Caveat: rather overlong for me, but I got rolling …

One of the better articles I’ve read about the pandemic is this one by Robert Skidelsky at Project Syndicate (a publication I’ve never heard of before). It reads as only slightly conspiratorial, purporting to reveal the true motivation for lockdowns and social distancing, namely, so-called herd immunity. If that’s the case, it’s basically a silent admission that no cure, vaccine, or inoculation is forthcoming and the spread of the virus can only be managed modestly until it has essentially raced through the population. Of course, the virus cannot be allowed to simply run its course unimpeded, but available impediments are limited. “Flattening the curve,” or distributing the infection and death rates over time, is the only attainable strategy and objective.

Wedding mathematical and biological insights, as well as the law of mass action in chemistry, into an epidemic model may seem obvious now, but it was novel roughly a century ago. We’re also now inclined, if scientifically oriented and informed, to understand the problem and its potential solutions management in terms of engineering rather than medicine (or maybe in terms of triage and palliation). Global response has also made the pandemic into a political issue as governments obfuscate and conceal true motivations behind their handling (bumbling in the U.S.) of the pandemic. Curiously, the article also mentions financial contagion, which is shaping up to be worse in both severity and duration than the viral pandemic itself.

Those familiar with memetics (part of information theory, the principal conceit being the meme or “mind virus”) are aware with the idea of contagion beyond the realm of chemical and biological agents. Indeed, this article suggests social contagion and memetics are really two sides of the same coin. Even farther afield, widespread attempts to control the narrative and to propagandize — or less insidiously, to publish and advertise — are tantamount to channeling contagion. However, if viral contagion in medicine and public health is channeled modestly because a virus must burn itself out, social contagion is channeled aggressively. For instance, socialism has been subjected to enormous disinformation campaigns throughout the 20th century to invalidate it despite its sustained and renewed ideological appeal to the masses. So, too, has the distinctly bogus American notion of rugged individualism been hawked as a means of relieving government of its obvious, overriding responsibility toward the citizenry. An even more tyrannical example is how the Chinese government completely stifles mention within its borders of controversial political footballs such as Tiananmen Square, Tibet, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, and even uses its considerable economic and political influence — successfully I might add — to control discussion of those subjects beyond its borders. One can debate, I suppose, which approach is closer to an Orwellian Ministry of Information: the soft, American style of disinformation and psyops or the cruel, Chinese style of intimidation and persecution. Both have been pretty effective.

In this light, Thomas Frank’s new book coming out in July entitled The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism (2020) is illustrative. It’s excerpted in the May 2020 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Immediately after Frank’s article in Harper’s appears an excerpt from a 1926 article by Walter Lippmann, which is complementary to Frank’s thesis. Both authors establish historical context regarding the so-called tyranny of the masses as expressed in populism. Bears mention, too, that the founders in the U.S. were especially wary of this particular specter, preferring instead to vest power in themselves the landed gentry as a substitute for the European aristocracy.

Today’s frustration is that we don’t suffer under tyranny of the masses but rather tyranny of a select minority. Policies and values that enjoy widespread public support are routinely opposed and oppressed by those holding office, typically at the bidding of either their corporate masters contributors, the Deep State, or the military-industrial complex. (It’s not clear those are wholly separate entities.) Ideally, we elect those officeholders to represent us, but in reality, the situation is more nearly reversed: those in government, through their proxies, manipulate elections to choose voters in such a way as to skew ballot results and steal win office. So the question then becomes, which tyranny is better? This assumes, of course, that tyranny is the only option, so the best one can do is to align with (not choose, since tyranny presupposes choice) the correct group. As Frank and Lippmann reveal, answers are situational.

I’m less interested in how the tail wags the dog. Small numbers of people dominating the masses, giving orders and ruling in some fashion, is the established way of the world. But as a theoretical construct, I can think of several ways the emergent will of the masses expresses itself, usually only to be either channeled, coopted, or stuffed down by those with power and broader, selfish agendas. Polls, surveys, and focus groups are perhaps among the least manipulated expressions of public opinion precisely because those administering such information gathering are truly interested in the fidelity of results, however fickle and ephemeral. In contrast, voting is no longer a reliable means of gauging public support because candidates, issues, and rolls of registered voters are so thoroughly manipulated in advance of votes being cast that only a cheap facsimile of choice results. That’s manufactured consent, especially when it’s facilitated by the mainstream media. Public interest expressed through consumer choice is similarly influenced by manufactured desire. Activism, demonstration, and dissent offer windows into public opinion, but until movements become widespread (e.g., Occupy Wall Street morphed into Occupy Everything Everywhere before it was squashed ruthlessly), it’s difficult to determine whether demonstrators are only a vocal sliver of the general public. Anti-war activism in 2002 was significant but easily ignored, leading to today’s forever wars that are only rarely the object of demonstration anymore. Crowd-sourcing (Wiki-style) and crowd-funding are curiosities but may ultimately be only a cross-section of those with sufficient free time and disposable income to participate. The notorious comments sections below blog posts, news reports, YouTube videos, and elsewhere provide snapshots of sorts, but they have long been overrun by trolls and motivated subgroups. I can’t assess Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other niche social media platforms because they get absolutely zero attention from me (as they should from everyone interested in retaining what’s left of their soul).

 

Readers will have to look elsewhere for a pat summary of what channeling contagion implies. The survey above connects a few dots but is obviously incomplete. Still, it’s worth wondering whether anyone can truly be an independent thinker in the face of so much interference, or indeed whether social contagion is a basic element of cognition for a highly social species such as humans. If that last is true, extended quarantine may well be the mother of all divide-and-conquer strategies. Indeed, the public has been overwhelmingly compliant during a major public health emergency, but that appears to be changing slowly. Remains to be seen whether being rolled repeated by Wall Street, the Fed, and the U.S. Congress gives rise to a public response besides widespread defaults and bankruptcies.

In my more conspiratorial moods, I can’t help but to think that attempts to hobble public education alongside other government functions are expressly designed to make it impossible for most folks to sort out conflicts, controversies, and conspiracies that undermine subscription to authority and expertise — not that education, authority, or expertise are themselves panaceas. Knowing, for instance, that we’re being continuously lied to by most news media keeps everyone in a state of perpetual uncertainty. Insane rambling and improvisation by occupant(s) of the White House further contribute to epistemological confusion, which is itself a form of contagion. The term used in the first link at top is structural vandalism, which in connection with this blog post I take to mean the purposeful destruction of the institutions and edifices, literal and figurative, that make our shared reality intelligible. As mentioned in my previous post, however, we don’t all truly share the same reality. Maybe the world we inhabit has become a dark fantasy, a dystopia, from which no one escapes.

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