Covidspring VIII: The Age of Larry David
We came very late to Curb Your Enthusiasm. During lockdown it has been our box set of choice. Aside from the fact that Larry David was a germaphobe a long time before it become fashionable, it has taken me awhile to work out why this dystopian, formulaic and often horribly offensive programme, fitted the times so well. Unlike Seinfeld, a show about nothing, Curb is a show about social anxiety and the attempt to govern that anxiety by the imposition of rules.
It is not just David’s dysfunctional social anxiety that is explored in this show, but the way in which his lack of filters exposes everyone else’s social anxiety. A nice example of his desperation for there to be rules and for people to follow them, is the ice cream sampler abuser scene.
Boris Johnson’s speech on his return to Downing Street today thankfully resisted the rhetoric of this being the end of the beginning. But he did go for “beginning to turn the tide”. He made it clear that there will be a phased movement towards the new normal. The slow move out of lockdown marks the transition from the age of fear in the Covidspring to the age of anxiety, the age of the Larry Davids. This new period might in some ways be even worse than the period of lockdown because the rules will be uncertain. And when rules are uncertain, anxiety flourishes.
My mother, who was otherwise quite liberal, had two main prejudices in life. The first was her belief that when the Romans invaded Britain, most Britons were still living in the trees. Most Italians deep down believe this to be true about the rest of the world: they are just not civilized. The second was that southern Italy was a different country from her home in northern Italy. That “down there” was a world apart. Most northern Italians believe this and millions vote on that basis, though my mother hated the separatist nationalism of the Northern League and would defend her position by just saying: “Well, it is different down there.”
British civilisation is once again running behind the Italians. We now live two weeks behind Italy. If Metternich,and my mother, were right, and Italy is just a geographical expression, then the distance to improvement across the whole of Italy is much more than the two weeks difference in the chronology of the outbreak. It is true of course that much of what has happened in Italy has been concentrated in the north which has a better infrastructure than the south. It reflects the massive inequality in Italy that is also reflected here. It could be that the first wave of the Covidspring will surge again in the South. It could be that a second wave will hit. Disparities of wealth and access to care will make a big difference but behaviour will also determine what happens next.
You know where you are with fear and we know what to be scared of now. Fear is a violent feeling that grips you and surges. But as you understand its cause, it can pass or recede. If fear is a sneeze emotion, anxiety is a perpetually running noise. Knowing the cause or causes does not necessarily help. For many people, anxiety is a way of life. It will now become our way of life, putting the already anxious at a huge comparative advantage.
As the rules of the state of exception are relaxed the already complex set of behaviours that will keep us safe will become more complex. The negotiating of boundaries and spaces, of what is permitted and not permitted, but more importantly, of what can harm ourselves and do harm to others, will become more fluid. Fluidity in human relations, in disease management, in pandemics, is the mother and father of anxiety. We will also now see the lifting of the controlling hand of surety that underpinned the first set of instructions in this outbreak. The easing of restrictions will create uncertainty.
Uncertainty will generate more anger, more need to police others, more arguments over what is and what is not allowed, and so the greater possibility of confrontation. Real experts have differing views about the lockdown. The study of pandemics is a field with different schools of thought like any other. There is no single scientific truth that is inalienable. There are competing truths which rest on different bodies of evidenceand/or are based on different contexts. Governments need to go with the best science they have. The pandemic experts in Sweden took one view of what to do in Sweden, a country with a population density of 24 per km. The scientists our government listened to took a different view of what to do in the UK: a country with a population density of 727 per km. Those debates are important and we need them now about how to manage the second stage of the outbreak. But we also need a long period of silence from the asinineself-appointed “experts” like Toby Young, with no disciplinary background in the field and no competing body of evidence on which to base their rhetoric.
The Toby Youngs of the social media world already have responsibility for people who listened to them and contracted the disease or who gave it to others in the first phase of the lockdown. In that period of fear, the consequences of their actions were perhaps minimised because of the extent to which the rules were relatively clear and most people followed them and understood them. Because the rules were clearer, the actions and inactions demanded of people made common sense. It may be that they could have been done more quickly or differently. That is the argument we will have as a society afterwards and it will determine the fate of this and many other governments around the world. What matters in the age of anxiety we are entering is that as the rules become more complex and subtle to encourage greater movement and economic activity, useless idiots like Toby Young and others have enough of a sense of decency to either remain quiet or to think like an anxious person and urge greater caution. To pause and consider: If I am wrong about the level of contact, activity and social engagement that can now happen, people will die, so maybe I will suggest that people do less rather than more. Or perhaps it is better if I just keep quiet.
In the world of the blind the one eyed woman is Queen. In the age of anxiety, the already anxious should be listened to and their example followed. They know what it is like not to know. Their caution should be all our cautions. Their way of life is now the way of life of our whole society. We are all Larry David now.