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The Psychology of Viruses

March 30, 2010

I recently came across a very interesting New Yorker article which got me thinking about the similarities between viruses and certain strains of so-called Conservative thought (I say so-called because I think we can all agree that much of what The Right espouses is sounding increasingly radical. And yes, I’m probably being generous to call it thought. But I digress). Here’s a paragraph that really smacked me in the brainpan:

“Viruses reproduce rapidly and often with violent results, yet they are so rudimentary that many scientists don’t even consider them to be alive. A virus is nothing more than a few strands of genetic material wrapped in a package of protein—a parasite, unable to function on its own. In order to survive, it must find a cell to infect. Only then can any virus make use of its single talent, which is to take control of a host’s cellular machinery and use it to churn out thousands of copies of itself. These viruses then move from one cell to the next, transforming each new host into a factory that makes even more virus. In this way, one infected cell soon becomes billions.”

The first thing that struck me about this description was the bit about viruses needing a host cell to infect in order to survive. As it says, it’s a fair question as to whether we can really call viruses a form of life – they don’t metabolize biomaterial, or photosynthesize, or engage with their environment in any of the ways we normally think of living things doing. They just invade, dump their DNA, and start pumping out replicant versions of themselves. Similarly, very little of the rhetoric that we hear coming from The Right these days has much to contribute to the real challenges of managing our country. Whether it’s health care or financial regulation, responses to foreign threats or energy policy, Conservatives’ primary contribution to problem-solving is to deny, obstruct, stoke hysteria, and generally crap all over everything with which the serious kids are trying to wrestle.

The second thing that came to mind as I thought about it was that both viruses and Conservative thought propagate through a population by targeting the weakest members of the herd. For a virus, a weakened immune system is a ticket to ride. For the likes of Palin, Boehner et. al., the message is tuned to the frightened, the angry, and the already-disaffected…people who are desperate for some way to express the rage they feel at what they perceive as life’s little injustices. They crawl in through those people’s inability to appreciate the blessings of modern civilization or generalized sense of having been somehow wronged by the world, and exploit their sick thoughts  [as an aside, it’s generally the ‘nouveau poor’ – those members of the former middle class who are struggling with a relative reduction in their status in society – who are most susceptible to virulent right-wing radicalism. Historically disadvantaged groups – African Americans, Latinos, gay people, etc. – tend as a general rule to take their struggle somewhat less personally, probably in part because they were raised knowing they faced an uphill battle, and in part because their communities long ago recognized that blind rage wasn’t a terribly useful way to improve their lot. Angry white people feel entitled to sit at the top of life’s pyramid, and so are less able to handle not getting what they feel they deserve. Small irony: they fail to recognize that it’s the more plutocratic elements of capitalism – the elements which Progressives have long sought to constrain – which have cast them in their lot. Poor, stupid people.]

Moving right along:  viruses really live only to self-perpetuate. Now, while the same might be said of all life on the planet, the difference between viruses and all other life forms is that while most living things engage symbiotically with their particular ecosystem, viruses are pure parasites. From what we can tell, other than engendering a resistance to themselves through natural selection (that is, they kill the people most susceptible to their effects and thereby leave those who are better able to deal with the infection alive to reproduce), viruses have very little positive impact on the host species.  History has pretty much shown the same to be true of Conservatives – every single major improvement in our civilization, bar none, has had progressives at its vanguard.  Even when the price of challenging the orthodoxy was high – think Galileo, Darwin, Lincoln, FDR, Gandhi, etc. – it was people we’d readily identify as Progressives, not those whose alignment with the contemporaneous establishment, who would arguably have had a better shot at influencing decision-makers, who’ve torn down the walls. (Speaking of tearing down walls, funny thing:  Although Ronnie Raygun managed to bogart credit for the end of the cold war to help him construct his synthetic legacy, it was people like Mikhail Gorbachev, Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel – all of whom who were viewed as radical threats to their power structures at the time, and by history as Progressives – who did the heavy lifting. Ronnie gave speeches and pumped up the US economy on a toxic stew of deregulation and historic levels of public debt. Not to mention the violence he did by using charm and guile to turn a generation of Americans against cherished institutions. But I digress again. Dammit!)

Another similarity is that viruses corrupt their host.  Similarly, Conservatives work their misery by fomenting cynicism and eroding American’s faith in our ability to make the world a better place by making rational trade-offs…by rationalizing greed, alienating us from the angels of our better nature, and stripping us any sense that we can solve big problems.

Viruses, though clever by nature at exploiting opportunities to infect, are fundamentally mindless. Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck may, for their part, do a good job at mimicking thought, but I think most educated people would agree that they lack anything approaching the higher mental functions characteristic of those who create useful ideas. They merely exploit people’s fear of a complex world and latent bigotry.

The last major point of comparison that comes to mind is that viruses, because of their essential simplicity, mutate at a heinous rate (that’s why creating flu vaccines or find a cure for HIV is so tough – both are viruses which represent moving targets, and so quickly find ways to evade antigens targeted at whatever precise form can be isolated).  We’ve seen Conservatives morph from free-spending pork ladlers, righteously rubber-stamping grotesquely irresponsible tax cuts while dismantling the US Constitution, to self-appointed guardians of the public purse holding copies of the Bill of Rights in one hand and ‘Don’t tread on me’ flags in the other. Memo to the right: there’s nothing conservative about denying people rights based on their social identity (think gay marriage), invading foreign countries on a specious nation-building mission (Iraq, and to some extent Afghanistan) or making a religion out of leaving people to die in the streets because they had the bad form to be priced out of the health care system. Those things are just asshole-ishness.

With all of these similarities, it’s worth noting one major difference: while viruses live largely independent lives, poking around on their own for chances to weasel their way into a new host, Conservatives organize into borg-like collectives, actively seeking ways to infect , exploit and corrupt. And while viruses mostly either kill us or are overcome by our immune systems, Conservative thought seems to behave more like a persistent parasite, continually draining us of the vitality and to deal with the challenges of managing a complex, heterogeneous society. It won’t kill us, but it certainly makes us weaker, less resilient and more prone to collapse.

Seems to me we’ve been better equipped by nature to deal with viruses.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. H1N1 permalink
    March 31, 2010 6:48 pm

    Brilliant!

  2. Dan Calder permalink
    March 31, 2010 7:14 pm

    I especially like the idea of the rapid mutation of viruses applied to the current ideas pushed by the right wing. They created this virus thinking they could control it, but now it has mutated and is out of control. Tea Party anyone?

  3. April 1, 2010 10:00 pm

    Great post. Very amusing and also accurate analogy.

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