Extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of COVID crowds

Posted 7/2/20

Protestors at a reopen Ohio rally earlier this year. (Photo by Paul Becker/Wikicommons) by Hugh Gilmore This fever dream begins with a forced trip to the dentist. I could not reasonably put off …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of COVID crowds

Protestors at a reopen Ohio rally earlier this year. (Photo by Paul Becker/Wikicommons)

by Hugh Gilmore

This fever dream begins with a forced trip to the dentist. I could not reasonably put off going there last week, so I went. Other than food shopping or exercise walking, I’ve not left the hutch for months. It was quite pleasurable to see and hear three-dimensional persons, even ones garbed in COVID-battle gear. Chair-tilted back, teeth clamped on numbing cotton, the dental halogen light a bright sun in my eyes, I overheard some gritty talk in the office. Basically, the tune went: We here in the northeast USA have stayed home, worn masks and kept social distance when we had to go out, endured many privations and grown weary, but have, in a way, earned the current right to begin to ease up on our isolation as the city opens up a bit.

But, the office talk went on, our fellow Americans down south and out west didn’t do the work and didn’t show the same discipline we did. Nor did they follow common sense as they rushed forward to get back to the bar and the beach and the barbecue where they assembled like so many sardines in a suddenly opened can. Now they they’ve blown up the COVID-19 count so bad that we-the-deserving might get driven back underground. “How,” as TV’s Doctor Phil might ask, “could they all have been so stupid?”

The rest of this article – in a biased, but fervid way, is offered in an attempt to answer that question. Where else to start but with that 1841 classic by the Scotsman Charles Mackay, “Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds”? Still in print, Mackay’s work originally appeared as a three-volume collection describing nearly every fad, swindle, bubble, craze, mass movement, Ponzi scheme and any other kind of nonsense a mob, crowd, rabble or lawful assembly of human beings has been able to come up with over a few thousand year of history.

Chapters of Mackay’s book consider alchemy, haunted houses, magnetizers, crusades, plagues, duels, prophecies, the constant polemics of beard and hair length and shape, popular admiration of famous thieves, quack medicine, fortune-telling and various kinds of excessive national pride. The stories are nearly all told in a “Lo, what fools these mortals be” style.

By way of explanation, Mackay writes, in reading the history of nations, we find that, like individuals, they have their whims and their peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion and run after it till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.

And thus too, the stories of modern American life trickle in on the nightly news and the daily blogs: protesters (some of them armed) stormed state capitols in Michigan, Idaho, Virginia, California, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota and other places. They wanted the lockdown, the shutdown, the quarantining, the stay-homing, the self-quarantining, the sheltering in place, the forced mitigation practices, to end. Perhaps with cautions, perhaps not.

And why did they want to lift the camo-netting while the enemy was still strafing and bombing? The motives were many and varied: the economy was going bust; they needed to work; their individual freedom to choose for themselves had been taken away; a government conspiracy was taking away their right to assemble in order to trap them all and make them give up their second amendment right to bear arms; a left-wing conspiracy was trying to do the same. Then too, there was beer begging to be drunk, but it had to be drunk with buddies. And babes, barbecue and beaches. And haircuts. Concerts too. And sports. Our souls all needed sports.

Besides, nobody among the virus-defiers believed those nerdy intellectuals whose Zoomed nostrils loomed as they preached down. And those bookcases or shelves of weird ethnic art behind them on the TV – one of America’s true cultural class dividers. Who ya gonna believe – a skinny guy with big glasses who uses words like “mitigate,' or your own true American gut when it comes to figgerin’ the odds? “Coronavirus” is just a fancy word for the flu, right? And it’s prob'ly a New York word, too. That bug ain’t coming down here, and even if it dares show itself...well, these colors don't run.

You could say these trespasses against common sense are just part of human nature. There weren’t any grownups around to stop those eager folks with AK47s, kind of an American version of “Lord of the Flies.” The power holders in our country urged instead, that everyone should get out from under the heavy yoke of the medical and scientific communities, drink some Clorox, and get back to yelling “Play ball!” And smile, please, while you’re at it. We’re trying to get four more years out of this rusted Chevy.

But, as everyone agreed in the dentist's office last week, the unmasked on-rushers were wrong. And now the whole nation will suffer for it. The lessons learned in the past 100 days, learned by sweat, agony and death, were ignored through sheer selfish, home-grown ignorance. And, oh, the suffering yet to come. Anyone, no matter how careful, can get this disease, despite precautions. But my, my, how awful it is to watch those who run toward it thinking they are invincible or immune from the laws of physics, chemistry and biology. Or that the bogeyman is a hoax.

This past weekend the CDC reported that, in America, on Saturday alone, another 44,703 cases had joined the staggering 2 million-plus already recorded. Texas, Florida and Arizona are finally pulling the ripcord and trying to slow the free fall. Here we go again. Those of us in the north who have followed the rules have to stay after school with the whole class because someone broke a window while the teacher wasn’t looking.

At the end of the prologue to “Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” Mackay writes: "Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one."

Hugh Gilmore is the author of "Redneck Noir Lit: A Personal Journey," a Kindle eBook written originally written for the Local. He lives in Chestnut Hill.


No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment