What happened to us?

When I first came to England in December, 2001, I was privileged to bask in the still yet unsquandered fund of international goodwill. The then three month old tragedy of September eleventh belonged, not to New York nor even the United States, but to the entire world. As bad as that catastrophe was it left behind a unifying empathy. The image of George Bush hugging Tom Daschle and Richard Gephardt two months earlier was still vividly etched in the American consciousness. We were one spirit and the world knew it and approved. September eleventh was an event that drew battle lines and those battle lines were clear: no one had any difficulty deciding which side they were on.

You might expect, then, that a calamity of greater scope and more universal urgency than 9/11, such as the coronavirus pandemic, would provide an even more auspicious occasion for worldwide solidarity. That it has to some extent is credit to the human spirit. That it has not achieved the same standard of unity as was extant in the spirit of 9/11 has a complicated explanation, and we may not yet entirely have a clear grasp of what that explanation is.

But I cannot discount two essential differences between now and then that I think have played devastating roles. One is the rise of fascism and the other is an increase in the mistrust of science. I offer them in no deliberate order because I can’t tell you which is worse than the other. But I can tell you, with confidence, that mistrust of science will bring us to our end as a species, and fascim will be the taxicab that conveys us there.

In this way Donald Trump is less a cause and more a symptom. He would not be president of the United States were there more trust in science and a proper, universal abhorrence for fascism. He got there because we let him, and there will soon be 60,000 dead Americans — and counting — to tally up the terrible cost.

Science doesn’t always fit snugly inside a meme or a hashtag, and therein lies part of the problem. The time it takes to understand the world is more than a lot of people are willing to devote. Even so that time is available, especially now, and that many won’t utilize it is a shame. It’s how some of us are so easily fooled. It’s how charlatans can get away with showing us only one side to an issue and keep us unwilling to even look at the other side with anything approaching objectivity. There are too many graduates of YouTube University who believe that 9/11 was an inside job, or believe that the exposed hoax that vaccines cause autism is a “thing.” Such nonsense is given oxygen not just because proponents of the nonsense will not even look at contradicting evidence, but because they don’t even know how. Ignorance is a thing that is blinded by its own smothering embrace.

Fascism is the only acceptable worldview for the bigot, and bigotry is incubated in the same Petri dish as the mistrust of science. Expect in the coming months, therefore, that Trump and his people will continue to misidentify individual and group causes for coronavirus, and attempt to create enemies and sow division as a distraction so they can continue to cling to power. That it is a strategy that is failing them will not stop them from trying, and many people will fall for it because they want to.

Defeating Trump in November is a beginning but it is not enough. There is no power on earth for change beyond ourselves, and it is up to us to ensure that science and democracy and the promotion of sane environmental policies ultimately triumph. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.

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