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There’s too much swirling around in my head for me to easily focus on one subject in depth, as I try to do every week. Maybe I should try to figure out what is going on up there.

Messy Thinking

I’m not scared. There is danger abroad and at home, across the world and in the neighbor’s house. Maybe in our own house, but we don’t know it yet. But I don’t feel frightened. I think we’ll practice enough social distance and other precautions that we will not get sick. If we do get sick, I think we’ll get well without trauma. That may all be wishful thinking, or looking only at some bright side while thousands of people are dying. I usually avoid dangers as much as possible, but I don’t worry too much about those I can’t avoid.

I think my reaction is one of many possible and reasonable reactions that we can expect people to have, from daring danger and breaking the rules to walling oneself in behind wipes and masks. We don’t have to agree about our feelings, we only need to respect that others feel differently.

Our media is obsessed with what governments are doing every day, every hour, giving 3 or 5 or 7 contestants the chance to say what they think about that, being sure to provoke arguments. In between making judgments, not undeserved, they give us an avalanche of information and statistics. We find out about someone new, a personal story of unusual significance, every day, because personalizing a story is necessary for a wide viewership. But I love the numbers, the graph lines, the logarithmic scales, the variety of approaches to understanding the whole global scope of the pandemic. Since I began as an historian, my fascination with what numbers can tell us has guided my thinking. Now the sources I go to, especially the New York Times, offer interactive graphs. Impossible to imagine in the heyday of newsprint. Those carefully selected and analyzed numbers tell us what a hundred personal stories cannot.

I’ll never get over the disappearance of the media agreement that objectivity and honesty were the most worthy goals, even if often violated.

The media giants don’t agree on much, centering around whether Trump is doing a good job. I don’t watch FOX, but I read enough about its coverage to know that facts and opinions are directed at praising Trump rather than informing the public. I’ll never get over the disappearance of the media agreement that objectivity and honesty were the most worthy goals, even if often violated.

The most popular sources of news for a large number of Americans are Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. Hannity is on a news channel, but he was once clear about how he viewed his job: “I believe the Republicans represent, and have, a far better vision, one that I agree with…I’m not a journalist, I’m a talk show host.” His opinions about anything are of the same value as Johnny Carson’s. Limbaugh is now a national treasure, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, giving him the freedom to say any racist, misogynist lie he dreams up.

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The version of reality offered by FOX News is the main source of information for 76% of self-identified conservative Republicans. The FOX News consumers have strong, but not very accurate views of the virus reality. One-quarter believe that a vaccine will be available in the next few months. More than one-third believe that the virus was developed in a laboratory, and nearly as many think it was created intentionally as think it came from natural causes. More than half think the media have “greatly exaggerated” the risks, far more than people who get their information elsewhere. Those beliefs did not come out of thin air.

If we put aside for a moment the hopelessly split views on whether Trump or Republicans or conservative politicians are doing a good job, I think there is wide agreement about what we should do and what government should do. We should practice social distancing, extra hygiene, and careful monitoring of our state of health. Governments have much greater tasks. They should ensure that there are sufficient hospital beds, tests, personal protective equipment, and ventilators. They should keep the public accurately informed about the progress of the disease. They should encourage or perhaps coerce people to avoid spreading the contagion by making extraordinary rules about our movements. They should help the millions of people who, through no fault of their own, are suddenly placed in financial jeopardy.

With that agreement behind us, we can try to judge how well governments meet what we think they should do and have done. It’s hard to tune out two opposing sources of distraction designed to make us forget what we agree about. The networks that I watch, CNN and MSNBC, encourage a “diverse” array of commentators to make snap judgments every day about right and wrong. Many of them are selling a point of view rather than an explanation, but deliberate lying and nastiness are kept to a minimum. I would rather hear more information, less spin.

The other source of distraction is Trump, magnified a thousand times by people whose main job is to repeat whatever he says. Out of his mouth comes a maximum of dishonesty, stories that change every day, denials of yesterday’s certainty, self-veneration, and a level of meanness that is hard to believe. His act is intentionally confusing and confounding, making it hard to focus on anything other than him. Did he really say, “I’ve felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic” three weeks ago?

Just like that one, his lies are so easy to check. Just like the stories told by Jim Jones before he gave his followers cyanidelike those told by David Koresh to the Branch Davidians in Waco or by Marshall Applewhite to the Heaven’s Gate cultists in San Diego, it makes no difference to the believers that the lies are obvious. Their goal in life is to follow their leader. Like those other self-proclaimed messiahs, Trump cares little for the ultimate welfare of his people. Like those other human disasters, the result of belief for many will be death.

steve hochstadt

The rest of us are collateral damage.

Steve Hochstadt
Taking Back Our Lives