In the fourteen months before England’s ‘freedom day’ last July, I had had what they call ‘a good war’. Like many middle-class professionals, I found working from home a pleasurable change, enjoyed the intrigue of the rule-of-six, and made more use of my community garden than ever before. Even if the succession of lockdowns and releases put a significant strain on my social relationships, I had it easy.
But by the Autumn, I started noticing that the pandemic has had some profound effects on me and my peers. Everyone somehow become too tired, too slow to engage with many of the freedoms that the summer had brought. Even before the news of Omicron hit, I sensed a mood of general ambivalence: any plans we made seemed tentative and often dissolved into thin air. By December, this ambivalence turned into downright reluctance as the fear of the disease struck again in a well-rehearsed pattern: stay home, stay alone, save yourself. It is as though a year of relegating social interactions to video calls, of plans large and small being abandoned last-minute, of safety-driven affairs, and lives lived by the presence of a single line on a lateral flow test had done some damage to the fabric of sociality itself. Who would have thought?
Part of me couldn’t mind any less. Before the pandemic, my relationship with the social world could generously be described as misanthropic. I find groups and cliques impenetrable and have perfected social awkwardness to an art. Perversely, however, I have always longed to be the centre of attention, a desire that I satisfied by hosting an endless string of dinners, parties, and salons whose pretence would make Madame Verdurin blush.
After nearly two years out of action that suppressed even that social drive, what could be better than the return of my customary New Year’s Eve’s Eve party, held on 30th December many times previously and memorable for much more than its awkward date? Surely, I know no end of people who, having spent the autumn reacclimatising to the routines of theatre outings, concerts, or gallery openings would be just as keen to resume our private bourgeois rituals too. What time better to throw caution to the wind?
No sooner had I sent out the first invitations a month in advance that I realised things would come to a head. The replies started arriving, ranging from the bizarre but understandable “we feel too Covid-conscious to be in a crowd, despite our young age and fully-boosted status“ to the mildly aggressive “I think it’s irresponsible to have a party in the middle of a global pandemic but I hope that you have a great evening.” Fine, I neither wanted to make anyone uncomfortable, nor scared, but equally I felt convinced of the importance of resuming sociality before we had all lost the ability to relate to one another. Then came the more beguiling responses from four separate friends whose social media feeds had been full of Covid-safetyism and advocated for an Omicron lockdown who revealed that they would not attend because they were, against their own advice, holidaying abroad. One friend claimed they would be out of town, despite knowing that I knew this not to be true. A colleague regretted that they were staying in their bubble in case their child was to see grandma the following week. Another preferred to stay in and work on their PhD ‘this year’. A few others had slipped away from London for good without any fanfare. Then came the requests: one guest wanted to know if I’d ask every attendee to declare their vaccination and test status. One asked for the names of everyone on my guest list. Another one still declared that they wouldn’t want to take part in a libertarian rally, perhaps confusing an evening of drinks and dancing for a Texan anti-mask protest.
And so, as in Ginsberg, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked”. After twenty or so such colourful regrets, I begun to interpret any excuse as a symptom of a silent but widespread malaise that affected the already-rippled social fabric of the capital. More of my invitees than ever before simply did not reply, giving me another indication that community connections had somehow become even more optional. This continued: five more guests cancelled the day prior revealing that when they had originally accepted, they did so in anticipation of a new lockdown that would render their excuses for them. One owned up to running their private test-and-trace operation and, despite not testing positive for Covid, declined to attend my party because they were in touch with someone who had five days prior. They went on to suggest that we could see each other some weeks later, but only outdoors. Finally, there was the friend who got dressed and ordered a cab before changing their mind and texting “I’m sorry, I just can’t face it.”
The psychological grip that the pandemic continues to hold over so many of my peers seems akin to post-traumatic shock disorder. On the surface, many of us have been just fine and relatively few have suffered the profound distress that affected whole classes of the population that have been forced to work harder than ever before just to stay afloat. I know barely a handful of people who caught Covid before Omicron, fewer still that felt it badly, and only one who had lost a family member. No one I know has admitted to actually suffering from the isolation of lockdowns or job losses or has even complained of being disoriented by the overstimulation of case numbers or scientific predictions.
The Covid trauma of the metropolitan middle-classes comes from something far more difficult to treat: the profound realisation that, despite its early promise, the pandemic has only accelerated the disenfranchisement in the polis. As the professional pessimist Slavoj Žižek observed, if the greatest act of love for many us is to stay away, this is enough to bring about new depths of suspicion, fatigue, and confusion in the already alienated liberal elites.Slavoj Žižek, Pandemic! COVID-19 Shakes the World (New York: Polity Press, 2020). What Žižek failed to appreciate, however, is that the pandemic had only temporarily tricked many into believing that the world’s communal suffering would inevitably lead to some profound change in the relationship between individuals, societies, and the state. The camaraderie of ‘clapping for heroes’ or the novelty of checking in on distant relatives on Zoom has long given way to resignation and a profound sense of disorientation that, to many, can only be resolved within the confines of the smallest of social bubbles. And perhaps for those of us who rightly prioritised families and immediate environments in the moment of acute crisis, to continue to do so before receiving the all-clear is a rational choice.
There is something in this logic, however, that makes a perfect catch-22: the green light can only come about through negotiation in the communal, public sphere and this public sphere cannot be constituted until the all-clear is sounded. Stuck in our bubbles, we cannot negotiate, debate, agree, or disagree. Sooner or later, we stop being able to think altogether. That this is the case should be clear from the partisan nature of the responses to the Omicron wave: one can either be a lockdown-loving liberal or a libertarian anti-vaxxer. Never shall the two meet on the opinion pages of the Guardian or the Daily Telegraph.
Is this how our social lives are to play out now, with each of us as either a public health villain or a saint in a state of perpetual sacrifice? Are we now reduced to feeling either guilt or indignation at the idea of pursuing social pleasure? Must we orient our social lives along the sharpest rendering of ideological divisions? Or would, perhaps, the reintroduction of the rudimentary forms of togetherness – or conviviality, to invoke the recently much-used term of Ivan Illich’sIvan Illich, Tools for Conviviality, Open Forum (London: Calder and Boyars, 1973). – such as the house-party where strangers and friends talk, drink, and dance for the evening on the understanding that they need one another’s presence to make their experiences worthwhile?
Back on my guest list, after quickly exhausting the list of my ‘faithful’, I reached out to a few acquaintances whom I hadn’t seen in over a decade. I invited a couple whom I knew only from social media interactions. I implored close friends to bring anyone else they could. Out of concern for what was advertised as a party with dancing turning out to be a masked ball of the wring kind, I even invited some whom I expected would instigate needless arguments with others. In all, I invited over a hundred people to bring together a group of thirty guests at my Eve’s Eve party, the lowest success rate on my record.
And, boy, was it as glorious as it was nothing special. We came together, we ate and drank, we danced, we talked. It was as though nothing had changed even though everything must have. In-between the as-ever awkward ‘how do you know the host?’ and the inevitable wine spillages, we acknowledged that this very simple communal experience meant more than many others in the past. For the first time in my career as an incorrigible social animator-manipulator, I had to do nothing at all for the cast of this social theatre to perform their chorus, they all just worked it out by themselves.
Who were the renegades who broke through the ice of social isolation? Anyone and everyone. There were the couple of academics who, despite being held hostage by their son who needed to clear his Covid test to travel the following day, decided to book a hotel room and to lose themselves in the company of others. The friend who despite already having four entries on his vaccination card had cancelled his own Christmas party two weeks earlier out of fear of infecting his parents, now beamed with relief, exuberant, talkative, interested in everyone. A friend who brought a married couple that had obviously suffered for months from being deprived of an audience for their interpretative dance routines. There was the anti-masker artist who had Covid twice but didn’t want to be consumed by the risk. The writer who didn’t want to leave at all until long after the music had stopped. The tall German who, between swirls above the dance floor, advocated compulsory vaccination and compared Covid to the Blitzkrieg. The American who charmed everyone with his ballistic speech patterns and simply got on with the business of interacting with others as it pleased him. They all laughed, talked, someone cried, someone got into an argument at the very moral tension of the situation we found ourselves in. More seems to have happened than had happened in months of social media posts, online talks, or op-ed columns.
And then there was my favourite guest, the Eastern European GP who spent the past months heading the Covid vaccination programme of a West London suburb. Of us all, she has seen the horrors of the pandemic the closest and the evening was the first social gathering she allowed herself to attend in over a year. In-between dance tracks, she continued to talk science to her increasingly more bemused dance-floor companions. But she was also the first one to reach that level of intoxication that breaks down the English reserve and awkwardness and together with the music, she told each one of us that we were beautiful and that she was happy to be with us. Never have I, as a host, felt so gratified.
I do not experience any joy at needing to write this text. The ideas that I am about to engage with are neither revelatory nor original. My exposition will be detailed and lengthy because the subject matter relies on nuance and the congruity of opposing ideas. My thesis, however, is simple: the scientific method is vulnerable to social influence, politics is socially driven even when it claims it isn’t, and under conditions of stress both, as well as our individual decisions, can be less rational than we’d like to believe. I feel that for some of my friends and acquaintances who are gripped by fear or ideological fervour even in the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic, an introduction to the ideas of the philosophy of science and basic ideas of political decision-making may be of some use. I will attempt to convince you that the rationality of science has been a myth that has led you, your government, and your scientists into a potentially perilous territory in which ideological decisions masquerade as benevolent reason.
“We have, of course, been following the science throughout the pandemic.” This once reassuring refrain from Prime Minister Boris Johnson, adopted and adapted by politicians and public health officials around the world, has had to do a lot of work in the past two years. It became the background for demands like stay home, save lives and get boosted now. It has also had to cover for a lot of politics, including at one time the prioritising of health over the economy, at another the opening of the economy despite ongoing public health concerns. Once, ‘the science’ justified delegating the responsibility for interpreting public health principles to individuals, shops, or opera houses, while at another it called for tight state control over daily life. Science has had to be flexible enough to allow for exemptions and excuses, as well as the odd media bust-up of politicians in Christmas party hats.
In as much as Johnson’s mantra has attracted widespread derision, its ongoing success in motivating public health policy points to a fundamental need that we all feel in navigating the second year of the pandemic: it all must have been for a reason. ‘The science’ did the demanding work of shaping the public realm but it also helped us all individually. We want to understand the pandemic in terms that relate to our rational understanding of the world, we need to see our reaction to it as reasonable, and we hope that by ‘following the science,’ we too are giving ourselves the best chance of coming out unscathed. Who decides to barricade themselves at home for weeks unless there is a good reason for it? Who wants their five-year-old to wear a mask in kindergarten unless a scientist suggests that they should? This is why ‘in this house, we believe that science is real’: without it, we could not account for our individual and collective behaviours.
Is there a limit to what we can expect from science? Would we know if we have passed the threshold of reason? How can we be sure that while shaping political and personal decisions, science remains independent, transparent, consistent, benevolent, unambiguous, and preferably easy-to-understand? These are some fundamental questions to ask of science that become even more crucial when ‘the science’ paradigm takes centre stage. I will hazard some answers. Yes, there is an end to any science of the day and politics permeates its boundary. No, we are no good at knowing when we are out of our depth and where we have abandoned reason. And no, again, we cannot expect science to answer our questions in a way that we ask ‘the science’ to. Not the questions we are asking right now, in any case.
Of course, this does not mean that the pandemic is a hoax or that the vaccination programmes are a conspiracy. The scientific method is not in trouble. However, it does mean that when you spent your Christmas lunch trying to out fact-check your vaccine-sceptical uncle or cited studies to argue with your brother about the effects of mask-wearing, you were relying on what is at best good taste in authority figures and at worst a naïve belief in how science works. And this is likely the case even if you happen to be an epidemiologist.
I am not merely accusing most of us of a profound collective lack of scientific literacy: the reasons are more difficult to overcome. There is a fundamental mismatch between the complexity of science, its public application, and how we individually experience it. We’re lost in ‘the science’ because there is a great distance between data, scientific theory, medical advice, public health policy, and finally, implementation. Each point of this value change involves uncertainty, error, belief and bias, potential for corruption and miscommunication, or may simply be subject to handling with a lack of expertise.
As a result, we are witnessing first-hand a breakdown between the complex nature of scientific practice and how we are individually and institutionally prepared to act on it. Consider the following sequence of questions, all of which have contributed to shaping our responses to the pandemic. Does 5G cause Covid-19? How does the vaccine work? Do lockdowns speed up or slow down the mutation of the virus? When a booster jab decreases the likelihood of hospitalisation by 70% but increases transmissibility two-fold, what can you learn about the new variant if you observe it within the conditions of a circuit-breaker lockdown? Would prioritising vaccinating everyone worldwide over boosting certain populations still have been a better idea, now that we know of the Omicron variant? What can you say about the relative benefits of prevention programmes of Florida and New York, given their different climates, population density and demographics, and different approaches to public service provision?
Each of these questions, either already answered or answerable in principle, relies on a different level of engagement with the scientific method and the predictions of a vast array of scientific processes. To understand how we may continue to make decisions under the conditions of uncertainty, three questions are relevant: does it matter if we understand the science, does it matter if our politicians do, and do scientists themselves know what they’re talking about? I will attempt to address these problems in reverse, beginning at the source of ‘the science’.
The Science doesn’t exist
Beginning with a consideration of the scientific method itself seems necessary given the proliferation of scientific and pseudoscientific claims that the pandemic has attracted. What we commonly refer to as science, put simply, is a set of processes described by Isaac Newton in the 17th century aimed at confirming theoretical hypotheses through observation, data gathering, and analysis, twinned with scepticism and neutrality towards any set of results.Newton, Isaac. Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. 1st ed., 1687. This is the science we know from our school science classes in which we saw with our own eyes that a feather falls to the ground just as quickly as a stone in a vacuum tube and the science that allows a simple pill to alleviate our headaches. Simple, tested, observable, rational, and all the result of generations of iterative developments.
Seen in this light, science is the engine of progress, providing answers to ever more challenging questions. Indeed, the stories of medicine or engineering have inspired plenty of confidence in science’s ability to solve increasingly challenging problems. Science put humans on the moon. Science will, eventually, cure cancer. However, the idea that the scientific method as it is daily practised by thousands of researchers, theorists, lab technicians, and data analysts in a vast array of disciplines is in and of itself directed towards some greater good is naïve. In his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn suggested that the scientific method is incompatible with inevitable progress because any significant re-evaluation of an accepted scientific truth may at any point change the course of development.T S Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, ISSR Collection (University of Chicago Press, 1996). A decade later, Bruno Latour’s and Steve Woolgar’s observation of Laboratory Life suggested that far from being driven by some grand search for truth, scientists approach their work with the same prosaic attitudes and social pressures as the rest of us.Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts, 2013. Not much later, Peter Freyerband argued Against Method that the understanding of the social constructions of knowledge posed a significant threat to the ideal of the scientific method altogether, proposing that it be replaced with a theory more familiar from the humanities.Paul Feyerabend, Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (Atlantic Highlands, N.J: Humanities Press, 1975). Together, such accounts should have changed plenty of how those of us who do not practice science try to understand it. For those, like me, who have been trained in science, it should have drastically altered the way we are taught.
These observations point to a certain fallibility of the scientific method: scientific disciplines are not any more isolated from human, social, or political influence than their counterparts in the arts and humanities. At a base level, science remains a practice of judgment based on the evaluation of clear-cut evidence. Evidence, however, takes many shapes and forms, presents different degrees of confidence, makes itself subject to some types of scrutiny more readily than others, and is always subject to human manipulation. This inescapably means that in its iterations, the scientific method relies in part on trust, that is on knowing which knowledge and expertise, including their own, a scientist may take for granted, and where they are better off deferring to others or reserving their own. Nathan Ballantyne’s recent work on epistemic trespass and humility suggests that many may struggle with finding the right balance in making such calls, not because scientists are more prone to error than non-scientists, but because much of contemporary scientific research relies on the synthesis of the knowledges from multiple disciplines and fields.Nathan Ballantyne, ‘Epistemic Trespassing’, Mind 128, no. 510 (2019): 367–95, https://doi.org/10.1093/mind/fzx042.Nathan Ballantyne, ‘Recent Work on Intellectual Humility: A Philosopher’s Perspective’, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 5 September 2021, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17439760.2021.1940252.
The scientific disciplines also have their internal politics. Take, for example, the competition for funding of various research endeavours, or the competition for publication and attention within the community itself. Science, like other branches of knowledge, thrives on novelty, bold claims, and a degree of glamour. That this is prone to produce deeply flawed knowledge should be evident from the 1989 cold fusion hoax as much as it is from the ongoing replication crisis.
In normal times, none of this warrants excessive levels of scepticism towards the body of science itself. Science remains a reliable way of describing the world and the method’s relationship with itself and its products is such that any erroneous knowledge produced through mishap or manipulation can be rectified as such knowledge is applied at scale and in the long term. It may take time to discover that certain medical interventions do more harm than good but the principle by which such rogue ideas were designed is the very same one that eventually invalidates them. Once knowledge has been tested, applied, and tested again multiple times, it eventually passes into the realm of scientific fact, even if its journey wasn’t straightforward.
Time on a longer scale also allows for the discovery and eventual correction of other biases present within scientific disciplines that may be more difficult to observe within the context of the laboratory. For example, Andrew Curran has argued that the relationship between the Enlightenment rise of the scientific method and the colonialism of the British Empire was more than a unilateral application or misapplication of scientific ideas by non-scientists.Andrew S. Curran, The Anatomy of Blackness: Science & Slavery in an Age of Enlightenment, Johns Hopkins paperback ed (Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2013).
But there is little space for these reflexive processes to set in a rapidly changing situation. There has barely been enough time at any stage of the Covid-19 pandemic for scientific communities to reach ordered consensus, hence their repeated reminders that the virus remains relatively unknown. Under normal conditions, scientific discovery requires collaboration, corroboration, and verification, processes that take place through experiments as much as they do in the notoriously slow process of academic publishing, international conferences, and cycles of research funding. During the pandemic, scientific opinion has been solicited continuously, with high stakes, often without sensitivity to the context in which such opinion can be understood. In this context, scientists may be incentivised to rely more heavily on judgment and less on verification than they would have otherwise.
Unsurprisingly, there is no guarantee that two scientific inquiries testing the same hypothesis may produce identical results just because the world’s lives depend on it. For example, two studies evaluating the relative merits of ‘natural immunity’ against vaccination have both found strong evidence (by factors of 5 and 13), but in opposing directions.Ari Schulman and Brendan Foht, ‘Is “Natural Immunity” Better Than Vaccination?’, The New Atlantis (blog), 20 December 2021, https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/is-natural-immunity-better-than-vaccination. Comparing the two requires a significant amount of scientific proficiency in the art of reading scientific papers, plenty of background knowledge, and a fair amount of goodwill towards the assumptions the studies’ authors make on behalf of their research. Science communicators Schulman and Foht expend a couple of thousand words on explaining why the studies do not compare like for like even if that may be what their headlines indicated. We don’t know for sure whether it’s better to catch Covid or to avoid it through vaccination because the studies were not designed to answer such questions definitively.
What about those recurring questions that scientific advice in many European countries appears to be very confident in: do lockdowns save lives? To pick the best solution for the next phase should then be easy and the scientific recommendations of lockdowns have been forthright. What the scientific answers to such an important question lack is falsifiability: because we cannot at the same time run an experiment in which Italy was tightly locked down and another in which the virus is allowed to rip, we cannot know the precise impact of the intervention with absolute certainty. We know that France and Italy locked down early and tightly, we blamed the British Government for waiting too late, and we envied the Swedes for coming out relatively unscathed without imposing any onerous measures, but because a great number of factors such as levels of social trust and the population’s compliance are difficult to account for, any comparisons are likely to be heavily caveated in ways that may or may not sway their validity in repetition.
Finally, what happens when study results are wrong but are not treated seriously enough to re-examine other findings? A recent study promoted by the Centres for Disease Control suggested that masking kindergarten children was of proven clinical benefits,Megan Jehn et al., ‘Association Between K–12 School Mask Policies and School-Associated COVID-19 Outbreaks — Maricopa and Pima Counties, Arizona, July–August 2021’, Centers for Disease Control and Protection; MMWR. Morbidity and … see more despite gaping errors in the authors’ analysis being pointed out by a mere journalist.David Zweig, ‘The CDC’s Flawed Case for Wearing Masks in School’, The Atlantic, 16 December 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2021/12/mask-guidelines-cdc-walensky/621035/. In the UK, the chair of the modelling committee of the scientific advisory body SAGE has all but admitted that their attention is focused on pursuing only a limited range of scenarios and outcomes, leaving little space for potential falsification.Fraser Nelson, ‘My Twitter Conversation with the Chairman of the Sage Covid Modelling Committee | The Spectator’, The Spectator(blog), 18 December 2021, … see more
Again, these examples do not invalidate the nature of scientific discovery, nor do they throw the validity of epidemiology as a science into doubt. Plenty of the questions I posed here have unambiguous answers: we know how the virus transmits, we know what lockdowns do, we can make predictions about mortality rates and treatment options. These aren’t mere speculations. However, the degrees of scepticism I have proposed here range from the purely scientific to the political and I present them here to underline the difficulty of conducting and acting on science under strain and pressure. There is a sour paradox to a method that relies on experimental verification for the very constitution of its ideas and theories that it is required to make binding predictions that affect lives in their very first application. In principle, even this will be overcome by the scientific method, given sufficient ability to develop iterative protocols and a reduction in the degrees of complexity. Meteorology is one example of this process working well: the intricate weather patterns of the world are described daily by a large but finite set of observations, models are developed, predictions are made and their predictions are eventually compared with the weather states observed the following day. The work of thousands of scientists, the expense of considerable computing power, and the collaboration of many nations have meant that we are now pretty good at telling the weather. Still, people continue to die in hurricanes and floods, whether these are predicted or not.
Politics does not care for evidence
Preparing for the devastation of a flood is not unlike coordinating the resources of a country in response to a pandemic, in as much as they both rely on translating scientific predictions into action through a process of politics. One of the early paradigms of the pandemic was the stark choice between saving lives and protecting the economy. This choice was presented as binary, as though the economy could benefit from an increase in the population’s death rates. While many critics rightly protested that such a dichotomy was false, the draconian nature of the early interventions such as lockdowns and travel restrictions effectively enforced that impossibility of imagining any half-measures. Governments worldwide have thus gone for all-or-nothing approaches: Stay home, Save Lives, Protect the NHS.
The theorist Keller Easterling has proposed that the unnecessary binary is a feature of a system that protects its hegemony.Keller Easterling, Medium Design: Knowing How to Work on the World (Verso Books, 2020). The binary is a political system’s retaliation against nuance, conflicting information, designed as a response to what it may perceive or project as the alternative of chaos and disinformation. Politics as we know it is, therefore, the perfect antithesis of the nuance of the ideal of the scientific method: it despises uncertainty, avoids verification, ignores the second opinion.
Politics is, however, also the perfect companion to science. In a democratic state, the function of politics is to evaluate scientific advice and act on it under the political mandate afforded to the state. And what is the mandate of the state? Is it the protection of its people? Is it the preservation of life in the immediate term, the utilitarian goal of maximising the collective happiness? Or is it, in practice, the maintenance of good scores on the matrix of economic, social, and cultural such as GDP, the divorce rate, or museum attendance numbers?
Because answers to these questions are often as elusive as those of science, even narrowly defined politics is a practice shaped by bounded rationality,Paul Cairney, Understanding Public Policy: Theories and Issues, Textbooks in Policy Studies (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019), chap. 5. that is the limitation imposed by the sheer difficulty of weighing up the pros and cons of all the possible policy options, predicting its outcomes, and remaining accountable to the electorate within an electoral cycle. Politics, therefore, is a way of translating the complex recommendations of science through the prism of complex and sometimes conflicting imperatives and implementing them through imperfect mechanisms. It’s a terrible system, but we are yet to develop an alternative.
The bounded rationality of political decision-making stands in contrast with the ideal of evidence-based policymaking, which is a decision-making process that takes account of all the implications of its implementation. Evidence-based policy, in principle, delivers precisely what it purports to, never falters, and can account for its side effects. The closest we come to this in UK healthcare may be the role fulfilled by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) which evaluates the benefits of therapies against their costs to assess their viability as solutions for the NHS. Given the seriousness of the pandemic and our investment in the evidence-driven scientific solutions to it, should we not insist that politicians now more than ever follow the evidence trail in designing policy responses? Isn’t it good that Johnson’s Cabinet has been led by ‘the science’? There are multiple reasons for which the expectation of perfect rationality and evidence-responsiveness is a phantasy under current conditions. Firstly, the ideal of evidence-based policy is only useful as a frame by which to assess the failure of real political processes:Cairney, Understanding Public Policy. only a perfect technocracy would be able to follow the suggestions of scientists and statisticians and that at the cost of choosing its own objectives.
Secondly, there is scant evidence that our politicians understand the scientific evidence with which they are presented. It was widely assumed that in the early days of the pandemic, Donal Trump remained wilfully ignorant of the threat to public health and this led to sometimes comical disagreements between his administration and his medical advisor Anthony Fauci. The recent controversy over the quality of the data presented to the Government by SAGE has suggested that British politicians are far from able to maintain an ongoing in-depth understanding of all the advice, evidence, counterevidence, and interpretation they are required to absorb daily.
What may the solution be? Sam Freedman of the think-tank Institute for Government has called for a complete overhaul of how scientific advice is solicited and evaluated by government and media, an effort that would be enhanced by additional maths education for all.Sam Freedman, ‘New Approach Needed to Avoid Covid Data Disputes and Modelling Misunderstanding’, The Institute for Government (blog), 22 December 2021, https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/blog/covid-data-modelling. This proposal, as much as it is a step towards the paradigm of evidence-based policy, is strikingly unrealistic. Would it not be simpler to accept that the political decisions based on scientific advice are inherently political, that is that they involve judgment, the very faculty we elect politicians for?
Our collective refusal to understand the elusive nature of ‘the science’ allows us to blame politics and politicians for any adverse effects of their decisions, whether these decisions are rooted in scientific advice or now. When thousands of people died in the early months of the UK pandemic, it must have been because politicians ignored sound scientific advice. Conversely, when many more hospitality workers lost their jobs as the result of health protection measures, it was again the politicians’ fault, not science’s. With this pattern, we have erected the perfect buffer that prevents us from confronting the arbitrary nature of the pandemic and the subjective nature of political judgment. Might this be because we already know that the judgments all involve difficult trade-offs and we wouldn’t want to be the ones making them? Faced with an endless stream of advice, reliable or not, a lobby full of competing interests, a desire for self-preservation, and an ethical instinct, would any of us be able to make decisions that strictly ‘follow the science?’
Your decisions are less rational than you think
How do individuals navigate the scaling complexities and ambiguities of science and its political representations? When we access scientific information, how do we evaluate its veracity? What is the likelihood that any scientific information we acquire corresponds to the truth?
The last substantial review of public attitudes to science in the UK dates to 2019.‘Public Attitudes to Science 2019’ (Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, 16 July 2020), https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/public-attitudes-to-science-2019. At the time, the population displayed increasing confidence in science and appreciated its positive contribution to society. A falling number (43%), however, thought that the science they had learnt at school had any relevance to their daily life. About half believed themselves to be confident followers of scientific developments, but over a quarter admitted to not feeling clever enough. Those who felt better informed, generally were, although the majority did not understand how scientific research is funded. Only half of the population believed that the information they received about science was generally true, and some 36% didn’t know how to evaluate the veracity of such content. TV and radio maintained the most trusted sources of scientific information, with Facebook and self-initiated online searches following closely.
This is a frustrating position from which to enter a global pandemic. In the early months, media became obsessed with graphs and numbers, introducing the public to logarithmic scales, rolling averages, although stopping short of correlation coefficient and confidence indicators. The UK Government’s press conferences, likewise, ended in a chorus of ‘next slide, please’, choreographing the appearance of transparent and consistent science-led decision making. On the surface, the relationships between data, politics, and the requirements placed on the individual were clear: the higher the chart, the more severe the restrictions on daily lives must be. But it remains an open question if the UK public understood the data presented to them. Did they know what questions were being asked and which were omitted? What was so magic about the virus’ replication number r0? Why the rule of six, and why two meters between us?
Was it possible for anyone not entirely invested in investigating a whole range of data, studies, interpretations, and precedents to follow these issues in detail and adjust their behaviour to them accordingly? Given the complexities of the scientific basis of outbreak management and prevention I outlined earlier, I suggest that this would have been impossible for anyone but a highly trained statistician epidemiologist with plenty of time on their hands. For any layperson, it has been nearly impossible to understand the link between data and the action required of them, let alone to know why this link may have legitimately changed in time.
The paradoxical, if not sinister, part of the situation has been the Government’s outsourcing of the interpretation of public safety rules to individuals and businesses. While ‘the science’ was clear, the guidance remained vague and at points arbitrary, as though the levels of compliance were of little importance to their success. In the UK, the messaging reached a level of absurdity with a variety of threat indicators of were introduced and abandoned: who remembers the traffic light severity level system? As result, public attention was diverted away from the facts and figures to a practical, if not irrelevant realm. When, for example, bars could only remain open if they were serving food, the definition of a ‘substantial meal’ became the subject of media jokes without any connection to the health concerns themselves.
All this has undermined any possibility of the public’s understanding of the science behind the escalating and wavering measures imposed by governments. The incredible duplicity of this system is that it pretends to be neither authoritarian nor draconian while demanding the highest levels of compliance from the public. Whereas parts of the European Union have imposed strict requirements for vaccination passports or testing mandates as conditions for civil participation, the UK has avoided explicitly demanding that the public ‘to as they’re told’. Instead, though the constant reference to ‘the science’ that has become stripped of its truth-seeking function, the UK society has been conditioned to desire strict control measures lest the science enacted its revenge. And so in late 2021, public venues such as theatres and museums were left to decide for themselves whether mask-wearing should be compulsory or not, falling short of offering any new guidance. By then, the public attitude shifted towards a doctrine of maximum safety, all of the time. What did museum curators know about the Omicron variant that the Government’s scientific advisors did not?
Some have continued to cling to the notion of ‘the science’, picking arguments while armed with an array of facts and figures that have been easily accessible in just about any news outlet. This works well enough for a moment, as long as the choices are binary and simple. Do you want to convince someone that another lockdown is inevitable? The Guardian has a chart for that. Do you want to justify your dislike for wearing masks in public? The Telegraph lists some studies that will make you feel better. Do you want to learn about vaccine safety? Facebook will serve you some convincing pro and con data. None of these sources, however, will take into account any of the nuance, context, evolution, or indeed trade-offs involved in making individual and societal decisions based on the data they present. The media sources, just like politicians, have reverted to type and usually argue from ideological principles for which science is merely convenient background. At closer quarters, I am yet to see an individual deploy science against the public health position I had expected them to adopt knowing their general political alliances.
Where do we go from here?
This lengthy analysis will be of limited use, lest it helps us to acknowledge that the relationship between science and political or individual action has the potential to be largely arbitrary and that the circumstances of the pandemic have made it highly likely that it indeed has been. I do not believe that even those of us who think they possess a degree of scientific fluency that would equip them to make sound judgments in principle have been able to make those judgments appropriately under the conditions of diminished trust and transparency. This is an issue distinct even from Ballantyne’s problem of epistemic trespassing to which practical solutions exist and consist of careful examination of the credentials and competences of experts from whom we draw advice.David Dunning and Nathan Ballantyne, ‘Which Experts Should You Listen to during the Pandemic?’, Scientific American Blog Network, 8 June 2020, … see more
The problem we face now is one of programmatic disinformation and mistrust. The volume of conflicting information and the cognitive load required of any individual trying to make sense of it is such that they are unable to proceed without resorting to belief, simplification, or confirmation bias, often unconsciously. No wonder that many have interpreted any resistance to vaccination as a sure sign of antiscientific irrationality associated with the worst conspiracy theories, while those sceptical of the cycle of lockdowns have come to regard the safety-first faction as a cult. The net result is that whoever can make claims of controlling or following ‘the science’ is likely to command public consent.
None of the accusations I have levelled at science, politics, and society helps us in making the daily decisions that determine our health as well as the overall shape of the public sphere that we inhabit. My concern at the shape that politics takes if we simply comply and do not meaningfully engage with the interface of science and ideology is that it is likely to reaffirm a hegemony that we can ill-afford; as Easterling observed, the presence of conflicting information builds up a Teflon coating on which the very rationality we hope to achieve slips and slides.Easterling, Medium Design. Opting out completely is a tempting option, but it also requires a sacrifice of rational principles.
I, for one, am ready to admit that many of my own ‘rational’ decisions during the pandemic have been driven by ideological convictions. I elected to take all three of my vaccine doses so far partly because I have had plenty of experience with other vaccinations and was satisfied that I could, should I have wished to, closely examine and understand their efficacy and safety profiles. I am in split mind over masks, finding them unnecessary outdoors, inefficient in venues when large groups spend long periods, but potentially worth the inconvenience for the protection they offer in short encounters at the corner shop. Where I know that my convictions remain purposefully unconcerned with science is the matter of vaccination passports or mandates that I oppose on purely political grounds.
I do not propose these as model behaviours but instead suggest that in many of the decisions we now face, understanding the fallibility of science, our lack of understanding of its detail, and the pervasive nature of ideological belief may help us to collectively arrive at a new understanding of what our goals are and how we may go about achieving them.
Megan Jehn et al., ‘Association Between K–12 School Mask Policies and School-Associated COVID-19 Outbreaks — Maricopa and Pima Counties, Arizona, July–August 2021’, Centers for Disease Control and Protection; MMWR. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report(blog), 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/70/wr/mm7039e1.htm.
My generation of gay men has no memory. The infinite scroll of torsos and faces on Grindr alone is enough to induce short-term amnesia twinned with an oblivious sense of déjà vu. My generation of gay men has no memory because it cannot imagine what it could have been like to be gay in the time of their fathers since, for the most part, their fathers weren’t gay. My generation of gay men has no memory because its teenage rebellion conflated age, heterosexuality, and parenthood as complicit evils. My generation of gay men born in the 1980s has no memory because it grew up with no role models and no blueprint from which to build a future of its own. My generation of gay men has no memory because it descended from the last generation to be driven by an all-pervasive death drive for whom passing on memories was of little use.
I’m being melodramatic here: the mid-life’s crisis invites reflection on one’s place in the succession of generations. Judging by what I know of my parents’ generation, the easiest way to assert agency over one’s time is to condemn succeeding generations as lacking in character and to position oneself as the true rightful inheritor of the generation before. For my generation of gay men, the former will be no struggle. The latter, however, requires becoming acquainted anew with a generation whose time came and went leaving a mere caricature as a historical record.
However much in demand they may be, some stories simply don’t age well and are forgotten even while they’re still in progress. It’s hard, for example, to imagine that the historiography of the Covid pandemic will be of any more use to future generations than that of the Spanish Flu has been to us. Other stories may be forgotten precisely because the reach a terminus. As Michel Houellebecq said of Covid-19: this virus is “banal”. “It’s not even sexually transmitted.”‘World Will Be Same but Worse after “banal” Virus, Says Houellebecq’, France 24, 4 May 2020, https://www.france24.com/en/20200504-world-will-be-same-but-worse-after-banal-virus-says-houellebecq.
For my generation of gay men, that inheritance is also a story of an epidemic, the AIDS crisis that plagued the last two decades of the 20th century. It’s a story that has been told many times (from Angels in America to Philadelphia), recently in the revival of Larry Kramer’s 1985 stage play The Normal Heart. Kramer’s text, in with the main character Ned Weeks is based on the writer’s own experience as an AIDS activist and founder of the advocacy organisation Gay Men’s Health Crisis, tracks the acute epidemic politics. The play brings together the fears and desires of the New York gay community fresh from the Stonewall victory, the moral and scientific ambiguity of medicine, and the political apathy and conservatism of power that came together in the city in the early years of the 1980s. Each element and character takes a moment in the spotlight to reveal their ultimate fallibility and powerlessness when faced with the unknown killer: Ned is so angry that he cannot bring his peers along with his cause, his heterosexual brother harbours a lingering anxiety at Ned’s life, the city hall’s indifference barely masquerades hostility, and the doctor Emma Brookner’s compassion saves no lives and has no sway on the politics of research funding. There’s plenty of grief, rage, and resentment, but Kramer gives us little to navigate these with because at the time the play is set AIDS barely had a name.
As for Ned’s friends, the gay men who joined with him in the activism of pickets, op-eds, and support switchboards, they are portrayed as less terrified by the prospect of sexually transmitted death than by the choices it requires of them. When medicine’s only realistic solution is to advocate for a moratorium on the unprotected and promiscuous gay sex that defined the liberated gay culture of the metropolis, the play’s characters display an ambivalence rooted in their sexualities and their ideas of personal freedoms as much as in their social status. In the ensuing tactical battle between the fiery Ned and his more diplomatic activist compatriot and Wall Street banker Bruce Niles, it becomes apparent that the distinction between freedom and death is not equally clear-cut to everyone. Kramer never says it explicitly, but it seems that he is aware that some of the men whose lives Ned tries to protect may be under the spell of an extinction drive. Frustratingly, the text is unable to engage with the causes of such a fundamental misunderstanding, investing instead in externalising all the blame and anger that accompanied the horrors of the early days of the epidemic.
The politics of remembering
Why revive this script now? In the age of Covid, the questions of risk, freedom, individual and communal responsibilities, and the difficulty of translating a limited understanding of a threat into conviction politics are resonant and there are moments in Ben Cooke’s staging that make thinly-veiled gestures to 2021’s pandemic politics. Except that when they raise a laugh from the audience, it is for their Twitter-like banality: disappointingly, many of the questions that Kramer raised have seen more nuanced treatment in the public sphere in the past two years than he grants to his characters in the heat of a crisis. As a pandemic morality tale, The Normal Heart has been superseded by current events.
This staging of The Normal Heart was planned before the pandemic and perhaps it reveals the interests of a generation of gay men that influences, if not controls what appears on the bills of London’s theatres. Judging by the tearful reactions of the plays’ audience, for the most part as young and as dashing as the casts and for whom the AIDS crisis could well have been news, the story is compelling as a piece of costume drama. But as a cultural narrative that forms a lineage of ‘queer history’, the script feels at best a historiographic exercise that may as well be set in Tudor England. Can my generation and the next who narrowly escaped having to understand what AIDS is contend with the fact that only twenty years ago, HIV was an inextricable part of gay sex and gay life and that if there was such a thing as a gay community, HIV was its primary concern?
The artefacts left behind by those who died in the AIDS crisis like David Wojanrowicz’s memoirs Close to the KnivesDavid Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (New York: Vintage Books, 1991). or Derek Jarman’s elegy BlueDerek Jarman, Blue, 1993. appear as rarefied relics that can hardly resonate with the post-Millennial mainstream. Some recent attempts to write a gay history for the present have failed because they rely on a shared understanding of a traumatic moment that most born after 1990 don’t remember. The Inheritance, a sprawling 2018 stage playby Matthew Lopez loosely based on E. M. Forster’s Howards End that over six hours lays the crisis over the generations that survived it, failed to convince Broadway audiences even despite the odd reference to Grindr contemporaneity. Can one blame Lopez, only a couple of years my senior, for failing to own Forster’s 1910 novel and the ghost of a generation he never knew as his own?
Living outside history
Like me, Lopez likely navigated his coming of age between a series of activist victories and cultural shifts. Perhaps, like me, he led a rarefied existence that displays what is now termed ‘privilege’ and that by the time he was ready to make any declarations about who he was, his world was ready to accept him. I, for one, seem to have repeatedly been at the right place at the right time so as to just remain almost unaware of the struggles around me.
By 2017, when activist groups were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, effectively the moment of gay liberation in the UK, I felt new guilt for having contributed so little to the fight. I have excuses: I was at boarding school in the 1990s where nothing of any sexual nature was promoted, so Section 28 passed me by. When the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho was bombed in 1999, I was sitting exams and concerned myself with little else. At university, the dreaming spires made everything seem perfectly cosy. Civil partnerships and gay marriage came before I had any use for them. And AIDS? By the time I moved to the proverbial Sodom that is central London, the combination of developments in the antiretroviral treatment of HIV, the by then decades-long safer sex campaigns, and the nature of my own sex life made this a marginal worry.
Unlike those friends who are ten years my senior or whose lives didn’t spare them the anxiety or grief of HIV, my coming-of-age trauma was purely individual: I had to be reminded that I was thrown out of my family home by a homophobic father before I stopped blaming myself for not having been a member of Act Up. Such experiences, present as they are in reality and in the Lopez script, are no matter to build a generational legacy on.
The death drive and eros
Must it, therefore, come down to storytelling such as Russell T. Davies’ high-energy, high-colour TV drama It’s a SinPeter Hoar, It’s a Sin, 2021. which, unlike The Normal Heart, place the AIDS epidemic in the middle of a community for whom living and dying are more than intellectual or activist pursuits? Davies spoke of the ‘joy of representation,Nick Levine and Russell T. Davies, ‘It’s A Sin Creator Russell T Davies: “Cast Gay as Gay”’, AnOther, 20 January 2021, … see more the idea that it is the subjects of a story that can reproduce it best and perhaps the fact that the cast of his TV series became cultural gay icons for the Instagram generation attests to this. But It’s a Sin shows something that The Inheritance doesn’t and that The Normal Heart narrowly shies away from: it depicts the confused death drive that ruled the behaviour of some gay men amid all the chaos, loss, pain, and fear of the AIDS epidemic. In Davies’ account, the gay men are for the most part left to do the dancing, fucking, and dying, while the care and activism is the domain of the straight female friend.
Houellebecq’s suggestion that sexual transmission is a culturally ‘redeeming’ feature of a virus may play into the idea of the death drive, a concept developed by Freud as standing in opposition to eros, the propensity towards reproduction and survival.Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans. C. J. M. Hubback, 4 (London, Vienna: The International Psycho-Analytical Library, 1922), https://www.bartleby.com/276/. Freud explained the death drive by reference to traumas like war or simply characterised it as a pathology, but he was not concerned with homosexuality here. In his terms, however, the gay experience lies at the very mutual contradiction of death and eros: gay sex, a manifestation of the life-affirming drive shared by most humans, does not ultimately lead to procreation and therefore foreshadows the end of a genetic line. For countless gay men, whether participating in sexual reproduction by other means, gay life meant social ostracism and persecution, another form of extinction.
These biological and social conditions were in force long before AIDS, although perhaps the epidemic was the last moment when the gay death drive could take a decisive cultural turn. In his theorisation of the queer death drive in No Future,Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, Series Q (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004). Lee Edelman argues that not enough attention was paid to the ‘culture of death’. When he cites Kramer’s call “to redefine homosexuality as something far greater than what we do with our genitals”,Larry Kramer, ‘Gay Culture, Redefined’, New York Times, 12 December 1997. he finds naïve the implication that gay men should return to being understood as ‘artistic’ or ‘gentle, loving people’ worthy of communing with eros.
Where the death drive found recognition and inevitably spiralled out of control was in the lens of the news camera. Edelman recalls that the story of Andrew Cunanan, a “gay club kid turned serial killer of (mostly) gay men” who included Gianni Versace gave the media a sort of ecstatic jouissance. One commentator observed that because “young men who have come face to face with the knowledge that their own lives are blighted and doomed”, they would “now want to experience the rush of killing in more traditional ways.”Edelman, No Future, chap. 2.
And from here, it’s only a short trip to the likes of Dennis Cooper, whose novels are filled with acts of sexual cruelty that would turn Jean Genet’s stomach. Cooper’s antiheroes make death the most explicit and irresistible of aphrodisiacs and for many of them, the act of killing is synonymous with being killed. I am again, however, again unable to judge the historiographic value of such fictions, in part because the names of Cooper’s characters in Frisk,Dennis Cooper, Frisk (New York: Grove Press, 1992). that of the serial killer Dennis and of his would-be victim hustler Pierre, bear an outsized sentimental significance for me. No wonder that in French, the orgasm is referred to as une petite mort. Todd Verow’s 1995 film adaptation of the novel, thankfully, changes some of the names to make for a mesmerising exponent of the death drive; even though (or because) it makes no mention of AIDS, it offers a clearer and alarmingly compelling insight into the thrill of sexual annihilation than any of the mainstream representations.Todd Verow, Frisk, 1995.
Murder is a moral transgression reserved for only a few. AIDS, on the other hand, made the exulted act of sacrifice or killing accessible to all. For many years, the underground culture of bug-chasing, that is of HIV-negative men deliberately seeking unprotected sex to become infected with the virus, horrified onlookers. Who in their right mind would seek to contract HIV? Documentaries like The GiftLouise Hogarth, The Gift, documentary (Dream Out Loud Productions, 2003), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oN4w8e432_o. made explicit the surprisingly widespread nature of the practice: it wasn’t just a fringe ‘kink’ far off to the side of the Kinsey scale. Instead, all the predictions that Freud and later Lacan made checked out and as much as part of the bug-chasing phenomenon was driven by abandon in response to generalised anxiety, another part of it was inextricably connected to its erotic appeal. Risk is hot.
In the past decade, concerns over the spread of HIV have faded into the background as the key political concerns of the gay community. The availability of PrEP, the now near unaffected life expectancy of HIV-positive men, and the confirmation that well-managed infections do not transfer during sex mean that that HIV has become part of a general background of sexual health in the gay population. Social acceptance of gay lives is higher than ever. My generation of gay men that only glanced at the earlier crises in passing is now busy thinking about mortgages and marriages. Not many appear to have yet confronted the fact that they may not produce offspring. Edelman follows Baudrillard in suggesting that the lack of reproductive variation contributes to a state of stale sameness. I expect, however, that the above-average ownership of pet dogs that I have observed among gay men is only part of an ongoing transition to an existence where even the reproductive aspect of the gay death drive comes to an end, even if it is through simulacral reproduction. It’s not as though, as Nina Power observes,Nina Power, Non-Reproductive Futurism: Rancière’s Rational Equality against Edelman’s Body Apolitic. Borderlands, Jacques Rancière on the Shores of Queer Theory, 8, no. 2 … see more children are synonymous with politics.
The Straight Truvada
Was the death drive a product of circumstances that afflicted gay men for cultural reasons or is it somehow inalienable to male homosexuality? Assuming that Freud’s generalised diagnosis was correct, where does the drive manifest itself when the gay man gains more satisfaction as a perfectly formed neoliberal subject than as a sacrificial fantasist? In the DIS video UBI: The Straight Truvada,DIS, UBI: The Straight Truvada, 2018, video, 4’52″, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AcYdELt_gdc. Christopher Glazek compared PrEP to the contraceptive IUD that promised women liberation from the inevitability of reproductive biology, at the cost of turning them into economic subjects. “What good is a sexual revolution without an economic one?” The pessimism of the emergent generation of anti-capitalist activists represented by Greta Thunberg’s campaign Fridays for the future which bizarrely sees the future in the bleakest of terms suggests that your ‘the end is nigh’ placard may still come handy.But whereas Thunberg’s performance of the death drive is Instagram-friendly, the gay death drive was essentially a clandestine, closeted affair.
Perhaps the gay man’s death drive has migrated to other arenas of queer culture. If Kramer’s unambiguous fear of death has ongoing cultural relevance, it may be in the imagination of a new generation of the LGBTQ+ community. This forcibly assembled political community, distinct in many dimensions from the earlier generations of LGB rights activists, seems united by the belief that its members are subject to more extreme threats than its predecessors. Reports of hate crimes abound and contribute to the understanding that the risk of harm is an inalienable part of belonging.Libby Brooks and Jessica Murray, ‘Spate of Attacks across UK Sparks Fear among LGBTQ+ Community’, The Guardian, 29 August 2021, sec. UK news, … see more When it comes to death, it is trans activists who point to the shocking number of murders (43 in the first ten months of 2021 in the US alone)Trudy Ring, ‘Here Are the 43 Trans Americans Killed in 2021 So Far’, Advocate, 31 October 2021, https://www.advocate.com/transgender/2021/10/20/all-trans-people-killed-murdered-violence-2021-record-statistics. which one recently described as a ‘Holocaust’.Greame Massie, ‘Whistleblower and Transparent Creator Joins Hundreds in Netflix Walkout’, The Independent, 20 October 2021, sec. Culture, … see more
To echo the question I posed to bug-chasing gay men: who in their right mind would dare to put themselves at such great risk? It takes no great investigative effort, however, to understand that this new queer death drive is the most Baudrillardian of simulations: the harms and deaths mourned by survivors often act as mere symbols for events that may as well not have taken place. Stories of hate crime are rarely accompanied by context, such as the recent changes in statistical methods for recording what are in fact declining rates of hate crime in the UK,‘Hate Crime, England and Wales, 2019 to 2020’ (Home Office, 28 October 2020), https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/hate-crime-england-and-wales-2019-to-2020 nor do they correlate with surveys of increasingly liberal social attitudes.Eir Nolsoe, ‘International Survey: How Supportive Would Britons Be of a Family Member Coming Out?’, YouGov, 31 August 2021, https://yougov.co.uk/topics/international/articles-reports/2021/08/31/international-survey-how-supportive-would-britons-. A cursory Google News search of the names of trans murder victims reveals that the vast majority died for the very same reasons that cis-gendered people do: drugs, robberies, crimes of passion, sex work and that they die at rates lower than the general population.Georgina Lee, ‘FactCheck: How Many Trans People Are Murdered in the UK?’, Channel 4 News, 23 November 2018, https://www.channel4.com/news/factcheck/factcheck-how-many-trans-people-murdered-uk. Where a motive is identified as homo- or transphobia, it sticks out like a sore thumb.
The gay community has been complicit in perpetuating similar fictions too, for example, by clinging to the memory of the iconic 1998 homophobic murder of Matthew Shepard despite the significant evidence for its more quotidian motives of drugs and debt.Stephen Jimenez, The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shepard (Hanover, New Hampshire: Steerforth Press, 2013). Likewise, many may refuse to accept that the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooter Omar Mateen did not seek out gay men for his targets.Jane Coaston, ‘New Evidence Shows the Pulse Nightclub Shooting Wasn’t about Anti-LGBTQ Hate’, Vox, 5 April 2018, https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/4/5/17202026/pulse-shooting-lgbtq-trump-terror-hate. Even if seemingly unstoppable deaths have not always been myths as Kramer’s play bitterly attests and all are tragic, the lack of a particular ‘hate’ or biological cause that underlies them should bring some muted relief.
Much has been written about the deployment of vulnerability in the identity politics of the LGBTQ+ community, sometimes in needlessly combative terms,Madison Smith, ‘Neither Marginalised, Abused nor Vulnerable’, The Critic Magazine, 21 October 2021, https://thecritic.co.uk/neither-marginalised-abused-nor-vulnerable/. and it is no far stretch to suggest that a death drive simulation is an effective tool for creating community bonds and ensuring a broadly empathetic hearing in the public sphere. But as Edelman and Glazek suggest, the desexualised nature of today’s performed death drive is a distraction from the reality of the next obstacle with which the individualised sexual subjects must contend. The performance also risks ingraining a kind of infantile Romanticism in the at-risk subject, painting them as someone capable of flirting with death for everyone’s entertainment. The next chapter of this history should perhaps be written by Michel Houellebecq.
Even if my personal and limited reading of a history to which I barely bore witness, one motive seems unchanged: the heteronormative liberal dream of a country house and a life filled with love underpin The Normal Heart as much as they represent the desires of today’s LGBTQ+ activists. In Kramer, the only character who is allowed to remain apolitical is Ned’s partner, an attractive and successful fashion commentator. Ironically, he’s the only one we get to see die on stage.
Main image: Liz Carr and Ben Daniels in The Normal Heart, National Theatre, 2021. Photo Helen Maybanks.
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