an Olympic final in basketball, not unlike the one last summer
between the United States and France. The score is tied in the final
minutes, and tension is mounting among the flag-waving partisans in
is in possession of the ball when something strange happens. A sudden
fog descends upon the play. The fans stand up to see what’s
happening on the court. They try to clear away the fog with their
hands, but to no avail.
the fog finally clears a few frustrating minutes later, the game
appears to be over. Players from both sides lie on the court,
injured, some of them badly.
referees confer. They make an announcement.
is no winner.
not a tie. There will be no overtime. The result of the game is
fans stamp their feet and howl. It doesn’t matter. This year,
there will be no medal winners: no gold, no silver, no bronze.
course, this scenario is absurd. The Olympics are designed
specifically to produce winners. Individuals and teams battle one
another to achieve clear and undisputed victories. There is no such
fog in sports.
real life, however, undisputed victories are rare. In real life, the
fog of war or the fog of disease or the fog of recession descends
upon the populace. There are countless casualties. And in the end, no
one is declared a winner.
that doesn’t prevent politicians from attempting to prove their
decisiveness and the efficacy of their policies by announcing that
they have accomplished one mission or another.
year on July 4, for example, Joe Biden declared a kind of victory
over COVID-19 in his speech celebrating Independence Day. “Today,
while the virus hasn’t been vanquished, we know this: It no
longer controls our lives, it no longer paralyzes our nation and it’s
within our power to make sure it never does so again,” he said.
was, like George W. Bush’s infamous
of “mission accomplished” in the Iraq War on May 1, 2003,
a premature pronouncement. Several new variants of COVID-19
subsequently swept through the United States. Around 400,000
Americans have died of the disease since Biden’s announcement –
that’s more than any country other than India and Brazil has
lost during the entire pandemic.
month, the United States is passing
the grim milestone
of a million COVID deaths, the largest total of any country. With
another super-infectious variant on the rise, Americans might well be
asking themselves, “What does victory in the fight against
COVID look like?”
a question that echoes across other landscapes. What does victory
look like in Ukraine? What does victory look like in the war on
poverty? And have we already lost the right to even consider what a
victory over climate change might be?
thick fog of indeterminacy has descended upon the human race, and we
all shudder to imagine the casualties that lie behind this particular
veil of ignorance.
Failures of the Pandemic Era
was easy to blame Donald Trump for the astonishing failures of the
United States at the outset of the COVID pandemic. As president, he
was slow to react to the crisis, prone to believe puerile nonsense
rather than scientific evidence, and reliant for the most part on
advisors who were similarly ill-equipped to handle serious matters.
there was an underlying problem that predated Trump. The United
States had a data collection problem.
the podcast 99%
in a recent episode,
the United States did not have a system in place when COVID-19 hit
that could provide even the most basic health information such as
infection rate, number of tests, and rate of hospitalization. States
gathered some of this information but there was no federal
clearinghouse for the data. In response, a group of volunteers had to
step in to form the COVID
to collect the info from the states.
information was necessary for such basic steps as contact tracing,
allocation of resources, and accurate projections. The United States
could do none of this properly. It was as if a fog had indeed
descended on the country, for policymakers and healthcare
professionals were in the dark about how to minimize the impact of
the new pathogen.
to the volunteers, the data collection became more precise. But
absent a federal initiative to set up a robust emergency response
system, the data didn’t necessarily help responders navigate in
give one example, I received an automated contact-tracing call last
fall approximately 10 days after a possible exposure. I was informed
that someone on the Amtrak train I’d taken to Massachusetts had
contracted the disease. I was not told whether I’d been sitting
next to the infected person or six cars away. And the ten days
between potential exposure and notification provided me with ample
opportunity to unwittingly pass the disease on to others.
the introduction of vaccines, a different problem has handicapped
Americans. Of the people who died since Biden’s announcement on
July 4, approximately 60 percent could have survived exposure if
they’d simply gotten vaccinated beforehand, according
to a Kaiser Family Foundation study.
With the blood of over 200,000 people on its hands, the anti-vax
movement has been the most successful mass murderer in modern U.S.
this way, the fog of missing information was replaced by the fog of
these two problems, our “victory” over COVID will not
come any day soon. And when it does take place, it will likely
resemble our efforts to defeat influenza/pneumonia (over
50,000 deaths in 2020),
gun violence (around
in 2020) or the opioid crisis (over
from overdose in 2021). Even as the COVID mortality rates decline,
the disease will remain endemic as the deadly background static to
in Europe Day?
Russian government celebrated its victory over Nazi Germany this week
by parading soldiers through the center of Moscow. Russian President
Vladimir Putin gave a speech defending his invasion of Ukraine by
connecting it to the battle against the Nazis 80 years ago.
are fighting for our Motherland, its future,” he told
the gathered troops, “so that nobody forgets the lessons of
World War II, so that there is no place in the world for torturers,
death squads and Nazis.” Given the war crimes that Russian
troops have committed in Ukraine, Putin’s remarks were
positively Goebbels-like in their disinformation.
the outset of this latest phase of the war against Ukraine, Putin has
defined “victory” in maximalist terms: the absorption of
as much of the country as possible into Russia proper and the
replacement of the “Nazi” government in Kyiv. Thwarted in
his land grab by a determined Ukrainian population, Putin has now
focused on consolidating Russian control over what modest territorial
gains his military has made in the eastern Donbas region and along
the southern coast connecting Crimea to the Russian mainland.
Kremlin may well redefine “victory” to connote a “frozen
conflict” like the ones in Georgia and Moldova. There, Russia
has managed to diminish the sovereignty and geopolitical
maneuverability of two countries by supporting secession movements
within their territories. It is now in the process of applying this
model to Ukraine. A military stalemate at new borders favorable to
Russia, border changes unrecognized by the international community,
and a Ukraine so hobbled by the conflict that it remains a shadow of
its former self: that seems to be Putin’s new game plan.
Ukraine, “victory” also has its minimalist and maximalist
versions. According to the minimalist scenario, negotiations yield a
ceasefire, the Kremlin stops shelling Ukrainian cities, and Russian
troops are pushed from as much of Ukraine as possible. But there are
some in Ukraine who would prefer to take advantage of all the new
weaponry pouring into the country to expel Russia completely,
including from the Donbas and Crimea.
all the horrors that have taken place so far in the Ukraine war, it’s
hard to talk of “victory” in any absolute sense. Russian
troops out (of as much of Ukraine as possible) and an end to the
killing on the one hand and Ukrainian neutrality on the other might
be the closest thing to a viable compromise that negotiators can
achieve at this point. Both sides will have sustained considerable
death and economic damage. There’s no victory in that.
over the Planet?
have long waged a war of conquest against this planet. We have
invaded pristine places, killed the species that preceded us, dug up
the buried treasure, and despoiled the landscape like drunken,
pillaging soldiers. Then we have had the gall to hold press
conferences to declare “victory” in the form of
“extraordinary economic progress.”
“victory,” however, has given us an enormous hangover in
the form of climate change. The headaches are myriad: droughts and
forest fires and superstorms and the drip-drip water torture of
rising seas. Our hangover cure has been to maintain the addiction to
over-consumption but change the drug of choice from fossil fuels to
something more “sustainable” like lithium (for
batteries). Talk about hair of the dog.
Green New Deals in the Global North are presented as “win-win”
policies that pull people out of poverty and save the planet at the
same time. That would indeed be a win-win, but again the fog of
wishful thinking obscures the fact that communities throughout the
Global South are making all the sacrifices to achieve this “victory”
over climate change. Of course, a continued reliance on fossil fuels
would produce a blowout loss, so indeterminate outcomes are better
than obviously bad ones.
let’s focus on the fog for a moment.
his novel The
Kazuo Ishiguro imagines a strange English past in which a
memory-destroying mist has settled upon the land. This fog has the
singular quality of suppressing all memory of past animosities in a
population divided between warring Saxons and Britons. It’s a
powerful metaphor for the amnesia that societies experience, from one
generation to the next, that allows them both to go to war (who
remembers the atrocities of the last conflict?) and to establish some
semblance of peace (who remembers why we even went to war last
the fog of forgetfulness is settling on a supposedly post-COVID
America as airline passengers throw their masks in the air in
jubilation and celebrities gather for super-spreader events even as
attending super-spreader events. It’s astonishing that, while
living through the worst disease outbreak in
Americans are doing whatever they can to normalize the horror.
fog of forgetfulness has also settled on the Russian soldiers who
have marched out to slaughter their neighbors, the very people their
leader has identified as their brothers and sisters. What happened to
the bonds of intermarriage, of economic trade, of mutual tourism?
fog of forgetfulness has allowed humanity to collectively spew more
carbon emissions in 2021
than ever before in history, after annual output actually decreased
sharply during the pandemic in 2020.
naïve to expect that we can declare victory over all these
different fogs. Such fogs seem to be a constitutive part of the human
experience. And, of course, a little fog can be useful sometimes. If
we thought about nothing but the horrors of the pandemic—the
suffering, the death—we might not be able to get out of bed in
consider what must happen on the frontiers of Europe, after the last
shots are fired and the last war crimes are investigated. Eventually
Russians and Ukrainians will again have to learn how to live side by
side peaceably. No one will celebrate that day, just as the French
and the Germans do not commemorate the moment when they began to
forget all of their mutual atrocities. But it will be a kind of