Say what you will about Carl Jung, myth-spinning Swiss sage, madman, and psychiatrist, but he wasn’t always (completely) wrong. Writing in the middle of the last century, he noted how:
The Middle Ages, antiquity, and prehistory have not died out, as the “enlightened” suppose, but live on merrily in large sections of the population. Mythology and magic flourish as ever in our midst and are unknown only to those whose rationalistic education has alienated them from their roots.
Sadly, that argument falls apart in the second half of the second sentence, perhaps even more than when those words were first published. In an era of apocalyptic environmentalism, revived Marxism, and goop, mythology and magic are finding dismayingly large audiences among those given the benefit of, at least nominally, a rationalist education.
Which brings us to the conspiracy theories surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Some are, as would be expected, the product of conventional propaganda operations. Chinese officials, doing what they can to obscure their regime’s responsibility, have suggested that the U.S. military may have something to do with it, while Venezuela’s President Nicolàs Maduro, anxious, doubtless, to curry favor with Beijing, wondered if “coronavirus could be a strain created for biological warfare against China,” a claim that risked irritating his friends in Tehran: Ayatollah Khamenei maintains that the “virus is specifically built for Iran using the genetic data of Iranians.” In an attempt to bridge ancient and modern, Palestinian prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh has asserted that “we have heard testimony that some [Israeli] soldiers are trying to spread the virus through the door handles of cars,” a slander that updates the smears of over half a millennium ago. Allegations that the Black Death was being spread by Jews poisoning wells triggered pogroms across Europe. Not all the people making such accusations (then or now) may have believed them, but that was neither here nor here: What mattered was that they knew that they could be believed by enough people to make a murderous difference.
Conspiracy theories are a particularly powerful form of mythology, and it is that power that makes them so useful to charlatans looking for the next sucker. Like most mythologies, they serve a series of overlapping functions, but beneath them all is their action as a device to satisfy humanity’s hard-wired need to find structure in apparent disorder, a result of the fact that Homo sapiens would not have evolved in the way it did without developing an increasingly sophisticated ability to identify connections between the seemingly unconnected. It’s difficult to solve a problem without having a reasonable idea what lies behind it. This talent came, however, with a less obviously helpful side-effect — a susceptibility to finding patterns where none exist. This was a relatively modest price to pay for leaving the other great apes in the dust, but its consequences can be tricky nonetheless. Susceptibility can degenerate into a compulsion, especially when random disaster strikes.
And rarely more so when it involves a new pandemic, an onslaught that is as impersonal as it is intimate. That its deadliness may come from the way an infection may turn the body against itself adds to the existential terror of the afflicted or those waiting for the attack to come their way. That such a horror is both motiveless and meaningless adds insult to mortal injury. Under the circumstances, it’s not much of a surprise that — from the pandemics of the more distant past to the Spanish flu to AIDS to Ebola to COVID-19 — conspiracy theories have trailed in disease’s wake. Many prefer to think that there must be more to such scourges than “Mother” Nature just doing what she does.
The logic of beliefs of this kind is that it throws up someone to blame, a prospect that boosts their allure. It offers the catharsis of revenge against the supposed perpetrators, or, at least, the gratification of having someone to hate. There’s also the not insignificant thrill that comes from the idea of having a role in a great drama. Most lives are a touch dull. For some, it will be much more exciting to believe that some massive conspiracy is afoot, especially, perhaps, if they have decided that they are its target, a notion that will resonate all the more strongly with the marginalized or the unsuccessful. The former will be eager to put the most malign face possible on those they feel — not always incorrectly — have done them down. The latter would rather turn to the comfort of an alibi than confront the reality that their most formidable adversary is not the Rockefellers or the Illuminati, but, quite often, themselves.
However, the word “believe” must be treated with care. There was a time when a surprising number of Americans “believed” that aliens were on an abduction spree, but, for the most part, they weren’t demanding that the Pentagon take action. Much of what we like to think of as “belief” is really a performance, partly to ourselves, partly to others. Barack Obama “believes” (and he may even do so) that climate change poses a “terrifying” threat, but sees no contradiction in buying a low-lying property on Martha’s Vineyard for, reportedly, some $12 million.
The draw of a conspiracy theory to its followers is reinforced by the perception it gives them that they are in the know. They reckon that they have discovered what the “sheeple” could not, endowing them with a sense of superiority that is as enjoyable as it is undeserved, a fact that hucksters of all stripes have turned to their financial, political, or other advantage over the generations: Sign up with me and I’ll tell you what’s really going on.
So, on top of the tales being told by the Chinese, Iranians, Venezuelans, and Palestinians, COVID-19’s backing band is also giving voice to theories that include the conceit that the true motive behind crashing the economy via lockdown was to enable the (insert euphemism of choice) to tighten their grip on the world — and pick up deeply discounted assets while they are at it. There’s also a peculiarly complex hypothesis involving Bill Gates and vaccines. Tapping into technological dread (always a winner when invisible “rays” are on the scene), 5G wireless communications, which had already been the source of paranoid speculation even before someone (allegedly) ate a bat, are on the list of suspects as well. Fears about a specific connection between the coronavirus and 5G appear to have emerged out of remarks made by a Belgian doctor in January, but have since spread to such an extent that cellphone towers have been vandalized, initially in the U.K. and now in the Netherlands.
If past is any precedent, such theories will be around for a long time and will be amplified by the secretiveness with which the Chinese dictatorship has handled the outbreak of this disease from, it seems, the very beginning, but then that’s another story . . .