In the summer of 1939, British government officials knew that a German bombing campaign was imminent. They knew the bombs would be deadly in and of themselves, but there was more to fear than just the munitions. The attacks were intended to target not just the military infrastructure, but the nerves of the British people – to demoralize them, prevent them from living their lives, make them forget their traditions and institutions, and to soften them up for the intended universal slavery of National Socialism. Bombs can only do so much, but panic – that’s the real destructor in times of disaster.
Knowing this, the government considered ways of keeping the famed British upper lip stiff. One of their ideas was a propaganda poster campaign, which included the now famous “Keep Calm and Carry On” proto-meme. The posters were never actually officially used, but the Brits nevertheless carried on to stave off the second most evil ideology in history.
It wasn’t that the bombs weren’t real or deadly – by the end of the war, German bombs and rockets had killed 40,000 British civilians. But trying to hide until the bad guys went away, or refusing to go to work to keep the economy and societal foundations afloat would have cost them far more, and death would have come eventually – and more of it – had they not kept their heads, not panicked, and resisted the urge to let fear destroy their culture.
Disease is a different sort of enemy than Nazis or Communists, of course. You cannot shoot viruses until they surrender. But any threat to life can instill panic in a person or in a society, with destructive effects that far outpace the original threat.
Panic is the thief of reason. It is a fight or flight response that narrows our ability to see anything other than the immediate threat. It is entirely natural, predictable, and avoidable if we keep our wits about us. But if we don’t, it can persist, and become a lifestyle, and a contagious one.
COVID is not the worst threat this country has ever faced. It’s not even in the top 50. And yet, there is no time in our history where we have allowed panic to grip ourselves so thoroughly, or for so long, or to seep into every nook and cranny of our existence.
Panic makes you stupid. How else do you explain our governor, still imagining a fantasy world where a virus already widespread throughout the community for the better part of a year now can somehow still be contained if only more people would just get a test? How else do you explain Reno or Washoe County officials who think stopping college house parties Dean Wormer style (while casinos remain open for business, and restaurant patrons eat away unmasked) makes them Louis Pasteur? How else do you explain regulations which posit the serving of chicken wings is a magical aegis, which is why bars must stay closed unless they serve food (but only if the food is prepared in an on-site kitchen)?
People do stupid things in a crisis when they’re panicked, and politicians are only human after all. They focus on little things that don’t really matter but are things they can control. That would be fine, except in focusing on things that don’t matter, they lose sight of what does. Do you want to know why we still can’t get unemployment benefits to Nevadans in need, almost six months after shutting down our economy? Because Governor Sisolak was too busy looking at pictures of golfers standing too close together when he should have been planning for the inevitable results of his draconian and ultimately futile and counter-productive efforts to save every last life.
Panic is fight or flight, with hiding away in basements being in the “flight” category. Too much of our government is still hiding away, working from home, still getting paid but failing to provide the basic services a society needs. Too many courts are still closed and too many trials have been delayed, too many alleged educators want schools to close back down, too many people who need licenses or certifications can’t get them. Too many people remain out of work, and too much revenue is being lost for crucial state and municipal services to be maintained. The cultural ties that bind us together as communities – the arts, concerts, sports, houses of worship, weddings, funerals, family reunions, backyard BBQs, even local watering holes – are denied us, and so we look for other less healthy ways to fill those gaps.
Panic is fight or flight, and the mindless rioting and social unrest is the fight part of it. Burning down Portland or even Minneapolis doesn’t have a damned thing to do with George Floyd or systemic racism or whatever excuse to make wonton destruction feel noble. This panic has and will continue to destroy more lives and communities of all races than anyone wearing a white hood could have ever hoped to accomplish, and the politicians that played with that fire by winking and nodding at it (before belatedly trying to condemn it now that they’ve read the polls).
But what would happen to us if we didn’t panic – if we simply carried on, in spite of the virus? We used to have to guess, and it was the apocalyptic predictions of doom my “experts” which kept us locked away. It’s amazing how many people still act as if it’s March. But even if the panic was excusable then, it sure as hell isn’t now, hyper-rare medical outliers not withstanding.
Last week I noted that the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally had wrapped up, and there didn’t seem to be a surge as a result. Well, I’m sorry to say I was wrong. It seems there was a bit of a spike in cases (not fatalities or serious cases, but positive tests). Sit down before I tell you the number of people with a positive COVID test that can be connected to the rally, out of 460,000 rally attendees who crowded into the bars and restaurants and kitschy tourist traps of western South Dakota, mostly unmasked and un-distanced. Ready for it?
205. Eighty-eight in South Dakota, and 117 more in the rest of the country.
Now, obviously more people than that contracted the illness, but never felt sick enough that they felt the need to be tested. (Frankly, regular people all over the country are no longer or never were panicked, and so demand for testing is way down everywhere – which is why any metric where “number of tests” is a factor no longer makes sense, if it ever did.) And other cases that cannot be definitively connected to the rally have increased as well. But what cannot be hidden by a lack of testing or tracing would be midwestern hospitals overflowing with dead or seriously ill COVID patients, and they just aren’t (just as they aren’t here in Nevada, or anywhere else).
In the biggest real-world test in the country, all of the doomsdayers, the mask-shamers, and the bar and church and school and business-closers were proven wrong.
This is unmitigated good news for the entire world, except for politicians who don’t want to give up emergency powers. It means that we can get back to our lives and our freedoms and our economic supply chains and our full time schools and our access to justice in our courtrooms. We can’t do it without risk – cases will of course resume their natural viral bell curve as we shake off our panic and re-join our own humanity – but then we weren’t living our lives risk free before. It’s not like disease is new to humanity. Every person who dies of COVID rips a hole in a family and in our community, but anyone who insists on living at the expense of everyone else’s freedom does far worse.
Panic is a contagion, far worse than any virus, and it is destroying our lives for more surely than COVID. The good news is that there’s a cure. It’s to pull ourselves together. It’s to stop and look at risk holistically, and see threats other than COVID, and see COVID risks for what they are, not what partisan politics or social media makes us think they are. It’s to go do the business of being human – getting together, hugging each other, shaking hands, seeing each other smile, going to school, going to work, taking in a show, eating at restaurants. Its to reopen our government to the people it’s supposed to be serving. It’s to remember that tomorrow isn’t promised, and that trying to hide from death by refusing to engage with life is a death all on its own.
It’s to keep calm, and carry on.
And if the current government insists on fostering panic instead of helping contain this pandemic of the mind? Well, there’s a cure for that, too. The election of 2020 isn’t about liberal versus conservative any more. It’s about those who panic versus those who don’t. It’s about those who want to hide away versus those who have already been out and about working all summer (and those who wish they were working). It’s about those who destroy things because they don’t know what else to do, versus those willing and able to protect and keep law and order as our economy rebuilds.
The future belongs to those who show up, in person, ready to work and play and socialize and debate and worship and travel and learn and be, not the people who have grown too comfortable living via Zoom and having supplies delivered by sturdier, braver, calmer folks. I choose to vote for the people who are going to show up, because I know those people aren’t made stupid or destructive or impotent by panic.
The British could have ended the Blitz at any time. All they had to do was surrender to the Nazis. How tempting that must have been for some of them, as the bombs dropped and the buildings crumbled and death could rain from the sky without warning.
But their freedom and their futures were on the line, and so they didn’t surrender, either to panic or to National Socialism. Their bravery and foresight saved the soul of their nation and of western civilization, and allowed them to rebuild and help preserve the principles of freedom and liberty and justice their island nation had helped develop so many years before.
COVID is a serious disease, but it was never an existential threat to us on its own. However reasonable our beliefs may have been to the contrary six months ago, even then it did not justify the panic most of the entire world embraced. It certainly doesn’t now, given what we’ve learned and (more importantly) what we’ve been able to observe with our own eyes.
It’s time to recognize panic for the enemy it is, to root it out, to calm our friends and neighbors, to reject those politicians and Karens and bureaucrats who traffic in it, and to defeat it by carrying on with our culture, our society, and our lives.
Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a criminal defense attorney in Reno. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at [email protected].