A plot of land in my home town between I-95 and Route 1 has been under development for about thre years. When developers started in on it, I was irritated that the place was going to be torn up for no apparent good reason. During my lifetime—and maybe even before that—the plot had been a series of massive granite boulders, bramble, and trees, unsuitable for cultivation, forestry, or business. It served a dual purpose as land that could be turned into something of economic or social viability, and also, less importantly, as home to dozens of common birds and squirrels.
Now, most of the trees have been cut, the brambles cleared, the land leveled, and the mighty, massive granite stones are systematically being turned into high piles of gravel and fill for other development projects. The land is being made useful for economic purpose—a grocery store perhaps, or a place to get gadgets fixed.
From the perspective of the developer, who owns a plot of land on Route 1, it’s easy to see why the trees and boulders and brambles had to go—no value was being created. Probably, he was paying taxes on the land. Probably, he saw Route 1 as a convenient place for economic development: cars and motorcycles pass by, while trucks transit I-95 from the other side. What more could a developer, what more could a businessman ask for?
From the perspective of the town’s treasurer and its chamber of commerce—a perspective shared by some of the town’s citizens—a development project and the business that follows is the bottom line, it’s the object. Life begins when one has something undeveloped on which to build, and, on a certain level, it culminates when that thing has been developed and turned into a profitable business. One measures this progress by checking the town’s budget: how much tax it has collected, versus how much tax it needs. My town is not special in that it functions like this, many towns do. Many towns must, in the United States of America, and in Europe, and in many other places, too. It’s a condition of the modern world.
Driving by the development site recently, I noticed that work had been put on pause; like so many other projects across the world, halted by the spread of COVID-19. Half-made into whatever it will become, the once-whole rocks scraped and broken by human ingenuity, gravel piled high, the area reminded me not so much of its potential, but of an irreversible decision to move from one state to another, progress, change, the urge to do something rather than nothing—and for what?
The climax of Christopher Nolan’s Batman: The Dark Knight, in which lawful Batman is pushed to the limit by an amoral and anarchistic Joker, involves a prisoner’s dilemma-style trial. Two ferryboats, one full of citizens, a ‘good’ boat, and another of prisoners, a ‘bad’ boat, are rigged with explosives, and authorities on each boat are given the means to detonate the other boat. Joker provides instructions to the boats: each will be able to rescue themselves only by destroying the other boat. If neither boat destroys the other, Joker himself will sink both boats at midnight.
By the time midnight rolls around, and the boats have elected not to destroy each other, Batman has arrived to stop Joker from detonating them both. External action is needed to preserve the lives of the people on the boat, but that was also always going to be true, two boats full of people can’t defeat Joker physically, they can only thwart his plan by refusing to play by the rules.
It is this refusal that is interesting, this deliberate choice not to act, not to destroy in order to preserve. On a moral level, acting to destroy is, in fact, the worst thing one can do. Still, the audience and the people on the boats understand that there is some hope for them; they can act to destroy the other boat and through this horrible act, at least preserve their own lives. “Noone wants to get their hands dirty,” a nameless civilian trapped on the ‘good’ ferry says with a minute to go before midnight. “Fine, I’ll do it.” He stands up, and rationalizes why he ought to sink the other boat, takes the detonator from a captain in the national guard, looks up at the clock, hesitates, and then—nothing. He lays the detonator down in its case, and returns to his seat. He and everyone else on the boat are now resigned to their fates
This is the true climax of the movie—the rest of it is a series of plot resolutions and exposition on the significance of what the audience has observed. Two groups of people decide not to murder in a way that benefits them—not to “take action”—and in so doing they both save and condemn themselves.
The startling scenes of heroic inaction in Batman: The Dark Knight are among the film’s most moving. There is a cost, a sacrifice being made—but it is truly selfless; a willingness to have the self destroyed in an unpleasant and painful way, in order to preserve some hypothetical moral integrity for the self. Of all the strange and extraordinary moments in the movie—the explosions, the exciting tricks and gadgets deployed by Batman and his allies, the clever plans and counter-plans, the threats and deaths and carnage—the prisoner’s choice is the part that most stands out, that defies expectations.
In the logic of the movie, we understand the civilians and the prisoners can’t blow each other up, it makes no sense, but in our own personal lives, we know the opposite is true. We know that America invaded Afghanistan after 9/11, and Japan after Pearl Harbor, we know that Israeli special operations hunted down Nazis for prosecution and revenge, we know that it doesn’t take a deranged madman holding us prisoner to want righteous vengeance. We know, too, that what is necessary in a situation like that is action, is to do something quickly, decisively, and heroically—and that we’ll sort out the mess afterwards.
Someone needs to get their hands dirty.
The quarantine that has stopped so much economic activity around the world is confusing precisely because it cuts against what we expect to have to do. The heroic sacrifice to which people are accustomed, the grand gesture, that’s not needed. Quarantine threatens the underlying assumptions we’ve held about what constitutes good or productive behavior. Sacrifice is supposed to be long hours at work, a bigger house, a successful career. Heroes are recognizable by their acts; doctors and nurses without enough PPE to go around, or multinational CEOs who have efficiently commanded their own time and that of others to create value.
Sacrifice is not supposed to be nothing, and quarantine is precisely and exactly that, nothing. Not going out, not buying, not shopping. Not “self-improvement,” not education—it can be those things, but isn’t necessarily, the end of quarantine is simply the negation of public activity, or, otherwise, inactivity. Quarantine doesn’t involve developing land, or building (unless it’s building temporary capacity in hospitals), or making deals. Sacrifice, like action, is supposed to be tied to progress in some economically measurable way; the stock market going up, or a country getting stronger. It’s not just sharing hardship—that, by itself, is attached to and signifies nothing. Quarantine is nothing, and entails a sacrifice of negation.
More than anything, the unsettling position in which Americans find themselves now, of having to do “nothing” while the economy slows and one’s job becomes precarious or is deemed redundant, explains why there’s so much enthusiasm for an end to the quarantine, in spite of the death and illness such an action might cause. People—Americans in particular, to judge from my town and surroundings—are accustomed to “doing,” to “getting things done.” The entire economy and culture is geared to this way of thinking, from one’s professional life, to one’s family, to how one productively spends one’s vacation seeing notable sights, or having useful experiences. The economy depends on this activity, and individuals depend on this activity, as well. It is how the world goes around, especially an economically and socially interconnected world, a global world rather than a local or parochial or individual world.
But what is needed now is inaction, forbearance, husbanding one’s resources (and family). The urge to get back to work, to become productive, has been exposed not as heroic or useful, but selfish—solipsistic—and in the current context, counterproductive. What does that say about the system, writ large? This pandemic is part of life, pandemics (far worse) have occurred before in human history, we are not living in an exceptional moment. Shutdown is normal, and it isn’t evil or awful. It simply is.
Going back to work will solve nothing, and could make the pandemic worse. Being productive is only likely to accelerate infection and death, but that’s not a revelation that’s natural to us. We do not understand that the means to our survival lies in embracing a way of life and moral framework that’s completely counterintuitive. Or, we do know, and we fear that accepting that embrace, in the present, will mean learning something that cannot be unlearned—never, in other words, going back to the world as it was before COVID-19.
It’s not possible to make things whole again on that plot of land on Route-1 in Branford, Connecticut. It’s true that the area will serve no purpose for the foreseeable future: it can’t, nobody’s there to work the machines to clear the gravel or brush, and even if there were, there’s nowhere to move it—progress and commerce has stopped. What was land that served no use has become an industrial sore on the land, a reminder of a moment in time when someone thought it would be better to develop, to move and create, than to leave be, than to do nothing, for nothing’s sake. In the old world, before COVID-19, we thought inaction was a costly sin. In our current world, we’re learning that the opposite may be true.