By Eugène E.
There’s a memorable scene in Camus’s The Plague in which two doctors are conferring about the strange disease ravaging their town. The epidemic, of course, is plague, but most people in the Algerian seaside city of Oran are not yet ready to recognize it as such. Dr. Rieux, the narrator and the novel’s unsung hero, understands that it’s plague, but is not quite prepared to admit it, while his interlocutor, a seasoned doctor, is well past the denial phase and calls a spade a spade. With deft, vivid strokes, Camus shows how the population of Oran crumbles under the epidemic, physically as well as psychologically. Each stage of the city’s battle with the plague, from denial and disbelief to resignation and eventual delivery from the epidemic, is meticulously charted.
The novel’s profundity stems from its allegorical dimension. As the novel was written just after World War II, it has been all too tempting to interpret the plague as a symbol of the occupation of France by Nazi Germany or perhaps as a symbol of fascist ideology as such (which is exactly what was done by one Dutch writer in a superficial book that came out recently). Many great works of art tend to offer not one, but numerous interpretations (which also exposes them to charges of intellectual promiscuity), and every interpretation that is made runs the risk of revealing as much about the tastes and biases of the interpreter as it does about the work that is being interpreted. But then giving up interpretations of literary texts is tantamount to giving up literary analysis as such; and while I don’t pretend that my own interpretation of The Plague is so unique that it will circumvent the risk of betraying my own biases, whatever they are, the urgency imposed on us by recent events compels me to make the interpretation.
The plague in Camus’s novel is a hostile element that wreaks havoc with the environment in which it chooses to settle. It need not necessarily be fascist ideology; it can be any ideology that, like a python, coils around the body of its victim and constricts it. This is what the plague does in Camus’s Oran, and this is what ultraliberalism is doing to Western societies today. After all, ultraliberal policies also come with a body count (e.g., due to the crime and terrorist activity committed by those migrants from the third world who should have never been allowed to enter Western countries, but who were admitted regardless because welcoming them was perceived, for ideological reasons, as the right thing to do), and it’s a body count that continues to grow on a regular basis. Moreover, the long-term effects of ultraliberal policies are incalculable. As the impact that an invidious ideology (as symbolized by the plague) has on its victims is described poignantly in The Plague, the novel should be required reading for anyone trying to step back from the current state of affairs and cast a critical eye upon it.
Toronto, Canada’s largest city, has seen a massive spike in gun-related homicides this year in comparison to the same period in 2017. Locally, this has been discussed at length. What has been discussed far less, at least at the official level, is that these crimes seem largely to have been committed by black men, although the racial factor is actively downplayed. What does it mean? First, let’s make sure we understand what this doesn’t mean. It does not mean that acknowledging this reality is racist. It does not mean that all black men are gun-toting criminals. And it certainly does not mean that it is acceptable to stigmatize blacks, or produce sweeping generalizations about this or that group, particularly as the victims have also tended to be black. But it does mean that accusing whites of racism and discrimination (the raison d’être of groups such as Black Lives Matter) while violence continues to fester in the black community – accusing whites of systemic racism is not particularly constructive. It also means that if a certain group is overrepresented when it comes to violent crime, public policy should take that reality into account when it is formulated. For instance, is racial profiling efficient? I do not have sufficient information to answer this question; but if its efficacy can be demonstrated, then it should be an option. If it can be proved conclusively that racial profiling will make society safer, does it make sense to eschew it just because the ultraliberal ideology holds that it’s wrong?
These days it takes a Dr. Rieux to say that it doesn’t, and this hypothetical Dr. Rieux will have to confront the plague of modern times – ultraliberalism. Mention the possible benefits of racial profiling, for instance, and get ready to be hauled over the coals. Ultraliberals pursue an “ostrich policy”, choosing to bury their heads in the sand rather than question any items on their ideological checklist or accept anything that might offend their cherished sensibilities. To accomplish this, they might shift the blame or turn things upside down. For example, when confronted with the problem of gun violence in certain neighborhoods, ultraliberals are wont to explain it away by a lack of funding – these violent youths simply need more money thrown at them. It is not their fault that they grow up to become trigger-happy criminals; rather, it’s the corrosive nature of their environment that is responsible. A sensible explanation – but one that should lead us to ask why the nature of their environment is corrosive. Are there certain endogenous factors particular to the black community that give rise to this sort of corrosiveness? After all, the city is not seeing the same problems with, say, its Chinese diaspora. But don’t bother asking these questions – not only will you not get an answer, but you might also be called a racist for good measure. Opposition and dissent are not tolerated; like Camus’s plague, ultraliberalism is peremptory and unyielding. Like the plague, it doesn’t bother with reason; it simply crushes you.
No amount of statistics will convince ultraliberals that they are wrong. In Camus’s opus, the plague first decimates Oran’s rat population before upgrading to the human species. Even so, as an increasing number of the town’s residents succumb to buboes and an eventual death, the medical establishment of Oran, with the exception of a few solitary courageous voices, continues to deny that the city is afflicted with plague. For them, there’s either no problem or the problem has a name that is decidedly not plague. In the meantime, the death toll continues to mount. Likewise, the authorities take a similar approach to the problem of gun violence in Toronto. It’s a complex problem, to be sure, but we will never begin working towards a workable solution until we can at least muster the courage to acknowledge reality as it is and not as some ideologues wish it to be. Alas, like any ideology with a totalitarian bent, ultraliberalism seeks to fashion reality after the dictates of its agenda rather than after the truth. As the city struggles to address the spurt of violence, there’s been a lot of talk about various social initiatives, proposed meetings with “stakeholders”, and even discussions of the possibly cyclical nature of homicides in Toronto – as one social scientist has proceeded to explain, instead of jumping to conclusions, we should be mindful of patterns. Peaks and troughs, that kind of thing, you see. In the meantime, people continue to get shot and killed.
There have been two major “death sprees” in Toronto this year, a city that until recently had been spared this ugly side of modern society. In the first attack, a van drove into a crowd in the north of the city; in the second, a lone shooter opened fire on people enjoying a Sunday night out along a busy strip in the city’s Greek neighborhood. Terrorism does not appear to have been a factor in either attack, but this does not invalidate the argument that the whole notion of “Toronto the Good”, as the city was once called, has been laid to rest. A society in which such attacks are possible is a broken society, but that, too, cannot be admitted.
As I write these very lines, the authorities in Sweden are looking into what looks like a coordinated series of acts involving the destruction of as many as eighty vehicles, which were set on fire last night across Sweden. This has been blamed on “roaming gangs” in the country’s less privileged neighborhoods. Who are these itinerant hoodlums? Local authorities are timid when it comes to this sort of disclosure, but others are less hesitant. An article in The Telegraph, hardly a bastion of the far right, discusses the abscesses that are the Swedish neighborhoods populated by immigrants from the third world(https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/02/23/wont-admit-stockholm-donald-trump-right-immigration-sweden/). “Shadow societies, mafia courts, and gangland killings and conundrums like how to handle adult refugees who turn up with a child bride in tow” – there it is, the price of multicivilizationalism and an immigration policy gone wrong. But this will not be recognized: Swedish media rarely mention the civilizational component when reporting on local crime, and the Swedish prime minister reacted to the vandalized cars by asking the perpetrators just “what the hell” they were doing. Well, that’s one way to react. I suppose we should be glad that it was property they were setting on fire, and not people. But then the plague is insatiable; it never stops of its own accord unless it’s fought and viciously resisted.
In the novel, as it becomes clear that the plague is here to stay and as Oran undergoes a blockade (the city has been shut off from the outside world to prevent contagion), Camus paints a confused city that is slowly drowning in lassitude. The people of Oran have lost the ability to make choices and value-based judgments (“Autrement dit, ils ne choisissaient plus rien. La peste avait supprimé les jugements de valeur.”), so much that they no longer even bother to take proper care of themselves. They now accept everything wholesale (“On acceptait tout en bloc”). People who accept everything wholesale cannot be free.
Ultraliberal thought has had the same effect on us. We have turned into discombobulated sleepwalkers whose faculties of making choices and adjudicating values have been severely impaired. We no longer seem to be in touch with our destinies; we know neither who we are nor where we are going, eager as we are to submit to a hippie agenda that seeks to negate all differences, erase geographic borders, and do away with all moral precepts, all in order to create a homogenized group of pill-popping consumers without any sense of identity or the wholeness that one gets with a sense of identity. Western civilization – the European man and all the traditions he’s spawned – must fade into oblivion; in its place, everything that is non-European, untraditional, and unconventional must be feted and greeted with open arms, regardless of how silly, misguided, or dangerous it might be. It’s not enough that North America has embraced this global rainbow state; so has Europe, and so must the rest of the world. The plague is going global.
In the end, things work out for the city of Oran, though they certainly don’t work out for all of its denizens. The plague is defeated, and the reader is treated to an orgiastic picture of the celebrations that follow the city’s liberation from the epidemic. Not everyone’s celebrating, however: the long-suffering Dr. Rieux is far more reticent. He knows that the plague never disappears forever; it only retreats. Sooner or later, it rears its ugly head again. Dr. Rieux is wiser than the other inhabitants of Oran, and so he knows that such are the ulcerations that accompany the human condition, and that there’s little to be done about it except for do one’s duty and hope for the best. But “the plague” will never be completely eradicated; it’s in our bloodstream. We are always at risk of getting reinfected, always at risk of getting the plague. The city of Oran is ultimately spared. Will our civilization be spared as well?