Four American viruses

We all know about the coronavirus, and we are all too familiar with the severe crimp it is putting in our American way of life. But the truth is, we are beset by multiple viruses, many of which are just as bad as the coronavirus.

We are beset with a virus of hatred and fear, a virus of willful ignorance, and a virus of paranoia. Together, these viruses – all of which are contagious, and all of which are avoidable – are threatening our country’s very life.

First let’s examine the virus of hatred. A substantial segment of our population views all the rest, not as fellow countrymen with whom they disagree, but as enemies. We have commercial media outlets on every hand who gleefully feed this mindset, demonizing large swaths of our fellow citizens, and steadily dividing the country into warring camps. They paint everybody who does not subscribe to their political viewpoint as crazy, stupid, or evil. They do this for profit, regardless what their particular political biases are. Most Americans choose to hunker down inside one of those camps, because they can’t stand the tone of intolerance they hear in the other outlets, or because their own favorite outlets have carefully and aggressively taught them not to trust the information from any other source. Cable TV news is the worst offender in this regard. Fox News just doesn’t tell you about certain things that don’t fit their pet narrative, and MSNBC doesn’t either. They do their best to keep you from ever changing the channel. They are pushers, who try to keep you addicted. The result is that most Americans live inside an information silo. This is the stuff that civil wars are made of.

Which brings us to the virus of willful ignorance. Most of us lead busy lives, and we just don’t have time to sift through all the information that is available, especially in light of the fact that so much of it is junk at best, poison at worst. So we choose two or three sources to rely on, and ignore the rest. Using our common sense to determine which sources are accurate and reliable and which ones aren’t, takes too much time and energy. So we just choose the ones that make us feel the best about ourselves. And because the information pushers don’t want us to know about some of the facts, even important and obvious facts, we become willfully ignorant.

In a nation of willfully ignorant people living in information silos, it becomes relatively easy for an unscrupulous politician to lie bald-faced and get away with it. When confronted with the facts, denial and distraction work better, and if that fails, he can still attack the source and spin the facts to his own advantage, thanks to a devoted audience that no longer cares about the objective truth, only about partisan advantage over those crazy, stupid demons on the “other side.” There is a willful disregard for the truth. The more unscrupulous the politician, the more successful he is in this environment. This is the stuff that dictatorships are made of.

And that brings us to the virus of paranoia. There are people in our world – like Alex Jones, for example – who have learned that they can get very rich by promoting crazy conspiracy theories with little or no basis in fact. People are willing to believe anything that makes them feel important and gives meaning – however illusory – to their experience. And they do this regardless of the consequences to the lives of innocent bystanders, like the grieving parents of the children murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary. A growing number of people are so full of paranoid fear that they won’t even talk to the Census Bureau, even though Census agents take a lifetime oath to protect our privacy. Even though this means forfeiting representation in the federal, state, and local legislatures. Even though it means foregoing our fair share of billions of dollars of government aid for worthy projects like roads, schools, and hospitals. Leaving money on the table, out of paranoia.

The President has promised to make America great again. As far as I can see, it has never been in worse shape, thanks to the viruses of fear, willful ignorance, and paranoia that afflict our country. He not only thrives in this environment, he is a super spreader of all these maladies.

God help the United States of America.

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