If it’s true that you’re only ever as happy as your unhappiest child, then Tony was close to misery.
His “ordinary” teenage son had over the years changed into one he barely recognized – and COVID had now completed the transformation.
His son was angry and unhappy. He thought the moon landing was fake. He thought Michelle Obama was a man. He believed that 5G caused COVID-19 and he certainly did not believe in vaccination.
Tony’s son was ready to completely give up the life he once loved: the young man would no longer travel, he would give up his job, he would not see people if that was what it took to hold on to his weapons , that the vaccine is a scam.
I love my son, Tony told me on the radio this week, and I think our relationship is still good. But if anyone can tell me how I can reach him, how I can pull him back from these crazy theories, I would love to know.
The rise of conspiracy
I have spent more hours on my show over the last 18 months than I like to remember that I have calmly and respectfully tried to send regenerating conspiracy theories. I have not always succeeded.
Sometimes I know I sounded more excited than I should. Sometimes I might have gone into terrible laughter.
Once I knew I was rude when I interrupted a caller who was just about to take us deep into the insoluble “tunnel under the city” theory. (A challenge for those who believe in that story: stop wasting your time with your street protests – if you really think there are kids down there, take them out.)
ABC’s FactCheck has spent a year debuting COVID conspiracy theories.
But despite close investigation and the careful commitment, they just never go away.
The moment Tony told his story, the phone lines were jammed with calls from one end of town to another that crowned fragile, frayed and sometimes even broken relationships between siblings, between parents and children, between friends and in one case between two sisters and their mother. The sisters felt they had to cut their mother out of their lives right now – she was angry, and COVID “hoax” was all she wanted to talk about. They did not. And they missed her.
What the callers described reminded me of images of the wives of Welsh miners standing grim and silent at the edge of the pits, waiting to see if their people would return from the abyss.
None of us yet know how many of our loved ones will return.
Can we heal?
Australia’s uptake of the vaccine is accelerating, and it could see us become one of the most vaccinated countries in the world: but it could also end up hiding the small, personal tragedies of families who have shared a time of infidelity, ignorance and much more. encouraged mistrust.
Over time, and after the infection crisis has passed, many of these relationships, I am sure, will repair in the mysterious way that so many family gaps do. But those who do not will stand as a strong testimony to those who have worked very hard for a very long time to evoke the kind of mistrust and alienation that now breaks the heart of Tony and so many others.
The gap that should exist between understandable vaccine will, or valid skepticism about the influence of large drug companies; or the reasonable need to see peer-reviewed evidence on the one hand and the wildest conspiracy theories on the other have been compressed. For some, it is indistinguishable. The breathless narrow space is not a place where a trusting relationship can thrive.
It’s not just the rabbit holes on social media that are to blame: Facebook is getting well-deserved support this week, but it’s too convenient to blame the new digital behemoths.
High, persistent and powerful voices in the mainstream media have for decades now driven a business model based on creating fear and mistrust of the central institutions of a modern democracy – independent science, the judiciary, governments, public servants, teachers among others.
It was a pandemic with mistrust going on, and it was a careful preparation of the ground from which anxious, defensive, and increasingly divisive theories have grown.
The waiting game
I have a friend, an intelligent, thoughtful and quite visionary friend- a leader in their field- who seemed to fall into conspiracy black holes right from the start. They were the only person who urgently sent me a now-infamous 2020 text message apparently revealing the Governor – General’s plan to dissolve the Victorian state government and replace Daniel Andrews with a military leader.
Various obstacles to a plan notable for both its constitutional flaws and unlimited credibility were not elaborated.
When I came across some of the material they send, it has already been removed from the platform to be dangerously wrong.
I am repeatedly asked why I do not report the truth: but this truth is never described, and I have never found it.
My love for our friendship is not dead. But I do not know how to talk to my friend. As the wives of the miners, I wait. I hope I do not have to dig ourselves out.
This weekend we have a fascinating collection of essays for you: you can learn a little from bears about the challenges of getting out of hibernation, and you can pamper your Squid Game crush just a little longer with the micro-battle fought over the show’s translation challenges.
What to read this weekend
Have a safe and happy weekend, and now that I’ve got you in your post-squid funk (that Ted Lasso mood did not last long, did it?) Let me turn your attention to crimes of a far more refined nature: I have a strong recommendation for a quite breathtaking documentary on the art forgery case that brought down the venerable art gallery in New York Knoedler in 2011.
Why is it that the moment a conman sits down in front of a camera, you can tell what he is, but in reality, that prediction seems so harsh?
And thanks to my friend Zan Rowe for introducing me via this glorious Take 5 to an 18 – minute epic performance of Nina Simone from George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord for Black Soldiers at Fort Dix in 1971.
She mixed the song with the David Nelson poem Today is a Killer, and it heard it for the first time one fine spring morning, alone in open parkland, while my happy dog ran beside me, it felt like a revelation and a liberation.
Take your time with this. Go well
Virginia Trioli is the host of Mornings on ABC Radio Melbourne and the former co-host of ABC News Breakfast.
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