Opinion | The Coronavirus Makes Our Old Culture Wars Look Quaint

Most of the time, when I think back to the world before, I feel longing. I miss everything. I miss dinner parties and swimming laps. I miss bars. I miss being close enough to eavesdrop. The idea of walking into an office building thrills me.

Sometimes, though, I think back to the old normal and feel disgusted — with its excesses, and how oblivious I could be to them. There are obvious examples that leap to mind. The amount of takeout I ordered. The number of flights I took. The paper towels!

But what really takes my breath away is how out-of-touch the daily debates on the internet were — “the discourse,” as some of us were taught to call it in college. Among the things the pandemic has clarified for me is the decadence, as my colleague Ross Douthat has described it, of our old culture war. Many of the battles of the past decade now seem self-indulgent and stagnant; others a waste of time.

I would know. I spent a lot of time in the virtual arena where those fights took place. Could a white novelist imagine a black protagonist? How much can cultures legitimately borrow from one another without it being called stealing? Was a ban on plastic straws actually a critical step toward ending our reliance on the fossil fuel industry?

These now seem to me debates of a world of plenty, not one in which tens of millions of Americans are worried about how they’re going to afford groceries.

This pandemic demands something bigger of all of us. One of the things I hope it ushers in is a culture war worthy of this moment. Because there are fights worth having.

Among them:

Looking at David Geffen’s drone-shot photograph of his 454-foot superyacht — poor thing, self-isolating in the Grenadines — is enough to radicalize even a person living in a classic six.

The wealthiest 1 percent own something like half of the world’s wealth. But you already know that and a dozen other statistics.

If this kind of gaping inequality persists, the revolution will come. It’s a view that unites the progressive left of Bernie Sanders and the new right of Steve Bannon.

It is obvious now that many of the people who voted for Donald Trump did so because they lost their jobs and didn’t want to be told to learn to code by people who imagined themselves to be their intellectual betters. So many young people support Mr. Sanders because they own nothing more than their debts.

Working-class Americans, as the writer Joel Kotkin has sharply argued, are treated like propertyless serfs. Meantime, the intelligentsia has played its own role in our contemporary caste system by erecting more and more political, linguistic and cultural tests for membership in the elite.

How can we unravel 21st-century feudalism and make America fairer? Is a universal basic income, an idea promoted by Andrew Yang and now the pope, the best solution? Or is it the kind of broader social safety net that prioritizes fixing our broken health care system?

That is a fight worth having.

Do you remember the letter, written in Mandarin, that the woman in Arizona found at the bottom of the purse she bought at Walmart a few years ago?

“Inmates in China’s Yingshan Prison work 14 hours a day and are not allowed to rest at noon,” it read. “We have to work overtime until midnight. People are beaten for not finishing their work. There’s no salt and oil in our meals.”

The note, and others like it, went briefly viral until we all went back to mindlessly ordering cheap stuff.

The notion that freer markets would inevitably lead to broader freedoms for the Chinese people — embraced by liberals and conservatives alike for the past three decades — is a dangerous shibboleth.

This was always a moral issue, one we should have faced decades ago. But this pandemic has shown us that we’ve given a totalitarian country control over the supply of many things that we need to survive, like N95 masks and basic pharmaceutical products.

How much more would we be willing to pay for goods essential for public health and the national defense to be produced here? And how could we properly value and protect those who do that work?

As a woman who has worn a size 10 for my entire adult life, I have benefited from the body positivity movement.

But I refuse to pretend that obesity is not a public health crisis — one that this virus has made searingly plain. A new study suggests that obesity is one of the major predictors of whether the coronavirus will land someone in the hospital. The study has not yet been peer-reviewed, but it jibes with what many doctors have observed.

Can we still rely on the journal Nature for unbiased scientific expertise if it apologizes for “associating the virus with Wuhan and with China” and calls such an association “erroneous”? The journal did so on the grounds that racists are using the coronavirus as an excuse to discriminate against Asian people — something that appalls anyone with a conscience. But there is no dispute whatsoever that the virus emerged in China and that, by suppressing crucial information about the outbreak, including heroic whistle-blowers who tried to warn the world, the Chinese Communist Party hastened its spread.

You can see the way our scientific thinking has been corrupted in those on the right who insist this pandemic is God’s vengeance against urban hedonists, and those on the left who claim this is payback from an angry Mother Earth. These are the arguments of ideologues using science as a hammer. The fight to reclaim the skepticism that science relies upon is a life-or-death one.

Meanwhile, I don’t want to hear another thing about the healing power of crystals for as long as I live.

If we had more sophisticated and widespread technology, could we have avoided crashing the economy in the process of saving ourselves from the ravages of Covid-19? Many point to the success of South Korea, which tested people and then obsessively tracked them, and where people have already returned to life outside the apartment. Would that strategy have worked here, or would it have been crippled by our incompetent government bureaucracy?

So what do we do? How can we harness what technology has to offer without letting it be used to control or even harm us? I don’t know. Convince me.

In this moment, nothing seems stupider than being trapped on an island packed with people and governed by an inept mayor. City living feels unstable, perhaps nowhere more so than in New York. Infrastructure is decaying, the rent is too damn high and there are more homeless people than ever before. The subways were a disaster even before the pandemic cut ridership by 90 percent. Public pools won’t open this summer in order to save the city $12 million.

Yet cities have been the great engines of our culture and the economy, nowhere more so than New York, where I moved at 19 years old, fell in love and never looked back.

Who can tell us what life in America’s cities should look like, in the era of social distancing?

I don’t know. I want to find out.

Politics was always about two things that Twitter never valued: real-life relationships and compromise. Twitter convinced us it was about drama, and turned dramatic overreaction to every burp into something like a civic duty. If smart people are going to make it out of this moment, it’s going to be by resisting that nonsense.

Can we judge political success on mastery of the material world — on competence — rather than on the application of ideology?

We would do well to look to leaders like Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland, who was able to wrangle 500,000 coronavirus tests for his state from South Korean suppliers with the help of his Korean-born wife.

If there is one thing that this pandemic has insisted on, above all, it is reality. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how some of the smartest minds in my world used to spend their days on laptops trying to cancel “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” while many women in this world still don’t have access to credit or tampons.

Let this be a re-calibration, the pandemic as a tuning fork to get back our pitch. What could be a better reminder of what really matters — and what absolutely doesn’t?

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