The piety of the COVID absolutist

The New York Times has picked up the coronavirus absolutism debate, which is more important than it might seem when encased in the paper’s morning “briefing” format. David Leonhardt links to a Derek Thompson piece in The Atlantic, but the more salient connection, in my read of this 21st-century performance art, is Freddie deBoer’s blog post from a few months ago. The thing is, deBoer nails the overt hostility and the shrieking piety that we see in COVID absolutists (deBoer uses “Covid realist”). To these individuals, this blob, the very interpretation of the coronavirus pandemic is a game to be won or (never!) lost.

We all know these folks, right? The COVID absolutist is not merely the compliant citizen, masking up and avoiding mass gatherings, dutifully maintaining a kindly distance between other shoppers at the supermarket. The COVID absolutist lives among the degenerate faithful, those who rely on a set of beliefs outside themselves—and, inevitably, within others’ improper behavior.

I had a professor in college, in the j-school, who quoted H.L. Mencken on this point: “Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

It’s an insufferable character trait, and the global pandemic (and its attendant reshuffling of social norms) thrusts it into the frontal lobes of this grunting population—loony to the bone and high as hell on their own shit. They’ve been here all along, waiting to fuse into an obnoxious cluster of human.

“The Covid realist religiously follows the Atlantic‘s pompous, self-impressed, imperious coverage,” deBoer writes, coincidentally drawing tethers in my own piece today. “The Covid realist says, ‘You think you’ll be able to see your friends after the vaccine? Fat chance!’ The Covid realist tells you that, when you’re feeling upbeat about the medical advances, the virus could always mutate. The Covid realist wants you to know that you’ll never see the lower half of a stranger’s face again. When you say that you’re looking forward to going to a basketball game next fall the Covid realist says, ‘Ha, good luck.’ The Covid realist thinks that imagining holding a birthday party a year from now is not only deluded, but irresponsible. The Covid realist does not just want to regulate your behavior. The Covid realist wants to purify your thoughts.”

Eleven months in, it remains all-consuming.

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