Polarity^2: COVID and Brimstone

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A terrific rain of fire and brimstone might be a scene symbolic of doom unmatched in the Judeo-Christian narrative. Close enough to the reality of volcanic eruptions, yet also the peak of supernatural firepower, it’s the ultimate moralizer that evokes ideas of eternal damnation. The biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah sees an entire society of sinners vaporize, disintegrating into smoke and cinders. Professor Martyn Smith of the Religious Studies department gave an interesting analysis of this portion of the Book of Genesis, saying that one way it can be read is as a commentary on the differences between rural and urban societies. Just a chapter before being introduced to the ferocity within the city-limits of Sodom and Gomorrah, we are painted an opposite picture. In this picture, we follow Abraham and his family, who live a nomadic and pastoral lifestyle. In harsh contrast to the sinful city folk, Abraham falls to his knees to treat three strangers with hospitality as they pass through on the way to Sodom and Gomorrah. 

While the differing cultural characters of urban and rural life is an interesting question to parse, it’s not a terribly productive one and the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is one of many conceptions. The idea shining through this story is how our cultural conceptions of urban and rural life have been at odds for millennia. This tracks to the modern-day U.S where we see relatively dense, populated urban areas voting Democrat; sparse rural spans going Republican; and any gradations in between that track to measures of distance and density. Various studies find these facts: that the closer a voter is to dense metropolitan areas, the more likely they are to vote blue, and that less densely-populated suburbs swing red. 

COVID and quarantine have brought measurements to the forefront of our decision-making in what is undeniably a time of great emotional distress. People worry about their bills as the unemployment rate spikes. We hear about the death tolls while looking at “infection maps.” In some of our most ubiquitous COVID restrictions, we return to these two principles discussed before: distance and density. Social distancing requires six feet space between individuals, and various limitations on the sizes of gatherings have been imposed throughout the pandemic.  

This segmentation of human bodies through distance and density makes social atomization, a broader intangible reality of our society, visibly manifest. Social atomization is the summation of two other intertwined societal issues: those of isolation and alienation. A broader definition of atomization is the process by which things are separated into smaller distinct units. Social atomization is how we understand this in society – people feeling isolated and alienated, which may, but need not, be related to the literal distance between people. 

It’s important to distinguish social atomization from population density and distance conceptually. While rural communities are mathematically less dense and farther apart, this doesn’t necessarily make them more or less tight-knit than urban communities. Especially in a modern context, atomization is so much more about the isolation and alienation of individuals from each other. In a time in history where people are able to be lost in the black mirrors of phone and computer screens for countless hours (talking with people from any end of our globalized community), it’s less relevant whether they live in a farmhouse or a tenement. 

Political polarization certainly predates COVID, but the overt atomization of COVID has in many ways taken the mask off to the nature of these issues of polarization and atomization. We hear a lot of talk these days about the “separate realities” that the two sides of the political spectrum seem to be living in, especially the harshly oppositional views over wearing a mask. There is a lot of hyperbolic rhetoric about the mandates surrounding COVID. It’s common to hear the word Orwellian used in reference to the use of strong executive power, referencing predominantly George Orwell’s book 1984. Strong uses of executive power (even for the common good as with COVID restrictions) could be charitably interpreted as authoritarian, which we define as: “the enforcement or advocacy of strict obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom,” however the term Orwellian and references to the book 1984 specify a totalitarian state. 

Totalitarianism may be the absolute realization of authoritarianism, but is still distinct enough that it’s worthwhile to not simply treat it as synonymous with “very authoritarian.” Totalitarianism is defined as “a system of government that is centralized and dictatorial and requires complete subservience to the state.” I don’t think there is any part of our government that gets close to meriting even a worthwhile provocative comparison here. Our American obsession with freedom of speech, popular disdain for the government from all parts of the political spectrum and aforementioned polarization would indicate a government much different than one that “requires complete subservience to the state.”  

From here we can return to the notion of atomization. In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism, political theorist Hannah Arendt notes in her analysis of the totalitarian states of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia that “atomized individuals provide the basis for totalitarian rule.” One might then logically ask “if society is so atomized today, why are we not living in a totalitarian state?” I would argue that it’s because it is not the state that is causing a totalized atomization of society as it was for Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. While I mentioned that COVID mandates represent a form of atomization, they are heavily criticized and debated in political discourse, and nowhere near universally followed, so this is not our totalitarianism either. If our government were attempting to instill totalitarian doctrines, it would be failing spectacularly.  

I would argue that the totalizing and atomizing force for many today is the escape into social media and the internet. While I’m not arguing that we’re all slaves to some ideology held by “big tech,” I think that social media and the internet beg that we use them because of convenience and dopamine to name two broad reasons (that being said, the internet is so vast that there are many ways you could interpret its effect on society). The internet has become an industry standard, providing a convenience like no other to communicate and work efficiently from any part of the globe. In line with this convenience, we can get sucked in for more mindless and frivolous reasons than we may want to admit. This is ultimately what can atomize, isolate and alienate us more from the living, breathing society around us.  

COVID mandates haven’t pushed us into ideation of the government’s exercise of power – not even close – they’ve just given us more reason to turn back to the constant news cycle on Twitter, embrace the convenience of Amazon delivery or see the efficiency in talking to relatives over Zoom rather than in person.  

All of this is to argue the fairly obvious point that in-person relationships and communities hold an invaluable role in our life. Especially once the pandemic hopefully winds down, we need to be ready to re-embrace in person gatherings and time spent outside. This is 100% a clichéd point to make, but it’s a damn important one that we should not forget. I’d like to think that there is a lot to glean from this somewhat contrived way I got us back to this simple bit of conventional wisdom. From the narrative of Sodom and Gomorrah to the COVID pandemic, the ways in which we mentally segment ourselves from one another continue to hold an immense and intense place in our conceptions of reality.