Decline and Fall of an Experiment

For those wondering how the wearing of masks could possibly become politicized, it’s helpful to acknowledge a deeply ugly and unsettling fact:

Conspiracy theories are America’s new religion. 

On the one hand, conspiratorial thinking is nothing new. Stories of aliens in Area 51 and a Bavarian Illuminati controlling the world inspired a publishing craze of last century and the pop-culture success of The X Files

Now flash forward to the 21st century. We see the grieving parents of Sandy Hook relentlessly harassed by people who deny their children even existed; a president who launched his political career (and the birther movement) by questioning the verified citizenship of Barack Obama; a renewed surge of preventable diseases (that largely kill children) because of vaccine denialism; and an explosion of violence ranging from an otherwise “normal” father who shot up a pizza parlor to a conductor who derailed his own train in an attempt to sink a hospital ship.

A. Hospital. Ship.

Is the so-called “mask debate” even a little surprising, given this context?

Consider the “pizzagate” incident from 2016: online believers promoted the idea that child abuse was taking place in the basement of Comet Ping Pong Pizza… which has no basement. They came to believe that menu items like “pasta” and “pizza” were codes for “young boys” and “young girls”.

Sound crazy? A North Carolina father didn’t think so, because he drove there with a loaded rifle, walked in while families were enjoying lunch, and opened fire in an attempt to “reveal the truth”.

It was just the tip of the junk-pile. Outlets like InfoWars and the QAnon community encouraged the madness. As Comet pizza owner James Alefantis later said, “From this insane, fabricated conspiracy theory, we’ve come under constant assault. I’ve done nothing for days but try to clean this up and protect my staff and friends from being terrorized.”

Four years later, we have a darling of conspiracy theorists as leader of the nation. The same man who promoted birtherism and vaccine denialism would go on to declare COVID-19 a hoax, the act of wearing a face mask as “political correctness”, and called upon his supporters to “liberate” U.S. states from lockdown (while announcing our withdrawal from the WHO and shutting out the CDC from the reporting of infection rates.) Meanwhile, the conspiracy community has gone on to promote new episodes of insanity finding larger-than-you-might-expect acceptance: 5G cell towers cause COVID, Bill Gates is planning on injecting people with microchips, and the world’s medical workers are all pretending there’s a pandemic.

Think this is just fringe nonsense? Several dozen 5G towers were burned in the UK. Forty-four percent of Republican respondents to a YouGov/Yahoo News survey said they believe Gates wants to put tracking chips into vaccines. Millions of people eagerly shared a video claiming COVID was manufactured, that masks “activate” it, and that seawater and sand are effective defenses against it. And for those thinking Pizzagate was a fluke, earlier this month believers claimed that Wayfair furniture is trafficking children inside the furniture they sell. 

Does all that sound strange? Or does it sound like the new normal? Ask yourself: 

How many people do you know personally who subscribe to any of the notions above?

Lastly, consider the wave of violence and threats in the past few weeks, all revolving around “normal” Americans simply being asked to wear masks to fight a new pandemic surge. And I do mean surge: one thousand Americans are dying every day now from COVID-19. I clearly remember how 19 years ago, the deaths of 3,000 Americans fueled a common cry that we “had to do something to keep people safe!” As of this moment, we’ve seen more Americans die than in 58 September 11ths, and yet many of the same people who insisted we needed to “do something” will not do something as simple as wearing a mask.

So it’s really no mystery why this has become politicized. Our culture has mutated, and the religion of conspiracy has been the pollution behind that mutation.

A recent analysis shows that much of this nonsense stems from disinformation brokers. In a culture that prized rationalism and scientific literacy, such professional conmen would be treated like the liars they are; in a culture so eager to believe in nonsense, they are the prophets of a new age, and they have all the oxygen and kindling needed to burn down a society.

Imagine this in other areas of our lives:

“My car broke down, and my mechanic says it’s the transmission. But I don’t believe that ‘”mainstream narrative.” I saw a YouTube video about how demons can possess cars, so I’m taking my Buick to an exorcist!”

“The vet says my dog has heartworm. I distrust Big Vet lies. I’m going to buy healing crystals and play meditation tapes for my dog, instead of using medicine.”

“The pipes in my house burst! I don’t subscribe to Big Plumbing’s “official story” that it was rust; a man on the radio said government agents are shattering pipes with ultrasonic beam weapons to promote socialism…”

It took Visigoths to topple Rome. Bullshit–willful and weaponized–may well be what causes the decline and fall of the American experiment.

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