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Monday, March 16, 2020

A Useful Post on Nothing-to-do-with-Coronavirus

I commend this very short post by Will Baude at the excellent, wish-they-posted-more-often, please-get-rid-of-the-comma blog Summary, Judgment. It's really more of an announcement, and this is the meat of it:

In the next few weeks I’ll likely be posting about some academic projects and other things that have nothing to do with the pandemic. (Unless dealing with the disruptions becomes so overwhelming that I stop posting at all.) That doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about it all the time, just that I have to make up for not being able to see Adam or the rest of you in real life.

Will being Will, it's a smart and short post. Me being me, I'll add some over-long reflections:

There is indeed value right now in posts, articles, newspaper pieces, and so on having nothing at all to do with the virus, the politics of the virus, the lifestyle changes engendered by the virus, online teaching, and so on. There is value in posts that do have to do with the virus. But it's worth remembering that part of "the new normal" is the word "normal." Whatever the right balance is, it needs to include the parts of our life that seem to go on no matter what. It needs to include the normal and the trivial, trivial of course being a part of what normal life entails. And by this I don't mean lifestyle pieces about what it's like to be a professional living in relative comfort under conditions of social distancing. Leaving aside the First-World-Problem-ness of it, there will be no shortage of such pieces out there in the New York Times and Chronicle of Higher Ed and other lifestyle publications. I mean the straight-up normal and trivial.

Of course these things are not the most urgent or important things in the world right now. That is why they are trivial, "normal"--and reassuring. Of course one can explicitly and impliedly note in such posts that other, more important things are happening. Of course I, like everyone else, am thinking right now of my family, my community, my students, the global community, my health and that of others; changing my habits; working on learning Zoom; etc.; etc. But insofar as this blog has always had a substantial component of "just some friends" hanging out, to quote the "About" page, and writing about some of the trivia of normal life as a lawprof, I should also acknowledge that I watched Jojo Rabbit with my family the other night, that I am enjoying the opportunity to yell at my kids more often to clean up their rooms, and so on. Terrible person that I am, I am looking forward to watching the first episode of the new season of Westworld. And I will use at least some of my extra time to do things like read my stack of to-be-read pieces from SSRN, even if they are about Alex Bickel and Legal Process theory (to take an interesting recent paper) and not about Life in an Age of Something-or-Other. People should not hesitate to spend at least some time writing about these things as well, not just "even-if" but "precisely-because" they're not the most important thing in the world. 

I don't think this is at all the same thing as putting one's head in the sand. I do think there is an element of whistling past the graveyard in it. Let us remember, though, that the first definition of that phrase means "to attempt to stay cheerful in a dire situation." There are good reasons to attempt to stay cheerful in a dire situation, and whistling is a healthy thing. Let us take some instruction from one of the best movies of all time, Sullivan's Travels--written and released in the wake of the Great Depression and on the eve of the American entry into World War II--and remember that precisely at times like this, there is a role for the "motley mountebanks, the clowns, the buffoons" [practically my job title], and that sometimes "Hey Hey in the Hayloft" is just as much needed as "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" A popular meme making the rounds these days says, "just remember that your grandparents were called to war; you are being called to sit on the couch and watch Netflix." True. But the troops themselves read a lot of books when they were at war, and many treasured Robert Benchley, Zane Grey, and Detective Story Magazine along with (or more than) more serious or relevant or propagandistic fare. And at home and abroad, people valued Glenn Miller and Vera Lynn. One needs some jazz trombone from time to time amidst the more martial trumpet blasts; it's no accident and surely no disgrace that even in hard-struck Italy, people sang into the street (from their windows and balconies, to be sure) in Siena.     

I should add that I sincerely appreciate the posts my Prawfs colleagues have offered and the links and pages that others have provided elsewhere. Aside from keeping up with the news, I am certainly learning from all the helpful guides that have been offered on how to transition to online teaching and make the experience most effective. (I do want to note that, as is often the case with explanatory material, installation manuals, etc., I often find that these guides sometimes start from too high a level of knowledge and/or manage to almost-but-not-quite answer the actual questions I have. I wouldn't mind some links to guides along the order of "Step One: Turn on your computer."!) I am grateful for those posts and links! If I have a friendly cavil, and I usually do, it's that I hope we can provide information and updates while going a little gentle on titles like "In a Time of Plague" or "Age of Coronavirus." I can already picture authors of already-written pieces adding a couple of paragraphs to the introduction and changing the title to add "in the Age of..." I hope law review editors will announce a rule limiting such titles to one per issue, and that conference organizers will institute reasonable but strictly observed limits on hot topic presentations, symposia, and so on with these names. A little good information goes a long way and is tremendously appreciated, but there are collective action problems that easily lead to a glut on the market. Things are serious and will undoubtedly get more serious for quite some time, but they will do so with or without the ominous titles.   

A final point. I very much enjoyed Will's title reference to "social media distancing." As we learn how to practice social distancing, I expect we will find or have already that there is such a thing as too much information, too many updates checked too often, too much time on Facebook or that Other Social Media Site. As with anything else, the trick is to find a balance, a new normal and not a new abnormal, to be vigilant and prudent and informed without becoming unhealthily obsessive. Expect an outpouring of articles and op-eds on the subject from the usual lifestyle publications.

Best wishes to all. And now, back to telling my kids for the third time this morning to make their beds, and trying to learn how turn on my computer so I can teach online and stream Westworld.  

Posted by Paul Horwitz on March 16, 2020 at 01:20 PM | Permalink


I've also been looking forward to reading the Bickel piece. I should know more about Legal Process theory than I do.

Posted by: Asher Steinberg | Mar 16, 2020 7:11:55 PM

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