DANIEL VAUGHAN: Falling back on cultural wars to avoid COVID fears

I will show you fear in a handful of dust,” writes T.S. Eliot early in his epic poem, The Waste Land. It’s the second famous line from the opening verse, the first of which is, “April is the cruellest month…

Eliot was writing about death and burial, yet he could have been writing of the current pandemic. Our fears line up with a virus smaller than dust, giving us an April of deep darkness.

Acknowledging that fear and the stress it provokes is imperative. We’ve experienced anxiety and the unknown every step of the way. First, it was the onset of an unknown virus, flung to us from a country whose government shows a particular loathing of American power and leadership abroad. Fear and distrust grew as we learned that even what we knew of the virus couldn’t be sure.

Next, it was fear of the shutdowns and how to survive for an unknown time. The result was a period where long days turned into even longer weeks, all stitched together by an aura of disquietude.

That sense of anxiety was real, whether you faced going to a job deemed essential, homeschooling for the first time, working remotely or not working at all, or sometimes all those combined. It was a world undone by dust.

At each step, we breached the unknown, never knowing the next level. The best-laid plans often being no more prescient than two weeks into the future — if we were lucky. Now we step into the next unknown: reopening.

In truth, the debate over reopening is less a debate and more of a fact. Analysis by the Wall Street Journal says that all 50 states are taking steps to reopen their economies. The die got cast on that front some time ago; the open versus remain-closed debate ended not by politicians or media coverage, but human action. You can see this in simple things from people heading outdoors to homebuying activity showing a rebound, as CNBC reported.

Throughout this pandemic, politicians have lagged behind the actions and beliefs of their citizens by two to three weeks. The national media has lagged in politicians’ views and movements by another two to three weeks, which means that media coverage is always off from what the public believes by a lot.

At the onset of the outbreak, national experts and journalists were confidently telling people that the virus was not a serious pandemic. Also, they claimed Trump’s travel ban wouldn’t work, and that any such policies were foolish. Meanwhile, stories were coming out about China welding people into their homes to prevent the spread of the virus. Those same journalists are now angry that Trump didn’t act sooner or that the travel bans and quarantines weren’t more thorough.

The point here isn’t hypocrisy, though that is ever-present. It’s that the experts trotted out to explain or reassure people that elites always know best often don’t know more than your average Joe. After being wrong every step of the way, these same experts are now confident that Georgia, Florida, and others are wrong for reopening.

Writing about CNN’s failures on correctly reporting COVID-19 testing data out of Texas, RealClearPolitics’ Sean Trende notes:

The only way we get this right…is if we’re supplied with a proper balance of good news and bad news. Right now, much of the media is in full bore “bad news” mode.

And that’s because the media is still behind. They’ve only recently come to grips with the idea that lockdowns are ending. That’s true even though it’s now toward the end of May, and many states started reopening at the end of April. Governors are opening beaches, parks, and other outdoor areas — places the public was already using — and the media still reports about it in fearful terms.

Fear causes people to retreat to the known and the comfortable. For the media types, there’s nothing more satisfying than the culture war. So they launch tirades against red states or reject the importance of face masks and other cautionary protocols aimed at safely reopening. The point of this is not to report what is, but to assuage anxieties by presuming that the other side is still wrong, even in a pandemic.

It’s a coping mechanism for people acting not on information, but fear. Don’t agree? You’re a grandma killer. Or you support some tyrannical government overreach by wearing a mask.

April may have been the cruelest month in regards to the virus wantonly killing people, but May has been the cruelest month among ourselves, when, sufficiently quarantined away, we turned our sense to the ever-present enemy of our minds on the other side of the aisle in politics.

But this clinging to cultural war manifestos, tinfoil hattery, or constant sniping, is a symptom of the continuous background of “fear in a handful of dust.” Once we deal with that fear, the symptoms will have to find a new reason to exist.

It’s likely they will since the constant whirlpool of cultural angst defines this moment. But removing that fear should improve decision making by the people and their governments. The media will eventually catch up — or move on to the next world-ending story.