The Power of Story – The Downside

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”], 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:


13 thoughts on “The Power of Story – The Downside

  1. In the battle of rhetoric v. dialectic. rhetoric always has a large emotional advantage. We need good counter-stories to fight the panic with good rhetoric.

    Those are some good stories to begin fighting with.

  2. Some of the Iranian mullahs were saying that the virus was a punishment from Allah, against the unbelieving Chinese, for the Xinjiang concentration camps. But then those guys started getting the virus too.

    Of course, there was a rumor for a while that the virus started in the Xinjiang concentration camps, or that the poor suffering inmates caught it from guards or at the forced labor workplaces, and therefore are dying in droves. Various other persecuted religious groups in China (which is nearly everyone) have pointed towards all the deaths of high Party officials. But again, a lot of innocent people are dying too.

    Of course, the traditional Judeo-Christian spiritual response to disasters is, “Even the best of us sin a lot; and no doubt we deserve being afflicted as a punishment, or being allowed to suffer this as a lesson. But working to make it better is what You want us to do, and we’re also supposed to praying to You to have mercy and trusting that You will.”

    If nothing else, God will almost always allow the natural world to punish you for not washing your hands or breaking other hygiene rules. (Cue Kipling’s “Natural Theology.”

    There’s nothing wrong or perverse, per se, with taking a disaster as a sign to make a course correction. A lot of people are inspired by disaster to make themselves or the world better. The trick is not to become depressed and brooding in a way that is counterproductive.

    Since this is happening during Western and Eastern Lent, obviously it would be stupid for anybody from a Lent-practicing tradition to ignore the parallels between sheltering in place and a spiritual retreat into the wilderness. People who were complaining that they couldn’t fast because they were working strenuous jobs (which excuses you from fasting as opposed to abstinence) are now in a position to fast, pray, do good works, and give alms. “The whole world is keeping Lent” is a typical thing that people are thinking.

    Apparentlly a lot of people are taking this time to spend more time with their kids and really get to know them, or to learn new skills, clean their houses, rest, study, and/or pray. And that’s a good way to go.

    Catholic Answers ( has several recent podcasts dealing with topics like “Life and Coronavirus” and anti-anxiety talks like “The Peace of Christ.” (Because we’re supposed to be joyful and peaceful, or just serious, but not freaking out.) EWTN has a lot of excellent programming and talks also.

    And I’m sure other religious traditions also are teaching their wisdom traditions, if you look around.

    • I’ve added two litanies of St. Michael to my nightly routine.

      I will only say that I am disappointed with the response of the leadership of the church I currently attend. Not of the congregation as a whole, but the leadership. *sigh* The Orthodox Priest I heard years ago was right. “The Church survives despite its members, and sometimes to spite its members.” Father Dan had a healthy sense of proportion and humor.

  3. I forgot to say…. Russia is supposedly not having any coronavirus problem, but the Russian Orthodox have announced a coronavirus protocol for receiving Communion, going to Mass, etc. So I would say that they are having a coronavirus problem of some nature.


    • When the government asks the church to not hold processions asking for protective intercession against the virus – because of concerns about crowds getting sick – I’d say that the Wu Flu is there already.

  4. The hoarding is also a run on the bank/tragedy of the commons event. It’s been made worse by various governments shutting down resources the truckers need to get goods to the market.

    The various prescriptions of the Annointed Left, forcing people into dense cities, cattle-car subways (it would be inhumane and illegal to cram livestock like that) and vertical hive-dwellings with no room for a full household’s stockpiles have created an exceptionally brittle society in the midst of such plenty as the world has never seen.

    The metaphors may play out on a larger scale, but do they tell us what we have actually broken?

  5. My cynical side is thinking “This is how the world ends, not by fire or ice but by stupidity”. 😦

    On the other hand, I’m thinking (despite my pessimism) Despair is a Sin so Don’t Despair and Fear Not. 😀

  6. I’m pretty sure it was Maya, not the Aztec.

    My WIP has worldbuilding with a rather liberal kitchen sink borrowing from South and Central American mythology and archeology, with healthy amount of “we probably don’t know it didn’t happen”.

    I’m shifting a lot of events a half solar cycle, and hadn’t noticed I could do something with one or two people attributing significance to 2023 for that reason.

  7. 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.


    Suddenly the sheer, unholy, utterly ape-**** response of folks when you I refuse to panic along with them is making sense.

  8. Common sense and self-responsibility will win out. This WILL be the cultural event that the Millennials, Gen Z, etc. will take with them into the future. Maybe, just maybe, more folks will look at the media with a jaundiced eye and check things for themselves rather that relying on sound bites from the talking heads.

  9. People aren’t apt to *think* until they *feel*.
    We aren’t so much rational creatures as rationalizing ones.

    Fear is a primal force. Like fire or water, it can be channeled, but never fully controlled. Those who released it, have a tiger by the tail.
    And I don’t think they even realize it.

    The kneecapping of the economy is hurting a lot of folks.
    They’ve noticed.
    Their tolerance for foolishness is going to wear off quickly.
    I’m pretty sure the hysteria mongers are hoping to keep this going for months.

  10. Pingback: DREAMS HAVE CONSEQUENCES:  The Power of Story – The Downside…. – The usa report

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