It feels ironic to even write this, but here we go.
For some time now, I’ve been puzzled by the people who can’t seem to let the pandemic go. Who got politicized during those two odd years and still fixate on what they consider a time of government overreach, erosion of freedoms, or obscure betrayal.
I can think of several people in my immediate surroundings who keep fixating on it, always implying that covid and the response to it opened their eyes. It made them downright angry: At precautions, at governments and pharma companies, or at vaccines in general.1 And then there’s their belief that it was all overblown: That we didn’t live through a health crisis but rather a crisis of fear, blind trust, and global mainstreaming.2
For a while now, I’ve been wondering what it was about a global health crisis that dragged these people into the culture wars.
Naomi Klein’s Doppelgänger finally provided some explanations that made sense. In the book, she dives into the wider political polarization around culture war topics in general and how people take a hard turn to the right. But particularly, she focuses on the many conspiracy theories surrounding the efficacy of masks, vaccines, and lockdowns.
Klein is the first to argue that the pandemic response was indeed misguided. Mostly, because rather than embracing collective, state-sponsored action like broad, worldwide vaccination, PPE, air filters, and measures for schools to stay open, it put too heavy of a burden on individuals to do the right thing.
And this is where she gives an answer to the question that’s been bothering me: Klein believes that asking people to suddenly watch out for one another goes against the way our societies generally function. Neoliberalism, Klein claims, has pushed the idea that everyone is responsible just for themselves—and insulated us from any sense of community.
We are now reaping the rotted harvest of decades of deliberately sown mistrust: Mistrust of the very idea that we are members of communities and societies, mistrust of any expectation that governments can and should do anything positive for us. “There is no such thing as society,” Margaret Thatcher once declared.
The problem, then, is systemic. Which would go to explain why so many apolitical people were ready to believe in some nefarious project when they were asked to make sacrifices for others.
The legacy of generations of messages that pitted members of society against one another does not disappear overnight simply because there is a pandemic. And yet, strangely enough, when Covid hit, that was precisely the expectation among most centrist politicians. Which was itself a form of magical thinking.
The pandemic was a fundamentally global issue: It didn’t care about borders or nations, and the virus spread from person to person.
Klein calls this the “shock of entanglement”: The realization that we’re all connected and that some challenges are bigger than individuals or family units—and can only be addressed collectively. But individuals has been upheld so much, that people now generally believe that their lives were a product of their own efforts rather than collective action.
(People had) bought the story that their comforts and successes were the product of their ingenuity and hard work alone (not their workers, not their caregivers, not the trade policies that favor rich nations, and certainly not their race or class). And then, suddenly, we were all confronted with a crisis that required us to act as more than individuals, more than families, more than nations, because we are actually entangled with one another. And that was a shock bigger than Covid itself.
I’ll write more about this soon, but I’ve come to think as anger as the main ammunition in the culture wars. Making and maintaining formerly apoliticial people angry is how the (“alt-“)right pushes forward its agenda.↩︎
There are, of course, lots of people that have fixated on conspiracies such as Bill-Gates-engineered vaccines or implanted microchips, but I’m not talking about them—I’m more concerned with people who’ve become skeptical and see something nefarious in every political project they’ve encountered since the pandemic.↩︎