On November 22, 1963, Arthur and Adeline sink into their divan to digest their chicken salad sandwiches. Per their post-lunch ritual, they flip on their guilty pleasure, As the World Turns. Just minutes into the program, the soap opera is interrupted by a news flash concerning an incident in Dallas, Texas with the Presidential motorcade. The episode continues only to be suspended again just minutes later.
Flanked by rotary phones and typewriters, Walter Cronkite appears in the CBS newsroom. As he reports on the developing story, he is handed a memo. Cronkite removes his signature glasses and, in his inimitable tenor, announces the death of John F. Kennedy. For just a moment, Cronkite, visibly shaken, looks down and to the side, tightening his lips to hold the anguish of a nation. Lyndon Johnson will now become the 36th president of the United States. Adeline looks at Arthur and begins to cry. Arthur grips her hand reassuringly, “It’s ok. We’ll get through this.”
This is how my grandparents and the rest of America got its news. Walter Cronkite, dubbed “the most trusted man in America,” was the anchorman for the CBS Evening News for 19 years. It didn’t much matter where you stood on the political spectrum, when Cronkite said it, it was accepted fact.
People of all ideological bents could bicker and debate their opinions, but diverging views were girded in a shared inter-subjective understanding of truth. While certainly not infallible, the institution of journalism, with its code of ethics, independent fact-checking, multiple sources, and corrigendum engendered trust.
Hurtling through history alongside journalism, as if in a three-legged race towards progress, was science. Arthur credited technology for eradicating infectious disease, widespread famine and ending World War II. When I interviewed Adeline about how technology had impacted her life, she delivered an unexpected, if pre-feminist, answer. Evidently, the washer-dryer saved her twenty hours per week, which she used to volunteer at the local hospital. They were both starry-eyed with wonder as Apollo sent back images from the moon.
Science, like religion, provides us with a way to understand the world, where we come from and where we are going. However, science has proven more protean than other true world theories or Abrahamic traditions as it did not require blind fealty or incessant referrals back to old desert scrolls. Instead, it looked forward, humbly asking the question, “why?” And, not unlike journalism, it addressed its inquiries through a rigorous method of hypothesis, experimentation, observation, reasoning and determination.
Science and journalism, the way the world works and the medium through which we access that information, were the dual pillars of social cohesion for my grandparents’ generation.
However, in 21st century America, this ceases to be true. We lie scattered, matches flung from a box.
Nowhere is this fracturing of society more apparent than in this pandemic. More than just a health crisis of epic proportions, COVID-19 in the United States is an epidemic of social polarization. The countries that have cohered around fairly straightforward solutions have stanched the viral spread, while those unable to unify are bickering their way into dystopia.
Certainly, this is partially due to illiberal leadership peddling “alternative facts,” which slowly erodes the riverbanks of long-trusted institutions. Experts, despite years of study and research, are often pilloried as nothing more than effete, out-of-touch intellectuals.
But the erosion of a coherent narrative of unifying facts knitting our country together cannot simply be chalked up to deepening partisanship and the constant drone of “fake news.” Medical science, for example, has sown its own seeds of mistrust, capitulating in many cases to big pharma. With misaligned incentives, pharmaceutical companies have biased studies and shrouded truth at human expense. Vioxx, a Merck drug developed for arthritis, caused 38,000 fatal heart attacks. OxyContin (Purdue Pharma) and other prescription opioids have killed 500,000 Americans. Proxy agricultural “science” has decimated our soil. There have13,000 been lawsuits filed against Monsanto in connection with its herbicide, glyphosate, which allegedly causes cancer.
Science, which once promised to deliver us from drudgery and the darkness of superstition, has so often been kidnapped by unfettered corporatism that it has squandered its moral credibility. That these very same companies - Bayer, Merck, P&G, GlaxoSmithKline and others – pump billions of marketing dollars into our media outlets elicits a well-founded skepticism about journalistic independence. Vioxx, in its time, was the most widely marketed pharmaceutical in history.
In the absence of trusted sources of fact, it becomes all too easy to fall prey to dystopic conspiracies of a New World Order. The decentralization of media distribution, which gives game show hosts and wellness influencers equal footing to news organizations as vectors for the proliferation of information, contributes to the unbridled spread of conspiracy theories – some that may be true, and many that lack any basis in fact.
If you espouse the notion that 5G is a means for spreading the coronavirus, you can find dozens of message boards and content to confirm your bias. In fact, you don’t need to find them as those posts will simply find you through social media algorithms and artificial intelligence. Despite having no factual basis, activists that believe 5G is the agent for COVID have destroyed communication towers across Europe and even in Bolivia (where 5G doesn’t even exist).
However, not all conspiracy theories are as specious or malicious as Pizzagate, Birtherism, and the denial of Sandy Hook. If I told you that a private prison company funded an organization comprised of legislators and private sector executives to write and pass legislation leading to mass incarceration, you might think I was wacko. But this is exactly what the Corrections Corporation of America and the American Legislative Exchange Council did. Conspiracies are seductive because truth is often just as strange and twisted as fiction.
No political leaning has a monopoly on conspiracy. There is a bizarre emergent horse-shoeing of leftist conspiritualists and alt-right libertarians that is coming to a head around the potentially impending COVID vaccine, ratcheting up an already intense vaccination debate. This anti-vaxx alliance makes strange bedfellows of a slice of the “wellness” community, who sanctifies sovereignty over their bodies, civil liberties advocates who oppose governmental overreach, and “truthers” who fear that the illuminati will implant micro-chips as part of mass vaccination.
Last Friday, I had lunch with the nephew of John Kennedy, whose assassination could be seen as the grandfather of all conspiracies. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has built a prolific career as an environmental litigator, winning hundreds of millions of dollars in class action suits against giant corporate polluters including DuPont and ExxonMobil. He recently prosecuted the California case against Monsanto for its use of the herbicide glyphosate. His record of representing indigenous and disadvantaged peoples is nothing less than sterling. His career has been defined by his rigorous application of science. Yet, he is an outspoken critic of mass vaccination, an issue that is currently so incendiary that intelligent debate is essentially nonextant.
To be clear, I am pro- safe vaccination and clearly acknowledge the role immunization has played in eradicating small pox, taming other infectious diseases and even preventing cervical cancer. I sat across the table from Robert, a healthy dollop of skepticism on my polenta, for three hours. Robert possesses a charismatic and unparalleled fluency around vaccination, from case law and legislation to medical data and peer-reviewed science. He is of the few who ingests and comprehends primary source data. I challenge anyone to sit and listen to Robert’s highly researched, if passionate, opinion and not believe that the notion of administering over 20 vaccines (the recommended schedule is itself contentious) to young children isn’t at least worthy of some intelligent public discussion. But, currently, there is just all-caps screaming on Facebook.
With all of the countervailing forces at work, what is a citizen to do? What are we supposed to believe? How do we distinguish between ludicrous theories devised to divide and true corruption that warrants exposure? How do we find the social cohesion that is necessary not only to beat COVID but to address all of our salient global problems?
How much longer can we keep loving America and hating each other? Human success has always been predicated on our ability to cooperate flexibly at scale. Without social cohesion, we are chimps.
In my recent interview with Charles Eisenstein, he asked me, “Jeff, are you willing to be wrong for the sake of society?” I began to think about all the petty things in my own life that I have been wrong about. Schuyler told me a thousand times that taking Advil and Tums were bad for me. Stubbornly, I dismissed her until I learned that NSAIDs and antacids contribute to intestinal permeability, which was keeping me in a perpetual state of inflammation. I thought about the time I tried to drive my family to Vermont during hurricane Irene. Thankfully, Schuyler convinced me to stay in Connecticut as that storm veered west and devastated the Green Mountain state. I’ll stop here because I could write a book about all the times Schuyler has been right. Maybe I will, after she’s passed.
Indeed, the history of progress is the story of being wrong. The earth is flat. The sun orbits around it. Disease spreads through the bad air of rotting organic matter. Pythagoras, Galileo, Pasteur and indeed every ground-breaking scientist and philosopher challenged the paradigms of their time. And these affronts on the status quo are often quite unpopular. What progress across history does share, however, is critical thinking. And this may provide some flickering candlelight in the dark cave in which we find ourselves. The difference between thoughtful skepticism and fallacious conspiracy may be called wisdom.
As institutions wobble, individual citizens inherit a growing responsibility for the cohesion of society. Be inquisitive. Be humble. Think deeply and critically. Engage with and learn from others. Understand the best part of an opposing opinion. Apply methods of rigor in the quest for truth. Be willing to admit you are wrong.
Walter Cronkite isn’t coming back.