The kaleidoscope of 2020: year in review

A tradition that I have embraced on this blog over the last few years has been to write year in review posts in December.

In 2019 I reflected on walking through the desert, notes on my reading, the democratic rebuff to progressivism, and walking through the circles of hell.

In 2018 I reflected on ambiguous loss, a year in history, (not) belonging, and fragments since it was a year with no coherent theme for me.

In 2017, the year I began this tradition on the blog, and where I set the expectation of coherent themes for my written life, I reflected on cultural decay and political institutions (an enduring and insistent theme), a multi-polar world, the end of history revisited, a recap of my blooming writings of that year, and persistence, terror and Das Schloss. This last post expresses with uncanny resemblances the dilemma I still find myself in:

Now at the end of a year in which I have tried to live in truth, to write my own thoughts as authentically as I can and to act in the world in a way that approaches my values, I still stand as an outcast beyond the reaches of Das Schloss.

Which way do I walk next year? To the Castle and back, or do I turn my back on this great civil dream, and wander alone like a grey wolf into the Great Dark Forest?

persistence, terror and Das Schloss, The Burning Archive, December 17 2017

The more things change, the more they stay the same? In truth this post from near exactly three years ago speaks to not just my personal challenge of that moment, but deep tides of culture, institution, history and archetype that run through decades of my story. This text generates an infinitely repeating fractal of my mind.

This year I thought I would approach my tradition a little differently, and write and update fragmentary texts reflecting on the year in review all in one consolidated, expanding post – the kaleidoscope of 2020.

And so it begins…. [to be continued, fractally]

Viral Meltdown

How could the year in review not begin with the pandemic and the virus? Since January I have followed the story of the coronavirus and the subsequent viral meltdown of our elites and institutions. The coda on the year is the miracle of a vaccine developed, tested, manufactured, ratified and distributed all within ten or eleven months – not ten or more years. And yet there is a bitter note underneath this coda since the public health zealots, the Great Reset boosters, the lockdown looters all now pivot to say their bad rules are better than this good cure.

The big story of the year is not the virus but the failed response of the governing elites, as Niall Ferguson has consistently argued through the year. His Doom: the politics of catastrophe will be the book to read in May 2021 – let us hope it does not come too late but a glimpse can be seen here. And I have lived in the eye of this storm this year, an unwilling and dissenting accomplice in a catastrophic failure of governing. At times I have thought about writing a book to recount this failure, but will instead absorb my lesson, and strike out in a different direction, clearly separated from the incompetent oligarchic generals of “Build Back Better.”

Yet – even though constrained by the soft authoritarianism and the post-democratic shackles on free speech, still worse, free thought – I have written and reflected on the viral meltdown throughout the year on this blog

It began in March with my posts on The Plague Year, The Great Seclusion and Plague Notes. On March 19, I wrote:

This crisis will have large effects on the economy, society and the culture. It will break some leaders in all those fields, and will make others. It is in large part a crisis of governing, and over the months of its unfolding I may return to that. But will this crisis also lead to events and adaptations of the decaying culture. Will we turn from constant consumerism, flippant influencers and corrupt, complacent elites? Will our culture regenerate? Will the onset of a biological event – the outbreak of a pathogenic RNA virus – lead to a transvaluation of all values?

Jeff rich, the plague year, the burning archive, 19 march 2020

At the end of the year I do not think anything so “transformative” as a transvaluation of all values has or will occurr, but perhaps I struck a truer note on March 29 when I speculated that “The slow viral transformation of our characters induced by this global retreat may be the most fertile seed planted by this crisis.” However, toxic seeds of bitter weeds have also been planted this year.

In April amidst the difficulty of lockdown, social isolation and fearful panic, I turned to poetry posting Quarantine and Lockdown.

Do they countenance their own folly
When the whole world screamed at a mouse,

When our leaders fitted people to a sigmoid curve
Flattened the uncertainty of death
Relived the Spanish flu from their textbooks
First as tragedy, and then as farce

Jeff Rich “Lockdown”

Then in the maelstrom of the Australian response to coronavirus, on May 9 I saw through the will to power in the diktats of the public health officials, in a post that I remain proud of and feature in my banner – Public Health Rulez, OK? – that weaved one of my spiritual ancestors, Sir Thomas Browne, into a hope for a different and more humble response:

So, we may hope that the quieter practitioners of true medicine might come to the fore before too long, and this brief Puritanical Commonwealth of Lockdown may come to the end. As Sir Thomas Browne said, “We all labour against our own cure, for death is the cure of all disease.”

Jeff rich, Public health rulez, ok?, the burning archive

Not till late July did I return to the theme, when I compared the viral meltdown of our elites to the failures of the European aristocrats in the Crimean War in A very modern Charge of the Light Brigade.

We can only hope that the blunders of our elites’ response to coronavirus (most especially that of the public health rulez crowd) will provide the fertile soil for a similar counter-reformation. The political and cultural decay has gone too far. Our political, bureaucratic and commercial elites have become parasitic raiders on institutions they cannot cherish, cannot lead and cannot protect for the generations to come. Their incompetence, patronage, corruption and intellectual poverty have been exposed by this pandemic and the world crisis it has generated. There lies the hope in this locked down world. Their glory has faded, and we, who defy them by not living in lies, will make our way back from the mouth of hell.

Jeff Rich, a very modern charge of the light brigade, the burning archive, 18 july 2020

In August, the “shock and awe” of the disproportionate response of my minor failing provincial government, in which I am but a lowly under-castellan, shocked and awed me into a poem, Curfew, Melbourne 2020, and then a reflection on The Failure of Institutions in the Pandemic Crisis, which sought in Yuval Levin and Patrick Dineen possible ways out, and pinned hope on building culture and an ethic of institution building to treat the virus of institutional decay.

In September I wrote Captain Ahab and Lockdown in Melbourne.

In October I signed the Great Barrington Declaration – refusing to live the lies of the political commissars of my own institution – and stated my belief that we had to move From here to immunity: charting COVID from pandemic to endemic.

And then I turned my mind and my heart to living in freedom and truth no longer subjected to the broken rules of our failed institutions. In 2021, there will be life after lockdown; there will be restoration of deeper values, not the Great Reset of the Viral Meltdown.

Fragments from the diary

Throughout the year I have kept a diary in a an A5 black notebook of 200 pages or so. I have followed this practice for quite some years now, and when I write the first entry in the notebook will give it a title. This year’s notebooks I titled , “The view from Thucydides Tower” (January 2020 to November 2020) and “Live not by Lies” (from November 2020).

Over the last two days I have read through these cahiers, and noted down some of the abiding personal themes (abandonment, the search for affiliation, deep pessimism about the state of the world, frustration with the corrupted institutions of government) and the interpretations I made of the events of this year of isolation and home imprisonment in the Puritanical Commonwealth of Lockdown.

Here are some fragments from the diary that strike me today as worth sharing.

12 January 2020 … “Suicide by democracy – elites become professionalised and mercenary to play the democratic game, and in doing so destroy the self-governing ethic and virtues of democracy”

24 January 2020 … “All becomes nothing. All falls into desuetude. We are bite sere leaves, falling through an ashen sky.”

28 January … “I am now an abandoned Cassandra. My way of life is forgotten among the powerful.”

4 February … [A quotation heard on a podcast] “What is important is not to report what you see, but to see what you see.”

13 February … “Plague and disasters are an insult to the control of the liberal imagination, the power of the liberal world view…. The collapse of the liberal centre is the collapse of a political cartel.”

3 March … “I have returned from Bali with a determination to live my life as I will, to reshape some habits and patterns, to do more of what I want and to build a healthier, more expressive, stronger, more responsible and impactful life.”

7 March … “my latest poetry series concept, the sleep machine… [is] a metaphor for the augmentation of the self by society/culture – how we are born frail, imperfect – not self-realisation, but self-compensation, submission or acceptance of the weakness of the human animal; but by submission, living in the augmentation of tradition, knowledge, culture, the infinite conversation, then dreams return, culture is fulfilled, consciousness is heightened, responsibility takes hold.”

22 March … “Hard to focus on anything other than coronavirus – in the midst of a great social crisis, a great crisis of authority. The regime of merchant elites and their craven clerk mercenaries is crumbling. I have been criticising it for years now, and have hoped that my words could break apart this decaying old ship – but that was always an illusion, and an over-rating of my individual power. Could it be that this crisis might create an opening for my voice, my ideas for another way of governing? Maybe, but there are bad scenarios too. Sunset is not always followed by sunrise in the dark rhythms of history.

3 April … “Suicide by public health – the earnest group think of public health officials who put a whole society at risk to protect an inadequately robust, resilient health care system from being exposed.”

16 April … “Suicide by public health – the world has stumbled into a vast medical and social experiment that makes the Stanford Prison experiment look ethical”

7 July … “Troubled times. Troubled mind. I have neglected the tower. Come at last from my torpor where I spy on a dying forest. I have neglected this practice as I have passed through a moral crisis, and resuming it today of a first step towards a better way.”

21 July … “I want to write these jeremiads against the department and the government but the fire turns to ash in my mouth, extinguished by the futility and loneliness of speaking out. No-one will pay any attention. I will be treated like a bitter old crank – isolated, idiosyncratic, ideologically incorrect – a book that can enter the infinite conversation- that is my goal and my purpose in these next few years. It is a goal of wisdom, not wealth, nor power, nore fame. Lonely wisdom.”

25 July … “Abandon the progressive intelligentisia, and be the old dignified eagle soaring over the mountain alone.”

6 August … “I am cursed to be like Cassandra, cursed by my prophetic pessimism. My thought seizes a world in decay, but can it communicate anything better? Or is the hard message that we must put our hope in other things: love of family, culture, tradition and abandon the worldly State?

9 August … “Work from home has created the perfect conditions for a cabal takeover, and the complete defeat of institutions.”

16 November … “I can’t do it alone, and yet I have never found allies in my dissidence, never cultivated followers in my path, so solitary, so hardened. I fall into the black hole and am condemned to dwell there with only my jailer and the ghosts of my mind. I preach to the birds.”

29 November … “Borges: “literature is nought but guided dreaming, anyway””

11 December … “I feel I am living through a fight between progressive totalitarianism and the real purposes of life – that I am like the dissidents of Eastern Europe in the 70s and 80s. And I am so appalled by the suppression of free speech, the denigration of characters, the ostracism perpetrated by Big Tech, Big Media and the mercenary elite. I think about Frank Knopfelmacher and his moral courage – how he was mocked and pilloried and slandered – and yet he stood for a moral truth against a self-deluding and morally corrupt elite”

“If you rely on other people’s approval, you become their prisoner”

Lao Tsu

These diary fragments from a bitter year show my archive burnt into a handful of ash, but also the seeds to plant in that fertile ash.

The freedom of internal exile

So much of this year I have struggled with the moral crisis of how to endure and to live well through a corrupt, decaying, failing and abusive regime. I do not mean just the errant minor provincial government that I serve as lowly under-castellan. I mean the wider institutional regime of our now post-democratic society, riven with political and cultural decay.

In recent days, I have been returning to the concept of the Chinese recluse, yinshi, and my own thoughts from May 2019, eighteen months ago, On the Renunciation of the Political World. Temperamentally, I do not have the attributes of a fighter, negotiator or general. I incline to the vita contemplativa, not the vita activa. I look out on the strife of the world as a scholar viewing a lake, not a strategist plotting a battlefield.

Image source: Scholar Viewing a Lake, Kanō Tan’yū (Japanese, 1602-1674), Indianapolis Museum of Art

And yet, I do not choose a quiet life easily – not when I see the tectonic grinding of collapsing empires; not when I see republics in distress and democracies in the throes of death; not when I see lies and soft totalitarianism entrenched amongst our new Red Guard elites. Throughout this year I have struggled with how to live in truth and to lead a moral life amidst the crises of 2020: the pandemic and the poor response of our elites to governing the virus; the social unrest of the American colour revolution; the constitutional crises of the dominant imperial power; the appalling lockdown and craven succumbing to abusive power in Victoria; the catastrophic failures in the Department of Hell and Human Suffering that I witnessed. Outraged by the injustice, the incompetence, the derangement, I wish I could be like Vaclav Havel and convene a new Civic Forum and bring signatures to a new Charter 77.

Yet, I know I do not have that fate. I do not have those attributes. I do not have those strengths for that battle. I accept my fate as an internal exile in this distressed republic. I stand solitary by the great lake of the infinite conversation, and look out to the great trees on the shore, and hope to plant one seed.

This tree was growing before the forest was born.
If you guess its age, it’s twice as old.
Its roots met the changes of hills and ravines,
its leaves were altered by wind and frost.
Everyone laughs at its outer decay,
failing to appreciate the colorful patterns within.
Its bark may have peeled away,
but there is only truth inside.

Hanshan

The year of fear

2020 has been the year of the Great Fear. This Fear has locked us down in safety. This Fear has opened the gate to soft totalitarianism. This Fear has sabotaged the freedom, responsibility, associations and independent thought of hundreds of millions of citizens. This Fear has shed the aged liberal skin of the post-democratic reptile our elites have become.

The Great Fear has been more infectious than the novel coronavirus, SARS-COV-2. Yet no-one has calculated its R (reproduction) number. No statistician has modelled its consequences. No epidemiologist has rules of a new normal to dictate so we may stand up from our cowering corners. The Great Fear most likely has been more deadly than the virus – in suicides, substance abuse, mental illness, doctors visits avoided. It has inflicted more misery and more lonely deaths – terrified old people dying alone as rulers scream at their carers to stay away – because staying part keeps us together in power.

The Great Fear found other spectres than strands of RNA virus. Racism was one. Police violence another. Russian collusion. Trump’s “coup” against democracy. The power of the Four Olds. Thousands marched the streets to tear down their Fears. Thousands desecrated statues and relics of the past – from Robert E. Lee to Abraham Lincoln, even that former slave, soldier and war prisoner, Miguel de Cervantes – to calm their Fears. Some Red Guards even raised their fists in a power salute and shouted in the faces of innocent bystanders to share the cleansing Fears of 2020.

The Great Fear has been the crisis/opportunity for the svengalis of the Great Reset. All the humdrum local leaders of the world jumped on shouting at the dragon far beyond the city gates. They realised they could pose as heroes on the city walls, as long as the poor plebeians who sheltered in their quarters could never see the reality of the danger posed by the dragon. From the walls they and their media collaborators shouted every day about tests, cases and the horror stories from overseas, most often that calamity of the media’s construction, Trump’s America. The exceptional became normalised. Bizarre and rare complications were shouted from the rooftops. The true comparisons apparent if people opened their eyes were not made. And the Great Lies – this “unprecedented” event, this 100 year pandemic, this modern narcissistic version of the Black Death – laid the groundwork for the Little Dictators who want to remake the world by public health orders. Now Klaus Schwab and his globalist sycophants want to entrench their wealth and status as the Elect through the terrors of the Great Reset. Push this button to cede all control to experts.

As we stand on the cusp of 2021, the Great Fear has not yet receded. London is living in the new Puritanical Commonwealth of Lockdown. We are all told we must hide behind masks. Our tweets are censored. Our searches are watched. Our votes are miscounted. Our laws are twisted. Everyday at work the compliant tell me how strange it is that there are people out there who do not respect the rules; how grateful they are that the public comply with the rules; how terrified they are that we may not keep a record of zero cases. Fear looks like it will try to rule our lives again in 2021; and I can only embrace my fate and resist. To see through the lies of the Great Fear has been the greatest gift of 2020.

Do not be afraid; our fate
Cannot be taken from us; it is a gift

Dante, inferno

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