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Unrecognizable person holding a sign opposing Vaccines and Masks as COVID spreads across the USA.

The nurse quietly and efficiently unhooked the IV from my wife’s arm while discussing the cold snap that was marking the beginning of the new year. It was post-procedure time. The doctor already had said the routine exam had gone well — no polyps! — and now we were left with the nurse unhooking the machinery, telling us about her daughter, an athlete fighting for a place on the starting lineup of her varsity squad.

I mentioned offhand how the ward seemed quiet, considering all the hubbub in the media over the Omicron variant, which had left hospitals in a state of emergency scrambling to meet the enormous wave of COVID-19 patients crashing against their shores.

“That’s upstairs,” the nurse said. “It doesn’t really affect us down here.”

“Down here” was the area of the hospital where routine exams like colonoscopies are conducted. I told the nurse the recent COVID spike could have been avoided if people just got vaccinated and boosted. I didn’t understand why anyone wouldn’t get the shot, except those with serious medical reasons.

“Well, my ex-husband isn’t vaccinated,” she said without looking up from one of the gadgets. “He believes the vaccine is a way for the government to microchip us so they can track us.”

I’d heard about these conspiracy-theory people, but hadn’t talked to anyone actually connected to one of them. Surely the nurse’s ex-husband was either suffering from a mental health condition, chemically dependent or was just plain stupid.

Nope. Her ex-husband was of sound mind, a well-employed, well-adjusted professional, though “he has some crazy ideas. It’s a shame because he’s missed all of his daughter’s basketball games since he refuses to wear a mask and isn’t vaccinated. He told me not to vaccinate the kids, but I did anyway. We just don’t talk about it.”

The question screamed in my head: How could any rational person believe the COVID-19 vaccine contains microchips used to track people? There is (of course) no scientific evidence to support this conspiracy. Conduct a Google search for “COVID vaccine microchip theory” and you’re met with dozens of headlines from mainstream news outlets like CNBC and Forbes explaining why it’s not true, that Microsoft’s Bill Gates isn’t the evil genius behind it, that the vaccine does not contain the mark of the beast. As Gates said, “It’s hard to deny this stuff because it’s so stupid …”

Still, CNBC reported on a survey conducted last fall of 1,500 Americans that said 5% believed the microchip hoax was “definitely true,” and 15% said it was “probably true.” How is that possible?

Here’s another one. A recent post on the nosy Nextdoor website warned neighbors that our 5G cell phones are killing bees and causing cancer. The post included a screen-cap from a website that repeated the claim. A few worried neighbors began to weigh in. Could this be true? The usual back-and-forth ensued.

I don’t post on Nextdoor, but when I see these sorts of threads, I sometimes chime in — in this case with a link to an article from the National Audubon Society that refuted the theory. Moments later, a few people “liked” my comment, but then the original poster began to refute Audubon. If you look long enough, you can always find something on the internet to support your position. The neighbors bickered until the thread was eventually taken down.

People have always believed in things that have no basis in reality. I know a number of people — smart, industrious, well-spoken liberals — who give great credence to the idea that how the stars are aligned — either on their birthdates or at any given moment — directly affects events in their lives.

I know people who absolutely believe in ghosts — the spooky kind that haunt houses and spell out messages on Ouija boards. I know people who go to palm readers. I know modern-day Wiccans and self-proclaimed witches. These folks aren’t “just having fun” — they sincerely believe these things with their hearts and souls. Who am I to roll my eyes and tell them it’s hooey? People getting their zodiac charts read or hosting a seance or burning sage to ward off negative energy have no impact on anyone’s lives but their own. Unlike these conspiracy theorists.

We’re living in a new era in which people get lost in conspiracy, fueled by their own “research,” desperately looking for someone who supports their beliefs, and at the same time, supports their actions.

An amazing article by Kerry Howley in New York Magazine traces how three rational people got caught up in conspiracy theories and found themselves storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. And how two are now paying a legal price, while the third is dead.

The best line from her story — “A country that protects the right to spin fantasy necessarily risks the well-being of those who easily lose themselves to it.” It also risks the consequences of their actions, be it an uprising against our government or a heartbreaking rise in COVID-19 infections, which — as of this writing — are at the worst levels since the pandemic began.

Over The Edge is a monthly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at tim.mcmahan@gmail.com.


Subscribe to The Reader Newsletter

Our awesome email newsletter briefing tells you everything you need to know about what’s going on in Omaha. Delivered to your inbox every day at 11:00am.

Become a Supporting Member

Subscribe to thereader.com and become a supporting member to keep locally owned news alive. We need to pay writers, so you can read even more. We won’t waste your time, our news will focus, as it always has, on the stories other media miss and a cultural community — from arts to foods to local independent business — that defines us. Please support your locally-owned news media by becoming a member today.

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