If there was original sin in the Garden of Eden, it wasn’t the acquiring of knowledge, or some such — it was the beginning of identity.
Identity is the root of modern politics.
This is not the same as the pejorative use of “identity politics,” meaning people who advocate for their interests as minority groups or LGBTQ. No, everyone is in on the identity game. All politics are personal, and have become an expression of who we are.
It wasn’t always this way. Back when my father was growing up, as he is fond of saying, if you were a Democrat, you drove a GMC; if you were a Republican, you drove a Ford. That was the level of distinction. And, in the 1950s and 1960s, a southern Democrat could be more conservative than a northern Republican. So there was a blurring of the lines, too.
It was such a blend of viewpoints, in fact, that some political scientists got together and strongly suggested we needed more political polarization in our system. The rationale was, people needed clearer choices. No one had the time to run around examining every policy decision, so we entrusted our politicians, really — we needed to entrust our party — to make things happen on our behalf.
Up until that point, Democrats weren’t synonymous with liberals. Republicans weren’t synonymous with conservatives. When polled, no one really had a big problem with the other party. Politics was kind of a distant thing, far less present in daily life than it is today.
Then a few things happened. One, in the 80s and 90s, private corporations started buying up the TV networks. Up until then, network news was accepted as a loss leader. Meaning, a network made its money off the shows that came after the news; the news was sort of the free first book that got them reading the rest of the series.
But with shareholders involved, even the evening news had to be turning a profit. The news then evolved (or devolved, depending) into entertainment. That is to say, it had to capture attention. It had to dazzle, to get people talking. And there are ways to do this, as any carnival barker or snake oil salesman can tell you: You need to tap into people’s emotions. Tap into their deeper brain, their fear and aggression centers, their engagement with stories over information. You had to appease their desire for the sensational, the spectacular.
And so, the saying was born, in modern journalism — if it bleeds, it leads.
The other thing that happened was the internet, which, for all intents and purposes, has become primarily a place for humans to shop and socially network. That social networking, the utter explosion of social media, from Facebook to YouTube to Pinterest, is having consequences we’ve only just begun to grasp. (Though, consequences that people like Jaron Lanier, and even Steve Jobs — the people who created the stuff in the first place — already understood.)
Put simply, the internet and social media means we have exponentially greater ways to bring ourselves the “information” which serves our identities. We gravitate toward what we will agree with, what our preconditioned beliefs need for validation. This is called confirmation bias.
Social media and the internet also provide us the means to strengthen our group inclusion. Social media works best in a binary way — like versus dislike, us-versus-them — so it works perfectly with our brains. Humans evolved to seek group inclusion.
Most of us belong to some group, and, likely, that affiliation was an unconscious act on our part. Sure, it could be a membership to the NRA, but that’s really an expression of the underlying group to which we already belonged, into which we were probably raised. Something more vague, like “I love guns!” and “I don’t trust the government” mixed together. A group is simply other people with whom we perceive hold shared values. It’s an identity label.
And, particularly over the past ten years, these smaller groups have glommed into supergroups.
What does that mean? The example given by Ezra Klein in his book Why We’re Polarized: you might be a moderate Democrat who feels she has nothing in common with a democratic socialist living in Portland Oregon. And that democratic socialist might feel he has nothing in common with you, just another establishment corporatist. Yet, to the avowed conservative and Trump supporter, you’re both on “the left,” and so equally reprehensible.
This is because our tendency to “out-group” other people is as strong, if not stronger, then our tendency to “in-group” ourselves. I’d wager that we do the latter mostly without thinking, but we’re quite sharply conscious of our actions when we’re protesting against someone else, or calling them out online, or — just to give it the weight it deserves — dropping bombs on their villages.
Where does that put us now? It’s April 2020, and we’re deep into the Covid-19 lockdown in the United States, and all over the world. I’m no longer on Facebook, but I’ve kept my Twitter open and have been in contact with family and friends mainly through texting. As you’ve probably seen by now, since the initial shock and awe of the coronavirus pandemic has faded a bit in the news, there’s a new hot story bubbling up — the idea that China either created the virus in a lab, or, were working with it in a lab as part of ongoing efforts to identify and combat such viruses. And, whoops, it slipped out.
Do I sound cynical? I am. And there are two reasons why, right off the bat:
- ) The media probably need something new to keep the eyeballs on their screens and keep the ad revenue rolling in since they profit from our disagreement. (If we’re all just sitting around and being unified in our experience of this sucky pandemic thing, that’s not good for business.)
- ) Our tendency to out-group falls perfectly into this narrative. Need a villain? Sure, China is always good for it. And that gives us a chance to deflect our attention from looking at what we might actually need to be looking at.
Which is this:
If you accept that the weight of evidence shows how this was a naturally occurring virus, and you accept that its overwhelmingly likely that it originated in one of the world’s toxic animal wet markets (in this case one including animals from China’s unregulated, illegal wildlife industry), and that, over the ages, all sorts of animal-borne pathogens have become the worst of our plagues, from Black Death to (you guessed it) swine flu and bird flu — then the “blame” for SARS-CoV-2 does not just fall on China (or Bill Gates, for that matter, or any of the conspiracy theories du jour).
It falls on us, on human beings, and our tendency to keep doing this to ourselves.
It also gets a lot deeper than that. Our relationship to the earth and its habitats and inhabitants are all tied in to our current situation. The existence of these wet markets and our relationship to the food we eat, the speed at which this virus spread across the globe, our governments’ handling (or mishandling) of how to respond — all of these go together in complex ways we should be examining closely and carefully.
Sadly, though, it’s much easier to say that this is China’s fault, and they covered it up, etc., and put our attention there. Conspiracy theories tend to appeal to people who feel powerless, and this is definitely a time when we might experience a lack of control in our lives, so this type of thinking is expected. But mainly this is the work of the media apparatus working on our tendencies to vote our identities, to remain fiercely loyal to our group and either apathetic toward or hateful of the out-group.
This should not be that moment. This should be the moment we set aside our petty identities and see the bigger picture: we’re vulnerable to this type of thing happening, and we’re actually quite vulnerable to it happening again, much sooner than the last hundred year gap. A virus that’s highly transmissible and yet can go undetected (hosts are asymptomatic) for days is not actually that crazy or rare. And the way in which we live — flying all over the globe, taking our cruises, piling up our edible animals (whether on factory farms or wet markets) — this all increases the odds of another virus just like this one.
We have long feared alien invaders, or a zombie apocalypse, but perhaps these fantasies express a real fear deep within us — fear over the “unseen enemy,” the little piece of DNA sheathed in a protein that invades our bodies and corrupts our cells to do its bidding by replicating it. That, once in us, starves us of oxygen so that our organs might fail, our lungs might fill with fluid.
This is a real fear, and it has real consequences, and real solutions. We can use this time to begin to look at our relationship to the earth. For one thing, the dangers of our global food system and animal agriculture in general. We can use this opportunity, while we’re sitting in our homes, waiting for life to “resume,” to bone up on our gardening skills. Seriously.
The most profound thing about this time is how it’s forcing us to look at and deal with what’s right in front of us. It’s been fairly easy for people who are still working to work remotely — we have the technology. But how about basic survival? How about when the grocery stores are out of food because the supply trucks stop coming in? And the gas station is closed and you’re not driving anywhere to get food? There is always something we can do with the resources right around us. Whether you live in a city and have access to a roof, or a suburban backyard — you don’t even need to be outside that much, but can start your plants indoors next to a window or under a grow light.
The point isn’t that starting a tomato plant today will save you. The point is, if there’s anything this disease can teach us, it’s how interconnected our global society is, and how vulnerable that makes us. I’m not advocating for some sort of isolationism, whether in spirit or along country borders. I’m saying that when we minimize the global nature of our consumption, we do ourselves a service. When we turn toward local resources and local support systems, we actually strengthen ourselves. And we take that thing we do without even realizing it — lead with our identities and fold ourselves into a group — and give it proper context.
Our group can become our local community. We can work together to produce the food we need, even — eventually, I hope — produce the energy we need. Imagine tens of thousands of towns and villages and cities all with their own infrastructure. Instead of the entire system vulnerable to electrical grid failure and the chaos that would ensue, or a flu-like pandemic that has older people, despite being among the most vulnerable, going out to the grocery stores to replenish their kitchens, we have more and more locally-strong systems in place that shield us. Instead of all being tied together, and thus tied to the same fate — we’re connected through communications but we’re not dependent on the overarching system for our survival.
Forget blaming China. Or Bill Gates. Or the evil cabal ruling from a mountaintop. Forget your arbitrary identity politics. This is an opportunity to recognize the deep failures and vulnerabilities of a global system, the dice we roll with animal agriculture, the story the earth is telling us when we’re afflicted with something as widespread and profound as Covid-19. This is an opportunity to strengthen, beginning with yourself, and what you can do to take more of your own survival into your hands, and how you can contribute to the independence of your community.
Let’s all make this part of our new identities. Let’s make a post-Covid-19-world one in which we all feel a little more self-reliant. One in which we all feel a little more connected to our communities, to our food, to the energy required to power our lives. One in which we’re more connected to our families, to our friends, and to ourselves — to the true identities we might’ve lost in a world of grand systems and personal convenience — the identities we share with past pioneers bravely facing a new world.