How Do We Fix this Mess? (Part I)

The Bradenosaurus, Sorong, West Papua Wet Market

I’ve been hanging out quite a bit on Twitter as of late, and not surprisingly carping about the whole crazy response of basically all our institutions to the COVID-19 crisis. Along the way, I’ve made a bunch of Twitter friends. Well, at least I’d call them friends, and I also think that most would claim me as a Twitter buddy.

They are mostly all mothers, deeply concerned about the societal response to how we are treating children in the pandemic. The answer to that is this: terribly. We have isolated them in our homes, and if and when we release them in public, depending of course on the state, we’ve forced them to be masked, and if in school, often seated in plexiglass booths. The worst case of behavior I saw was students isolated in camping Porta-Potty tents with their musical instruments. For a virus that is aerosolized, that’s just bonkers. But someone thought it was a good idea. Here is the picture.

As bonkers as it’s gotten in the pandemic

What’s worse is that children are basically at no risk from COVID at all. The studies have been done that show that spread from children is also minimal, even if they attend school. I think the causal explanation is relatively simple — if you can’t really get the disease, or a very mild form of it, your viral load is also very small, and the odds of you infecting someone else is also minimal.

But children are being the last to be released from this pandemic, ostensibly because of a lack of a vaccine. But the whole notion of a vaccine for children, who aren’t affected by the disease, but may be at risk from the vaccine, turns the usual vaccine calculus upside-down. The idea behind the vaccine for any illness (say polio) is that the person getting the vaccine is under some reasonable threat from a given disease, and by giving them the jab, they are protected from potentially life-changing (or ending) consequences. The side benefit is the currently abused-and-maligned concept of “herd immunity” — which basically says if enough people have been vaccinated, or had a given disease, the illness cannot “go viral” — spread, dependent on the characteristics of contagion of the disease.

COVID vaccines flip all this on its head. One gets the vaccine, if a child, on the idea that it protects others — which means that the most vulnerable in our society, without any ability of consent (or it seems, even their parents’ consent) have to take the jab. This might be a little fine (not much, but a little) if the vaccine was well-characterized. But the problem in the current situation is that it’s not, to the point where various entities are seeking Emergency Use Authorizations (EUAs) for testing children, some as young as two, with some version of the mRNA vaccines extant.

As I’ve stated earlier, I am very pro-vax in the standard sense. I’ve traveled to all parts of the world, and taken any kind of prophylactic I could in order to avoid illness. That means my backside has been jabbed alternately with Yellow Fever, and Dengue Fever vaccines, as well as all the usual suspects. I’ve taken malaria prophylaxis (and never gotten the disease) for a variety of locales as well. So don’t go all “anti-vax” on me. But I made the choice, and received the benefit, from all those decisions. As well as shouldered the risk. This is a different situation where the burdened population (young kids) have essentially no risk, and receive no benefit from taking the risk.

As well as provide little societal benefit.

The most recent bad news for kids has revolved around summer camps. Instead of letting kids be kids (and in many states they can be) various state entities have implemented restrictions, notably for kids outside, and wearing masks. There’s no question that wearing masks has turned into a talismanic symbol for stopping the virus, and I’ve talked about how from any system perspective they don’t work — and especially outside, where spread is basically impossible.

But the latest dagger in the heart has actually come from the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP), which has argued for summer camps and outside masking. It is stunning, even for me, that such an organization would do such a thing. And it’s not that I’m a cynic. I’ve argued over and over that the memetics of status-driven hierarchies drive Power and Control value memes, and are more than happy to throw stated constituencies they’re supposed to protect under the bus for elite risk minimization, which is what this pandemic has turned out to be. Short version — those of us that can sit at home are more than happy to have others wait on us with masks and delivery vehicles while we sit the pandemic out. In fact, our pandemic response COULDN’T have happened without that hook. It turned out that COVID-19 wasn’t really that bad, or the egregiousness of our low-empathy response would have shocked.

But back to the group of women/moms (and some dads) I’ve connected with on Twitter. I very much admire them, and they’ve given some great messaging to help move the needle on their kids. My mom wasn’t particularly a great mom, leaving me with a bit of anti-mom bias, but in spite of that, I bear no grudge. At the same time, I wish I had some of these dynamite young women as my mom.

And so I comment on their threads, babbling on about Memetic Kool-Aid and such. Mostly they humor me. The problem IS in the v-Memes a society manifests, and while that is clear to me, I’m not so sure than any of them see me as any thing other than an odd, but interesting ally. I’m sure that directly relates to the density of the material I spread. I never offer any real solutions, largely because the solutions thing to me is obvious. So what I’m going to do is summarize what we need to do so this doesn’t happen again. I’m going to do this in a series of bullet points without any memetic explanations.

  1. COVID has been a social/memetic crisis far more than an actual health crisis. Most of the people who have died were at the end of their lives, or obese/suffering from metabolic syndrome. These are just facts. For the first group, I offer condolences. For the second group, you have been betrayed by the nutrition community and (for lack of a better term) the food creation community. But you’ve borne the outcomes of the collapse of professional responsibility in those communities (medicine and nutrition) and they have to be fixed.
  2. The problem is, at its core, a loss of responsibility and connection of professional communities to their constituencies. The reason for this is a decline of personal development over the arc of a given career, and has been exacerbated by a number of factors. One of these is the passage through the stage of post-modernism where everyone’s opinion is believed to need validation. But the other is a seemingly constant validation in terms of consumer culture, designed to approve of our egocentricism. Do you really deserve a break today?
  3. A culture of overwork for many has been disrupted by the pandemic, coupled with a profound contemporary meaning crisis. Into that crucible of exhaustion and pointlessness COVID strode, and gave many meaning (regardless of outcomes) in demonstrating that we actually WERE good people. All we had to do was put on a mask. Or get a vaccine — two decidedly unheroic things for any adult to do. And that set us up for hating the other side. These simple things were mapped into hate on both sides of the other side.
  4. Some didn’t go along with the Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions (in the case of the U.S., these were largely people on the Right side of the political spectrum.) This really, in no way was a result of advanced reasoning, especially at the beginning of the pandemic. One side guessed one way, the other guessed the other. And the pandemic turned out be roughly dichotomous — none of our Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions (NPIs) did much. So as far as reality, the nihilists in our political dichotomy won. The evidence now is flooding in to support their position (and I am one moved over to that argument) but it was nihilism at the fore in the beginning of all that.
  5. The side of the argument receiving support for restrictive policies got them from a racially/ethnic diverse group of constituencies. This is not surprising. We DO have racism and discrimination in our society — denying this is foolish. But what happens when your minorities who have thought (with sometimes righteous reasoning) that white folks are trying to kill them off hear that white folks support various different policies? The end result is that those constituencies will hunker down with the obvious (masks) while being naturally suspicious of more personally intrusive interventions (like large-scale vaccination.) And, of course, that’s exactly what has occurred. White folks are far and away more vaccinated than minority communities, to the point where many are worried about racial splits in reopened venues like ball parks. White folks will be sitting together in the good seats, together, while masked racial/ethnic folks will be spread apart in the cheap seats. What a failure.
  6. If we are going to dig out of this, we have to fundamentally understand how the system works with regards to personal development. You’re likely not going to get much of an argument that most Americans view their neighbors with low regard, and as low responsibility actors. I’ve received numerous insults along the way myself, having changed sides on the various COVID issues. Yet I am constrained in calling my critics various names by my own inner voice, that says such behavior is beneath me. How you view that statement largely will tell you about yourself. Am I an elitist? Or am I a responsible party in a democracy? The fact that so many Americans ARE comfortable condemning their neighbors is not based on data or higher reasoning. It’s because we have ceased to develop people in a larger context of responsibility for the entire country. There has been a collapse in a fundamental code of behavior as a citizen. And it is killing us.
  7. We need fundamentally more systems that promote connection. Systems that promote connection also help evolve people with wisdom — which is what is sorely missing right now. There are no classes in any university curriculum that can fix this problem. And though there is also NO question that various classes can provide tools to help people handle more complex situations, in the end, the integrity and connectedness of the tool user is what decides whether that tool is used to serve the common good, or an egocentric perspective. And that is directly related to the moral development of the user.
  8. We must realize that our current systems (hospitals, academia, professional societies) are low empathy, and will over the course of careers, produce low empathy people, who fundamentally exhibit stunted development. This is not a function of the fact that people are evil, or other such moral argument. It is a function of overwork inside a narrow context of contacts that do not enlarge our brains to the point of embracing others’ experience. It is a natural progression of over-specialization in order to have success in our late-stage capitalistic society.
  9. Children across the board have fallen to the lowest point-of-status in our larger societal calculus. There is no question that class determines outcomes among young people. My go-to statistic as a window on trauma in our society is that 25% of African-American children will experience an eviction before reaching the age of majority. But all but the most privileged children also suffer. School shootings have profoundly disrupted the open atmosphere schools used to possess. Kids are locked in classrooms, with very little unsupervised activity during the course of a school year because parents are afraid of their children getting shot. When you add the differential education that children across this country receive, you are leading the society to a crisis. I’ve been an educator for 37 years. The students in front of me are the most obedient, and agency-undeveloped I’ve ever seen. THEY ARE NOT BAD CHILDREN. They are just people raised in a particular way where outside connection has been eliminated. And children in a bubble will turn into adults in a bubble.
  10. Our dominant professional social systems have become fundamentally ungrounded from the reality of their missions. What that means is that they have lost enough contact points with outside reality to develop into the independent voices every profession needs.
  11. What will fix this is a vigorous program of re-grounding, and a realization of how in the past we used to do this. Charity work in underserved communities can help. In our STEM disciplines, regular rotations into other disciplines, and other economic milieus can also help. I’ve developed my own personal empathy for minority constituencies with my own work on improving student outcomes in the Hispanic community in Washington State. For example, one of the lessons I learned almost 30 years ago was that if you want more Hispanic STEM poor graduate women, you had better have your child care act together at your institution. The women themselves were plenty smart — but they often had a child, and the crux was facilitating success in that part of the support infrastructure. Just FYI — none of these insights came for free on my part.
  12. We must be able to openly discuss the problems in our society without fear of rancor against political correctness. This means we first must experience a value shift in viewing our fellow Americans as engaged actors in a shared project. This is enormously challenging, and of course, there will be bad faith. But we simply cannot share enough information on shared experience of living without it.

There is much more to say, of course. But without this focus on system revision and grounding, we can’t develop the people we need to come up with the solutions our society desperately needs. We will stay grounded in deeper and more rigid hierarchies. And the losers will continue to be the losers.

And for the most part, those losers will be children.

One thought on “How Do We Fix this Mess? (Part I)

  1. Chuck, thanks for bringing up the point about children. I recall teaching a developmental psychology class where I taught that nature (evolution) wants to make sure that children live long enough to reproduce, and their immune system is at its highest in middle and late childhood. If you don’t know that, then it’s easy to go along with the “common wisdom:” that all ages are equally vulnerable to dying from COVID.

    Like

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