Living in Denial vs. Confronting Our Fears

by Neil H. Buchanan

Until now, I have not felt that I could write about the coronavirus and the accelerating health emergency that has already changed day-to-day life for many Americans (and even more people around the world).  When I considered devoting a full column to the topic, I quickly realized that I simply did not want to do so.  Why did I feel that way, and why did I change my mind today?

The short answer to the latter question is that Professor Dorf's excellent column yesterday inspired me to think directly about the risk/reward questions raised by the possible pandemic.  In that column, he explained why rhetorically minimizing the public impact of the virus -- even in the way that New York's governor Andrew Cuomo reasonably minimizes it ("People not at risk should not overreact"), not in the way that Donald Trump irresponsibly minimizes it ("We have tests for everyone, and they're beautiful tests") -- might not be wise.

After all, it is almost a sine qua non of the early stages of an epidemic/pandemic for the disease to be transmitted among seemingly healthy people.  For Cuomo to say, "Hey, young people, this disease doesn't (apparently) affect you, so go live your lives," is (as Professor Dorf noted) possibly to tell young people to increase the transmission of the disease, thus ultimately dooming not just many older people but even some of those young people themselves (given that the death rate is non-zero even for the least threatened groups).

Because I live in a university town and teach at a law school, this is especially interesting to me, of course.  Although it is true that my students will interact with the outside world, it seems that the risks of continuing to live life normally at a place like the University of Florida approach something like zero (but not zero), which means that we need to worry about the consequences of overreacting.  That said, I do understand why all university administrators -- and especially those at public universities, where the interactions with politicians are most direct -- will err strongly toward (possibly excessive) caution.

I thus expect that I will very soon be ordered to teach all of my classes online, even though that will probably not be the best route forward for any number of reasons.

Again, these few paragraphs of analysis of the coronavirus sitaution were dislodged from my brain by the Dorf column to which I referred above.  For the remainder of this column, however, I want to return to my original question: Why was I not already in the thinking/planning stages of writing multiple columns about this topic?  Short answer: It was probably denial, but it was an interesting form of denial.

Why would I -- indeed, why would any human being -- not choose to spend time talking or writing about the biggest issue of the day, especially when that issue has such profound implications for the way people will live their lives in the future (and for how many people will be alive to do so)?  Well, it is frankly unpleasant to talk about mass death and global disruption.

But is that enough of an explanation?  Not for me.  Frequent readers of Dorf on Law and Verdict are all too aware of how readily I dive into subjects that have very high stakes and that in one way or another could be considered existential in nature.  Such writing might even constitute the bulk of my work.

Among my most frequently revisited topics, probably the least life-or-death-ish is Social Security.  Clearly, however, it is not at all difficult to see the human stakes in that topic, especially when making predictions about the consequences of Republicans' obsession with privatizing the most successful social program in human history.  If you want to talk about dooming large numbers of elderly people to unnecessarily early deaths, especially the poorest and least healthy among them, a good start would be to propose cutting what little security they have in retirement.

More broadly, the topic of my economics dissertation and my ongoing obsession has been the federal budget deficit, where nearly all of the political discussion essentially revolves around how many Democrats will join Republicans in using the "We can't afford it!" mantra to take away health care and other essential services (including vaccines) from the old, the young, the vulnerable, and so on. When I talk about spending on "public investment," the discussion is not merely about roads and bridges but about education, public health, and income supports, all of which have long-term payoffs to the economy and happen to be humane policies on their own merits (often in a literal life-or-death sense).

During the years that I spent finding different angles to discuss the debt ceiling crisis, I was mostly motivated by my fear that the end result of Republicans' hostage-taking would be a global economic crisis that would result in needless suffering -- and avoidable deaths.  Although it is easier to talk about the group psychology of financial markets than to talk about the elevated death rates during economic crises, those were ultimately the stakes.

My two current scholarly obsessions are even more obviously apocalyptic in nature.  In my repeated warnings that Donald Trump and the Republicans will soon refuse to accept losses in the 2020 elections, I have mentioned (but admittedly downplayed) the possibly violent side of that story.  Either the anti-Trump people will peacefully protest but ultimately accept an internal coup (which will have the veneer of legality, when the Senate refuses to remove Trump from office after he refuses to leave, thus "exonerating" him again), or there will be violence.  And the pro-Trump people are, in many cases, spoiling for a real fight.

Even short of that, however, we are left to wonder (and I have been writing about) what life would be like in a post-constitutional world.  These are not small stakes, to say the least.  Many people say that life in an autocratic state would not be worth living.  I doubt that most of them would carry that reasoning to its logical conclusion, but even a peaceful outcome of a coup is hardly a happy ending.

And what about questions of intergenerational justice?  After years of thinking about the environmental disasters that we are doing nothing to prevent, I made my project even more difficult by posing an (only somewhat) unrealistic either/or question: If we could only fight climate change or fight for constitutional democracy, which would we choose?  That I argued in favor of prioritizing the rule of law over the ability to breathe does not mean that the question of mass death was not on my mind.

Thinking, talking, and writing about disaster scenarios are thus all but second nature to me.  Why is the coronavirus different?  It might be because the possibility of death seems much more personal here, but I doubt it, because I am one of the people who every now and then (especially as I have gotten older) thinks about death and its meaning.  Being an atheist, I believe that life simply ends, but that does not stop me from thinking about the very notion of nothingness.

So I do not live in denial about the nature or inevitability of death (for myself, my loved ones, or for others), and I do not shy away from thinking about mass tragedies.  Even so, my reaction to the current situation has been somehow different.  What is going on?

I suspect that the answer lies in a similarity to the way I have thought about the coming political crisis after the 2020 elections.  Although I have acknowledged the possible violence of such a situation (as I did again above), I have deliberately avoided directly confronting that possibility and working through plausible scenarios.

As we try to think about possible crises, dystopian science fiction can be helpful.  One of the best books and most disappointing movies of the genre is "War of the Worlds."  The most recent movie version (the 2005 Steven Spielberg/Tom Cruise effort) was not exactly bad, although it was underwhelming.  But what most amused and infuriated me was a scene in which a group of humans fleeing the alien invaders were starting to panic and then riot, at which point one person pulls out a gun and fires a warning shot, at which point everyone backs off.

What is wrong with that?  Come on, this is America in the 21st century, with everyone running in fear for their lives, and one person among hundreds has a gun?!  There would already have been total breakdowns of public order, more along the lines of Steven Soderbergh's much better pandemic-themed 2011 movie "Contagion."

My point is that the types of panic that we might soon be facing are much worse than, for example, people endangering each other by hoarding hand sanitizers.  The genuine fear, both in the Trump coup situation and in the coronavirus situation, is that civilization truly could quickly break down in ways that most of us have never even contemplated, much less been exposed to.

And the key word there is "quickly."  Even though death is inevitable (but still scary), and even though there are big issues out there that mean life or death for millions of people (economic inequality, broadly speaking) or billions of people (environmental catastrophe), they are still not immediate in the sense that a 2020 political or public health catastrophe could become truly existential.

As it stands, I am pleased to see that even Trump's grimly comical incompetence and morally depraved indifference is not stopping other leaders from responsibly calling for calm while taking steps possibly to minimize the tragedy while preserving public order.  The grocery stores are still stocked, restaurants are in business, and so on.  People are preparing for some disruption but still hoping for -- not just hoping for, actually, but implicitly counting on -- the best.  Civilized behavior is what we need, and so far, we are getting it.