April 12, 2020

A Grand Social Experiment


[Author’s note: It’s the downside of publishing weekly. The below column was written toward the end of the first week of the lockdown, so much of it may be old news by now. But dammit, I thought of it first! And mine’s funnier!—JK]


Sutton Roley’s 1974 film Chosen Survivors, with an all-star cast featuring Jackie Cooper, Bradford Dillman and Richard Jaeckel, concerns a group of people seemingly picked at random, loaded onto a military helicopter, and flown to a lavishly-appointed and well-stocked government bunker buried deep beneath the desert. They are given no explanation for this, there is no obvious connection between any of them, but shortly after their arrival they’re informed the rest of the world has just been obliterated by a nuclear war, and so it’s up to them to carry on.

            In the end we learn there was no nuclear war; the whole thing was just a government-sponsored (and I must imagine very expensive) psychological experiment designed to study human interactions in close quarters while under extreme duress.

            (Forgive my revealing the ending that way, but the fucking movie’s been around for forty-six years, and it’s your own damn fault for not having seen it yet.)

            Now, I tend to look at the world through a prism of Seventies B-film scenarios, and as COVID-19 hysteria spread and governments around the world put major metropolitan areas, entire states, even entire countries on lockdown, that little film began creeping back into my thoughts for the first time in decades.

            I’m in no way denying here that COVID-19 is a real thing. Maybe not the Black Death, but still, bad enough. That something needed to be done to slow the spread of the disease is without question, and the idea of those in power using a major crisis like a terrorist attack or a pandemic to yank fundamental rights away from the populace to bolster their own grip on power is a simple given.

            But what if something else was going on here, right? What if the pandemic was merely an excuse to undertake a massive social and psychological experiment on a scale never before imagined? Even if there was nothing intentionally nefarious about the emergence of the virus, the pandemic did offer up a unique opportunity for those with the means and inclination to capitalize on it.

            Before I begin waxing paranoid and pointing trembling fingers of accusation, let me back up.

            Thinking in sociological terms, there was something almost too perfect and deliberate in the way the lockdown orders were carried out in New York and elsewhere, the various stages it followed until we found ourselves where we did on March twenty-second. It was so perfect, in fact, it has me convinced the whole thing had to be accidental, a complete fluke. It’s the way things work in fiction, not sloppy real life.

            So we’re presented with a basic terrifying scenario: A new and deadly virus is fast spreading around the globe. There is no known cure. It may not kill everyone, only about five percent of those infected, but it’s still enough to scare the shit out of people. Tens of thousands are dying in civilized countries, well over a million are infected, and in a blink hospitals in the US and around the world are completely overwhelmed. In generic terms, it’s boilerplate treatment for a Hollywood medical thriller.

            The first thing we were told to do was stay six feet apart from one another. In New York, thinking of the subways and the sidewalks of Manhattan, this is nearly impossible. But the trick of course is that most people spend most of their waking hours staring at the screens of their smartphones, completely oblivious to everything and everyone around them, moving through life as if they were encased in a plastic bubble already. That’s neither here nor there; in reality we’re pretty well crammed together. In other parts of the country, social distancing is more realistic. But what does it imply?

            In theory, maintaining that distance between yourself and everyone else greatly diminishes the chances you’ll contract the disease should you find yourself in the vicinity of an infected individual. In practice, however, the six-foot separation also does away with fundamental forms of physical social and emotional human contact—shaking hands, hugging, kissing and the like—those behaviors we use to express trust and affection. For decades psychologists have repeatedly emphasized how important such simple physical human contact is to mental health. Affectionate physical contact, they’ve found, has tangible, measurable beneficial effects on brain chemistry.

            That was the first thing taken away.

            Second, a few days after physical contact was deemed a threat, the city ordered that all bars and restaurants close except for takeout orders and deliveries. Bars and restaurants, of course, had always been another social fundamental for most people, institutions in which people gathered to interact in person, using dinner or drinks as an excuse to meet and talk one on one with others. They provided pleasant atmospheres in which to discuss business or just relax.

            This was quickly followed by a ban on gatherings of five hundred people or more, which necessitated the closure of Broadway and movie theaters, live music venues and the cancellation of sporting events. So after taking away physical interaction and face-to-face encounters, the next step was to remove those sites in which group dynamics played out in the context of entertainment. Even if you don’t speak to anyone else in the audience, there is something about seeing a movie or play or band within a large group that makes for a very different experience than watching a movie or listening to music at home. If everyone else is laughing, for instance, you may find yourself laughing at a joke you may not have found funny otherwise. There’s something about the group dynamic, the feeling of being part of a communal experience, that is very attractive and memorable to a good percentage of people. You are far more likely to recall seeing, say, a certain band in a certain club at a certain time than you are to recall the experience of listening to the same music alone at home.

            Most Churches soon followed suit by voluntarily closing their doors. To most churchgoers, religious services, in which they find themselves surrounded by the like-minded, are the only time and place where they pause to recognize any spiritual aspect of their being. Apart from that there was also of course the social club feel of church services that simply could not be recreated if the services were streamed online. For the elderly in particular, those services represented the only chance they had all week to get together with friends.

            After much hemming and hawing, New York’s mayor finally agreed to close the schools, which offered not only formal education, but basic social education as well. School is where kids made friends and enemies, joined groups, and learned how to navigate their way through a complex social network.

            Soon thereafter the ban on gatherings of five hundred was reduced to gatherings of ten. Suddenly the most fundamental of social rituals were forbidden—weddings, christenings, birthday parties (or parties of any kind) and funerals. Even if they had been planned months in advance, they had to be cancelled, postponed, or conducted in private out of fear of reprisals and public health concerns.

            So you see? One by one, bit by bit, layer by layer everything was being stripped away, from simple physicality to complex, centuries-old rituals. We were being alienated from all those direct experiences that help define personality and make us human, from shaking hands to getting drunk among other drunks to laughing at jokes we don’t find funny to burying loved ones. As my friend Derek put it, “If we’re going to remove all joy from life, why try so hard to prevent death?”

            Before the final lockdown orders went into effect, the city ordered all barber shops and salons to close down. So on top of everything else, we were removed from what many people accepted as another basic expression of personal pride, namely getting your hair done, sculpting the image of yourself you want to present to the world. As we were all about to be removed from the world, such things were mere frivolities, and completely meaningless.

            Then all non-essential businesses were closed and we were told to stay in our homes in order to protect ourselves from the invisible deadly threat awaiting us outside. We could go to the grocery store if we so chose, but with the understanding that if we did so, we could be putting our lives and the lives of others at risk.

            This state-sponsored alienation was pushed even further as millions of people suddenly found themselves out of work and with no insurance, with businesses closing down and the economy in a state of collapse, all while that bugaboo virus continued threatening to kill us all. Every hour of every day, we were bombarded with the numbers of the dead and infected, numbers which continued to skyrocket at an alarming rate. That the numbers continued to rise, it was hinted, could be blamed on those people who didn’t follow the prescribed precautions.

            So what do we do under these admittedly extremely stressful circumstances? Confined to our homes for an indeterminate length of time, in many cases with no income and no health care, and Death himself hanging around the front yard? Early statistics have already shown a sharp increase in domestic and child abuse, numbers made all the more grim when the victims of that abuse are told they aren’t allowed to leave their homes, in some cases facing fines or arrest if they do. Will levels of drug and alcohol abuse spike? How many will be murdered, how many will commit suicide, how many will opt to give up on niceties like basic personal hygiene? How many will die from untreated illnesses or injuries because they were afraid to go to the hospital? How many will go mad, and how many will discover, after spending even more time online than they had before, that they have no real use for direct experience or human interaction?

            Furthermore, when and if the lockdown is ever lifted, how many will find themselves still terrified of the threat waiting outside their doors. Refusing to go to re-opened stores or churches, and not bothering to reschedule those haircuts, doctors appointments and weddings? How many will come to embrace their new isolation?

            On the flipside, if the lockdown continues for months (as has been threatened), how many people, upon release back into the world, will have forgotten all we have been taught about civil social interaction? Less than a week after the lockdown went into effect, anti-Semitism and anti-Asian sentiment came storming out of the shadows, live and in public, both Jews and Chinese being blamed for the spread of the disease. There were a number of COVID-inspired assaults, including an eighty-six year-old who died after being knocked to the ground for violating someone’s six-foot safety zone.

            Then there was all the hoarding, all those fistfights over the last packet of toilet paper, which began even before the social distancing rules went into effect, and continued throughout the lockdown. But I guess that was to be expected. As Derek further noted, we might have been much better off letting the disease do its thing.

            In the aftermath, should an aftermath ever arrive, once all the statistics are collected and collated, once all the anecdotal evidence is gathered, the resulting data will be a treasure trove for sociologists and psychologists for decades to come, no doubt using it to prove yet again what a craven, fearful and stupid lot of creatures we are. But that’s not the important thing.

            All this brings me back to the beginning. If—and I’m not saying it is, just speculating—if this enforced alienation really is a grand social experiment, who’s responsible? Who would want to undertake such an overwhelming project? Or, from a slightly different angle, who would have the wherewithal to draft these plans in all their complexity well in advance and set them aside, and moreover had the clout within the corridors of power to ensure the plan would be put into effect the moment the opportunity presented itself?

            The conspiracists, of course, will be quick to point at the Freemasons, the Illuminati, the Bilderberg Group, the G.O.D. Syndicate, the Trilateral Commission, the UN, the Deep State, or the Jews, but none of those really make the slightest bit of sense. The answer is far simpler.

            If you want to know who’s responsible for any such extreme exercise in control and cruel manipulation, the first question you need to ask is, “Who’s profiting?” In the past we could ask who profits from war, from starvation, from disasters, from environmental collapse and large scale human misery. Now the question to ask is, who’s benefitting from isolating all of us from not only each other, but from all that makes us human in the traditional sense? Who stands to gain by making us see every other human being on the planet as a potentially deadly threat?

            If you can answer that, you can understand why the responsible party might have a plan at the ready should the unthinkable happen. So who would think in such terms?

            Given we’re talking about lockdowns that affected so many billions across so many countries, as well as a virus that recognized no borders, you can’t blame the current administration, or the leadership of any other single nation on earth. You can’t blame the EU, or Wall Street or the military.

            No, the only obvious interests who are profiting, and profiting handsomely from our enforced alienation, are the top four Big Tech firms.

            I’m deliberately ignoring here the possibility that, as a coup-de-grace, someone will flip the mythical Kill Switch and shut the Internet down completely. Were that to happen, not only would America burn to the ground in a paroxysm of panic and rage, it would also completely fuck over my thesis.

            So assuming the Internet doesn’t implode, consider the following.

            Close most stores, confine people to their homes, and convince them those stores which remain open are potential death traps, and what are they going to do? They’re going to order things online. In fact they’re going to order everything on line and have it delivered to their front door so they won’t need to step outside. Groceries, cleaning supplies, appliances, clothing, entertainment, hand sanitizers, everything. And with Amazon setting their own prices? This plague is Bezos’ dream come true.

            Isolate people, tell them direct contact with another human might kill them, and even those who had avoided it before might be forced to turn to Facebook for at least the illusion of human interaction. Count on most people’s innate striving for human contact, however illusory, and you have a captive audience of what, a billion sad and desperate souls willing to be force-fed ads and political propaganda.

            More than a few have noted that in the States and elsewhere, the pandemic has led to increasingly invasive levels of surveillance, the excuse being that we need to keep track of people in order to ensure they’re complying with the lockdown and not putting others at risk. So it’s best to keep track of every move everyone makes. Google, as the biggest surveillance firm on earth, is not only already doing this, they’re already handing over their data to the government (and any company that can meet their prices). Just to, y’know, make sure everyone’s safe.

            And then there’s Apple at the heart of it all, conning three-quarters of the world’s population into buying these diabolic, hypnotizing hand-held devices which help make time under quarantine that much more tolerable.

            It only makes sense. Any one of them could be responsible for conceiving a plan for universal alienation, reaping billions as a result. Or maybe all four, seeing a unique and almost unfathomable possibility should the world ever be struck by a pandemic, quietly formed an unholy cabal some years ago and began drafting plans for that long held dream of Complete (and extremely lucrative) Control.

            Of course the logical question at this point would be, would they seriously be willing to completely decimate the rest of the global economy in order to boost their own profits?

            Well, in a word, um, yes.

            I Don’t really believe any of this for a minute, in all likelihood it was just a damned sloppy fluke and nothing more, but it almost makes sense in a fictional world like ours, doesn’t it?


You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.