Week 2: WHEN IS IT HEALTHY TO MOCK THE DEAD?
(and questions which miss the point entirely)
The subreddit r/HermanCainAward is named after the late politician Herman Cain. He was one of the ‘proudly unmasked’, spoke at a number of Trump 2020 events, contracted the OG Plague (potentially at an unmasked rally that was held indoors way back during the Great First Wave), and died.
An under-appreciated detail was that his official Twitter account, managed by his staff, claimed some weeks after his death that COVID was not as dangerous as the ‘mainstream media’ made it out to be.
The explanation given was that it was a ‘tribute’ account, which continued after his death to post relevant information to his supporters.
Just, you know, not that relevant to poor old Herman.
As might be expected, everyone became a tiny bit hung up on the fact that Herman’s zombie account was minimizing the risks of the disease that killed him.
This episode cemented itself as the absolute triumphant pinnacle of narrative over substance in the Plaguetimes, as the single most inexplicable example of a bare arse showing through the Emperor’s couture. And considering the fermenting toilet that is digital life in 2022, that is quite some achievement.
So, r/HCA is simple: it presents social media screenshots from COVID deniers, anti-vaccine zealots, mask sceptics, and other similar ‘truth warriors’. Then they die.
More specifically, they sound off — a selection of the memes and jeremiads they have infected social media with are corralled into a little intemperate slideshow …
then they get the plague…
then they write ‘this is quite bad, actually’ as their lungs grow patches of sharkskin…
then they stop posting because they are on a ventilator…
and THEN they die.
And that is when they ‘win’ their award.
And many people win.
Over and over and over and over again.
WHAT r/HCA IS
This is the experience of reading the subreddit, and I promise you I am barely paraphrasing:
Nancy Pelosi is a demon.
I’m not wearing your goddamn face nappy.
I’m a strong independent free-thinker who don’t need no microchips.
Just call me a ‘pureblood’.
Bill Gates is sending radioactive spiders to Jupiter to set up the first intergalactic thrift shop.
Science is a handmaiden to Satan, and pipettes are actually antennae which communicate with our Blackened Father Below.
“… my father is quite sick, please pray for him.”
“Larry was a kind man, and very good to his dogs.”
We should probably see a few. Just a few.
(These are the nice ones. I have left out the actual racism, sedition, the appeals to Godwin’s Law, and I have especially left out the genuinely bleak posts which are right before and after the deaths… I saw a couple of those that were genuine nightmare fuel.)
Again and again and again and again. A dozen a day, two dozen. Same story. Same hubris. Dead. Dead dead dead dead dead dead dead. I have no idea how many on aggregate. Somewhere between one and ten thousand, maybe. Mostly American, but some others.
People leave comments on the posts — a lot of comments, actually, the subreddit is in the top 50 most commented subreddits. It is popular. In the competition for attention, it is on a gigantic superstructure of digital content competing with cats, and computer games, and naked women, and regular memes about literally anything else which doesn’t involve the literal death of its participants, which many obviously find… somewhat off-putting.
And the off has indeed been put. The adjectives tumbled in from think-piece writers, waterheads, and do-gooders — r/HCA is distressing, black, evil, grim, ugly. It’s schadenfreude. It’s vindictive. It’s smug naughty liberals laughing at the poor, brave dead.
My thesis here is simple: it is some of these things, perhaps, but none of them are really the point.
In truth, r/HCA is obviously confronting, occasionally disrespectful, and also a tremendously useful source of comfort to its users, and an entirely appropriate piece of digital resistance to misinformation. In that respect, it is a gigantic collective investment in the self-care of its participants.(*)
People are outraged by it either (1) have not thought about it, (2) do not like its implications, or are (3) the kind of tiresome shitbirds that are paid to be outraged.
Let’s draw out some of the elements at work.
(1) not much of it is ‘funny’
Obviously, most people have a certain resistance to mocking the dead. So anything that feels like a joke, in the proximity of death, is regarded with suspicion.
And it feels like a joke because of the central irony at work — a disease minimizer or denier gets said disease and dies — but that is thematic. Jokes usually contain a violation of expectations, and the expectation here is utterly crystalline. There is nothing in the victim’s statements which manages to freshen or strengthen the irony.
Rarely does our HCA Award Recipient say, for instance, ‘I ain’t no weak bitch, it’ll be a cold day in hell before I get the damned plague!’, and then you see this posted with ‘Satan is ice-skating to work excited today, because finally Cerebrus has a girlfriend’.
Now THAT is a joke (a wordy, over-adorned joke — which is how you can tell I wrote it). But there’s little evidence of anything like that. Let’s look at the first four HCAs from today for context.
“Devoted mom (39) leaves behind two young children. She thought she was protecting her family by not getting vaccinated. The goal of this post is to draw attention to the terrible and tragic impact of medical misinformation, not to celebrate this lady’s death.”
“Mr Black didn’t take COVID serious. He liked to share “funny” memes and misinformation. Black died today after only being in the hospital for 4 days.”
“Chucky* hates the usual things- Biden, Fauci, mandates, loss of freedumb. Sister is reporting on his status in the hospital now.”
“Update: the toughest martial artist has had his last match; covid was even tougher.”
These aren’t jokes.
We know what’s going to happen. The Irishman is walking into the bar and hitting his head, over and over. We know what the “funny memes and misinformation” mentioned are going to look like. The trajectory of Devoted Mum, Mr Black, Chucky, and Tough Guy are all more predictable than an episode of Lassie. The same joke isn’t funny in perpetuity. Reserve this repetition in your mind, we’ll get back to it.
In other words, I think it is demonstrably untrue to call r/HCA in any way focused on ‘black humour’. There is snark, there is some loose language, and one liners, but it really isn’t a funny place.
(Until Sunday, when everyone is allowed to go full internet. For one day a week. First thing Monday morning: back to the awards.)
(2) not much spreads to ‘COVID-adjacent’ opinions
The Venn diagram of Republican-aligned misinformation and COVID denial is more circular than a figure-of-eight, but there are precious few posts of the genre “they were a Republican and now they’re dead” which are tolerated in the absence of strong COVID misinformation.
There are a few which amount to “Trump 2020!” “Vote Trump Pence!” “Heaven gained another angel today, as Grumpy Larry was called home etc. etc.” and, in all honesty, I find these to mean-spirited and uncomfortable. A good friend of mine mentioned to me recently that this was the primary reason he quit following the subreddit. That seems entirely understandable.
But these are rare. The overwhelming majority of content draws a very straight arrow between COVID misinformation and COVID death.
(3) not many comments stray from a kind of exasperated disbelief or grim acceptance
This is probably the biggest misconception I’ve seen when reading what has been written elsewhere about r/HCA. This is my interpretation, after reading several hundred of the comments:
“I’m not at all happy he died, but what he said makes it very hard to mourn either.”
“Meme #4 is the literal exact opposite of what every single piece of available evidence dictates.”
“How can you think you’re ‘tougher’ than an infectious disease? What was Tough Guy’s plan here, punch the virus?”
“Even by the standards of this place, those memes are *offensive*. Number 12 is horrifying.”
“I have an uncle like this. My husband has Crohn’s disease, so we stay the hell away from him.”
“Bless him, he was so free he received the greatest freedom of all.”
“I can never reconcile the fury and general dickishness of the memes with the obituary at the end, where everyone is nice and lovely. Were they really?”
How far that proceeds down the ‘disrespectful mockery’ scale is, of course, debatable. I grew up on the internet. Perhaps it simply seems less horrifying to me due to over-exposure.
And I am absolutely certain you could pick out a half dozen or so loose comments that would really make me look like an arsehole here — OF COURSE there is some properly off-colour shit as well.
But, please: look at the aggregate.
That’s enough exegesis. Let’s get to the point.
WHAT r/HCA DOES
r/HCA has nearly half a million members. It is mathematically impossible for them to all be sociopaths.
My estimation is that they are primarily people who are being blasted with cannons full of dangerous nonsense by friends and relatives, continuously and at great volume, right now and for most days, over the last two years.
Even gibberish, repeated sufficiently, has a great social weight. It makes you question your own sanity. Yes, even if it’s ridiculous, even if it’s unhinged, even if it’s demonstrably and straightforwardly incorrect. In the social sciences, we call the planned establishment of this sort of messaging ‘repetition propaganda’. And I promise you it’s a lot more real of a concept than ‘mass formation psychosis’.
It’s why revolutionaries chant slogans, because they irretrievably weld ideas together, provide them with an associative core. It’s why Orwell chose dogmatic contradictions to underlie the core beliefs of The Party. r/HCA members are unwilling participants in (and rebelling against) a messed up consensus reality primarily maintained by angry volunteers with flea market Oakleys. And, in a kind of meta-stupidity, those maintainers will also throw phrases like ‘ignorance is strength’ right in your face while maintaining the most straightforwardly demonstrable ignorance.
This is digital life for so, so many people, the pharmacy tech in Ohio, the midshipman from Pensacola, the social worker from Colorado Springs. It seems very foreign for the Berkeley grad working for the Huffington Sneer, whose curated digital life includes very few Uncle Larrys — and the few they do have are treated as aberrations, are put on a pedestal as a kind of cautionary tale of the Silliness of the Poors.
For regular people living in regular digital shacks, Uncle Larry is normative, and very loud, and entirely willing to infect your too-young-to-vaccinate children or kill your elderly parents because the virus is a lie.
And regular social relations, family dynamics, are very hard to fight your way through. It is exhausting to be in perpetual conflict with the people closest to you, and especially exhausting right now. A lot of people have been press-ganged into one long and nightmarish Asch conformity experiment, which seems to be getting worse positively correlated to the actual real risks.
It is utterly disorienting, a kind of meta-gaslighting.
People are already maintaining a kind of ‘continuous health diligence’ which requires a lot of cognitive effort. And while they’re trying to stay healthy, stay sane, they have people in their life who continuously pick at their boundaries, prod at them, minimize their concerns.
You can’t lash out every time. It’s exhausting. You can’t disown your family members easily. That creates even more conflict — if you throw Uncle Kenny overboard, all the rest of them will call you. And so many people are raised to raised to believe in the infinite possibility of ‘getting along with people’, a delusion under which I have never suffered personally, but it makes familial relationships very hard at times. Especially when your aunts coming to Thanksgiving with your immunocompromised child believe diseases aren’t real and the federal government is run by secret pedophiles.
But this sick carnival ride comes to an end with a great truth, one that cannot be denied or avoided, and one which is always publicized, and it is being god. damned. dead. When you lose the ability to post memes about how Anthony Fauci should be tried for war crimes in 100% of cases.
There is an end to this road, where reality will intrude and utterly crush delusion, where ‘fuck around and find out’ is universally applicable, and it is when you get sick and you god. damned. die.
In other words, you are driving on a very long mental road with someone close to you, and they promise this road is actually a shortcut to a great destination. You disagree — the road is called Large Boulder Road, and it famous for having an immovable granite boulder at the end of it. Tourists come to look at the boulder. The government knows the approximate height and weight of the boulder.
But your driver is hauling towards the boulder, over the speed limit, drinking a Michelob, shouting about rocks are a lie and silicates are a leftist conspiracy, and eventually you have to get out of the car.
The next day you receive a Facebook message to say the driver ended up twisted into a pretzel with their transmission rammed through their torso.
I imagine a lot of people see an r/HCA award and think ‘thank you’.
Not thank you to the Reaper, of course, but for the tremendous clarifying force these unfortunate incidents represent. A gigantic haymaker landed against just how disoriented and minimized they feel subsequent to the behaviour and rhetoric around them.
How I feel, honestly, when I see infections are four times higher than they were during the Delta peak, and I see people in crowded cafes chewing with their mouths open. Do we not share the same reality?
“No. More than that, reality is something Anthony Fauci invented to sell shoes to the Amish, and all the 5Gs have microchips, and all the microchips have Bill Gates, and Bill Gates has AIDS, and..”
The logical first thought is: “I don’t like that this happened. I’m sad because it wasn’t necessary. But … I kind of appreciate the restoration of sanity. Thank you for giving me back my mind, I guess.”
‘Self-care’ has bad associations, because (a) a lot of what is written about it is upper middle class bullshit (‘if you don’t like your job, just quit!’ in the absence of minor associated factors like eviction and starvation), and (b) it has been appropriated by corporations and managers who use it as a crutch to avoid making decisions which would remove the need for it (‘no, I’m not going to cut your hours — if you’re stressed, have you tried meditation? Bill in HR has a pamphlet about how to achieve inner peas’).
This does not invalidate the concept. On closer inspection, there is a lot of self-care on Reddit. r/InsaneParents comes to mind, so does r/RaisedByNarcissists. These are support groups, in the tradition of Alcoholics/Narcotics/Overeaters Anonymous. The act of consciously participating is most definitely a self-care decision.
So, what do support groups do?
- share strategies for dealing with challenges
- provide compassion and mutual support
- share stories of struggles or problems
And that fits r/HCA far more snugly than any framing around collective brutality or calculated insults to the dead.
Some months ago, there was all this performative compassion around the people who died — now we’ve done that, it would be nice to have some real compassion for the people who have to keep living next door to the narrative that killed their friends and relatives.
(*) I have left out entirely the public health messaging aspect of r/HCA which is doing a reasonable job of convincing some people to get vaccinated and behave as if infection is real.
If you want this developed into something you can buy, or you just want to talk, find me at http://linktr.ee/jamesheathers