Are We Are Living Through The Pets.com Of Panics?

As we now move on to the next phase of the Coronavirus saga, state-level shutdowns of all but essential services (“essential” services, which in my own state of Illinois, somehow include the cannabis dispensaries), we seem to hear the same question more and more from all corners of America: What are we not being told?  

Several hundred deaths cannot, so the new paranoia presupposes, possibly justify emptying our cities, closing schools and colleges, compromising our nation’s economy, throwing millions of people out of work, and precipitating a U.S. financial crisis that could be a precursor to a second Great Depression.  Just as you don’t burn down your house because of some ants in the pantry, you don’t make the decision to destroy your nation unless there is an imminent threat akin to an asteroid strike, space alien invasion, or plague of carnivorous zombies.  There has to be a much bigger problem they are hiding from us, right?

Many Americans are worrying that, although only 300 total COVID-19 deaths have been reported in America thus far, there is some kind of horrific back end health risk from a Coronavirus infection that is being kept hidden from us.  Perhaps in six months there will be an astronomical increase in deaths, but I would guess not.  However, given that it is somehow deemed vitally necessary that we transform our cities and communities into ghost towns, it is difficult to escape the idea that something much, much more dire and deadly must be afoot.

Others might suspect this bizarre response to what seems like a new flu outbreak is part of some deep and dastardly plot to rob us of our liberties, militarize our nation, and launch a coup of some sort.  The more suspicious might wonder whether some cabal of terribly evil billionaires (who presumably live in bombproof bunkers stocked with champagne and cocaine) are creating an economic cataclysm so they can later snap up all the world’s assets on the cheap and usher in a new era of feudal dominance.

However, I think it is also worth wondering whether we are seeing a repeat of the mass hysteria and delusional thinking, in this case turbocharged by media madness and incredibly craven leadership, that sometimes grips humanity and induces us to climb to the heights of Mt. Crazy.

Although we like to look down our noses at the foolishness of our ancestors, we should not presume we are any better than them.  It would be helpful to keep in mind that we are only a few centuries past the heyday of witch burning, roughly a hundred years past stumbling into a World War that killed 20 million people, and a scant seventy or so years since the fall of a Nazi regime so unbelievably evil that we are still coming to grips with its many horrors.  In 1962 the nuclear brinkmanship of The Cuban Missile Crisis came within a hair’s breadth of extinguishing life on earth.  And who can forget that but 20 years ago people were thoroughly and inexplicably convinced that appending the suffix “.com” to any random word in the dictionary and hoarding Beanie Babies were the keys to effortless wealth? 

Oh, let’s not neglect, while we are taking a moment to contemplate our species’ predilection for foolishness, to feel a sufficiently keen embarrassment that the question of “Who shot J.R.?” was once the most pressing issue facing our great nation.

It is, of course, possible that our fears today will be justified by catastrophe tomorrow, but I think it is more likely that a few years from now we will be reading learned tomes with titles like “What Caused the Panic of 2020?” and grimacing at documentary footage of fistfights in the toilet paper aisle at Costco.  

Unfortunately, every generation of humans believes they are superior to the panicky herds that preceded them—until they learn otherwise.  We presume that we are the wise pinnacle of evolution at our own risk and must today remind ourselves that we retain every bit of our ancestors’ infinite capacity of self-delusion and self-harm.  Rather than presume that somewhere there is a really, really good reason for today’s utter insanity, it might be best to acknowledge that we are just as easily spooked manipulated, and stampeded as the herds of humans who lived through our supposedly far less enlightened past.  

Maybe today’s panic is reasonable—but I wouldn’t count on it.  It is equally plausible that the death spiral of rationalization and justification now on parade before us is only marginally less looney than the unequivocal belief of your grandparents that Disco was the height of musical achievement.

Take a deep breath and think about it, please.

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