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Coronavirus and the Culture Wars

Infodemics, conspiracies -- fault lines beneath the Fractured States of America tremble in this time of global pandemic, amplify splinters, fractures, and fissures past and present.

Science fiction as adverb, instead of genre shorthand for our uncanny present-day reality. A run to the grocery, a moonwalk down the block, quick errands in N95 masks and latex gloves, maintaining six-foot intervals. Our daily existence is a communal narrative in a Crichton-esque thriller. Tourist attractions are bereft of tourists, metropolis ghost towns. The commute to send a package to one of the few FedEx stores still open becomes an exercise in urban exploration evoking scenes from Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) or Ken Hannam’s Day of the Triffids (1981) or a Timothy Morton essay. A cyclist bikes the center lane of a highway. Billionaires advance on the frontiers of space in privatized rockets leaving burning American streets—littered with shattered glass and flaming wreckage—in their wake.

It makes sense. The pandemic of our sociological imagination, something I have spent over a decade contemplating (read: obsessing over) was formed more by the science fiction and horror fringes of literature. For every meditation by a Boccaccio, Defoe, Camus, or García Márquez there are hordes of B movie zombies—fast and slow—transmitting the metaphors of contagion. A recent salon-style conversation of pandemic authors Lawrence Wright, Geraldine Brooks, and Tom Perrotta noted that for its ubiquity today there are not a lot of mainstream literary treatments of the subject in the canon. “I think plague fiction is marked by its scarcity,” Lawrence Wright observes.

“There are some wonderful books…but what is really distinctive about pandemics and horrible disease outbreaks in the past is how little was made out of them. How little remarked they are in human consciousness. This was true even in the plague years. Chaucer just has a sketchy mention of it…People that actually lived in those times. And after 1918, for instance, a disease that killed more Americans, 675,000 it is estimated, than all the wars in the 20th century and yet that was completely purged from consciousness.” As if an amnesiac pact of collective denial was made to erase the pain.

img-3257Photo by Егор Камелев on Unsplash

Megan O’Grady writing for the New York Times takes up a similar thread in her essay What Can We Learn from the Art of Pandemics Past? states: “A marked silence surrounds illness in our culture, and yet it was always there, buried in our cultural consciousness, long before the advent of photography, in concepts that illustrate our sense of death’s inevitability — motifs that act almost as woodcuts of the mind, such as the Danse Macabre, or the Grim Reaper, connecting us across time with the living and the dead.”

A societal fugue state serves as a metaphor in the post-apocalyptic feminist drama Into the Forest (2015) written and directed by Patricia Rozema based on a novel by Jean Hegland. Psychologically, the term refers to a dissociative state where an amnesiac loses details of their personal identity assuming another life in its stead imprinting over the first. Rozema uses this set up to say that civilization itself is a false identity that supplants our original state. As civilization collapses— the internet abandoned, gas stations emptied, grocery stores overrun, food supplies dwindled—the characters turn to forging in the woods. Nell (Ellen Page) says to sister Eva (Rachel Wood) as they identify plants: “This was here the whole time.”


Image by Michael Knoll from Pixabay

O’Grady observes that works of art from pandemics past serve as a scar tissue transmitting knowledge of the disease even after the events fade from memory. In short stories of Poe, nursery games like ring-around-the-rosy, the painting of Edvard Munch, Gustav Klimt, and Egon Schiele—the latter two artists who died of the 1918 Flu pandemic—and other artifacts our impressions of disease echoes between pandemics. This was here the whole time.

Marcus Aurelius who ruled the Roman Empire for 15 years of a plague that claimed five million lives mentions it only once in his Meditations. Chaucer grew up under the specter of Black Death, lost his wife to an outbreak, yet scarcely mentions it in his poetry. Shakespeare saw the Globe closed as part of a stay-at-home order and lost his son to an epidemic, yet makes only allusions in his work. Over the centuries, pandemic narratives are unmoored from their context or pushed underground, where society always goes to exorcise collective demons.

In mid-March of this year, during the early weeks of the (inter)national emergency, I took an unusual assignment— unusual even in this uncanny reality. I run a boutique social change communication consultancy that specializes in storytelling. My assignment was to develop public education messaging to navigate conspiracy theories and promote CDC health guidelines. The messaging, for populations distrustful of government, used health communication techniques designed to introduce health positive habits (exercise, diet) to populations facing personal, social, and structural behavioral barriers. As I turned my attention toward collecting and countering myth and misinformation in these early days of the pandemic, we had to create a whole new behavioral health strategy, bringing together community voices, health professionals, and communication experts.

This is a different front—what the WHO dubbed an “infodemic”— where the struggle to provide accurate, reliable, trustworthy information in the storm of confusion, contradiction, and conspiracy takes on life-threatening urgency. In an interview I produced for a public health webcast, Amy Laurent, an epidemiologist with the Seattle King County Public Health Department, depicted the earliest days of the outbreak as the first case on American soil touched down in her backyard. Information was flying all over the place at the tail end of a long, harsh, flu season that it was like trying to drink from the firehoses at the same time. If this is true of an educated public health professional with over 20 years in the field, it is dizzyingly mind-numbing for the rest of us.

Meanwhile, a New York Times survey, found roughly 36,000 media workers in the United States have been laid off, furloughed, or seen their pay reduced as businesses slashed advertising budgets in response to COVID. Sylvie Briand, the architect of WHO’s strategy to counter the infodemic risk, told The Lancet, “We know that every outbreak will be accompanied by a kind of tsunami of information, but also within this information you always have misinformation, rumours, etc.”

This phenomenon has existed as far back as we have a recorded history of outbreaks. During the 2nd Century Plague of Galen, a ruthless outbreak of measles or smallpox or both (depending on which historian you consult) that lasted 15 years was similarly plagued by misinformation and rumor. As Galen, physician, and namesake of the epidemic, traveled to Asia Minor for two years to observe and document in an act of proto-epidemiology, competing distorted reports reined on Rome like Apollo’s arrows in a verse from the Iliad. The death toll climbed to 2,000 a day. Chaldean sorcerers, who booby-trapped an abandoned Temple of Apollo with a supernatural pestilence in a golden chest were to blame. Or, Apollo himself—God of Medicine—firing diseased arrows on an ailing Rome as punishment for his defiled tomb. Or, dozens of other arguments for profit or political gain.

Author Donald Robertson writes of invented religions that arose in the tumult. Alexander of Abonoteichus, a con-artist who created a human-headed snake-god named Glycon, built a shrine where his followers would puppeteer the deity for paying visitors. Robertson notes, “Alexander became very wealthy and powerful as a result of receiving payment for his prophecies and magical charms. Coins were even cast in honor of the god “Glycon” and statuettes made of him. During the height of the plague, Alexander was claiming to heal the sick with incantations. A crude verse from his oracle was used on amulets and inscribed over the doors of houses as a protection against the plague.”

In the Middle Ages, the Biblical God presiding over the Bubonic Plague was no less punishing — to Kaffa or Sicily or Venice or Marseille or London or any other infected city across Europe, Asia, and North Africa — than Apollo was in punishing Rome. Plague was carried by demons. It was scapegoated onto Jewish communities, who were perceived to be getting sick less frequently than their Christian neighbors, which was taken as evidence they were contaminating wells, rivers, and springs. Witches in league with the Devil were burnt alive. Xenophobia and racism were chased up and down the Silk Road to Asian cities where the plague was believed to have originated.

Cholera outbreaks of the 19th and 20th centuries were believed to be caused by toxic air and class-based conspiracies against reigning monarchies. In Russia and the UK, they led to riots in the streets. In France, a cholera outbreak in 1832 spread rapidly through the country leaving over 100,000 dead, a rate disproportionately outpacing their European neighbors. Tensions erupted in Parisian slums as the rich blamed the poor for the spread of the disease, while the poor insisted that the rich were attempting to poison them. King Louis-Philippe’s mismanagement of the cholera crisis led directly to the revolutionary/ counter-revolutionary events—clashing fringe right and left-wing forces—depicted in Victor Hugo’s epic novel, Les Misérables.

Braind continues in her interview with The Lancet, “the difference now with social media is that this phenomenon is amplified, it goes faster and further, like the viruses that travel with people and go faster and further. So it is a new challenge, and the challenge is the [timing] because you need to be faster if you want to fill the void…What is at stake during an outbreak is making sure people will do the right thing to control the disease or to mitigate its impact. So it is not only information to make sure people are informed; it is also making sure people are informed to act appropriately.”

In the weeks that followed, after we adapted our behavioral mapping to messaging for the pandemic, other conversations were had. We talked to public health departments and organizations across the country about applying this strategy to navigate conspiracy theories for other populations—Syrian refugees, gang-involved youth, homeless encampments, Latin-X immigrants, libertarians in Washington state—before the lockdown protests, George Floyd’s murder, international outcry, protests, and political uprising. The exercise became seismology of semiotics. Exploring fault lines beneath the Fractured States in America, trembling.

Strong Narratives and Deep Stories

img-3259From the cover of The Leftovers, by Tom Perrotta

Tom Perrotta chose an unexplainable event, a rapture-like disappearance of two percent of the population, as the backdrop of his brilliant novel The Leftovers and equally brilliant HBO series by the same name (2014-2017) to explore “the emotional and psychological cost of a collective trauma”, but coronavirus has shown that this literary device seems unnecessary in the real world.

“What has been interesting for me is that I thought it was the opposite of a pandemic. You know, because in the Leftovers, this thing happens and science can’t explain it and religion can’t explain it and it creates a vacuum. This story is really about how people rush in to fill that vacuum with new religious forms, and stories, and new theories. I thought that is really the opposite of a pandemic, where we have something that scientists do understand, but you can see already the trauma that we have suffered so far has created a space for all kinds of pseudoscience and wishful thinking…The Leftovers takes place three years after the event. It spawns these entirely new cultural phenomena. I think what’s happening right now is that the pandemic is being subsumed into our culture war and so what we are seeing is that narrative is still really strong.”

Or, as the case may be, narratives plural, activating those fault lines of the culture war and amplifying splinters, fractures, and fissures. In the WBUR salon, Geraldine Brooks, author of the Bubonic Plague novel, Year of Wonders takes up the thread from Perrotta observing, “My book was set at a time where science and superstition were still fighting it out…I would have thought that we had moved on from there but unfortunately all this crackpot superstitious, anti-vaxxer, deep state is coming for our liberties craziness makes me think that we haven’t really moved on at all.”

The Atlantic identified two kinds of conspiracy theories to have emerged in response to the coronavirus. The first doubts the severity of the virus, even as states reopen only to close again in the face of spikes in the number of cases. The second considers coronavirus as a bioweapon that has been released on an unsuspecting public. These theories overlap and interconnect in some places. They come in a range of variations and expressions. Many predate the outbreak of the virus, conspiracy classics, and alt-right greatest hits, remixed with a COVID-19 focus. As Paul Farmer, physician and anthropologist, once noted: “Blame was, after all, a calling card of all transnational epidemics.”

Zignal Labs, a media insights company, tracked the spread of coronavirus misinformation online for a week in early May and identified the five most widespread misinformation topics on COVID-19. They are a microcosmic snapshot of broader myths expressed throughout this infodemic timeline and throughout the entire timeline of infodemics past. Echoes of earlier searches for answers crashing into this present-day search. Chaldean sorcerers become Wuhan scientists. Biomedical labs and biological warfare stand-in for ancient curses. New age hucksters hawking their Glycon-esque shrines and political agendas are grafted onto the fear, ignorance, and powerlessness experienced at this moment.

That George Soros, a conspiracy strawman favorite for the American right over the past 15 years, any week before or since. Or, it was Democrat-funded or China or Russia or the World Health Organization itself as a deep state effort to seize liberties or an outside agitator destroying the US economy or more.

Claims of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment were the second most popular measured by Zignal that same week with 88,166 mentions. Only the most recent topic on treatments trending in the lineage of snake-headed Gods and snake oil salesman even that week. That disinfectants like bleach as a cure for the virus, a concept that spurned a cult in Florida and caught the President’s attention, received 85,240 mentions in that same span.

Meanwhile, QAnon enthusiasts glommed onto the 5G cellphone upgrade as the cause of the outbreak, accounted for 87,776 mentions, which led to the more zealous of enthusiasts to damage cell towers in Europe. The “Plandemic” theory, a kind of conspiracy mash-up, got 28,607 mentions that week and a half-hour documentary that received over a million views online before Facebook removed it. The “Plan” is an Illuminati-esque cabal, including Gates and others, to dominate and control the public using the pandemic and the measures put in place to contain it. Incorporating elements of the anti-vaxxer movement and adopted as part of the Lockdown Protests, the Plandemic is a pastiche of grassroots anti-government arguments aimed at appealing to a populist base.

There are some elements of truth, often class-based, that run through many conspiracy theories. Whitney Phillips, assistant professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University, argues that conspiracy often operates along our “deep mimetic frames“—a theoretical fusion of sociologist Arlie Hochschild, “deep stories”, George Lakoff’s metaphorical “frame” constructs, and Ryan Milner’s “mimetic logics”—that encompass “what we believe in our bones to be true about the world.”

As a disillusioned former QAnon devotee called “Sam” tells Kevin Roose on his podcast Rabbit Hole, “I know the financial system is rigged against us. I’ve watched it. I lived it.” The entire Rabbit Hole series is a meditation on the ways our “deep mimetic frames” operate accelerated by social media algorithms.

After Hurricane Irma struck Florida, the former QAnon devotee was unemployed, living with a friend, spending most of her time viewing YouTube videos. She describes the clicks it took to move video after video from Elizabeth Warren’s economic analysis to QAnon conspiracy theories. The conspiracies appealed to her because it explained her experience and the economic reality she was living.

When Delaney Hall, an editor for the podcast 99% Invisible set out to determine if the coronavirus pandemic—the first pandemic in the era of widespread vaccinations—was shifting anti-vaxxer sentiment she found the reverse was often true. Those who held hardcore, politically motivated anti-vax arguments doubled down, but a second group—referred to as “vaccine-hesitant”—held conflicting beliefs in their head about the issue. They wanted what was best for their children, but were swayed by arguments on both sides. This group could be persuaded.

Earthquakes in Fractured States

img-3260Photo by Massimo Virgilio on Unsplash

An actual earthquake occurs when the energy generated by the friction of jagged-edged fault plates is released. The racial health disparities ignored for decades— African Americans have higher rates of diabetes, higher rates of chronic illness in general, higher rates of cancer, higher rates of anxiety and depression— revealed by the pandemic is one such jagged edge. A novel virus, scarcely understood. Overwhelmed hospitals. Mass unemployment. One in four US workers claiming jobless benefits. A shuddered economy. Jagged edges, all.

Inequities of the American health system. Jagged edge. Inequities of the American justice system. Jagged edge. The disproportionate rates by which communities of color are impacted by the disease. Jagged edge. Systemic structural racism implicit in the systems designed to treat, to heal, to cure, to serve, to protect, revealed. Jagged edges. Released energy radiates out in all directions, like ripples on a pond, shaking the earth’s surface violently.

I have been spending a lot of time going down rabbit holes these past few months—always tethered to a mission, always seeking to message for the equivalent of Delaney Hall’s “vaccine-hesitant” audiences in these discourses—consuming the fringier elements of these conversations. I have been reading a lot of chatter about a Second Civil War from the latest incarnation of the Patriot Movement-turned-Tea Party-turned-alt-right driving the Lockdown Protests.

The most postmodern of extremist groups, the Boogaloo Bois, named for Sam Firstenberg’s breakdancing film, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (1984) originally emerged from racist posts in the early 2010s, now exist as walking memes with an iconography composed of inside jokes and weird wordplay. A loose confederation in the way the alt-right brought together a broad range of disenfranchised whites—militiamen and neo-fascists alongside land rights activists and libertarians— trading Michigan Militia camo for Hawaiian shirts because boogaloo sounds vaguely like a big luau. They have been staples on the periphery of lockdown protests and some Black Lives Matter demos alike, arguing that they are for protecting liberties, not white supremacy.

Absurdist characters from a Pynchon novel, that might be more ridiculous than frightening, if it weren’t for the success in shutting down the Michigan capital and the number of cities where Boogaloo Bois were arrested with weapons at Black Lives Matter protests. Though Pynchon would probably have a Hawaiian shirt designer, a competitor of Tommy Bahama, as the villainous puppet master of a Civil War that was a publicity stunt to kick-off an advertising campaign.

The aftermath of a Second Civil War is a stalwart of science fiction. Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, and the subsequent Hulu series that kicked off in 2017 envision the aftermath of an American Civil War won by religious fundamentalists. Phillip K. Dick wrote a quintessentially Phillip K. Dick novel, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974) set in a police state following the Second Civil War with a pop-singer half-consumed by an identity stealing parasite. The video games Mass Effect (2007) and Shattered Union (2005) the second season of TV show Jericho, and at least one live action role-playing game that plays out scenarios nationwide, involves a Second American Civil War.

In 2017’s American War by Omar El Akkad, a former conflict journalist turned novelist, it is simply called “the second”. Set a half-century in the future the novel follows Sarat, a young woman trying to navigate life in a refugee camp in Tennessee while being radicalized and recruited by the resistance. The conflict is over a ban on fossil fuels at a time where climate change is raging out of control. The country splits North and South along these new political divides and goes to war after the President is assassinated. The novel has an eerie pacing that reads like dispatches from the future. There is a strange and threatening familiarity with his depiction.

El Akkad refers to it as “dislocative” fiction rather than a strict speculative work. “I take things that happen over there and I make them happen over here,” he said in an interview. “Over there” being his beat as a Foreign Correspondent covering the war in Afghanistan and the Arab Spring, but El Akkad also covered protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and the effects of climate change in the south that informed the main thrust of the novel. He followed these issues—the police brutality, the uprising in response to Michael Brown’s murder, the creeping spread of climate change, the devastating loss of an estimated football field worth of wetland disappearing every hour along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana—and the arguments against them in his research and he played them out into the future. In short, it may not be as dislocative as we would like to believe.

There is an odd detachment in places. Sarat is a young woman of color in America, but these aspects of her identity are never explored or even considered, which makes for a slightly uncomfortable read in some places for all the wrong reasons. Some of the artefacts that drive the narrative are repurposed missives from El Akkad’s time as a journalist and read as such. Overall, this detachment has its benefits, because paradoxically, unlike the right-wing fever dreams of wannabe warriors play acting in life or online, unlike the video games or the TV shows or the comic books, certainly unlike Phillip K. Dick’s head trippy work, or even Offred’s allegorical adventures, the reverse Hero Journey undertaken by Sarat has unsettling plausibility. It is a rebuke to Sinclair Lewis; it can happen here.

Lasting Images

img-3261Edvard Munch Self-Portrait with the Spanish Flu, 1919 (Public Domain / Wikipedia)

Throughout Europe, The Plague by Albert Camus has been selling out. The existential novel about an epidemic that ravages the quarantined city in Oran, Algeria served as an allegory for fascism for decades. Today, sales skyrocket as the search for meaning in a time of outbreak has made it a must-read. “Almost as though this novel were a vaccine — not just a novel that can help us think about what we’re experiencing, but something that can help heal us,” explains Alice Kaplan, a French Literature Professor at Yale, in an interview with NPR. I have been thinking about the “scarcity of plague fiction” that Lawrence Wright observed; the scarcity of pandemic artifacts in general. And, what our world might look like if that were not the case.

There is an image that I keep coming back to in my mind. It is an imagined scene. Edvard Munch, dragging out his paints and easel. His movements slowed by aching joints and fever. He is sick with flu. This lethal flu that claimed his contemporaries Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, and his wife, Edith, their child, alongside some 675,000 Americans and a total of 50 to 100 million people. Munch feels like death. With his features—gaunt cheeks, sallow skin, weary-eyed—he looks like death. Yet, he moves from the bed to the chair, covering his lap in a thick blanket to ward the chills, as he takes up a brush to paint himself. He has spent his entire existence obsessing about his own death— “Illness, insanity, and death…kept watch over my cradle,” the artist once said, “and accompanied me all my life.”— and here he looks it directly in the eyes to capture the image, his own reflection.

That is one of the few artefacts that existed from the Flu of 1918. It is one of the few artifacts that that exists from our long history of pandemics, period. Pandemics hold up a mirror to our society, to our culture, showing us the best and worst all at once. We often look away. When the threat has passed, we forget. We wrest art from its context and forget. Delany Hall in her exploration of the anti-vaxxer movement sat down with Dr. Bernice Hausman in the Department of Humanities at Penn State College of Medicine, who observed:

Science-based medicine is a tremendous advantage that we have in the modern world. The fact that they could sequence the genome of the coronavirus so quickly, the fact that they’re talking about a vaccine within 18 months to two years is phenomenal, right? All of that is based on advancements in medicine. But the experience of the pandemic, the social disruption that it has caused, the difficulties of discrimination and unequal treatment that the pandemic has uncovered. We already knew it. But now we know it even more. All of that is the realm of the social world. And all of that is much more difficult in some ways to handle.

Hall concludes the science is easy, the people are hard.

Cory Doctorow, author and activist, writes of pandemic and political divisions in his 2019 novella Masque of the Red Death. A reboot of the Edgar Allen Poe story with the same name, Masque follows a finance bro prepper who has built a super bunker that he populates with a hand chosen team of equally obnoxious figures. The characters are essentially their own unmaking, so paranoid that social collapse equals certain death. I don’t know if a story first written in 1842 warrants a spoiler, but if so, head’s up. Even at the cost of the characters own lives, they fail to participate in the messy rebuilding that is going on around them. Opting out of community and even actively avoiding assistance when it is offered.

Doctorow often explores themes of solidarity vs. selfishness, survivalism vs. community. In an essay titled Don’t Look for the Helpers on Joseph Fink’s Our Plague Year podcast, Doctorow admits that he is often branded a dystopian, but considers himself a realist at worst—“Engineers that design systems on the assumption that nothing could possibly go wrong with them are not utopians. They are dangerous idiots and they kill people.”—and thematically reads more like an optimist, really. Humanity finds a way. Community organizes under the worst circumstances. Crisis can draw us together.

“The tales we tell ourselves about what we can expect in a crisis informs our intuition about what we should do come that crisis…I have been telling stories about humanity rising to the challenge of crisis for decades. Now I am telling them to myself. I hope that you will keep that story in mind today as plutocrats seek to weaponize narratives to turn our crisis into their self-serving catastrophe.”

In determining what kind of world, we want next, we have to be willing to look. We have to see what is being revealed and develop new stories to change it. If we want to defund police and fund science-based medicine and equitable health care for all—we need new stories. If we want to address climate change and social justice and keep fault lines from being activated—we need to look in the mirror and see.

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Works Cited

Bauman, Anna Anna and Chakrabarti, Meghna. “What We Learn From Pandemic Lit“. WBUR. 14 May 2020.

Block, Melissa. “‘A Matter of Common Decency‘: What Literature Can Teach Us About Epidemics”. NPR / WBEZ. 1 April 2020.

Doctorow, Cory. “Don’t Look for the Helpers“. PMPress. 16 March 2020.

Doezema, Marie. “For Omar El Akkad, journalism and fiction are ‘interlocking muscles'”. Columbia Journalism Review. 31 October 2018.

El Akkad, Omar. American War. Alfred A. Knopf. April 2017.

Fink, Joseph. Our Plague Year. Podcast.

Gryniewicz, Josh. “Metaphor in a Time of Ebola“. PopMatters. 28 January 2015.

Hegland, Jean, Director. Into the Forest. Elevation Pictures. 12 September 2015.

Mars, Roman. “The Natural Experiment“. 5 May 2020.

O’Grady, Megan. “What Can We Learn From the Art of Pandemics Past?The New York Times. 8 April 2020.

Perrotta, Tom. The Leftovers. St. Martin’s Press. August 2011.

Phillips, Whitney. “Please, Please, Please Don’t Mock Conspiracy Theories“. Wired. 27 February 2020.

Robertson, Donald. “Stoicism in the Time of Plague“. Medium. 11 March 2020.

Roose, Kevin. “Welcome to the ‘Rabbit Hole‘”. The New York Times. 16 April 2020.

Uscinski, Joseph E. and Enders, Adam M. “The Coronavirus Conspiracy Boom“. The Atlantic. 30 April 2020.

Zarocostas, John. “How to fight an infodemic“. The Lancet. 29 February 2020.