COVID, Climate Change, and Misinformation: How Shock Doctrine Kills American Democracy

August 9, 2021

I just survived being knocked down by the Delta variant of COVID, but I’m starting to think this country might not. My vaccine saved me and meant I spent 10 days in the basement with Netflix instead of in the ICU with a ventilator down my throat. I’m leery of long term effects but I know that unvaccinated idiots who get this will go through a hell that made my rough road look like a stroll through Candyland. A recent NPR poll found that 1 in 4 Americans refuse to get vaccinated (including my mother). This is the idiocracy that could spell the end of America.

We’re in a moment of national reckoning that might have less to do with George Floyd (that’s another reckoning) and be more about what happens when a nation spends 40 years defunding education.

The Big Three Waves of Shock

The news of how this Delta variant is burning through the national defenses is more than alarming. The vaccinated are getting sick (but living). The unvaccinated are dying in numbers we haven’t seen since the peak of the pandemic. And, most frighteningly, the number of pediatric COVID cases is exploding. Kids are getting sick and dying because their “freedom loving” parents are not getting vaccinated. Hospital beds are full of covidiots so if you need an ER bed because you crashed your Ram 2500 truck or rolled under your riding lawnmower, you’re just out of luck Bubba Jo. Pray.

The idiocy of these people whose refuse to get vaccinated based on “Well, I heard…” will cause this pandemic to drag on for years. These are people who, on the surface, might seem relatively intelligent. We were sitting poolside at the Tropicana in Las Vegas last spring when a third grade teacher told us, “Well, I read that the vaccine will kill you in six months.” People with supposed medical degrees, like this quack Dr. Joseph Mercola, are profiting from peoples fears of the virus. Leading activists who I used to trust, like Naomi Wolf and Robert Kennedy, Jr., are spreading anti-vax lunacy. My own mother has repeated some of the worst anti-science “facts” to justify her refusal to get vaccine. She’s in high risk Georgia and I really hope I don’t have to write “Killed by her own stupidity” on her gravestone.

These nutjobs claim they are defending their freedom. Just because I have the freedom to walk down the middle of the interstate doesn’t mean I should. They’re not defending any freedom. They are endangering all of us. If we could only send these rocket scientists on a one way trip to Florida.

Much of this vaccine hesitancy comes from a legitimate concern. Science is complex and a whole bunch of the science that was true in April is not true in August because of the information coming in about Delta and other variants. It’s understandable that some folks might retreat from the complexity into the comfort of simple blankets of misinformation. Did you know you can prevent coronavirus infection with Vitamin D? And a $100 donation to the Trump 2024 campaign? I mean even I feel a little weird telling people to “trust the government on this one.” But I spent a lot of time at CDC in my many years at Emory and I know those people are driven by the cold hard facts of science, not momentary political trends.

The second piece of this is the impact of the climate crisis. The earth is on fire and flooding at the same time. The Great Salt Lake is evaporating and Greek islands are up in flames. This is the rapid acceleration Dennis Quaid warned us about in 2004 in the film The Day After Tomorrow. Why didn’t we listen to Dennis Quaid?! Not only will this environmental spiral increase the number of SARS pandemics in the future (COVID-22 will cause incessant farting and anal bleeding), but disrupt the supply of food and water, sending populations on the move. You think the southern border is a mess now, wait until caravans of starving families are motivated by the far off glow of the golden arches across the Rio Grande.

The third piece that ties all this together is just the unstoppable explosion of misinformation, spread across the internet. Facebook and Twitter can play endless Whack-A-Mole trying to knock down false information about the election, COVID vaccines, and the “proof” that Earth is hollow, but the desire for convenient “truths” knows no limits. The internet was supposed to make us smarter as we all joined the information superhighway. Instead it has created a planetary dumbing down as people throw the values of journalism and science out the window in favor of a meme that “proves” their point. Have you spent any time on Gab, the MAGA alternative to Facebook? They have “evidence” that Dr. Anthony Fauci is part of a global Zionist conspiracy to kill off white people! It’s true and you’re a sheep if you don’t believe it! Sheeple baaaaad!

Shock Doctrine: Authoritarian Edition

Naomi Klein’s groundbreaking 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, explained how nations, like Pinochet’s Chile or the United States after 9/11, use the chaos of national crises to consolidate corporate power and pass laws that favor big business and undermine democratic institutions. Anyone who lived through the Iraq War and didn’t have stock in Halliburton is still smarting from that stab through America’s heart.

You know what I trust even less than the military industrial complex? Fascism. The world has seen a rapid rise in authoritarian movements. From Putin’s Russia to Duterte’s Philippines, democracy is out of favor. Neo-Nazis are back in Germany and Fox New’s resident white supremacist, Tucker Carlson, is in Budapest celebrating Hungry’s slide from democracy into oligarchy. Countless pages have been written about the cult of personality that surrounds Donald Trump and its hatred of democracy. It was evident in his coup attempt last winter. It’s evident among the QAnon zealots who believe he will be reinstated into power this month. And it’s evident in the people who want him back even though his one and only policy position is the expansion of his own power.

There is enough chaos between spiking COVID rates, the upheaval from the climate crisis, and the tsunami of misinformation spreading through the world to completely destabilize American democracy. Add to that the Republican overdrive efforts at voter suppression and gerrymandering, and the events of January 6th could be just a typical Wednesday in America. Here come the COVID-compromised farmers, their soy bean farms ablaze, enraged because they read on the internet that their tax dollars are going to teaching Critical Race Theory to transgender Guatemalan immigrants instead of dropping sports drinks on their burning fields. (“It’s got electrolytes!”)

Remember The Enlightenment

I start every one of my sociology classes with a discussion of the The Enlightenment, that 18th century intellectual movement that dragged our idiot asses out of the Dark Ages and into the Age of Reason. If gave us everything from modern science (without Louis Pasteur we wouldn’t have Fro Yo!) and the vast experiment that is the United States of America. The values of rationality and empiricism put us on a path of a more thoughtful and logical world that stopped burning witches at the stake and sent robots to Mars. As we watch Afghanistan tumble back into the Stone Age, don’t think the growing chorus of prophet preachers, flat earth dads, anti-vax moms, and freedom-screaming “patriots” won’t achieve the same thing here. The science obsessed Chinese are watching our decent into mass stupidity, ready to pick up the pieces. Is our future a dumb and dumber slide into new Dark Ages filled with screeching street preachers and angry MAGA mobs watching colleges and hospitals burn down? Or, as Patti Smith once sang, will we “wrestle the world from fools?”

This is it. Make America smart again. Or else.

Pandemic Nostalgia: Save a Mask, It’s Coming!

June 4, 2021

We social scientists love to come up with sharp names for social phenomenon. I’ve written a lot in this blog about anomie, Emile Durkheim’s 1897 term for the sense of normlessness that’s helped to explain the backslide into Trumpism. There’s been a lot of talk about Naomi Klein’s 2007 concept of shock doctrine again. But there are some phenomenon that still have no name, like when your walk into a bookstore or record store and immediately forget what you were looking for. Or when vintage t-shirts for a band that you know and love are being sold at Urban Outfitters to posers who never listened to the damn band. (“Name one Motorhead song! I dare you!”) There should be a name for that!

There’s another phenomenon as yet unnamed – feeling nostalgic for really horrible times. I just finished reading The Volunteer, Jack Fairweather’s epically researched 2019 book about a Polish officer who snuck into Auschwitz in 1940 and spent the next two and half years sending out reports of Nazi atrocities and organizing the camp resistance. Then when it became clear that the concentration camp had transitioned into a mass death camp, he escaped. When he was out, with good food and free from Typhus-infected lice and the stench of burning bodies, you know what he wanted to do? Go back! That world made sense, unlike the blasé attitude (that’s Georg Simmel’s concept) towards the Holocaust he found outside the camp.

I first experienced this weird feeling about a year after 9/11. The 2001 terrorist attacks had unified the nation. Republican and Democratic congress people stood together on the steps of the Capitol and sang “God Bless In America.” I was in Atlanta where locals covered their “Yankees Suck!” T-shirts with “I Love New York.” Sure there was some serious Islamophobia and a spike in xenophobic hate crimes, but there was also a powerful sense that we were all in this together. I miss that. Do we need another slaughter of civilians to get that feeling back?

As the COVID-19 pandemic wanes, I can already feel that old itch coming back. As of today, 136 million Americans are fully vaccinated (About 41.5% of the US population). Kids are wrapping up the last of their remote learning and we even saw a movie in a movie theater last weekend! There are nearly 4 million souls worldwide to mourn (with deaths spiking in India and Vietnam) and a mental health toll that will take generations to fully see, but, at least here on the home front, you can lay off the mask-making, feverous hand-washing, and crossing the street to avoid a panting jogger. Happy days are here again.

So what’s that tinge? The dread of having to jump back into the endless rush hour commute or the race to get the kid to school on time? Not having an excuse to not hang out with boring people? Having to find your pants? (Or buy new ones because you were binging on Love Island while devouring countless mole burritos, delivered by GrubHub?) The earth got a year-long break from us as the drop in our carbon footprints let us see the horizon for the first time in a generation. (“I didn’t know the Himalayas were right there!”) Although, I imagine landfills exploded with take-out containers in 2020. Are we ready to say goodbye to those random whiffs of fresh air?

Around mid-March 2020, when it started to be clear we were going to have to hunker down for a while, I said goodbye to some life-sustaining activities, like seeing live music and being belly-up to the bar with a whiskey ginger and set of great songs cued up on the jukebox. But I also thought of the things I’d have time to do, like read for fun and work on fixing up the house. Andi and I even started writing a screenplay. Most of that fell by the wayside as we found solace in the endless stream of Hulu and Netflix. Maybe we’ll finish the screenplay during the next pandemic. (Jinks!)

So I never got around to reading War & Peace (but I did spend way too many hours dissecting the new Dylan album). However one wonderful thing that came out of the lockdown was the opportunity to work on my marriage. There was really no escape, so it was either that or build myself a shed in the backyard. With ample supplies from the thank-god-it-stayed-open liquor store, we stayed up late into the nights, talking about how to build a stronger connection that was as beneficial to her. Zoom therapy sessions helped me identify some useful tools and Andi gave me a reading list. The book You Might be a Narcissist If…: How to Identify Narcissism in Ourselves and Others and What We Can Do About It turned my whole head around within two pages. There were some rough moments when I thought Donald Trump wasn’t the only thing that was going to get canceled by COVID, but she encouraged me to do the work and not fall back on old lazy habits. Without the 9-5 and the call of the nightlife, I could focus on what was and is important.

Perhaps everyone found a silver lining during this mess. So many of us, fearing for older family members, brought people together through Zoom sessions. I talked to my mother on the phone this year more than I have in the last 5 years combined. Neighbors began looking out for each other, making masks and hot meals and checking on that crazy old man nobody ever talks to. There was an explosion of book clubs and cocktail parties on Google Meet

As I craved live music, online concerts from home became a lifeline. (Ben Gibbard and Kevn Kinney, thank you.) And all the free webinars plugged me into global community of peers. We spent plenty of time over the last year in the streets, but there was plenty of activism that was happening in front of laptops. Just the fact that† my first grader spent this past February digesting amazing stories for Black History Month gave me hope that consciousness raising can happen on a keyboard. I know I wasn’t the only one who used the down time to plug into the whole wide world via webcam.

No doubt around 2030 they will start throwing 2020 socially distanced parties, and people can go to the costume store and buy face masks, sweat pants and “Got My Fauci Ouchie!” T-shirts. We can not invite anti-Asian hate criminals and the phony militia men protesting public health mandates, as we dance alone to oldies by DaBaby and/or Lil Baby and pretend we don’t know what day it is. Me at this moment, I’m just trying to come up a name for the strange feeling that I’m a little sad this nightmare is ending. Just a little.

I’m Vaccinated! Am I proud or am I ashamed of it?

March 24, 2021

I got vaccinated about a week ago and I don’t know if I should shout if from the rooftops or keep it on the down low. Never has getting a shot more been more fraught with social complexity. As of today, 127 million Americans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and about 14% of all Americans are now fully vaccinated. Is everyone who is vaxed as vexed as I am about how to respond? Let’s weigh this out.

On the one side, after a year of living in fear, according to the scientists, I am fully protected from the coronavirus and, apparently, the more infectious variants.

On the other side, those scientists can’t tell me if I can still pass COVID on to others.

On the one side, the more people who are vaccinated, the fewer hosts the virus has, slowing the pandemic down to something that starts to look like the mythical herd immunity.

On the other side, it’s really clear that the social inequities that marked higher infection and death rates for some populations are all reflected in who has access to the vaccine. My white privilege pays off in white life expectancy.

On the one side, I can stand as defender of science and encourage other intelligent people to get their shots as soon as possible.

On the other side, I’m aware there are a large number of idiots, including at least 50% of Trump voters, who said they won’t get the vaccine because they think COVID is a hoax. And those un-immunized idiots will birth mutant variants and put immunocompromised people (2.7% of Americans) at risk of infection and death.  (Dear idiots, Trump has been vaccinated and has said you should be, too.)

On one side, I don’t have to panic if I actually use a pen from the “dirty pen” holder when I’m signing the check at the coffee shop.

On the other side, these vaccines came out awfully fast. As a scientist, I’m bothered when corners are cut. And am I going to need another booster shot in a year? And when can my kid get vaccinated? And any info about long-term side effects? And…

I got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on sunny Saturday afternoon at the Portland Airport Economy Parking Lot. It was an impressive set up, like driving into Disneyland, with hundreds of volunteers donating their time to help put a dent in this pandemic that has killed nearly 3 million people on the planet (most here in the dirty USA). My first thought was about how people who didn’t have cars were going to get their shot in this very car-centric vaccination effort. (I didn’t even have to get out of the RAV-4.) Actually, my first thought was how lucky I was to get a spot so soon. K-12 educators are just getting vaccinated now. I think college educators like me are scheduled later, somewhere between Jiffly Lube workers and TikTok dancers.

A friend in the military had a vaccine opening and was already full of Moderna, so he offered it to me. I passed up on one of these “jump the queue” openings a month ago because I knew there were more deserving recipients. But, after hearing Dr. Anthony Fauci say, “If you have a chance to get a shot, get the shot,” I decided to play my educator-parent of a young child-I’m probably older than you and therefore at risk-card. This decision was made easier by the fact that there are reports that large numbers of vaccines have gone unused because of a disjoint in the demand and supply chain.

But it’s been clear that there is massive inequities in this vaccine rollout. African-Americans, who make up 12% of the U.S. population, are only 8% of those who have received a vaccine, according to the CDC. Since most vaccine scheduling is done online, the technological divide is hitting the offline hard. This includes the elderly, poor people, people with physical and mental disabilities, the unhoused, and those that live in rural areas with limited internet access. Those low vaccination rates will translate into higher infection and death rates.

I thought about this as I was on the wild ride of my “one and done” Johnson & Johnson poke. Eight hours after my shot, I was hit by the Corona Express, a quick trip into the “this what you get” black hole of side effects. I had the chills so bad I thought the teeth were going to bounce out my head. It all passed later the following day, and I felt ten feet tall and bulletproof. I had a great support system to hold my hand. The rumors of heavy side effects might make some folks who live a lone a little more vaccine hesitant. I know I was lucky, but it didn’t feel like it while I was sweating bullets.

I lecture a lot about privilege and how privilege should engage a sense of responsibility, not guilt. But there is a part of me that feels guilty that I got the vaccine when I know there are more deserving people who don’t have a friend who can put them on the immunization guest list. But maybe my shame should be reserved for the system that creates so many institutional injustices that play out in human suffering. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, in America, the best predictor of your life expectancy is the zip code you live in. I’m ashamed of that.

Ultimately, we’re all taking it on faith that the mass vaccination experiment will solve this new health problem. It’s already done a good job of adding to an old one.