Fauci, Kingsnorth, and the Russian Cosmists
This painting of the Tower of Babel may look familiar to you, but you would be understandably mistaken to think it is by Pieter Brueghel. It is in fact by Abel Grimmer, a Flemish painter who was not only derivative of Brueghel, but an outright imitator. Considering the subject of this post, I think it more appropriate to use an imitation than an original conception. It is all our culture can currently muster.
A 2020 article co-authored by Anthony Fauci has been recirculating in the last couple days, and although it has, predictably enough, become another Rorschach test in determining which side of the culture-war fence one sits on, I was struck by an odd thought reading this passage:
“Living in greater harmony with nature will require changes in human behavior as well as other radical changes that may take decades to achieve: rebuilding the infrastructures of human existence, from cities to homes to workplaces, to water and sewer systems, to recreational and gatherings venues. In such a transformation we will need to prioritize changes in those human behaviors that constitute risks for the emergence of infectious diseases. Chief among them are reducing crowding at home, work, and in public places as well as minimizing environmental perturbations such as deforestation, intense urbanization, and intensive animal farming. Equally important are ending global poverty, improving sanitation and hygiene, and reducing unsafe exposure to animals, so that humans and potential human pathogens have limited opportunities for contact. It is a useful “thought experiment” to note that until recent decades and centuries, many deadly pandemic diseases either did not exist or were not significant problems. Cholera, for example, was not known in the West until the late 1700s and became pandemic only because of human crowding and international travel, which allowed new access of the bacteria in regional Asian ecosystems to the unsanitary water and sewer systems that characterized cities throughout the Western world. This realization leads us to suspect that some, and probably very many, of the living improvements achieved over recent centuries come at a high cost that we pay in deadly disease emergences. Since we cannot return to ancient times, can we at least use lessons from those times to bend modernity in a safer direction?”
This passage has been the recent example of proof given by some in the anti-Fauci camp that our leaders are actively trying to reform society in the direction of totalitarian control. But I couldn't help but notice that much of what Fauci and his colleague were concerned about here mirrored concerns often heard in the vaccine-skeptical and mandate-averse corners of the commentary world.
One such example is Paul Kingsnorth, the English writer who has just produced a worthwhile piece for UnHerd which challenges the mainstream pro-vaccine, pro-mandate view. And yet, I feel as though most of what I have quoted above in the Fauci passage could have been expressed by Kingsnorth, albeit with more eloquence and less jargon.
A comparison sure to please absolutely no one. What do I mean by it? Well, before turning away in disgust, consider the following similarities. The goals of “minimizing environmental perturbations such as deforestation, intense urbanization, and intensive animal farming” sound very much in the vein of Kingsnorth's project to kindle the human spirit against the scourges of an industrialized society. Fauci's suggestion that the “the living improvements achieved over recent centuries come at a high cost” is remarkably like Kingsnorth's general critique of modernity. Fauci even goes so far as to wonder if, although “we cannot return to ancient times, can we at least use lessons from those times to bend modernity in a safer direction?” Another suggestion to make the Luddite Englishman grin (I say this affectionately, knowing Kingsnorth has defended the Luddites in his entertaining and highly readable substack series Divining the Machine). And finally, in the technical article's conclusions, there is this positive whistler: “It should force us to begin to think in earnest and collectively about living in more thoughtful and creative harmony with nature, even as we plan for nature’s inevitable, and always unexpected, surprises.”
This is not to make a facile “both sides are the same” point. On the contrary, the positions of somebody like Fauci and Kingsnorth are decidedly and drastically different. But their differences lie primarily in two domains: 1. their levels of power relative to the state and mainstream press, and 2. their visions of the future in terms of solutions.
This seems to me to be another argument which ultimately is being played out in various forms between those who wish to address the defects of our current society by means that are fundamentally secular and scientifically-minded, versus fundamentally religious. Another way of putting it: both visions of healing the world involve a hierarchy of values, and many of those values overlap. But at the top of one hierarchy is a human committee, and atop the other is God. One views the other's summit as absurd, and the other, megalomaniacal. One believes a better world is reached through further research and technical achievement, while the other insists it is reached by accepting human limits.
In a strange way this paradox reminds me of a conversation between artist Nikitia Petrov and science writer John Horgan a couple months ago in which Petrov talked about a group called the Russian Cosmists. This group was formed around the turn of the century and was concerned with finding a way to achieve immortality through technological means. That goal alone is not so unusual. But additionally, the Cosmists (most fully embodied by a founder called Nikolai Fyodorov) believed that future humanity must not be satisfied by mere immortality. It could only morally justify itself when every person who had ever died was brought back to life, thereby redeeming their suffering and their struggles. This monumental, baffling task was to be achieved through various possible means...cloning, recovery and reverse engineering of genetic information, erm... something called "radial images." At the time it was not so clear how this was to be done, but it was to be done. But if this sounds familiar, it's because it predated by a century our current “Cosmists,” known to us usually as futurists (I wrote a bit about one of the most famous ones, Ray Kurzweil, in part V of this 2020 post.
Although Fyodorov considered himself a Christian, his harshest critics were themselves Christian, and viewed his ideas with a kind of predictable disdain. The idea that one could rebuild humanity through rational means was invading the domain of God – hopelessly arrogant and doomed to fail. And so it is that today's futurists face similar rebuke in many quarters. And yet, considering the motivations of Fyodorov and the Cosmists, I find it impossible to not be touched by the noble motivations of their goal. And I find it equally impossible to ignore the feeling that their motivations and yearnings are drawn from a common well of human feeling as their antagonists.
Ultimately, we are today faced with a fundamental and perennial problem. We don't really know whether or not we can lead our own way out of our societal dead-ends or if it is our own progress – the Babels we build – which is the seed of the problem itself. We pretend we know, we have hunches, but we don't really know. And since we are insecure about this fundamental unknowing, we make ourselves feel better briefly by assuming the worst about our adversaries. Kingsnorth himself rather refreshingly admits this:
“I have learnt more about human nature in the past two years than in my preceding 47. I have learnt some things about myself too, and I don’t especially like them either. I have noticed my ongoing temptation to become a partisan: to judge and condemn those on the other side of the question, to find a tribe I can join. I have noticed my tendency to seek out only sources of information which confirm my beliefs.”
It is in these moments of humility from people who have nevertheless staked out public positions that I find glimpses of hope. Would that Fauci and other figures of real influence and power might express a little self-awareness and self-doubt as well. Any at all, really. But forgetting for a moment about individual personalities and the flaws of particular human beings, let us ask for a moment: if by recognizing some of the overlap in our concerns for this world, can we make enough room to at least see a common humanity in the other? Is their anything in our adversaries which runs deeper than their misguided views? A spark of something of infinite value maybe? Or are we fated by the dumb destructive forces of enmity to jeer automatically across the fence at the Other, and to simply watch the whole mess play out, as though our heads are a thing we ride around in but cannot actually use?