The language of the coronavirus has been almost as bad as the disease. It’s been worse, in a way, because biological diseases come and go, but linguistic diseases have a way of becoming chronic.
Who knows how many people have been killed by the excesses of language leveled against this illness? How many vulnerable people — old, sick, isolated — have perished because a panic kept them from getting food or medicine or attention from a doctor? How many people have died because there was something wrong with their cars, which could not be serviced, or because their elevators couldn’t be fixed and they had to carry a weak heart up five flights of steps? How many people — as President Trump asked, with strange perceptiveness, in an interview with Fox News on March 24 — have died by their own hand because they lost their job or business? Panic is spread by words. Words travel faster, stay longer, and can be deadlier than any virus.
I know I will never forget the sick feeling I had when I saw Amy Acton, director of the Ohio Department of Health, stand in front of TV cameras dressed in a white coat, the governor of the state beside her, and proclaim that 100,000 people in her state already had the virus — on a day, March 12, when only 52 Ohioans were suspected of being sick from it. She made the statement that “at the very least 1% of our population is carrying this virus in Ohio today.” Citing her, the governor tweeted out a statement whose haughtiness would be offensive even if addressed to small children: “I know it is hard to understand COVID19 since we can’t see it, but we know that 1% of our population is carrying this virus today — that’s over 100,000 people.”
How many vulnerable people — old, sick, isolated — have perished because a panic kept them from getting food or medicine or attention from a doctor?
When finally, finally pressed about her claim, Acton said she was “guesstimating.” "As modelers far smarter than I am [will eventually] put that together,” she added, with a sudden pretension to wide-eyed naivete, “we'll look back at this and we'll see where we were.” She was right about other people being smarter than she is, but her claim was more than a “guesstimate.” It was a bullying attempt to make people end their normal lives, lay off employees, close the stores, disrupt supplies, suspend vital industries — by working the audience into a panic. Her declaration was made when five cases had actually been diagnosed in the state. A week later, there were still under 100 — less than one one-thousandth of one percent of the population. Yet most of the population had been thrown out of work by the effects of government edicts and propaganda.
Imagining that the farce of guesstimates could be made to look like a tragedy of public health, the mentally challenged governor of California predicted that not 1% but 56% of the population of his state would be infected. Say anything! so long as it scares people. But how about this — a headline on Fox News: “2.2 million deaths possible in US — study.” I didn’t bother to find out what kind of “study” would produce such adventures in the possible. Why not, I wondered, just say 330 million, and start passing out suicide pills, in preparation for the inevitable? When science fails, take your inspiration from On the Beach.
But perhaps you’d prefer the inspiration of outright warfare. New York Mayor Warren Wilhelm, Jr. (AKA Bill de Blasio) said on television (March 19) that “healthcare workers” would be “working under battlefield conditions.” And not just those people. He said we’d all need to “make adjustments in the way we are living,” because “it will be a long battle.” He also provided scary imagery about how “the numbers are nothing short of staggering” (on that date, c. 12,000 cases and 174 deaths, out of a US population of, as I just mentioned, about 330 million), and a remark about how “the federal government literally prints money; they can create any credit line they want, but we’re not seeing that, not even close.” Ah, war! If war is the health of the state, as Randolph Bourne thought, it can certainly become the health of the state’s fiat money.
Why not, I wondered, just say 330 million, and start passing out suicide pills, in preparation for the inevitable?
Another hairy-chested warrior, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), was interviewed by Neil Cavuto on March 18, and made an entirely false, though regrettably common, comparison between the coronavirus and the Empire of Japan. He mentioned World War II and said it should be a lesson to us all: “In the war against the coronavirus, all of us are key players; all of us are soldiers in the fight.”
There’s a scene in the immortal 42nd Street where Ginger Rogers, playing Anytime Annie, a chorus girl, is hectored by the stage manager to put more feeling into her work. “Whaddaya want me to do,” she replies, “bite my nails?” That’s the way I react when I hear such remarks as Graham’s. I hadn’t noticed that I was a key player, but if I were, I wouldn’t be prattling the way he does. And as for fighting . . . according to the Civil War song, old John Brown has “gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord,” but I’m not yet ready to join the crusade.
If you like the imagery of violence, however, you probably feel that the more massive the conflict, the better. So you may enjoy the idea of participating in a thermonuclear war or some other awesome event. (I’m thinking about On the Beach again, but also about Day of the Triffids, Them! — that’s the one where Los Angeles is placed under martial law because it’s being attacked by radiation-mutated ants — Dr. Strangelove, and the more serious of the Godzilla movies.) When the conflict gets really massive, whole populations will (“must”) be ruled by executive orders and declarations of emergency. Citizens will be herded, confined, rationed, forced to practice social distancing, and badgered into sheltering in place. That last image is especially popular right now, perhaps because it presents such a sweet picture of victimhood — the most precious quality of modern Americans, as seen by their administrative masters. Victims can be manipulated, condescended to, convinced of their impotence, and subjected to outlandish rituals enacted to procure salvation. Cowering under a desk, curled in a ball, they will passively wait to see whether a big strong man will bust in to save them — if he doesn’t kill them instead.
According to the Civil War song, old John Brown has “gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord,” but I’m not yet ready to join the crusade.
Or maybe, if you have fantasies of victimhood and control, you prefer the imagery of prison? If you do, the idea of a nation on lockdown should please you mightily. Lockdown, that repulsive word, always betrays its penal origins, but two decades ago it escaped the confines of literal prisons and spread to the things most like them, the public schools. One of the best indications of the true nature of public education in America has been the constant use of lockdown whenever a school comes up with some special security measures. They lock the kids in like convicts, and everyone in the community is supposed to feel good about that. Lockdown, the word and the concept, continued to spread — yes, like a virus — and today, the whole nation is supposed to feel good about being locked down.
A few brave souls may ask, What gives government the right to do all this? What gives government the power to do it?
I have the answer, and the answer is: government will take all the rights and power you allow it to take — and lust for more.
On March 17, I heard Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) declaiming on Fox News that the world’s political and economic order would be “fundamentally changed” by the coronavirus, and reflecting that “this is very impactful for our country.” He spoke without audible regret. Far from a eulogy to a fair, departing world, this was a steely-eyed, face-the-dawn, wave-of-the-future declaration. But my attempts, in the preceding sentence, to find a similarity to the crackpot rhetoric of the 1930s are not fully appropriate to the senator’s very impactful. In the 1930s, even nuts didn’t sling grotesque new coinages like that. They were at least serious — but no one who mouths the word impactful can possibly be serious about what he’s saying. Imagine this sentence: “My husband’s death was very impactful for me.” Nah . . . If you heard that, you’d be thinking, “This dame ain’t serious” — about her husband’s death, anyway. But about wanting to get something out of her audience, something like admiration for a classy vocabulary (how official that word impactful sounds!) — maybe she’s serious about that. Very likely she is. And for politicians, what could the reward for such wordslinging be? It might be applause. It might be acclamation as a prophet. Or it might be power. Yeah. That’s it. Power.
"Lockdown" always betrays its penal origins, but two decades ago it escaped the confines of literal prisons and spread to the things most like them, the public schools.
Notice how Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti went about it. "We’ve already radically changed how we live in Los Angeles," he said on March 19, puffing his chest about an order he’d issued, shutting things down. "We need to be painfully honest tonight that we're about to enter into a new way of living here." The “we” in that statement means “you”; that’s what it always means when politicians use it. None of this was painful for Garcetti to contemplate; he meant it to be painful to you, one of the millions of little people, lowly voters, whose lives he was changing. And if he were honest, he wouldn’t have talked about our need for honesty.
On the same day, Governor Newsom — he of the 56% — ladled out more prophecy, this time quite obviously of the self-fulfilling kind. He said, “The economic disruption caused by this public health crisis will have immediate and devastating effects on our entire country, including too many families in California. The magnitude of the crisis is extraordinary and federal-state-local government will be more critical than ever before.”
The “we” in that statement means “you”; that’s what it always means when politicians use it.
Please note that the economic disruption was not caused by the virus but by the governmental response to it, whether inevitable or necessary or hysterically over the top. The devastation is what Governor Newsom and his colleagues in government have produced, and continue to produce, partly by their actions and very much by their proclamations of doom. Now observe what he wants you to do about it: he wants you to give yet more power to “federal-state-local government” — that is, to people like him. It might also be noted that the virus has taken its greatest toll in such places as China, Italy, and New York City, where political propaganda originally insisted on the idea that there was nothing to worry about, that this too shall pass, noiselessly and almost immediately, and without loss to anyone’s political prestige.
Now I will play the prophet. I predict an even worse plague of words. The more people are diagnosed with the corona sickness, the more the authority figures will croon, “Ah! You see how necessary our measures were!” And the fewer people are diagnosed with the corona sickness, the more they will crow, “See! Our measures worked!”