Better We Should Be at War

(Photo by Dick DeMarsico for the New York World-Telegram, now in the Library of Congress)

“What would you rather go through, a war or a pandemic?” I asked a friend the other day.

She thought a minute. “A pandemic. That way I’ve at least got a little control over my fate.”

Me? I would take war.

I do not say this lightly, and I do not mean just any war. But lately I have been thinking about Victory Gardens and rationing and retired gentlemen plane spotting and their wives knitting balaclavas and people buying war bonds and making soap from bacon drippings and all those Rosies riveting and everybody pulling together.

You would think that a virus that threatens us all would have the same ability to unite us. You would think that being forced to sit home and think a bit would be salutary, that missing one another would make us kind, that we could help each other be brave.

“This was manmade … It’s all about money!” scrolled onto my screen as Dr. Anthony Fauci did a Facebook Live chat with Mark Zuckerberg. “You created this! Stop pretending that you care.” “Fear mongering at [sic] it’s finest, please take our jobs, take our freedom, federal reserve will own everything.”

(And in between: “I was sick 5 weeks after having it and have lung damage from it,” with a few sad emojis.)

Pro-choice language was repurposed to fend off a vaccine: “It’s my body I have the say so.” The conspiracy veered from Satan (“I’ll let the sheeple take the Mark of the Beast”) to a high-tech takeover: “All of this is to distract you from the plasma reset.”

The plasma reset? I can only figure that this is a variant of the “the vaccine will contain a microchip and steal our brains” argument. “They are going to lock us up,” someone insisted. Another warned, “Be prepared to be shut down and everything will be electronic.”

More of the comments were supportive of Fauci, on balance, and a few people even tried to interrogate or scold the critics. But when somebody asked why there was such fear of masks, the reply came fast: “No one is afraid of masks. They are just instruments of control, unlikely to stop infection.”

I pried my fingers off the arm of the chair. Skepticism is healthy. Questioning authority, checking for personal motives, staying vigilant to protect privacy from technology, and liberty from tyranny—all good. But not one of these people offered any evidence. Again and again, their language suggested analysis, urging those who disagreed to “Do some research!!” But what passed as research was manufactured paranoia. “How do we know coronavirus causes COVID-19?” one person pounced. People sounded suspiciously proud of their suspicions, jacked up on the elation of feeling smart, and seeing through everything they could not integrate with their world view. Doctors were being “silenced” in the conspiracy. Russia had a cure and it was available on the street. (Tell that to 13,269 dead Russians.)

Ignore this, I told myself, the same way you learned to ignore talk radio and online comments and social media trolls. But then it spirals, I argued back. Other people breathe in these beliefs, or they brush against them and touch their eyes or lips. As a nation, we have lost our immune system.

Three themes threaded through the vitriol: mistrust of science, fear about the protests, and worry about money. Fauci’s critics seemed far more worried about money, in fact, than they were about disease. One writer nearly imploded when Fauci used the pronoun “we” to speak generally about financial losses during the pandemic.

During World War II, we knew who “we” were. People sat together in front of the wireless, waiting for news from the front. Propaganda was reserved for the enemy troops, not suspected of every news report. You could strike up a conversation with a stranger, I imagine, without worrying about a flashfire argument over masks or race or who was conspiring to do what.

I have had flashfire arguments with friends, because our world views, our framing, our assumptions, are suddenly so sharply different. And now it hits me: I need to reword the “war or pandemic” question, because this pandemic has become, ideologically, a civil war.

Walt Kelly saw it coming:

We have met the enemy, and he is us.