The Toadstool Terror

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A friend sent me a text message:

NPR played the oddest thing today between segments. An older Cambodian woman was talking about how she survived the Killing Fields and how with any luck, we’ll survive this virus too.

Panic is starting to rot on the vine.

Exactly. If you need to incite public anxiety by comparing the systematic murder of millions of people to a disease that has a lot less chance of killing you than a household accident, you’re in serious trouble.

When something begins to rot, it often gets bigger and uglier. So it is with the giant purple blossom of the corona scare. It’s hard to think of an uglier and more bloated spectacle than this.

When you get a mushroom angry, what you hear is not only scary but deeply mysterious.

First to decay were the experts, modelers, projectors, and so forth who gaily predicted that millions of deaths would result if their advice wasn’t followed, and have yet to consider the implications presented by the disconfirmation of their prophecies. But they were just the first little mushrooms around the tree. The really big ones were the members of the official class who seized with joy the oracles of doom. It’s remarkable how ugly and poisonous these people became.

A striking specimen is Governor Thomas Westerman (“Tom”) Wolf of Pennsylvania, who oozes toxins at anything in the human form. By “human” I mean something capable of exercising independent thought. When county officials denied that he had the ability or legal power to declare who should work or travel and who should not, he responded by declaring that he would chastise their outrageous and immoral behavior by withholding funds from their demesnes:

They need to understand the consequences of their cowardly act. . . . They are engaging in behavior that is both selfish and unsafe.

Anything a mushroom says is puzzling — how, after all, did they learn to speak? — but when you get one angry, what you hear is not only scary but deeply mysterious. How do cowardice and selfishness and disregard for safety go together? The connection seemed self-evident to the talking, or rather ranting, toadstool, but that in itself is mysterious. The safety at issue is that of the very people whom the toadstool accuses of selfishness. They are so selfish that they don’t even care about being safe. That’s why they need to suffer! Brave entities such as fungi command us to err (always pronounced “air”) on the side of caution, but those other people are such cowards that they risk their lives on behalf of cowardice. That’s why they need to be hurt!

The governor wasn’t just attacking local officials. He understood that ordinary citizens of their counties were sympathetic to the idea of making their own decisions about when to resume their normal lives. He made small business owners a particular target: “Businesses that do follow the whims of local politicians and ignore the law [la loi, c’est moi] and the welfare of their customers who probably find themselves uninsured.” “Who” should be “will.” But however you read it, that’s a threat to ordinary people’s survival. You can just see the villain twisting his little mustaches. “Aha! I’ve got you now! The insurance companies will show you who’s boss!”

There is a kind of public official for whom images of force and violence have an intoxicating appeal.

Parasites can become especially large and venomous when they grow in sheltered environments. That is especially true of office holders who inhabit safe districts. The corona scare has prompted many otherwise obscure growths to become so puffy that their true nature can no longer be concealed. An example comes again from Pennsylvania. It is State Representative Martin (“Marty”) Flynn, whose splutterings are described in this way by a local news outlet:

In [a] since-deleted original post that has been preserved in screenshots, Flynn wrote:

Keep talking about how bad we Democrats are and WE will STOP supporting YOUR businesses! You want to make it PERSONAL and we WILL!

The post has been heavily circulated on social media, including by some Republican organizations in the state. People have also circulated screenshots of comments Flynn made within the post itself, including one that threatened to kick the commenter “down the street until you shut your fat mouth.”

You may have noticed that there is a kind of public official for whom images of force and violence have an intoxicating appeal. As soon as they get home — no, sooner — they go right for that bottle, and their thirst is never slaked. This is why every politicized cause in America becomes a war — a War on Poverty, a War on Drugs, a War on Hunger, a War on Climate Change, and so forth. People with soft jobs love to talk that way.

I’m clearly supposed to be part of that mob, and the concept is clearly supposed to mean something to me, but it’s hard to figure out what.

They are the ones who are always telling other people that we’re in this together and comparing the this, whatever it is, to World War II. Joe Biden, occupation unknown, is a great lover of what a friend of this column calls “belligerent” language. Corn Pop, are you listening — if you ever existed? But to return — Here is Governor Wolf discussing people who slight his authoriTAY:

These folks are choosing to desert in the face of the enemy in the middle of a war that we Pennsylvanians are winning and that we must win.

“These folks” have, in fact, “surrendered to the enemy.” Picture an enormous virus, confiscating the swords and muskets of the cowering inhabitants of Western Pennsylvania. “Away with them!” cackles the vast, pointy blob. “Throw them to the insurance companies! Now I am king!”

I’m just trying to visualize what is being said. Sometimes it’s hard. I have particular difficulty with any image that includes “we” or “us,” or “all of us.” I’m clearly supposed to be part of that mob, and the concept is clearly supposed to mean something to me, but it’s hard to figure out what.

On television I see a message from the county government. It has cute little cartoons, or cartoons that are assumed to be cute, and it says, “It takes all of us to slow the spread of the coronavirus. So stay at home unless it’s absolutely necessary.” All of us? Really? All? And absolutely necessary? Do you think I don’t know the statistics? Do you think I have any significant chance of spreading the virus, just by being away from home? The virus is characteristically spread at home. Not to mention the fact that the principal victims have been nursing-home residents who caught it from people that state governments insisted should be placed in nursing homes. That gives a slightly different spin to stay at home, doesn’t it?

Picture an enormous virus, confiscating the swords and muskets of the cowering inhabitants of Western Pennsylvania.

So I’m trying to picture what my staying at home has to do with all this — but the message prattles on about “people of all ages,” including “teens.” Really? As I write, statistics from my county, population 3.3 million, show zero, I said zero, deaths of “teens,” and only two deaths of anyone under 30. Besides telling infected “teens,” if any, to stay out of nursing homes, what can we do to win this war that we must win? Hmmm . . . Maybe we could wear a mask while walking the dog. The government’s public service announcement has a sweet little picture of a guy doing that.

A friend tells me that in his upscale neighborhood of Los Angeles, he sees people walking their dogs, and the dogs have masks. Unlike my friend. He is not part of us. When he passes his neighbors he watches their eyes glittering above their masks and sees the eyes “narrowing” when they look at him. Selfish coward! Quisling of the COVID-19 invading force!

It’s interesting that so many people feel so proud of themselves for taking childish ideas so seriously. I see people wearing masks when they’re riding their bikes alone, when they’re alone in their own cars, when they’re walking on the street with no one nearer than a block away. A teen who does tricks with skateboards in the alley behind my place does them in a mask. I guess that means he won’t break his leg. While others struggle for economic survival, these people are proud to be doin’ their part, makin’ a sacrifice — just like we did, back in ’41, when we all pulled together. There may, however, be a difference between making an unwilling sacrifice of one’s livelihood and making an eager sacrifice of consecutive thought and rationality — even if one didn’t have much to sacrifice in that department.

Maybe I’ll become strong if I safely stay at home. How does that happen? Does it involve lifting weights?

Local “news” is of course near the bottom of the intellectual hierarchy, but the barrel appears to be deepening. “We’re better together,” claims one of my local stations. Well, that’s inane, isn’t it? And there’s more: “Stay safe. Stay strong, San Diego.” How inspiring. Granted, it’s a few million brain cells short of “we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” Oddly, Churchill didn’t plan to win the war by telling everyone to stay at home.

Still . . . what precisely am I supposed to do? It seems to come down to staying at home, thereby making myself safe — a doubtful proposition, when you understand the state of my kitchen. But how is staying at home a sign of strength? I can’t picture it. All right, maybe it works the other way. Maybe I’ll become strong if I safely stay at home. Fine. How does that happen? Does it involve lifting weights?

But now I notice: the whole thing starts with the assumption that I’m already safe and strong; I just need to stay that way: “Stay safe. Stay strong, San Diego.” Let’s see what I can make of that. I understand that hiding in my garage might keep me safe, except from drunkenness and suicide and illnesses that went undiagnosed because I couldn’t have an “elective” procedure at the hospital. But wouldn’t it be stronger to say, “To hell with it, I’m startin’ my car and gettin’ outta this place”? I think so. Then there’s that strange way of addressing me as “San Diego.” In real life, how often does that happen? I can’t remember anyone calling me up and saying, “San Diego, this is the bank. Your account is overdrawn.” No, not once.

What the hell! Is going to work in a hospital anything like fighting the Battle of the effing Bulge?

Big business has not been reluctant to cash in on corona-induced togetherness. A commercial for Home Depot, which has remained open while other, equally essential businesses have been closed, urges me to buy its products — guess why? “Because home is what unites us.” Huh? My home unites me to your home? Is that what they’re saying? Does that mean I can stroll over to your place tonight and sit down for dinner? But I’m not supposed to leave my home. So do they mean, “By staying at home, except for the afternoons you spend at Home Depot in an effort to make your home look like a more attractive site of captivity, you are actually joining hands and hearts with all others who have a home and enlisting in their heroic fight to harass, destroy, and smash the coronavirus”? I have a horrible suspicion that the latter is the intended meaning, that all good people are expected to understand this instinctively, and that if I had to struggle to understand it I am not one of us, after all.

I’m not sure whether Dr. Scholl’s is big business or not, but I know it isn’t small business. And this is what Dr. Scholl’s is doing. It’s running ads with funereal music and lugubrious pictures of doctors and nurses, over which a voice intones, in accents fit for the House of Usher, “Step by step, focused and undaunted, they are compelled to step forward, into the front lines, and into the Unknown. For all of us.” What the hell! Is going to work in a hospital anything like fighting the Battle of the effing Bulge? As Thelma Ritter exclaims in All About Eve, “What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end.” It doesn’t make me feel any better to realize that Dr. Scholl’s makes “foot care products” — which, I presume, enable our medical heroes to “step forward” and advance “step by step.” How cheap can you possibly get?

An equally inexpensive and inspiring message came from Hillary Clinton, one of the largest members of the fungi family. You know that cliché about never letting a good crisis go to waste? It’s endlessly quoted by the Right in attacks on leftists for exploiting public distress to push their own, mostly irrelevant, programs. There’s truth in the accusation — and I’m heartily sick of hearing the phrase. I suspect — no, like the character in Double Indemnity, I know, and I know I know — that when you get stuck on a phrase, you stop thinking. Now comes Mrs. Clinton, giving an endorsement to Biden, and says very happily of the corona epidemic, “This would be a terrible crisis to waste as the old saying goes.” Her idea of not wasting it is to institute what she ominously calls “health justice and economic justice.” (That could mean anything, but in practice it would mean that if I’m sick and you’re well, the government must find a way to make you sick.) Thus she validated everything that the Right has claimed about people like her — and she had no idea she was doing that.

It’s mandated by a bunch of people who were educated to believe in clichés, to “think” in clichés, and to force other people to obey clichés.

So what’s new? When was she ever troubled by self-awareness? But the clichés of the corona scare have something else to tell us. Ayn Rand said that “emotions are not tools of cognition.” She might have added, “and neither are clichés.” That includes all the clichés of the epidemic, and especially those relating to “science” — the continual assertion that we must be guided by the data, that we’re simply going by the data, that we are guided by the science, we believe in science, it’s the science! and other things that are said with the greatest frequency when the least amount of actual science is in play. There are few more pitiable sights than a poor supermarket employee scrubbing down each and every shopping cart that has been handled by a customer, before the dangerous object can be used again, lest the virus lurking somewhere on the smooth steel surface should leap into some poor shopper’s mouth, and kill him. This waste of human life is, of course, mandated by the science.

In fact, it’s mandated by a bunch of people who were educated to believe in clichés, to “think” in clichés, and to force other people to obey clichés. We see the effects: millions thrown out of work, thousands of businesses sinking into bankruptcy, people whose lives could be saved by early diagnoses being told to wait until the nonexistent COVID crisis relieves hospitals of their nonexistent overflows, people being denied their business or professional licenses for the crime of trying to use them, swimmers pulled from the water and arrested, parks sadistically filled with sand so that kids can’t play in them — every great oppression and petty indignity that the gospel of clichés could conceivably suggest to the official class.

And because the emptiest clichés are those of the widest application, always encouraging their users to assume that, having spoken eternal truths, they can dispense with any awkward impulse toward self-examination, the same clichés can be invoked again and again, whenever a mighty crisis occurs or is projected to occur, It’s a repulsive spectacle, a terrifying spectacle — and one of the most terrifying things about it is the fact that “we’re all in this together” is chanted as a cheer and not as a dirge.

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