The slogan, “I’m doing my part,” is emphatically repeated by four different actors, each clad in futuristic wartime armor, and then is parroted once more by a disembodied voice with the expressed goal of rallying young adults into joining the Mobile Infantry. The thirty second advertisement is how the cult classic film Starship Troopers begins. Like many movies of its kind, it was simultaneously beloved by the public and deadpanned by the critics. The theme was a deliberately ironic hybrid of those campy teenage soap operas that defined the nineties, like Dawson’s Creek or Beverly Hills 90210, and the infamous Nazi propaganda films of the mid-twentieth century.
While the social commentary element of the movie was its most genius aspect, its theme must have beguiled the critics, because they simply treated it as science fiction war porn or what might happen when hormonal young adults are given a movie budget and a camera. The film, however, satirically explored the effectiveness of propaganda in rallying the troops (for lack of a better term) into self-sacrifice of any sort—up to and including their lives.
In this way, any nobody can righteously employ a phrase like, “I’m doing my part” and effectively display their contribution to any kind of stated collective goal. The shorter and more oft repeated the phrase, the more wielding it becomes in conveying an underlying moral sentiment. A turn of phrase of this kind is what are called condensation symbols, and it works the way it sounds—by condensing an entire set of ideas into a pithy catch-phrase. We live in a world rich in such symbols, I use them when I transmit stories to my children about “the goose that laid the golden egg” or the “boy who cried wolf.” They are also unconsciously employed when a Libertarian reflexively says, “taxation is theft” or in the case of a group of leftists collectively screeching, “fight for fifteen!” One can certainly attempt to argue with these types, but they are telling you what they stand for the same way a Blood might flash his colors to a Crip.
Here’s another condensation symbol to consider, one which may prove to stunt any sincere effort in returning to a semblance of post-lockdown normality— “flatten the curve.” We should all by now be well-acquainted with this turn of phrase, because it was employed with nauseating regularity by the mainstream media, and then trickled down into our Facebook and Twitter feeds. Flattening the curve, we were told, was a necessary weapon in our war on Coronavirus. It was sold as a means, not to stop the spread, but merely mitigate it in order to prevent overwhelming our hospitals. As good and right-thinking citizens, we were expected to immediately lock down at home, or we could literally kill grandma.
Unsurprisingly, this effort was readily embraced by social media mobs for its deceitful simplicity. Flattening the curve meant one merely doubled down on his anti-social and “Netflix and Chill” habits for the sake of civilization. This was a radically different final goal compared to the pleas for heroic self-sacrifice themed propaganda of Starship Troopers, as our current calls for good citizenship hold not one shred of heroism. Instead we were implored to live eerily like the citizens in Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel A Brave New World—high on Soma and unquestioning of authority. In the online fever swamps of virtue-signaling, where there is a clear casual relationship between the ease of identifying with any given in-group and the growth of a movement, needless to say, locking yourself indoors while getting paid to play video games, and binging on fast food became a viral winner.
As good in-groups are wont to do, however, the acolytes of “flattening the curve” promptly began pursuing the out-groups with pitchfork and torch. The usual suspects became their scapegoats: Christian Nationalists, Easter celebrants, Republican politicians, protesters and any other conservative voices that dared call into question the prudence of the lockdowns. According to the late anthropologist Rene Girard, seeking-out and punishing a scapegoat for the sin of arousing disorder within the in-group, is a common tactic of mobs. The scapegoating mechanism acts much like a pressure relief valve when disorder manifests.
Time, the greatest provocateur of any righteous mob, dictates that the moral highs which sustain the in-groups will eventually wear off. And as the out-groups, especially in our current scenario, question the benevolence and the social cost of the mob's pieties, the need to punish malfeasance becomes more visceral and targeted. One need no further test of the Girardian scapegoat mechanism than to simply express a micron of doubt about the prudence of the pandemic panic on social media, and thus invite the wrath of an army of Karens upon your poor unfortunate soul.
While even those of us who have remained steadfastly in the camp of the doubtful out-group, questioning the benevolence of this extreme response in containing the Coronavirus outbreak, we cannot doubt the effectiveness of “flattening the curve” as successful propaganda. It elicited a morally righteous response that mobilized millions of Americans into a self-imposed house arrest as a sign of good citizenship. Now that the experts have been proven wrong, repeatedly, and the rationale behind “flattening the curve” has been long forgotten—medical experts were quite mistakenly fearful that we would overwhelm our hospitals—how do we return to something like normal? Unfortunately, the answer is very unclear.
There is not enough data in the world to undo the mesmerizing effects of “flattening the curve,” because this was never guided by our angels of reason. As the The Federalist’s, Ben Domenech recently explained, “But all of this talk about whose authority must be respected leaves out the practical reality at play here: the American people will decide when the economy is reopened.” We are largely still in lockdown, not because of overweening state governors or even Anthony Fauci—though they are accelerating us to a breaking point. We are stuck here because of the religious fervor underlying the pithy phrases that led to the lockdowns in the first place. And there is simply not a comparable ideologically loaded turn of phrase that will whip Americans into excitedly returning to work.
We are, in a very real sense, currently living out Socrates’ allegory of the cave—millions of Americans wear the chains of their own design while religiously parroting the shadows on the wall to “flatten the curve,” and to stay “together at home” for the good of humanity. All the while, the world beyond the cave turns, the sun is warm, the fish are biting, the seeds need planting, and tens of millions of Americans have lost their jobs. But point out the illusory nature of those influential cave shadows, and you might find yourself meeting a fate not unlike Socrates himself.
Photo Credit- Upsplash- Erik McLean