for there’s change in how we understand our own health or our own relationship with, frankly, what it even means to be healthy, right? So, dig into this for me a little bit.
Mr. Harrington: Sure. One of the things that we know about the power of language is that one of its most important or powerful aspects is naming. Naming allows us to mythologize, to weaponize a certain thing. So let’s think back three years ago, you have a sore throat and a runny nose. You have a cold. You’ve had several in your life, you know you’ll get over it. You’ve observed others and how they get over it. You listen to your body and hopefully, if you know if it’s going badly, you’ll go to the right people. You trust. You have a dialogue. You’ve developed over the course of your life a dialogue with your body and with this thing.
But what happens when we name it, imbue that thing with mythological powers … Don’t get me wrong. I’m saying it does kill people. I’m not saying it’s mythological … Mythological in the sense of powers that are extraordinary in a disproportionate way to other things. And then you create a test which affirms the naming. And then you allow that test to come between you and your understanding of how to handle these things. That sniffly nose three years ago, and you had a party over Christmas to go to, you wouldn’t have appealed to anyone. You would’ve said, “Well, I think I’ll stay home or I won’t stay home. It’s a small thing,” and we had a trust in that.
But now it’s been labeled and it’s been inserted between us and our instincts. And we’re now appealing to authorities. We’re, in effect, inviting namers to come into our life and to direct our relationships with other people, because that’s effectively what’s going on with testing. I spoke to someone the other day who works with a hockey team up in Connecticut. He said, “These guys on the team are getting tests and they feel fine,” but there’s a label that has been laying upon them. And three years ago, they would’ve just gone out and played.
So, it gets to a bigger question. I think of how we allow abstractions produced outside of ourselves to come in and invade spaces that we used to be quite capable, where we had skills that would allow us quite capably to resolve the problem through custom, instinct [and] common sense if you want to call it that. And I think it’s very dangerous to invite namers into the realities of life because once the power to name, they’re the owner of that concept. And they can inject it between us and ourselves, us and our family. And I prefer to keep to the greatest extent possible on the perimeter of my intimate life these things that are labeled by others unnecessarily, or perhaps unduly.
Mr. Jekielek: And so now I’m thinking about this just, I think it was yesterday. I think it was at Brooklyn Tech High School, I believe. The students themselves organized a walkout demanding distance learning. I just thought, again, given what we know the science around how this virus affects that age bracket, which is not a lot, especially this newest variant from the newest data that have come out. It’s astounding because what you’re describing is it’s not that something is being inserted at this point. It’s like the folks are making these decisions for themselves, in particular folks who have so little risk, it’s almost hard to actually quantify how little.
Mr. Harrington: Yeah, it’s crazy. And I think it connects with another thing that I find very troubling, which we might call the cult of vulnerability. One of the wonderful things about youth is that you feel invulnerable. And we could argue about why and the biologist could tell us and the psychiatrist could tell us what leads to this usual sense of invulnerability. And I’m sure there’s many theories about it. But that’s a beautiful thing in many ways. You’re 19. You’re going to eat the world, as they say in Spanish.
And what happens and what is happening in a society that seems to be inculcating a cult of vulnerability at the people who are most vigorous and who have been usually those most leading the charges toward vitality and the celebration of life and its possibilities. Wow, what does that do to a society to have someone at the age of 19 looking in the mirror and seeing mostly a vulnerable person rather than a powerful one? And why are we doing this, or how have we done this, or how has this been done to relieve subjects out of it?
I don’t know about you, but I was brought up to try and learn to be as hardy as I could be in the face of life’s difficulties. But it seems now there’s almost a currency that is derived from presenting oneself as vulnerable. And it seems to be turning many things in reverse and I’m troubled about it. And I wonder to the extent to which we are putting in the hands of others, this ability to label, to put something a label on us that speaks of vulnerability when in fact in clinical terms, there’s no such vulnerability. And I can only think that that benefits people who already have power.
And I often think about this in the context of history. The feudal system in the Middle Ages, we think about it in general terms while there was landowners and there was peasants. But the feudal system was a system that was rooted in the idea that the warrior landowner provides security for the vulnerable people. And the beginning of democracy and republicanism in smaller sense as we know it came when people said, “You know, I’m willing to take the risk of not being fully protected to express my individuality as a social subject.” In other words, I’m not going to mortgage my freedom in the name of safety.
And now, this is what we seem to be doing. And it seems to be helped along by this semiotic game, this labeling game that tells people that they can’t do things until someone else allows them to, or until the stain is taken away from them. And it puts you in a very negative position vis-à-vis power. I think what’s going on in some of these universities where you’re having mass testing and we know the testing is unreliable and where in some places confining students to their dorm rooms and bringing them bags of food and laying that at the door. Meanwhile, they’re being charged $70,000 for this. What kind of training about the ability to go into life with hope is being given here?
Mr. Jekielek: Well, no, you’re right. It’s just that the thing that strikes me is, if this was a virus that actually created really significant risk for these people, I can imagine all sorts of dramatic exceptions to social behavior that would make sense. I can imagine that. I wouldn’t like it, but it’s just the behavior is so completely outside of the reality of the risk. And that’s the part that I find so mind-boggling.
Mr. Harrington: And the handing over of authority. So on the basis of this contrived sense of risk, you’re handing over authority. Will that authority come back? Will you know how to reassume it, even if it is given back? To learn how to become authoritative in a broad sense in your own life is a life skill. How do you become imbued enough with your sense of self in the positive sense to manage your life? That’s a skill you need to do. But what if you’re always waiting from an authority figure outside yourself for the signal to do or not do something?
And it would seem that we’re training for a society of permanent infantilization in many ways. Infantilization, I don’t know when sometimes now when I go on an airplane, the metronomic infantilizing announcements that I have to put up with throughout it, you go, “What, are we idiots? Do we need to be reminded again?” And you’ve got to ask yourself, why are these things being hammered at us?
And there seems to be a presumption that we are incapable if we didn’t have these outside figures constantly telling us how to comport ourselves, that we wouldn’t do so. Well, if you do that long enough, you begin to lose perhaps your instincts of how to comport yourself. You begin looking out at the corner of your eye and saying, “Could someone please give me a signal as to how to act now,” instead of developing your inherent sense and skill in knowing how to act in a given situation.
Mr. Jekielek: Something that really struck me in another one of the pieces that you wrote was this. You made this distinction between what you call humanistic thinking versus scientific thinking—kind of being like on opposite sides of a spectrum. And that the concept of public health properly should kind of fit into some kind of a fine balance between these two areas. And then kind of what I think at what I read into it is that it unfortunately went all the way to one end, and this is part of our problem. So, tell me about this.
Mr. Harrington: In many ways, it’s a broader problem that has existed at least since the onset of the modern university at the end of the 19th century. At the end of the 19th century, the model was science as the leading, and still to this day, probably the leading discipline. It was the most fast-moving area. And science, and I don’t want to generalize too much, for the most part is based on analysis which is the opposite of synthesis, right?
Analysis is breaking something down into its constituent parts and to get to finer, ever more fine elements of it to understand it on some level. You may then piece it back together and come up, and that would be the humanistic part of science.
The humanistic side of things, which is where I work, is synthetic in nature. Not in the sense of fake, but synthetic in the sense of engaging in synthesis. It’s taking scraps of culture. Sure, we have to be analytical sometimes to find the pieces. But in the end, if we don’t take the pieces we find and create a narrative that’s coherent, it’s not very useful as humanistic work.
And one of the problems in the academy is that the prestige of science has often created humanists who are trying to ape science and forgetting about the need to create bigger pictures, which brings us to public health. Public health obviously needs people who are minutely involved in immunological, virological and all sorts of other processes about a given disease.
But if we don’t have a humanistic understanding to go along with that, then what happens is what has happened over these last two years. Who’s talked about the big picture of lockdowns, at least at the governmental level? Who’s talked about the big picture of masking children? Who’s talked about all of these things? There was no-
Mr. Jekielek: I actually know who, but not many. I guess that’s what you’re getting at, right?
Mr. Harrington: That’s what I’m getting at. That’s what I’m getting at. Amazingly, we had this obsessive attempt to kill a virus, which many scholars who I obviously don’t understand their work, but said you can’t ever hope to contain a respiratory virus successfully. But we made that job one, job two, and job three, and never carried out what I might call a humanistic cost-benefit analysis and weighted against that perhaps laudable goal and said, “But what’s the big picture? Who’s putting it together?”
There’s been some wonderful people who put it together, I mean Martin Kulldorff and Jay Bhattacharya and people of the Great Barrington Declaration. But it’s been striking to me. And it makes me wonder about what’s being taught in science faculties, that this obsessive one-trick pony approach to what is clearly a multifactorial problem has been able to carry on as much as it has. And you wonder, how did that happen? Is that a matter of education? Are we not educating scientists with the ability to step back? Are we humanists being too shy about …
I mean, because we do have a bit of an inferiority complex vis-à-vis scientists sometimes. Have we been too shy in saying, “You know the science, I’m not challenging that. But here are the larger societal issues that you need to take into account”? Where have these people been? Where have these voices? I’ve tried it to do it in my tiny little humble way, but there’s people who are much more important that could have been asking these questions.
And so, I’m troubled by that, that these two sensibilities … If there’s anything public health … Is there any place where these two sensibilities need to be in constant dialogue? It’s public health and it hasn’t happened.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, we were talking a lot about stories. When I think about it, isn’t our current big story that science is the answer to all of these things?
Mr. Harrington: Science understood, I guess, as a pursuit that is largely technological and divorced from the human beings that it inevitably touches. I had experience with my mother when she was infirm [and] went to the doctor with her. And she was suffering from cognitive difficulties, Alzheimer’s at the time. And if you’ve been with a person with Alzheimer’s, the things they love or touch, music, all of the things that can on some level touch them to feel human.
And I can remember going into the doctor. I used to have to take her to her appointments. And the doctor was sitting there at his laptop with his back to my mother or half turn to my mother, looking over his shoulder occasionally to shout something about some test result that had come up. And that was that. Where was the healing in that? Where was the doctor’s ability to see my mother as an integral whole who happened to have a disease?
Where was the desire to make her feel as she clearly knows where she’s going to make her feel some sense of aliveness, joy, dignity, as she goes through this process? Nope. From what I could tell, she was another person on the docket. There were another set of test scores that he had to collate and in some way expressed to me, both myself and she who couldn’t understand them terribly well. And there we were.
What could have been an affirming encounter within the parameters of the tragedy that was going on was turned into a sort of bizarre exhibitionism of scientific knowledge.
Mr. Jekielek: And yet, even as we talk about all these things, it seems like the mantra is, follow the science. But it almost often means the opposite, right?
Mr. Harrington: Yes. Crazy.
Mr. Jekielek: There’s so many paradoxes here.
Mr. Harrington: This idea of follow the science, I mentioned branding earlier. And I can remember being very interested a few years ago in a quotation, a quote from Rahm Emanuel in which it was after Obama’s first year in office. And he said … Well, someone asked him, “What do you think about the president since he doesn’t seem to be delivering on many of his promises,” something like that. And Emanuel said, “People liked the president. That’s all that matters.”
What he was saying, and I think very honestly, was that we had done our market research. We knew that for a certain amount of the country, Obama’s brand resonates incredibly well to the point that whatever he does on the discreet level of policy really doesn’t matter.
And I think this is where we see this odd coming together of marketing and public policy. As soon as you create brand science, and you identify it with, let’s say, the face of an Anthony Fauci, you’ve created a brand. He’s either trusted or not trusted, and then all of the subsidiary concerns on the level of discreet policy become secondary. You’re aligned with the brand.
I think this is what we’ve seen is that they understood that we could brand science. We could brand it with a certain subset of the scientific community and we could sell people on the idea that it was monolithic and that he represented it.
And that raised a lot of disturbing questions about those of us who really want to live in a deliberative democracy, because if the ability to brand is so great that it can obviate actual policy discussions and we know this goes on, then that’s very troubling. Because the premise of liberal democracy as it emerged in the 18th century was that at least in some degree, we’re capable of doing this. We’re capable of following the plot. We’re capable of going beyond the image. And if we can do that, do we really deserve [it]? Are we able to keep democracy?
There’s a wonderful book by Neil Postman, who is a very interesting cultural critic. It’s called “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” And he wrote it back in the ’80s and it deals with … He would argue that we were able to do that in this country because we had a textual culture. We had a culture of reading. We had a textual culture and the textual culture makes us more rigorous and more detail oriented in our ways of thinking.
And that when you become a post textual culture, as he would argue, came with television and now with the internet even more post textual, our ability to be as concentrated and rigorous in our deliberation diminishes. And I’ve got to wonder to what extent that’s going on, where we can create the image or the brand that seems to subsume a bunch of values or lifestyle or some group of society that you want to be identified with to the point where it subsumes details about policy.
And I think this is what’s happened. And I think some of the lessons of branding have been brought very strongly to this effort.
Mr. Jekielek: We’re talking about this casually about the sort of the implications of what you’re talking about for society even in the not too long term are deeply, deeply troubling. I guess my question is, have you been thinking about the sort of the way out of this whole kind of realm that we’ve been developing in the first part of our discussion here?
Mr. Harrington: I think about it a lot. I’m not sure I come up with affirmative answers. I think as in all processes in life, you grasp. You look back and you say, “Well, what’s real?” And I think one of the things that is powerful, both Solzhenitsyn and Havel said, stop living a lie.
And what does that mean? It means to affirm what you know to be real and solid. Well, hard things. But that’s what you learn through a dialogue with yourself. When do I feel right and when do I feel that I’m doing something that is this wonderful poem that talks about being in the place of your soul? When am I doing things that are in the place of my soul? And when am I not doing things in the place of my soul? And to begin to listen to those things and say, “I want to do more of that and less of that. This seems real, this does not. This seems contrived.”
And I think that’s one of the things we can do each as individuals. We can begin to perhaps listen to ourselves and to begin to create a shield from all of these impulses that are being put out and then say, “But what does it feel like in what I know in my X numbers of years of experience on this earth to be in concert with the best parts of me and the times I felt most whole in my life?”
And there’s a psychiatrist, actually Spanish psychiatrist in New York called Luis Marcos Rojas. And he used to talk about … We say, people who talk to themselves are crazy. He says, “No, I love people who talk to themselves. They’re the sanest people of all.” And I think there’s a certain brilliance in that. We need to have, first of all, dialogues with ourselves.
And then there’s another reference, a metaphor that’s been very moving for me. And it’s a term that comes out of a book I read not long ago. It’s called “Intimate Resistance”, and it’s by a writer from Catalonia. And the world in many senses has apparatuses to erase us and to erase our dignity and to turn us into something less than we want to be. And in the face of that, we need to engage in what he calls intimate resistance.
And the intimate resistance has the personal part. But even more importantly, it has the communal part, simple things. The table I come up with, again, friendship, declaring a cordon sanitaire around the spaces of your family and your friendship and like-minded people who make you feel good when you’re with them working in consonance with your feelings and your values.
That’s where we find our plenitude. And it’s a place from which we can find shelter and then go back out into the world that seems in many ways, bent on watering us down, shaving us down, fitting us into a box. And we can say, “No, I’m not going to allow that to happen. You want that to happen to me, but I’m not going to allow that to happen.” And when you get tired, you go back to those people and those places and you refuel, and then you go back out.
We need to begin creating sanctuaries, both personal and communal, that will allow us to affirm, and I come back to the word a lot, dignity. We all know what it means to feel dignified, and we all know what it means to feel undignified. And we need to affirm those places and those situations and those interactions that make us feel that dignity and self-worth, and make us feel more the person we want to be at any given time.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s fascinating. I can’t help think of, for example, in communist Poland. I remember there’s this very distinct … Whenever anyone left the house, they would really make sure they dressed up really sharply, sharp and smart, in a way like we might be sitting here as we’re doing this interview. Because why? Because, well, there’s a certain dignity to that and that’s something they can’t take away from me.
Mr. Harrington: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s interesting.
Mr. Harrington: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: Intimate …
Mr. Harrington: Intimate resistance.
Mr. Jekielek: Intimate resistance.
Mr. Harrington: Intimate resistance. Again, we’re in dialogue with ourselves. And if we go out in our pajamas, to give an example, what are we saying about what we want to present to the world? Saying, here I am the same … Now, you could make an argument for that in terms of authenticity, why should I dress up for other people?
But the flip side, the other argument would be, “Well, I want to look or feel better than I usually do when I’m just tooling around in my house. And I want to make a statement to myself and to the world that I’m carrying myself with dignity, with a sense of pride, with all of these things that …” These little games, let’s face it. These are psychological games that we play to fortify ourselves against the world. And it’s important to remember that we have rituals and that the role that rituals play in fortifying us against the world.
Mr. Jekielek: So, any final thoughts as we finish up?
Mr. Harrington: We have a lot of knowledge. And each one of us has intrinsically a lot of knowledge inside of ourselves that I think it’s important to get to know and to take care of, not in a closed way but in a dialogical way, and find other people who seem to increase that knowledge about how the world works. And of course, that doesn’t mean not reading newspapers and just listening to your gut. I’m not talking about that.
It’s always a synthetic process of trying to understand the world. But sometimes I think under the onslaught of information, we forget about the dialogue we need to have with that information. And maybe that’s something we can all become a little bit more mindful about.
Mr. Jekielek: Yes. And of course, brownstone.org is one of these communities of very interesting people where we were exposed to each other at the inaugural Brownstone event and to many other really wonderful and original thinkers, which I’m very grateful for. Well, Thomas Harrington, Tom, such a pleasure to have you on.
Mr. Harrington: Thank you very much, Jan. It was my pleasure.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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