There’s a bit in Bo Burnham’s latest Netflix special Inside, where Burnham, perched on a stool in the middle of a stand-up routine, pleads with his audience (which is only himself), to please, for one moment on any one topic, stop talking.
(If you’re not caught up on Burnham’s special, I highly recommend checking out this piece by the mega-talented Charlie Warzel:)
The Holiday Inn Express-ification of public discourse.
That portion of Burnham’s special — about phony expertise and endless conversation reminded me of an old ad campaign.
Back in the late-90s, Holiday Inn launched an ad campaign to promote its more budget-friendly Holiday Inn Express line of hotels. The basic idea behind the ads was that people who stayed at Holiday Inn Express locations made such smart decisions in choosing the chain that they may become a bit overconfident in other areas of their lives. Each ad ended with a savvy traveler in over his head yet foolishly overconfident. “It won’t make you smarter. But you’ll feel smarter,” read the campaign’s tagline.
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In one of the first commercials in the series, a surgeon wraps up a successful operation. “You’re not Dr. Stewart!” says one of the man’s assistants after he tells them to close the patient up and removes his face mask. “No,” he says in response. “But I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night.”
In the more than 20 years since those ads first ran, we’ve morphed into a society of Holiday Inn Express guests filled with unwarranted confidence.
Oh, did we just bomb Syria? Luckily, every single person on my Twitter timeline seems to be a foreign policy expert. Oh, there’s a new COVID-19 mutation? Wow, what are the odds that all of those foreign policy experts are also epidemiologists?!
It’s fine to be overly confident in your view of the world, I suppose. Believing that one specific military strategy is better than alternatives doesn’t matter if the discourse remains in your head, or hell, even if it ends up on Twitter. After all, there’s nothing more American than being extremely loud and incredibly wrong.
Problems arise when “extremely loud and incredibly wrong” end up being precisely the kind of opinions that get favored by the algorithms that govern our online experiences. These problems become even worse when inflammatory and factually dubious rantings are the types of opinions that appeal to newspaper editors and TV bookers.
The “hot take industrial complex” will be the death of (some of) us.
On April 27, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its COVID-19 mask guidance to say that fully vaccinated people can safely go without a face mask in most (but not all) settings. This was great news to those of us who jumped at the first chance to get the vaccine.
Lots of the reporting that came out of the CDC’s announcement came down to, “Get rid of your masks! All is well! You’re totally safe if you’re vaccinated!” even though the CDC’s guidance actually recommended that vaccinated people continue wearing masks during most indoor activities or “crowded, outdoor events, like live performances, parades, or sports events.”
Exactly one week later, The Atlantic’s Emma Green published “The Liberals Who Can’t Quit Lockdown.” Green’s piece was a classic bit of “both sides” journalism — a hot take dressed up as a reported feature. Many conservatives refused to take any COVID-19 precautions and have (to this day) resisted getting vaccinated. To “balance” this, there had to be an equal but opposite narrative to apply to people on the left. That’s where Green’s piece came in:
“Lurking among the jubilant Americans venturing back out to bars and planning their summer-wedding travel is a different group: liberals who aren’t quite ready to let go of pandemic restrictions. For this subset, diligence against COVID-19 remains an expression of political identity—even when that means overestimating the disease’s risks or setting limits far more strict than what public-health guidelines permit,” wrote Green. Later in the piece, she hit on the underlying theme of the article, writing, “Some conservatives refused to wear masks or stay home, because of skepticism about the severity of the disease or a refusal to give up their freedoms. But this is a different story, about progressives who stressed the scientific evidence, and then veered away from it.”
The takeaway from Green’s piece was this: Democrats who continued to take precautions against COVID-19 in their personal lives were just as bad as the Republicans who have refused to take precautions all along.
But these things are not equal, and lest someone argue that this is simply about public policy decisions and not the choices of individuals, let’s take a look at what others in media have argued.
FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver is a guy who made a name for himself using statistics and advanced metrics to evaluate the potential of baseball players, then successfully predicted 49 out of 50 states in the 2008 presidential election. When it comes to epidemiology, however, Silver has the arrogance and ignorance of a Holiday Inn Express guest.
Indeed, berating people for continuing to wear masks became a cottage industry for the professionally contrarian. Yascha Mounk wrote at his Persuasion Substack on May 14, “Take Off That Mask.” (It was only a day earlier that the CDC had again revised its guidelines to say that masks weren’t necessary for vaccinated people in most indoor spaces).
And just last week, Alec MacGillis of ProPublica saw someone push an elevator button with their elbow and witnessed another use an elbow to hold open a door! The horror! The horror!
Many in the comments were quick to point out that this may not have anything to do with COVID-19 at all. In fact, personally, I’ve gone out of my way to avoid directly touching common surfaces in public as best as possible for years. Elevators and doors are gross!
Silver, Mounk, and MacGillis aren’t epidemiologists. They’re content creators. Just like I am. I make my living by writing this newsletter (hello!) and hoping that enough of you subscribe to it so I can pay my bills (*cough* just dropping a link below *cough*). (MacGillis does some really great reporting for ProPublica, for what it’s worth.)
My point here is that here we are in a pandemic that is very much still happening and killing people every day. When it comes to responses and questions of what works, what doesn’t work, what helps, what hurts… I personally try to err on the side of caution. I haven’t worn a mask anywhere in several weeks (in fairness, I haven’t really gone anywhere in the past few weeks after getting settled in at my new place), but I still have them. Why? Why didn’t I run out and toss my masks in a big bonfire? Because I don’t know if or when I’ll need them again, because I’m not an expert, just a guest at the Holiday Inn Express of the internet.
There’s enough uncertainty in the world. I’d rather not add to it.
As actual public health experts, actual epidemiologists grapple with COVID-19’s Delta variant, what benefit is there for someone who isn’t an expert (just as Silver, Mounk, MacGillis, etc. aren’t experts) on the topic to offer opinions? What is the value of making people feel awkward about not wanting to touch communal surfaces like elevator buttons? What’s the point of “both sides” essays like Green’s that end up equating the people who are the reason the pandemic is still happening with people who might be going a little bit above and beyond whatever the CDC’s recommendation happens to be?
The only reason for me, someone who is not an expert, to run my mouth about what people should or shouldn’t do when it comes to public health, is self-serving. Maybe it generates controversy! Maybe a provocative blog post drives up my traffic numbers and leads to additional sign-ups! No matter what, it would be solely for my own benefit. Some people, such as Slow Boring’s Matt Yglesias, weigh in on all manner of topics they (in my opinion) don’t actually understand. While not helpful (and probably harmful in a number of cases), that strategy has helped him build an audience that absolutely dwarfs mine many, many, many times over. It’s a good financial model for him.
I don’t want that, though. I mean, I would love to have lots of subscribers, but not by being a “hot take” machine. I can promise my readers this: I will always do my best to fight the urge to weigh in on topics that I don’t understand, I will do my best to understand the limits of my knowledge, and take Burnham’s advice and just shut the f*ck up in those cases, instead.