Let’s Hear It For 1096
According to a thought-piece in this month’s edition of The Economist’s 1843 Magazine, we’re returning to the Middle Ages. It’s an amusing article with some pertinent observation but the central thesis is wrong. We’re not returning to a medieval mindset because we never left it behind.
While many people living in north-west Europe did for a brief moment in time seem to emerge from medieval superstition into something approaching a more modern perspective, the rest of the world remained unmoved. The vast majority of the population of the USA, nominally a Western nation, mentally never left the Middle Ages. 40% of US citizens believe angels walk among them; an even greater percentage believe in a literal heaven and hell. Even those who abjure primitive mythologies still remain deeply embedded in magical beliefs ranging from powers of attraction to healing crystals to detox foot baths to enneagrams, Myers-Briggs, and of course our perennial favorite, the tiresome infantile nonsense of astrology.
Meanwhile in China 1.3 billion people still conform to Confucian notions, albeit lightly papered over with contemporary quasi-communist mythological accretions. The Islamic world seems increasingly eager to return to the period 800 CE, and India under the pathetically inadequate Modi is descending into religious hatred and chaos. In Russia Putin is encouraging a return to medieval ideas as a way to enhance waning support for his kleptomaniac regime.
The media-induced global hysteria over SARS-CoV2 has shown how frail is our tenuous grip on anything remotely approaching reason. We’ve created a second Great Depression as a result of our mindless panic over a virus that proves fatal for less than 0.1% of the population in even the worst-affected nations. Compared to the Black Death which killed between 30% — 60% of the population, or smallpox which killed 30% of victims, it’s apparent we’ve been exceedingly fortunate to have encountered a virus that is essentially harmless for more than 99.9% of the population.
Yet even with such a minimal impact we panicked, we destroyed the fundamental basis of our civilization, and we continue to do immensely silly self-harming things simply because the irresponsible mass media, ever dependent on a constant stream of manufactured sensation, discovered in covid-19 an ideal way to grab eyeballs and thus continue to generate precious ad revenues. As nobody bothers to question what they read or hear on the TV news, everyone panicked, with predictably dire results.
One cannot but help feel that Carl Linnaeus had a very naughty sense of humor when he decided to call our species homo sapiens. There is absolutely nothing in all of human history that suggests anything other than endless stupidity and incapacity for even the most rudimentary reasoning. Sapient is the one thing we’re most certainly not. Today’s self-indulgent hysteria over covid-19 shows this all too clearly.
The UK government, led by the perpetually inept and compulsively lying Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson and his gang of Brexiteers (motto: no lie left behind) is flailing in the face of rising infection rates. Everyone is ignoring the fact that infection rates and mortality rates are now almost completely decoupled, as usually happens with viral epidemics. In the first phase the old and the sick die; after that, with flu-like viruses, most people remain lightly affected or not affected at all.
But the very small coterie of “experts” advising the UK government have pinned their reputations on risibly naïve models that simply extrapolate in straight lines and project hundreds of thousands of deaths while ignoring the embarrassing fact that the very same models failed to predict actual outcomes between April and August this year. As actual outcomes were a small fraction of the model’s predicted values, this suggests the model is hopelessly wrong. Relying on it for policy direction, therefore, is absurd.
The UK government, aware that unlike the USA it can’t print money forever and avoid hyper-inflation, is therefore looking for purely cosmetic measures that can be presented as “responsible” while avoiding the massive economic self-harm created by the original rush to lockdown. So pubs (the equivalent of bars in the USA, where people go to consume alcoholic beverages with their friends) must now close at 22.00 instead of 23.00. This is a much-vaunted “protective measure” designed to reassure a fearful citizenry.
Of course, it’s nothing of the kind. It’s absurd to suggest that covid-19 waits until 22.01 before it decides to infect people. Closing pubs one hour early will do precisely nothing to reduce the infection rate and will almost certainly increase binge-drinking as people attempt to consume in fewer hours what they normally consume over a longer timeframe. So alcohol-related health issues will rise while no difference at all will be made to SARS-CoV2 infection rates.
We see the same thing with transportation. On airplanes we’re told we must wear facemasks (today’s version of magic incantations to ward off the evil eye) but we can remove them to consume beverages and the unhealthy snacks we’re handed while we sit cramped in economy-class seats. One must assume that covid-19 waits until we’ve finished eating and drinking and have our facemasks back on before it attempts to infect us.
Who knew a virus could have a sense of fair play?
The list of absurd SARS-CoV2 restrictions is nearly endless, but they all have one thing in common: there’s not a glimpse of reason anywhere. It’s all superstition, genuflections against the forces of darkness. A benign virus that proves fatal to less than one-tenth of one percent of the population has caused us to cast off the tiny shreds of reason we occasionally possessed in favor of mindless mass hysteria and superstitious rituals that have no scientific validity whatsoever.
Nobody reads the studies that supposedly support the use of facemasks. People just accept the newspaper headlines and the earnest babble of TV anchors reading from autocue machines.
Nobody attempts to look at the data and reason rationally from it.
In short, we’re behaving just like medieval peasants during a famine, drought, plague, or flood. We no longer rush to a church to be told what to think; we simply stare uncritically at our screens. We no longer buy holy water; we purchase bulk packs of facemasks. We no longer believe evil spirits will strike us down; we believe invisible viral death lurks everywhere around us. We no longer babble about having seen a holy statue move or weep blood; we now talk endlessly about our cousin who knew someone whose aunt’s best friend’s brother died of covid-19 when he was rushed by doctors into an induced coma and put on a ventilator.
As for doctors, they’re often among the most egregious offenders in our embrace of medieval behaviors. Fortunately they no longer use leeches or bleeding to adjust the four humors in the blood but they are no less superstitious and no less trapped by habit than the rest of us. Even as patients were dying in their thousands from being placed on ventilators, doctors continued to insist this was the only possible treatment. Those few doctors who pointed out that this approach was killing 70% — 80% of patients were removed from duty and told to keep their mouths shut.
Only now, half a year later, is some acknowledgement of this gross malpractice beginning to appear — too late to save the tens of thousands who died unnecessarily and thus made covid-19 seem much more dangerous than it really was.
We humans always want a simple story, an easy-to-understand morality tale. Unfortunately reality is highly complex and requires a great deal of investigation and thinking before we can begin to see the real patterns emerging.
And almost nobody can be bothered to exert themselves to do this.
Back in the middle ages, nearly everyone believed the sun orbits the Earth. Despite The Enlightenment and the astonishing scientific progress made since the days of Copernicus, a quarter of all US citizens in 2020 believe the same thing. Many also believe the world is flat. More than half of US citizens think our species and everything else in the universe was created by a magic pixie and think that evolution is “just an idea” which they reject because it contradicts their mythology, which is based on the cult myths of a tribe of illiterate and innumerate goat-herders who lived 3,000 years ago.
Even in Europe, we see the erosion of reason in favor of mob mentality. Immigrants are demonized, populism/nationalism is resurgent, and the slender gains of a scientific worldview are being abandoned in a rush to embrace mindlessness — because that’s where the majority of votes are.
So here we are, latter-day medieval peasants, knowing nothing and understanding nothing, stroking our electronic toys like baboons stroking the smooth surface of a warm rock, our brains empty and uncomprehending. We’re easy prey for every charlatan and blustering demagogue who comes along.
We typically don’t look back wistfully on the medieval period because it was filled with horrors. It was a time of superstition, false beliefs, and the demonization of reason. It was a time of incompetent rulers squabbling over territory and prestige while the great mass of people did whatever they were told because they had no choice and were incapable of independent thought. It was a time of simple-minded beliefs that bore little connection to reality. It was a time of misery and early death.
All in all, it’s not difficult to see we ought to be doing everything we can to escape medievalism, but instead we’re embracing it for all we’re worth.
This means the future is eminently predictable, and it will be dire.