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Traveling in the Misinformation Age

This week I took a plane from Frankfurt Germany to Fairbanks Alaska to visit family. It is the first time that I’ve flown in two years, and more importantly the first time I’ve returned to the states since the pandemic began.

The author’s familyon the plane to the US.

Like everyone else serving the US troops in Germany I followed the news back home. I’d read about the disregard of masks, the flouting of social distancing, and the spread of misinformation that leads so many in my home country to think that Covid-19 is a hoax. But I still wasn’t prepared for what I saw.

I had an overnight layover in Texas. As soon as I left customs people began removing their masks. They didn’t make a big thing of it, and at first I didn’t notice. But the masks gradually migrated from noses to chins. Many wore them dangling from one ear, as a token gesture. By the time I got to my hotel no one wore masks except the employees. When I got into a hotel elevator a large family of six crammed in with me. I was the only one in the tiny space wearing a mask. The father, a large guy with dark sunglass and an American flag t-shirt, eyed me suspiciously.

It was the first of many encounters I had with people that night who made it seem as though I was acting strange for wearing a mask and keeping my distance. The next morning at the hotel’s breakfast CNN played in the background while everyone ate. The new Delta varient was the main story. It is more than a thousand times as contagious, the anchors were saying. Meanwhile, literally no one in the restaurant wore masks. The line for eggs was long and close quarters. The only person in it wearing a mask was the lady serving eggs, and hers was below her chin.

How did we get here? In Germany the conspiracy theorists were a fringe movement and almost everyone wore masks when indoors. No one eyed you suspiciously for keeping your face covered and your distance safe. But in the US, it seems, the fringe is now the mainstream. How that happened is a topic historians will argue about for decades, but there can be little doubt that it happened.

I can’t help but feel that we all quietly passed some historic point that we still haven’t understood yet. A point that isn’t marked by a terrorist attack or a war, but by a shift in worldview. One where the norms of reason and science were discarded in favor of magical thinking and misinformation. That might sound like hyperbole, but as I watch people board the shuttle bus to head back to the airport, not a single mask on, shoulder to shoulder, I can’t help but think we are in a new time. One in which the truth, even if it will save your life, isn’t good enough for many.

I hope I’m wrong.

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