Have you heard it? The whispering and the murmurs off stage? Like the chorus of an ancient Greek tragedy, suggesting that the current Coronavirus crisis is just a jumped-up hoax, a conspiracy to take away some vaguely articulated “rights,” but more specifically rumblings about freedom of assembly and lockdown by decree?
While the poet, Robert Frost, might have said, “Good fences make good neighbors,” I’m sure he would have been aghast at the emotional and economic impact of social distancing in the 21st century.
Despite more than one million cases in the United States, more deaths than the Vietnam War, the economy spinning toward Depression, and a potentially collapsing food chain, an increasing number of individuals are questioning the extent of the crisis and its actual impact.
This is evidenced by letters to the editor in state-wide newspapers, complaints on social-media platforms, and conversations among the socially distanced. In fact, many are open to entertaining some whacked-out conspiracy theories as to the origin of the pandemic.
In addition to the virus being a biological weapon that escaped from a Chinese lab, which is actually sounding more and more plausible; one hears that Bill Gates is plotting to use COVID-19 testing and a future vaccine to track people with microchips.
This idea has also been picked up by the anti-vaxxer conspiracy theorists. Celebrities like the actor, Woody Harrelson (“Zombieland.” how timely!) have also suggested it’s caused by 5G transmission towers; or perhaps most bizarre, behind the virus is a plot to flush out and arrest members of the satanic “deep state” whose membership varies depending on your political affiliation. Other “theories” about the causes of the virus are even stranger.
Unfortunately, the facts don’t lie: worldwide, at least 200,000 deaths have been directly attributed to the pandemic; one in six Americans are out of a job; the International Organization of Labor (Organization Internationale du Travail), an agency of the United Nations, estimates that 1.6 billion people “are at risk of having their livelihood destroyed,” etc.
There’s nothing new about such doubts about the origin of the virus, about the honest questioning of things we don’t understand and abrupt changes in the status quo; however, in this age of “fake news” and distrust of formerly respected institutions, believability has been further compromised. My father-in-law, who was an educated man, went to his grave convinced that the 1969 moon landing actually took place on a television sound stage in Los Angeles or New York.
The “proof” that he and others cited included no stars in the background picture when Astronaut James Irwin, who was supposedly on the surface of the moon, saluted in front of the Apollo 15 landing module, a stray rock that appeared to have the letter “C” stenciled on it, inconsistent shadow lengths, and the American flag appearing to “flap” in the breeze when there’s no wind on the moon. It has been noted, however, that faking the moon landing and duping thousands of scientists around the world would have been more difficult than keeping the secrets of the Manhattan Project for the development of the atomic bomb.
Not so long ago, several medieval thinkers were burned at the stake for having the audacity to state that the earth revolved around the sun, a heliocentric model of the cosmos, which contradicted a minor article of faith of the Roman Catholic Church, based on Scripture (Joshua 10:12-13, Habakkuk 3:11) which they thought seemed to imply that the earth is stationary and the sun is moving.
While the ideas of Copernicus seem perfectly logical to us today, history abounds with examples of “conspiracy theories,” where citizens of the day saw evil intentions, if not blasphemy, behind extraordinary events. Perhaps one way to understand why people are attracted to conspiracy theories is to briefly examine the motivations behind one of the most “unique” ones, the “flat earth” theory. This is the idea that the flat earth, sun, moon, and stars are contained in some type of “dome,” and that photos of the earth from space have been photoshopped by NASA. Specifically, the earth is a flat, circular disc, a flying pancake, as it were, with Antarctica acting as an ice wall barrier around the edge. One can’t fall off into space, anyway, the theory goes, because, well, there isn’t any space. That’s all a hoax, perpetrated by the government, the Illuminati, or the devil, depending on which flat-earther you talk to.
Those who have studied the flat earth phenomenon have noted several common characteristics of devotees: they are trying to understand the world, but looking at it in a biased gaze; they have distrust toward powerful people and groups, whether it’s the government or NASA, and when they look for evidence that makes sense to them, it’s hard to break out of this mindset; and there’s a social motive – the desire to maintain a positive view of the self and the groups they belong to.
And the flat-earthers have a very strong sense of community.
In my opinion, such conspiracy theorists are usually harmless, and our pop culture is full of them: Stevie Wonder is not blind; Elvis is not dead (according to the “Alivers,” the proof is that his name is misspelled on his tombstone; his autopsy report is sealed until 2050; his insurance policy was never cashed in; and he has been seen all over the world); there’re alien bodies in cold storage at Area 51; the fluoridation of water is a Communist plot (as documented in the movie “Dr. Strangelove”); Natalie Wood didn’t accidentally drown; Katy Perry is just a grown-up JonBenet Ramsey; and Paul McCartney died in a 1966 car crash (the picture on the record sleeve of the “Abbey Lane” album is actually a funeral procession: John as a clergyman dressed in white; Ringo as a mourner dressed in black; George as a grave digger dressed in denim, and Paul, barefooted, dead). And then there’s President Obama’s birth certificate.
While it’s fine, even healthy, to question authority, many conspiracy theories are especially harmful, particularly the so-called “false flag” events, where massacres and other terror attacks are supposedly staged to make it appear as if some other group designed and carried then out – in effect, planting a false flag.
For example, the idea that 9/11 was not committed by al-Qaeda but by the Bush administration as an excuse for war in the Middle East. Of course, the ultimate harmful conspiracy theorists would be those who deny the Jewish Holocaust.
You can also go to jail in Turkey today for even talking about the Armenian Holocaust/Genocide of 1914-1923.
I prefer the more benign examples. One of the most persistent conspiracy theories in literary history, dating back to the mid-18th century, is that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare.
It is a fundamentally classist argument: how could the son of a glove maker, only a grammar school graduate, a mediocre actor at best, from the middle of nowhere, write such sophisticated, literate, and knowledgeable plays and poetry? Obviously, the argument goes, he must have been paid off by someone smarter and richer and better educated for the use of his name.
Several such individuals have been put forward, including his rival playwright, Christopher Marlow, the polymath Roger Bacon, or even Queen Elizabeth I. Early research failed to find a “paper trail” indicating that William Shakespeare of Stratford ever read a book or even wrote a letter so, obviously, he was a fake.
Modern scholarship refutes such claims, pointing out that Shakespeare’s name is on the plays; the dates that the other candidates lived don’t correspond with the dates the plays were published; that a “grammar” school education in Shakespeare’s day would have included studies in Greek, Latin, and the classics, etc.
Some might remember that in 1987, the United States Supreme Court even got into the argument, ruling 2 to 1 in a mock trial that William Shakespeare actually wrote the works attributed to him.
The year 2011 was the 400th anniversary of the King James translation (KJV) of the Bible, and I wrote a column then that pointed out an interesting anecdote concerning it and Shakespeare.
To make this important translation, King James I of England gathered together 100 or so of the greatest scholars and writers of the day. Shakespeare’s name is not on the list, although anyone familiar with his works might hear echoes of his Elizabethan style in that Bible – leading some to wonder if he was actually involved in the translation.
Here’s the intriguing fact: in 1611, Shakespeare was 46 years old and at the height of his creative powers.
If you go to Psalm 46 and down 46 words from the top, you come to the word “shake.” If you count 46 words up from the bottom (don’t count “Selah” or “Forever’) you come to the word “spear.”
This only works with the KJV, of course. The question is: did Shakespeare sneak his name into that translation of the Bible? You tell me.
However you stand on the Coronavirus crisis, and I hope you take it seriously, some things are clear: our economy has taken a gigantic hit which will be felt for years. Someone said that “When America sneezes, the whole world catches a cold,” and that is certainly true. Another obvious fact is that you see people’s true colors when they are under stress.
As their Division Officer, I used to stand with my men when they were up before the Captain of our ships at mast for non-judicial punishment, and I would marvel at how perfectly sane sailors had totally different perceptions of reality and reacted accordingly.
Attitudes toward the virus and its containment also corroborate a recent national study that found that 69% of Americans don’t necessarily believe what they read in newspapers or see and hear on television.
One thing is for sure. We are going to have enough ventilators on hand to issue one to every man, woman, and child in the United States.
Ford and General Motors, both now producing them instead of cars, will probably offer them as options on their 2021 automobiles. Actually, they should be free because we have already paid for them.
As for me, I’m more worried about whether that was the real Mona Lisa returned to the Louvre after the robbery in 1911 or a fake copy. I guess it doesn’t really matter, however; because of social distancing, you can’t get close enough to tell the difference.
Light a candle for me.
Hattiesburg’s Benny Hornsby is a retired Navy captain. Send him a note at: bennyhornsby.com