Edited to add March 27: Welcome, Instapundit readers! Thanks for stopping by!
Somewhere, Nietzsche is probably grumbling about “I was partly right.” One of his arguments involved invoking Apollo – the god of light and reason and (for Nietzsche) rational individualism – versus Dionysus – the god of wine and holy madness and the ecstasy of releasing self into community. To grossly over-simplify part of his argument*, the modern apparent reign of Apollo would not lead to good things, and Dionysus would not disappear so easily.
Before you run away and wonder if I’ve lost it, there is a point. The crazy patterns of mass buying and stockpiling of things, and the insistence by “proper thinkers” in the media and culture that the End is Nigh are linked by a background of story and a sense of belonging. If everyone else is stocking up for a Disaster, there is a strong sense of temporary community. You, the buyer, are part of the group, the group is smart and is doing the right thing. You are doing the right thing, and are protecting yourself and those who look to you. All will be well, at least for you and yours. Now, ratchet that up a little and you get panic buying and hoarding and fighting over water and TP and hamburger meat.
Several of us who work with stories for a living are starting to wonder. We, as a culture, have been fed “End is Nigh” stories for decades now. Nuclear war, nuclear winter, zombies, secret vampire governments, vampires created by government experiments gone wrong, environmental disaster leading to global collapse, zombies again, hyper-fast climate change leading to galloping ice-sheets, more zombies, the Aztec 2012 story [Edited to correct: Which was actually Maya, but the image everyone used was for the Aztec sun stone “calendar” https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-the-aztec-calendar-stone-169912], earthquakes that rip California off of the continent [please? Just the coast, please?], and still more zombies. Oh, and various plagues, some natural, some bio-engineered.
I grew up with the nuclear war stuff, yawned through some zombie stuff, giggled at the vampire stuff, and am heartily tired of the “government conspiracy releases deadly [thing]” tropes. But the stories are powerful, and I believe that they explain in part why the world has gone strange.
After ten-twenty years of those tales and patterns floating in the cultural background, we get the crazy-seeming reaction to the Kung Flu. Granted, the media’s problem with math, and the Chinese government’s cover-up, then heavy-handed reaction to the disease doesn’t help. Instead, they feed right into the story-world of the past decades, although at least in the case of China, not deliberately. That’s just how Chinese governments tend to react to things, going back to the Imperial period, as best I can tell from history.
Take a serious-but-survivable disease. Add in the people who make narratives even when they don’t really exist. Feed that into a society that is somewhat primed for “worst case ever!!” stories of plagues and collapse, and social disaster. Then toss in a few rumors and misunderstandings and competing official stories, and what happens?
Dionysus grins as Pan shrieks and people stockpile survival supplies.
I really do not think we’d be seeing the craziness nearly so strongly or so widespread if if were not for the pump having been primed by stories. We who lean toward Apollo and rational behavior need to remember that stories are older, and closer to the heart and bone. There are still wild places in the human heart and mind, places where reason doesn’t touch. We have stories instead. Stories make sense of the world, they give it a shape and a frame we can use to build understanding on. Story says that a virus developed that could jump to humans and it has. Story also says that China bio-engineered the bug to clean out their own population (no), to destroy the west (not needed), that the decadent, individualized west planted the bug in China to destroy it (oh bull corn), and so on. I suspect there are places where it is a punishment for something from the spirits or gods.
It all is the framing, all in the background stories that set the pattern. Our cultural stories about zombie apocalypses and the End of Civilization have so soaked into the collective social mind that people are reacting as if that was the problem, not an especially nasty lower respiratory bug that can also afflict the GI system (you know, like influenza) and weaken sufferers for the next bug to come by (like influenza does). It is new to us, so it is a virgin soil epidemic. Those hit hard and fast. They are not new in human history. Now, we have ways to mitigate and pretty soon, to treat it. In a little while we should have a decent way to prevent it, just like influenza.
The stories behind the panic, though, those are a different case. We need more positive “we can get through this, it is not the EOTWAWKI” tales, more stories that encourage and show how people get through by helping each other and being prepared (within reason). There are a number of authors and other story tellers who try, and we are making slow inroads into popular culture. But it takes time.
We have the luxury of picking our stories. Choose well. Give Dionysus and Pan their due. They are metaphors, but powerful ones, and story has power.
I’ve put Shikari and Familiar Tales on free from today through the 25th, and lowered the price of Alexander Soldier’s Son, Merchant and Magic, and Strangely Familiar. Depending on how long the crazy lasts, I will consider dropping the price of other titles.
* The work is The Birth of Tragedy. For a relatively clear discussion of some of the ideas in the book, I recommend: https://theoxfordphilosopher.com/2014/08/25/the-dionysian-and-the-apollonian-in-nietzsche-the-birth-of-tragedy/