It’s tempting to believe that this optimism stemmed from American culture, with its can-do faith in self-reliance. But from Trump to Slate, the official message wasn’t that we’d grin and bear it, but that there wouldn’t be much to bear at all. No patients dying in hospital hallways. No makeshift morgues in freezer trucks. That mass death could happen here, for months, with no end in sight, was a proposition few reporters or leaders seemed prepared to entertain — as if such a thing were not, and could not be, possible in the twenty-first century.
Why? Because admitting that possibility would have complicated the myth on which much of our discourse rests: the assumption of inevitable progress.
The myth comes in both left-wing and right-wing forms. On the left, it is the justification for technocracy, and for technocrats, who view politics as a series of problems solvable through reason alone. The right’s version is less friendly toward experts (public health experts especially), but it too evinces a kind of rationalism: the rationalism of the market, of the spontaneous order in which reason resides, diffuse and disembodied yet still essentially all-powerful, all-knowing, all-directing.
And it is rule by rationalism that guarantees progress — that keeps us, supposedly, from sliding back into history. Few put the argument in quite these terms, of course, even fewer now that Donald Trump is president. But some version of this thinking has been operative in policy and media circles for quite some time, especially after the Cold War seemed to have vindicated it — which would explain the bien-pensant tendency to smirk at the alarmists, those crazy curmudgeons who believed that something like that could still happen. (Farhad Manjoo, the resident tech Pollyanna at the New York Times, was one such smirker back in January; by May, he was confessing that the coronavirus had “smashed optimists like me in the head,” and pondering, as if for the first time, “the real possibility that every problem we face will get much worse than we ever imagined.”)
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