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Covid-19 Denial Diarist

R.R. Reno (Saxum Foundation)

In Rusty Reno’s March 26 “Coronavirus Diary,” he writes:

Rod Dreher, like many of my friends, has adopted the view that pro-life Christians are obligated to preserve life at any cost. This requires one to hold, as a matter of principle, that physical death is the greatest evil, since preventing death is the highest good. No ancient philosophers held such a view. Nor did the Old Testament prophets. Jesus certainly didn’t.

Levin observes that the view that death is the greatest evil was first articulated by Machiavelli, Hobbes, Descartes, and Bacon. Their materialist view—physical suffering and death are the gravest threats—has a compassionate side. We devote ourselves to preventing death, which is of course often fitting and sometimes obligatory. My concern is that the well-intended rhetoric of compassion, amplified by denunciations of any who dissent from the present “at any cost” mentality, will contribute to the reduction of public life to purely materialist considerations.

But that’s not true. That’s not what I said in the blog post to which he is responding. This is what I actually wrote:

Furthermore, there really are some things worth dying for, but going about one’s business as a man about town in Manhattan is not one of them. Nobody is asking Reno or anyone else to deny Christ; they’re just asking him to deny himself the pleasure of others’ company for a period, for the sake of saving lives.

And:

We cannot have it all. We cannot save both lives and our economy. Nature, in the form of a deadly virus, forces this choice on us. We have to hope that our leaders will do their best to save lives and limit economic destruction, but when hard decisions have to be made — and they are having to be made daily by those in authority — we have to take risks on the side of life. As I wrote yesterday, quoting Flannery O’Connor, “You can’t be any poorer than dead.”

Reno is moving the goalposts here. I plainly didn’t say that Christians are obligated to “preserve life at any cost.” And, his first column, the March 23 one that provoked all the controversy, made a good point about how we cannot save every life, and turned it into a weird lament over the moral and religious cowardice of social distancing policies, claiming that they amount to “an ill-conceived crusade against human finitude and the dolorous reality of death” and a cowardly surrender to “death’s dominion.”

He wrote:

We, by contrast, are collectively required to cower in fear—fear that we’ll die redoubled by the fear that we’ll cause others to die. We are stripped of whatever courage we might be capable of. Were I to host a small dinner party tonight, wanting to resist the paranoia and hysteria, I would be denounced. Yesterday, Governor Cuomo saw young people playing basketball in a New York City park. “It has to stop and it has to stop now,” he commanded. Everyone must live under death’s dominion.

Look at what’s happening to New York City’s hospitals now, and try to maintain with a straight face that being told you can’t have a small dinner party amounts to the state making geldings of magazine editors. It’s just perverse.

Reno is trying to turn a basic public health measure, based on biology (this is a highly infectious virus) and the fact that New York City hospitals are engaged in a heroic struggle to save lives, even as the peak of the epidemic is likely three weeks off, into a moral and philosophical problem. In today’s diary, Reno writes:

We devote ourselves to preventing death, which is of course often fitting and sometimes obligatory. My concern is that the well-intended rhetoric of compassion, amplified by denunciations of any who dissent from the present “at any cost” mentality, will contribute to the reduction of public life to purely materialist considerations.

That’s a total straw man: attributing extreme statements to all his critics, things that we have not said. Recall that in his original post, Reno wrote:

Everything for the sake of physical life? What about justice, beauty, and honor? There are many things more precious than life.

And he accuses his critics of “disastrous sentimentalism”!

One hundred people died yesterday of coronavirus in New York City alone — and the number of COVID hospitalizations increased by 40 percent. But hey, “Won’t somebody please think of the justice, beauty, and honor?!”

Nobody is asked to deny Christ here. They’re only asked to deny themselves temporarily for the sake of saving lives, and the common good. Somebody said something about justice…

I’ll slightly agree with Rusty here, though:

As a society, we are acting on the technocratic assumption that a total mobilization of society can significantly reduce the death toll. This frames nearly every death from the coronavirus as “preventable.” From the outset, I’ve had deep misgivings about this approach. My concerns have not been epidemiological (an area of expertise in which I have no right to an opinion). They have been political, social, and spiritual. By emphasizing the technological promise and the rhetoric of preventable death, often amped up to extremes with “at any cost” moralism, we are ensuring that this crisis will go on and on, reverberating in society for a long while to come. This will bring many unforeseen changes—as well as recriminations, reparations, and reprisals.

I agree with him on the point that the virus is devastating the technocratic assumption that we can control Nature with the right application of money, technology, and willpower. But Rusty’s claim goes far beyond that. He is ignoring epidemiological facts to serve a “political, social, and spiritual” narrative that he prefers. I’m not an epidemiological expert either, but this chart, tracking 1918 flu deaths in Philadelphia and St. Louis, demolished Rusty’s argument. St. Louis imposed social distancing on its population; Philadelphia did not. Look what happened:

Rusty may wish to argue that all those lives saved were not worth the “political, social, and spiritual” costs of the lockdown. If that really is his point, I’d say that is a decadent one — the same kind of argument that we heard from some gay rights advocates at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, when they argued that closing the bathhouses would impose an unacceptable cost to the liberty of gay men.

If that is not his point, I hope he will clarify the difference is between his logic and the logic of the 1980s “don’t close the bathhouses” advocates.

(I shouldn’t have to say this, but because some people have a habit of assuming that people arguing online means that they are enemies, let me reiterate that Rusty is my friend, and I have a lot of respect for him. And, I have a soft spot for contrarians, always. I just think he is very seriously wrong on this question.)

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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