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Unenlighted self-interest April 6, 2021

Posted by guestposter in Uncategorized.
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The psychology of the pandemic is fascinating. From the start one could go to the Irish Times or Guardian comments section and see wave after wave of denialist and ‘sceptic’ commenters attempting to downplay or deny the severity of the crisis. The thought struck me at one point that there could quite literally be an alien invasion with UFOs firing on people on North Strand and some of this crew would be arguing it was all a government conspiracy.

Speaking of which – that conspiracy has always seemed implausible. I imagine few of us here believe that governments are intrinsically inefficient. But I think it fair to say that government’s tend to do better with certain forms of organisation, as against covert conspiratorial exercises. So this new-found belief in the ability of government to organise around a pandemic seems unlikely.

Which isn’t to say some haven’t attempted to talk in those terms.

Talking with friends recently they told me of someone they knew who had drunk deeply of the Covid-19 denialist Kool-aid. Basically the line went there was no real problem, the virus wasn’t as bad an issue as made out and certainly nothing that would require the level of restrictions seen, that this was a conspiracy between governments to control populations – not necessarily this generation, but future generations would be in thrall (possibly through side-effects of vaccination).

When the absurdity of states of all political stripes coordinating such a conspiracy was raised the argument shifted to the civil services within all those states working together. When it was noted that people the person making the argument knew well were civil servants and they were unlikely to be in on any such scheme the argument shifted ground once more – now it was a conspiracy of high-ranking civil servants.

Problem is that the first counter-argument about states of all political stripes having much the same responses to the virus kicks in again. Though I guess the argument is an unrefined version of the idea of a deep-state. Still, deep-states are thought to work in the interests of the nation (at least in the original version) or at the least for a right wing and on occasion fascist sense of nation (that at least was where the first iteration of the idea pointed to – my first acquaintance with the term was in the 1980s in respect of links between military and civil authorities in some states and far-right groups, often in the context of networks such as Gladio) So the idea of deep-states globally working together still comes off the rails (it’s a sad reflection on the human race but consider the improbability of a meeting of minds between say many within civil services of governments of rival states or more pointedly those in conflict with one another).

But the point was made to me that actually the political content of this wasn’t the key thing. I asked did they believe that the person who expressed these ideas actually sincerely held them. Their response was telling. They thought that they were simply a sort of verbal cover for allowing them to break the restrictions because, and this was even more telling, at base they found them constraining of their lifestyle and they didn’t want to follow them.

I wonder is that useful in thinking about how that sort of thinking is engaged with more broadly – that this isn’t really indicative of some self-consistent if dysfunctional and abhorrent ideological worldview but is in fact almost the very opposite, that this is a grab-bag of ideas – call them excuses – pulled together to fend off criticism and complaint at the actions this person and those like them take in breaking the restrictions the rest of us have to put up with.

As it happens I actually have some sympathy for people – on a human level – who wind up in this position. What we have experienced this last year is, for most of us, absolutely unprecedented. The manner in which social, economic and other aspects of life have been reorganised has been done with incredible speed. The constraints are real, and for many there’s real difficulty bearing them. Some of that difficulty is a product of the nature of the society before this – poor housing, limited facilities, and some is due to expectations and some due to entirely reasonable friction at what is occurring. The problem is, though, that we live in a society – all that talk about cocooning the vulnerable and allowing life to go on for the rest at the earlier stages of the pandemic, was quite empty in the context of the random nature of its effects, the far from minimal effects on younger people, the clear impossibility of keeping it out of nursing homes and other more vulnerable settings when transmission in the community had reached a certain level.

Which is to say that there are no short cuts in all this – no silver bullet that would allow ‘normality’ to resume overnight. But again, for many this is a deeply agonising time. Small wonder that some take comfort in absurdities, even if self-interestedly so. That is less harrowing than the reality of what is taking place all around them.

Comments»

1. Mick 2 - April 6, 2021

Not conspiratorial thinking but, speaking of taking comfort in absurdities, the Irish Times is at it again: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/outdoor-transmission-accounts-for-0-1-of-state-s-covid-19-cases-1.4529036 It’s being plastered uncritically all over the tweet machine by the usual suspects but also seemingly by elements on the left who are perhaps in search of that verbal cover you speak of.

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2. Phil - April 6, 2021

Even if there isn’t any coherence to the “grab-bag of excuses”, perhaps there is an underlying mindset we can identify. It seems to me there’s a weird kind of inversion of the precautionary principle at work a lot of the time – as if to say “we don’t know what the risk is, and there may be none at all – therefore we should act as if there is none at all until we know differently”. In practice a lot of the “but what about the economy” stuff (not to mention “what about the children’s education” and “what about mental health”) is based on the underlying assumption – not so much that there is no risk to trade those things off against, as – that there may be no risk, and it would be irresponsible not to consider that possibility. See also “health and safety gone mad” – shouldn’t we be more of a risk-taking society with a healthy attitude to danger? Ultimately this attitude values the health of capitalism above the health of other people; it’s a bit sick, if you’ll pardon the expression, and it’s weird to see so many people (even some people nominally on the left) buying into it so enthusiastically, just because it seems to offer them some personal convenience.

Mick 2 – I don’t see a lot of absurdity in that article; it’s been established since quite early on that indoor air circulation is one of the prime modes of transmission.

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Mick 2 - April 6, 2021

Phil, that’s totally true, but if people want to convince themselves, based on an ludicrous extrapolation of data that are extremely lacking in the first place for a number of reasons, some even pointed to in the article, that of 1,000 cases transmitted only one is transmitted outdoors, then that’s a different story. The headline is a patently misleading summation of the facts, such as they can be discerned, not to mind grotesquely irresponsible in that it will encourage people to act as if the mere fact of being outdoors is some kind of invincibility shield against carrying on as if it’s business as usual.

Nodding along to your first paragraph there.

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WorldbyStorm - April 6, 2021

Yeah, on one level the article is uncontroversial, innocuous even, but… in the context of how the IT and the way in which it has framed the pandemic since a point I’d judge to be three/four months in, it reads somewhat differently, and the headline is seriously off.

But I also really think the idea that the precautionary principle has been inverted is a very convincing way of putting it. Which in a pandemic with a virus which even today we are far from certain there is a comprehensive knowledge of its nature etc, is absolutely crazed as an approach. It really is a sort of ‘just let rip’ attitude writ large.

BTW, there’s an incredible illogicality to all this too. If people want to return to normal then much more comprehensive but shorter lockdowns would be the way to go. In other words snuff transmission of the virus out and restart. All that would involve considerable pain for eight weeks or so, but given the half-in half-out of lockdowns that has been the approach to this so far where governments open up when the pressure from business etc is too great only to snap things shut again when numbers rise, as they will inevitably, out of control is surely untenable.

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3. Eoin O'M - April 6, 2021

During early February when my own state of mind was not exactly great, I began thinking about how these public restrictions were getting tiresome and I wanted to escape them somehow. However, given my limited means and these restrictions, I didn’t. I can fully understand how people get to a place where “there is no virus” but I have a tendency to believe that pre-existing beliefs about being powerless in the face of overwhelming odds is a common response to feeling well……powerless. One of the things most parties of the left must begin to do is to help us all reclaim some of that power through positive shows of solidarity for whatever remains of 2021 and into ’22. If we do not, we risk ceding more ground to the “just asking questions but really it’s the Jews” brigades.

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WorldbyStorm - April 6, 2021

Yeah, that’s a fantastic point EO’M. Completely agree.

Interesting btw re your feelings re early February. I had some of that too, and like yourself, neither income nor resources would allow any escape (and would have felt anti-social to do so as well). And also where would one go? I found that as the weather improves, days grow longer, vaccination numbers tick up my mood has definitely lightened. It’s just been easier to grin and bear it the last four to six weeks. Did you find the same?

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Eoin O'M - April 6, 2021

It is easier now than before the weather picked up and the daylight got longer. But also related to being appointed to a new job helps – and being a little less demanding of myself in what I can do the time we have.

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WorldbyStorm - April 6, 2021

That’s very good to hear. I’ve mentioned before I had depression on and off in previous years (kind of became an odd form of anxiety in my forties and fifties where I wake up in a panic attack, though generally I don’t have panic attacks while awake). One thing that I found very good in dealing with it was canvassing – just the whole thing of losing oneself in engaging with people in that way. Not an immediate effect but as days would go on it had more and more. But that option isn’t open to any of us at the moment, or not really.

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Eoin O'M - April 6, 2021

Canvassing, when well organised, is like therapy except for political nerds like us.

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