Thursday, April 09, 2020

Magical Thinking and Dark Conspiracies in the Age of Pandemic

You don't have to look very far these days before you'll spot someone who is, to put it crudely, "batshit crazy." These are lunatics who see "dark forces" hatching sinister plots to enslave us and have their way with our daughters.

Magical thinking, like religious fundamentalism, can mark a dominant nation in the throes of decline. Once a society, or a substantial segment of a population, takes its leave of reality, that usually means hard times ahead.

Consider this 2017 article from The Atlantic,  from the book"How America Went Haywire" by Kurt Andersen.

We have passed through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole. America has mutated into Fantasyland.

How widespread is this promiscuous devotion to the untrue? How many Americans now inhabit alternate realities? Any given survey of beliefs is only a sketch of what people in general really think. But reams of survey research from the past 20 years reveal a rough, useful census of American credulity and delusion. By my reckoning, the solidly reality-based are a minority, maybe a third of us but almost certainly fewer than half. Only a third of us, for instance, don’t believe that the tale of creation in Genesis is the word of God. Only a third strongly disbelieve in telepathy and ghosts. Two-thirds of Americans believe that “angels and demons are active in the world.” More than half say they’re absolutely certain heaven exists, and just as many are sure of the existence of a personal God—not a vague force or universal spirit or higher power, but some guy. A third of us believe not only that global warming is no big deal but that it’s a hoax perpetrated by scientists, the government, and journalists. A third believe that our earliest ancestors were humans just like us; that the government has, in league with the pharmaceutical industry, hidden evidence of natural cancer cures; that extraterrestrials have visited or are visiting Earth. Almost a quarter believe that vaccines cause autism, and that Donald Trump won the popular vote in 2016. A quarter believe that our previous president maybe or definitely was (or is?) the anti-Christ. According to a survey by Public Policy Polling, 15 percent believe that the “media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to television broadcast signals,” and another 15 percent think that’s possible. A quarter of Americans believe in witches. Remarkably, the same fraction, or maybe less, believes that the Bible consists mainly of legends and fables—the same proportion that believes U.S. officials were complicit in the 9/11 attacks.
Why are we like this? 
The short answer is because we’re Americans—because being American means we can believe anything we want; that our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned. Once people commit to that approach, the world turns inside out, and no cause-and-effect connection is fixed. The credible becomes incredible and the incredible credible.
The word mainstream has recently become a pejorative, shorthand for bias, lies, oppression by the elites. Yet the institutions and forces that once kept us from indulging the flagrantly untrue or absurd—media, academia, government, corporate America, professional associations, respectable opinion in the aggregate—have enabled and encouraged every species of fantasy over the past few decades. 
...The great unbalancing and descent into full Fantasyland was the product of two momentous changes. The first was a profound shift in thinking that swelled up in the ’60s; since then, Americans have had a new rule written into their mental operating systems: Do your own thing, find your own reality, it’s all relative. 
The second change was the onset of the new era of information. Digital technology empowers real-seeming fictions of the ideological and religious and scientific kinds. Among the web’s 1 billion sites, believers in anything and everything can find thousands of fellow fantasists, with collages of facts and “facts” to support them. Before the internet, crackpots were mostly isolated, and surely had a harder time remaining convinced of their alternate realities. Now their devoutly believed opinions are all over the airwaves and the web, just like actual news. Now all of the fantasies look real.
...For most of the 20th century, national news media had felt obliged to pursue and present some rough approximation of the truth rather than to promote a truth, let alone fictions. With the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine, a new American laissez-faire had been officially declared. If lots more incorrect and preposterous assertions circulated in our mass media, that was a price of freedom. If splenetic commentators could now, as never before, keep believers perpetually riled up and feeling the excitement of being in a mob, so be it. 
Limbaugh’s virtuosic three hours of daily talk started bringing a sociopolitical alternate reality to a huge national audience. Instead of relying on an occasional magazine or newsletter to confirm your gnarly view of the world, now you had talk radio drilling it into your head for hours every day. As Limbaugh’s show took off, in 1992 the producer Roger Ailes created a syndicated TV show around him. Four years later, when NBC hired someone else to launch a cable news channel, Ailes, who had been working at NBC, quit and created one with Rupert Murdoch. 
Fox News brought the Limbaughvian talk-radio version of the world to national TV, offering viewers an unending and immersive propaganda experience of a kind that had never existed before. 
...Before the web, cockamamy ideas and outright falsehoods could not spread nearly as fast or as widely, so it was much easier for reason and reasonableness to prevail. Before the web, institutionalizing any one alternate reality required the long, hard work of hundreds of full-time militants. In the digital age, however, every tribe and fiefdom and principality and region of Fantasyland—every screwball with a computer and an internet connection—suddenly had an unprecedented way to instruct and rile up and mobilize believers, and to recruit more. False beliefs were rendered both more real-seeming and more contagious, creating a kind of fantasy cascade in which millions of bedoozled Americans surfed and swam. 
...Before the web, it really wasn’t easy to stumble across false or crazy information convincingly passing itself off as true. Today, however, as the Syracuse University professor Michael Barkun saw back in 2003 in A Culture of Conspiracy, “such subject-specific areas as crank science, conspiracist politics, and occultism are not isolated from one another,” but rather they are interconnected. Someone seeking information on UFOs, for example, can quickly find material on antigravity, free energy, Atlantis studies, alternative cancer cures, and conspiracy. 
The consequence of such mingling is that an individual who enters the communications system pursuing one interest soon becomes aware of stigmatized material on a broad range of subjects. As a result, those who come across one form of stigmatized knowledge will learn of others, in connections that imply that stigmatized knowledge is a unified domain, an alternative worldview, rather than a collection of unrelated ideas.
...People on the left are by no means all scrupulously reasonable. Many give themselves over to the appealingly dubious and the untrue. But fantastical politics have become highly asymmetrical. Starting in the 1990s, America’s unhinged right became much larger and more influential than its unhinged left. There is no real left-wing equivalent of Sean Hannity, let alone Alex Jones. Moreover, the far right now has unprecedented political power; it controls much of the U.S. government. 
Why did the grown-ups and designated drivers on the political left manage to remain basically in charge of their followers, while the reality-based right lost out to fantasy-prone true believers? 
One reason, I think, is religion. The GOP is now quite explicitly Christian. The party is the American coalition of white Christians, papering over doctrinal and class differences—and now led, weirdly, by one of the least religious presidents ever. If more and more of a political party’s members hold more and more extreme and extravagantly supernatural beliefs, doesn’t it make sense that the party will be more and more open to make-believe in its politics?
...Karl Rove was stone-cold cynical, the Wizard of Oz’s evil twin coming out from behind the curtain for a candid chat shortly before he won a second term for George W. Bush, about how “judicious study of discernible reality [is] … not the way the world really works anymore.” These leaders were rational people who understood that a large fraction of citizens don’t bother with rationality when they vote, that a lot of voters resent the judicious study of discernible reality. Keeping those people angry and frightened won them elections. 
But over the past few decades, a lot of the rabble they roused came to believe all the untruths. “The problem is that Republicans have purposefully torn down the validating institutions,” the political journalist Josh Barro, a Republican until 2016, wrote last year. “They have convinced voters that the media cannot be trusted; they have gotten them used to ignoring inconvenient facts about policy; and they have abolished standards of discourse.” The party’s ideological center of gravity swerved way to the right of Rove and all the Bushes, finally knocking them and their clubmates aside. What had been the party’s fantastical fringe became its middle. Reasonable Republicanism was replaced by absolutism: no new taxes, virtually no regulation, abolish the EPA and the IRS and the Federal Reserve.
...I’m reminded of one of H. L. Mencken’s dispatches from the Scopes “monkey trial” in 1925. “Civilized” Tennesseans, he wrote, “had known for years what was going on in the hills. They knew what the country preachers were preaching—what degraded nonsense was being rammed and hammered into yokel skulls. But they were afraid to go out against the imposture while it was in the making.” What the contemporary right has done is worse, because it was deliberate and national, and it has had more-profound consequences.
...I really can imagine, for the first time in my life, that America has permanently tipped into irreversible decline, heading deeper into Fantasyland. I wonder whether it’s only America’s destiny, exceptional as ever, to unravel in this way. Or maybe we’re just early adopters, the canaries in the global mine, and Canada and Denmark and Japan and China and all the rest will eventually follow us down our tunnel. Why should modern civilization’s great principles—democracy, freedom, tolerance—guarantee great outcomes?
...If we’re splitting into two different cultures, we in reality-based America—whether the blue part or the smaller red part—must try to keep our zone as large and robust and attractive as possible for ourselves and for future generations. We need to firmly commit to Moynihan’s aphorism about opinions versus facts. We must call out the dangerously untrue and unreal. A grassroots movement against one kind of cultural squishiness has taken off and lately reshaped our national politics—the opposition to political correctness. I envision a comparable struggle that insists on distinguishing between the factually true and the blatantly false. 
It will require a struggle to make America reality-based again. Fight the good fight in your private life. You needn’t get into an argument with the stranger at Chipotle who claims that George Soros and Uber are plotting to make his muscle car illegal—but do not give acquaintances and friends and family members free passes. If you have children or grandchildren, teach them to distinguish between true and untrue as fiercely as you do between right and wrong and between wise and foolish.


Northern PoV said...

More on the investigations of professional epidemiologists into the still mysterious origins of this virus ...

"On March 17, Kristian Andersen of the Scripps Research Institute in California and his team showed that the new coronavirus strain, SARS-CoV-2, had a mutation in its genes known as a polybasic cleavage site that was unseen in any coronaviruses found in bats or pangolins and that there is a likelihood that the virus came to humans many years ago, and indeed not necessarily in Wuhan. Dr. Chen Jinping of the Guangdong Institute of Applied Biological Resources, along with colleagues, had earlier published a paper on February 20 noting that their data did not support the claim that the new coronavirus in humans evolved directly from a pangolin coronavirus strain. Zhong Nanshan, a noted epidemiologist, said that “although the COVID-19 first appeared in China, that does not necessarily mean it originated here.”

Scientific studies will continue and will eventually give us a conclusive understanding of this virus. For now, there is no clarity that it emerged directly from the Wuhan market.

The Western media have consistently made scientifically unfounded claims about the source of the virus, even when Western scientists were urging caution. They were certainly not listening to the doctors in Wuhan or to public health experts in China."

Blame Game?

"Whether it is the New York Times or Marco Rubio, there is an urgency to conclude that China’s government and Chinese society are to blame for the global pandemic, and that their failures not only compromised the WHO but caused the pandemic. Facts become irrelevant. What we have shown in this report is that there was neither willful suppression of the facts nor was there a fear from local officials to report to Beijing; nor indeed was the system broken. The coronavirus epidemic was mysterious and complex, and the Chinese doctors and authorities hastily learned what was going on and then made—based on the facts available—rational decisions."

The Disaffected Lib said...

I'm missing your point, NPoV. What is it you're trying to say?

Is it that there's uncertainty about the origins of Covid-19? What does that really have to do with conspiracy theorists who dismiss the pandemic as a hoax or the work of the Deep State?

The media is flawed. Is that something particularly new? Do you think they're plotting to manipulate the public? Or could it be, in keeping with the "if it bleeds, it leads" ethos of today's journalism they blend way too much messaging in with too little hard information? That's been going on for decades.

The issue is not the mass media but the mass lunacy that breeds in social media, the characters that claim the virus has been weaponized. Surely you can see that.

There is on ProgBlog a certain blogger who argues that it is a plot to destroy democracy. He's also an anti-vaxxer and he urges his readers to reject science and get all their medical information from another blog run by a guy whose only education is a B.A. in philosophy.

Besides, NPoV, as in so many areas of concern, there's plenty of first-hand information from medical professionals that it escapes me why anyone should settle for some reporter's spin. That's just being lazy. It's akin to sourcing your knowledge of climate breakdown from CBC or Fox News when climate scientists work so hard to convey their knowledge to the public, in language the average guy can comprehend.

Trailblazer said...

With melting perma frost , who knows what lies beneath?

As for the Excited States of Murica ,again, it's time to distance ourselves from them as much as posssible.
Pandemics such as this one come in waves.
The USA and to a lesser extent the UK are trying to rush back to "normalsy".
There is every chance our southern neighbours will re infect Canada with their backwards attitiude.


The Disaffected Lib said...

Yes, the idea that America might jump the gun to sound "all clear" is or should be worrisome not just to the American people but their neighbours also.

How much of this urgent need to get the plebs back to work stems from the creation of a precariat workforce, wage slaves toiling in a gig economy, that has been the engine of inequality?

I think of Morneau telling Canadians they'll just have to put up with the reality of "job churn" as though it was some immutable law. These neoliberals have so hollowed out what once was a robust middle class, brought the many to the brink of penury as their normal condition, that society nears collapse within days of a pandemic.

This urgent need to start throwing billions, trillions of dollars of relief money here and there ought to be a glaring indictment not of the economy but of the political caste that has been so instrumental in creating this fiasco. They broke faith with their true constituents, the people, that they could privilege the already privileged. They've been doing little else since the turn of the millennium.

So enfeebled have we become that we're reduced to glorifying distinctions between Liberal and Conservative as though such things existed. We delude ourselves into praising the imaginary. And haven't they just got us over a barrel.

The stripping away of our economic security deprives us of economic power and, with it, the loss of our political power.

Yes, yes, I know. We need our jobs. We do need those jobs perhaps more than at any time in the postwar era. We're reduced to a condition of dependency and vulnerability that we've never previously known, not in our lifetimes. It must be a great relief to them to see us so complacent and fearful.

Northern PoV said...

My 'lazy' answer ...

"Both countries are spinning tales full of falsehoods, but what is undeniable is that one side has the disease under control while the other is still waiting, in horror, for it to peak"