It’s an oft-repeated line from Michael Malice, a sort of pundit/troll hybrid whose keen observance of our current predicament means it goes without saying that he is well worth a follow on Twitter—if you have a shred of a sense of humor left, which these days, let’s be honest, is about as fundamental as several stiff drinks in the evening for maintaining a shred of sanity in this eternal Groundhog Day.
“The Matrix is a documentary.” Once your eyes have been opened to this nugget of truth, there’s no going back to sleep. So but like, what do you gain from this sense of realization? Not much. Like looking back over the wrong answers on a test (Why didn’t I remember that!), all you have is the bewilderment and rueful head-shaking at how you could have spent so much of your life bottling something so painstakingly obvious. Rather than realizing that all that matters, on Scantrons as in life, is what you did in the moment.
Enough of that new-agey crap. I view this Matrix-as-documentary statement more as a metaphor, rather than following the thought line of those who proclaim that we, humanity, are living in a simulation. The latter interpretation seems like one of those pseudo-intellectual ditties people bandy about without a second’s reflection in the universal effort to seem hip and cool and just, you know, with it.
You can go down that rabbit hole if you wish—it’s the kind of thought experiment that’ll keep your eyes glazed to a screen until you look up at the clock and realize it’s already 3 a.m., especially when you cycle onto the likes of Nick Bostrom, possessor of a formidable enough mind to give it a go, but to my more mundane abilities, it’s nothing more than mental gymnastics. Tiresome after the first few flutters when you keep finding yourself on the floor, having fallen hard off the bar.
Maybe there’s some entity or cosmic force pulling the strings from a vantage point hundreds or thousands or maybe (given how quickly technology seems to advance these days) just ten years down the line, playing with us for their own entertainment. Maybe it’s a power bestowed upon some population by benevolent elites during their society’s own managed decline I mean quarantine, as they face some nebulous and not-too-well-explained plague, like unlimited content suddenly released to distract minds that might otherwise be prone to prying for pertinent information. For these more advanced entities, instead of extra YouTube content, you get the chance to twiddle with some hopeless human twit (who thinks he has free will! HA HA!) in 2020 for an hour or so before passing him off to the next person in line.
Anyway, I can never seem to get my head around it , so I push it from my mind and refresh the news browser on my laptop. What’s got me worried today?
What I can wrap my head ‘round more readily is the idea of simulation-as-metaphor. As an engine for social engineering and security through widespread thought control. So simple. So brilliant. A kind of unsuspecting Stasi, surreptitiously sourced through the advent of social media.
But before that, here’s something totally unrelated. Remember those fire drills you used to have to do at school? The bell’d ring—those big cast-iron dishes with the electric clapper—but this wasn’t the normal brrrrrring that signaled the end of a class or the fin de la journée. This was a special tone that told you it was time to march to the playground in an orderly, efficient manner. Single file, if you please, teachers and administrators reminding you along the way to move silently, every now and again voicing that maxim seen on signs at every pool: Walk, Don’t Run.
The idea being that safety is more effectively reached through calm, calculated efficiency. Avoid a stampede at all costs, that ensuing crush blocking an exit as people try to crash through. I’ve been caught up in a couple of those; it’s not a good place to be.
I’ve always wondered whether the architects of that particular exit strategy ever caught themselves during the design stage, in a moment of clarity looking sheepishly around the room, wondering, “When the shit hits the fan, and there’s a real fire, is there any way these measures are gonna be followed?” To which heads sadly shook with a sullen, “Yeah, right.”
If what we’re going through was indeed a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, and we thus needed to approach it soberly, with the full understanding that sacrifices would have to be made in the short term, and if that message was disseminated in a thoughtful, responsible manner, then I think this whole thing could’ve been a whole helluva lot different.
But of course, that’s not what happened. Everything was fine until suddenly everything was cancelled, and grocery stores were swamped, and everyone was going to die, and you couldn’t leave your house FOR THE GREATER GOOD, and the news was bombarding you with death toll tickers and all you could do was stare, in an eyes-glazed kind of way, at your screens.
What it boils down to, as it always does and always has throughout history, can be gleaned from that speech Yoda gives to an antsy and incredulous Anakin Skywalker in the Jedi Temple in Star Wars Episode I. How could feeling fear be in any way important? But It. Is. Everything. The worst atrocities stem from an unchecked fear that snowballs into something sinister.
Fear drove everything. Rushes to judgment became the norm, because no one was calm enough to introspect. And that’s not what we’re enticed to do now, anyway. We see something, and we either agree with it or want to destroy it. There is no middle ground anymore where one might meet an opponent to forge a path forward, together.
I always think of the Alison Mosshart lyric from The Kills’ song Rodeo Town: “If I’m so evil, then why are you satisfied?” We’ve divided ourselves quite neatly upon partisan lines, with every new bit of news simply cementing the fracture. There’s no attempt to change minds through careful reasoning; it’s third-grade schoolyard stuff where everything’s life or death in the dodgeball game and we take no prisoners. When everything—and I mean everything—becomes political, we’re well on our way to totalitarianism.
We’ve set up the parameters of a game—or, rather, they were set up for us by tech companies who’d enlisted the aid of a talented, and rather unscrupulous bunch of psychiatric consultants with untoward ideas of how best to apply all that knowledge gleaned during the pursuit of multiple advanced degrees. Present human beings with a cage with ready access to any number of dopamine drips and you’d be surprised how easily they sidle into it. First thought, when the bars clang down: Well, at least we’ve got Netflix.
It’s what we’re seeing now during this Coronavirus brouhaha, just amplified to an unprecedented degree. It’s certainly the first meltdown of the Information Age, or whatever time designation we’re currently in, and it’s such a perfect storm. Think of the mob control mechanism we’ve unwittingly allowed to flourish on social media. It comes from an unholy chemical reaction of keyboard cadets petrified at their own insignificance, grasping at the power they perceive in others (celebrities) and trying to chip off a bit of the light around that aura.
That’s a bit overwrought, obviously, but at times those keyboard commandos do bear an eerie resemblance to the sentinels in The Matrix. Honing in on any human bold enough to poke his head above ground and venture forth an opinion that deviates from the agreed-upon precedent. When we should be focused upon our response to the Coronavirus, and whether there is governmental overreach and what that might mean down the line, we can only interpret the newest bit of news according to our preconceived notions. Which is so, so tiresome.
That’s what has been so unnerving about this COVID pandemic. How quickly the control shifted to snuffing out—through heavy doses of ridicule—anyone who dares venture an opinion that differs from the official narrative. Of course, we’d seen the use of ridicule before: there’s no combatting of ideas anymore, you just go scorched earth ad hominem. Somehow that became current and cool. What it is, is lazy. Which is an attribute we’ve allowed to grow like unchecked weeds in large portions of the population.
Sure, we’ve received conflicting reports on an almost daily basis. The death toll predictions have, um, dropped precipitously. We haven’t seen our governing bodies adapt to the fluid situation, however. They have an idea of how they’re going to govern, and that’s to treat us all like misbehaving five-year-olds with the temerity to ask for a 15-minute reduction in our timeout.
The one constant, however, is that calling for hope amidst the crisis, celebrating individual autonomy and the prospect of an end to the shutdown is completely verboten. Doesn’t that strike you as weird?
Now, you’re allowed your little niceties: like, all those signs you see in house windows. My favorite, of late: “Love is all you need”, syrupy stuff like an insufferably simpering rendition of that Imagine song. You’re allowed to clap and clang pans every night at 7 or 8 o’clock to salute first responders and medical personnel. That you could both applaud health-care workers and profess skepticism at the approach to this thing, however, is beyond the pale.
Which brings us, in the roundabout way a la speciale d’Alley Whoops, of the latest “controversy” that has come crashing to the fore. Clay Travis, sports journalist, author, TV commentator, and (GASP) author of an unpopular opinion on COVID-19, when he dared sound a note of common sense amidst the fervor that has engulfed America. Or at least, the online manifestation of America—which, when we’re told every election cycle by politicians of all the great things about America, our online presence is never really mentioned. Fucking trolls. ☹️
Anyway, not only did Travis sound a note of calm, he did by citing (GASP) evidence! This approach—walk, don’t run—was shared by nearly every medical presence that has spoken about the virus. Which, if you’re not inclined to believe them, maybe believe Travis, then. As a wise man once said, it’s somehow easier to trust the opinion of someone who earns his living in another field. His payday isn’t tied to his response.
OK, sure, you might say, he covers sports, and with sports cancelled, his livelihood is perhaps threatened, so it’s in his interest to see the lockdown end. But I think it goes beyond that. Travis is the kind of contrarian we need in this time. I get really nervous when I see public opinion tilt precipitously. Why can’t we have people going against the grain?
At this point, I’m inclined to take any opinion not associated with the mass media, which seems intent upon inundating us with a never-ending series of newsflashes, each more opaque then the last. The United States has the most cases of COVID-19 in the world! More people are dead than 9/11! Hospitals are overrun! Aren’t you scared! Tune in for the next two hours, while our producers feign solemnity while excusing themselves every so often to cream themselves over the incoming ratings bonanza!
Wait, that was last month, when we were told we needed to hunker down to flatten the curve. Whatever that meant. All this has been is a series of conflicting directives, the one constant, of course: Question any of this, step out of bounds, and you’ll be in big trouble, mister.
Alex Berenson has sounded a similar note to Travis. So has Eric Weinstein, and a growing host of others. As has been so revealing during this pandemic timeline, Berenson, a novelist who reported for the New York Times, cuts a line right down the middle. He’s either revered or reviled, nothing in between.
What he has done is apply a sober approach: any proclamation from officials, say, about the need for an extended lockdown, is quickly met with a good hard look at the facts. An invocation of studies. At times he seems the most clearly-thinking individual amidst the swarming mass. Sometimes, his Twitter feed is the only news I bother to check. Him, and a cadre of like-minded individuals who on the face of things have nothing, really, to do with news. And yet these are the people who seem best able to cut through the bullshit and find some semblance of truth.
Looking for statistical evidence amidst the general hysteria; advocating for individual autonomy that has been eroded with nary a pipsqueak. The disdain shown for those who would dare protest unconstitutional stay-at-home orders? Berenson embraces that guttering bedrock of the American spirit, and you wouldn’t be surprised, then, to see the kind of vitriol that gets thrown his way by, well, let’s call them mask-wearers. The kind who write articles instructing you how to deal calmly with those peons who just won’t wear masks.
The funniest thing about this situation—Man Pushes for Patience Rather Than Panic—as has been the case with so many others, is that in any sane society, it would not be a story.
For a while, now, I’ve weaned myself away from the television. I’ve stopped checking the daily news headlines: COVID DEATHS SURPASS 9/11, and whatever panic porn we’re subjected to. In a pandemic, when progress looks like it will be measured in months, if not years, or whenever the solution finally presents itself, we’re of course subjected to a daily dose of panic porn.
And it’s not as if those preaching for calm are in the minority. Like everything these days, the issue is split down the middle, two sides shouting at each other across a shaky bridge of sanctimony. The walk, don’t run approach, of course, was not used. That we might combat this pandemic soberly, with trusted officials giving us much-needed information in a timely, effective manner, rather than what we got.
Which was a sudden shutting down of everything after weeks of the opposite message, followed by mass runs on toilet paper. Step outside now, for a walk or a run, and you might see the person you approach on the same side of the street make a show of veering out of your way, sneering at your selfishness for not ceding the sidewalk to them. Maybe they’ll just scream. So you can both not capture COVID, I guess. Meanwhile, take a look at all the masks strewn about the streets. Responsible citizens, inveterate litterers. It’s like the South Park episode where San Francisco defeats smog, only to welcome the far more noxious menace of smug. Who’d a thunk it?
Which isn’t so much to take offense at a swath of the population’s inability to properly dispose of their safety devices, it’s more a hearty hope that every one of us might remember that he is a walking, talking mass of contradiction. Or, more simply, a human.
And maybe we could come together over that and, rather than shout at the sky about things outside our control, do a little good in the middle.