One of the unheralded casualties of the coronavirus crisis is, oddly enough, the daily news.
Let’s face it — no matter what time of day or night you turn on your television, you are likely to be greeted with a barrage of virus video. It’s “Hurricane TV” on steroids, and maybe the crisis justifies the 24/7 obsession, but the question arises: “What are we missing?”
In other words, what else has been happening in our world of 7 billion people and 195 countries that we don’t know about because our entire attention has been focused on COVID-19?
When I was in high school, my favorite author was Aldous Huxley, the bespectacled bookworm who popularized LSD and braved the new world of social engineering, technological slavery and information overload decades before they became the centerpiece of life as we know it.
I bring that up not because I’m going to devote a column to the British novelist’s dystopian warnings about a compliant media and a pervasive government. I’ve done that before, but today my interest in Huxley is not his life’s work but his death.
Huxley, you see, had the great misfortune to die on the same day in November 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It had an almost visceral effect on me when I discovered that, as a result of that accident of timing, Huxley’s death was virtually unmarked by the world that had been both the victim and the beneficiary of his stinging insights. He earned a paragraph or two in the back pages of some newspapers, but for the most part was reduced to asterisk status by the enormity of the brutal murder of our youthful president.
For a news junkie such as myself, it appears we are living through a similar asterisk, perhaps the biggest asterisk since World War II, maybe ever. How ya gonna find out what’s happening down the block when the end of the world is so close at hand? You probably can’t. Of course, with the internet now drilling directly into our brains, it’s likely that you can keep up-to-date on your own special interests, but when you get outside of that silo, you may find yourself overwhelmed by a sea of coronavirus coverage that is drowning out otherwise front-page news.
Did the world lose a major talent like Aldous Huxley in the past week or two? If someone important had succumbed to coronavirus, you would almost certainly have heard about it. Otherwise, not so much. Cancer and crashes are not only playing second fiddle to the virus, but along with everything else, they are now reduced to “world’s smallest violin” status.
We may find out months from now that our favorite authors or filmmakers have passed on, or we may never know at all. The question for people like myself is: “If a tree falls in the woods, and it doesn’t have coronavirus, does anyone care?”
But even though streets are empty, shops are shuttered and the economy has collapsed, life goes on and — believe it or not — everything that used to be important still is — or maybe it isn’t. Maybe it never was. Maybe we can gain perspective about the life we have grown used to by seeing it totally eclipsed by the shadow of death.
Take, for instance, my usual subject for this column — national politics. Do we really give a damn? Maybe not.
Even Bernie Sanders, the day after he unofficially lost his Democratic nomination battle against Joe Biden by getting trounced in Florida and Illinois, couldn’t find time to play the usual political game. When CNN’s Manu Raju asked him about his plan for his presidential campaign, Sanders told him to get real: "I'm dealing with a f------ global crisis. … I'm trying to do my best to make sure that we don't have an economic meltdown and that people don't die. Is that enough for you to keep me busy for today?"
I must say, the outburst even endeared Sanders to me, despite our polar-opposite political views. But despite Bernie’s grand effort to pretend that Super Tuesday never happened, it is my sad responsibility to report to both him and you that the Democratic nomination fight is, to paraphrase Billy Crystal in “The Princess Bride,” not just “mostly dead” but “all dead.”
On the other hand, human cussedness is alive and well, and isn’t that the root of 90% of the news we consume? That’s certainly true in politics, and some well-known names are probably relieved that their foibles were overshadowed by the ongoing crisis.
Even if you follow national politics closely, there is a good chance you missed the trip down memory lane when former President Bill Clinton explained that his affair with Monica Lewinsky occurred because it helped to “manage my anxieties.” Maybe you didn’t miss it, but you certainly wish you had. Like the cigar and the stained blue dress, it was too much information.
Probably the biggest beneficiary of the news blackout was Andrew Gillum, the former Democratic candidate for Florida governor and recent CNN talking head. He got caught with his pants down — literally — in a Miami Beach hotel room. The naked politician was intoxicated to the point of stupor, and was in the company of a man who apparently overdosed on meth and had a heart attack. Not just any man, but a 30-year-old male escort and alleged porn star.
In any normal news cycle, Gillum’s sordid escapade would have been fodder for hours and hours of breathless coverage on cable news (though possibly not on CNN). Instead, Gillum can thank his lucky stars that he decided to black out during the biggest news blackout in history.
Maybe we should all be grateful that a virus has inoculated us to the virulent pettiness of much of what passes for news these days. They say the health and economic crisis underway will permanently change society in ways we cannot yet predict. Maybe the social pause will encourage us all to look at the big picture for a change.
“Blessed are they who never read a newspaper, for they shall see Nature, and through her, God,” said Thoreau, the poet of Walden Pond.
But Thoreau was content to live a life of social distancing before it was the result of a government order. The same may not be true of the rest of us, nor may we want to take our nose out of the scandal sheets.
Human cussedness won’t change as a result of coronavirus, and human curiosity won’t either.