Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist and New York Times opinion columnist, proudly credits herself as being the ‘tipping point’ that led the Centers for Disease Control to implement mask mandates. Now, in her infinite wisdom, Tufekci’s most recent column suggests that if the fabric of society were to fall apart tomorrow, people would come together in solidarity to help each other out, putting their individual needs and desires second. 

This naive, ideological outlook is pretty much how society in the Soviet Union was envisioned. And we know how that worked out.

Sadly, proving her thesis in a modern context suggests she’s less a student of history than a victim of delusion. Writing in Sunday’s New York Times, Tufekci uses (of all things) the chaos of desert rain and subsequent breakdown at the Burning Man festival in Nevada to argue her misguided point. 

The news that thousands of Burning Man festival goers were told to conserve food and water after torrential rains left them trapped by impassable mud in the Nevada desert led some to chortle about a “Lord of the Flies” scenario for the annual gathering popular with tech lords and moguls. Alas, I have to spoil the hate-the-tech-rich revelries. No matter how this mess is resolved — and many there seem to be coping — the common belief that civilization is but a thin veneer that will fall apart when authority disappears is not only false, the false belief itself is harmful.

People, she says, are cooperative, social animals who have survived because of our smarts and willingness to get along with and help each other. It is politics and institutions, she seems to suggest, that lead us to commit atrocities against each other.  

This is not a rosy-eyed view that ignores the terrible aspects of human behavior. Groups can also be organized politically and socially against each other. That’s the basis of wars and genocides. But far from being elements of true human nature that are revealed once the thin veneer of civilization is worn off, such atrocities are organized through the institutions of civilization: through politics and culture and militaries and sustained political campaigns of dehumanization.

Just as quickly as she lays the blame on authority for forcing us to take up arms against each other, she seems to suggest that more authority is needed to create the conditions to allow us to be good to each other. 

If tech luminaries and rich folks are among those suffering in the mire [of Burning Man], instead of gloating about their travail, let’s hope this experience reinforces for them the importance of pulling together as a society. We can help them along by passing laws that make tax havens illegal, create a more equitable tax structure and a strong international framework for stopping the laundering of gains of corruption, force technology and other companies to deal with the harms of their inventions and overcome the current situation where profits are private but the fallout can be societal. Human nature isn’t an obstacle to a good society, but it needs help from laws and institutions, not thick mud, to let the better angels have a chance.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions and the double-speak in Ms. Tufekci’s opinion is an interesting exercise in circular logic: individuals are inherently good, but they’re not good if they’re free, they’re only good with the “help” of laws and institutions of the state.

President Ronald Reagan presents a simple reminder, in his inaugural address to the nation on January 20, 1981, as to why this nation is staring its own demise squarely in the face. He said:

In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else? 

There is no utopia on the other side of collapse. This is a fallacy for naive collectivists in ivory towers and the privileged avocado toast-eating laptop class. Worse, shamelessly repeating the falsehood doesn’t make it real. More government and more regulation put us all on the road to dystopia.

And, if Tufekci needs proof of that, all she needs to do is revisit her beloved mask and vaccine mandates courtesy of Covid-19. No doubt, her world – and those who inhabit it with her – would have been much better if everyone lined up and got jabbed. But the vitriol and hatred against those who choose alternatives to the technocratic diktats created the kind of poisonous division she obviously ignored. With blind spots like that, using a muddied, drug-addled, festival for the rich as the lynchpin of her thesis seems just about right.