Our Antifragile Immune System

A man wearing a protective face mask walks through Waterloo station in London, Britain, March 10 2020. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

Welcome to The Tuesday, my weekly newsletter, which requires no filtration mask to read or latex gloves to handle. To subscribe to the newsletter, go here. 

Home and Away 

My latest from National Review asks: Why is there no “Never Bernie” movement equivalent to the anti-Trump movement of 2016? Jonathan Chait at New York magazine thinks he has an answer — but you may not find it especially persuasive.

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Words about Words

“Candidates endorsed by AOC flounder in Texas primary races,” reads a Washington Examiner headline. That is not quite right. To flounder is to flop and thrash about like the eponymous fish when it is out of water; I have seen some Texas Democrats in action, and this is easy to imagine, but what the headline writer meant was founder, meaning to collapse, to fail, to come to nothing, or to sink.

Rampant Prescriptivism

This is one of the many things I have learned from Jay Nordlinger. “Short-lived” means having a short life, not having a short live, and for that reason the –lived naturally is pronounced with a long i (as in jive or hive) rather than a short i (as in give or shiv). Which is to say, it is pronounced as if it were short-lifed, but with a v for the f.

Please send your language questions or remarks to TheTuesday@nationalreview.com.

A Note to Angry Political Partisans

There is an election in November, as you may have heard. The Republicans will, barring some extraordinary event, nominate Donald Trump. The Democrats probably will nominate Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders. I expect to write a fair bit about the candidates. In factI already have. I do not think very highly of any of them. I do not try to hide that.

If you at any point feel feverishly obliged to send me a note that may be summarized, “But what about that other guy?” please save yourself the time and go back to . . . whatever it is you do. Not that any of the people reading this newsletter are like that guy. What guy? That guy. You know that guy. The lefty version of that guy will tell you that Trump is Hitler, and the incarnation of that guy you meet at church will tell you Trump is a version of the Bible’s King Cyrus. You do not want to be that guy. That guy cannot and will not hear criticism of any candidate other than the object of his hatred, because, “But what about that other guy?”

When somebody says to you, “Elections are binary!” he is more or less showing you a flashing neon sign over his head announcing that he intends to be intellectually dishonest and is not worth discussing anything of substance with.

The things that are wrong with Trump exist independently of the things that are wrong with Biden or Sanders, and vice versa. Yes, those of you who vote will on Election Day be obliged to choose one or the other (or the Libertarian Party candidate, or another third-party candidate), but there are conversations to be had and thoughts to be thought other than “Is it x or y?” Pretending that x/y is the only conversation to be had is sometimes stupidity but more often a form of intellectual cowardice and laziness, a way of not having to think too hard about the flaws and deficiencies of the man carrying the banner behind which you march.

Partisanship makes you stupid, if you let it.

There are people in this business who believe that their principal responsibility in professional life is getting somebody elected — or, as they will more likely put it, ensuring that the villain of the season does not get elected. My own belief is that advocacy journalism should still be journalism. I’m not in the propaganda business or the elections business, and I am not planning to go into the propaganda business or the elections business. And if what you want is to be propagandized, then you might want to skip over my byline.

Connected, Complex, Interdependent — Resilient?

As I write, the circuit breakers have just briefly halted trading on Wall Street, with the S&P having crashed 7 percent following a “free fall” in oil prices. Falling oil prices are generally taken as a portent of an economic slowdown — if people are making and doing less, they need less fuel. The proximate cause of this economic anxiety is the coronavirus, which is disrupting production around the world (especially in China) along with trade and travel.

As Rich Lowry writes:

The moment doesn’t call for market-reassuring Trump, but threats-aren’t-getting-past-our-borders Trump, not Dow 30,000 Trump, but drawbridge-and-moat Trump. . . . The political valence of the coronavirus crisis should be favorable to Trump’s worldview. It demonstrates a downside of globalization and shows the importance of borders. It is an object lesson in our overdependence on a China that is dictatorial, dishonest and poorly governed.

It seems to me that Rich is right about the politics. Though I oppose most restrictions on trade with China, there is no sense in deluding ourselves about the character of the regime in Beijing. And even those of us who do not take globalization to be a dirty word owe it (if only to ourselves) to forthrightly admit that globalization, like everything else in politics and economics, involves tradeoffs. Emphasizing the costly and unpopular tradeoffs is part of what has made Donald Trump a successful demagogue (as the same strategy did in a less successful way with Ross Perot before him), but I am not sure that those who see this episode as an indictment of globalization per se are right on the substance.

Some systems are weak — give them a good shove and they fall right over. Some systems are resilient — give them a good shove and they can handle it. Some systems are what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls “antifragile” — give them a good shove and they shove right back, becoming stronger in response to the stress that is put on them.

Think of lifting weights, for example: You put stress on the muscles and the muscles get stronger rather than weaker. A small amount of a toxic substance can help you to develop a tolerance for it. Many vaccines work in that way, using a dead virus or a weakened agent of infection to provoke a response from the body’s immune system, leaving it stronger. In all of these cases, the strength of the shock matters — drop a Buick on somebody, and his body is going to be crushed, not strengthened; expose somebody to the full-strength measles virus, and he’s going to develop measles, not immunity.

My first political memories are of the late 197os — Jimmy Carter and gasoline rationing. (I felt terribly sorry for President Carter, because everybody seemed so angry at him, and he seemed so helpless. My views have evolved since then.) It was traumatic for many Americans, but the Arab oil embargo was not the first oil shock. The Suez crisis of the 1950s saw the Western world go to war on the theory that the Suez Canal was an irreplaceable link between Middle Eastern oil producers and consumers in Europe and the United States. In reality, only a few short decades after the Suez battle, the rise of supertankers (too big for the canal) and other changes in oil production and transport would radically diminish the importance of the canal.

In the wake of 9/11, we heard endlessly about our “addiction to foreign oil” (foreign oil — remarkably how xenophobic our greenie-weenies can be when it suits them), about “peak oil” and the inevitable decline of petroleum production and the skyrocketing prices that would accompany that, the need for radical government intervention to impose non-petroleum sources of energy on the markets, etc. The details often got muddied: Arianna Huffington argued that driving an SUV was tantamount to personally financing al-Qaeda, never mind that our biggest foreign oil suppliers have been allies such as Canada. People get excited, and everybody has something to sell. What ended up happening was . . . a blossoming of energy production in the United States and elsewhere, with hydraulic fracturing and other technologies providing access to stores of petroleum that had been thought to be out of reach or prohibitively expensive to exploit. Which is why, this morning, the news is that there is more oil out there than we may need at the moment, not a shortage of the stuff.

There has long been good reason to think of globalization as contributing to resilience, with the wider distribution of capital, processes, and knowledge providing general benefits that far outweigh the specific risks associated with specific local bottlenecks, real or potential. But at risk of belaboring the metaphor, there is something in the way price signals shape markets that suggests the antifragility of the immune system. We will adapt, and that adaptation is unlikely to look like a nationalist retrenchment of the sort envisioned by some critics of globalization. (These critics call to mind the Ron Paul style of foreign-policy criticism: If a U.S. base is attacked overseas, then it is obvious to a certain kind of mind that the problem is U.S. bases overseas — no foreign bases, no attacks on foreign bases. It’s the old single-entry bookkeeping.) Instead, we are likely to see even wider distribution of capabilities, with more redundancy in the system and, probably, more technological and political diversity than we have already.

Most of our individual immune systems can handle coronavirus just fine — and so will the world’s.

Why There’s a National Review

A few things of interest: 1) If you noticed that the news last week was full of stories about Chuck Schumer personally threatening justices of the Supreme Court if they fail to bend to his will on abortion, that was thanks largely to the work of National Review’s Alexandra DeSanctis. 2) There probably is nobody writing right now who does better or more interesting work on democrats and human-rights activists around the world than Jay Nordlinger in National Review. We have Jay on music, Jay on language, Jay on politics, Jay on golf — but Jay on human rights may be the best of them all. 3) When I wrote last week about Joe Biden’s habit of lying about the circumstances surrounding the death of his first wife and baby daughter (horrifying enough in truth, but Biden has repeatedly said the cause was a drunk driver, which is a flat-out lie), I got a note from a marquee columnist at a very prominent newspaper saying that he never had heard that story. But you have heard all of the above if you read NR, where you also would have been the first to read about Lois Lerner and the IRS shenanigansLena Dunham’s rape fictionBernie Sanders’s pre-Trumpian nationalism . . .

My Kind of Reformation

Catholic churches around the country are discouraging hand-shaking and other physical contact during the “sign of peace” in the Mass. This is in response to the coronavirus. Virus or no virus, I am glad to see it go and hope it stays gone — I am a big fan of the Rotary Club, but the Mass is not a Rotary Club meeting, and all that zipping around shaking hands is just goofy. Not as bad as the habit of holding hands during the Our Father, as is the practice in some of the loopier churches, but bad enough. I attended a service at a Presbyterian church in San Antonio last week, and the sermon was on the varying individual “postures of praise,” i.e., the fact that some people feel comfortable waving their hands in the air and some don’t. I’m a non-waver. I cannot say the service was exactly my style, but the music was — Brahms, Verdi, and Schubert. That was not the sandals-and-guitars “contemporary” worship — that was on the other side of the building.

Until Tuesday,

Kevin D. Williamson

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