Dr. Strangetimes or: How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Virus | The New Engagement

Dr. Strangetimes or: How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Virus

By Laura Schleifer

We're All in This Together?

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the USA, one message was repeatedly impressed upon a nation experiencing increasingly bitter and even violent divisiveness over the last several years: We're all in this together.At the start of the outbreak, many of us hoped that the terrifying universality of a contagious disease might serve as a reminder of our common, shared humanity, and of the fact that our individual actions affect the well-being of all. After four decades of what might be described as increasingly sociopathic atomization under neo-liberalism, a recognition of our interdependency as humans in a global world seemed like a potential corrective for a society heading further and further into the abyss of cultural narcissism and psychopathology. For a brief moment, there was a sense that perhaps this 21stcentury plague would serve as a much-needed salve to spiritually bring us together, even as we were being urged to physically keep our distance.

Alas, while other parts of the world received this message and responded more gracefully, in the US, signs began appearing early on that the extreme self-interest characteristic of US society would only intensify through this pandemic. One of the earliest signs that something was terribly amiss was the toilet paper wars. Shortly after the government-mandated shutdown was announced, reports started coming out about people hoarding and even getting into fights over toilet paper. Considering the fact that the virus did not primarily affect digestion or elimination, this seemed like an odd thing for the public to fixate on, and yet rather than attempt to hoard soap, hand sanitizer, vitamin C or something else more directly related to keeping safe from the virus, it was toilet paper that became the hottest commodity flying off of drugstore shelves. 

As March passed into April, the odd reactions of much of the public became more and more evident.  Tragically and predictably, fear turned to psychological and in some cases even physical violence against East Asians, a racist reaction to the virus's Chinese origin. East Asians and Pacific Islanders were harassed, spat upon, kicked, punched, vandalized, thrown raw eggs at, and in one particularly horrendous incident at a Sam's Club in Texas, an entire family was stabbed. The racism didn't stop there, though; soon there were conspiracy theories swirling about Jewish scientists cooking up corona in a lab and unleashing it on the unsuspecting public as a way to gain world domination, while in other corners of the racist imagination, Muslims were accused of unleashing the virus as a form of bio-terrorism. When news came out that black communities were suffering much higher rates of infection and death than the white majority was, rather than acknowledging how systemic racism might be causing that in the form of inferior health care access and economic inability to take time off from work, they were blamed for their own sickness because 'eating all that fried chicken has led to them having underlying health conditions.' Less overtly racist variations of this narrative also involved a more general commentary that those who were falling seriously ill were severely impacted due to lifestyle-induced health conditions, and that those who were health conscious would experience little to no symptoms if they contracted the disease. Many others claimed that the virus wasn't even real, or it was not a virus at all but rather a side effect of the 5G signal, or it was nothing more than an over-hyped flu, or that it had been cooked up in a lab—a 'plandemic'— as a way for the 'New World Order / Illuminati' / ruling class to increase their quest for a totalitarian One World Government. In some circles, George Soros and/or the Rothschilds were held responsible for creating the virus, while others accused China of intentionally creating the virus and unleashing it as a way of both increasing totalitarian control over their own people and securing world dominance globally. Fears circulated around Bill Gates and the possibility that he might have created the virus—or created a fake rumor about a virus-- in order to cash in on an as-yet-to-be-created vaccine that could potentially serve as the realthreat to human health, perhaps even with the insidious hidden goal of depopulating a planet facing resource scarcity in the not-too-distant future. The conspiracy theories were not limited to the Left or the Right; they spread across the political spectrum, albeit with slight modifications depending on the intended audience. Many were left horrified and bewildered as they watched friends and family fall 'down the rabbit hole' and never come back. 

Soon the hysteria reached an even more fevered pitch. Reports began coming out of people refusing to wear masks in public, and even of security guards being assaulted for asking people to put on a mask. On Twitter, the hashtag #BoycottCostco was trending in response to Costco implementing a policy requiring customers to wear masks on behalf of not only their own safety, but also the safety of fellow shoppers and staff. Memes began circulating asking why we should shut the economy down for a virus when so many more people die of car accidents or cancer or heart disease every year, somehow forgetting that none of the above are contagious.Some even risked exposing themselves, and by extension their families and communities, by going to hospitals to observe whether they were actually full or not. Meanwhile, white nationalists who were all too aware of the contagious aspect of this disease began weaponizing it by intentionally exposing themselves in order to then go into neighborhoods of targeted ethnicities in order to spread the disease there. Video footage surfaced of (mostly white) US citizens screaming at Asian-American medical staff to “go home”, followed by footage of passerby verbally attacking nurses of all ethnicities who were protesting the lack of medical equipment and protective gear by accusing them being “crisis actors” who had been hired by the government to give the appearance of a false crisis being real in order to advance some sort of hidden agenda—a common trope cited by conspiracy theorists whenever any major disaster occurred since the Sandy Hook school massacre in 2012.

By the end of April, protests had exploded across the Midwest demanding that the economy be re-opened, despite epidemiologists urging us to stay closed until the conditions were less dire. Armed protesters (again, overwhelmingly white) descended upon governors' homes calling for the imprisonment of governors attempting to keep quarantine policies in place. Signs mocked the immunocompromised, elderly, and other at-risk populations, saying, “Your health is not more important than my freedom.” Swastika flags were raised even as governors were simultaneously being accused of Nazism. Protesters held up signs in English and German with the phrase “Arbeit Macht Freicht”— work makes us free—the infamous phrase emblazoned on the gate of Auschwitz. At one protest, a poster was held up of a rat emblazoned with a Jewish Star of David and the message, “The Real Plague.” Most shockingly of all, Calvyn Munnerlyn, a security guard at Family Dollar store in Flint, Michigan, was murdered for asking a family to cover their daughter's face if they wanted to continue shopping in the store. 

Clearly, we weren't “all in this together” after all.

And clearly, there was indeed a shortage of toilet paper sufficient to clean up the explosion of excrement that the virus had stimulated in the USA. 

Much discussed is how the arrival of this 21stcentury plague has served as a catalyst for exposing many of the deep fissures already present in US society. Far less examined, however, are the psychological phenomena influencing people to have such bizarre, irrational reactions to what should be a straightforward case of taking precautions against a deadly contagious disease that is affecting the entire world. To find the answer, psychoanalysis can provide a useful road map into the deep recesses of the American psyche in 2020.

Psychoanalyzing the Cycles of History

While psychoanalysis has somewhat fallen out of favor in the 21stcentury, and certainly has its fair share of controversy and baggage, the cyclical nature of history makes it feel like it has something urgent and relevant to say about our current state of crisis, both in terms of the irrational reactions to the pandemic and in other aspects of our current social, ecological and economic crises. It is important to note that the heyday of psychoanalysis in the early 20thcentury bore a striking resemblance to the conditions of today. In that era as in our own, the Western world faced a pandemic (the Spanish flu of 1918-1919), a financial crisis (the Great Depression) accompanied by brutal austerity cuts, the rise of the eugenics movement and Social Darwinism (both of which are having a bit of a moment again now) and the subsequent rise of fascism, domestic terrorism, and ethno-nationalism, all in the aftermath of war. (Although unlike the unmitigated devastation caused by WWI, our ongoing Global War of Terror has caused a gradual 'boiling frog' effect so subtle that many of us are hardly aware of the impact it has had on US society at all.) As with our own time, in Weimar Republic Germany and neighboring Austria, the birthplace of Western psychoanalysis, there was a deep post-war crisis of faith in the liberal establishment, i.e. the politicians, 'experts' and institutions designed to provide trustworthy, unbiased information and protection of rights, thus enabling liberal Capitalist democracies to flourish by curbing the ruthlessly exploitative nature of Capitalism and. As in our own time, those forces within society that were meant to safeguard democracy and freedom from the ravages of Capitalism had revealed themselves to be utterly corrupt and morally bankrupt, thus leaving the public with no trusted sources to turn to, so that they would spiral into paranoid conspiracy theories and to be vulnerable to the siren song of a fascist 'strongman' promising to deliver them from the rootless wasteland of failed liberalism. The birth of psychoanalysis took place under such fertile conditions for the seeds of mass psychological pathology to grow, and psychoanalytic theories were developed in response to these conditions, so very similar in some ways to the situation we face today.

In our own time, the influence of the collapse of trustworthy liberal institutions on the increasingly irrational reactions of the public to the coronavirus and other crises cannot be overstated. Liberal pundits typically downplay this aspect of the mass delusion we are witnessing,  blaming 'Trumpism; and 'Fox News' for the mass embracing of 'alternative facts', but a more honest appraisal would locate the origins of the problem in the demise of trustworthy liberal institutions thanks to the selling out of these institutions to the corporations under neo-liberalism. As barriers to corporate power were removed over the last 4 decades and corporate money began controlling the non-profits, the universities, the arts, the legal system, the media (including, in many cases, even the “independent media”), public services, the CDC and the ironically-named Democratic Party like never before, suddenly the public realized it had nowhere to turn to for reliable information about its own reality. 'Trutherism', as a movement, was originally born out of suspicions that we had been lied to about 9/11, but really took off after it was confirmed that we had indeed been lied to about the need to invade Iraq. From that major violation of trust onward came a succession of events showing that we were being deceived by a massive propaganda machine. A second major betrayal of trust occurred when the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, and the public was told for weeks on end that the amount of oil gushing into the Gulf was just 1000-5000 barrels of oil per day, even as independent scientists insisted that it was 50,000-70,000 barrels per day—an amount that was eventually revealed to be true. Journalists were threatened with US govt. fines of up to $40,000 if they came too close to the site of the disaster, and eventually the problem was “solved” by BP dumping tons of Corexit, a toxic dispersant so deadly that the rest of the world had banned it, into the water to make it look clear, followed by President Obama visiting the Gulf with his daughters to be photographed swimming in it as a way of indicating that everything was back to normal. (It was later revealed that they were swimming in a nearby cove that had been untouched by the oil.) A repeat of this horrific type of theater took place when Obama traveled to Flint, Michigan to drink the contaminated water there in a bid to show that it was safe—only to be later exposed as fraudulent. All over the place, the public was seeing indication that US institutions were not looking out for their well-being, from a former CEO of Monsanto (a company now being sued for their manufacture and marketing of the cancer-inducing Roundup pesticide) being appointed as head of the Food and Drug Association; to the quiet raising of the permissible radiation rates in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown; to the neighborhood doctors and dentists who were getting their loved ones hooked on prescription opiates; to jobs being outsourced or automated without warning; to increasingly militarized police terrorizing communities of color like armed gangs rather than serving to protect them; to corporate-funded university studies, independent media, and non-profit organizations; to the veterans returning from a war based on lies only to find out their house was being foreclosed upon back home based on more lies; again and again the message was clear: those who had been tasked with safeguarding public welfare could not be trusted. Meanwhile, the media and government repeatedly drummed the message into our heads that it was Muslim terrorists, not corporate oligarchs, who threatened our safety, and that we should be willing to give up our most basic human rights in exchange for our protection from this threat. From the aftermath of 9/11 to the aftermath of the financial crisis, the last 2 decades have seen the Capitalist elite class use these catastrophes as a means to unleash what political analyst Naomi Klein calls a “shock doctrine”— a mandate the ruling class creates as an excuse to rip away all protections and expand their control on the basis that a crisis situation demands that type of action. Just as the German Nazis used the Reichstag to rip away all inalienable rights without any democratic process, so too did the Bush and Obama administrations use the September 11thattacks to issue executive orders directly from the White House making it legal for the US govt. to spy on, arrest, detain, imprison indefinitely and even assassinate its own citizens without a trial. By the time Trump came along, the US public was so used to being lied to by those in power that many felt like the obviousness of his lies paradoxically became its own sort of 'honesty'. The brazen falseness of 'alternative facts' post-2016 has now become its own form of transparency, with all attempts to present any facade of legitimacy, and therefore of functional democracy and meritocracy, falling to the wayside. 

This growing sense that the institutional establishment cannot be trusted, and that it will exploit or even manufacture crises (aka 'false flags') as a way of tearing away civil liberties, slashing safety nets, and expanding totalitarian control, has left the population disoriented, confused and fearful. In such a state of mind, the usual psychological safeguards dissipate, and more elemental forces emerge. Conspiracy theories of all sorts abound under such conditions, often with anti-Semitism playing a pivotal role, as Jews are eternally scapegoated as surrogates for crimes committed by the Capitalist oligarchs. Xenophobia and racism rise as the majority population, feeling assaulted from all sides but not knowing where to place their anger, are encouraged by those looking to profit off of their misdirected rage to aim it at anyone deemed an outsider or competitor. Ethno-nationalism and traditional gender roles under patriarchy begin to be perceived as a source of strength and security in family and fraternity in an ever unstable and volatile world. Mysticism and superstition arise as ways of interpreting reality when so-called science is exposed as fraudulent. All of these trends were present in US society at the time when the coronavirus reached our shores.

Infected Bodies, Infected Minds

As Camus likely realized when he wrote The Plague, a deadly contagious disease can be both a metaphor for fascism and an intensifier of its pathologies. Even going back as far as the bubonic plague, Jews and Muslims were scapegoated under the Spanish Inquisition for bringing the plague to Europe as punishment for harboring them with their heretical and, in the case of the Jews, 'Christ killing' ways. Even without a literal plague in the mix, the fascist ideology is constructed upon a worldview that portrays the nation and/or dominant race as a 'body' of sorts that has become weakened through a 'disease' or 'parasite'— that being the presence of outsiders. Thus, ridding the nation of its persecuted minority groups, either by expulsion, incarceration, or extermination, is a matter of 'curing the disease' and allowing the 'body' to 'heal', thus restoring it to its past greatness. (E.g. “Make America great again.”) As 20thcentury fascists became aware of psychoanalytic theories showing how the subconscious mind responds to repeated implicit associations, messages were crafted to create and strengthen what we now know are actual neural pathways that form in the brain between two ideas or images. Nazi-era propaganda repeatedly reinforced the association between 'foreigners/outsiders' with 'disease', often representing that association through visual imagery depicting Jews, Romany, LGBT people and others as rats, roaches, and other 'vermin' associated with the spread of infectious disease.  Trump's attempts to portray Latinx immigrants as 'bringing crime, drugs, and rape' to the US homeland, his persecution of homeless encampments, and his absolute insistence on referring to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus”, even going so far as to cross out 'coronavirus' on his pre-written speeches and scribble in 'Chinese virus' instead, indicate that he is well aware of this fact, and is manipulating it to his advantage.

It's also likely that the fascists' own psychological makeup naturally makes this connection between the body as an individual organism and the 'body' as a collective organism based on race, religion, nationality, etc. that has been 'infected' by outside influences, because fascists themselves tend to be germophobes in their own personal lives. Indeed, Hitler himself was an extreme germophobe who practiced 'social distancing' as a general rule,bathedincessantly, and strongly associated sex with transmittable disease. In his writings, he literally referred to Jews as the 'Jewish virus'. While it is theorized that Trump's refusal to wear a mask in public is a performative act signaling masculinity, fearlessness and virility, in private Trump was describing himself as a “germophobe” long before COVID-19 ever hit the scene. In a pre-COVID era Politico.com article from July 2019 eerily titled, “The Purell Presidency”, Trump is described as asking visitors to wash their hands upon entering the White House, sending a military doctor to examine an aid who coughed on Air Force One, and chronically asking his bodyguard for a squirt of Purell after shaking hands at campaign events, concluding with, “Two and a half years into his term, President Donald Trump is solidifying his standing as the most germ-conscious man to ever lead the free world.” Researchers now believe that this is because the regions of the brain that process fear and disgust, such as the basal ganglia and amygdala, are more active in a certain sector of the population, and that that leads to that demographic to have more reactionary politics. In fact, a recent study conducted by Read Montague, a neuroscientist at Virginia Tech, showed that researchers were able to predict a person's political orientation just from observing their neurological reaction to disgusting images they were shown with a staggering 95% accuracy.

Castration Anxiety in Anal America

In addition to germophobia, revelations about the psyche are illuminated in other ways that people have responded to this disease, as well. The toilet paper phenomenon was a revealing glimpse into the psyche of a significant portion of the American public. Revealingly, other countries did not experience an obsession with toilet paper hoarding anywhere near the degree that the USA did. A Freudian analysis of the situation might note that this fixation with toilet paper is emblematic of a psyche stuck in the anal stage of development, and indeed research on the toilet paper hoarders seems to back that up, as they were found to have unusually high degrees of “conscientiousness”--a characteristic associated with diligence, orderliness, authoritarianism and Conservatism, all of which are also indicative of anal retentiveness. While the more well-known manifestation of the anal stage psyche is anal retentiveness, characterized by caution, stinginess, orderliness, rigidity, controlling tendencies and adherence to authority, its flip side is the anal-expulsion personality type—impulsive, rebellious, messy, wasteful, insensitive to the feelings of others, and instant-gratification seeking. Both the anal-expulsion and anal-retentive traits could be said to be profoundly woven into US culture. On the anal-retentive side, we see the militarism, the prison-industrial complex, the resource-hoarding, the school-to-prison pipeline and the stinginess of its social welfare system. On the other hand, the anal-expulsion stage of psycho-social development represents the consumerist side to American Capitalism—compulsive spending, gambling, pleasure-seeking, prone to addictions and overindulgence. If we use these two psychological profiles, we can analyze many of the more irrational responses to COVID-19. It could easily be said that in many regards US culture is stuck in its infantile oral, anal, and genital phases of development, and that this is because of two paradoxical influences in its history—its colonial and Protestant roots, which have shaped its anal retentive character, and its colonial, Capitalist consumer culture, heavily influenced by Freud's own nephew Edward Bernays, which has encouraged its oral, genital and anal-expulsion traits.

When the Tea Party-esque protests against the quarantine laws flared up all over the Midwest, many assumed that the reason why the protesters wanted to open up the economy was because they were unable to make money and were afraid of destitution. While that would have been a logicalreason, if it were simply the fear of poverty, the protesters would have been protesting for benefits and payment suspensions while in quarantine, not protesting to end the quarantine and open up businesses again even if it might literally cost their lives. In their comments, protesters explicitly stated over and over again the fear, not of not having enough to live on, but of not working, and of 'taking handouts from the government'. This is a clear legacy of the Protestant work ethic, which indoctrinates people into thinking that any form of work is honorable and holy, and any form of unemployment is sinful and lazy. Again, this plays into the anal retentive personality type, as frugality, industriousness and Conservatism are traits of that personality type in addition to being traits associated with Protestantism. Implicit here may also be hoarding and stinginess tendencies showing up again, for much of Conservatives' abhorrence for social welfare programs lies in the idea that 'their' money might be used to help someone else—someone who is surely less enterprising, industrious, and worthy than they are. In Freudian psychoanalysis, it is the superego element of the sub-conscious that is the dominant influence here: moralizing, judgmental, and at its deepest level, guilt and shame over the idea of ever needing to accept help or to be dependent in any way.

The anal-retentive superego influence shaped by Protestantism is also apparent in the victim-blaming that occurs in more 'progressive' circles, as well. In New Age, health conscious, raw/vegan/etc. communities, the narrative that one couldn't get very sick from a virus so long as one had a super-healthy lifestyle, and that therefore anyone who did fall seriously ill or die was to blame for their own condition on some level, was yet another manifestation of this mentality. In this version, it was not prudence with money that indicated one's 'moral superiority', but rather with eating and lifestyle habits. Similarly to the Midwestern protesters, these 'Puritans' were also acting out of a superego-driven sense of moral superiority driven by sub-conscious shame and guilt at the thought of ever losing control , reverting to the 'oral' stage of development and falling prey to the id-driven forces within them of gluttony and sloth.

A more masculine version of this sub-conscious guilt and shame-driven mentality may stem from the idea, under patriarchy, that a man not being able to work to support his family and/or obeying orders from the 'liberal' govt. (especially, in the case of Michigan, a woman governor) is emasculating. Perhaps subconsciously for this reason, many men who attended the protests wore hyper-masculine signifiers like camouflage and carried rifles. In Freudian terms, this could easily be described as a case of 'castration anxiety' stemming from the genital stage of psycho-social development. Men who were already feeling emasculated by falling wages and job instability since the 2008 financial crisis and the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs in the Midwest now faced the additional humiliation of being told to stay in their homes, the 'domestic front' associated subconsciously with the domain of womanhood, and to be 'dependent' on the government, which would also stimulate fears of femininization. (As for women's version of this, there were also the women there who were angry that they could not fulfill their traditional roles of femininity as proscribed by patriarchy by not being able to go to the hair salon.) In Michigan, the heart of the protests, men chanted “Lock her up!” at Governor Gretchen Whitmer to punish her for taking on the metaphorical role of Mommy punishing her sons by sending them to their rooms. Here we may turn also to Wilhelm Reich's theories that linked fascism to sexual repression. While many men will look up to and even long for a strongman 'father figure' in times of crisis (hence the intense love for Trump among his supporters that Reich described as a 'libidinal' love for the fascist dictator), taking orders from a woman at a time when they are already feeling unsure about their masculinity is a recipe for castration anxiety.

In the USA, the pressure to perform masculinity manifests differently in other parts of the world due to the mythos of the 'cowboy'/rugged individualism/American frontier/Wild West settler-colonial sensibility that believes in 'every man to himself', and that government action or interference is 'tyranny'. According to Jungian theories about archetypal images buried in the collective unconscious of an entire culture, the 'cowboy' is a unique sort of American spin on the 'warrior' or 'rebel' archetype identified by Jung. In what seems like stark contrast to the authoritarian ideal of the obedient loyalist doing his duty for god, family and country, but is in many ways his alter-ego as the underlying patriarchal values they represent are the same, the 'cowboy' is the lawbreaker, adhering to no laws, no masters, just his own inner sense of integrity, honor, and pride. In this ego-driven element of the psyche, figurative or even literal 'honor killings' can manifest, as the individual living in a society in which lawmakers are corrupt or non-existent cause the individual to have to 'take matters into his own hands'.  This sensibility has been compounded in recent years even more by neo-liberalism, which really hasremoved the forces in society that created a sense of social cohesion and security, instead creating an 'every man to himself' sensibility that in many ways harkens back to America's lawless frontier past. This may explain why there have been incidents of security personnel being assaulted or even killed for asking people to put on a mask. Subconscious 'castration anxiety' again features significantly as the mask begins to take on an association of obedience and emasculation. Its physical presence gives the wearer an image that is the very opposite of masculine virility, making them appear weak, sickly, diseased—an affront to any 'cowboy's self-image. No wonder Trump refuses to wear one in public, despite his extreme germophobic tendencies!

Cognitive Dissonance and the Ego's Defense Mechanisms

To more deeply understand the extremely negative and even violent reactions to simply being asked to wear a mask, we might turn also to Sigmund Freud's theory, which was later elaborated upon by his daughter Anna, on ego defense mechanisms, along with Leon Festinger's theory of cognitive dissonance. While the term 'cognitive dissonance' is being used with increasing frequency these days as a way of explaining much of the turbulence and violence going on right now, there is often much confusion about what it really means. Cognitive dissonance is what an individual feels when they realize that their actions don't align with their core values, or that there is evidence that contradicts their core beliefs in some way. It's called cognitive dissonance,a term often used to describe how it feels to listen to two different songs playing at once, because of the disorienting feeling of holding two contradicting ideas at the same time. In psychology, the dissonance happens when someone first has a  realization that what they think/believe doesn't match up with the evidence, and just like listening to two different pieces of music play, the contrast between the old information and the new coexisting simultaneously causes a lot of discomfort, and the person experiencing it badly wants it to stop. In fact, the most recent research on this subject reveals that cognitive dissonance is so powerful that it causes physical pain and could be compared to a sort of mental torture. If left unresolved, it could actually reach a point where someone might turn violent just to make it stop in much the same way that someone could lash out to make a painful noise stop.  

Whenever a person is experiencing cognitive dissonance, they have two choices: turn off the old 'song' (i.e. abandon the old value/belief/idea) and embrace the new, or somehow find a way to demolish the new information in order to cling on to the old way of thinking. This moment of pregnant potential is called Creative Tension, and far from being a negative thing, it holds the possibility for psychological growth. However, given this choice, it rare that someone will be open-minded enough to abandon the old thought and embrace the new. Instead, most people double down and start turning to what the Freuds termed the 'ego defense mechanisms', which are psychological reasoning tools the brain uses to protect the individual's sense of self and self-image—in Freudian terms, the ego.

So why does the sight of the masks, or the thought of wearing one, create such cognitive dissonance in so many people? It largely comes down to the fact that the masks are a reminder of the looming threat that the psyche is trying to pretend doesn't exist—the reality of one's own mortality. The consciousness of impending death is an awareness the ego wants so desperately to push away that individuals will risk not only their own lives, but also those of their loved ones and their communities, just to avoid facing it. The horror the masks represent in the psyche is not just death, but the kindof death it is: a slow, disease-ridden deterioration in which the sufferer is left to die alone, ridden with contagious plague so no one can go near them. To avoid having to face this nightmarish potentiality, the psyche deploys all manner of ego defense mechanisms. In her classic text, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense(1936), Anna Freud identified no less than 10; additional ones have been identified since then. Some of the most common include denialacting out, displacement, reaction formation, transference, repression, regression, compartmentalization, and sublimation.Of these, she also described several as being most indicative of severe mental pathology: denial, delusion, delusional projection (usually of a persecutory nature), and distortion of reality. Disturbingly, all 3 of the most pathological forms of ego defense mechanisms can be found in widespread patterns of COVID-denialism. Denial appears in the form of people literally denying that the virus is real, or that it would be possible for them to catch it and fall ill from it, while distortion can be seen in the portrayal of the virus as 'a weak flu'. Delusions abound in the form of outlandish conspiracy theories  about the origins of the disease, such as the idea that it was intentionally cooked up in a lab and unleashed on the world as a bioweapon, or that it is not a virus at all but rather a symptom of 5G exposure, or that you can't get it if you're a practicing Christian, or that healthcare workers were “crisis actors” hired to fool the public into believing in an elaborate hoax. As for delusional projection, one can easily see that in the way that many of these conspiracy theories target a specific 'otherized' group such as Chinese people, Jews, or Muslims as 'globalists' or 'terrorists' using the virus to terrorize white Westerners and achieve dominance over them, when in reality it is white Westerners themselves who maintain global hegemony through the use of terror and violence.

In other irrational reactions to COVID-19, we can see other ego defense mechanisms at play. Fear caused by the sense that this disease is uncontrollable has led to rationalization attempts to blame the victims who get sick or die for their condition as a way of reassuring the psyche that in fact it iswithin their control whether they become infected or not. Displacement appears in the attempts to blame and even in some cases assault those who are not the actual culprits responsible for not containing the disease—namely, the reactionary corporate forces and right-wing US govt. on both the state and local level. In the protests to re-open the economy, we can see several of these at play—reaction formation in the bravado of men displaying a machismo they do not likely feel as a form of over-compensation for feelings of emasculation, acting out by demonstrating their power in ways designed to frighten others for maximum effect (e.g. the raising of Nazi flags and signs with Nazi slogans, the bearing of weapons, etc.), and possibly even the transference of deep-seated anger at their mothers, wives, etc. in the way they targeted and attempted to humiliate a female governor. Finally, we can see the ultimate example of acting out, in addition to denial and displacement, in the assaults and actual murder of the security guards who asked people to simply put on a mask. Overall, the response to the COVID-19 crisis from many American adults could be classified as a form of regression, as the stressors placed on a frightened, bewildered and emotionally stunted population caused it to revert to infantile denial and delusions rather than more mature forms of dealing with fear and discomfort such as sublimation, intellectualization, or even--gasp-- facing the reality head on and taking action to deal with the situation in a responsible way. Of course, one could also say that the irresponsible reaction of the US public was a case of psychological mirroring of the ruling class figures in the way that they have dealt with this crisis, and in the way that they have been dealing with social, economic and ecological problems for decades.

The Pleasure Principle, The Death Drive, and the (Missing) Reality Principle

In most of the above irrational behaviors, the goal of the psyche is avoiding facing the reality of the virus and everything that comes along with it. This fits with Freud's concept of the pleasure principle, a guiding force driving human actions in its desire to feel pleasure and avoid pain or suffering. Freud notes that this avoidance of pain can be pursued through “intoxication,” or the use of drugs to hide pain from the perceiving mind, the “killing” of the instincts through yogic practice or other methods of meditation as a form of asceticism, and the “turning away” from the problems of the world, as a monk or priest in a monastery. In US culture, expression of the 'pleasure principle' tends to vacillate wildly between its self-deprivation-based Protestant roots, and its more recent consumer culture. One can certainly locate this paradoxical dichotomy in the pleasure of American pastimes like the pleasure of binge-eating vs the pleasure of feeling a sense of control and moral superiority through strict exercise regimens; the temporary relief of the stress of alienation, loneliness, anxiety and depression under Capitalism through the rampant addictions of all forms vs the workaholism, and the usage of material comforts vs the use of religion/spirituality as a method of turning away from suffering. (Although it should be mentioned, turning away from suffering at all requires a fair amount of privilege.) In the USA, the dominant method of seeking instant gratification and avoiding pain through 'shopaholicism' was cultivated through none other than Freud's own nephew, the founder of the public relations industry, Edward Bernays. In studying and then exploiting his uncle's theories about the human psyche by using them in marketing and advertising, Bernays believed that by stimulating the desires and fears of the ids of the masses, one could both benefit Capitalism through increasing sales and pacify the public through creating and then satiating desires through consumer products, thus creating a more stable society. Thus, the US public in particular has been primed to operate in an id-driven way that constantly seeks instant gratification. But what happens when the pacifier is not available to be used to calm down the infantile adult's id? What happens when a deadly contagious virus appears, and there is no quick fix, no vaccine, no antidote, no easy way out? When told to make sacrifices for the health of themselves, their loved ones, their communities and the world, some Americans stepped up to the plate, but others were not willing to put their instant gratification on hold. Florida's teeming beaches and bars during Spring Break surely amplified the spread of the disease many times over, as did the partying during the economy's premature opening on Memorial Day weekend. Much of the cognitive dissonance going around also stems not just from the disturbing awareness of death, but also of the idea that we may need to give up our creature comforts if we're to have a livable world in the future. From the looming apocalypse of climate change to the creation of pandemics through the meat and dairy industry to the demand for fair compensation and resource sharing from those in the oppressed and marginalized classes, the looming sense that personal sacrifices must be made is driving much of the cognitive dissonance and attempts to quell it by any means necessary in our troubled times.

In a culture of such excess and instability, almost entirely gone is the balancing reality principle that encourages the mature human psyche to delay gratification in the service of bigger goals. Instead, US culture increasingly swings wildly from incessant, reckless pleasure-seeking on the one side, and on the other, a morbid fascination with death. Freud originally only recognized the pleasure vs reality principles and the life force he called Eros,but later in life he realized that the flip side of Eros was a competing drive towards death, Thanatos. In a decaying society of lost hope, downward mobility, social isolation and atomization, soul destroying work, human disposability and the prioritizing of subsidizing death machines (e.g., weapons industries, the military-industrial complex, the prison-industrial complex, etc.) over life-affirming services such as education, healthcare, food availability, ecological restoration, etc.,  the death drive in the collective unconscious is strong. Long before COVID-19 arrived on our shores, prevalence of the death drive could be seen in the soaring drug overdose and suicide rates; the trend of youth who 'self-harm' in the form of eating disorders, cutting, etc.; the popularity of 'daredevil' stunts like the 'Tide pod challenge' or 'Kiki challenge' where people filmed and uploaded videos of themselves swallowing laundry detergent pods and jumping in and out of moving cars on YouTube; the nihilistic credo (LDAR, or “Lie Down and Rot) of the sexually repressed young men known as Incels; the increase in white nationalists looking to start 'a race war'; and the newest branch of the Alt Right, the 'accelerationists', who have no political agenda or vision other than to speed up the total demise of contemporary society—a goal they share, in some respects, with the Evangelical Christian Right waiting impatiently for Judgment Day. Post COVID-19, the death drive can be found in the white nationalist weaponization of the disease, the hate crimes in the name of COVID, and the refusal of the public to take basic protective measures. In the reckless hedonism of post-COVID Tinder sex, where the casual sex app is awash with people starved for human contact after months of 'social distancing', there is both Eros and Thanatos operating simultaneously. Looking at our current state of affairs, one is reminded of Eva Braun dancing in the bunker as the bombs fell above.

We Live Together, Or We Die Together

At this moment, the USA remains the world's worst COVID-19 hotspot, with well over 2 million cases of infection and 120,000 deaths and counting. In half of all US states, the number of infections keeps on rising. The situation is stark—either we learn to consider the impact of our actions on others and act with intention and social responsibility, or we die together.

That said, there are signs that a growing number of people are, in fact, coming to that realization, and taking steps to create a society based on a life-affirming reality of our shared destinies. From the increase in interest in Eco-Socialism, Communalism, and Democratic Socialism, to the increase in social consciousness and social justice activism, to the alliance building between the movements for racial justice, climate justice and economic justice, to the raising of marginalized voices through intersectionality and the increasing awareness of how all injustice to humans, other species and the planet is interconnected through common roots in dominance and hierarchy, there is a growing awareness of what has at times been called the 'butterfly effect' or Gaia complex—the idea that, rather than the fascist vision of the nation-state or ethnic group as a 'body' infected by the 'disease' of outsiders, there is a holistic vision of the entire world as a giant body full of living cells, organs and organisms in which injury done to one negatively impacts all in the end. If we can somehow find our collective way to that awareness, then perhaps social distancing will ultimately be just what the doctor ordered to help us finally come together. 


Toilet paper wars: https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/who-bought-all-toilet-paper-study-suggests-who-was-most-n1230586 

Anti-Asian hate crimes: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/anti-asian-american-hate-incidents-up-racism/ 

Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories: https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/30/uk/online-anti-semitism-intl-scli-gbr/index.html 

Islamophobic conspiracy theories: https://www.newsweek.com/covid-19-conspiracy-theories-england-150589

White Nationalists: https://abcnews.go.com/US/white-supremacists-encouraging-members-spread-coronavirus-cops-jews/story?id=69737522 


Anti-masker assaults:






Healthcare workers being accused of being 'crisis actors': https://www.advisory.com/daily-briefing/2020/05/08/conspiracy 


Michigan protests: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/may/03/michigan-gretchen-whitmer-lockdown-protest-racism 

Part II: Why the people in the US don't believe what they are told





Germaphobia and Fascism:





Neuropsychology as a political predictor: https://research.vtc.vt.edu/news/2014/oct/29/liberal-or-conservative-brain-responses-disgusting/ 

Freudian psychosexual development stages: https://www.simplypsychology.org/psychosexual.html 

Castration Anxiety: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castration_anxiety 

Protestant Work Ethic: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protestant_work_ethic 

Id, Ego, Superego: https://www.simplypsychology.org/psyche.html 

Wilhelm Reich and the Mass Psychology of Fascism: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mass_Psychology_of_Fascism 

Jung, archetypes, collective unconscious: https://www.psychologistworld.com/cognitive/carl-jung-analytical-psycholog

The Cowboy as a Jungian archetype: https://www.cgjungcenter.org/uncategorized/true-grit-the-archetypal-realm-of-the-old-west/ 

Death Drives and Death Fears: 


Masks and Masculinity: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jul/03/covid-19-masks-men-masculinity 

Ego defense mechanisms: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defence_mechanism 

Cognitive Dissonance: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_dissonance 

Denial, Delusion and Distortion: https://blogs.psychcentral.com/humor/2015/11/defense-mechanism-is-denial-distortion-delusion/ 

Psychological mirroring: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirroring 

Freudian death drive & pleasure principle: https://epochemagazine.org/eros-and-thanatos-freuds-two-fundamental-drives-50a82a11a389 

Edward Bernays: https://theconversation.com/the-manipulation-of-the-american-mind-edward-bernays-and-the-birth-of-public-relations-44393 

Evidence of the Pleasure Principle and the Death Drive:






Covid parties: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coronavirus_party 

Support for Democratic Socialism: https://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/467684-70-percent-of-millennials-say-theyd-vote-for-a-socialist-poll 

Intersectionality: https://time.com/5560575/intersectionality-theory/ 

Eco-Socialism: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/zm988y/ecosocialists-believe-the-only-way-to-save-the-planet-is-to-abandon-capitalism 

Gaia Hypothesis: https://courses.seas.harvard.edu/climate/eli/Courses/EPS281r/Sources/Gaia/Gaia-hypothesis-wikipedia.pdf 

Butterfly effect: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butterfly_effect

Laura Schleifer created the word 'artivist' to describe her vocation as an artist-activist. A pro-intersectional veganarchist-eco-socialist writer, theater artist and educator, her work has spanned the globe, from the Middle East, where she performed for Palestinian and Iraqi children on a theater/circus tour, to China, where she taught literature, psychology, history, and creative writing to US and UK-college bound Chinese students, to Nicaragua, where she taught English/drama in a rural village, to performing her songs and monologues off-Broadway and arts mentoring NYC homeless and at-risk youth. A graduate of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts with a BFA in Drama/Dramatic Writing, her original feature screenplay, The Feral Child, was a Sundance Screenwriters Lab finalist. She has also taught courses on the history of Israel and Palestine and on Utopian movements at Wesleyan University's Green Street Arts Center and was a contributing essayist with The Leftist Review. She is currently working on her first book, which deals with animal rights psychology and philosophy, for Vegan Publishers, and is the co-founder of a vegan food justice team in Gaza called the Plant the Land team, which buys and distributes vegan food, plants food forests, and raises money to purchase land for communities to communally grow food on. She also speaks on a variety of subjects relating to the interconnections between human, animal, and earth liberation.

Read more from Digital Issue No. 18

Join Us!

Mercy, ingenuity, nuance, complex truths, guts and honor still matter! Join us in proclaiming so by purchasing, or giving the gift of, The New Engagement in print.

Order Today!

Follow Us

"You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive."
~ James Baldwin

Help us spread the ethos of compassion and understanding by joining our social media networks and sharing generously!

Contests & Prizes

Flash Fiction Contest
On May 1st, we announced the winners of our Flash Fiction Contest: Thomas Garcia (1st), Rick Krizman (2nd), and Rios de la Luz (3rd). Read more.

The James Baldwin Literature Prize
It is with great pleasure that we announce the winner of The James Baldwin Literature Prize of $1,000 to Hafsa Musa. Read more.

The New Engagement

The New Engagement endeavors a novel approach to discovering, introducing, and showcasing writers, artists, and filmmakers, by providing them digital and print platforms, while encouraging and supporting their social-consciousness.