Magazine May 18, 2020, Issue

Masque of the Red Death

A demonstrator during the coronavirus outbreak, Los Angeles, Calif., April 22, 2020 (Mike Blake/Reuters)

In the last few weeks, for some peculiar reason, every website I visit has ads for face masks. Some have pictures of masks in American-flag designs, which makes the people wearing them look like patriotic bank robbers. If you click on one of these ads — which is not advised, as it will spray tracking cookies at your computer like a skunk lifting its tail — you end up on a site that feels weird and wrong, in every detail.

There’s always a big headline: Here Is for Stay Live.

Huh? There might be a picture of a cute cat next to a roll of toilet paper with Chinese characters. And lots of pictures of face masks and hand sanitizer and other things China would like to sell us because they’re in demand now, for some peculiar reason.

At the bottom of the page there’s an “About Us” link, and it’s always worth checking. It’s basic Western PR boilerplate fed through a translation program with the sliders set to “slightly drunk.”  Let me exaggerate, but not by much:

Bonny Flower is for the you home to the wonderful! At Bonny Flower we are passionate at finding deals and all the things to quality for best life. Our team is working constantly and this with our network full of heart brings you the finest stylish.

Bonny Flower will be here and you have been assured, this is the time! Strong with flavor that is you, finest brands to the day. Always be to the Bonny Flower.

There are dozens of sites like that. Hundreds, probably. In some cases the domains were registered recently — say, late March, early April — and the “contact” link doesn’t work. But hey, give ’em your credit-card number, because you really, really want to have a face mask, for some peculiar reason.

All the ads I kept getting from these wretched people came in from Google’s ad network. Because I clicked on one, the great hive-brain deduced that I should be served up nothing but bogus mask sites, so that’s all I got for a day or two until I bleached my cache and banished the COVadvertising.

Should we be surprised? Ads always lie. In the early part of the previous century, the lies were balder and relied on a credulous audience. Dr. Watson’s Electrical Prostate Reviver! Cures catarrh, sailor’s droop, and liver torpor, and quickens the bile! “I used it once, and on my word I need never use it again — A. Johnson, Topeka.”

There was little else that actually worked, so people would try anything. The magazines were full of tiny ads that scammed the hopeful: creams that inflated the bust and shrank goiters, earpieces that would let the deaf hear the buzzing of a hummingbird’s wings, magnets that realigned your kidneys, bracelets that banished scrofula — although they never said where it was banished to. Elba, perhaps.

As the industry matured in the ’20s, ads still lied, but it was a happy lie. Cigarette ads lied the least. I mean, no one said they were good for you. When Chesterfield said there wasn’t “a cough in a carload,” it didn’t mean there wasn’t a wracking, gasping cough in two carloads. No, cigarette ads promised satisfaction, which is inherent in that whole “here’s a fix to stop your hands from shaking” thing.

The lies in most ads were faint and harmless, promising a degree of glee or well-being that was exaggerated or transitory. Someone might have a broad grin that showed all his teeth after sticking a spoon in a gelatin dessert, but everyone knew this was a genial fib. No one really wanted a gelatin dessert. They’d paid that kid. Well, they’d paid his parents. But that’s how it is if you’re in the gelatin-promotion sector of this diverse economy and no one begrudged your insistence that freckled youth react to congealed lime-flavored horse-hoof by-product as if they’d just been given a brick of fudge.

The online ad culture has reverted to barbarism, though. Scams, dodgy resellers, eBay manipulators, YouTube sites with quack cures. But why should anyone care if the usual miscreants are scamming people who think they can buy stylish masks for cheap online?

Because it’s China, that’s why, and the word “China” means something different now than it did a few years ago.

Obligatory details for the idiots: This is not straight-up Sinophobia, because we are not saying that someone who is Chinese has some genetic predilection for creating fraudulent websites. By “China” we mean “a particular geopolitical entity with a military-corporatist system intent on exploiting other nations for individual enrichment.” This is how the Left sees the United States, and while it might grind some gears for the progressives to apply this template to the real thing, hey, they’re smart guys. So they keep telling us, anyway.

“China” used to be the thing we waved away, the factory on the outskirts of town. Now and then we caught a whiff of the smokestacks when the wind shifted, but mostly we enjoyed what the factory made. It never occurred to anyone that the stink would get so bad, or that we’d need to wear masks to keep from choking, or that the factory would have the gall to offer the masks for sale but never deliver them.

From the CCP we get the corollary to the Lenin aphorism about capitalists selling the rope with which to hang them. It’s one thing for the Communists to sell us the masks we’ll use to protect ourselves from a plague that originated in their country, but when they don’t even deliver the masks, you go to Google Translate to find the Mandarin word for “chutzpah.”

Turns out it’s “chu zi pa.” They even stole that one.

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