Opinion

Love, rage, cranberry sauce. Welcome to the week that has it all.

November 21, 2021 3:33 am

This Thanksgiving, there will be plenty of rage to go along with the cranberry sauce. (Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector)

It’s that time of year again when we’re supposed to gather together and count our blessings, but a lot of us aren’t feeling particularly thankful on this second pandemic Thanksgiving week.

I don’t have any particular gratefulness metric to share with you, other than what we’ve all observed: a smoldering anger burning American life, beginning with the driver behind you leaning on his horn and screaming bloody murder because you’re not pulling away quick enough from a four-way stop. In the rear view you can almost feel his spittle flick the back of your neck from the mouthed curses that are the Supreme Court definition of fighting words. There’s the freedom fighter who, seeing your mask, becomes agitated and generally tries to exhale as much unvaccinated carbon dioxide as possible in your direction, through cursing and shouting. And of course we can’t forget our current political amoral majority at the Kansas Statehouse, which has forced a historic special session of the Legislature this holiday week for a rage festival to fight federal COVID vaccine mandates for large employers.

We got a preview of what to expect during public testimony recently before the Special Committee on Government Overreach and the Impact of COVID-19 Mandates. Try saying the name of that committee 10 times fast. There was more medical misinformation disseminated at the hearing than in any junior high school boys’ locker room in the land.

In addition to the typical anti-science, fear-mongering claptrap from the usual suspects, including Kansans for Health Freedom, we were also treated to the spectacle of anti-vaxivist Daran Duffy and his family sitting in the front row wearing yellow Stars of David on their chests, as if they were about to be hauled off to the gas chambers. Nope, Duffy said, he didn’t consider visual Holocaust analogies offensive because “we’re definitely moving in that direction.” His claim is wrong and offensive, but consistent with the authoritarian playbook. It’s another Big Lie told in service to a political objective, and it was widely employed by — you guessed it — the Nazis. Although the concept of the Big Lie has often been attributed to Joseph Goebbels, the Third Reich’s minister of propaganda, it probably originated with Hitler himself.

People will believe a big lie sooner than a little one, Hitler believed, according to a psychological profile compiled by the American wartime intelligence services, the Office of Strategic Services. If you repeat the lie frequently enough, people will sooner or later believe it.

“His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off,” the OSS profile reads, “never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong.”

Our majority lawmakers in Kansas — and those in Florida, Missouri, and Tennessee — are not going to let the public cool off or let us forget that everything bad is the fault of Joe Biden and his Satan-worshipping cabal of Democrats. There’s a lot of talk about freedom and Jesus surrounding these special sessions, just so no political capital is left on the table. Never mind that the vast majority of the lawmakers beating their breasts about God and Country were themselves vaccinated against mumps, measles, rubella, and sometimes smallpox in elementary school, or that in red letters Jesus urged us to love (and presumably care for) our neighbors.

Instead, we’re going to be treated to more political spectacle, more medical quackery, and yet more calculated comparisons to the Holocaust. The anti-science dark side of the Force is so strong in Kansas that even the state’s governor, Democrat Laura Kelly, has caved.

“While I appreciate the intention to keep people safe, a goal I share, I don’t believe this (Biden administration ) directive is the correct, or the most effective, solution for Kansas,” she said in a statement early this month. “It is too late to impose a federal standard now that we have already developed systems and strategies that are tailored to our specific needs.”

This, from the governor whose efforts to mount a coordinated, statewide effort to contain the virus was hamstrung by a hostile Legislature that demanded “oversight.” The result was them crumbling under the anti-science, faux freedom lobby. The only need Kelly’s statement addresses is her own need for re-election, as she’s facing a tough campaign next year against expected GOP nominee Derek Schmidt, the state’s attorney general, who already came out against Biden’s mandate.

OK, I get it.

Kelly believes she needs to retain her office in order to do good. But at what point do you stand up for what you know is right, instead of talking nonsense about “systems and strategies” tailored to specific needs? Why aren’t our leaders talking about the vaccine “mandate” in the same way we talked about the need to ban smoking in the workplace? Kansas has had the Clean Indoor Air Act for 10 years. There were no yellow star photo ops in protest. If the government can regulate smoking at work and public places for the sake of public safety, why balk at a “vaccine or testing” requirement for employers?

Our leaders lack the courage to speak the truth. Most seem to fear medical fact will thwart our state's specific emotional need to believe in hogwash. The pandemic has dragged on in Kansas because of vaccine refusal, and we may be facing a brutal fourth wave this winter. By the time we sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, our state may have recorded 7,000 COVID deaths.

– Max McCoy

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It’s because our leaders lack the courage to speak the truth. Most seem to fear medical fact will thwart our state’s specific emotional need to believe in hogwash. The pandemic has dragged on in Kansas because of vaccine refusal, and we may be facing a brutal fourth wave this winter. By the time we sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, our state may have recorded 7,000 COVID deaths.

Nationally, we’ve logged more than 760,000 dead. It will be a million or more before it’s all over. I remember the first column I wrote for Kansas Reflector, in July 2020, when the death toll was 326. It’s now 21 times that. I still believe we need to see the names and faces of the coronavirus dead, run in local newspapers, just as news outlets ran the names and faces of the dead during the Vietnam War.

But I’m wondering now if death isn’t the attraction, however unconscious, for a large segment of vaccine deniers. I’ve been trying for months now to make sense of the resistance to vaccines that in any other circumstance would be hailed as medical miracles. Where is the irrational anger — the cathartic, liberating rage — coming from? I talk about this over the breakfast table with Kim, who is weary of my trying to find logic in irrational beliefs. You can’t argue with crazy, she tells me, because crazy plays by its own facts and will win every time. So instead of trying to find logic in crazy, I’ve been thinking about psychological factors that might explain things.

Americans will choose freedom, or the illusion of it, over life every time.

Way back in the 1920s, Edward Bernays, the father of modern public relations, was hired by the American Tobacco Company to sell cigarettes to an untapped market — women. Bernays had experience influencing large swaths of people. He was hired by the United States, for example, to prepare France for the influx of Doughboys during World War I and was so successful that when Woodrow Wilson visited at war’s end the president was hailed as a “liberator.” Bernays was smart and talented — imagine a Don Draper of the Jazz Age — but he had something going for him that his competitors didn’t.

His uncle was Sigmund Freud.

Bernays used his uncle’s ideas about how human beings are driven to things that are bad or even deadly to us and turned them into campaigns. For the American Tobacco Company, he staged a publicity stunt at the 1929 Easter Sunday parade in New York. At an appointed signal, young women in the parade brought out cigarettes and lit up in public. The cigarettes, the press was told, were “torches of freedom.” The idea of smoking and liberation were, for generations of women, forever linked, even after it was shown that, when used as directed, cigarettes would kill you.

My mother smoked from the time she was a young bride in the 1940s to the week of her death, of cancer, at age 58. I still remember the red pack of Pall Malls that was never far from her reach. Pall Malls were a brand of the American Tobacco Company, and are still produced by its successor, the R.J. Reynolds Company.

Such is the reach of irrational desires.

In his 1928 book, “Propaganda,” Bernays lays it out:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”

Bernays lived to 103, dying in 1995.

His pioneering work in public relations — good and bad, but undeniably effective — set the stage for the marketing explosion of the 20th century, particularly after World War II when most families had a little disposable income. His uncle’s ideas about the human fascination with death became a staple of marketing. The death drive, as Freud saw it, results in anger, compulsion and self-destructive behavior. These ideas may seem primitive to modern psychoanalysts and marketing experts, with their MMPI and social media algorithms, but Freud’s insights have been used for decades to sell us things that are bad for us.

I suspect it’s also being used to sell us ideas that are bad for us.

In 2006, the cultural anthropologist Clotaire Rapaille published “The Culture Code,” a book that describes his work as a marketing guru for upscale brands. Rapaille is a little too glib to take everything he says without a generous dose of salt, but he writes clearly and has some compelling anecdotes. When Chrysler came to him in the 1990s to ask why Jeep Wrangler sales had stalled, Rapaille’s research told him it was because they’d changed the headlights to square. Change them back to round, he told them, because the code for Jeep was “horse,” and horses have round eyes. It worked.

Rapaille keeps his narrative positive, but he does have interesting things to say about the collective American mind. Our code for perfection, he says, is “death.” We’re an adolescent country and we fear getting things right the first time. We don’t like experts telling us what to do or holding us to their standards.

That checks out.

But what worked on the frontier isn’t a great strategy for public health.

The GOP of 2021 has an advantage over any reality-based political philosophy because it has completely surrendered to the irrational impulses that make us act against our own best interests. They have no need for new ideas or compelling solutions because the narrative they push is hardwired into the American brain. Freedom is about doing what you want because if it feels good, praise Jesus, and damn the consequences.

So, this Thanksgiving should be interesting.

Last year, the pandemic kept many of us apart, only sharing dinners with out-of-town family through a Zoom screen. Now, we are likely to be at the same table again. And along with the turkey and dressing and cranberry sauce will be love, anger and even rage. For most families, there will be plenty of eggshells to tiptoe around. But inevitably, after a glass or three of wine, politics will come up.

There may even be talk of JFK Jr. returning from the dead.

Here’s my suggestion on how to handle it.

Show some kindness. Treat the loved one embracing political delusions or spouting medical misinformation or advocating an authoritarian worldview with the tolerance you would if they were heavy smokers who just hadn’t yet made the decision to quit. Don’t let them smoke at the table. Refuse to take a puff on their torch of freedom.

Then, on Black Friday, urge them to give the stuff up. Go back to rational arguments. Ask them to see a doctor for help with that cough. Don’t cave by allowing that yes, there may be some point to their vaccine denial, that voter fraud could be rampant, or that JFK Jr. just might return. You’re going to lose those arguments, because rage trumps fact every time, but at least you’ll have memories of one good holiday.

Then prepare yourself for the fourth wave.

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Max McCoy
Max McCoy

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. A native Kansan, he started his career at the Pittsburg Morning Sun and was soon writing for national magazines. His investigative stories on unsolved murders, serial killers and hate groups earned him first-place awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors and other organizations. McCoy has also written more than 20 books, the most recent of which is "Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River," named a Kansas Notable Book by the state library. "Elevations" also won the National Outdoor Book Award, in the history/biography category. Max teaches journalism at Emporia State University.

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