Civil order and the pandemic

A sobering report from William M. Arkin at Newsweek today on U.S. government contingency plans in the event that the pandemic were to get much worse:

Even as President Trump says he tested negative for coronavirus, the COVID-19 pandemic raises the fear that huge swaths of the executive branch or even Congress and the Supreme Court could also be disabled, forcing the implementation of “continuity of government” plans that include evacuating Washington and “devolving” leadership to second-tier officials in remote and quarantined locations. …

According to new documents and interviews with military experts, the various plans – codenamed Octagon, Freejack and Zodiac – are the underground laws to ensure government continuity. They are so secret that under these extraordinary plans, “devolution” could circumvent the normal Constitutional provisions for government succession, and military commanders could be placed in control around America. …

What happens, government expert Norman Ornstein asked last week, if so many members of Congress come down with the coronavirus that the legislature cannot meet or cannot muster a quorum? After 9/11, Ornstein and others, alarmed by how little Washington had prepared for such possibilities, created a bipartisan Continuity of Government Commission to examine precisely these and other possibilities.

It has been a two-decade long futile effort, Ornstein says, with Congress uninterested or unable to either pass new laws or create working procedures that would allow emergency and remote operations. The rest of the federal government equally is unprepared to operate if a pandemic were to hit the very people called upon to lead in an emergency. That is why for the first time, other than planning for the aftermath of a nuclear war, extraordinary procedures are being contemplated. …

When might the military’s “emergency authority” be needed? Traditionally, it’s thought of after a nuclear device goes off in an American city. But now, planners are looking at military response to urban violence as people seek protection and fight over food. And, according to one senior officer, in the contingency of the complete evacuation of Washington.

Under Defense department regulations, military commanders are authorized to take action on their own – in extraordinary circumstances – where “duly constituted local authorities are unable to control the situation.” The conditions include “large-scale, unexpected civil disturbances” involving “significant loss of life or wanton destruction of property.” The Joint Chiefs of Staff codified these rules in October 2018, reminding commanders that they could decide, on their own authority, to “engage temporarily” in military control in circumstances “where prior authorization by the President is impossible” or where local authorities “are unable to control the situation.” A new Trump-era Pentagon directive calls it “extreme situations.” In all cases, even where a military commander declares martial law, the directives say that civil rule has to be restored as soon as possible.

“In scenarios where one city or one region is devastated, that’s a pretty straightforward process,” the military planner told me. “But with coronavirus, where the effect is nationwide, we’re in territory we’ve never been in before.”

The piece is as much a history of American emergency planning over the past 70+ years since the start of the atomic age as it is a particular profile of planning in this moment.

Saint Patrick’s Day in quarantine

Kathryn Jean Lopez writes on celebrating “a different kind of Saint Patrick’s Day”:

It’s certainly a weird St. Patrick’s Day by our typical standards. But, on the other hand, it’s been stripped of the unessentials. …

A friend was talking to me about all that is going on, in the kind of astonishment that many are feeling. He pointed out that in the last Mass that he will probably be attending for weeks if not months on Sunday, the Gospel was about Jesus and the woman at the well. She’s thirsting. He’s thirsty. These are typical takeaways and have such added meaning right now. But what about this? Jesus says to her:

“Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You people worship what you do not understand…. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.”

St. Patrick, meanwhile, was all about the Trinity, as his Lorica makes clear. Maybe some of the opportunity of these days for Christians is to discover just what the Trinity means for our lives, and how we love one another — and everyone we encounter.

‘Meaning is given to us’

Tim DeChristopher and Wendell Berry sat down for a conversation last summer that’s available from Orion Magazine. I’m excerpting portions of that conversation below to give a shorter sense of it, but it’s worth reading in its fullness:

WB: In 1965, my friend Gurney Norman gave me my first look at a strip-mining operation. That’s nearly fifty-five years ago, isn’t it? So there I stood on the mountain behind Hardburly, Kentucky, and I saw the bulldozer go in on a wooded mountainside, and throw loose the whole surface of the world. I found that hard to bear. That brought me to something like defeat. How could a human being do that? How could anybody take a machine and destroy the world with it?

As often in my life, I got a book just when I needed it. A friend sent me Georges Bernanos’s Last Essays from the years just after World War II. What disturbed him was not the military humiliation of his country, of France. And he was not appeased or heartened by the Allied victory. What most impressed him, and deeply, deeply disturbed him, was the emergence out of that war of what he called “machine civilization.” He anticipated that the machine would make humankind over in its image.

TD: This is what Bill [McKibben]’s talking about in Falter — we have reached a new level of that.

WB: We’re always at a new level of that. Hitler and Hiroshima reached a new level of that. If humankind can make a weapon, a machine that can destroy not only all the other machines, but us too — I don’t see how climate change can ante up any higher than that.

TD: The level of machine control of human beings now is not bigger than that, it’s not a bigger, more catastrophic, explosive end, but it’s more insidious in so many ways. We’re not just blowing things apart; we’re changing our own DNA in a way that makes human existence meaningless.

WB: I don’t think humans have any power over meaning. Meaning is given to us. We can’t make meaning.

TD: I don’t agree with that. We make meaning all the time.

WB: The ability of humans even to discover meaning is very limited. They counterfeit meaning all the time. …

TD: What is localism’s answer to refugees? To those whose homeland is not livable anymore? Whether that place is underwater, has turned to desert, was destroyed by American imperialism and our desire for more resources?

WB: You’ve won this argument. The argument for despair is impenetrable, it’s invulnerable. You got all the cards. You got the statistics, the science, the projections on your side. But then we’re still just sitting here with our hands hanging down, not doing anything.

One of the characteristics of the machine civilization is determinism. You’ll find plenty of people who’ll tell you there’s nothing you can do, it’s inevitable. You can’t make an organization to refute that; you’ve got to do it yourself. You’ve got to cleanse that mess out of your heart. Among our own people, the only communities who’ve done that have been the Amish. Their communities have survived. We were living very much like them when I was a boy here… This county here was full of self-employed people, full of people who were living without bosses. There were a lot more people going to church here then than now, and I’m sure they were all hearing, from time to time, Jesus’s two laws: love God and love your neighbor. And the difference between us and the Amish is that they took that law as an economic imperative. If you love your neighbor, you can’t replace your neighbor with a machine. And that so far has worked for them. But the key to it is love. That doesn’t mean that you’re going to like your neighbor.  It means that you know what the commitment to love requires of you, and you’re going to keep the commitment. …

WB: … I got a letter from a woman, she talked about self-creation and autonomy. She wanted to know why her relative gave up his job and went home to help his dad farm. I suggested that they might have loved each other. That they might have loved their ranch. But then I said, “You were born into dependence and you’re going to die in it.”

TD: There’s been such a cultural trend that that father who said, Come home, I need you — to even say that is an expression of failure. To need other people is increasingly defined as failure, when that’s the fabric that holds us together. It’s such a gift for that son, to be needed.

Leaving Longlea

The silent retreat has ended and I’m heading back to Washington after a few great days in what had been a new part of Virginia to me. It’s overcast, chilly, and damp as we head back to the city and to the prospect that the virus will shut down most or all of daily life for some period of time. Already heading into this weekend, many things were being canceled. For that reason, I’m doubly glad this retreat went ahead as planned as something like a gift for whatever’s to come.

Cal Newport writes on Plato’s Phaedrus and wisdom for pandemics:

One of the more profound representations of the soul in the Western Canon is the Chariot Allegory from Plato’s Phaedrus dialogue

“[T]he charioteer of the human soul drives a pair, and secondly one of the horses is noble and of noble breed, but the other quite the opposite in breed and character.”

As elaborated by the character of Socrates in the dialogue, the charioteer represents our soul’s reasoned pursuit to cultivate a worthy life. This task requires the charioteer to allow the noble steed, representing our moral intuitions, to lead the way, while preventing its ignoble partner, representing our base instincts, from drawing the soul off course. …

There is, I propose, a simple two-part solution to this state of affairs.

First, check one national and one local new source each morning. Then — and this is the important part — don’t check any other news for the rest of the day. Presumably, time sensitive updates that affect you directly will arrive by email, or phone, or text.

This will be really hard, especially given the way we’ve been trained by social media companies over the past decade to view our phone as a psychological pacifier.

Which brings me to the second part of the solution: distract yourself with value-driven action; lots of action. Serve your community, serve your kids, serve yourself (both body and mind), produce good work. Try to fit in a few moments of forced gratitude, just to keep those particular circuits active.

More Longlea scenes

A lot of time for prayer, spiritual reflection, and silent fraternity. I don’t have many words to share here in these days, but I can share some scenes from this time.

Fr. Jesus Urteaga’s “Bright and Cheerful Homes” is worth picking up. Here’s the description:

The undertaking I want to speak to you about is an enormous one: rearing your family. I am much more concerned about your home than about whatever bad or dangerous atmosphere you may find in the street. I am much more worried about the way of life your children will learn in your home, following your example, seeing you live your life, than I am about anything they may learn from the faithlessness and faults of other people. Here is a really important question: Are you giving them that “something”—and it is a very great something—that they must have if they are to live truly Christian lives?

And you can download it here.

At Longlea

I’m at Longlea Conference Center near Culpeper, Virginia for a retreat. We started last night and will continue through Sunday. It’s my first silent retreat. I’m glad to be here.

It’s beautiful out, for March especially. I’m spending stretches of the afternoon in the garden reading Louis de Montfort’s True Devotion to Mary.

COVID-19 and ‘sensible and human things’

President Trump delivered an Oval Office address last night on the COVID-19 virus and its impact on the nation. I’m sure there will be more in the days and weeks to come. Since last writing on this last week, it seems as if most major corporations have shifted their workforce to a posture of either encouraged or mandatory remote work. We met at Americans United for Life late last week and determined to go remote as of this past Monday and I think we’ve maintained a better institutional stride because we acted early than some places I’m seeing that are just starting to come to grips with the potential impact of this virus.

I’m leaving Washington tonight for a retreat in rural Virginia, about 90 minutes west of the city. I’ll be there through Sunday late afternoon and am looking forward to making this retreat—my first in five (too many!) years—and being away from the city and the news. I’ll plan to continue working from Georgetown when I get back depending on how the virus develops.

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Apropos of the psychic trauma this Wuhan pandemic is inflicting, here’s a passage from C.S. Lewis from 1948 that’s been making the rounds:

On Living in an Atomic Age

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors: anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made, and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

Proactive school closures and pandemics

As the COVID-19 virus dominates the news this week, many American colleges and universities are sending students home for either a few weeks or for the remainder of the semester. Science offers perspective on why this works:

Proactive school closures—closing schools before there’s a case there—have been shown to be one of the most powerful nonpharmaceutical interventions that we can deploy. Proactive school closures work like reactive school closures not just because they get the children, the little vectors, removed from circulation. It’s not just about keeping the kids safe. It’s keeping the whole community safe. When you close the schools, you reduce the mixing of the adults—parents dropping off at the school, the teachers being present. When you close the schools, you effectively require the parents to stay home.

There was a wonderful paper published that analyzed data regarding the Spanish flu in 1918, examining proactive versus reactive school closures. When did [regional] authorities close the schools relative to when the epidemic was spiking? What they found was that proactive school closing saved substantial numbers of lives. St. Louis closed the schools about a day in advance of the epidemic spiking, for 143 days. Pittsburgh closed 7 days after the peak and only for 53 days. And the death rate for the epidemic in St. Louis was roughly one-third as high as in Pittsburgh. These things work.

As with so many other aspects of this unplanned social experiment, it will be interesting to see what long term impact these closures/shifts to online instruction have on education from kindergarten through to colleges and universities. It’s not quite homeschooling, but it’s the closest many Americans might come to ever considering viable alternatives to our largely broken government schools models of instruction, and the secondary functions of dual earner lifestyle/daycare support that they tend to provide.

Saint John Paul the Great’s centenary

George Weigel, Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, spoke tonight at the Mayflower. He delivered the annual William E. Simon Lecture, and this year’s theme was “Saint John Paul II: A Centenary Reflection on a Life of Consequence”. EPPC streamed the lecture and I’m embedding it here.

The post-lecture reception was a great one, partly because COVID-19 fears meant that the lecture was about half empty. (Last year it was packed/overflowing.) And that meant a calmer and more relaxed time to be with good people.

Natural beauty in the full vitality of youth

“How does the experience of unforgettable natural beauty in the full vitality of youth affect the moral and spiritual life that follows?” Glenn Arbery asks Wordworth’s question from Tintern Abbey:

Wordsworth looks to nature itself as a teacher; at Wyoming Catholic, we speak of nature as “God’s first book.” The powers implicit in natural forms impress themselves upon the imagination, and Wordsworth reflects, at the age of 28, on what this influence feels like in his own life:

These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind
With tranquil restoration: —feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts
Of kindness and of love.

His original experience of Tintern Abbey—like the first, “magical” view of a particular mountain scene that one of the juniors described in class this week—passed without deliberate effort into his memory, and the memory has been responsible for “sensations sweet, / Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart” that revive him and give him restored hope in his hours of weariness. But the effect does not stop there. He thinks that this gift of nature has made him morally better than he might have been. Why? Because the pleasure he took in such beauty has worked against meanness or envy and disposed him to “little, nameless, unremembered acts / Of kindness and of love.” Call these experiences, if you will, the natural underpinnings of charity.

How does nature—and more specifically, natural beauty—move within us and move us after we encounter it? A great life could be built simply by considering this question and attempting to answer it in the place one chooses to live, the sort of home one chooses to craft, and the sort of marriage and family one fosters.