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A postmodern bridge collapse

Our truth crisis creates real dangers

The container ship Dali rests against wreckage of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Pasadena, Md., on March 26. Associated Press/Photo by Mark Schiefelbein

A postmodern bridge collapse
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The Francis Scott Key Bridge collapsed in Baltimore the other night. The giant container ship MV Dali collided with the bridge, causing a catastrophic failure and collapse of the bridge into the Patapsco River, and shutting down port traffic into and out of the Port of Baltimore. Playing out, in near real time, the social media response to the bridge gives us an insight into the dangerous thinking of post-modern America.

First, the facts are straightforward. The MV Dali is a Singapore-registered Neopanamax container ship, which means it fits through the enlarged locks of the Panama Canal. The ship traveled south from the Baltimore harbor loaded with cargo on a trip to Colombo, Sri Lanka. Shortly after its departure in windy conditions, the ship lost power traveling at 8 knots, or roughly 9 miles per hour. The ship signaled mayday, dropped its anchors, and drifted into the bridge’s main truss-support pillar at an impact speed of 6 knots or 7.8 miles per hour at 1:30 a.m.

At least six people are missing and presumed dead. They all appear to be highway workers who were repairing potholes on the bridge.

Within hours, as people woke up Tuesday morning to the news, the post 9/11 habit of catastrophizing everything began. In a postmodern age where everyone is skeptical of everything and everyone can have their own truth, instead of objective truth, social media influencers began seeding stories that the ship was cyber-hijacked or otherwise intentionally steered into the bridge. When other voices pushed back, those who leapt to catastrophe blamed the government for a loss of credibility.

This is becoming a more common phenomenon in a postmodern age where everyone is online and everyone is taught that every opinion is valid. The reality is that the ship had a malfunction. The Dali, which launched in December of 2014, is not technically set up for a cyber-attack. It simply lacks the systems for someone to remotely hack into the ship to shut it down or steer it. Likewise, if the crew were willfully attempting a terrorist attack, they would not have dropped anchor and signaled a mayday event.

In postmodernism, people react skeptically to information and show hostility to objectivity.

But that did not stop the conspiracies, conjecture, and insistence that those who deny the worst could not be trusted nor could the government. This is an increasingly common form of broken thinking. It presents so often as, “Because we cannot trust the government to be honest with us, we should presume the worst-case scenario.” The problem, of course, is that never before have we presumed to let the government think for us. It is simply not normal for people to jump to the worst-case scenario initially, only backing down upon the presentment of evidence. Even worse with this thinking, accidents leave less evidence than terrorist attacks. Terrorists claim ownership. ISIS took credit for the recent attack at the Russian concert hall. Major cyber-attacks globally have seen the hackers take credit. Not here. This was not a hostile attack.

In postmodernism, people react skeptically to information and show hostility to objectivity. People blame the government, the elite, and the awful response to COVID, but people did this before COVID. COVID just put it on steroids. Instead of taking ownership for castrophizing, people get defensive and try to justify it.

But watch what happens: First, such thinking actually makes the government more powerful when people unload their critical thinking to the government instead of thinking calmly, rationally, and escalating scenarios instead of deescalating scenarios. Second, it makes people vulnerable to the predatory behavior of others who seek influence, online attention, clicks, and control. Third, it risks discrediting real catastrophes by perpetuating “boy who cried wolf” scenarios. Fourth, while maximalizing conspiracies, it minimizes real disaster.

In Minnesota, the I-35 bridge collapsed in 2007, killing 13 and injuring 145 due to engineering defects. In 1980, the freighter MV Summit Venture collided with the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Tampa, Fla., and high winds causing the bridge to collapse. Thirty-five people died. It was an accident. Accidents happen. Catastrophizing everything into a conspiracy reprograms our brains to forget bad things happen and are often accidents or acts of nature.

Social media is poisoning people’s brains and causing some to chase clout through sensationalism, catastrophizing, and lies. The post-modern era with its skepticism of authority, sources, and objectivity exacerbates the problem. An initial first step to fixing the problem must be to reprogram ourselves to start with the least bad scenario and only escalate with evidence, instead of starting with the worst and only de-escalating with evidence. Otherwise, we risk ceding control of our thoughts to those who wish to manipulate us.

Erick Erickson

Erick Erickson is a lawyer by training, has been a political campaign manager and consultant, helped start one of the premiere grassroots conservative websites in the world, served as a political contributor for CNN and Fox News, and hosts the Erick Erickson Show broadcast nationwide.

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