The Bottom Forty
Vonnegut’s bastard children arise
July 14th 2021
Over 40% of new COVID cases this past week erupted in just two states: Florida and Texas. There were 903,471 new cases nationally, including 155,000 just yesterday. That means those two states alone made up some 360,000 new cases. Fifteen percent of the population, forty percent of cases.
Normally a disparity like that would have statisticians scrambling for answers. Sometimes the answer is evident: Maine and Wisconsin have far more cases of frostbite per capita than all of the South. Sometimes they are obscure (‘cancer towns’ which sometimes result from industries that closed a century earlier). But the most mysterious thing about the high rate of infections in Florida and Texas is that it isn’t mysterious at all.
It’s part of actions by state leaders in both state that range, at best, from feckless to at worst deliberate reckless endangerment resulting in multiple deaths. The governors of both states not only are anti-vaccination and anti-mask, but are pushing policies to prevent schools, towns, and even hospitals from requiring masks and vaccinations.
Sociologists and mob psychologists are going to be studying this for years. There’s many cases of a few individuals leading a society going mad and engaging in policies that harm or even destroy the societies they lead. Three major examples from the twentieth century would be Hitler in Germany, Stalin in Russia, and Mao in China. And there are far too many examples of leaders exhorting the mob to rise up and commit genocide against minorities in their own lands or adjacent. Cambodia, Rwanda, and Turkey all come to mind.
But in this case, Florida and Texas, you have mad leaders exhorting their followers to effectively commit genocide against themselves.
The followers don’t see it quite that way, of course. They have been convinced that COVID doesn’t exist or is no worse than a bad cold. Remember, this is a society where 10% of population believes the Earth is a flat disk, 40% believe in angels, and 75% think Windows is the best possible operating system to have on their computers. Ignorance is praised and expertise questioned, and it’s easy to persuade large groups of people that hidden knowledge, especially knowledge hidden for sinister purposes by malign cabals, is the best type of knowledge to have, and negates the open world of realization accrued through hard work and serious study.
Isaac Asimov, no stranger to the concept of societies gone mad, once observed that societal decay was inevitable when ignorance and knowledge were seen as being roughly equally worthy of respect. Certainly the United States has a long history of that. For example, we are supposed to treat biblical literalism with the same respect that we are the fields of biology, botany, geology and physics. Despite the fact that on the face of it, bible literalism is utterly preposterous.
Americans tend to be suckers for oblique concepts that don’t bear close examination. Christians endlessly witnessing for their faiths think they are earning Jesus brownie points even though the bible itself frowns on ostentatious displays of false piety. Americans aren’t alone in rallying to the cause of “freedom!” but it gets carried to weird extremes here, where one has the ‘freedom’ to refuse to take any measures at all to protect the health or others, or even permit others to take reasonable measures to protect their own health. This madness seems to have peaked with the governors of Florida and Texas passing rules forbidding schools from requiring masks, or even reporting cases of COVID outbreak amongst their students and staff. At least, let’s hope that’s the peak. It’s the same sort of madness we used to mock in the Soviet Union, where it was a crime (Anti-Soviet Agitation) to say that a state-run automobile was a rattletrap (they were) or admit that tractor production was below the goals of a five-year plan. You could be punished for that, just as in Florida or Texas you can be punished for admitting a potentially deadly disease is sweeping through a class full of children.
At some point this sort of madness implodes. That’s the good news. The bad news is that sometimes a great deal of damage is done before the implosion happens, and a normal part of the course of this mental infection is that the rule becomes more and more authoritarian in an effort to sustain the evident absurdities. In some cases, such as Hitler’s Germany or the Soviet Union, it required the collapse and near destruction of the society. In Turkey and China, it was just sheer exhaustion from the body count. There’s rarely a desirable outcome to this madness.
Kurt Vonnegut observed that the greatest danger humanity held for itself was bad ideas. While he was hopeful, convinced that in most cases the bulk of humanity could avoid the infection and carry on and even help those who were infected, he had no illusions about the destructive nature of those bad ideas.
America’s current mania, an amalgamation of Trumpism, allowing the neo-nazi sick right out from under its rocks, and the love of conspiracy theories, has yet to run its course. It is possible that with the disease wildfiring through MAGA-infested parts of the country (my own very red county set a record for most new cases this week), the requisite death toll will be high enough to rein in the crazies—or kill them, either way is fine.
But remember that you’re far more likely to die from an idiotic idea than you are from common sense, and conduct yourself accordingly.