One of the many ugly side-effects of the current pandemic, a moral tragedy in the truest sense—death is assured no matter which path we take—is the often simplistic responses to its repercussions. It seems from the news media and social media, that people whose anxieties about the pandemic are primarily economic are characterized as unfeeling boors who care only about themselves and don’t care if anyone dies from the virus. I think that’s unfair from any direction, although the outlier or false image (like the guy flying Nazi flag that wasn’t part of the Michigan protest but was sold as if it were) is such easy bait to take for a person already inclined to already think that way.
I’ve been trying to figure out from where this caricature derives, but I’m not sure I can. Part of me thinks people respond to the pandemic according to their own anxieties: people with health concerns for themselves or their loved ones favor lockdown and place their trust in the medical and political archons in charge, whereas people worried about losing their businesses or livelihoods and slipping into poverty want this lockdown to end as soon as possible. These do not need to be framed as opposing political camps. This is not a good guys v. the bad guys thing. This is a people afraid of different terrifying outcomes thing. Unfortunately, this is all the more complicated by the polarizing tendencies of social media (let’s call it “anti-social media”). And it’s ugly.
What has been particularly troubling me is how these caricatures arise from Catholic bloggers, especially the self-styled Catholic socialists. I hate to be that guy, but this is the same line of contempt for the proletariat I used to see up-close from my allegedly “Marxist” colleagues in the English Department. In fact, I have never met a Marxist who really cared about actual members of the proletariat, only an imagined proletariat abstracted from ideology. But actual people? Not at all, at least not that I’ve seen. “Marxism” in that iteration is basically a slogan on a T-shirt, a Starbucks Marxism, that is, Capitalism. Which is to say, complete bullshit.
Perhaps it has never occurred to the corner Catholic Starbucks socialist that some people might prefer death to poverty. Of course they will dismiss this as a product of our Capitalist system, but that still doesn’t take actual people with actual worries into consideration. Actual people, in this mindset, as in the more rapacious forms of Capitalism, are simply ciphers for an ideology. More bullshit.
Simone Weil, as I quoted in my most recent blogpost, abandoned Marx for Reality. And she, more than anyone, had what I believe to be the correct approach to the plague now infecting us (and I don’t mean Covid-19):
“I have the essential need, and I think I can say the vocation, to move among men of every class and complexion, mixing with them and sharing their life and outlook, so far as to say as conscience allows, merging into the crowd and disappearing among them, so that they show themselves as they are, putting off all disguises with me. It is because I long to know them so as to love them just as they are. For if I do not love them as they are, it will not be they whom I love, and my love will be unreal.”
As a Sophiologist, I try to avoid the traps of Marx and Kapital and focus on what is and how best to live in the other world, the world not framed by ideology. As a biodynamic farmer, I know that healthy systems create healthy outcomes, a principle of nature equally as applicable to economic systems (I write about this in Transfiguration). But I also know what it’s like to be poor. I junk-picked my first guitar at the age of twelve and taught myself to play on throwaway strings somebody gave me, without the luxury of lessons (and luxury is exactly the right word). My family of origin struggled financially through most of my life, which was hard on all of us, but was particularly hard on my father. Anyone who has grown up poor knows that the anxieties of such a childhood of uncertainty never really go away. In 2003, I published this poem in the literary journal Slipstream. It is an actual historical account about something my father told me long after the events depicted in the poem.
So can we let go of the caricatures?
Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses.