On the Sunday before the U.S. election, I walked out in the predawn to watch the Space Station cross over our city.
My sister, Chris, had told me about these passings, how you can sign up at the NASA website to get texts alerts about when the Space Station will pass over where you live. I had woken my wife up a week or so previously to watch it, for our first time, cross the sky, at a fairly high angle relative to the horizon, from the southwest to the northeast for the advertised 6 minutes of visibility.
Awed by the preciseness of the passing. I muttered that it was a bit eerie. But Jyll said she thought it was comforting.
On that Sunday before “election day” (a misnomer in the time of mail-in ballots), here in St. Louis, it was going to appear, just after 5 am, from the northwest, at a reasonably high angle in the sky, and pass, for only 4 minutes, to the southeast. Jyll had already told me she would not be up for it.
I had been futzing in the kitchen, making coffee and looking at texts on my phone, when I realized I was a minute late getting outside.
I hadn’t missed much, because there it was, brilliant white, reflecting the light of the rising sun, having just emerged from the trees northwest of our house and into the open sky above. It was a glorious sight, but, for whatever reason, it still felt eerie to me, that it was there, like clockwork. The morning was cold but I got a different kind of chill, running out into the yard and looking back over my shoulder to see it appear, just as I was told it would.
Am I just not used to things working as they should? I’ll trot out a word we learned, and then eagerly overused, in high school. Was it the dichotomy of where my country has been for the past 4 years (and much longer with science denialism) and what science and engineering are clearly capable of now too out of sync for my mind to reconcile? Was I in danger of falling into Trumpian “herd mentality”?
The Space Station seemed to be mocking us all, or at least the vast population in this country who have allowed themselves to be turned against science and, indeed, reality itself, in a childish, and even medieval, cast of mind.
As SpaceX successfully sent four astronauts to the Space Station this week and continues to get its booster rockets to land on a dime, a large U.S. population seemingly turns its mind to medieval modes of thought, of deviousness and conspiracies. This may be exacerbated by the pandemic but it is certainly not new for Republicans to be determined to live in an alternative reality.
The news is rife with sad examples of this anti-science, anti-fact, conspiracy-loving belief system:
· A nurse in South Dakota recently sent out a series of tweets describing a woman dying of COVID-19 who refused to believe that the coronavirus was a real thing — and that she was not the only patient to say such a thing.
· Some Republicans in Congress continue to refuse to consistently wear masks. Most recently, Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan reacted angrily when he was asked in the Senate to put his mask on by Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown. According to a story in The New York Times, Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican who promotes QAnon, “proudly announced in the middle of a discussion of pandemic safety that she had denounced face coverings.”
· You might recall Donald Trump, slumping in his chair at a briefing on wildfires, half-listening to scientists and the governor of California pleading with him to take climate science seriously, smiling and responding, “I don’t think science knows.”
· Steve Bannon, former Trump White House chief strategist, who is facing charges of defrauding donors to an apparently sham effort to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, lost his @WarRoomPandemic Twitter account for suggesting that Dr. Anthony Fauci and FBI Director Christopher Wray be beheaded and their heads put on pikes as a warning to others. Now, there’s some medieval thinking for you. (Were he to be convicted of defrauding donors, would Bannon accept being drawn and quartered?)
· QAnon: The less said about this, the better. As they say, look it up for yourself! (But, please, don’t fall under the spell.)
For much of my adult life, Republicans regularly chortled self-satisfyingly that they knew more than the Democrats because they relied on common sense. Now that those even the most rudimentary sense would recognize what is happening in the real world, Republicans have turned to “alternative facts,” to magical thinking.
Imagine being a health care provider who is working desperately — now in many places around the country beyond physical and emotional exhaustion — to save the life of a person who doesn’t believe in the virus that is killing her, and did nothing to avoid it, because her president told her that the whole thing was a “Democrat hoax” and that the simple science of wearing a mask was a mark of loyalty to the wrong team.
And, 9 months in, we still have no national policy on mask wearing, just innumerable hamlet, town, city, and county councils squabbling over the issue. My wife just walked by to note that in Washington, Mo., west of St. Louis, the city council voted 5–3 to meet in a special session to re-discuss a mask policy (a first effort failed in August) — that is, even though hospitals are now past capacity, three elected officials were still determined to not even discuss a mask mandate.
The Republican idea here, if I’m understanding it correctly, seems to be to do nothing until hospitals are full to capacity, and then maybe think about planning to maybe do something, maybe.
We are witnessing Trumpists being conveyed from rural areas on “socialist” highways to metropolitan hospitals, citadels of science, to seek treatment for life-threatening conditions caused by a virus they claim doesn’t exist.
The truth is, the alternative reality they dream of is to not have to live in a multicultural pluralistic democracy.
They don’t want to live where people of color and gays and lesbians and transgendered people have the chance to succeed and otherwise live in the pursuit of happiness. That’s the bottom line for all their “alt-facts” and conspiracy-spinning refusal to live in the real world. They don’t at all like where this “hopey-changey thing” (to quote someone never worth quoting) is headed, with more opportunity for all. The evangelical folks who loved the idea expressed in the “Left Behind” series of books themselves feel left behind.
Well, they do live in a multicultural pluralistic democracy. And by refusing to wear masks, they are using up all our resources, including our last nerve.
We are now being told to coddle and understand these denizens of the country (given they don’t believe in social responsibility — tax paying, mask wearing — I cannot call them citizens). But it is one thing to try to understand and compromise with people with a different political worldview and another to try to work with people who live in a different world altogether. Shouldn’t we stop indulging these toddlers among us? As any parent will tell you, it does nothing but embolden them. They are flipping over their dinner plate (because the different parts of the meal are touching a little) and dramatically threatening to drop their sippy cups to the floor.
As noted by journalist Bob Cesca in a recent article in Salon, we are no longer left versus right, “we are reality versus dreadful fantasy,” where the old ideas of give and take in politics no longer apply:
“Our politics have changed, and not for the better. It used to be that if the other side won, there’d be a fierce battle on policy, but neither side would necessarily have to worry about the literal end of the republic or worse. Those days are over. The old strategies of engagement and appeasement are obsolete.”
Discounting those who are just trying to “own the libs,” allowing oneself to be taken up by cult-like imaginings is something one might fall prey to under duress. Economic hardship is a long-term form of torture, especially in a pitiless materialistic society where television commercials tell us attractive couples everywhere are buying each other luxury cars for Christmas. And, yes, the democrats need to better understand and act upon that feeling of helplessness in poor and working-class America.
Physician and sociologist Nicholas A. Christakis, Director of the Human Nature Lab at Yale, in an interview with Hari Sreenivasan on “Amanpour & Co.,” noted it was essential that we give up our magical thinking:
“The sooner we accept this reality and the sooner the American people rise to this occasion with a sense of civic purpose and a sense of maturity — and abandon a sense of wishful thinking — the better able we will be to band together to cope with, and repel, this virus that’s threatening us.”
He went on to liken those who denied the science around the coronavirus to those who could not bring themselves to face the truth about plagues through the centuries:
“Let’s remember the Plague is one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. And if that’s the case, you can think of lies and denial as being the squires of the horsemen, you know, following right behind.”
The entire interview is well worth watching. (Fans of Trump say he “tells it like it is,” but that is nonsense. This physician is going to tell you like it is — like Dr. Fauci does when he is allowed to by the Science-Denier in Chief— and it’s not easy, but it is also oddly uplifting.)
I’m no historian and can offer no answers to our modern/medieval predicament. Perhaps we need 14th century poet and historian Jean Froissart — who knew all about the squires and foot soldiers of the apocalyptic Hundred Years’ War, of which he wrote in his Chronicles — to return to give us his perspective on the various talk shows.
The only answer I can offer comes courtesy of my sister: you can check on when the Space Station is passing over your house on something called the “socialist” internet, at NASA/Spot the Station. Watch it pass over, stay silent, and rethink any anti-science thoughts you’ve ever entertained.