We have been writing about the Widening Gyre for more than five years now.
In 2016, we wrote about the transition we observed within our national politics from a coordination game to a competition game. In more familiar terms, we argued that our politics were rapidly careening toward the bad equilibrium of a Prisoners’ Dilemma, where everyone knows that everyone knows the only way to survive is to defect against the other participant(s). To rat them out, in the terms of the classic game theory problem.
In 2018, we argued that the increasingly bi-modal distribution of political preferences observed by many was a feature of this transition. Because defection was now the optimal strategy in every social or political conflict, we argued not only that political division would increase, but that the need for a high-peaked distribution would cause more and more of apolitical society and culture to be sucked into the gravity of political division. Things that had nothing to do with politics would now take on an explicitly political dimension.
We called that effect the Widening Gyre, a term we shamelessly stole from Yeats’s The Second Coming.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre― W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming” (1919)
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
We have since written and spoken about those many things that have been sucked into the gravity of our dysfunctional politics. We have lamented that the defining feature of American society in the 2020s is that belonging and identity are largely determined by having Correct Opinions, as judged by one group or another. That meant, we argued, that those with affinity for one group or other would be under pressure (more than normal, that is) from inside and out to auto-tune their opinions, news consumption and thought processes to that of the group. It also meant that those with divergent or nuanced opinions on a topic would be ostracized by both of the political poles, their identity imposed on them from the outside.
Anyone who was, for example, a believer in the seriousness of the Covid pandemic and deeply supportive of indoor mask use and social distancing, yet also deeply skeptical of needless business lockdowns and hygiene theater in 2020 knows this all too well. There were a great many Americans who had the singular experience of being simultaneously Full MAGA and Literally Communists, depending on who you asked.
Most recently we wrote about auto-tuning of the apolitical scourge of inflation to political dimensions. But despite its influence on nearly every facet of life for more Americans, the easily cartoonified nature of inflation data makes it unlikely it will ever be the primary theater for our narrative wars.
A year from now it will almost certainly be something else. But today’s chief battlefield of identity narratives is, without question, vaccine mandates.
It is a bit awkward to write about this topic. Ben and I are on the same page, which isn’t always the case. More importantly, we are back in the heretical, heterodox, totally-MAGA-and-somehow-also-literally-communists camp on the topic. We think, given the transmissibility of Covid, that vaccination is a serious and important civic duty. We also think that antibodies from prior infection should generally be accepted as an analog for vaccination. We think government-imposed vaccination mandates on private citizens are not new and that the effort to pretend that they are is bizarre and constructed. We also generally strongly dislike such government-imposed mandates, both old and new. The same principles of liberty which lead us to that conclusion also lead us to believe that private enterprise ought to be able to impose whatever requirements they deem sensible, especially if they operate in industries where concentrated, indoor public contact, especially with vulnerable populations, is unavoidable.
But sometimes a topic gets so tangled up in its own strings of stupid that something must be said.
So yes, ladies and gentlemen, we find ourselves together now at the stage of the Widening Gyre in which your political identity now determines the reality you wish to accept about three days of moderate operational difficulties at the ninth largest global airline, as measured by passenger-miles.
God help us.
Or you know what? No, maybe just send a meteor.
Alright, in case you have not been following closely or don’t have family flying in from Hobby Airport down in Houston to experience something we call “seasons”, the facts and circumstances of the story and its coverage are mostly straightforward:
- Over a period of a few days, and especially over the Columbus Day weekend, Southwest canceled thousands of flights. Depending on the days you count as part of the disruption, roughly 25-30% of flights were canceled and far more were subject to heavy delays;
- Operations stabilized very early in the week of 10/11;
- The company publicly blamed problems in air traffic control (ATC) capacity and weather;
- Curiously, other major carriers did not experience remotely similar issues on either count;
- Likewise, the FAA publicly denied any problems in ATC other than a minor disruption in Jacksonville, Florida; and
- The Friday before Columbus Day weekend (i.e. shortly before the sharp rise in cancelations), the Southwest pilots’ union asked a court in a filing to block the company’s plans to mandate the vaccination of pilots.
As the cancelations started to pile up, rumors began to spread. Most such rumors took the form of a redacted text message from a ‘credible source’ and spread on social media, usually asserting that the cancelations were primarily the result of a sickouts in protest of vaccine mandates. The first such rumors attributed the slowdown to a sickout being conducted by air-traffic controllers in Jacksonville. As time went on, many more began to attribute the cancelations to similar actions by Southwest pilots. Among the first of these came from Twitter user “I_Kill_Art_Hoes” in a purported post of a text from his father that quickly went viral. Copied versions of this text were recreated with different provenance on other platforms.
Now, I haven’t the foggiest idea if any of these rumors were true. Clearly, given the union’s stance, there is at least some irritation within the ranks of pilots. It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if some number of pilots or air-traffic control workers decided among themselves to undertake a bit of an informal sickout. Between the timing of the filing and the pretty plain evidence that Southwest corporate was being less than forthright about what was going on, I don’t think anyone should be shocked that this kind of speculation emerged. I don’t think anyone should be shocked if it ends up being true, at least in part.
But the speed with which circumstantial cause for speculation turned into a definitive “heroes are rising up against vax mandates!” narrative WAS shocking. It took mere hours for the rumors and circumstantial evidence to be promoted as the Correct Understanding of the Event by practically every prominent media and political missionary of the right side of our bi-modal political spectrum. Tucker Carlson. Ted Cruz. Sean Hannity. Donald Trump, Jr. Ron Johnson. Alex Berenson. Jack Posobiec. The Washington Times opinion pages. RedState, who kindly gave credit to I_Kill_Art_Hoes’s dad for the scoop. The Buck Sexton and Clay Travis podcast. Apocalyptic prophecy blogs. Breitbart, which snuck it in their news section under the newsworthiness standard of ‘famous people said’. Newsmax, which did the same. It’s a fun gag that publishers from both political modalities enjoy: “Oh, we’re not saying that’s true, we’re just reporting that someone famous that our readers listen to think that it’s true, and their statement is what’s newsworthy.”
Among the 1,239 articles we identified discussing Southwest’s cancelation issues over this brief period in October, approximately 45% specifically referenced this speculation.
The below network graph presents each of those 1,239 articles. Each dot represents a single article. The articles are organized by linguistic similarity. When articles are very similar to one another, they will be grouped into an area and share a similar color. If very similar articles exist in different ‘neighborhoods’ of similar articles, they may in turn be connected by one of the many lines on this graph. Up, down, left and right have no meaning other than distance – closer means greater linguistic similarity, and further means less linguistic similarity.
The nodes highlighted in bold below are those articles which contain language we believe is related to speculation about the primary role of an ‘uprising of Southwest pilots against vaccine mandates’ in the recent spate of flight cancelations. Based on the phrases of meaning extracted from the articles, I would generalize the gold, green and rust colored clusters in the southeast quadrant of the graph as being largely articles which rely on that framing. I would generalize the pink cluster in the northeast quadrant as being heavily populated by articles with language dismissing or fact-checking the theory.
It is interesting how many articles reference the speculation. But it is really interesting how tight the cluster membership is, both for those using the framing and those referencing it critically. It implies strongly that the language about the vaccine mandate speculation is the language which most defines the shared characteristics of these articles. That is, if you wrote about the Southwest cancelations by framing it as being about a pilots’ work stoppage over vaccine mandates, the language you were using was probably very similar to the language being used by others writing about the intersection of Southwest and vaccine mandates. When we talk about the construction of narrative and the creation of common knowledge, this is what we mean: the viral spread of linguistic abstractions as a means of interpreting facts about the world.
In this case, the viral spread was so rapid that by October 10th, that an uprising of Southwest Airlines pilots against vaccine mandates bore primary responsibility for the flight cancelations over the Columbus Day weekend was an article of faith.
But it wasn’t the only viral spread of narrative that took place in connection to this event. Nor would it be the only article of faith to emerge.
If it took hours for social media-fueled rumors to emerge as talking points for sitting members of the United States Senate, it took minutes for the fact checking machinery of the nudging oligarchs in America’s left-leaning media and social media institutions to fire up with the counternarrative.
If you didn’t do so when it was mentioned above, try clicking on the Instagram post that took credit for the scoop that I think we all believe rightfully belongs to I_Kill_Art_Hoes’s dad. You should see something like this.
Instagram wasn’t alone. Fact checks quickly emerged from USA Today, Snopes, the Washington Post, Politifact, AFP, Newswise and more. In every case, false, false, false! And in every case, the argument provided for the false characterization was also the same: that the airline denied that a pilot anti-mandate sickout was taking place, and because the pilots’ union denied that an anti-mandate sickout was taking place. So there! False!
Indeed, the pink-colored cluster in the network graph above is largely populated by fact check-adjacent articles; that is, the cluster consists almost entirely of and is in most respects defined by language that characterizes the claims of pilot sickouts as a cause for travel disruptions as false. I say fact check-adjacent articles because not all belong explicitly to that genre. Just as many are “look at what crazy stuff these guys are making up now” pieces that reference similar arguments and conclusions.
Yet in not a single one of these articles that I reviewed – and I read all 60 in that cluster – did I see a journalist or opinion writer ask two simple questions that would be necessary to render an intellectually honest “false” evaluation on the circumstantial claims being made: (1) do statements from the airline and union indicate definitively that some pilots are not engaging in an informal sickout, and (2) is there any reason the airline or union might have an incentive not to make a public statement characterizing it as a sickout?
The answers to those two questions are very obviously (1) no and (2) yes. A recognition by the airline that matters within its control were to blame would have meaningfully different economic consequences, and a public recognition by the union that its members were organizing a job action would have meaningfully different legal consequences. I’m sorry, but if you are a professional journalist and your reaction when you read a statement from SWAPA that says, “Under the Railway Labor Act, the Union is forbidden from taking job action to resolve labor disputes under these circumstances. SWAPA has not authorized, and will not condone, any job action” is to say to yourself while nodding sagely, “CASE CLOSED”, you should consider another profession.
But let’s not go crazy here. The fact that the farce of fact check media doesn’t take its own “the primary elements of a claim are demonstrably false” standard seriously and didn’t probe the strange elements of the event any further doesn’t change the fact that there really wasn’t anything beyond statements of unclear provenance and circumstantial relevance to go on from a news perspective. Those largely unsourced social media claims were at best and at worst unproven, and for that reason, there is zero reason for anyone to be shocked that most news coverage ignored it, beyond coverage of it as a social or cultural phenomenon. If your expectation is that the media needs to cover the assertions present in every text message from I_Kill_Art_Hoes’s dad, I’d say that is a pretty unrealistic one that misunderstands the purpose of the press in a free society. As mentioned above, even conservative media outlets like Newsmax and Breitbart realized that if they wanted to promote the speculation on their news pages, they would have to do so by treating the definitive statements of famous conservatives on the topic as newsworthy themselves.
But that doesn’t mean that looking more closely into that news coverage isn’t still useful. And, as it happens, when we do so we find something very interesting indeed. Here, once again, is a network graph of the coverage of Southwest cancelations. But instead of marking in bold those containing the linguistic patterns of discussions of a pilot sickout over vaccine mandates, we mark those which contain language that explicitly reference the claims of adverse weather and ATC causes of the cancelations and which OMIT any mention of the speculation of a formal or informal job action.
This group accounts for 421 articles, or about 34% of our dataset. Like the speculative blogs, most of these articles are concentrated in the same clusters, namely the red, green and gray clusters in the northeast quadrant of the graph. Here, once the dataset is constrained to articles referencing ATC and weather, the language used in the remaining set of articles is deeply similar. Why?
Because the news articles which (correctly, I think) omit speculation about a pilot sickout are functionally slightly different presentations of the statements released by Southwest Airlines, SWAPA and the FAA.
Because – I think – out of concerns that doing otherwise might give aid to the narratives of the political right, left-leaning news outlets, opinion outlets and blogs as a whole did practically no digging into the absurd and contradictory explanation provided by Southwest Airlines for such a significant disruption.
Why do I think that?
Because three articles, or about 0.2% of those covering the cancelations, referenced the nature and robustness (or lack thereof, in certain circumstances) of Southwest’s less hub-and-spoke-dependent network design.
Because nine articles, or about 0.7%, referenced the >$3 billion dollars Southwest Airlines received in the 2020 bailouts.
Because twenty-one articles, or about 1.7%, grapple in any measure with Southwest’s profitability, among which only one or two consider whether the aggressive over-optimization of Southwest’s network and staffing in order to produce that outcome might have had anything to do with the events of Columbus Day weekend.
Because twenty-five articles, or about 2.0%, referenced the demonstrable public statements of pilots, air-traffic control and other employee groups about their workload and exhaustion due to current staffing levels.
Because twenty-six articles, or about 2.1%, discuss the logistical and infrastructural challenges facing air carriers in any capacity.
Most importantly, in all of those cases, the articles are scattered all over the network graph, with almost no internal linguistic similarity. In other words, there is NO narrative about Southwest’s flight cancelations other than (1) “heroes are rising up against vax mandates!” and (2) “heroes are not rising up against vax mandates!”
Outside of the narrative battleground du jour, the story here is that in the best case, a minor disruption in weather and a small ripple in staffing could cripple the service provided by a major air carrier whose near-monopoly status in some short-haul routes is effectively subsidized by the US government.
The story is that the airline to whose shareholders the American people gave $3.2 billion ($1B in low-interest loans) clearly continues to operate with the kind of logistical and operational leverage that maximizes short-term results over long-term stability, reputation and service quality.
And that is the problem with the Widening Gyre.
Missionaries who align with the right wing of our bi-modal political distribution almost immediately and violently aligned their statements with the framing of the Southwest Airlines delays as being about resistance to vaccine mandates, especially among the pilots’ union.
Missionaries who align with the left-wing of our bi-modal political distribution almost immediately and violently aligned their statements with the framing of the Southwest Airlines delays as being about anything but vaccine mandates (we fact-checked it, so there!), explicitly avoiding challenging the explanations provided by the airline and union so as not to accidentally lend credence to the opposing political faction’s narrative.
Guess what happens to us in Reality World when missionaries marshal our energies and identities to fight go-nowhere battles in Narrative World?