The day started with the front doorknob coming off in my hand. Not a good omen. A quick web search provided the local locksmith for our small town, and he promptly showed up later that afternoon. Insatiably curious when it comes to anything mechanical, the friendly gentleman obliged me with explaining how this particular door lock worked and what he was doing to fix it. During our friendly banter I learned his wife was a licensed private pilot, that they owned their own airplane and did quite a bit of traveling with it. We were genuinely enjoying each other’s company.
The lock was repaired in short order, and we continued to chat as I filled out the check at the living room table.
“With you being a professional pilot, do you mind if I ask you a personal question?”
I had to smile. Usually this could mean anything, but they usually fall along these examples:
“I know you guys are just sleeping up there. The auto-pilot is doing all the work, isn’t it?”
“You flew off of aircraft carriers. Was it boring to be an airline pilot?”
“Back in 2017 I was flying on United going from San Diego to Denver and the Captain said that we were delayed due to thunderstorms at Denver, but when we got there, the weather was fine. They were just lying to us, right?”
Instead I got this:
“The Earth – is it flat or round?”
I chuckled and kept scribbling into my checkbook. Good one, my friend. I tore the check off and looked up as I handed it to him. His deadpan expression froze me.
“You’re joking, right?” I blinked, still waiting for the mischievous gotta-be-coming-soon look of GOTCHA!
“No, I’m not. I know a bunch of pilots, and they all tell me that the world is actually flat. What do you think it is?”
“I can assure you it’s round.”
“How do you know, I mean, for sure? And don’t try to explain with the ‘not being to see over the horizon’ explanation. They have special lenses nowadays that prove that that’s just not true.”
I blinked again.
“Uhhhh, because I’ve been up at 41,000 feet and seen the curvature of the earth? The phases of the moon? Aristotle, Kepler, Copernicus? Who are these pilots you’re talking about?”
“Pilots my wife and I know. Lots of them, and they all say the same thing: The Earth is actually flat.”
At that point, two conversations were taking place. One was with the person in front of me that up until two minutes ago I had assumed was a thinking, intelligent human being. The other was the monologue that was going on in my head. It went something like this:
Is this happening? Is this REALLY happening? It is! These people are real! They exist among us!
I ran through a short list of possibilities. I could:
A. Ask for my check back, because if he actually believed this, then there was no way that my front door was actually fixed.
B. Tell him that that this was the craziest BS I had ever heard and send him on his way.
C. Engage and have a civil discussion and use it as an exercise in calm dialogue when your instincts tell you otherwise.
I chose civil engagement.
We went back and forth for the next half-hour. He started with quoting the Bible. I countered with “chapter and verse, please?” I have read the Bible through several times and could show several passages where it states the Earth being a sphere, long before the Greeks figured it out mathematically in the third century BC. He countered that that “Well . . . that’s open to interpretation.” I spoke of being on aircraft carriers in the Navy where we would head west out of San Diego and would end up on the East Coast. He countered with (using one of our oval placemats as the actual shape of the Earth) how the compass really works and the route we must have taken. He told me that NASA knows that the Earth is flat and is hiding it from the world in order to hold onto their funding. I replied what a marvel it was that all of those hundreds of thousands of NASA employees over the years would be able to keep such a fantastic secret for so long without a single leak, especially in this age of social media.
On and on we went. It stayed civil. We “agreed to disagree.” He asked if he could e-mail me some information and I said sure. Perhaps he just wasn’t the best presenter of the argument. Perhaps there were more eloquent speakers or technically gifted apologists who could better articulate what my locksmith friend could not. I told him I was looking forward to what he was going to send me, and we parted on friendly terms.
Nothing was ever sent, and I never heard from him again.
Still, that chance encounter rocked me. For the first time I had come in contact with a fellow human being who was certain that 2 + 2 = 5, and there was not a thing I could do or say that would convince him otherwise. And I knew there were more of him out there. It put me into a three-day funk that bounced back and forth between numbing sadness and burning outrage and the pervasive feeling was simply this:
We are doomed as a species.
I know what you are thinking. Geez Derek, it was just one person, with one opinion. Of course, you would be right. But with what we’ve all experienced in the last two years, what this guy threw at me just didn’t feel all that outlandish. He is not some crazy nutjob with a warped sense of reality. He is a seemingly educated, articulate, well-spoken mature adult who just happens to think that the Earth is flat. It put everything into perspective. The pandemic isn’t that bad. The election was stolen. The insurrection was performed by patriots. The Earth is flat.
It’s all asking the same of me. Suspend logic. Ignore reason. Scientific fact does not matter but respecting another’s opinion does. Alternate “facts” should be given equal credence even when proven false. Electoral claims that have no factual basis deserve merit because they have been repeated enough times by politicians and media pundits. Fellow citizens who invade the Capitol with violence in which lives were lost are indeed, patriots. This alternate universe cold be yours, Derek. Let go. Give it a try. . .
Try as I might, I just can’t. I want to believe in these people and the narratives that are being put forth. They are not bad people. They are friends of mine. Family members. I love them and they love me. I am torn – having to choose between facts or friendships. Truth or blood. The soul of our country has been cleaved by the duplicity in our state of existence. It does not feel sustainable. This is what ignoring the truth or embracing “alternate facts” has cost us:
800,000+ US COVID DEATHS
If you would have told me two years ago that the world would suffer a horrible pandemic, I would have been appalled. If you would’ve told me that the US would lead the world in deaths by a wide margin, I wouldn’t – couldn’t - have believed you.
The fact is we have, and the thing that angers me more than anything is that it was – and still is - mostly preventable. Starting with the former President that initially proposed that it was being way overblown, or would “magically just go away”, cost us time and focus. Not sure how history will treat Donald Trump, and this is balanced by him putting a ton of resources into developing the vaccine, but I have to believe it will not be kind. The continuing tragedy is that a sizable number of Congressional politicians have embraced the policy of minimizing the lethality of the pandemic and creating doubt as to the efficacy of masks or vaccinations. Delta is now being joined by omicron with no end in sight.
800,000+ Americans have died as of New Year’s Day 2022. That’s more than were lost in the 1861-1865 Civil War – our most costly war in terms of deaths (620,000) - and more than the deaths of every other war America has fought in - combined. We are expected to crest 1 million dead by Valentine’s Day. The response?
Those numbers aren’t real.
If somebody was battling cancer (and had a reduced immune capability due to chemotherapy) and caught COVID, how can you say they died of COVID? What if somebody who died in a car accident had tested positive for COVID before the accident? Are they counted as having died from COVID?
This link from the American Associations of Medical Colleges offers a great explanation:
Counting the Dead. Basically, in the examples above, if you had cancer and Covid contributed to your death it would be counted. If you had Covid and got into a fatal car crash, it would not.
I watch with dismay as family and friends continue to divide ourselves into “those people” (usually assuming a political party) who either embrace or refute the need to wear masks or get a safe and free vaccine so that we can keep our loved ones safe and get the economy back on track.
In our home, we have been taking of my wife’s mother for the last several years. She is 98 and has had her battles with lymphoma but is in otherwise decent health. A few days before Christmas, we were informed that our daughter had been exposed to Covid from an unvaccinated friend. My daughter started showing symptoms and tested positive the following day. My own infection started soon after. Her infection was mild due to her age and that she was vaccinated. I, however, was not so lucky. Despite being fully vaccinated and boosted, it was a fairly rough couple of weeks, but at least I didn’t end up in the hospital. But what was horrible – worse than my own illness – was seeing my daughter in tears over the very real possibility that she might’ve given it to her grandmother, and that it would kill her. Imagine the emotional scar that would’ve been left on a 15-year-old. We both isolated, followed our doctor’s treatment program, and thankfully both Mom and Grammy were kept safe.
The pandemic, by itself, was a gut-wrenching calamity for this country to go through. The validity of science had been put on trial. However, another trial awaited. Something that would shake our beliefs in our democracy and its institutions to its very core.
The 2020 Presidential Election
In 1985, I joined the United States Navy. When I took my Oath of Office it was to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” The President also takes a similar oath, swearing that he/she will “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States”. The oath is to the Constitution – not to a party, or even the people of the United States – it is to an idea of self-governance that was written down in 1788 on a piece of parchment by some pretty brilliant human beings.
After the election, Donald Trump raised questions about the integrity of the election. Fine. Look into that. Determine if there was widespread voter fraud. We all would want to know that. In this election, one of my good friends (a fellow Navy squadron-mate) had his mail-in ballot stolen, filled out, and sent in. It was eventually corrected, but the outrage he felt in having his sacred right to vote violated was beyond just simple anger. You can’t really appreciate that until you experience it yourself.
Trump and his supporters exercised their legal right to sue and have the election results invalidated, lodging 63 lawsuits. 63 times the lawsuits were dismissed due to lack of evidence, with a majority of those rejected were in states that had a Republican majority legislature and/or Republican appointed election officials. That’s an awfully impressive exercise in futility. Fervent supporters were assured that this grave injustice would not stand, and he would need his true believers, his true Americans, to follow him to the Capitol where drastic action would be brought to bear.
The date was January 6, 2021.
Never in my wildest dreams would I expect a sitting President to treat the Constitution with such contempt that he would overtly incite the insurrection that took place that day. I am a retired US Navy Captain, serving 27 years flying the S-3 Viking. I was proud to have flown off of aircraft carriers and to have served as a Commanding Officer. Although I am a political independent, I tend to tilt conservative. I am also a husband, a father, a devout Christian, a retired airline Captain, and a registered gun-owner. It has been a year since the insurrection. I used to think no day was ever blacker for the United States of America in my lifetime than 9/11. For me, that changed on January 6th. And still the narrative continues, and with each politician/pundit that gives oxygen to this horrible lie further puts our democracy at risk.
The disaster of the pandemic, the lie of the election being stolen, the call to arms that resulted in the insurrection – none of this would would’ve taken place without . . .
The New Opioid
COVID-19 is not our biggest threat. It is something much more dangerous and intoxicating.
It is our addiction to conspiracy theories.
They entertain us. Tantalize us. Enrage us. Give us a legitimate avenue to express our hatred for that which we don’t understand or identify with. I’m not saying that we should unquestioningly believe what any organization tells us: be it a government, scientific, or religious institution. Be skeptical. Look for detracting or supporting information. But if 99.9% of the data out there supports a concept or scientific fact, then you have your answer. Even if it is something you don’t like or agree with.
For the first time in its history, humanity has widespread access to not only information, but also misinformation and the ability to find (or be found by) millions of others and communicate with them. All it takes is a few key words on a search engine and you can find or be found by whatever you’re looking for. It’s no surprise that our enemies are exploiting this. Now we are selfishly retreating into our cultural havens where we feel the most comfort, the most acceptance. We have lost our singular identity as Americans, or at least our ability to make an individual sacrifice for the greater good of all. This is what the pandemic has so graphically illustrated.
The United States government is an imperfect organization. It is grossly inefficient and agonizingly slow to evolve for the better. It makes mistakes, even criminal mistakes. But it is hardly the “deep state” bogeyman, playing the invisible puppeteer to enslave us with such mind-controlling devices as vaccines to turn us into state-serving drones. We live in a tell-all world. Do you really think that such a sinister plan could be hatched and implemented without someone spilling the beans? Problem is, we want to believe it. They pulled the wool over the eyes of millions – but not me!
Conspiracy theories are so passionately embraced because they require no real truth, just the hint of it. The masters of these techniques quote rumors that “could be true”, thereby giving them legitimacy to the easily swayed. They play right into the wheelhouse of our emotions, and people rarely have the courage to examine (or explain) their emotions. Plant the seed of “it could be”, let it germinate in your target audience, and soon it will be self-sustaining.
There are reasons to be skeptical of our government. Conspiracy theories exist because the government has kept things from its people. Trust has been broken. But once a theory has been explored and been proven to have no merit, why do we continue to hold on to them? I cannot think of two greater areas of our existence – our health and our democracy – that has been more damaged by this folly. Has our society become so pluralistic that we have lost our singular identity to act when the crisis calls for it? Will it take another variant even more nasty than Delta or omicron? If an election is held and your candidate lost, will you look to improve your message for the next election, or will you destroy the electoral process that gives your candidate a fair chance to be elected in the first place? Is your embrace of conspiracy theories worth the harm that you inflict on your families and friends, and indirectly on your country? We have to be better than this.
The Way Ahead
The future of all of this is so murky. Never in my lifetime have I been so unsure of our continued existence as a country, or what kind of country my wife and I will be leaving to our teenage daughter. I can still see the fear in her face when we were watching the news on January 6th, and the questions of “who are those people and why are they doing that?” This year she started ninth grade. School for the last two years has been anything but normal. All the things that she was unable to do, or participate in, or experience we told her would be returning once the vaccine was available. Yet the pandemic continues, now touching her personally. To her it is all so unfair. And she is right.
I have friends and family – good, honest, people of integrity that I love and value who feel the pandemic is way overblown, refuse to get vaccinated, feel the election was stolen and that the January 6 participant were patriots. There are times that I bounce back and forth between anger and despair, as much as they probably feel the same about me. Problem is, I still love them. They still love me. We still are bound by blood or friendship. If we write each other off, then the real enemy wins – fear. Relationships are broken. Violence and civil war are very real possibilities. I freely admit am at loss on how to bridge this chasm of fear, equally guilty of gutlessly hiding behind my ego while waving a finger at the latest example of willful ignorance.
It made me remember when my wife and I were going through marriage counseling several years ago. At one point, the marriage counselor looked at me and said “Well Derek, you’re gonna have to make a choice. Do you want to be right or do you want to be married?”
At some point this pandemic will run its course. We will mourn those we have lost. Some will shrug their shoulders, quoting “natural selection.” Elections will continue, hopefully ones that we can believe in. We will mature as a country and realize eventually that government is neither the bogeyman nor the savior of our country. Conspiracy theories will run their course and will be placed in their rightful place of history.
Meeting my “flat earth” locksmith brought all of this into sharp focus. The pandemic. The election. The insurrection. All playing to our insecurities and our collective fatigue of an imperfect world with too many problems that can’t be solved with simple or painless remedies. Here is where conspiracy theories thrive. This planet that we tread upon does have its areas where we chose to make it flat.
But like the subtle curvature of the earth, unseen from where we stand, the current narrative arc of our country does have a trajectory. Where will the consequences of our behavior land us? How bad do things really need to get before we change our ways as a people? Will we awake from this insanity and repent, or will we continue to celebrate the vilification of those who don’t think like we do? This will continue until we realize the cost has been too much and we turn away from this Flat Earth Society. The great experiment that is the American Democracy is slowly turning into an island archipelago of cultural ideologies. The art form of compromise - that our democracy requires - has been denigrated as a form of weakness, and we live in the short-term euphoria from another smack-down of the other side.
As a country, we are still fairly young. However, we are starting to feel the limitations of our individual tolerances. But we are in this, as a people, together. How do we reconnect? How do you listen to those that you can’t stand to listen to? Yes, there will be spats. But I have yet to come across a person who participated in an ugly family or friendship breakup, that later didn’t regret all that was lost.