By the time it reached Denver, it had gone viral. Over the weekend, a slow-roll line of cars wound its way toward the Colorado State Capitol, each one filled — as others had been in Michigan days earlier — with people fed up with the social restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and pushing for the so-called reopening of America. Then, at one point, two people stepped in front of the convoy — two people dressed as nurses.
Dressed in scrubs, masked, and silent, the nurses stood in the crosswalk of the intersection of 12th Avenue and Grant Street, and briefly prevented the cars from moving forward. Photographer Alyson McClaran was there. The photos she posted to Facebook quickly spread around the world, as did a video another bystander took of the same moment. As a nurse stood in front of a white pickup truck, its passenger, a woman holding a sign that read ‘Land of the Free,’ leaned out the side window and began screaming at him. “Go to China if you want communism!” she screamed, holding her sign against the windshield. “It’s a free country! America the free!”
Be that as it may, we might wonder why all these people were driving through the streets of Denver when they should have all been staying at home washing their hands — or at least only occasionally exiting to acquire the necessities of life, before returning home to wash their hands. How did they end up there? Undoubtedly, they’re driven by the power of their convictions. Who paved their way is still in question.
As one poster on Reddit noted (and others have validated), the whole movement might just be very effective astroturfing. A series of “reopen America” sites for cities across America appear to have been registered at the same time by the same (unknown) person. Over at the New York Times, Charlie Warzel has a name: Alex Jones, and his ilk, whose far-right or conspiratorial alternative media empire has conditioned millions of Americans for years to instinctively recoil at any official explanation of events and, based on that alternative theorizing, defend perceived attacks on their individual rights to the point of terrifying irrationality. The accepted narrative — that is, reality — is frequently replaced with another version of events. This is all justified by the idea that the only way to truth is through presenting endlessly contrasting information for discussion.
The novel coronavirus has exposed the failings of many of America’s institutions. Its governments have failed. Its social programs, such as they are, are at grave risk. Its economy is in shambles and its inequalities starker than ever. But, just as much, the virus has revealed, even more than previous issues have, the deeply troubling state of its civic discourse, no facet of which fails its citizens more than the unerring adherence to the idea that there are always two sides to every issue or story, that all issues are subject to debate.
It’s this idea, after all, that fundamentally gives people like Alex Jones the space they need to make the claims they do. But it’s not just Jones or others at the extremes of the conversation where this problem lives. It’s part of mainstream thinking, too. Objectivity is assumed to be something other than the clarity to see things as they are — as truthfully as possible — and instead interpreted as a state of conflict, where two separate versions of reality collide. Alex Jones didn’t invent this both-siderism. It essentially forms the basis for the generally-accepted definition of freedom of speech. Not only is everyone entitled to their own opinion, but to their own version of reality.
Under — let’s call them normal — circumstances, this form of discourse is deeply damaging. It leaves Americans exposed to things like misinformation or just plain old hucksterism. It leaves politics a ceaselessly divided wasteland of raw emotion and increasingly separated opinions. It makes things excessively polarized, exacerbating the pre-existing tendency to discount information that doesn’t already conform to our views.
As a mechanism to interpret what’s happening now, it’s even worse. Worse because it allows for what might otherwise be simply damaging information to become deadly. Worse because the virus, unlike politics or culture, is not subject to our opinion. Worse because in our current situation, there just aren’t two sides to be debated.
There is no argument to be had over the reality we currently all share, no matter if we see ourselves primarily as individuals or as part of a collective — whether we’re anti-government or pro, socialist or capitalist, Democrat or Republican. There is only one objective reality about a viral pandemic: It is something we’ve never seen before. It requires us to be constantly vigilant in our actions, including staying home. It will mean our lives will have to change for now, and might mean our lives change forever. And it affects us all.
The reality we must all accept about a viral pandemic is that it will spread from person to person, and it can kill us — no matter what side of the debate we think we’re on.