A short story about certainty (and COVID-90210)
Words & images © Paul Ransom
NOTE: Perhaps inspired by the previous post – The Truth That Facts Forgot – I have opted to use fiction as a way of illuminating a form of ‘madness’ with which I am sure many of you are familiar. While some of you will likely take umbrage at the following satire, please be assured that I will lose no sleep at all over your outrage.
People used to say, “you should be a vet,” but now that Tim is at Uni they are more inclined to think of him as an animal rights activist. “It’s like you prefer them to people,” his mum’s new partner said last Christmas. Go figure, Tim remembers thinking.
Today however, Tim is wracking his brain trying to contrive a plausible excuse not to go to Gran’s 85th. It’s not her, it’s the rest of them. She will smile, nod, and play dumb while the others turn her house into a war zone. Smartphones at ten paces, ready for another all-in shoot out on the misinformation superhighway. Who, he wonders, will yell loudest and longest in the upcoming battle of digitally enhanced certainty?
Already exhausted, Tim reaches for his not-so-smart phone. In all caps he types a note:
I HAVE TAKEN A VOW OF SILENCE!
He hits save, knowing it won’t save him from the inevitable bombardment. They will laugh at what they take to be his pretentious gesture, but this won’t bother Tim half as much having to endure another afternoon of armchair punditry and dinner table militancy.
As he rings the doorbell he thinks briefly about pretending to have COVID – but that would just be stirring the hornets. Nonetheless, he practises a little cough. Just in case.
The new step-dad is scoffing, arms folded. “Oh, this clinches it, Margot,” he tells Tim’s mum. “Your boy wants to cancel us because we believe in Our Lord Jesus Christ and defend traditional values.”
Actually, I just wanna have some lunch and wish my gran a happy birthday, Tim thinks. Although yeah, I wish you would shut up for once.
“Is this some kind of vegan thing?” his mum wants to know. “Are we signalling our superior virtue again?”
Nearby – face mask firmly in place, hand sanitiser at the ready – Aunty Pat leaps to his defence. “At least he cares about something other than himself,” she snipes, before turning to Tim and asking if he’s done the rapid antigen test she requested. “I mean, you wouldn’t wanna kill Grandma now, would you Timmy?”
Well no, not now, he muses. But later…I’d probably be cool with someone wringing your sanctimonious neck. Maybe Alfonso will volunteer. He can do it to avenge Jesus.
As if reading his Tim’s mind, the God-fearing Alfonso scowls at Aunty Pat. “Of course, because only socialists are capable of caring.”
“Oh no,” Pat retorts. “I imagine you care about plenty; especially that white male privilege of yours.”
Meanwhile, Gran has sidled up. She smiles at her grandson, and a look of recognition passes between them. Both are tempted to raise their eyebrows but realise that such a display will only invite further vitriol. Those at war deplore nothing more than smug looking pacifists.
“Silence,” Gran whispers, clearly approving. “Gold.”
It does not take long for the subject of Ukraine to come up – a country, Tim notes quietly, that none of the twelve birthday attendees had even heard of a few weeks ago. Now however, Gran’s guests feel confident enough to hold forth on the intricacies of Ukrainian and Russian history and are presently endeavouring to pass themselves off as experts in geo-politics. This reminds Tim of 2020, when the very same people suddenly became world-leading authorities on disease control. After all, the argument went, they had done their research.
“You can’t rely on the fake news media,” Cousin Jed warns the crowd. “You have to dig deeper.” What Jed means by this is a seven and a half minute You Tube video and sharing the social media posts of someone calling themselves The REAL Justice Warrior.
If Tim was speaking – and felt like being told to stick his ‘bullshit university brainwashing’ up his arse – he would ask his cousin how he came to know the difference between fake news and REAL truth. What were the criteria? he’d enquire. And how is that ten minutes on the internet constitutes deeper?
…On second thoughts, maybe he wouldn’t.
Tim has learnt the hard way that such questions only make him a target. Apart from Gran, everyone present has, at various times, taken the opportunity to flood his inbox with links to apparently conclusive videos and news items urging him to rush off to the nearest COVID testing centre at the merest hint of a sniffle or wake up to the fact that woke folk are running a George Soros financed Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy against his penis.
“They’re trying to erase the white man from history, and at least Putin has the guts to stand up and say it,” Alfonso insists.
Across the table, Aunty Pat is turning red. “So, you’d rather let some Russian monster start a nuclear war, would you?”
Emboldened, Pat’s fifteen year old daughter Bailey – who got her PhD from TikTok – chimes in with, “Did you know that Putin was paid by, like, banks and stuff, to sell off all the mines to, like, oligarchs and whatever, just so that America could get rich?”
However, before Bailey can finish her next point, (about how Russian gas is driving climate change), Tim’s mum Margot has accused her niece of being hoodwinked by leftist lesbian schoolteachers. She is then quick to remind the gathering that – lest they forget – a worldwide web of Cultural Marxist plotters are scheming to destroy Israel and impose extreme Sunni Islam on everyone else. “Seriously, Bailey,” she scolds, doing her best worried aunt impersonation, “you need to grow up.”
Quietly, Tim wonders how long it will take for Gran’s birthday feast to devolve into a food fight.
After everyone has prised the remnants of lunch from their clothes and hair, it is Tim and Malcolm, Gran’s younger brother, who agree to clean up. The former because it gets him out of the firing line, the latter because he is keen to subvert gender norms and confront ageist stereotypes.
Like Gran, Malcolm left school early and worked with his hands. He married, had kids, got divorced, and retired with not much to show for fifty years of hard slog. Yet, rather than getting stuck in the grumpy old man silo, Mal has recently discovered Internet 3.0. Prior to that he had taken Cousin Jed’s advice and invested some of his meagre savings in crypto, from which he subsequently made a small fortune. Inspired, and suddenly switched on to all things tech, he thereafter reinvented himself as a vlogger. His most recent post – which has been viewed 23 times – is about how he now identifies as non-binary and rejects all ethno-nationalist narratives. Out of sympathy, Tim is now one of nine followers of The REAL Common Sense Channel.
“Back in my day,” Mal tells his silent dishwashing companion, “we might have been sexist, racist, homophobes…but at least we had respect.”
Tim is not quite sure what his granduncle is driving at and wonders if his version of respect will ever be allowed to fly in the newly decentralised, permission-less utopia of 3.0.
“Things will be better in the metaverse,” Mal assures, as he picks a few more crumbs of garlic bread from the front of his cardigan. “I’m thinking of buying real estate there.”
Although tempted to break his vow and remind his elderly relative about the benefits of due diligence, Tim stops himself when he realises that everything he knows about the virtual property market was gleaned from a short conversation with an MBA student in the refectory; and that he was likely more impressed by the student’s confidence and shapely figure than he was by her analysis of emerging risks in the metaversal realty space.
At this, Tim begins to frame a few discreet words about psychological and cognitive biases – and the ever-present problem of ‘noise’ in decision making – but before he can get them out Malcolm’s attention is diverted by the ping of his phone.
Across a frantic two minute period, everyone bar Tim and Gran get news alerts. The word, from multiple sources of alleged real-ness, is that the WHO has just announced a new and deadly COVID variant. To everyone’s astonishment, the Omega Strain did not emerge in sub-Saharan Africa, nor in a teeming, tightly-packed slum, but in the upscale viral hotspot of Beverly Hills. According to sources close to the epicentre, the trouble started when groups of A-Listers began micro-dosing genetically modified spike proteins; leading the new variant to be nicknamed Celebrity SARS. (Or COVID-90210.)
For Pat and Alfonso, this is the apocalypse. Whereas she bemoans the short-termism of neo-liberal, trickle-down economics for failing to adequately invest in public health, he has now been reluctantly convinced that COVID is God’s punishment. “AIDS was just the warning shot,” he says breathlessly, “but instead of listening we just went crazy with all this degenerate PC madness, and now God’s cancelling all of us.”
Meanwhile, Jed’s partner Flare is trying to calm the room. “This is just a distraction,” she insists. “Who cares if a few rich white celebrities catch a cold.”
“Even if it is real, which I 100% doubt, I say let it rip,” Jed intervenes. “It’s nature’s way of clearing out the dead wood; and what could be more dead than the patriarchal gatekeeper, Hollywood thought control complex?”
Malcolm’s daughter Monica has another angle. “What more proof do we need that vaccines don’t work?” she announces, victory assured. “Big Pharma can’t fool nature, even if they think they can fool you.”
“Vaccines save lives!” Aunty Pat interjects, indignant. “I can show you the stats!”
As Pat reaches for her phone, Tim harbours a brief hope that this will veer the conversation towards an intelligent appraisal of statistical information – with due acknowledgement of the fact that the collection, organisation and retrieval of stats is often distorted by unconscious bias and a raft of framing and anchoring effects.
The key word here is brief.
Tim’s momentary fantasy is quickly shattered, as the company soon erupts into an exchange of numerical mortar fire. Monica launches figures “totally proving” that vaccines kill far more people than the diseases they are meant to thwart, whereas young Bailey is busy hurling stat-bombs (provided to her by an anti-poverty influencer she follows) which purport to show precisely the opposite.
Across the room, Pat is changing into a full PPE outfit and suggesting that everyone present get tested immediately. “Quick Timmy, deep clean everything.”
“Ah, Tim, don’t bother,” Alfonso sighs, looking crestfallen. “Disinfectant won’t save us. Only prayer can help us now.”
Disturbed by the gloomy nature of her partner’s apparent epiphany, Tim’s mum warns everyone that the WHO is now owned and operated by the Chinese Communist Party, and that Omega is Xi Jinping’s latest weapon. “These people hate the West because we won.”
Won what? Tim wonders, before Margot telepathically answers: “People like capitalism. And they want freedom. History has already voted with its feet.”
“Tell that to all the extinct animals, Aunty Mar,” Bailey bristles – at which, all eyes reflexively turn to Tim.
As the nominated spokesperson for all non-human life on the planet, Tim now has an issue. There is so much he could say, yet as he looks around the room Gran’s guests seem more like a baying press pack than a group of friends. He knows they want answers. Short ones preferably. He thinks of all his years of study, weighing up the sum of his accrued knowledge and experience, and he knows there is almost no chance of nudging anyone from their current position.
Yet, what strikes him most is that, for all his expertise, Tim knows he is not the final authority on this or any other matter. What’s more, he feels there is ample research and statistical data to support a thorough fact check of this intuition.
If anything, what he wants to say is that research often reveals that much more research is required; but he feels the point will be lost, serving only to drive his companions back to their preferred web portals for yet more memes of certainty and, as a result, triggering the use of smartphones as blunt objects in a further round of vociferous postprandial dispute.
Thank God for Trappist affectation, he thinks, quietly pleased with himself for devising such a brilliant get-out strategy.
Therefore, instead of speaking, he politely coughs.
(Pls note: Although Timmy did not cough into his elbow, he did cover his mouth with his left hand. In addition, the cough was fake, and thus more akin to gestural politics than a sign of significant viral load.)
Gran and Tim have slipped away from the melee. Although they can still hear the raised voices and various insults, they are enjoying a nice cup of tea in the garden. Mostly, they focus on Gran’s carefully curated flower beds. Her perspective is that of the seasoned green thumb, his is that of someone doing a PhD in animal sociability. As they always do, they find a common language, vows of silence notwithstanding.
After a few minutes concentrating on birds, bees and begonias, Gran switches tack when the volume indoors ratchets up. “How did it get to be like this, Timmy?” she wants to know. It wasn’t like this in her day. (Or was it?)
Tim realises he could roll out a litany of culprits. Partly, he is tempted. Blame the internet. Blame capitalism. Lay it all at the feet of the patriarchy or radical feminists. The 0.1 percent, the 24 hour news cycle, the seven deadly sins. Any number of villains. But only one certainty. We’re all fucked!
However, having studied the way other species interact, Tim is more inclined to consider human activity through the prisms of animal behaviour and evolution. He flirts with the idea of saying that the answer to his grandmother’s question lies deep in the mirror, rather than in the shallow theoretical constructions of politics, religion and other retro-fitted causal explanations.
“How long have you got, Gran?” he asks.
“Until the war is over, probably,” she replies, as the noise level indoors reaches a crescendo.
Before beginning what he knows will be a lengthy answer, Tim fatefully elects to drain the lukewarm remnants of his tea in one gulp, causing said beverage to ‘go down the wrong way.’ He is soon coughing and spluttering. So much so that the fracas in the house stops.
Now the former combatants are gathered at various windows, watching in alarm as Tim doubles over, his body wracked with heaving coughs.
And then it hits. The realisation. OMFG!
Even from beneath multiple layers of masks and protective coverings, Aunty Pat can be heard exclaiming in a shrill voice that elicits visceral panic in the gathered clan. Could this be really happening? Please God, let it be fake.
“What if Timmy’s got COVID!!!”
Postscript: Within hours of the initial Omega Strain announcement the WHO issued a statement saying that they had been hacked and that the COVID 90210 story was fake news. In turn, this prompted a tsunami of speculation and conflicting theories. Everyone from Russian state-sponsored cyber criminals to teenage pranksters were blamed, although some preferred to believe that the Omega scare was authored by the Bilderberg Group, using funds supplied by the Vatican, Queen Elizabeth and the Rothschild family. Still others promoted the idea that a combination of Rupert Murdoch and Beelzebub were behind it. Aunty Pat, meanwhile, refused to accept the WHO’s retraction and is now understood to be living in a bio-secure pyramid with other shadowy global elites, (some of whom are choosing to identify as lizards).