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One thing I haven’t figured out yet about this pandemic is why we’re okay with so many deaths. Not in the sense of “what is wrong with people,” even though, you know, what is wrong with people. But I try to make sense of the world, and this has been very surprising to me, this sudden blandness toward the idea of masses of people dropping dead from a mystery virus.
That isn’t something I would have anticipated, if I had been writing a book about people dropping dead from a mystery virus: everyone going very rationalist about it. In my experience, people are very twitchy about the idea of dropping dead from something. Especially something that’s new and mysterious and you can’t do much to stop it. That ticks quite a few boxes on the list of things that makes human beings freak right the heck out.
I definitely expected more fear and fewer people calmly arguing that it isn’t actually that many deaths if you compare it to five or ten years worth of influenza, and anyway, you have to die of something, sooner or later, and who knows, it might not even be as deadly as they say.
I’m not saying this is wrong, necessarily. It just feels like an inexplicable, planet-wide rescaling of what makes us hysterical. Because for a long time, it hasn’t required much to make us hysterical. We’ve been ready to overreact to very slim threats.
So what’s going on? There are probably a few factors in play—it surely helps that older people are disproportionately affected, and there are identity politics mixed up now—but maybe it’s simply that we’ve grown tired of it. Because I do remember us taking it more seriously in the beginning. But humans recalibrate. You can get used to anything, I read, in an awesome short story about a man who’s sent to Hell (I forget the title), so maybe you get used to this, too.
Boy there are a lot of conspiracy theories out there. It seems like nowadays people will pick up any half-baked idea and turn it into a conspiracy. That’s how it seems. But that’s what they want you to think. In fact, these conspiracy theories are being developed and seeded by a secret network of powerful forces.
I know what you’re thinking: That sounds like a conspiracy theory. Exactly. You see the brilliance of it. If you’re the kind of person who buys into conspiracy theories, you’re lost to the 5G and Bill Gates insanity. But if you’re not, you’re ignorant to the real conspiracy, which is to spread conspiracy theories.
Like all effective conspiracies, it has a public part and a secret part. The public part is what we see: the media, including the social media platforms. Good people work for the public part and don’t even realize they’re part of the conspiracy. For that reason, we tend to let the public part off the hook, even when we see them engaged in bad behavior—like spreading conspiracy theories. The problem seems to be confined to a few bad apples. But over time, you might notice the bad apples don’t seem to go away. You’d expect someone with a cart full of apples to want to remove the bad ones. Instead, the bad apples keep getting rewarded. It takes a real firestorm to remove a bad apple, it seems, and even then, most of the time, the replacement is another bad apple.
Because bad apples are the point of the public part. They’re its most essential feature. It’s the good apples who are superfluous. You look at the public part and see mostly good apples, but what they do is largely irrelevant—which you can tell from how they get replaced more often and more easily. They exist for only one reason: because otherwise you’d be able to see that the whole cart is full of bad apples.
Behind this is the secret part. This is a network of the rich and powerful who want to stay that way—or, more realistically, become more so. They’ve collected vast amounts of wealth and influence via family connections and lobbying, but it’s become a tough sell to convince people they need more trickle-down economics and fewer public services when working-class and middle-class incomes have been stuck in a ditch since 1980. For the network, the nightmare is an intelligent, well-educated, reasonable society. That would be the end of them.
So they need new lies. And after test-marketing a few candidates, they came up with a winner: all of them. Anything that sows discord, that makes people confused, ignorant, or angry at someone else. The more conspiracy theories, the better, because the more enemies people have, the smaller the target on the real conspiracy.
I used to get mad at people who believed in conspiracy theories. My thinking was: It’s 2020, you have the internet, learn how to do critical thinking. But that was on the assumption that conspiracy theories were randomly burped into existence, like viruses—as opposed to bio-weapons expertly engineered in a lab somewhere, like other viruses. Now I have a darker view of conspiracy theories and where they come from. They come from the conspiracy. They have a purpose.
One unexpected benefit of the pandemic is how easy it is to see who’s a selfish prick. Previously you could really only guess at that. Sure, you could pick up hints from how they were standing, or whether they were in the process of berating serving staff, but you couldn’t be sure. Now, though, at least in my part of the world, where it has become mandatory to wear a mask while out of the house, you can see with just one glance who doesn’t give a crap about their fellow citizens.
For example, today I passed by a woman who had a mask dangling from her chin while holding a coffee. So I could tell that she cared about me a little, but not more than her coffee. Two people who stood on opposite sides of the path while holding dogs on leads cared to avoid breathing all over each other, but not so much about everyone trying to divert around them. The dude who pounded past with no mask, breathing all over everyone, didn’t give a single shit.
I really like how this is so clear. Obviously the selfishness itself isn’t great. We can do without that. But you can’t fix a problem without identifying it, and for that, this mask business is super helpful.
I’m not saying we could fix a lot of societal problems by rounding these people up and firing them into the sun. That would be silly. Accurate. But silly. Because we’re not going to be allowed to do that. Also, you know, once you get into rounding people up, for whatever reason, that has a bad vibe. We don’t want to start with that.
We have to live with these people—even though, clearly, they don’t care much about living with us. But that’s okay; that’s what we’ve always done. Now it’s just clearer who appreciates the social contract and who doesn’t. Which I feel like has been a growing issue: How when you live in a city instead of a village, most of the social penalties for being a selfish prick fall away. A person can successfully avoid the appropriate consequences for being a selfish prick forever, because their bad reputation doesn’t stick with them. But not so much now, when they wear it on their face.
Do you think the world is moving more or less towards capitalizm? I only ask because I was idly looking at the Jennifer Government world map and realised the UK left the European Union, which was quite premonitory.
You know what I think was premonitory, if that’s even a real word, Adam: this blog where I predicted the rise of social media influencers. I mean, my corporate stuff, that’s shooting fish in a barrel. You don’t have to stare at the world for long before you notice people vaccuming up wealth and power while hiding behind logos and heartfelt TV commercials. Then you go ahead and write a novel where everything is like that only moreso, and bam, you’re a modern-day Cassandra.
But the influencer blog! In 2007, I predicted that people would be able to have great careers just being kind of awesome, even in a small way. This was three years and two months before Instagram even existed. I’m proud of that because I feel like I didn’t extrapolate current trends so much as pick it before it happened.
Anyway, to answer your question: I do think we are moving toward more extreme capitalizm. Especially lately! I’ve long thought I got a crucial piece of Jennifer Government wrong, because government of all kinds have never seemed very interested in shrinking themselves. Even when the small-government people get in power, they don’t shrink anything. They only move money from one place to another while continuing to expand overall. So how would we wind up with a tiny government? It seemed more likely that governments and corporations would become increasingly similar until no-one could tell them apart. Lots of shady public-private partnerships, run by people who hop back and forth between the two; that kind of thing.
But look at this! We have a health emergency and the US federal government’s move is to shovel essential resources into the free market and let state governments bid for them. That’s really something. I mean, obviously the free market is a wonderful thing, the bedrock of our modern society, and so on. But it doesn’t work for everything. You get Jennifer Government when you believe the market is always best, no matter what, and even basic education, even healthcare, even fighting fires, is best left in the hands of an unregulated private sector. Which is a creepy ideology to me because it deliberately ignores the concept of market failure: that when it comes to essential goods and services, it can be pretty horrendous to let poor people go without.
So yes! Today, I see more capitalizm than ever. And the world’s most visible examplar of government is so bad at its job—deliberately? By accident? Maybe both!—that I can actually see a pathway where people get so jacked at we-starved-the-beast government incompetence that they give up and look for something better. Or not, you know, better, but shinier, with a better logo.
I apologize for asking Mr. Barry, but what would you consider yourself to be on the political spectrum? I’ve seen people call you a right-libertarian, a neo-liberal, and other times fiscal conservative. An answer would be much appreciated.
Well those are terrible guesses. I can rule out those three. Here, I took the Political Compass test for you:
I call myself a militant centrist because I’m a writer, and you can’t write unless you constantly put yourself in other people’s shoes, even shoes that are kind of gross. For example, if I’m writing a character who’s going to assault someone, I need to understand how he sees the world in order for that behavior to make sense. He wouldn’t do it for no reason, or if he thought it was fundamentally wrong or would make him a bad person. So he must have a view of the world in which it’s the right thing to do.
I might disagree with this character, but it’s my job to make his behavior rational. So I climb into that brainspace as far as I can, until it starts to seem totally reasonable to me, too, that he has to assault someone, and, in fact, maybe it’s the assaulters who are the real heroes, and the world needs more of them.
(I went back and re-read Machine Man a few years ago, and was really surprised by how strange that character is. When I was writing him, I had wriggled far enough into his head that it seemed quite logical. But with a little distance: No. He is messed up.)
Anyway, out of reflex, I do this in real life, too, so when I encounter an opinion that I find bizarre, I try to contort my mind until I can imagine the context in which it makes perfect sense. And once you can do this for people who want to amputate their own limbs, you can definitely do it for people who oppose gun control.
So although I have a lot of political opinions that are very left-leaning, I usually find something to sympathize with in right-wing arguments, too. I mean, I usually think they’re wrong. I really do think most right-wing talking points are, on the evidence, objectively incorrect nowadays. But I can imagine circumstances or contexts in which they would make sense.
This may make me the kind of person who would be appeasing Nazis in the 1930s, by the way, so it’s not an objectively good thing. It’s just good for a writer.