The Age of Wonder

When Americans lose their sense that they control their own lives, they start wondering about who out there may be responsible.
Coronavirus news, Coronavirus conspiracy, COVID-19 pandemic, COVID-19 news, Wuhan coronavirus, Trump coronavirus, Jerry Falwell Jr, Donald Trump, Coronavirus conspiracy theories, Peter Isackson

Brookfield, WI, USA on 4/18/2020 © Thomas Kolbeck / Shutterstock

The revolt against the coronavirus lockdown is brewing in the United States. At the heart of US culture is the notion that everyone knows what’s best for themselves and they don’t need a government or even their neighbors to tell them what to do.

Chris Cuomo demonstrated that principle on Easter Sunday. The CNN host has been in the news as a celebrity recovering slowly from his bout with COVID-19, the novel coronavirus. His brother, Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, has also been in the news after imposing and managing a strict lockdown on the state.

When Chris Cuomo broke the rule of self-isolation to inspect some property he owns in the Hamptons, he was confronted by a 65-year-old cyclist who reminded him of the lockdown rules. According to the cyclist, Cuomo responded: “Who the hell are you? I can do what I want.” In a radio broadcast the following day, Cuomo complained about the man: “I don’t want some jackass, loser, fat-tire biker being able to pull over and get in my space and talk bullshit to me, I don’t want to hear it.”


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Equally sensitive to letting people occupy their “space” and control their own lives, US President Donald Trump has now begun egging on protesters in Michigan and Minnesota to defy their Democratic governors and violate stay-at-home orders designed to control the spread of the COVID-19. This contradicts other statements Trump has made about states having the authority to manage their own policies. Amidst such confusion and so many mixed messages, the sense that people are being manipulated for devious reasons has begun spreading as fast as the most virulent coronavirus.

Even before the lockdowns were officially put in place last month, the COVID-19 pandemic had prominent voices worrying about the threat to their liberty. They began evoking enemies they believed were intent on taking control of their lives and their government. Interviewed on Fox News on March 13, the day after the World Health Organization’s declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic, the president of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell Jr., expressed his opinion as talk of a lockdown began: “It’s just strange to me how many are overreacting.” Then he added this remark: “It makes you wonder if there is a political reason for that.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Wonder:

The thought process that, in some cases, stimulates scientific inquiry and philosophical thinking (Plato) and, in others, generates novel conspiracy theories

Contextual Note

In his Fox interview, Falwell claimed that the media’s focus on the risks of the pandemic could be the work of Trump’s enemies. He suggested that “maybe now this is their next attempt to get Trump.”

Falwell even suggested that the pandemic itself may have been planned and jointly carried out in an elaborate conspiracy organized jointly by China and North Korea. He reminded the public that, in the context of difficult US-Korean negotiations on nuclear policy, the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had “promised a Christmas present.” Most commentators at the time interpreted this as Kim’s threat to resume testing long-range missiles.

For Falwell, the promised Christmas present could only be the arrival on American shores of COVID-19. It all fit together, even if Christmas was well past by the time the virus took root in the US. That’s how effective wondering out loud can be. It may sound mad to anyone with a true sense of wonder, but there was method in his madness. 

Once Falwell’s conspiracy theory was well in place, it helped to justify his refusal a week later to submit to the dictates of Trump’s enemies. The following week, Falwell manifested his defiance in the flesh (though not his own). In the midst of a national call for mandatory school closures, he invited the students of Liberty University back to the campus, saving his business (and its revenue) even if it endangered the students’ health.

In the past few days, President Trump has started to riff on Falwell’s conspiracy theory, not because he believes it, but because he sees it as the key to his electoral strategy for November. Noting that there is a legitimate question as to whether the virus originated at the Wuhan fish market in China or in a Wuhan laboratory studying coronaviruses, Trump has started pushing the Fallwellian idea. According to the Trump campaign’s first anti-Biden ad, it may be a plot by the evil Chinese, with whom the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden feels so much undue sympathy. At Saturday’s briefing on the White House lawn, Trump wondered out loud: “Was it a mistake that got out of control or was it done deliberately? Okay, it’s a big difference between those two.” By framing it as a question, he was hedging his bets. But by wondering which it may be, he was hinting at the worst.

How did Falwell succeed in giving credibility to a conspiracy theory that now appears to be a part of Trump’s and the Republicans’ electoral strategy for 2020, clearly focused on demonizing China? It required only some simple rhetorical tricks. 

In just two sentences from his Fox News interview, Falwell provides the key to launching a credible conspiracy theory. He begins with, “It’s just strange to me how many are overreacting.” The first step to get a viral theory going is to identify an occurrence that one’s listeners can agree sounds “strange.” In this sense, “strange” doesn’t simply mean out of the ordinary or difficult to explain. It refers to something that the speaker and the audience he’s addressing find inconvenient or potentially disruptive of their lives. In other words, something to be resisted or even eliminated.

We can thus distinguish two meanings of strange. The first expresses surprise at the unexpected or extraordinary. It signals that something may be worth investigating and understanding. The second is accusatory. It says: That thing doesn’t deserve to exist or it isn’t part of our world.

The second step is the loaded expression, “It makes you wonder.” A scientist or philosopher will use the idea of wondering as a starting point to begin exploring rare or unknown phenomena. Their aim will be to open the horizon of thought and understanding. Conspiracy theorists use it to create suspicion, to accuse an enemy and specifically to close all horizons of thought and investigation, to exclude from consideration alternative hypotheses. They point to a conclusion before any investigation can even take place.

That is how China has become Trump’s scapegoat. As Rolling Stone observes: “With the state of the economy in disarray and the pandemic death toll rising, GOP lawmakers think it’s best for Trump to have a scapegoat.” To answer Trump’s gambit, the Biden campaign has responded in kind, accusing the president of being complicit with China. Instead of countering the conspiracy theory that holds China responsible for America’s woes, Biden’s response builds on the Trump campaign’s perception that the Chinese are to blame, but he focuses on Trump’s inadequate response to a known threat. The difference is that the Democrats are not ready to suggest that the Chinese may deliberately have sent a “Christmas present” to the US. 

Historical Note

Plato identified the sense of wonder as the mark of a philosopher. In his dialogue, Theaetetus, he has Socrates say: “For this feeling of wonder shows that you are a philosopher, since wonder is the only beginning of philosophy.”

Plato’s sense of wonder serves to define the dominant traditional meaning of the word. It conveys the positive, productive version of the act of thinking about things that depart from the ordinary. It’s an emotion that guides us toward achieving understanding and truth. Wonder, in this sense, produces two things: an avenue to knowledge and the humility that consists of being aware of the extent of one’s ignorance. It also produces a form of aesthetic pleasure as when, in the Hebrew Bible, the poet of the Psalms implores: “Open my eyes, that I may see wondrous things in your law.” (Psalm 119:18).

In Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream’(V,1), Peter Quince, the lowly carpenter, adheres to Plato’s concept of wondering: “But wonder on, till truth make all things plain.” And when Hamlet’s friend, Horatio, perceives the ghost of Hamlet’s father he cries, “O day and night, but this is wondrous strange.” This elicits Hamlet’s famous reply: “And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.“ (Hamlet I,5).

Though Shakespeare could use the verb “wonder” to express both surprise and doubt, the idea that associates “I wonder” or “it makes you wonder” with an expression of suspicion pointing toward some ill-defined sinister conspiracy has only appeared in recent times as a rhetorical device. From Plato and the Bible to Sherlock Holmes, the act of “wondering” pointed toward acceptance of the unusual and expressed open-minded curiosity leading to philosophical investigation. Today, the very idea of wonder has become impoverished, more often reduced to signifying suspicion and accusations of skullduggery than inciting investigation and deeper reflection. Many have regretted the fact that modern civilization has very simply lost its sense of wonder.

This trend may be the consequence of a culture that values competition above collaboration and suspicion — or even condemnation — above comprehension. It may also reflect the obsession with turning all valuable human action and interaction into a quest for profit, influence or power. Shane Dawson, the creator of a YouTube channel called Shane Dawson TV, produced a video claiming that the 1969 moon landing was a fake. That video alone, with over 7 million hits, may have earned him tens of thousands of dollars in YouTube advertising. To justify the video, he argued: “Why wouldn’t the moon landing be fake? Why wouldn’t we fake that, just to win over other countries? It makes you wonder, have we actually ever been to the moon?”

When we see the media and politicians giving play to so many conspiracy theories to achieve their personal, commercial or political goals, it should literally “make us wonder” about where our civilization may be heading.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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