Today, we lurch drunkenly from one moral panic to another.
Last month, it was Covid Cooties. This month, it’s Killer Kops. Next month, it might be something else, just as alliterative and just as loosely connected to reality: whatever will distract the proles while their pockets are picked. (In the 1980s, the moral panics were Deadbeat Dads, Drug Dealers, and Drunk Drivers. You have to wonder if there’s an actual marketing department that comes up with these names.)
Each time, we’re told what is absolutely true, earth-shakingly important, and beyond doubt by any person not in thrall to the Devil.
To ask questions is a mark of evil. We must believe, on peril of hellfire, or at least on peril of being fired. Hysteria, not thought, is the standard of moral goodness.
But our predicament is not really new. The Nobel laureate philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) wrote about it in the 1930s:
“I am persuaded that there is absolutely no limit to the absurdities that can, by government action, come to be generally believed.
Give me an adequate army, with power to provide it with more pay and better food than falls to the lot of the average man, and I will undertake, within thirty years, to make the majority of the population believe that two and two are three, that water freezes when it gets hot and boils when it gets cold, or any other nonsense that might seem to serve the interest of the State.
Of course, even when these beliefs had been generated, people would not put the kettle in the refrigerator when they wanted it to boil. That cold makes water boil would be a Sunday truth, sacred and mystical, to be professed in awed tones, but not to be acted on in daily life.
What would happen would be that any verbal denial of the mystic doctrine would be made illegal, and obstinate heretics would be ‘frozen’ at the stake. No person who did not enthusiastically accept the official doctrine would be allowed to teach or to have any position of power.
Only the very highest officials, in their cups, would whisper to each other what rubbish it all is; then they would laugh and drink again. This is hardly a caricature of what happens under some modern governments.” (Unpopular Essays)
If it sounds eerily familiar, that’s because we’re living in it.