This is the third in a series on the pandemic, featuring three intersecting foci: the spread of COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter confrontation with racism, and the presidential campaign leading up to a decision on election day, the third of November, 2020. Their explosive intersection has turned crazy! The first two essays were Pandemic Ramble and Pandemic Shamble.
The COVID-19 pandemic is surging at more than 50,000 new infections a day, 71,967 yesterday. Hospitalizations in Florida, Texas, and Arizona are outpacing hospital beds. Cases of infection are increasing big time in the South and Southwest, and in forty-one of the fifty states.
Meanwhile the President is campaigning incessantly, trashing his opponent Joe Biden in a sixty minute rant in the Rose Garden, pretending the pandemic is over, sidelining the scientists who say otherwise, ordering school children back to school, and tweet-storming criticism of enemies du jour. It’s as if he’s caught up playing a bad video game.
The protest movement—fueled by new police killings—continues to gain public understanding and support. Memorials are reassessed and commissions requested. Names of the honored are challenged and changed. Policies are revised. Legislation on police reform is proposed. Personal testimonies to injustice are heard. In a new development, racism toward indigenous peoples is entering the debate—the name of the Washington professional football team is to change, a SCOTUS ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma settles a land ownership claim in favor of the Muscogee (Creek) nation in Oklahoma, and there is backlash to President Trump’s rally at Mount Rushmore. The Sioux own the land, it is sacred, and the President came without so much as a courtesy call. The Sioux protested, were stopped, got interviewed and filmed, and reminded the nation of buried, unsettled history.
More violence is happening in the cities. Black on black youth gun violence flared up over the Independence day weekend. Relationships between protesters and police become more tense following weeks of protests in places like Portland, where unmarked vehicles and space age adorned warriors from Homeland Security are appearing phantom-like on the streets. The President is threatening to unleash Homeland Security armies in other cities, provided the mayors and governors are Democrats. The mayor of Portland and governor of Oregon are opposed. They want the troops gone.
At the same time, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the historian and hall of fame basketball star, calls out anti-semitic remarks uttered by African American sports stars and hip hop musicians. Jabbar reprises the history of anti-semitism in the United States and reminds the nation that social justice applies to everyone and benefits all. You can’t decry stereotyping while stereotyping others yourself. Social justice doesn’t work that way, for my group but not for yours.
When the President was asked whether “Black Lives Matter,” he emphasized the mattering of white lives more and defended policing. He’s claims to be “witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children.” So, naturally, what else could he do, he’s campaigning against “new far-left fascism.” Perhaps that is why homeland security dudes are showing up in Portland
Know Your Enemy
There’s a saying, “know your enemy.” I’m not sure it helps, but the idea appeals to me as magic in the face COVID-19. If I know more, maybe I’ll feel safer.
Here are some answers to basic questions on COVID-19.
- Who names Viruses? The International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV).
- Who announces the names of viruses and diseases? The World Health Organization (WHO), speaking for the United Nations (UN).
- What is the name of the virus in the pandemic of 2020? The name is SARS-CoV-2. This stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2
- Why is it sometimes called a “novel” virus? Because the virus has never been seen before in humans. It’s new!
- Why the 2? Because SARS, the first Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Corona Virus), that popped up in 2003, and eventually went away, was number 1.
- What is the disease associated with SARS-CoV-2 in the 2020 pandemic? It’s called COVID-19 or Coronavirus disease.
- Why have different names for the virus and disease? It’s because the two serve different purposes and professions:
- Viruses are named based on their genetic structure to facilitate the development of diagnostic tests, vaccines, and medicines.
- Diseases are named to enable discussions and strategies of disease prevention, severity, spread, transmissibility and treatment.
- What do the initials COVID stand for? That’s “Co” from Latin corona, “VI” for Virus, “D” for disease. The WHO coined the term in February 2020.
- What does the word “corona” mean in coronavirus? When viewed under an electron microscope—which is the way viruses are observed—each virion, the complete, infective form of a virus outside a host cell, is seen to be surrounded by a “corona,” or halo.
What have I learned? Not much. Not enough to feel safe. Three things caught my attention: viruses are very old in evolutionary time, as old as bacteria; their structures are, like most natural forms, beautiful (but the virologists add the color by painting their images); and, like wave/particle duality in physics, viruses have duality. They are dead in “open” space and come alive only when attached to a host. They are both dead and alive! Also, we all have viruses in our bodies, and we host them for life, even after a vaccine or medicine has brought them under control.
In case you thirst to learn more about viruses, you might sit in on Dr. Vincent Racaniello’s excellent course, Virology 2020, on YouTube and, also, connect to his show, This Week in Virology (TWIV). TWIV 641, a recent program, features the ubiquitous Dr. Anthony Fauci bringing folks up to date on COVID-19.
Everyone has an attitude these days. It’s like we’re locked into an eternal present! What is yours? A strange one has come over me, a distillation, I suppose, of humors from age, confinement, social distancing, isolation, and incessant media watching. The mad president’s daily antics take center stage in this mix. What’s next? What now? A faux conflict with Iran might appeal to him. Perhaps one with China. How about a Reichstag fire like incident in Portland or Chicago? The pandemic surges ever upward while the president looks away and makes still another pitch for the ingesting of hydroxychloroquine. In his practiced obliviousness, time is still available to inconvenience foreign students, turn the screws tighter on refugees, commute the sentence of a felon, and slander Dr. Fauci. Fauci insists the nation is in the middle of a pandemic; that is his offense. The President’s mouthpieces shout the mantra: open the economy! open the schools!
What is this strange attitude of mine? Is it fear? Anger? Rage? Patriotism? Worry? Anxiety? Super alertness? hypertension? Preparedness? What’s this I’m feeling in the eternal present? I want to do something! I want to do some good! I don’t want to just watch! I don’t want a gun! I want to help!
Not knowing the answer, I write. I turn the strange attitude, bayonet-like, into the point of a pen.
Point It Out
My mother, Ruby Hodgkins Callender, loved the Lincoln County News, the Maine newspaper serving the county in which she was born and grew to young womanhood. Ruby, in her nineties, resided in an assisted living apartment at Gorham House. She still read the paper religiously as she had all her life. Her cousin Beryl Hunt happened by this time to be a local correspondent. Beryl’s memory, my mother soon decided, had its deficiencies. Beryl’s work needed regular correction if it were to be accurate and educational. So, my mother would write corrections to Beryl after most issues. This good work included first hand information on dates, participants, events, churches, cemeteries, towns, and parks.
I asked her one time why she wrote these corrections to Beryl. What did it matter? Why did she feel so strongly about it? She responded, “What actually happened is important.”
Yes, just so, what actually happens is important. Perhaps I can do some of that with my pen. That’s one good use of attitude, to point things out!
Mother, He’s Crazy
A friend explained to me that President Trump is “emotionally disturbed and cognitively limited.” I won’t listen to him, my friend said, because he’s “a mentally sick individual.” He referred me to a book on the subject edited by Bandy X. Lee, a Yale professor, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump (2017). It provides “the assessments of 27 psychiatrists, psychologists and mental health professionals and a handful of nationally-known observers on Trump’s sanity.” Some of these folks had made a movie warning of the danger the world is in with Donald Trump as President of the United States. It’s on YouTube.
My friend’s caution reminded me that George Conway—the constitutional lawyer and presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway’s husband—had said as much in a piece in The Atlantic, “Unfit for Office,” (October 3, 2019). Conway claims that Trump’s behavior fits the classic portrait in DSM-IV of extreme narcissist personality disorder. Then, this week, out comes niece Mary Trump’s family thriller presenting a devastating clinical examination of Uncle Donald, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man (2020).
I think it’s true, an open secret really, although no one in a constitutional democracy should ever want to have to admit it. Yes, the man is severely emotionally disabled.
That gives me a second idea of what I could do with my attitude. I could reason with people, not argue. I could try to stay sane. I could promote sanity.
A Moment in Time
Here’s the deal. It’s 10:47 EST on July 11th, and I’m looking at the stats on the COVID-19 pandemic on Worldometer. I see that the United States is runaway No.1 for infections and deaths worldwide. At the moment we have 3,294,539 infections with 136,735 deaths, compared to second place Brazil, who, trying like hell to catch up, is at 1,807,496 infections and 70,601 deaths. They are not going to catch us. When it comes to mask trashing and closing distances, we have few peers. Brazil will have to compete with India.
Let’s look at the number of new infections in the United States for the seven days between July 4th and July 10th. The series is 49,818, 45,931, 50,584, 55,442, 61,848, 61,067, and 71,787. The sum is 396,477. The average is 56,640. Yes, the nation has contacted 18.4% of its infections in just the last week, and the trend is upwards!
Now I’m going to compute a completely meaningless number and ask you to tell me what it could mean. Here’s the methodology. I look at the nations on the list that features the United States and Brazil as 1 and 2 and go to the end, the 215th name. It is Saint Pierre Miquelon with one infection. Anguilla is at 214 with 3 infections. St. Barth is 215th with 6 infections. I am happy to tell you that ten of the eleven individuals in these three countries have recovered from the disease and the other person is in recovery.
I propose now to move up the list, adding infections as I find them, and sum the numbers until I reach the U.S. average at 56,640 infections a day. Starting with Saint Pierre Miquelon, Anguilla, and St. Barth, here are the infection numbers: 2, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 12, 13, 13, 17, 18, 19, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 29, 37, 43, 46, 62, 64, 66, 74, 78, 82, 84, 98, 100, 105,108, 108, 133, 141, 141, 141, 150, 180, 184, 188, 190, 191, 201, 227, 232, 255, 290, 314, 314, 330, 336, 342, 370, 394, 451, 509, 571, 577, 668, 674, 699, 710, 712, 726, 727, 753, 855, 874, 942, 981, 985, 998, 1013, 1013, 1019, 1020, 1099, 1111, 1173, 1173, 1240, 1252, 1257, 1285, 1380, 1389, 1433, 1543, 1591, 1613, 1827, 1842, 1865, 1888, 1893, 1895, and 2014. These figures sum to 55,969 infections, slightly below the US seven day average and well below the one day high of 71,787 on July 10th. Estonia, in 114th position, has the 2014 infections. There are 101 nations ranked between 114 and 215 on the Worldometer list. This tells us that the United States is racking up more new infections daily than 101 nations have registered combined for the whole pandemic. With no plan in place in the United States, there’s no end in sight. As Dr. Fauci has warned, if something doesn’t change, the daily number of new infections could reach 100,000 daily, summing to a million every ten days. How sick is that? It’s crazy!
According to Faith Karimi and Jamiel Lynch, reporting on July 2nd for CNN, there is a new parlor game being played by kids in Tuscaloosa, and it has been played successfully more than once. As I understand it, the hosts invite their peers to cough up dough for tickets to a party, thus creating a nice little pool of money. No masks or social distancing are expected or allowed at the party. The first attendee who gets COVID-19 after the party gets the money. Just to insure the party is a success, an infected person is invited to boost the odds. That way, someone is sure to win the pool. Is that sick, or what?
But, who would have known it, these parties can be so successful that a winner can’t be picked. It’s good they weren’t playing the Tuscaloosa game in Washtenaw County, Michigan on July 2nd and 3rd. There, 43 party goers ended up in a tie for first place; they all got the virus, and more revelers are expected to be added to the list.
Nicholas Wu and Courtney Subramanian, writing on July 15th for USA TODAY, report that Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt has tested positive for the coronavirus weeks after attending President Donald Trump’s rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He had sat elbow to elbow without a mask with the other big wigs at the indoor event. A crowd of 6200 people attended the rally.
But, as it happens, and doesn’t it usually go this way, Governor Stitt would have lost the money if the Tuscaloosa rules had been in force. Herman Cain, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate would have gotten the cash. He tested positive for coronavirus sooner after the Tulsa event than the governor did. Cain is receiving treatment for the disease in an Atlanta-area hospital.
Go Back Where You Came From!
Annie Karni, covering the President’s Independence Day rally at Mount Rushmore for the New York Times, reports that “Trump delivered a dark and divisive speech . . . that cast his struggling effort to win a second term as a battle against a “‘new far-left fascism’ seeking to wipe out the nation’s values and history.”
The President, who omitted mention of the COVID-19 pandemic, explained “Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children.” And,“We will not be tyrannized, we will not be demeaned, and we will not be intimidated by bad, evil people.”
Mount Rushmore is in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and is sacred and contested land for the Sioux. The Supreme Court ruled in 1980 that the United States had taken the land illegally from them in 1873. The Sioux were offered a settlement of $1 billion for the land grab, but flatly refused. They still want their land back.
Neither the President or the Governor contacted the Sioux to let them know they were coming. It is unsurprising then that protesters gathered and blocked the road to the national monument for a couple of hours before the speech. The South Dakota National Guard had to be called out and used pepper spray to break up the protest. Fifteen people were arrested.
Hehakaho Waste, a spiritual elder with the Oglala Sioux tribe, was reported to say: ”The president needs to open his eyes. We’re people, too, and it was our land first.”
A Trump supporter, counter-protesting, was heard to yell out to Sioux protesters: “Go Home! Go back where you came from!” Totally insane! Crazy Horse, whose unfinished likeness is half-carved on nearby Thunderhead Mountain, sculpted by the same artist who did the busts on Rushmore, would have been angered and saddened, but not surprised.
Get Worse Day
Things can get worse. Depend on it. While I believe neither in alchemy or astrology, July 11 was a day things got worse. Perhaps it is luck of the draw, dumb probability. First, there was Max Boot’s article in The Washington Post, a foreboding, entitled “The Worst President Ever Keeps Getting Worse.” It seems that Boot had written an opinion piece for The Post on April 5 declaring Donald Trump “The Worst President Ever.” He hadn’t foreseen that Trump could get even worse. But as Boot says, he did get worse, and with seeming ease!
“Think about all that has happened since April 5. That was before security forces attacked peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square so that Trump could stage a bizarre photo-op. Before he pushed to send the armed forces into the streets. Before he embraced “white power” and called Black Lives Matter “a symbol of hate.” Before he vowed to veto the defense authorization bill to prevent the renaming of military bases named after Confederate generals. Before he used the novel coronavirus as an excuse to shut down immigration and threatened to revoke the visas of college students unable to attend classes in the fall. Before he ignored reports that a Russian intelligence unit had placed a bounty on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Before he moved to pull out of the World Health Organization during the worst pandemic in a century. Before he held rallies that most likely helped to spread the disease. Before he falsely accused MSNBC host . . . Joe Scarborough of murdering a staff member. Before former national security adviser John Bolton revealed that Trump praised China’s prison camps for Uighurs and asked Chinese leader Xi Jinping to help him win reelection.”
But things got worse, much worse, in another sense. As Boot notes, the pandemic was raging before April 5th. Nevertheless, the statistics at the time were 331,000 infections and 9,400 deaths, with 25,000 new cases on that day. But by July 11th, the comparable figures were 3,400,278 infections, 137,699 deaths, and 61,719 new cases. Actually that last number is deceptive. The daily tally for July 10 was 71,787!
With all of the horrible news on COVID 19, one would expect people in effected states to jump back into stage one cover to prevent its spread. But no, in the issue of The Post on the day before Boot’s article appeared, the vacationing Kathleen Parker, writing from her home state of South Carolina, warns everybody to stop what they are doing and escape the place. Others are advised, as her headline reads, “Stay away from South Carolina.” It is “Bike Week,” postponed from an earlier time when the place was safer. Bikers, among hoards of other liberated revelers are crowding the beaches and streets unprotected, like joyous friends of Dionysius unmasked. South Carolina has had 56,648 cases of COVID-19, with 961 deaths. Cases are going up; 2280 new ones were reported for July 11—up from the seven day average of 1616. Texas and Florida both recorded new highs for the day.
And then, wouldn’t you know it, George Will comes forward with an opinion piece in the July 15th Washington Post declaring that “The Nation is in a Downward Spiral. Worse is Still to Come.” Come on! Say it’s not true! Worse is yet to come?
I bought my first computer, a Kaypro, in 1983. That made me an early adopter in the personal computer market. It worked on a floppy disk system that included games. For example, I could play a mindless wall tennis game with a speedy Pac-Man like figure. I could also explore WWW, the World Wide Web, that linked viewers to websites, including an entity called SIG, shorthand for “special interest group.” Even at this early date SIGs had been organized on all conceivable topics. You could join an open invitation SIG, pose a question and start a discussion. The disappointment—a surprise then but “new normal” now—was that every SIG had a few jerks as members. These “discussion” turned out to be early training/proving grounds for the “take,” “barb,” “troll,” “slam,” and “putdown.” That’s how discussions usually ended. Another big surprise was to find an “alt-” designation attached to SIGs, signifying the existence of alternative groups opposed to the premises of yours! For example, There would be the category “education” with SIG addresses under that and an “alt-education” category with SIG addresses under that. Similar to the existence of anti-particles—oppositely charged particles: neutrino/anti-neutrino, electron/positron, quark/anti-quark, etc.—the positive pursuit of knowledge by one set of “scholars” was being actively countered and negated by another set of “scholars.” This was the case in all areas of knowledge. Friedrich Nietzsche might have laughed.
I was reminded of all of this recently when listening to the historian Niall Ferguson propose a new explanation of how people and political parties became so “divided” and “polarized.” He surmised—correctly in my case—that we the audience thought our modern schisms stemmed from the student movements of the nineteen-sixties. Sixties college students tend to believe that falling out with each other over the Vietnam War protests led to the divide in opinion that tortures us today. In that light, we’re striving to conciliate two civil wars, the big one from the 1860’s and the intense one of the 1960s. But here comes Niall Ferguson, the Scottish scholar born in 1964, referencing two star texts of the American sixties written by the Canadian Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media (1964),” and reminding us, as McLuhan did then, that “The media is the message.” Yes, says Ferguson, and our media is “the Internet.” Our times—revolving as they do around computer and Internet—reprise the warring of Protestants and Catholics after the invention of the printing press. Forget the sixties, take a look at yourselves! You’re forever on the Internet! Look at the trash talk thrown around the social media platforms. Think about the use of bots by Russia! That’s where the front lines of battle are today, online, and the electronic armies are infused with religious fervor!
Excuse me a moment’ I want to take a peek at CNN to see what the president is up to this morning.
No wonder we’re at each others throats.
As I look out toward the woods from my back yard patio, I see a scene, and not much more. The calls of birds draw the most natural attention. I’m but one person with two eyes facing forward. I see nothing direct of the world. I’m in this place now, and then in another, always locally situated. So are you. So is everyone. That’s how it is with us. Unaided, we can’t see beyond the horizon. We don’t see time either, past, present, or future.
Despite the locality and time limitations, we want to make confident statements about the important matters in our world. Our lives depend on it. We want to know. We want to believe. We want to be sure. So, we cross the line. We find it irresistible to mouth absolute certainties.
But I can’t be certain. You can’t either. We can’t! Given that, let’s agree to settle down, look around, and talk with each other, slowly and quietly. Let’s stop shouting! It’s better to think and talk with people, to share community.
Condemned to be situated in place and time, we need tools to help us see, think, and speak. We have a brain, we have senses, we can move and travel. We have libraries, data depots, museums, and schools. We have accumulated knowledge—compiled by professions and organized into disciplines—and we have storied literature, history, and wisdom. We have laboratories. We have majestic technologies featuring languages, computers, engines, magnets, telescopes, microscopes, rockets, spaceships, cameras, and particle accelerators. By such knowledge and technologies we are enabled to see incredibly far into the nature of things. We can study, comprehend, understand, and build complex things.
However, we are never in position to be absolutely certain of anything. We are not privy to the absolute. Systems have holes and cracks. Nature is beyond. We belong in it. It is good to be simple. It is wise to be humble.
Science, within this context, is our best guide. That is because belief within science is based strictly on evidence, and is always provisional and tentative. If the facts support it, believe and act upon it. If the facts are otherwise, give that belief up and search for a better explanation.
In the face of earthquakes, volcanic lava, fire, thunder, storms, and floods, science—withstanding fear and overcoming paralysis—invites questions, prizes thought, collects data, adds up evidence, and tests answers by experiment. The scientist converts terror into awe, awe into mystery, mystery into wonder, wonder into curiosity, curiosity into questions, questions into methods, and evidence into proof. Experiments and hard work follow. There is enough joy in discovery to make life thoroughly meaningful. Science has paid off royally for all of us. Every machine, every technology, every material, every chemical, every engineering feat, everything in modern life that constitutes our world and way of life is a result of science. Science is indispensable to us even if we are unawares. And yet, the scientist is sure of one thing only, that she or he doesn’t know the answer, but is willing to search to find out. Discovery settles one question and produces new uncertainties, which, in turn, generate new questions. There is always more to know. Scientists puzzle and seek. That is its satisfaction and joy.
Every epidemiologist and public health official consulted about the COVID-19 pandemic advises: wear a mask. One hears this dozens of times a day. It’s a universal recommendation of scientists. Yet, when the mayor of Atlanta mandates its use, Governor Kemp, a Republican colleague of President Trump, sues the city of Atlanta to prevent its enactment. Masks shall not be required in Georgia. Other states are likely to follow suit: Democrat mayors mandate masks; Republican governors negate the mandate. President Trump has been loathe to wear a mask, although he wore one once recently, and says the issue is a matter of personal choice, a protected freedom of some kind under the Constitution. Based on the conduct of their role model, thousands of the President’s supporters avoid the mask and flout other common sense counter-measures recommended by public health officials.
The gotcha arguments for mask advocates are “do it for others,” “do it for your grandmother,” or,“do it for me,” “I’m at risk.” It is maddening that such basic human considerations aren’t enough to gain compliance. Take the case of Lori Wagoner, retail clerk at a store in North Carolina—where the use of masks in stores is mandated. Her piece, written for The Washington Post, as one of the “Voices from the Pandemic,” is entitled “‘No mask, no entry. Is that clear enough? That seems pretty clear, right?’” (July 18, 2020).
Wagoner, 63, a lifelong Asthma sufferer, finds the answer is too often “no.” This was the response even when a sign outside the store read “If you wear a mask, it shows how much you care about us.” Twenty or thirty people walked in without a mask anyhow. So they tried additional signs,“Thanks for wearing a mask. It’s the most patriotic thing you can do.” That didn’t work either, so they tried more signs, “Please be kind to us.” “We’re here for you seven days a week, and we didn’t create this situation,” and “Masks are required for anyone entering the store.” Wagoner reports that while 90 to 95 percent of the customers complied, the rest gave them all sorts of grief. In the meantime, the local sheriff posted on his facebook page the unhelpful message that he wouldn’t be enforcing the state mandate. He didn’t want to be the “mask police.” In general, Wagoner heard a lot of: “You’re infringing on my rights. This is a free country, and I’m here to shop, so who’s going to stop me?”
The coming of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced a choice between following science and following something else. Following something else is winning. Science, humanity’s indispensable guide, is taking a beating, as it has in the area of climate change and other vital fields of science. This trashing of science has been going on for three-and-a-half going on four years under President Trump, and it started well before that. Why has this happened? How has science been turned into a negative?
Local scofflaws of masks, crowds, and social distancing—by now a growing cadre of complainers parroting a perpetual victim, the complainer in chief— claim a great and precious freedom guaranteed to them by the Constitution of the United States of America. It is not. The freedom they so loudly claim is nothing other than the freedom the owner availed himself over his slaves and household in plantation days, and rued as “lost” in the days of “The Great Lost Cause.” Now every disgruntled citizen, aging white males usually, claims this “absolute” freedom in every region of the country under a MAGA banner. The “Great” referenced in”Great Lost Cause” is the “Great” on the MAGA hat. Their so-called freedom rejects equality. They are saying: freedmen and women; your rights be damned. I do what I want to on this United States plantation.
No. Without reference to the inalienable rights and political equality of all the people in “We the People,”commandeered individual freedom is worthless. These “in-your-face,” “I-do-as-I-want-to” kind of freedom lovers are just bullies. They are poor citizens, uncaring neighbors, and miscreants, common lawbreakers.
Magic, Religion, and Science
Something unexpected has happened at the intersection between magic, religion, and science. Enlightenment luminaries—whose values held sway when our nation was formed and our Declaration of Independence and Constitution were signed—expected that magic and religion would lose influence to science as knowledge accumulated and technologies improved. These philosophers tended to believe, as I do, that science and reason are the prime portals to meaning, morality, purpose, and human dignity. Life is sacred and science is its exploration in nature. Magic, religion, and science are alternative ways of asserting human control in the face of death and the terror of chaos. As knowledge conquers wild nature, humans could be expected to become more reasonable, and build more humane societies through science.
As we know, it hasn’t gone that way. Religion replaced magic smoothly enough, mostly by incorporating magic into its rituals, but religion and science ended up in an uneasy draw, dividing up the turf and the hours. Reason and science took over the world of work as the means for making a living, developing new technologies, and booting up a lightning-fast global economy. Religion and faith, on the other hand, continue as the preferred means to give meaning to the rest of life. Science and technology dominate the working hours. Religious faith takes over to comfort believers over the ages and get them through the dark, frightful nights.
The tenuousness of the division of labor between religion and science is one problem. The effort of fundamentalist politicians to transform the nation into a faux Christian state is another. A third, the most important for my purposes here, is illuminated by Kurt Andersen in his book Fantasyland. He points out that Americans, since colonial times, have usurped the right from clergy to invent religions of their own design. It starts by believing one has a direct pipeline to God’s mind and morphs into a new church. By now, every American claims the individual right to fashion a religion of his own, pastor, parents and grandparents be damned. This originates within protestantism. It’s as if the Reformation, once begun, continues to divide and divide, split and split, much like cells in the body. Efficiency and modernization are the most innocent excuses for change. It is probably unhelpful to list all of the religions our nation has birthed, but the list is long and dazzling. Christian Science, Seventh Day Adventism, Mormonism, Scientology, Branch Davidian, and Peoples Temple (Jonestown) are a few famous examples, the latter two, strictly speaking, were “sects” when their apocalypses arrived.
Suffice it to say there is a new religion in the making linked to the MAGA movement. It goes by the name QAnon. It can be read about in Adrienne LaFrance’s report in The Atlantic, “How QAnon is Warping and Discrediting Science” (June, 2020). QAnon is very much an Internet phenomenon promulgated by right wing media. It’s an outcropping of conspiracy theory.
It almost got folks killed in an incident back in 2016 known as “pizzagate.” A gunman armed with a 9-mm AR-15 rifle and other weapons travelled all the way from North Carolina to a pizzeria in Washington called Comet Ping Pong to shut down a child sex ring supposedly run by Hillary Clinton. Clinton and Barack Obama have featured parts helping the devil in QAnon story telling. A holy war is coming. Beyond the specifics, which include the anonymity of Q, the knowing one, who is rumored by some to be Trump, the usual ideas are included in QAnon prophecy: a great awakening, Armageddon, the return of the Messiah, judgment day, the dividing of good and evil, Apocalypse, Christ taking his people home, and union with God in heaven. Edgar Welch, the gunman, was smart enough to recognize the “spoof” when he got to Comet Ping Pong and surrendered. He and his neighbors describe him as a good and deeply religious Christian man.
What we are witnessing in the no mask, no social distance, I’ll-crowd-up-if-I want-to messaging is the merging of a brand of evangelical protestantism, male grievance, plantation owner psychology, MAGA, QAnon, and Internet conspiracy theory. QAnon is like a Pokemon and Legends of War video game gone seriously wrong!
I know. It’s insane.
Crazier Than That Now
In the spirit of Bob Dylan’s song poem, My Back Pages, I close by offering a new verse in honor of our nation’s insane approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. The verse is meant as a comparison of our situation today with what it was when Pandemic Ramble, the first in this series, was published two months ago. After that, a summation follows.
To establish the mood and get the rhythm going, here is a stanza from My Back Pages:
“Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth, “rip down all hate,” I screamed
Lies that life is black and white spoke from my skull, I dreamed
Romantic facts of musketeers foundationed deep, somehow
Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now”
My Back Pages, Another Side of Bob Dylan Album, (1964)
Here is a stanza in honor of today:
Calls for leadership were heard, George Marshall please, I dreamed
Some form of concerted effort to protect the people, I screamed
Rallies of unmasked men their Independence did avow, and how,
Ah, but we were so much saner then, we’re crazier than that now.
No author, however imaginative and skilled, could have anticipated the miasmic morass we’ve buried ourselves in today. Incredibly, all roads regarding the pandemic, the protests, and the election now run straight through President Donald J. Trump. He seems to have made a bad decision at every juncture, with the negative consequences reverberating back on him. Candidate Biden has hardly had to show his face in public, so effectively has the President pressed the case against his own re-election.
The President’s first mistake was to deny the presence of COVID-19 and to minimize its danger, accompanying that with a bit of snake oil salesmanship. The second, worse, was to farm out the work of the pandemic to state governors without a central unified plan, apparently so the governors could be the fall guys for ensuing blame. The choice of a General Marshall type of leader to conduct the war effort would have been smarter. The third mistake was to entice the states to reopen their economies weeks too early in complete disregard of his own published standards. The fourth was to downplay police killings of black people, withhold sympathy for its victims, back the police unconditionally, and rebrand the protesters a “new far-left fascism” devoted to carrying out a “merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children.” The fifth mistake was to send in federal troops, first into Lafayette Square, next into Portland, Oregon and soon, if Trump’s threats are to be believed, to other cities du jour near you. The sixth mistake, and I’ll stop here, because the combination is plenty destructive, was to embrace the cause of the confederacy and white supremacy in preserving monuments and retaining the names of military bases.
What you have combined, mixing all of this together, is a runaway pandemic, fearful and depressed citizens, mask and social distancing wars, wild conspiracy theories, QAnon, attacks against science, unemployed workers, poverty, hunger, super-motivated protesters, exhausted medical staff, discouraged scientists, troops in cities, continued protest, and a ten percentage point lead for Joe Biden coming up on the election. At the same time, the movement for police reform, race equality and social justice is steadily gaining steam. Change is coming one way or another.
The denouement, in which all of this is to come to a head and be resolved is, of course, election day, November 3rd. But that is 100 days away! Until then, we will just have to live in this political hellhole, the eternal present.
Will Callender, Jr. ©
July 23, 2020
Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good