Magic and Mis-Information: COVID 19 and the Power of Superstition


I have not written for public consumption since the beginning of this year. I was enveloped, internally, in a barrage of conflicting feelings, that I needed to sort through. Both Arleah and I were feeling a level of concern and fear, about where the country was going, that we had never felt before, including the divisiveness of the Vietnam War, the riots in a number of major cities, and the attack of 9/11. What we wrestled with was a decision to continue (and even escalate) our protest against the growing statism brutalizing the lives of innocent people, in the name of “social justice;” or capitulate – keep our mouths shut; follow governmental directives; and hope for the best. I have never before, in my life, been aware that I was doing things dictated by “authority” figures, because I didn’t want to be hassled and was simply afraid of what might happened to me, if I didn’t comply. We have decided to take that risk and do everything in our power to protest governmental abuse and the increasing assault on individual liberty and free speech.

We have friends who are crystal clear that they well never, under any circumstances, buckle-under to a centralized government, dictating the choices in their lives. They are not right-wing extremists, Nazis, racists, or white supremicists. If you met them at a social gathering, they would act just like you, and would not be spouting militaristic slogans. But they are quite ready to defend their property and the people they care about. It would be tragic to push these folks to a place where they felt that they had no other choice.

COVID 19 has inadvertently added to the growth of statism. Our reaction to it, as a culture, has created a multiplicity of vehicles for driving an unchallenged compliance with rules, regulations and edicts that damage people’s individual lives, their economic viability, and the future of their children. Worst of all, it has provided control freaks, as well as low-risk, low trust people an opportunity to calm the fears they perpetually live with, while exercising authority over people who they resent and envy. (It has rarely been pointed out, that the most punitive and damaging measures taken by governmental figures at all levels, have been overwhelmingly focused on small business owners – i.e. risk-takers.)

Every time I hear commentators and politicians say that our leaders are simply “following science,” I shake my head in disbelief. Nothing could be further from the truth. If we were even close to taking action based on available data, children would all have been in schools, small businesses owned by young entrepreneurs would never have been locked-down, and we would stop peddling the Virus as a death sentence; adding another level of heightened anxiety to those already struggling. The truth is, we have rarely followed “the science.” We have, instead, followed a Superstition. Superstition requires three conditions. The first occurs when formal and informal leaders experience their trust level (in themselves and others) falling below their need to be in control. (Trust level, in this situation, is a measure of one’s confidence in their own ability to deal with people’s feelings of fear, anxiety, and catastrophizing.) Very few people in authority talked about understanding people’s fears, while reassuring them that COVID 19, though serious, was not the Bubonic Plague, and would not lead to the end of life as we know it.

The second condition occurs when massive amounts of mis-information is continually and incessantly fed to people, which begins to normalize absurd and nonsensical behaviour. (People wearing face masks while driving alone in their cars; people wearing face masks while sitting by themselves on a park bench, with no one else in sight.) Both the first and second conditions, spawn figures who feed the hysteria by constantly warning people that the worst has yet to come, but following their instructions will keep people safe. These figures are the Shamans or Witch Doctors of our time. Their role is to reassure the masses that something they don’t understand (i.e. the Virus) will be prevented from seizing control of them, if they do what they’re told, and of equal importance (and the third condition), they always have on their bodies, or in close proximity, a revered symbol, legitimized by the Shaman. The symbol is called a Totem, and our current Totem is the face mask. The belief spread throughout our society is clear: Wear your face mask and you will be safe. Take it off and you risk death. If you think this is an exaggeration, ask someone wearing a mask, who you’re talking to, to take off their mask. Our current Shamans – mayors, governors, politicians, and public health officials – have done an exemplary job of keeping the public’s fear level at its zenith. This is all the more fascinating, given the constant contradictions emanating from these Shamans. But, we need to understand that Witch Doctors don’t need to be consistent; they only need to be convincing and powerful.

So, what’s wrong with Superstition playing a role in our lives? The problem is the price paid for the assurance offered. If we convince large populations that their safety and security is provided by forces outside their control, they are, in turn, much easier to control. Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have always been amazed at the quickness with which our population has adapted to nothing less than Draconian edicts. And what I hear when discussing these edicts is a frightening resignation – “Well, what can we do about it, anyway.” I have enormous respect for those individuals who have pushed back – almost all small business owners. Totalitarian states don’t suddenly occur. They slowly evolve by chipping away at long-standing culture norms, and by isolating dissent and undermining its credibility. Most importantly, it depends upon those not directly affected, initially, to go on with their lives, as if nothing of significance is happening. It’s a challenge to all of us, to not succumb to blissful ignorance.

Morrie Shechtman and Arleah Shechtman

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