When Will the Madness End?

When Will the Madness End? by Jeffrey A. Tucker for AIER

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I was sitting in the green room in a Manhattan television studio on the day that the storm seemed to hit. It was Thursday, March 12, 2020, and I was waiting anxiously for a TV appearance, hoping that the trains wouldn’t shut down before I could leave the city. The trains never did shut but half of everything else did.

On this day, everyone knew what was coming. There was disease panic in the air, fomented mostly by the media and political figures. A month earlier, the idea of lockdown was unthinkable, but now it seemed like the unthinkable could happen, at any moment.

A thin, wise-looking bearded man with Freud-style glasses sat down across from me, having just left the studio. He was there to catch his breath following his interview but he looked deeply troubled.

“There is fear in the air,” I said, breaking the silence.

“Madness is all around us. The public is adopting a personality disorder I’ve been treating my whole career.”

“What is it that you do?” I asked.

“I’m a practicing psychiatrist who specializes in anxiety disorders, paranoid delusions, and irrational fear. I’ve been treating this as a specialist. It’s hard enough to contain these problems in normal times. What’s happening now is a spread of this serious medical condition to the whole population. It can happen with anything but here we see a primal fear of disease turning into mass panic. It seems almost deliberate. It is tragic. Once this starts, it could take years to repair the psychological damage.”

I sat there a bit stunned, partially because speaking in such apocalyptic terms was new in those days, and because of the certitude of his opinion. Underlying his brief comments were a presumption that there was nothing particularly unusual about this virus. We’ve evolved with them, and learned to treat them with calm and professionalism. What distinguished the current moment, he was suggesting, was not the virus but the unleashing of a kind of public madness.

I was an early skeptic of the we-are-all-going-to-die narrative. But even I was unsure if he was correct that the real problem was not physical but mental. In those days, even I was cautious about shaking hands and carrying around sanitizer. I learned later, of course, that plenty of medical professionals had been trying to calm people down for weeks, urging the normal functioning of society rather than panic. It took weeks however even for me to realize that he was right: the main threat society faced was a psychological condition.

I should have immediately turned to a book that captivated me in high school. It is Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay (1841). I liked reading it because, while it highlighted human folly, it also seemed to indicate that we as a civilization are over that period in history.

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