Magazine April 20, 2020, Issue

‘A Disease Spread by the Rich’

Travelers crowd Newark International Airport, November 27, 2019. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
International travel and the coronavirus

For the classical Marxist, class conflict is everywhere: in economics, history, the critical reception of Portnoy’s Complaint, the McDonald’s all-day breakfast menu . . . The last of these recently has become a victim of the coronavirus epidemic: The iconic burger chain has temporarily streamlined its menu and relegated the Egg McMuffin to conventional breakfast hours, ending its round-the-clock status. There’s your class war in the decadent consumerist West: The virus may have flown here first-class on a transcontinental airliner, but it’s the salt-of-the-earth blue-collar McDonald’s customer hankering for midday hash browns who pays the price. 

He and the thousands, if not millions, who are going to die. 

Where the classical Marxist saw class war, the contemporary progressive speaks of “privilege,” which is a way of both enlarging and hardening the old Marxist analysis. The social-media conversation among the English-speaking Left is all-in on pandemic privilege: If you are lamenting your social isolation and enforced lockdowns, you are flaunting your privilege: that you have a home to be quarantined in. Don’t dare complain about the challenges of working remotely or the state of your 401(k). A bit of analysis said to be from an Indian physician (I cannot find the original; it may be a fabrication) that has been rocketing around lefty Twitter catalogues the sundry coronavirus privileges (hand-washing means you have running water, etc.) and concludes: “A disease spread by the rich as they flew around the globe will now kill millions of the poor.” 

Let us take the implicit moral argument about international travel seriously, if only for a moment. 

This is not the first time the moral-political dimensions of travel have cropped up at the edges of lefty discourse. And there is good reason for that: If you believe that carbon emissions are an existential threat to the human species as a whole, then you really should be very down on international travel, which is one of the most carbon-intensive things a person in the affluent parts of the world is likely to do. A European who takes a long-haul flight produces more carbon emissions in that single act than a typical Ugandan does over the course of a year’s living. A Guardian article citing a study from Atmosfair, a German nonprofit, reports that a round-trip flight from New York City to London individually produces more carbon dioxide emissions (strictly from the jet fuel and excluding other greenhouse gases or the “embedded” carbon from manufacturing the airliner, the associated facilities, etc.) than the average resident of at least 56 different countries does in a year. If your top-tier issues are climate change and “inequality,” then this should concern you. 

The problem, of course, is that progressivism in the United States is a luxury good, an item of conspicuous consumption for relatively affluent and educated urban elites. In response to my criticism of Emma Thompson and other celebrities who burn up tremendous amounts of fossil fuel to fly around the world denouncing fossil fuel, Jonathan Chait of New York magazine insisted that the “charge of hypocrisy is manifestly insipid”: “In general, individual choices have an infinitesimal impact on collective-action problems like greenhouse-gas emissions. In this particular case, Thompson’s choice has either zero, or close to zero, impact.” This is, of course, obvious poppycock. Individual choices are what aggregate choices are made of, and, as we are seeing right this moment, changes in demand for air travel produce — surprise! — changes in the supply of air travel, in this case reductions in the number of flights offered, and, hence, in the emission of greenhouse gases produced by petroleum products. 

But progressive political magazines are not read by people who do not have passports; they are read by, and written by, people who condescend to the majority of Americans who do not have a passport: See Jack Fischl (“writer specializing in progressive masculinity”) in Mic, Richard Florida in The Atlantic, et al. New York magazine itself is full of travel features. “What’s the Best Cross-Body Travel Bag?” If you want to know, flip past the latest from Chait, which is good advice in any case. 

It has been said that accessible international travel is the cheap cologne of our time: It was only a few decades ago that the phrase “jet set” indicated wealth and glamour of a particularly modern and rarefied kind — completely at odds with reality as seen from seat 33B on American Airlines on any given Monday morning. What once was the preserve of the upper classes became democratized and vulgarized, and now every third Caitlyn at Lehigh University can run off to Vietnam or Cambodia or some other exotic place her grandfather desperately wanted never to see. All poor Lucy Jordan ever dreamt of doing was to “ride through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair.” I’ve rented a convertible in France, and it was a hell of a lot cheaper than going to Disney World or watching the Dolphins play at Hard Rock Stadium. (The wind was warm, the hair was sparse, I wore a hat.) But, still, this has been a limited kind of democratization: from wealthy businessmen and celebrities to a very wide and diverse selection of relatively high-income, college-educated white people in occasional want of expert advice about cross-body travel bags. 

The coronavirus epidemic already has produced calls for radically reforming the U.S. health-care system — but then, the American Left issues demands to radically reform the U.S. health-care system every time a rat passes gas in Brooklyn. The European systems our progressives profess to admire do not seem to be all that robust in the face of the epidemic, and the Swedes are taking a much more libertarian approach to things than you might have expected. On the right, the epidemic and our own shortcomings in dealing with it have been taken by some as an indictment of globalization, free trade, immigration — the whole Buchananite enchilada. I have not yet seen the great progressive “Coronavirus Is Really about Global Warming” essay, but I am sure it is already in first draft. These rhetorical projects are all weak in pretty obvious ways — they all have a very strong whiff of “Literally everything confirms my priors!” about them. 

But the guy complaining about how this is a disease spread by the footloose rich at the expense of the rooted poor has a point. The spread of the coronavirus is more intimately, directly, and unavoidably linked with international travel (and with travel more generally) than it is with trade, health-care benefits, the regulation of bulk paper goods, or any other issue of any real consequence. But, other than a little grumbling in the cheap seats, you will not hear very much about that. You might make a very good case for, e.g., laying a substantial per-departure/per-landing tax on overseas travel and using that money to fund epidemic-preparedness programs. You might believe that traveling overseas for fun ought to be considered socially akin to leaving the toilet without washing your hands. I myself do not want to see the U.S. government enacting any restrictions on Americans’ freedom to move about (including burdening that freedom financially), but, in principle, such ideas are both supportable and much more closely linked to the actual problem before us than are calls for sweeping health-care reform or vague agitation about “inequality.” 

But don’t expect to hear very much about that. 

One need not agree with the orthodox Marxists on every jot and tittle to concede and appreciate that the public-policy discourse inevitably reflects the interests, biases, and aspirations of those who dominate that conversation: relatively affluent and overwhelmingly college-educated people of precisely the sort for whom international travel is one of the most prized of all possible items of consumption. (As National Review’s resident Helvetiphile, I obviously do not exclude myself from this characterization. I’ll see you at Funky Claude’s when the plague subsides.) This is why the pages of the New York Times contain impassioned debates about Ivy League admission policies but relatively little about the dropout rate in New York City’s public schools, why you hear more about veganism on Twitter than about hunger. 

It is very difficult for us to find a place to stand outside ourselves, a perch from which we might look from the outside in on how we got into this situation and what we might learn from it. And there exists the real and woeful possibility that we will learn nothing at all from this, that we will spend the next several months trading “Hurray, Trump!” and “Boo, Trump!” and insisting that all these dead Americans only go to show you that we were right about tariffs or bank regulators or veganism all along. 

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