[Editor's Note: Son of Korg...this is the first piece from new guest author RiffRaft. We're excited to have RiffRaft limitedly hanging out with us.]
"...everyone was so positive of their having seen what they pretended to see, that there was no contradicting them without breach of friendship, or being accounted rude and unmannerly on the one hand, and profane and impenetrable on the other."
- Daniel Defoe, 1722, A Journal of the Plague Year
When shit hits the fan, a lot of folk find themselves deep in the urge to regain some kind of control. Overwhelmed by the world’s problems feeling bigger and more complex and maybe too far gone to even fully grok, can make even the most reckless nihilist feel a pang of dread. Most people are highly, highly motivated to bring things back under some sense of control in face of eye blistering chaos. What follows is a rambling exploration of the way Covid has served, among so many other purposes, as an outlet for collective simmering existential dread inspired by the Big Mess, or BM for short.
What I mean by Big Mess, or BM, is the shit-show of climate emergency, tech dystopia, wealth divide, man-made disease, democracy debacles, identity politics (or did they get cancelled?), information warfare, polarization on steroids – or worse, on tech – and so on. The BM is shorthand for all the wicked problems together that are out. of. control. What’s unique about Covid is that you can hate on it, fight and try to kill it, let out all that pent up Freudian aggression on it, without getting cancelled. No one identifies as a virus – so far – so you’re free to channel all the bad feels onto it without being seen as a bad person.
From the ship-wreck of current times, it seems like the dopamine gush race that keeps the progress tornado (also known as disruption ™) going, is as good as any place to embark on this recon mission. Disruption, that scoundrel of a word and mantra of tech hopefuls the past decade or so, has proved to cut at least both ways. It disrupts social fabric in a way that garners massive profits, while maintaining a culture of blindness to the ill-effects of said disruption.
None of this will be new to you. It is getting heavier to hear, and even heavier to write about, the big BM. So I will keep this part to a super short swipe, just enough to get a starting note, then we will shift things up, promise.
Yes, we humans have succeeded in disrupting things. Obviously climate, disrupted through decades of ever increasing efficiency in resource extraction and manufacturing, mixed with management science, endlessly optimizing optimization. And yes, we’ve disrupted most semblances of privacy, and arguably our sobriety, with pervasive and addictive tech. We have ‘improved’ or disrupted - or as a collective simply neglected – the economics and distribution around basic sustenance needs like housing and food to an embarrassing and increasing level of homelessness and obesity in rich countries, alongside starvation and slums in warmer, poorer countries.
Then there is the reinforcing spiral of tech, industry, climate, politics, education and indoctrination, to name a few contributing systems, that is enough to make one’s head spin. How the [swearword] do we remedy this spiraling BM? Spirals like high carbon emissions from home construction and renovation, swirling higher in the gale force gusts of tech platforms that allow for increasing profits from using houses increasingly as financial instruments rather than as places for humans to live. Add the rising storm of global obesity rates that nearly match death by starvation rates, and so on, and our situation, while not without hope and possibility, is also pretty much the definition of an insidious Big Mess.
Enter Pandemic! A surprise plot-twist for most, myself included, though not for some in science and medicine who have been warning about something like this for decades. But, according to the mainstream media, it is only preppers, religious fundamentalists, and assorted fringe dwellers, who have been chirping about it, so it was easy to dismiss as paranoia. The latter has made it more difficult to discern the sober parapolitical analysis that legitimately challenges the mainstream media narrative. For an example of a more sober parapolitical analysis listen to Ezekiel73 and Son of Korg on The Stoa discussing the techniques of psychological operations.
Back to the mainstream narrative, even Hollywood weighed in a few years ago with a big budget action-thriller called just that, Pandemic. It has been on the collective radar, but as a microscopic dot at best. Life was so busy, who had time to vet every bit and byte of information about something supposed crazies have been going on about since forever--making it harder to spot the signal of actual intentional malfeasance amidst the noise.
When I think about it now, and check out headlines from the 90’s through the past two decades, the information seems plentiful enough - complaints from doctors and patients alike about hospital over-crowding, beds overflowing in hallways. It goes back a long time. And just a few years before the pandemic, tents were set up in parking lots to treat people in 2017 flu season in LA. Alabama declared a state of emergency due to hospitals overflowing with flu patients several seasons before Covid. Also when I think about it, doctor and nurse shortages, lack of surge capacity have been wafting around in the news for what feels like forever. Never really affected me, and it just didn’t seem like much of a thing.
The pandemic has cast that info in bit of a different light, obviously. For a while, I was concerned about how dangerous covid was. I feel it is important to dignify and honor the pain for all involved in the horror of overflowing hospitals and overwhelmed medical practitioners treating, and sometimes losing, covid patients. Seeing hospitals and staff overrun, reading their heartbreaking, gut-wrenching reports of what it is like in these trenches, got me nervous that this must be a really bad virus. I am not debating how bad it is here, or at least not exactly. The suffering is bad. The reporting and use of that suffering by various interests is worth being cognizant of, and any delicacy lacking in this inquiry is on me.
What I am interested in is the way a few things come together here. Firstly, what happens in the amygdala to hear hospitals are over-run. Stress and low-grade panic happen for me, thinking about not being able to breathe and going to, or taking a loved one to the hospital and being turned away. That feels brutal, scary, dangerous, to be avoided at all cost. In the simplistic survival thinking of the brain: Covid bad. Very bad.
Then the parrot of ‘rational thinking’ on the other shoulder chimes in. Remember the headlines about overcrowding over the past twenty plus years? What happened to that? Is it possible some of the scare around Covid overcrowding is caused not just by how deadly the virus is? How is neglecting hospital and medical practitioner capacity for decades playing in to this? Are medical staff maybe relieved to finally have people take their complaints seriously, to draw much needed attention to the deficits in medical staffing and hospital bed capacity? To finally get a sleeping public’s attention on a long neglected but not unknown problem?
Not knowing the first thing about trends in hospital bed and doctor-patient capacity off the top of my head, I consulted the interweb, as one does. As usual, there are some disparities in information, but also some general trends that cast more light on overflowing hospital beds. It seems all but 2 or 3 OECD countries have steadily decreased the number of hospital beds per population over the last five or so decades. That’s right, the number of hospital beds per 1,000 people has been trending down over the last 50 years. Canada, the US and UK have under 3 beds per 1,000 people now, compared to 7 –10ish in decades past. And, in all those countries there are increasing numbers of older people, who need more medical resources for their care.
Of course, the official message has been that lockdowns and other pandemic measures are to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed, not meant to freak people out about the virus, nor exaggerate the danger. But the amygdala does what the amygdala does, and the media does what it does, and so on, and next thing the alarm of overflowed hospitals kind of settles into a felt-sense of danger about the virus.
[Unofficially it is worth seriously considering the long history of experimentation on human psyches through projects like MK-Ultra (among many others) and its potential usage in the present climate. For background on that subject read Ezekiel73's piece on the subject.]
Combine this with all the other tight-rope walking – climate, economics, food security, sea level rise, smokey skies, identity wars, tech heaven and hell, polarization, rigged elections, all the -isms and so on – and one starts to feel pretty small and scared and like it is all out of control and just way. too. much! In this particular mix of contexts and influences, the size of Covid’s threat could slide easily into strange proportion, like trying to guess someone’s real size in an Ames Room. If you don’t know what an Ames room is, you can see an example here.
Feeling unsafe and hating feeling that way is par for the anxiety course. And yet, safety can also be its own undoing. Alan Watts on the contradiction of safety:
There is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity. But the contradiction lies a little deeper than the mere conflict between the desire for security and the fact of change. If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life. Yet it is this very sense of separateness which makes me feel insecure. To be secure means to isolate and fortify the “I,” but it is just the feeling of being an isolated “I” which makes me feel lonely and afraid. In other words, the more security I can get, the more I shall want.
To put it still more plainly: the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet.
Fighting Covid gives us among other things the succor of a sense of purpose and control – a way to hold our breaths until the pandemic is over. Wash hands, distance, wear mask, vaccinate, and we will beat this enemy! The more deadly the enemy is perceived to be, the more justified and heroic are the actions and expense to beat it.
This setup plays to the hero narrative of overcoming adversity, and as such is comfortingly familiar. If we believe hard enough in science and take informed Action, we can heroically Win this thing! Nevermind that we also know the information ecology is polluted. The same thinking makes for religious fanaticism – if we pray hard enough, say enough Hail Marys and do all the virtuous things, we shall be redeemed and enjoy the reward of life-everlasting in heaven. In the secular-scientific-rationalist version, we will never die of Covid again if we science hard enough. Not quite life-everlasting, but a bit of a bulwark against the grim reaper. In both belief systems, if you are not winning, do not blame the belief system. At best, it is okay to question your personal belief in it on the path to conversion. But to question the authority of the belief system, be it scientific thinking or religious, has its perils. Being shunned, for one.
Groups generally deal with the (often subconscious) existential tension of the limits of their explanatory power through the pressure-relief valve of scapegoating (a la Renee Girard’s mimetic conflict and Ernest Becker’s Escape from Evil). There is a history of scapegoating First Nation’s people, and countries like Canada have been in the news recently reckoning with their history of Residential Schools – Church and State sanctioned genocidal places of torture and horror by today’s standards. Note that at the time, they did not see it that way - they thought they were doing good, saving souls from eternal damnation, and establishing dominion.
Meantime in Covid world, the unvaccinated and any doctors or scientists who question aspects of the Canon of Covid beliefs are in the cross-hairs. There are even those who wonder if maybe the unvaccinated do not deserve to go to hospital if they get covid. They think hospitals, like some versions of heaven, should be reserved only for true believers. This view is not to deny covid and that it harms and kills some people, but rather to notice how people seize on to beliefs when scared and use them to justify scapegoating.
This perspective does not conflate science with religion – they are for sure two distinct things. Rather this is to explore the feature of human mind that curves towards faith in authority, be it religious or scientific authority, and how it treats those who do not conform. Questioning or being undecided aggravates the anxiety of the faithful, who react by scorning or punishing the unbelievers. Anxiety wants certainty, and infects thought systems indiscriminately. Whether certainty in the ultimate truth of a religion, or of science: same cognitive-emotional virus, just different hosts.
Ritual gestures are likewise pervasive and can be co-opted by the virus. Becker describes how ritual at its best charges the doer with extra life-force, a spark of potency against the shadow of death that is part and parcel of this mortal existence. Making the sign of the cross, chanting sutras, or in sports there are game day rituals, end-zone dances, and so on. Sure rituals can become empty when they are done in deference to authority or have lost their meaning over time. But when they are potent, they are potent.
Putting on a mask, squirting on sanitizer, keeping distance, getting the jab. These are not just science and nothing more. Among other things, they are a way to feel a little less helpless, physical gestures that make you feel a little more large-and-in-charge, virtuous even, in face of the Big Mess. Ritual gestures that confer potency. And as with all dangerous emergencies, having something you can do about it relieves some of the anxiety of inaction. Doing your recycling and buying an electric car are things you can do about climate change. Masking, sanitizing, distancing, getting a jab – these are all actions you can do about Covid. The value of them in warding off feelings of helplessness need not be underrated, regardless of where the science on any of them shakes out. Who knows, maybe these secular rituals even provide placebo protection for some, boosting their immune system by giving a sense of agency against this Shrek-eared virus. (sorry, Shrek!)
Fanaticism happens in science too. Logicbros is a newish term used to describe and deride fanatics of the thought species known as hyper scientific-rationalist. Tenets of science are appropriated into rigid patterns of reasoning used to justify a sense of superiority. Through a similar process, religions based on love and the sanctity of life end up getting used as justification for torture and slaughter. Logic bros use science, a method that is based on questioning and uncertainty, as justification for close-minded righteousness. Science gets fetishized as the one, true epistemology for knowing The Truth. In a rebranding of fanaticism, priestly robes are traded for the higher power of lab coats and scrubs.
Again, this is not to confuse science and religion as belonging in the same category. They are two separate things in their own right. However there is a more esoteric point of contact between them, again though not conflation. That is, the magical and alchemical roots of science and way in which that history has been suppressed by the official church/magisterium of contemporary scientism. For more on this topic see SonofKorg's piece.
Nevertheless, organize the relationship between science and religion with one another as you will: higher or lower, subjective or objective, old or new. What we are trying to tease apart here is not their relationship with one another, but the way people sometimes seek ultimate truth, salvation, redemption and rapture in either or both of science and religion. People can seek the same things from each of them. Call it a feature and a bug of human consciousness.
Both science and religion are a praxis as well as an institution. As institutions, they have structures of authority whose job it is to authorize what to believe as well as what is possible to believe. Even scientists who discover something that goes against the prevailing authorized version of scientific knowledge, or god forbid offends professional egos, are often shunned by their peers, summarily driven out like biblical scapegoats. Scientific authority has a storied history, and present, of refusing unorthodox findings and blocking new knowledge from becoming part of the official, sanctioned scientific cannon. At least until a face-saving interval of time has passed, and someone else with better endorsements re-introduces the idea preferably with new packaging. Which is how humans tend to work, no shame in that, however it is a bit awkward that scientific method was supposed to be objective and thus free of these human foibles.
One small but salient example to illustrate the way group dynamics can kill the truth in science and medicine is the story of the fellow who first tried to introduce to doctors the practice of – drumroll - washing hands! A caution – this is not a story about how science thought one thing at one time, and then learns better later on. That is true of this story, but not the point of sharing it. What is salient is how the truth was treated by the professional powers that be when they first heard it, and how they treated the one who told them. This story is about attitude and about shunning that take place in social groups, including those of a scientific and medical bent.
The story finds us at Vienna General Hospital, circa mid-1800’s. Not a great place to have a baby, turns out. Women were dying in droves within days of giving birth when a doctor attended. But, not so much when a midwife attended. Enter Ignaz Semmelweis, doctor-scientist (the fields were a less differentiated in those days), cranky guy who had the audacity to call his fellow doctors dirty, and accuse them of harming, killing even, their own patients – mothers no less! Accusing these heroes who daily help bring new life into the world, of being anything less than heroes. The nerve!! At least, this is how the doctors heard it. They demoted Semmelweis, shunned him and attacked his reputation until he left the country and sadly went mad.
So what did he say to his peers and colleagues that was so offensive? He said that doctors needed to wash their hands. After doing autopsies. So that when they went to the maternity ward right after, to deliver babies – oh yes, we’re going there – they would not shove left-over bits of dead bodies into women’s holiest of holies. Take a minute if you need to – I did. Shake it off.
Seems obvious now, right? But at the time, even the most authoritative doctor-scientists believed they were fighting the good fight, and could not actually be objective about what they were hearing that did not align with what they believed. And maybe they did not like Semmelweis, fair enough, but it was a very costly grudge. This bruising of professional egos blinded doctors to reality, lead them down the huffy path of taking offense and driving the alleged heretic out of their ranks. Much as handwashing practices have since changed, abusive authority, shunning and scapegoating in these communities has not.
For more on how dominant scientific cultures becomes trapped in their own power dynamics, ideolgoical filters, and politics see SonofKorg's piece on Thomas Kuhn (father of the paradigms theory of scientific practice and history).
You can hear this same myopic attitude in scientist and doctors today during the pandemic, deriding colleagues who champion anything beyond the vaccine as useful. For example, how Dr. Eric Osgood's openess to explore whether other treatments might be effective. The same culture of taking offence and scapegoating is alive and well today, and while it may satisfy authority’s need to control – in this case ‘truth’ – it paradoxically undermines science and medicine. Dismissing, denying, diminishing and denigrating a fellow scientist or doctor while presuming infallible professional authority undermines the whole endeavor. Humility, respect, curiosity are absent, replaced by posturing, misplaced conviction, dismissive attitude and actual name-calling. This from credentialed, authorized, board certified scientists and doctors. Physician group-dynamics appear to have been infected by the polarization prevalent everywhere.
If I learned anything from becoming familiar with Semmelweis and similar stories, it is to pay attention to scientists or doctors turning on one of their own. Listen to the language, is it respectful, making substantiated claims, does it show humility? How do you feel after reading it? Riled up, contemptuous, maybe more potent? Listen for contempt – that is the sound a bruised ego makes. And if there is a presumption to be made, let it be in the direction of assuming a mobbing or scapegoating is taking place when scientists or doctors turn on one of their own. Mobbing can be hard to catch or cop to in real-time. As PBS author Dr. Markel Howard puts it in telling the story of Semmelweis:
Today, in every school of medicine and public health, his name is uttered with great reverence whenever the critical topic of hand washing is taught. Sadly, in real time, he was derided as eccentric at best and, at worst, as an angry, unstable man who ought to be drummed out of the profession.
If someone is being derided and called crazy or unstable, especially by a greater authority, odds are likely that important new knowledge or information is being stifled.
There is a famous quote about absolute power corrupting absolutely by Lord Acton, that astute observer of power players. I learned something from reading the full letter that quote came from. The letter is part of a larger conversation concerning the doctrine of papal infallibility, which he opposed. Papal infallibility is the Roman Catholic doctrine that the pope when speaking ex cathedra (from his chair) on matters of faith and morals can never be incorrect. Or in other words, he is always right. That is quite the super power! Some people give that authority to scientists, and to be fair, some scientists are okay to assume it, much to the chagrin of colleagues, I imagine.
Acton makes the further case to be careful about thinking too highly of those in authority, of granting them “the favorable presumption that they did no wrong.” He goes on to offer a wiser course, “If there is any presumption, it is the other way, against holders of power”, i.e., assume they are doing some wrong. About the power of authority he warns, “great men are almost always bad men. . . still more when you add the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority” Corruption by authority. What does that mean exactly?
Meantime, the paradox of scientific authority remains largely unacknowledged. It is inconvenient. Science is, according to the official storyline, about discovery, about getting closer to truths through observation, hypothesizing and testing. It is not essential to be right, but it is essential to be faithful to scientific method. Authority, on the other hand, is the power to influence and decide. The truth science seeks is supposed to be unbiased, based on objective methodology. It is exactly not meant to be influenced and decided by someone's authority. To be scientific and to be authoritative are, in essential regards mutually exclusive. What is a humble scientist to do?
One can only imagine that when trillions of dollars in medical profit are superadded to the mix, the weight of all those zero’s could cause some influence to happen. From a business point of view, it is reckless to invest billions in research, and even more in marketing, without having any control over how a product, like a vaccine, is received by regulatory authorities and the marketplace. Stakes this high influence which scientific truths are more likely to see the light of day, and those that get buried. In fact, too many medical studies do not get published because of what they find, according to research on this problem. With so many professional reputations, political interests, billions in profits and so on at stake, it would be reckless not to influence and bend science towards one’s interests. Not blaming anyone here, it is okay to hate the field, not the players.
The very brief history of marketing around the covid vaccine suggests this is happening to some degree. Important: this is not to take a position for or against vaccines. If you have ever learned to harmonize, you know how challenging it can be to not slide into the dominant note. Likewise, it is hard not to slide into the dominance of polarizing rhetoric around vaccines as soon as the word is mentioned. This is not about that. It is about tracking the messaging for signs of influence.
The early scientific information and or media marketing about the vaccine when it first debuted was that it prevented death from Covid, as well as hospitalizations, reduced severity of illness, and stopped the spread. The promise of avoiding death plays to something very deep in the human being. It is the territory of goose-bumps and hallelujah’s, where even atheists can be heard whispering ‘thank god’. And for the first while, piggybacking perhaps on the efficacy of lockdown measures, it seemed to work as promised. Enter time, loosening of other measures, and suddenly there are “breakthrough infections” and vaccinated folk dying. In response marketing and media double down on how the vaccine is still our savior – we just need boosters already, and to convert, I mean convince all the unvaccinated ones who are tainting the faithful by being super sinners. I mean, err, superspreaders. Let us assume for a moment all the science is absolutely true. It eerily parallels the logic of religious fundamentalists when it looks like their God has not protected them. It must be because they did not pray hard enough, or quite in the right way, or have not fully confessed and asked for forgiveness from our savior, or converted enough heathens, and so on.
The philosophical belief in science is known as scientism. It is a religious orientation to science as salvific. Science itself is not the problem. Scientism is. Like all dogmatic questions, one questions its tenets at threat to one's social standing. It's a hard paddle against the current of the otherwise nonsensical question, "DON'T YOU BELIEVE IN THE SCIENCE?"
Of course according to science's own public story, it should never be about belief. And yet somehow weirdly that trend keeps showing up. If one answers no to believing the science, then one is a heretic and should be treated as heretics have been treated throughout history (again see Rene Girard for how well that works out).
It should be noted however that social distancing measures had other effects, if not intentions, as well–as detailed extensively in Ezekiel73's piece on Social Distancing and Spiritual Warfare.
In both contexts there’s a doubling down, whether on religion or on science, rather than questioning whether these belief systems might be a little out of step in some way with larger reality. The larger reality includes death, not as an opposite to life, but the other half of birth. When we treat death like an insult, as though it is antithetical to life, an enemy instead of a beloved, we make a BM of things. Birth and Death are life lived in the context of time – there is no where else to live. To struggle against this reality warps our actions, with consequence. The industrial and technological project of the past century or two of increasing life-span, of fighting against death at scale, has unintentionally changed the climate. We changed the climate of our planet without. even. trying. to. It was not even our goal, and we yet we did it. That is huge. An insidious, but truly a humungous accomplishment. Imagine what else we could do if we were only to stop trying?