My Father, The Fool: I’d run out of sympathy for COVID skeptics. Then I remembered my father’s stiff neck.

“One of the problems with screaming “How could you be so stupid?” at people who behave stupidly is that we too often think of the question as rhetorical when it isn’t. Though vaccine hesitancy is often seen as purely political, that’s not necessarily the case. It also correlates to lack of health care, which means that when public-health officials urge the unvaccinated to consult their family doctors (on the assumption that they might be more persuasive than government agencies), they’re assuming facts not in evidence. If you can’t afford health insurance, you probably can’t afford a doctor either, and if this is how you’ve been living for the past decade, chances are good that surviving without sound medical advice has become part of your behavioral DNA. Your strategy will be much like my father’s: keep working, save what you can (not much) for the rainy day you know is coming, and hope for the best. Maybe you’ll get lucky and know a guy.

So, yes, my father was foolish not to go to a doctor sooner, but it’s not terribly surprising that he didn’t. After he returned from the Second World War, his primary access to health care was the VA hospital, an hour away, in Albany. Road construction in upstate New York was seasonal. Summers, you worked 10-hour days and six-day weeks, so when exactly would you go to the doctor? How would you even know when to schedule an appointment? Winters, when you went on unemployment, you had more time but far less money. You might consult a doctor if you fell seriously ill, but you were unlikely to have a regular physician or get regular checkups. Even if you were injured and in pain, you’d be as likely to turn to somebody on the street to sell you painkillers. (Here again, you’d know a guy.) While unwise, such behavior isn’t stupidity so much as lack of resources, and recognizing this should, at the very least, slow our march to judgment.

Okay, you say, but surely there are some things that anybody should know better than to do. Should people really have to be told not to drink bleach? Shouldn’t you know better than to refuse a free vaccine whose efficacy and safety have been vouched for by infectious-disease experts, and turn instead to a dewormer vouched for by veterinarians? And when you have a stiff neck, shouldn’t you know better than to consult a horse trainer? Maybe, but the irony is that many people who behave foolishly consider themselves to be “in the know,” to be in possession of inside knowledge; access to it, for them, is a point of pride. The lesson that life seemed determined to teach my father on a daily basis was that he didn’t know anyone worth knowing, that he had no strings to pull. Because he had only a high-school education and worked with his hands, America seemed determined to make him understand just how unimportant he was in the larger scheme of things. So the possibility that in this particular instance he actually did know somebody worth knowing had to be very rewarding. And to his credit, he didn’t want to hoard his good fortune. Like believers in the kinds of conspiracy theories that my wife’s sister and her husband routinely devour, my father was eager to spread the word, to make the introduction, to teach others the secret handshake. You know Spring Street, right? The gray duplex at the top of the hill? Knock three times. Tell them Jimmy sent you.

Still, even though you want to spread the word, you don’t tell everybody about your guy. You don’t tell people who drive expensive foreign cars and have summer homes. They have their own guys, legions of them. No, you only tell people like yourself, people you know on sight by how they dress and carry themselves, by where and what they drink, by the calluses on their hands when you shake. The men of your tribe. Which returns me to the day my father admitted to having that stiff neck. There I was, taking him in as he rotated on his barstool and marveling, as I often did after not seeing him for a while, at how little he and his world changed over time. His buddies all rolling their eyes when he told me not to worry, that he knew a guy. Fucking Jimmy. What’re you gonna do? But he was taking me in as well, which means he knew—he had to know—from my tweed jacket and button-down Oxford shirt and loafers and, yes, from my hands, recently grown soft, that I now belonged to a different tribe altogether. [..]

Maybe the time has come to look more carefully at exactly what we’re all so fed up with. What if it isn’t individual foolishness that we’ve grown weary of, but rather group folly? Invoking tribalism is a reflex these days, but maybe we miss the tragicomic absurdity of those loyalties. At the end of one of my books, Straight Man, a bunch of academics are crowded in a small room (they’ve been cheering up a colleague who’s suffered a cardiac event), and when the time comes to exit, they need to cooperate because the door opens inward. It’s no surprise that they’re unable to—the whole novel has been about their insular squabbling. Against all reason, they press forward en masse. And that’s where the book leaves them, trapped in that claustrophobic space. Sure, they’ll eventually figure it out and escape, but what they’ll never escape, we understand, is themselves and the lives they’ve chosen. [..]

And the problem is that tribes are often more than just large gatherings of individuals. They can be greater (or lesser, depending on your definition) than the sum of their parts. For as long as they cohere, they become—some would argue—a whole new organism, like the spontaneous, murderous mob at the end of Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust. In appearance, mobs can resemble large flocks of birds that bank left or right at the same instant, as if responding to some unheard command. Clearly, it’s what the flock is up to that counts, not the identity of the individual birds. The fact that not everyone who marched on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, meant to take part in an insurrection doesn’t really matter. They became part of something larger than themselves and subservient to its will. Social media was partly to blame, obviously, its algorithms designed to strengthen the bonds of affinity groups, even if the affinity is criminality or lawlessness. Those algorithms render us pliable, content to view one another as a “basket of deplorables.” [..]

Only after the mob disbands and disperses do we discover in that basket someone we care about. Talk to these people after they’ve become themselves again, and you discover that many were there because they “know a guy” who gave them information that not everybody had. This guy they know probably isn’t real in the same sense that the horse trainer who gave my father the DMSO was real. They’ve never actually met. But by now, the deal is familiar to anyone who’s online. The guy is selling his product not just to you but to everyone like you. And he knows who these people are because you’ve been so clear about your allegiances. From your “likes,” he can deduce your fears, your grievances, your dreams, your social class, your work and life experience. Most of all, he wants you to understand how important you are. Indeed, what needs doing probably can’t be done without you. He tells you where to go and what to do when you get there. He lets you in on the secret handshake. Knock three times. Tell them Jimmy sent you.

Full article, R Russo. The Atlantic, 2022.3.9