On “The Rock,” 9/11 and listening to experts

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A few weeks ago, I received an email from Stanford’s administration that reminded us, among other things, to “Do as we’re told” (regarding COVID) because “[Even] the Rock’s avid dedication to health and fitness could not prevent him or his entire family from contracting COVID-19 during a recent family gathering.” 

I’m not sure what to do with that information. It made me think of those D.A.R.E. commercials (that I didn’t grow up with, but people my age make fun of), or the PSAs where a poorly-lit celebrity says “Gee, I was messed up. Don’t do drugs, kids.” Or anti-smoking campaigns where some model tells her sob story, and we’re supposed to care more about her loss because she’s pretty.

The problem is, it doesn’t work. Kids see right through that shit, and so do adults, especially when you can easily find smokers who live successful, healthy lives (Antony Bourdain smoked into his dashing fifties, R.I.P.) and drug addicts who have monumental successes (any rapper or hair metal drummer ever). 

Sure, some people will freak out about the Rock’s story. But they’re the same ones who would buy a piece of chewed bubblegum if someone promised them it had been in Dwayne Johnson’s mouth while he was on the set of Fast and Furious. Others, however, will say “Okay, but what were his symptoms? How long did they last? My mother’s colleague/cousin’s boss tested positive for coronavirus, and got away with two days of a bad sense of smell.” 

Both cases are examples of anecdotal evidence — equally valid or equally invalid. So on one hand we’re being told to trust the proverbial experts and disregard personal accounts of harmless viruses. At the same time, personal stories are being used to emotionally manipulate us into following the masses and asking no questions.

On the subject of experts, I’m hearing a lot of nonsense about Americans not listening to them. It’s as if the only possible reaction to government regulations is to not only obey, but to agree, and that objecting to lockdown is equivalent to flat-earthing or bigfoot hunting, or implies some fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of pathogens. I argue that there is a third possibility: that you can trust, believe, accept that COVID-19 is real and transmittable and quickly mutating, and, at the same time, disagree with the extremity of measures being taken or policies being put in place.

This is where 9/11 comes in. I was 13 years old when the planes hit the towers, and saw it happen through a laptop-sized TV screen in our kitchen in Thessaloniki, Greece. I didn’t appreciate it, didn’t understand it. It was impossible to wrap my head around 3,000 people burning or falling to their deaths in the space of a few hours. All I remember was my mother shaking her head, clicking her lips, repeating “Those poor people, those poor people,” again and again. 

But we all know what it meant to the country. President George W. Bush, who was giving a school presentation when he was informed of the attack, picked up a children’s book and started reading it upside down. Two years later, as part of the Global War on Terror, he announced we were invading Iraq.

The experts at the time told us we needed to invade Iraq. Now, I don’t know if we should have or shouldn’t have, but I do know that a lot of people, even other experts, asserted that we should not. They said, “Look, we know you’re just going for the oil,” or “Look, you’re stirring the pot, creating ten insurgents for every one you kill.” But they objected to the invasion without (necessarily) denying that the buildings, and our country, were attacked. They accepted the events as true, but disagreed with the response.

And when they objected, they were called unpatriotic. “How can you ignore the fallen?” they were asked, or “How can you forget those who lost loved ones?” They were shown pictures of troops mutilated overseas and how dare they not support them. They were told, “We need to git over there and wreak havoc in a war-torn country, shwack rag-heads, put warheads on foreheads, they get what’s coming.”

And here we are again. People are asking questions. “Who is really benefiting here besides mega-tech and the health industries? Should we consider if these policies are doing the most good for the most people? What about the future? Where is all the mask-and-glove plastic going? What happened to climate change? How long can you isolate people without long-term mental health repercussions? How long can you put a nation’s economy on hold to keep a few at-risk people alive a few years longer?” And the askers are shown dramatic pictures of doctors and nurses, or told testimonies from those who lived through the worst of COVID, and they’re called science deniers.

I’m not saying that this is what I believe, I’m saying I understand those who do. People are dying, and they are lying, strapped, face down, in hospital beds for months with fluids draining from their mouths. People are losing loved ones. There are conversations: hard, honest conversations that need to be had, but they’ll never happen if we assert that there is some capitalized Truth and that even considering anything outside of that is morally reprehensible. Appeals to emotion shouldn’t rattle our reasoning, nor should ad hominem arguments stifle our questioning.

Should we let the virus wreak mayhem and say “let it be” on fatalities? Absolutely not. But we should accept that the question of sacrifice versus common, long-term good is a difficult one to answer, and one that shouldn’t be swayed by a coughing celebrity.

Contact Nestor Walters at waltersx ‘at’ Stanford.edu.

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Nestor was born in Bangladesh and raised mostly in Greece. When he was nineteen he moved to the United States to join the Navy, where he served for ten years. He is now a junior at Stanford University, where he is rumored to be the only person in the math department with cut-off t-shirt sleeves. He also dabbles in creative writing.