I recently unlocked two paid editions of this newsletter, an essay about the future of late night and an essay about the future of improv. If you like that sort of thing, six bucks a month will get you a lot more:
In the 1960s NASA prepared for the moon landing with a series of incremental missions. Apollo 6 tested the launch vehicle. Apollo 7 tested the command module in earth orbit; Apollo 8 tested it in lunar orbit. Apollo 9 took the combined command module and lunar module on a test drive in earth orbit. Then Apollo 10 took them on a jaunt around the moon, ensuring everything would function during the landing mission itself. By the time Apollo 11 lifted off, every part of its journey had been carefully tested and retested. The rest, well, it’s history.
Practice, practice, practice. It’s important! We all do it, we all love it. Runners practice for the big race. Violinists rehearse for the big concerto. Fishermen, I can only assume, test their skills on smaller fish before graduating to the big ones. Without practice, you might get something wrong, maybe even disastrously wrong. Without practice, people might die.
Can a pandemic be a form of practice? Joe Rogan and Elon Musk say yes:
JOE ROGAN: Do you think that in a sense, the one good thing that we might get out of this is the realization that this is a potential reality? That we got lucky in the sense? I mean people that didn’t get lucky and died, of course I’m not disrespecting their death and their loss, but I’m saying overall as a culture, as a community, as a human race, as a community, this is not as bad as it could have been. This is a good dry run for us to appreciate that we need far more resources dedicated towards understanding these diseases, what to do in the case of pandemic, and much more money that goes to funding treatments and some preventative measures.
ELON MUSK: Yeah, absolutely. And I think there’s a good chance, it’s highly likely, I think, coming out of this that we will develop vaccines that we didn’t have before for coronaviruses, other viruses, and possibly cures for these. And our understanding of viruses of this nature has improved dramatically because of the attention that it’s received. So there’s definitely a lot of silver linings here.
ROGAN: Potentially, if we act correctly.
MUSK: Yeah. I think there will be a massive lining of here no matter what. Hopefully we can be more of a silver lining than less.
MUSK: So yeah, this is just kind of like a practice run for something that might in the future have a serious, like a really high mortality rate and we kind of got to go through this without it being something that kills vast numbers of young healthy people.
Until now I have understood practice to denote the act of developing and honing practices, generally in a low-stakes environment, such that one is able to competently employ them when the stakes are high, like in an audition or archery match or earthquake. What I have learned from Rogan and Musk, two intellectual heavyweights with millions of devoted worshipers, is that practice also refers to massive systems failures that result in thousands of daily deaths. How? Because they remind us that it is bad when systems fail, and we should try to make them not fail in the future, or else even more people will die, and I don’t just mean old and sick people!
Ah wait—I just remembered. That’s not practice. That’s “a lesson.” Practice is when you try to do a thing well. A lesson is what you learn when you do it poorly, for instance by not shutting down your state in time to mitigate community spread, establishing a mass testing and tracing apparatus, or giving businesses enough money to keep their employees on payroll.
It’s easy to get confused here. Lessons are the product of failure, which means they are often also the product of practice. But they are also the product of not practicing. We have to be clear about which type of lesson we’re dealing with, lest we mistake earnest efforts with catastrophic negligence. (See: Andrew Cuomo laundering his mismanagement of the pandemic’s epicenter into national acclaim.) Are thousands of people dying every day because authorities reacted slowly and incompletely? Or were they going to die sooner or later, the authorities overreached, and there’s no point in staying home or wearing a mask? You can see how easy it is to get confused, especially if you don’t think 80,000 deaths is really all that much.
In their defense, Rogan and Musk are deeply ignorant. They call this a “dry run” because they see nationwide shelter-in-place orders as an overcorrection that may, someday, be appropriate to a virus that kills enough people to merit such drastic measures. The pandemic is tragic, Rogan keeps saying, but it’s not as bad as experts told us it would be. Both insist that as awful as the deaths are, it’s mostly the old and infirm who are dying, which Musk describes explicitly as less tragic than the deaths of young and healthy people. He also harps on an erroneous talking point about hospitals inflating death counts for Medicare money—
MUSK: Because the list of symptoms that could be Covid at this point is like a mile long. So, it’s hard to, if you’re ill at all it’s like you could recover it. So, just to give people better information. Definitely diagnosed with Covid or had Covid like symptoms. We’re conflating those two so that it looks bigger than it is. Then if somebody dies, was Covid a primary cause of the death or not? I mean, if somebody has Covid, gets eaten by a shark, we find their arm, their arm has Covid, it’s going to get recorded as a Covid death.
ROGAN: Is that real?
ROGAN: Not that bad, but heart attacks, strokes—
MUSK: You get hit by a bus.
MUSK: If you get hit by a bus, go to the of the hospital and die, and they find that you have Covid, you will be recorded as a Covid death.
ROGAN: Why would they do that, though?
MUSK: Well right now, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I mean, it’s mostly paved with bad intentions, but there’s some good intentions… in there, too. And the stimulus bill that was intended to help with the hospitals that were being overwrought with Covid patients created an incentive to record something as Covid that is difficult to say no to, especially if your hospital’s going bankrupt for lack of other patients. So, the hospitals are in a bind right now. There’s a bunch of hospitals, they’re furloughing doctors, as you were mentioning. If your hospital’s half full, it’s hard to make ends meet. So now you’ve got like, “If I just check this box, I get $8,000. Put them on a ventilator for five minutes, I get $39,000 back. Or, I got to fire some doctors.” So, this is tough moral quandary. It’s like, what are you going to do? That’s the situation we have.
—a conspiracy theory that Rogan repeats in a subsequent episode with fellow coronavirus denier Brendan Schaub. It’s true hospitals receive additional funding for treating Covid-19 patients, but there is no evidence they are exaggerating deaths. Meanwhile there’s abundant evidence that the global death toll is far greater than the official count.
Rogan and Musk want to reassure us that things are not so bad, when in fact things are worse. They insist federal and local responses were too much, when in fact they were too little. This makes it difficult to take their “silver lining” very seriously. Sure, it’s good that we’ll be able to learn from what happened. It’s also going to be difficult to arrive at any consensus about what we’ve learned when people like Rogan and Musk are being lethally dishonest about what happened.
To make matters worse, they’re talking about the pandemic as if it’s almost over. In that interview with Schaub, Rogan says he wants to go to Utah and perform at comedy clubs that have already reopened, and they both scoff at the notion of audiences wearing masks. In truth the crisis is barely a few months old. People are going to die, daily, by the thousands, for quite a long time yet. What Rogan and Musk are doing is nothing short of conditioning their followers to accept those deaths. Don’t sweat it, they’re saying; you shouldn’t have to change your life to save someone else’s. But changing our lives is exactly the thing we have to practice now if we want to survive the next pandemic—and if we want to survive this one.
I acknowledge there is a grim realism to the idea that this is not as bad as it could have been. The virus could have been deadlier, yes. It could have been airborne, yes. Many millions more could be suffering, yes. This is the nature of things. They could all be worse. So I broke my leg; I could have broken both. So I broke both; I could have died in a volcano. This is not helpful information, especially if you are using it to argue for an end to leg-protection measures. To me it seems more like an excuse not to look in the other direction. So things could be worse; could they also be better? How? What can I do to improve them?
These are the questions people like Joe Rogan and Elon Musk should be asking. Instead they are complaining that not enough people are dying to warrant a fundamental rethinking of the way we live. I hope their followers have better sense than them.