I’ve had a difficult time explaining exactly what it is I’m mourning. As with many things, it’s not that I don’t want to talk about it; it’s that I haven’t yet found a way to do so that feels true and satisfactory. But time is short and I want to trap this feeling of being on the periphery in amber. I want to be able to examine it in months or years as something tangible – something that felt murky and hard but eventual, worthy – in case it all goes bad. The dream was real once, within the realm of the adjacent possible, and that will stay true even if it won’t ever be achievable again.
In that spirit, here is a building block that is true:
The summer before my last year in college, it came out that a partial Hepatitis B vaccination campaign was either harnessed or construed in an attempt to identify the presence of Osama bin Laden in his compound via genetic tracing through his children. At the time I was a mediocre and indecisive bioengineer, latching on to international health as a motive for design and action, but still irrevocably drawn to human systems: how to forge big ones that work, & how to stop them from so dramatically falling over themselves over after complacency settles. So all of this prompted the sort of bizarre aspiration that can be spirited into being when you are 21 and just old enough to feel formed, but then everything shakes and you’re stunned lucid.
In any case – I decided that I wanted to ultimately work to gain the sort of credence where, when faced with a similar dilemma, I could somehow summon the bravery to say at the precise moment that mattered and with the experience and evidence to somehow make it real: hey, let’s think about this, and then once we do that together, let’s not do it.
There is always someone who says that (and in this particular instance, you can play clue as to who). But there is rarely someone who manages stops the thing. The dream and nightmare scenarios aren’t hard to come by. Most of them happen in miniature: there are rarely, aside from this Bad Time, throes of dead vaccinators left in the wake.
The players that are seemingly at odds in these scenarios have so many of the same end goals: human prosperity, stable communities, mitigation of violence. And so if preventing the (diseased) chickens from coming home to roost is of common interest, the failure to do so in practice falls to faulty persuasion.
You have to believe that if you want to think it possible.1
It was such a nice dream, but the whole thing hinged on a few things that don’t exist anymore in good faith: 1) an pursuit of truth unfettered by infinite limits 2) a globally dominant military superpower that does not align with countries that bomb hospitals as strategy 3) a slow-but-steady reduction in contradiction.
To expect a behemoth to be devoid of contradiction is naïve (see: Kahneman on beliefs) and to neglect the strategic deployment of cognitive dissonance in foreign policy is self-limiting in both power and promise. But there are some things where the best defense remains a simultaneously shamed and hypomanically striving superpower standing at attention in opposition, ready to do better and reconciling inconsistencies throughout the slow trek toward More Perfect. There is the possibility of some ultimate saving grace rooted in “the possibility of redemption, and the existential belief that we can remake ourselves.”2
I am more apocalyptic than most about all of this. Maybe I’ve spent too much time banging around proxy-whatever autocracies to keep a straight head; maybe I’m trying to superimpose ghost tactics on a circus; maybe I’m underestimating the role serendipity can play during a bad spot in a cyberwar. But I do not foresee a placid recovery of sovereignty without either an unprecedented summoning of self-disinterested courage. I do not forsee a non-unipolar global plurality capable of waging peace, fighting disease, enforcing norms, inspiring a global reckoning of by-the-people-for-the-people for decades. I do not, in other words, expect anyone to fill the shoes we have collectively forsaken.
As an individual, all of this leaves me feeling less guarded than ever (and yet more guarded than ever?) in my current pursuit. Eradication remains outstanding among uniquely human endeavors: how – ever, but so especially now – do you do something permanent? Once gained, what cause stays put? This whole thing is a ruse, a biological quirk, a way of thumbing one’s nose at Eliot:
“If we take the widest and wisest view of a Cause, there is no such thing as a Lost Cause, because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause. We fight for lost causes because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors’ victory, though that victory itself will be temporary; we fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that it will triumph.”
This is an exercise in how to keep up the good fight past the point of exhaustion, when it’s all but finished: be that against polio when the Taliban says to stop, or Solzhenitsyn semi-satisfied in the first circle, or when gross worms that spend a year growing through you until they come out of your feet but they’ll be wiped out when everyone gets water eventually so why keep it up, or whatever Nazis Harrison Ford neglected to deal with in total.
Five years later, I’m writing this from another country home to deserts & drones, working toward eradication of a different disease, fighting tooth and nail against short-term gain in favor of our better angels. My house looks a lot like that compound. No vaccines, here, but the same beats and barriers: gumshoeing, diligence, consistency, nervous and prophetic faith.
I’m still a sea or two apart, and it’s hard to feel useful from here. I run my monthly 10GB of data totally dry, streaming senate hearings and chirping at legislative voicemail boxes. We (countable on one hand) thought about protesting outside the Embassy but were self-hampered in that a) they would have all loved it and b) there was a shooting a bit ago and I prefer not to be arrested in futility.
And so here’s to shoring fragments against the ruins. May we strive to do better, to rebuild, to resist – to hone the purity of our intentions, and summon the courage to navigate these uncharted waters unbroken. It won’t be easy, and we would never want it to be. Life would be so dull.
- There’s something to this, fable & folly aside
- Thieved: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/16/books/obamas-secret-to-surviving-the-white-house-years-books.html