By Martha Quillen
Modern first-world residents tend to think they’re smarter than their forebears and the world’s untutored masses. But are Americans smart enough to live in the Information Age?
To actually know everything may sound wonderful, but now that we can access unlimited information online and have new ways to communicate with one another, our public and private relationships have morphed.
Americans interact more with strangers today, but a significant amount of our new correspondence comes from advertisers and would-be scammers who are extremely friendly but totally insincere. Some of the messages sent by our new “friends” and tweet buddies are downright acrimonious.
Now that COVID-19 is showing people that they’re more vulnerable than they used to think, being wary is imperative online and off. Under the circumstances, it’s not surprising that a lot of modern politicking is divisive and confrontational.
In a local telephone discussion this May, Democrats John Hickenlooper, Kerry Donovan and Dylan Roberts talked about their goals and answered citizens’ questions. Hickenlooper is running for the U.S. Senate, and a woman asked him what he planned to do about all of the lies circulating on the internet.
I held my breath, awed by the idea that our government should actually monitor our speech and seize control of public discourse. Hickenlooper, however, neatly dodged the issue by commenting on the president’s blunders concerning COVID-19 treatment. Then he moved on to another call. Hickenlooper’s gallant sidestep away from the only two options I saw—embarrassing the questioner or condoning censorship—was impressive and earned my vote.
People harbor all sorts of different theories about how we should handle coronavirus, vaccines, autism, climate change, escalating rates of diabetes, asthma and addiction. There are so many conflicting views that many of us seem convinced that public commentary is the real danger. Is that true?
During the last few months, there’s been a notable crusade against coronavirus conspiracy theories. The public has turned its scorn on the theorists, and Facebook has banned several posts it deems harmful. Currently, millions of online articles claim conspiracy believers are under-educated, looking for simplistic solutions, and aren’t critical thinkers.
Conspiracy believers, however, are obviously very critical thinkers who are suspicious of established sources and convinced they’re being misled, and that’s reasonable. They are likely being lied to in many capacities, as well as defrauded and victimized by false advertising. COVID-19 is just one of the challenges they face.
A Wired article called “Please, Please, Don’t Mock Conspiracy Theorists” by Whitney Phillips and Ryan Milner, authors of “The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity and Antagonism” contends that “‘See conspiracy theory, mock’ has become an ingrained response online.”
However, unlike the majority of people writing about conspiracy theories, Phillips and Milner have studied the matter and do not maintain the believers are under-educated or represent any particular class or category. According to them, conspiracy theories are as old as time, exist in all communities, and “some are morally repugnant, and some are understandable. Some even turn out to be true.”
Phillips and Milner caution against mocking such theories, not because some of them don’t deserve it, but because that strategy simply doesn’t work. Instead it plays into the conspiratorial “mindset” and helps spread misinformation, thereby putting more “refuse” into “already toxic political waters.”
As for me, I usually prefer material by academic experts or fully credentialed renegades, but on matters such as COVID-19, the experts are frustratingly opaque. For example, I recently got interested in studies that reported coronavirus interacts with common drugs given for heart conditions, high blood pressure and diabetes with lethal results. My interest was purely personal. Half the people I know have one or several of those conditions.
Doctors warn that people taking those drugs should stay on them. Given America’s track record with pharmaceuticals, I wanted to know how dangerous this drug/coronavirus combo might be. For journalists, digging deeper usually entails reviewing pertinent source material. So I tried. An NIH report on the matter says: “ACEI initially inhibits ACE leading to decreased angiotensin I levels, causing a possible negative feedback loop that ultimately upregulates more ACE2 receptor ….
The European Journal of Medicine and Oncology, EJMO, published a report authored by several Italian medical establishments. This excerpt is presumably in English, yet is incomprehensible regardless. “… The complex SARS-CoV-2 Spike (S) glycoprotein and ACE2 receptor primed by the cellular protease TMPRSS2 is a critical step for ectodomain virion entry by suppressing ACE2 activity and altering the ACE/ACE2 balance to a predominant ACE/AngII axis with a reduction of Ang(1-7)-Mas complex and …”
It goes on, but I gave up. Just in time, as it turns out. A while back, reputable researchers noted that people taking ACE inhibitors, ARBs, and/or statins seemed more susceptible to COVID-19, but now discussing that topic is frequently viewed as criticizing important protocols regarding isolation, social distancing, and vaccine development.
Cnspiracy theorists aren’t the only people being disparaged. Many topics are taboo and a lot of actions have been criminalized. Coloradans, Salidans, and even people in the wilderness are being cited for going maskless outdoors, not taking isolation seriously enough, and endangering other people’s health. But is that due to medical evidence or political considerations?
Politics should not be driving our science, but political matters inevitably impact our lives. At this point, Dr. Fauci, President Trump, state governors and counties offer varied messages, and even the rules and regulations regarding COVID-19 aren’t clear. Yet citizens are reporting total strangers for presumed infractions.
Surely our first impulse in dealing with one another shouldn’t be to call the authorities. Yet when Americans are upset they expect the authorities to do something. Our propensity for reporting, trying and imprisoning one another is astounding. The United States is known worldwide for its incarceration rates, which at 655 per 100,000 people is higher than Russia’s, and much higher than China’s.
Due to dedicated reformers, our incarceration rate has been dropping in recent years, but now, a violation of Colorado’s stay-at-home orders can result in a $1,000 fine and/or a year in jail. Punishment, however, isn’t the intent of the law, and these laws have not been rigorously enforced. Nor should they be. We are presumably a free people, but we are making our nation into a war zone by insisting the police should patrol our everyday interactions.
COVID-19 has revealed some of our weaknesses. We need to improve our disaster plans and nursing homes, and bring some of our manufacturing plants home from China. We need candidates who pay as much attention to the ongoing but boring business of governance as they do to the dynamic disputes that divide us. We need to focus more on alleviating poverty and the mental and physical handicaps that make people easy victims. We need to figure out how to appeal to people without threatening them, because threats incite would-be rebels.
Do we all have to be of the same mind to make things better? No, of course not, but we need to focus more on what needs to be fixed and less on the annoying and infinite imperfections of our fellow Americans. Unless we want to opt for a totalitarian takeover and shoot or imprison people for procrastinating or protesting, Americans are never going to agree on everything. If we’re smart, we’ll agree on enough to make ourselves better prepared for disaster.
Martha Quillen has three stylish masks made by a friend. She thanks her and all of the others who have done their utmost to help us get through this trying time.
Quillen’s Corner is sponsored anonymously.