Wildflowers, back problems, conspiracy theories, and hope
by Rob Tiller
There were a lot of wildflowers in bloom this week. One morning I went to Swift Creek Bluffs and took some pictures. For these, I got down in the dirt, trying to stay clear of poison ivy, ticks, and snakes. At times a light breeze was blowing, moving the flowers slightly, and I waited for a while for the wind to pause. It took some work, but it was also cheering to be close to the wild geraniums and lilies. Especially in this difficult time, I found these images soothing, and I hope they are for you as well.
The next day, I somehow managed to pull a muscle in my back. I think it was when I was practicing juggling with my three bean bags. Juggling can look frantic, but for me it’s usually calming. But I probably should have done a little stretching before working on under-the-leg throws. There was no sudden violent pain, but over the next several hours it got harder and harder to move.
So I’m struggling physically. But otherwise, things are OK. Actually, I’m feeling surprisingly cheerful and energetic. It’s been a great time to try new photographic processes (both with the camera and with software). I’ve learned a lot about Lightroom, Photoshop, Topaz, and Nik applications from knowledgeable and generous people who’ve put up instructional videos on YouTube.
I’ve also been trying new musical experiments on the piano, including working on some Liszt flourishes and the blues. I cooked a crock pot full of Jocelyn’s famous vegetarian chili. I’ve made progress on my German and Italian with Rosetta Stone lessons. My sketching is improving. And I’m getting better at juggling, though that is on hold for the moment.
We were starting to get a bit worried about running out of toilet paper. Anxiety and panic buying is understandable, but still, it’s odd, and kind of disturbing, that people are hoarding TP. Fortunately, our neighborhood pharmacy/convenience store on Glenwood Avenue got a shipment just in time.
The tenuousness of our relationship with reality is also in view with some bizarre new conspiracy theories. Max Boot in the NY Times wrote a piece describing some of these. Some are self evident nonsense, like the idea that cellphone networks cause the virus, or that the pandemic was engineered by Bill Gates on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry. Some are not absurd, but are unsupported and unlikely, like the idea that the virus is a bioweapon from China, or else the United States.
Why do people gravitate to conspiracies? According to Boot’s sources, people are especially likely to latch onto conspiracy ideas when they are feeling overwhelmed, confused and helpless. By providing explanations, the conspiracy theories provide a degree of comfort, giving people a sense of power and control. The more bizarre theories may give a greater sense of agency, in that the believer has secret and therefore especially valuable knowledge. Sharing such theories provides a tenuous sense of community and significance.
Whatever psychological needs such ideas satisfy, there are major downsides. They lead some people to disregard the recommendations of the most knowledgeable experts, and, say, refuse to adopt social distancing. People have attacked cell phone towers and relied on unsafe cures.
There is also a dangerous feedback loop. As people get more accustomed to disregarding experts that oppose their conspiracy ideas, they’re more prone to adopt more conspiracies and disregard more actual experts.
Jack Krugman, Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist, had an interesting column recently related to this problem. He pointed out that trickle down economics and climate change denialism both rely for their survival on disregarding informed scientists and experts. The habit of disdain for science and expertise seems to have carried over to the pandemic.
Krugman also noted that for those who think all government should be done away with, it’s a particularly difficult time. For the less ideologically committed, it seems obvious that pure market forces aren’t going to get the job done in this pandemic, and we need effective government. Right wingers may worry that if people see that government is saving lives, their central creed that government is bad may be unveiled as a sham.
The Times had a very good essay proposing that this moment of crisis is also a moment of opportunity. The editorial board observed that the pandemic is casting new light on some of our system’s worst failures, including shameful inequality and indifference to the suffering of those less fortunate. Our systems for healthcare, housing, and the social safety net are costing many lives. The essay points out that at earlier times of national crisis, Americans have achieved a greater measure of compassion and fairness. It is possible that this crisis will as well.