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The New Abnormal

A critique of the COVID regime exposes the limits of conservative political theory

Blake Smith
June 28, 2023
STR/AFP via Getty Images
A staffer gesturing inside an isolation ward at a hospital in Zouping, in China's Shandong province, 2020STR/AFP via Getty Images
STR/AFP via Getty Images
A staffer gesturing inside an isolation ward at a hospital in Zouping, in China's Shandong province, 2020STR/AFP via Getty Images

Aaron Kheriaty has been an important voice of dissent against the COVID-era regime of lockdowns, controls, and—still ongoing—censorship. In critical venues like Tablet and The New Atlantis, as well as his Substack, he has been among the writers who have pointed out the many ways in which the pretexts of containing the pandemic—and the metaphorical pandemic of “misinformation”—have built on the policy architecture of the war on terror to further normalize supposedly exceptional states of emergency and erode our liberal democracy. Now he has written a book, The New Abnormal: The Rise of the Biomedical Security State.

Much of The New Abnormal contains useful information about the excesses and failures of national, global, and nongovernmental organizations that worked together to mismanage the COVID crisis. Kheriaty also offers some useful policy recommendations, such as separating the Centers for Disease Control into two separate institutions, one charged with gathering information, the other with giving policy advice. Readers seeking to think their way toward the lessons of the past few years might be well served by these sections.

Kheriaty’s attempts to understand how the disaster of COVID arose out of a broader political and philosophical crisis, and to find a path forward (or rather, given his particular sensibilities, backward), however, are of interest only insofar as they exemplify the difficulties of such thinking.

Take, for example, a typical paragraph, from page 174 of the The New Abnormal, which condenses the problems of the book in a pearl of unclarity:

Covid was the first pandemic of the technological age, the age of the triumph of science. With the arrival of this pathogen, we were suddenly confronted with something we could not control. This was an especially terrifying prospect for people who have grown used to the idea that we have already achieved technological mastery over the vicissitudes of nature. This notion of asserting technical control over the wild expanse of nature is deeply embedded in the American psyche, as suggested by the idea of manifest destiny. Pragmatism is the default of American philosophy—insofar as we have a public philosophy—and pragmatism ratifies the worship of force, the cult of industrial power over the natural world.

Nearly each one of these sentences features an empty pseudo-historical abstraction about which Kheriaty makes confident assertions. These assertions are often either factually mistaken or so grandiloquent that they touch on nothing real enough to be wrong about. To wit:

  • “Manifest destiny” was not a slogan about taking “technical control” of nature.
  • The conquest of what is now the American West from Mexico and Native Americans is not an obvious precedent for the management of novel diseases.
  • As an American born to Americans, I am deeply unsure of what our “psyche” and our national “philosophy” might be; it is a peculiar sensation to discover that I apparently share such things with my countrymen, much less that they turn out to be something as stupid as the “worship of force,” a point of view Kheriaty somehow associates with the “Pragmatism” of … who, exactly? James? Dewey? Rorty?

These panoramic vistas of an America filled with idioticisms may give their author and some of his more credulous readers the thrilling sensation of having the entire history of the country at his mental command. Yet they would appear to offer little credibility in the eyes, not only of any reader who might happen to know anything about, for example, American history, but really any reader skeptical that the urgent political problems exposed by the COVID crisis must be traced back to ills that are somehow essential to our national essence (which would have, among other problems, the difficulty of making them seem quite beyond repair).

His concluding section—a short fiction about what the dystopian world of tomorrow might look like, which concludes with the protagonist, having cheated on his wife with a prostitute named Porsche [“like the car,” she says], in what is meant to be a shocking neoliberal hellscape where exchanging sex for money is legal, is blackmailed into spying for the Chinese government by a grad student who quotes 1984 in stilted “Engrish,” while resistance to our biomedical security state overlords is led by G.K. Chesterton-quoting, pot-smoking Catho-hippies—is simply embarrassing, and rather an indictment against his editors at the conservative publishing house Regnery that allowed this into print.

Why is this book so bad? Perhaps it has something to do with the author’s apparent allegiance to what used to be called “movement conservativism,” one faction of which has lately taken on a forthrightly theocratic bent. The American conservative approach to history is full of strangeness whose origins come from the desperate embrace of stupid premises. When otherwise normal men, driven by desperate straits into thinking, think themselves into conservatism, they often fall into a search for evil origins. They become amateur intellectual historians, and begin telling you how in fact our troubles began with, and are all reducible to, “modernity,” “scientism,” “nominalism,” “Gnosticism,” and other words that echo with the authority of history and philosophy.

Kheriaty’s account is full of these shibboleths, which apparently signal serious conservatism—like the poses of pipe-smoking, bow-tie-wearing, Chesterton-and-Peguy-reading tweedy teenage boys who take up the exploded ideas of defeated men (distrubitism!) as a protest against a world they may be right to reject but have not understood. One wants to tell them that Gnosticism is not a term of abuse to pick up from a half-understanding of Eric Voegelin, but an empirical phenomenon that has been much studied and written about, in studies that would have to be read and engaged with carefully in order to render even remotely plausible claims that our current “technocratic elite” is in fact “Gnostic.” Or rather, to offer the good news that this detour into the history of theology is quite unnecessary in the first place—we can critique COVID restrictions without pretending to be scholars of religion!

This may smack of academic elitism and gate-keeping, which Kheriaty in some moods denounces. He constructs—in another head-scratching bit of amateur intellectual history—a distinction between a Platonic-Christian view in which all human beings, regardless of their expertise, can participate in rational discussion and discover the truth, and, on the other hand, a “Marxist” view in which only a forward-looking class of experts has access to such understanding. The latter is pernicious, the worldview of our censors (it is astounding that two generations after the collapse of communism, conservatives from Kheriaty to Yoram Hazony and James Lindsay still find themselves unable to name their opponent something other than “Marxism,” a term scarcely more applicable to the bureaucrats of our medical-political establishment than “Gnosticism”).

But Kheriaty, who puts his “M.D.” after his name on the dust jacket of his book, also calls—sensibly enough—for medical “gatekeepers” to ban direct-to-consumer advertisements of drugs, on the grounds that ordinary people cannot make informed judgments about which drugs are good for them. Such knowledge can only be acquired by “at least seven postgraduate years of training before board certification.” One might wish that such requirements also applied to writing about history and philosophy.

Examine the first breathtaking claim of the paragraph quoted above. We apparently live in a “technological age” dominated by “science,” an age that is apparently not of terribly long date, since COVID is its first “pandemic.” The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, when waves of cholera periodically swept from Asia through the West, seems not to qualify as part of this recent era. Nor does the period of mechanized mass killing in World War I, at the conclusion of which the Spanish flu swept across the globe. Both of these diseases—which one might well qualify as pandemics—were met with, as today, with shifting sets of authoritarian measures by states in alliance with medical and scientific institutions, along with policies of laissez faire, by which some populations were consigned to surveillance and the curtailment of rights, and others to neglect and death.

More recently—and indeed involving some of the same cast of characters as COVID, such as Anthony Fauci—AIDS spread from a local disease affecting small populations of marginalized groups (gay men and intravenous drug users) to a belatedly managed global pandemic. Kheriaty mentions AIDS only to say that Fauci “craftily us[ed] the AIDS epidemic to increase funding” for his division of the National Institutes for Health (this seems rather like saying Patton and Rommel used World War II to further their careers—not exactly wrong, but hardly the most important thing we’d want to know about their performance).

An enormous scholarly literature in the history of science and medicine shows how modern societies, and indeed pre-modern ones, have tried to use a range of policies to contain epidemics while maintaining their self-understood commitments to such ends as personal liberty, economic growth, the maintenance of a particular religion, or any number of other goals that depend on people—and the diseases they carry invisibly with him—circulating and congregating. Some policies have disastrously failed to contain the spread of disease; others have interfered with ends imagined as essential to human flourishing.

The risks in either direction are not new. Foucault, for example (whom Kheriaty invokes for his warnings about the dangers posed to liberty by modern bureaucracy), argued that there has been a basic tension between the medical “gaze” that sees our bodies as carriers of pathogens and the political vision of liberal democracy ever since their mutual inception at the end of the 18th century. That may sound grim, but it is, in another sense, encouraging—since it would mean that we are not the first people in history to encounter the problem of squaring our political and medical commitments. While the two are perhaps indeed not reconcilable at the level of theory, they might be, to variously unsatisfying degrees, in practice.

Foucault’s work and life, in both their insights and their failures, teach us that we may have to live with this dissatisfaction rather than fight our way permanently out of it. In the late 1970s, having outlined his critiques of modern forms of power, wielded by unelected experts, penetrating the most intimate aspects of our everyday life in defiance of liberal-democratic ideals of inalienable rights, Foucault found inspiration for resistance to what he called “biopower” in two ultimately tragic sources: the Islamic movement against the shah of Iran, and the hyper-promiscuous gay subculture of New York and San Francisco.

These two may seem an unlikely pairing, but both came to represent, in the face of deadly crackdowns from the Iranian regime and from the emerging AIDS plague, a willingness to risk “merely” biological life for the sake of defending the right to a particular form of life—a risk that Foucault identified both with religion and with the innate human capacity for freedom.

The obvious catastrophes of these forms of resistance to biopolitics pose a problem for anyone who, like Kheriaty, imagines himself to be, in this “first pandemic of the technological age,” inventing his own way out of the present. First, consider the ayatollahs. Foucault’s public embrace of the Iranian Revolution is often criticized by his detractors (as well it might be). It was, however, not a mere personal failing, but symptomatic not only of the old-fashioned leftist intellectual beguiled by every incipiently totalitarian revolutionary movement from the Bolsheviks to the cry-bully college protesters—but also of the right-wing intellectual’s foolish belief (or pretense) that we can expect to see any gain for human freedom from ostensibly anti-authoritarian movements inspired by religions whose texts, traditions, and contemporary leaders harbor a will-to-power at least as absolute as that of their modernist foes.

Kheriaty is himself a Catholic anti-modernist conservative, who, like many such people, simultaneously appeals to liberal values (like rights) while rejecting the idea of a separation between church and state. Toward the end of his book he insists that the regime our medical expertise that rules us will only be overcome, not by a reinforcement of liberal safeguards, or a new alertness to the opportunities for power grabs present in every emergency, but by the return of “revealed religion” (I wonder which one!) to the public sphere—that is to our political life. We must overcome, he urges, the division between public (that is, political) and private (that is, unpolitical) that had made religion seem to be a merely personal matter (that is, one in which differences can be tolerated).

This division, of course, is the foundation of political liberalism, and the means by which Europe, after generations of devastating conflicts and nearly genocidal persecutions over religion, began to ease the persecutory intensity that had for centuries been synonymous with institutional Christianity. It is also, moreover, the basis of most of our opposition to COVID-era biopolitical measures—we protest the violations of our private life and conscience, those recent, precarious, modern fictions invented to end the wars of religion and inquisitions. We surely do not, most of us, see the answer to roll up the very idea of the private and take power back from the “secular priesthood” in order to hand it over to actual priests.

From Foucault’s support of the ayatollahs against modern technocratic biopolitics, we might learn that not every enemy of our enemy is a friend. We might learn, too, from his defense of gay male “forms of life,” even in the first years of the AIDS crisis, so as not to fall for today’s straight male conservative version of yesterday’s queer theory. During the AIDS crisis, ostensibly pro-freedom, small-government conservatives like the Catholic William Buckley called in The New York Times for the tattooing and internment of gays (conflating them with AIDS victims), while unfortunately far too many of the latter developed a line of argument that anticipated Kheriaty’s own objections to lockdowns. Activists like Charles Ortleb (now a leading self-publisher of COVID conspiracies) insisted that sex, like life itself, is dangerous, and cannot be made perfectly safe except at the risk of eliminating it entirely. The forms of community generated by the gay male culture of the late 1970s in New York, San Francisco, and other American cities, centered around the bar and bathhouse; writers like Larry Kramer who questioned their atmosphere of casual hyperpromiscuity were often dismissed as self-hating scolds.

Kheriaty advances a version of this argument with invocations of Augusto Del Noce, Simone Weil, and hazy conceptions of “rootedness,” but the content is essentially identical to arguments against shutting down bathhouses or reining in unprotected anal sex. “Whether or not we got sick with the virus, all of us are now afflicted to some extent with the disease of uprootedness,” Kheriaty laments.

If, as Kheriaty asserts, our technocratic medical establishment were led by Gnostic Marxists committed to a “transhumanist” project of eliminating such risks entirely, we would perhaps be justified in breathing, bleeding, and breeding all over each other until their system collapsed. The day of apocalyptic transgression, however, is not quite at hand. COVID lockdowns have not become, as Kheriaty predicts, an annual occurrence. Indeed there are signs that many Americans on the right are reconsidering how the political infrastructure developed to manage suspect populations during the Cold War and war on terror, which they actively promoted, is now being brought to bear on different sorts of dissidents.

Touche. Yet that reconsideration will hardly be effective if it is channeled through the stuffy faux-seriousness of what passes for conservative political theory. Kheriaty’s book is proof that conservatives need to abandon their half-informed potted histories of modern decline to look with fresh eyes at the contemporary world, including its most compelling thinkers, in all their insights and failures.

Blake Smith, a contributing writer at Tablet, lives in Chicago.