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American Forsythia

Our Alan Krumweide is sitting in the Oval Office.
May 6, 2020
American Forsythia
(Gettyimages /Shutterstock)

1. Forsythia

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a very hard time getting my head around COVID-19 conspiracy movement.

Intellectually, we all understand that some fixed percentage of the population isn’t . . . fully rational. And illness always attracts an amalgamation of actors who are not rational mixed with actors who know exactly what they’re doing and are trying to use the disease—either to become famous, or make money, or advance an ideology, or just to self-actualize.

These people will peddle conspiracy theories about the source of the plague or warnings about what they are sure will happen next—or even fake cures and treatments.

That dynamic stretches back basically as far as human history.

What’s different in this moment is that these people are not riding from village to village and standing on street corners shouting in the wind and peddling their wares.

Instead, they’re on mainstream television networks and the internet. They are not limited by logistics and practicalities. Instead, their reach is limited only by the demand for what they’re offering the public.

Which, as it turns out, is quite high.

There is a depressing paradox at work here. Because at a moment when education is at the highest level in our nation’s history and access to scientific understanding is wider than it has ever been in all of human history, so is our access to quackery.

And this competition isn’t as lopsided as we might have hoped.

But maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. There’s a scene in Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 Contagion which I’d like you to watch. It’s short.

The set-up is that there’s an outbreak of a virus. Laurence Fishburne’s character is an infections disease expert from the CDC and he appears on a cable news show to try to explain the situation to the country. The other guest on the show is Jude Law’s Alan Krumweide, who is a “freelance journalist” there to provide the opposing view.

I don’t ask you to watch video very often, so please click on the link below. It’s worth your three minutes.

Contagion (2011) clip

There’s a mirroring here of the positions between science and conspiracy. In Contagion, Jude Law’s snake-oil salesman is saying that the government isn’t doing enough, rather than what our real-life conspiracists are claiming: that government is doing too much.

But other than that, every note is exactly right. There’s the CDC doc who is trying to explain the arduous nature of treatment guidelines. There’s the false prophet who knows how to play to a camera claiming to know the “real” story while promising bogus cures.

And there’s the helpless media drone stuck in the middle and committed to being an impartial observer, because the format of mainstream American broadcast media requires that all stories contain a central conflict and that in every conflict, both sides be presented neutrally.

2. The Role of the President

It has taken a number of systemic failures for America to reach the present moment.

The executive branch failed to adequately monitor and verify information coming from China in the early days of the outbreak.

The federal government failed to coordinate the development and procurement of a robust testing regime before the virus arrived in America.

The federal government failed to stockpile and then direct the dispersement of PPE materials once the crisis began.

You can say that no one can really predict a once-a-century pandemic. But that isn’t true.

What was beyond prediction was that the executive branch of the federal government would fail so completely in its central duties once the pandemic appeared on the horizon.

But there’s something that I, personally, did not predict. And now I feel foolish for not seeing it.

As the body count rose and this virus washed over our society, I did not foresee that we would arrive at a point where something like 20 or 30 percent of the country would follow the inevitable Alan Krumweides and demand our version of Forsythia.

I expected that this percentage would be much, much lower and it would be a movement limited to the very far fringes—roughly equivalent to the percentage of people who, after 9/11, believed that the terrorist attacks were somehow faked, or an “inside job.”

My mistake was not appreciating the role of the president of the United States in either suppressing or activating these people.

And what nobody could have predicted—not even Steven Soderbergh—was that when the pandemic came, Alan Krumweide would be sitting in the Oval Office.

3. Spring Breakers

This SI deep dive on baseball card group breaks hits me where I live:

[Rich Klein] still remembers the first pack that he opened: 1968, Topps third series, when he was eight years old—cards that he saved and revered. “In those days,” he says, “it was really one of the few ways you had a physical way to see what the players looked like.” Now, he’s looked at cards for decades, has worked in the industry, and has a personal collection of tens of thousands. But he still paused in delight before a breaker offered him a pack to rip in Dallas.

“It’s just fun to open. There’s a joy about opening the pack, not knowing what you’re getting,” Klein says. “It’s a lottery ticket. You hope you get something really good, but on the other hand, you’re not necessarily worrying about that when you’re opening the package. You just want to enjoy it. It’s absolutely beautiful.”

“These cards talk to you. They talk to everybody in different ways.”

Read the whole thing.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.