Our Fearful Society

A woman wearing a face mask walks in Times Square following the coronavirus outbreak in New York City, March 16, 2020. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)
Before the pandemic, fear also made the headlines.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE I ’ve been shopping at the supermarket. In the chocolate aisle, I recently saw a dear old grandma dressed in some kind of diving suit (for a moment I wondered if she was fishing for octopus), accompanied by her granddaughter, who wore a giant mask that covered her belly button. The girl was looking for her favorite chocolate. Suddenly, the grandmother covered her face with her hands as if she had just seen the devil himself and shrieked, “Let’s go!” But the girl kept on looking for the chocolate. The old woman, already pale, grabbed the girl by the arm and tugged her violently, screaming, “We have to get out of here, a girl without a mask just entered the supermarket!” The covered girl resisted, and the dear old lady finally resorted to stunning her with a couple of well-placed slaps before carrying her out of the store, saying, “I’m sorry, honey, it’s for your own good!”

The scene has left me with a strange feeling. Of course, it is a bad idea to go to the supermarket without a mask, and it is better to stay away from whomever does so. But I find it worrying that grandma reacted as if the woman without a mask were a jihadi armed with a Kalashnikov. You have to ask yourself what could make a sweet old grandmother behave like that.

Back home, still in shock, I decided to relax and read the papers. Let’s see. New swine flu virus with global potential. The possible return of bubonic plague causes alarm. A cat dies from an unknown virus after biting its owner. Waves, outbreaks, and tsunamis of COVID-19. The coronavirus is also transmitted by air. The second wave of the pandemic will be devastating. Oh my God!

I have also read that sea levels will engulf us in a few years if we don’t vote for the Democrats, that the U.N. warns that illegal species trafficking causes an infinite number of unknown diseases, and that a large meteorite is expected to fall to Earth this year (it doesn’t matter when you read this) — which explains why nine out of ten dentists recommend that during the next few months we walk the streets with our mouths shut.

It’s even worse than what grandma thought.

Reading the press these days, it would seem that a newer and deadlier virus emerges every day, mostly in China. One is almost tempted to think that some people spend every waking moment chewing on sick animals, licking sidewalks frequented by rats, and sipping on random test tubes in high-security medical laboratories. It wouldn’t be surprising if Chinese civilians were doing all that in an effort to get out from under the yoke of Xi Jinping, but even so, the barrage of health threats that, according to the press, emerge each day with deadly potential doesn’t quite seem credible.

To be honest, the worst Chinese virus is Communism, which is also at the origin of all the lies and negligence that have turned the coronavirus into a pandemic. Communism is transmitted through the air, through water, and through the media. And so far, the only antidote that has proved effective against its totalitarian abuses is world war: a powerful drug, administered to tyrants by way of suppositories — also called Tomahawks — that is no longer manufactured because, well, it has some important adverse side effects. But one case of bubonic plague is not front-page news . . . except in times of pandemic.

If that girl in the supermarket ever wants to exact revenge for the unfair slapping she received in the chocolate aisle, she might consider slapping a couple of reporters. I’ll explain. I’m a journalist, and I’ve worked in the management of several newspapers in the past ten years; I know how to convince people that the earth is flat. So the explanation for the wave of panic that is sweeping over us should not be sought in China, or in the guys who eat raw groundhog meat in Inner Mongolia — as disgusting as that may be — or in the latest sensationalist theories about the end of the world. Instead, the explanation resides in the End of Journalism: clickbait, something that would have repulsed even The Front Page‘s Walter Matthau.

The dependence on easy clicks explains why even the most serious newspapers need to include those strange news stories that tell us about a man who has discovered that he has had a typewriter lodged in his large intestine since 1940, about that magical weight-loss trick that consists of drinking a disgusting slush that is driving all the celebrities crazy, or about the shark that, midway through eating a swimmer, decided to spit him out on the shore because he wasn’t salty enough. (This last one always happens in India.) These are the most-read articles, and that’s what pays for other more rigorous journalistic efforts. The rest of the clickbait’s dirty work is done by the economic crisis that has immersed the newspaper sector for 20 years now, and by social networks, which are the main culprits of the dictatorship of the click. All right, the epidemic of stupidity also helps; let’s always keep in mind the wise conclusion penned in the 16th century by the Spanish writer Francisco Quevedo: “All those who seem stupid are stupid, and so are half of those who don’t seem stupid.” It is still valid today.

The coronavirus pandemic has unleashed an unprecedented demand for scientific information, precisely at a time when newsrooms have very few specialists. The more shocking the news, the more clicks it will get among a society suffused with fear. Moreover, as this is a new problem, scientists do not have conclusive answers either, which leaves ample room for speculation. And usually in 2020 you can find a scientific study from some remote university that will help support whatever nonsense you want to publish, including the claims that children are not affected at all by having two fathers instead of one mother and one father, that DIY projects cause lung cancer, or that bananas protect against the coronavirus. Certainly, it’s time to clarify that bananas can protect against the coronavirus, but only if you point them at girls who walk into supermarkets without wearing a mask.

Any falsehood spreads quickly these days because most online newspapers are in too much of a hurry to take the time and actually read the scientific reports, and most readers won’t even read past the headlines. This is how public opinion is formed today. That’s why it may not be totally surprising to see people on the street with gloves on their hands and feet, people doing shots of bleach for breakfast, and others walking around with masks covering their eyes. Because while these things don’t protect 100 percent against the virus (to say the least), they might at least confuse it.

It’s the uncertainty, the global fear, the “risk society” that German sociologist Ulrich Beck predicted in the 1980s. Of Beck, we could say what Gómez Dávila wrote about the rest of the progressive intellectuals: “The tragedy of the left? To diagnose the disease correctly, but to aggravate it with its therapy.” But even so, there is one part of his diagnosis that is eloquent. Postmodern man lives in terror. Before the pandemic, fear also made the headlines. By the end of 2019, the U.N. was promoting Greta Thunberg as the guru of the terrifying climate apocalypse, and entities such as the European Union were even officially declaring the dreaded “climate emergency.” All this happened just a few weeks before the coronavirus taught us the difference between a real emergency and an eco-Communist fantasy. The fear was already there.

Beyond his sick obsession with capitalism, Beck paints a modern society that, in opposition to the traditional one, is rooted in a terror that is, in essence, scientific. For the German sociologist, “science determines the risks and the population perceives the risks,” and “this division of the world between experts and non-experts contains at the same time the idea of public opinion.” “The risk society is also the society of science, of the media and of information,” he adds in The Risk Society, “in which new contrasts open up between those who produce the definitions of risk and those who consume them.” This is the intellectual way of alluding to the phenomenon of the broken phone.

Beck attributes to the media “the power to define problems and priorities” and, in a way, the ability to calibrate the risk that scientists detect. He speaks of fear, irrationality, and contradictory information tainted by interests. In general terms, if you are able to read him without your head exploding, you can obtain an amazingly clear understanding of 2020’s social climate, followed by a lot of theories that could have been co-authored by Bernie Sanders and an elementary-school student.

But the truth is that, when everything is said and done, even in this risk society, you can’t die of every little thing all the time. You can’t die infected with coronavirus, drowned in rising sea levels, suffocated by a plague of locusts, and sick with Bubonic plague, all at once. Actually, dying is quite extraordinary. It is, far more often than not, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And for centuries men have seen death as being quite natural. It was the Enlightenment that deemed it necessary to keep the dead at a distance, to create cemeteries as far away from the city as possible, and to allude to death as a mysterious sleep, which would later degenerate into an endless number of euphemisms, the most famous being that of a journey. Since then and still today, with the prevalence of a lazy kind of agnosticism, death becomes an intolerable reality, something almost as unbearable to us as the idea of kissing Nicolas Maduro.

He who keeps the faith, keeps the peace. A believer knows that even if he doesn’t have everything under control, God does. In the end, hysteria and superstition are not just the result of the adverse circumstances of a pandemic and clickbait, but also of a lack of faith. That is why these days it is more appropriate than ever to remember the words of C. S. Lewis, who in 1948 seemed to be talking about the coronavirus and not about nuclear war:

If we are going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things — praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts — not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They might break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

So the best thing you can do is stay calm, smile a little, and open another bottle of wine. It won’t kill the virus, but it will demoralize the idiots.

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