This allegedly has been the week of taking the virus seriously in our corner of the world, or more seriously. But it is just not in our nature to believe what we are told at first blush and move in lockstep. We were out walking the dog in Three Springs the other afternoon when a neighbor approached, violating the six-foot boundary. As she was heading for three feet, we held up a hand in that frozen wave, palm up, the international symbol for stay back (although Christian iconographers may recognize it as a blessing).
“Oh, no, you too?” she said. “I didn’t think you’d be taken in by this.”
This would be a good horror movie if the virus only ate the people who thought it was a hoax. There seems to be a preponderance of evidence, if you believe any news reporting, that COVID-19 is a deadly threat. In Iran, weeks ago, officials were hurriedly constructing secret burial areas for its victims. The government is taking the virus seriously, and cruelly. Is that proof against disinformation?
No. And there is no proof against our natures. We are frightened; we act out. We interrogate every sniffle like hypochondriacs. We are told to go home, it is each of us for ourselves, think of the bigger picture. We have heard stocking up on groceries is irrational, like Tulip mania. But people are behaving rationally in an irrational time. And they snap.
Take Bernie Sanders, who has still not withdrawn from the Democratic primaries, despite having practically no chance to beat Joe Biden. Back in the Senate, CNN’s Manu Raju asked him what his time frame was for making a decision.
“I’m dealing with a f--ing global crisis,” Sanders said. “Is that enough for you?”
It is the unanswerable response of the wiseguy.
“You want to have an opinion? Have an opinion,” said a frustrated New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week, adding that facts have a different importance. Many people thought Cuomo was modeling leadership, that “the very qualities that make him abrasive in ordinary interactions are serving him well now,” as The New York Times’ Ben Smith put it. And Cuomo surely knows many Americans already reserve the right to have opinions, and to be argumentative so endlessly that argument alone becomes the object. And they reserve the right not to change their stripes just because there is a world-threatening disaster.
Hearing Sunday that Sen. Rand Paul and Harvey Weinstein had tested positive for COVID-19 put people in the familiar position of exercising something like apophasis, the rhetorical art of saying something by way of saying you won’t, such as “We will not even discuss Henry’s filthy habits” – but in this case, it’s “I don’t want to wish ill on anyone, but ...”
God sees through sophistry.
On Sunday, Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, indulged in a time-worn dodge as he refused a U.S. offer of assistance to help fight the virus – because the offer could be an American Trojan horse. “I do not know how real this accusation is, but when it exists, who in their right mind would trust you to bring them medication?” he said. “Possibly (American) medicine is a way to spread the virus more.”
It is a slippery world, which also was true before the pandemic. It reminds us of the man who asked his doctor whether, after the operation, he would be able to play the piano. Told he could, he said, “Great, because I never could before!”
People will not stop being who they are even in the most extraordinary circumstances. We just don’t quit.