Understanding the New Abnormal
A terrific review of my book in First Things by Fran Maier frames the issues in terms of human dignity.
The phrase “a gentleman and a scholar,” has become a cliche, but I have long thought that the phrase nevertheless aptly applies to Francis Maier. Fran is a writer who easily translates difficult and sometimes abstract philosophical and theological concepts into language accessible to non-specialists. More importantly, he is a very fine human being, a humble man who wears his learning lightly and seeks place his intellectual gifts in the service of others.
Let’s start with a simple irony. Much of today’s chatter about “defending democracy,” the sanctity of personal rights, and the sacred quality of human dignity comes from people who, consciously or otherwise, jeopardize all three by their actions. The evidence is abundant. And Aaron Kheriaty’s forthcoming book, The New Abnormal: The Rise of the Biomedical Security State (to be released November 1), is Exhibit A. Every few years a book comes along like Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed or Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self that hits a cultural nerve and mustn’t be ignored; that combines elegantly lucid writing with vital and timely content.
The New Abnormal is just such a book. It’s a compelling account of the tech-driven “surveillance and control” state now emerging around us—reputedly for our own good, of course—by a doctor and scholar who’s paid a heavy price for noticing it, recognizing the implications, and resisting them.
It was nice to be mentioned in the same breath as Deneen and Truman, since I likewise consider these two books to be among the most important works published in the last several years. Fran’s article then takes an excursus to discuss the philosophical and theological roots of the concept of human dignity and its origins in the Judeo-Christian tradition. He begins by mentioning the work of Hans Jonas, a 20th Century philosopher of science and ethicist whose ideas have influenced my own work in bioethics:
Hans Jonas, the philosopher, argued that three things set humans apart from all other living creatures. The tool enables man to pursue his needs; to imprint nature with his knowledge and will. The image—the grandeur of human art—expresses his memory, his desire for beauty, and his imagination. But the greatest factor distinguishing humans from other creatures is the grave. Only human beings bury their dead. Only humans know their own mortality. And thus only humans can ask where they came from, what life means, and what comes after it. The grave, for all its pathos, is actually a statement of reverence and hope. A nearly universal fact of human civilization is this: The body, even in death and decay, carries the resonance of something unrepeatable and holy, something “other than” this world and its cycle of futility.
Although Fran does not mention it specifically , I was reminded when I read this of an incident recounted in the second chapter of my book, where the body of patient who had died of covid in our hospital was not be returned to the family for burial. Here is the relevant excerpt where I recount this incident that occurred during an ethics committee consult:
I was speaking to the wife and son of a man dying of covid. After extensive explanation and discussion of the dire medical situation, the family agreed to transition him to comfort care only. Naturally, this was an anguishing decision, but they wisely wanted to avoid unnecessarily prolonging the dying process by burdening him with additional ineffective interventions. The family then asked us for assistance in making funeral arrangements. They were from Mexico, did not speak English, had little money, and needed the hospital social worker to help them navigate this.
To my horror, the social worker informed them that because the patient had covid, and following the CDC’s recommendation, the hospital would not return the body to the family for burial. Instead, his remains would be cremated without the patient’s or family’s consent. The family explained that the patient was Catholic and would have wanted a traditional Christian burial. They felt duty-bound to honor his wish. The public health authority’s insistence on cremation was based upon an entirely theoretical and facially absurd risk that, just perhaps, a corpse could still spread covid. It mattered little that there was not one shred of evidence for this notion from previous respiratory viruses. This idea was eventually disproven, of course, but by then thousands of families had endured the loss of the right to bury their loved one.
I was struck then by a pattern I continued to see during the pandemic: a real, known, present human good, a familial and spiritual good—burying the dead, in this case—was sacrificed on the altar of a theoretical, unknown, future biological risk. It was obvious we were harming the family by this refusal; yet the mere potential for some type of medical risk, a potential that was in fact scientifically groundless, trumped this clear and present harm.
This was the biosecurity paradigm of governance at work. I was dumbstruck by this manifestation of our new sanitary terror. Many recall that we were not permitted to attend funerals during lockdowns, and this was bad enough. Fewer are aware that for several months people were not permitted to bury their loved ones at all, whether they could attend the funeral service or not. Not since the time of Antigone had Western nations forbidden citizens to bury the dead.
Fran’s review then delves into the biblical roots of the concept of human dignity before returning to the content of The New Abnormal. He reviews my professional bio and then explains:
Kheriaty recounts his personal battle with the University of California midway through his book’s second chapter. It makes for powerful reading. But it’s simply one course in a much larger meal. The real genius of the text is the way Kheriaty weaves his own experience into a broader analysis and critique of—in his words—“the coming technocratic dystopia.” From anyone other than a medical expert who was an early target of that dystopia, the content of The New Abnormal might sound alarmist; in the hands of Kheriaty, it’s exhaustive in factual detail and deeply persuasive.
The author argues that in many ways the Covid lockdowns were unnecessary, scientifically dubious, and counterproductive. The collusion of government institutions, pharmaceutical companies, and mass media outlets—not to mention the profiteering made possible thereby—was ethically inexcusable. The degree of social control brought to bear on the general population was both unwarranted medically and unprecedented in peacetime conditions. But it did serve as a dry run for the emerging biomedical security regime; a glimpse of future “state of emergency” actions by government agencies more or less independent of any congressional supervision. Government has its own chronic addiction—to more government—and if Covid could be cast as a public health emergency demanding exceptional state interventions, then why not the climate crisis?
In his sections on “biosecurity newspeak,” “biodigital surveillance,” and “the transhumanist dream,” the author details the growing corruption of public discourse, the systematic invasion of personal privacy, and the hollowing out of classic Hippocratic medicine by technocratic presumptions—all driven by a compulsive and ultimately irrational safetyism, but serving other, more ambitious control agendas as well.
He concludes the review with reference to two of the most important works of the 20th Century, which I draw upon extensively in the book:
By the end of The New Abnormal, the reader perceives that our leaders and the rest of us seem to live in two different countries. Most us still imagine society as a community of reasonably intelligent, reasonably independent individuals capable of managing their own affairs. Many of those in our expert class profess the same; but down deep, in the secret crevices of their hearts, they have a hankering for the cattle-management model Aldous Huxley captured so vividly in Brave New World and C. S. Lewis imagined in The Abolition of Man. Modern life is so very complex, after all, and the guidance of experts is so obviously sensible and efficient—especially if you’re not one of the cattle.
In Lewis’s words, “if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be.” Such a debased humanity would be a very long way from the dignity of Genesis. But that, in the view of Kheriaty, is the path we’re now on. We don’t have to stay on it, though. And internalizing this extraordinary book will begin the process of changing course.
You can read the entire review here. Aside from my book which occasioned the article, Fran Maier’s piece is a thoughtful and deep reflection on contemporary culture and the challenges we face in defending the inalienable and unique dignity of every human person in an age that too often treats human beings as mere raw material.