Everybody's at war these days
Let's have a mini-surrender
I need some
— Warren Zevon
Do you ever feel like you need a shower after spending time online?
Between the news media, whose business model has become reliant on keeping us in a steady state of anxiety, and social media, which rewards and amplifies reductive “takes'' that aggressively push our emotional buttons, it can feel like a full-time job to keep one’s head on straight.
Even more, it can feel like a moral failing to try to do so, as if equanimity means complicity in death, disease, and oppression.
Somewhere along the line, when the pandemic was raging and Trump was blithely going on TV and telling us not to worry, that the virus was going to suddenly disappear, and not to let fear rule our lives, the response on the left was to insist on the opposite. To my eye, what started among myself and my peers as a genuine concern about the unfolding pandemic — concern for ourselves, our vulnerable loved ones, our vulnerable neighbors and community members — started morphing and hardening into something else, or something additional: a tribal totem. Harboring and expressing extreme anxiety, fear, and outrage about the virus became a crucial component of identifying as a virtuous progressive.
The feelings were (and are) real, and not unwarranted. But when, in another time and place, we might have received steadying messages of individual and communal resilience (Keep calm and carry on, etc.), instead we on the left found our most despairing, fearful, and angry feelings flamed — by a media industry that’s figured out how to trade fear and rage for clicks, and by a desire to cast ourselves as a compassionate, humanitarian foil to the callous, capital-focused response on the right. (Never mind that it turns out we had plenty of blind spots of our own.)
Trump was obviously and catastrophically harmful in his handling of the pandemic. We needed and deserved a better leader through this crisis. But in the words of Geneve Campbell, a lucid thinker and writer who I follow on Twitter, “At some point last spring our collective consciousness shifted from viewing the pandemic as a tragic biological inevitability to mitigate in the run-up to a vaccine, to a highly moralized lens in which disease is controlled by good actors and out of control because of bad ones.”
This is not a lens that we apply to the other leading causes of death in the United States, such as heart disease and cancer, which killed a combined 1.2 million Americans in 2019. Nor does it stay easily intact when we shift our view to the rest of the world, where countries such as Belgium, Portugal, Italy, and the U.K. have suffered greater per-capita Covid fatalities than the U.S., despite not having the misfortune of having Trump at the helm.
In any case, now we’re in a bit of a pickle. We have a Democratic administration, we’re making real progress on vaccinations, and things seem to be generally improving. But since we’ve subsumed fear, indignation, and moral judgement of anything but the lowest possible risk tolerance into our very identity as virtuous and rational liberals, it’s hard to start letting them go, even as conditions improve.
We’ve all been focused on hygiene the past year, washing our hands and scrubbing surfaces and letting the hand sanitizer flow. Now I think it might be time to turn our attention to some sentimental hygiene (hat tip to Warren Zevon) as well.
Here are a few things I’m trying to do, that I invite you to try as well:
Watch what we project
I was emailing with my friend and fellow writing group member Sam about how some of the anti-racist and anti-Covid discourse online is taking on such a tone of accusation and dehumanizing belittlement of others. He said something I thought was pretty wise:
“I honestly think it all goes back to what a mind-blowingly shame-based culture we are. People just have such deep-seated, caustic, searing shame in them and, with shame, if one isn’t doing the BRUTAL work of owning/integrating it, one MUST project it, and it seems like the “hot potato” game. i.e. it looks like if I can make YOU ‘bad’ it will make ME GOOD.” (For more wit and wisdom from Sam, check out his excellent blog here.)
Bringing your reactions home to your own mirror can be hard, but often revelatory. When I find myself getting worked up about people being inflammatory online, and I start to get all ranty-ranty about how wrong and bad they are, it’s a good chance to remind myself that I’m doing the exact same thing I’m supposedly disapproving of in them. Damnit.
Investigate our level of certainty
Here are a few questions I have:
Why is Florida in the bottom half of per capita Covid fatalities among U.S. states when it was among the first to ease restrictions and has the second oldest population in the U.S.?
Why are cases falling more or less uniformly across the nation, despite very different responses and restrictions, in the established presence of multiple variants of concern?
Why did spikes in the U.K., California, and elsewhere occur despite strict lockdowns?
Why are cases rolling along at low levels in India, despite Michael Osterholm saying to the NY Times in November, “India could light up like a Christmas tree in the next three or four months. Just as with every other country, as soon as you let off the brake, then it comes.” (They let off the brake; another spike did not come.)
I’ve heard speculation and theories and hypotheses about all of these questions, but I don’t know the answers for sure. And neither does anyone else. I find this helpful to remember when I hear Osterholm predict with utter certainty that another spring surge is inevitable.
Nothing so far about this pandemic has been entirely predictable, and we’ll be learning for a long time about the factors that impact viral spread. In the meantime, the evidence seems to be pointing us away from having too much hubris about our understanding and level of control.
Put risk into perspective
This is delicate. Some people tend to hear any reassurance about relative risk as equivalent to Covid denial, or as downplaying the reality of those who have died. That of course is not my intention. But I think in its emphasis on outlier stories and grim statistics without proper context, the media has contributed to many people misperceiving their risk of suffering a severe outcome from Covid, and anxiety and depression rates are skyrocketing partially as a result.
A continuously updated poll by the University of Southern California shows that Americans estimate a 16% chance of dying from Covid if they are infected. The actual risk is less than 1% for people under the age of 50; 3.1% for those 65-74; and 11.6% for those in their mid-70s, according to a report in Nature. I know that the long-hauler phenomenon is another area of concern, but we’re learning more all the time about how to help long-haulers return to normal function (more on that below!).
Johns Hopkins recently developed a handy tool you can use to calculate your risk, based on a number of factors. I found it comforting, and I suspect you will too. I also found this op-ed by an associate professor of medicine at the Indiana University School of Medicine reassuring:
“It turns out that for people younger than 20 the likelihood of dying from COVID in Indiana is a 1.7-in-a-million chance, far lower than being killed in one’s lifetime by lightning or by a dog. The chance of drowning in a pool is 19 times greater for individuals ages 20-49 than dying from COVID. Persons 50-69 years old have a lower risk of dying from COVID than they do of dying by falling down steps or being killed in a motor vehicle accident.” And that was before the rollout of very effective vaccines!
I offer this not as reason to be cavalier or to disregard precautions, but as a way to hopefully ease some of the fear and anxiety that many of us have been feeling for the past year. Covid presents risks, far greater for some than for others. Let’s take care of ourselves and each other, but let’s also try to maintain a healthy perspective.
And let’s make sure that those who are truly at greater risk are prioritized for vaccination while the rest of us patiently wait our turn.
Unpack the bundle
As the virus traveled from host to host last spring, so did political memes. (A meme is not just a funny gif or clip, though they can be memetic vehicles. A meme is an element of a culture that’s passed from one individual to another by non-genetic means, especially imitation.)
On the left, extreme anxiety and outrage about the virus became wrapped up in a memetic bundle with other tenets of liberal faith: anti-racism, raising the minimum wage, defunding the police. If you knew where someone stood on any one of these issues, you could safely assume you also knew where they stood on keeping schools closed (good), the moral calculus of eating inside a restaurant (bad), and whether people attending the Sturgis motorcycle rally were essentially murderers (yes).
I think this has led to a lot of what I talk about in this post — the sense that our very identity and tribal belonging are dependent on feeling very angry and very scared. Trouble is, those feelings...aren’t good for you. And I think it’s important we start to weed them out of the bundle of positions we communally nurture in ourselves and each other.
So here’s what I’d like to offer: a path back from the ledge. Permission to hold certainty and outrage less tightly, to feel the grief and pain of the past year without transmuting them into vitriol and projected shame. An assurance that your goodness is not commensurate with your anxiety, that liberalism still has room for curiosity and inquiry and courage and reason, that you don’t have to accept the whole memetic bundle of beliefs in order to belong.
This is what I’d like to offer myself as well. I think it can only help.