There’s a classic episode of “The Twilight Zone” starring William Shatner in one of his two roles in the series playing a young neurotic. In this one, he becomes obsessed with a fortune-teller machine in a Midwestern diner.
Marooned with his new wife over car trouble, Shatner’s character asks a series of questions—Will I get a promotion? When will the car get fixed?—that receive eerily accurate answers. Being a superstitious type, eventually he loses all sense of agency and assigns a godlike authority to the machine, called the “Mystic Seer,” which consists of a plastic devil’s head creepily affixed to the top of a napkin dispenser. Over the objections of his frustrated wife, who does not share his superstitious nature, he convinces himself that they are powerless even to leave the quiet Ohio town where they have stopped.
Eventually—and no spoiler alert, because this is a 60-year-old TV episode—he frees himself with his wife’s encouragement and they move on with their lives. Another couple is not so lucky. Of course, being the “Twilight Zone,” it’s never totally clear if Shatner’s character is crazy or in the grips of a very real, if evil, power. That’s beside the point. By allowing himself to give this silly toy control of his destiny, he loses his identity and his dignity. He is only himself again when he snaps out of it.
In the age of coronavirus, Americans feel similarly trapped. Isolated at home, many feel powerless, vulnerable, anxious, and fearful of the future. Like Shatner’s character, many are desperate for answers. When will this be over? When can we go outside? How many people will die?
Also, like Shatner’s character, Americans are in danger of losing their freedom, and not just in the legal sense. Outside of the car trouble, Shatner’s character is never actually constrained in any way, but he doesn’t need to be physically imprisoned to lose his freedom. He becomes, morally, a slave to his own fear.
For the most part, the media coverage of coronavirus has served one purpose, to feed the public on a steady diet of anxiety and misinformation. Consuming media endlessly is, in normal times, unhealthy. Only a fraction of what passes for “news” is worthwhile information. Much of it is propaganda. The coronavirus story proves no exception, with a majority of reporting consisting of speculation and innuendo, fairly meaningless tallies of cases, and contradictory advice from so-called “experts.”
In times like these, keeping up with the news can easily move beyond its ordinary realm of vulgar entertainment and into the world of vulgar metaphysics. The newscast becomes a form of wishcasting, either a reason for hope or a harbinger of doom. But checking the news all day for notices of the apocalypse is not living. Especially now, Americans need to stay dignified. It’s possible to take a deadly virus seriously without letting merchants of fear take control of our thoughts, our emotions, and our lives.
To the media, we’d all be better off if the public treated the experts and their anointed messengers in the media with a devotion owed to all-knowing, supernatural authorities. A world where Americans are living in terror, listening dutifully for instructions from distant bureaucrats on TV, is their dream scenario.
Of course, it’s worth listening to what scientists have to say, but nobody, not even the experts, can predict the future. With churches shuttered during Holy Week, as Americans are ordered to stay home and listen assiduously to people in lab coats, it’s worth asking where this scenario leads.
The media are the scribes of the powerful. A crisis like this is good for their ratings, obviously, but it also enables them to control and indoctrinate people. The media don’t use “experts” to keep the public informed but to tell the public what to think.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, a very intelligent, qualified, and rational man, is starting to take on a suspicious Robert Mueller-esque quality, perhaps through no direct fault of his own. Americans should listen to what he says, but he isn’t God. Many in the media would like Americans to think that he is, and that he has a mission to drown out the “lies” of the orange devil in the White House.
The final object of the media is the enfeeblement of the minds and souls of Americans. They don’t target the citizen as a citizen, who is in need of useful information to help him live a free life, but as a slave whose appetites and private terrors are to be manipulated. Stoking fear while pretending to relieve it is their business model.
To paraphrase Christopher Lasch, the media perform a therapeutic function to a public weakened, deprived of its autonomy, and in desperate need of reassurance. They encourage the citizen to look to the news for a fleeting sense of psychological relief, to fulfill needs that they themselves fuel. They intensify negative emotions while purporting to soothe them with the only “authoritative” information available. By feeding these emotions, the media drive also a sense of powerlessness, a feeling that Americans are incapable of governing themselves and must hang on to every word of distant, secretive authorities.
There are reasons to be incredulous. Before this crisis emerged, these authorities were telling citizens to shut up and obey, to do whatever the so-called “experts” said to do, and nine times out of 10 they were wrong, even malicious. The “experts” recommended endless wars in the Middle East, sending our manufacturing to China, and opening our borders. They’ve already gotten it wrong this time. What would life look like if this class of people had unchallenged authority, if people gave them the kind of religious devotion they crave?
Americans are living in a “Twilight Zone” of their own at the moment, but even in all of the weirdness of this era there is nobody with the supernatural ability to tell what comes next. In this moment of vulnerability, there are some trying to convince us otherwise.