The Compass of Power, Episode XV
In the news this week is a report that the US Department of Energy concluded the coronavirus likely originated in a Chinese laboratory.
When you think about, this should not be front page news. The Wuhan Institute for Virology is located in – surprise – Wuhan, China where the coronavirus was first identified in 2019. In that laboratory they were studying – another surprise – coronaviruses, and specifically, how those viruses jumped from bats to humans.
If one were speculating where a new and virulent coronavirus might come from in Wuhan, it seems like one should ask the folks at the laboratory about the subject.
However, in proof that the United States has more immunity to rationality than it does to COVID-19, suggesting that this new illness originated in a laboratory has long been considered conspiratorial and vaguely racist by many members of the elite, especially the mainstream news media and Democrats.
Generally speaking, those groups endorsed the explanation offered by the Chinese government, which insisted that the virus made a leap from animal to human at a nearby farmers/food market. Although I do not think members of the Communist Party used exactly these words, it’s safe to say the inference was “Ignorant peasants buying bats caused all this.”
At this point in time, I think it’s also safe to question why so many supposedly rational, trustworthy people and institutions put their faith in a story told by the very same government that so recently insisted that the giant white balloon loaded with solar panels and surveillance equipment floating over US nuclear silos for days before being shot down by a sidewinder missile off the coast of South Carolina was clearly just an innocent weather balloon that had gotten lost somewhere near Calgary.
The answer, unfortunately, is that a completely rational explanation for the origin of the coronavirus also provided former president Donald Trump with political cover. And if it was good for Donald Trump, then it was bad for America.
Facing political pressure at home to contain and stop the virus early in 2020, back when we all thought this would be an ordeal of a few months, Donald Trump didn’t waste much time in blaming the Chinese.
And I say blaming “the Chinese” because that’s what he did. Not the government of China, not the Communist Party, but whole nation of China, and by extension, it’s people.
Far be it from me to offer the president rhetorical advice, but we might be in a better position now had he referred to COVID-19 as the “communist virus.” Clumsy as it may be, something like that at least points the finger at our major disagreement politically, philosophically and culturally with the People’s Republic of China.
Instead, Trump called it the “Chinese virus,” or even more provocatively, the “kung flu.”
Whether you believe there is a clear cause-and-effect relationship, it is a fact that there was an uptick in hate crimes against Asians at the same time.
By emphasizing the foreignness of the virus and associating it with Asian culture, he immediately got himself crossways with those most concerned about persistent racism and inequity in the United States.
And remember that the murder of George Floyd occurred in those first few months of the coronavirus pandemic, hugely increasing the relevance of those issues of race in the American mind.
That was terrible leadership. You can compare it to the great pains president George W. Bush took to emphasize that America’s wars in the Middle East were not wars on Muslims. Even if you were angry about those wars 20 years ago, all you have to do is run it back in your mind and realize that he was actually doing work to head off prejudice and animosity against Americans with cultural ties to our international adversaries.
Donald Trump didn’t do that. He ran it the other way, increasing internal division within the United States.
Nevertheless, I don’t think it’s asking too much that somebody, somewhere in the official apparatus step out of political polarization to genuinely consider the facts at hand. It is entirely possible that the Chinese government, through an accident at the laboratory it regulates, is ultimately responsible for releasing the coronavirus.
That is the conclusion the US Department of Energy appears to have come to based on an analysis of the facts it has. And it is not the first government agency to do so.
The FBI came to similar conclusion, and reiterated its belief that the virus came from a lab this week.
To be clear, this is not a done deal. Four other federal agencies – and the National Intelligence Council — support the natural explanation for the virus’ origin. So do many scientists in the field.
If they don’t know, I don’t think I’m ever going to know. But what should be most concerning to those of us without access to classified intelligence or years in virology training is that a clear headed examination of a global pandemic that killed an estimated 6.8 million people appears to be almost out of our reach.
It would be nice to know where the coronavirus came from, so that we could better combat the next pandemic. It makes a world of difference if the source was human activity in a lab, which is subject to human regulation, including what is researched and how laboratory environments are controlled.
We might get there yet. But not before a process of slowly filling the political trench dug around the subject.
Just so you don’t have to take my word for it, I did look up some old stories from that long ago age of 2020, to see how we were talking about this in the beginning.
We’re talking May 29th 2020. The Associated Press, the largest news organization in the country, and one with a reputation for accuracy and objectivity — at the time I think they were still rated as being right in the middle as far as political bias. They’ve since been rated slightly to the left by the folks at Media Bias Chart, but still more moderate than major newspapers like the New York Times or the Washington Post.
The AP publishes a roundup at the time called “not real news.” It is dedicated to putting to rest urban myths and conspiracies, and at the time they are dealing with a lot of rumors related to the protests over the murder of George Floyd. For example did looters really steal children’s Thomas the Tank Engine toys during protests in Minneapolis?
The answer is no. A Mall of America spokeswoman reassured everyone that it had not been trashed. The video circulating online was actually of a September 2019 incident in which someone did drive an SUV through the Woodfield mall in Schaumburg Illinois.
Toward the tail end of this piece, we have something on the coronavirus. The dubious claim is that the coronavirus has an HIV protein that proves it was genetically modified.
Remember that much of the debate early on was whether this virus had been built by bioengineering. And we should all rest assured that the Associated Press firmly discredited the idea that any bit of the HIV virus was found in the coronavirus’s genetic makeup. And when I say firmly, I mean they quote scientists from Columbia, Harvard and the Baylor College of Medicine all blasting this idea.
What I want to call your attention to is the very end of this entry. We have obliterated the idea that HIV was somehow inserted into the coronavirus. But then the reporters have this sort of addendum at the back:
“The false claim that the genetic makeup of the coronavirus, which has killed more than 100,000 people in the US and 350,000 people globally, plays into a larger conspiracy theory that suggests the virus was made in a lab. It continues to circulate online despite the scientific proof that the virus comes from nature.”Associated Press
That to me sounds very dismissive of the idea that this virus originated in the Wuhan laboratory. Now, we can split hairs here about whether the Associated Press was saying it’s a conspiracy theory that the coronavirus was made out of whole cloth by scientists assembling a new organism, or that were they saying that it was in no way altered in a laboratory setting.
And that takes us into some of the details about what I believe is called “gain of function research,” in which scientists being very wise, deliberately tried to enhance some of the worst characteristics of viruses to better understand those characteristics. If you have not inserted foreign genes into the coronavirus sequence, but you have manipulated the virus through natural processes to augment its capabilities is that quote made in a lab?
I’m not here to prosecute a big case. I just want to point out that by May of 2020 there are already plenty of clearly wrong conspiracy theories about what the coronavirus is and in an effort to clear those up even America’s most respected news organizations seemed to be sweeping any role of a laboratory in coronavirus origins into the conspiracy pile.
Why would we be doing this?
Because the effect of race in America is very top of mind, and the Republican candidate for president is literally going around the country calling it the Chinese virus and the kung flu. The House of Representatives which is controlled by Democrats at the time, actually passes a resolution condemning attacks on Asian Americans.
Again going with The Associated Press a story from September 17, 2020 says quote:
And here’s a sad thing: this is not a unanimous vote. The bill calls on public officials to condemn anti-Asian sentiment and to investigate hate crimes – it costs no money and is not changing any laws. The vote is 243 to 164. That’s right, 164 members of Congress voted against condemning hate crimes against Asian Americans.
Representative Mark Takano of California called that “disgraceful.” He said that trump was fueling racism and inspiring violent attacks.
Why would any politician go along with something so terrible? Well, part of it is because Trump is involved. But more than that, perhaps, the Republicans sensed their assertations about the origin of the virus had gone from being considered a conspiracy to considered racist.
Kevin McCarthy of California, then the Republican leader, today the speaker of the house, said quote:
“At the heart of this resolution is the absurd notion that referring to the virus as a Wuhan virus or the China virus is the same as contributing to violence against Asian Americans, which I will tell you no one on this side of the aisle supports.”Kevin McCarthy
Given how deeply polarized this topic was in 2020, how did we walk it back to 2023 – when we have federal agencies airing differing opinions on the subject?
The answer is Joe Biden. You’ve heard me say before that this is the Joe Biden superfan podcast and again I think he’s due huge credit here. He was at least willing to hear the evidence and asked federal agencies to investigate the source of the virus in the first few months of his presidency in 2021.
Although, as we’ve talked about they did not come to a unanimous conclusion, that seemingly objective review, coming as the coronavirus became endemic, opened the door for a more fact-based conversation.
Indeed, it is because Biden has asked federal agencies to continue to look into this matter that the Energy Department got involved and used its connections with laboratories worldwide to conduct its own analysis of the coronavirus origin.
This new-found candor does not mean that the issue has been depoliticized.
When I looked at the New York Times front page on Monday there was no mention of the Department of Energy’s conclusion regarding the coronavirus.
At the same time, I pulled up Fox News’s home page. The coronavirus origin story was the lead story top of the fold feature photo.
More than that, Fox News was now delving into the next part of this story, which is the Republican assertation that somehow The US helped fund the Wuhan institute’s work and bears some responsibility in the pandemic.
And, the story goes, that money somehow is connected to Doctor Anthony Fauci.
Fauci, to be clear, worked for Donald Trump as the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He won widespread public trust – at first. But his tendency to contradict Trump on matters of the virus — and by “contradict” I mean he did not just make stuff up — made him a hero to Democrats.
If he’s a hero to Democrats, then guess what? That’s right.
The red state leaders will not be satisfied until they have proven once and for all that Dr. Fauci put the coronavirus development program on his personal MasterCard.
Again, what is so concerning to me is that, given this environment, the factuality of a new discovery is entirely dependent on A, who discovers it, and B, who is first to claim it supports their cause.
If tomorrow Elon Musk declared he had found an abundant source of clean, free energy, you can bet the Democrats would not be happy about it. Because Musk is considered part of the other team.
They would denounce abundant, clean energy as a greenwashing effort by colonizer that for too long has gone unchecked in his quest to provide emissions-free vehicles.
On the other hand, If Dr. Fauci showed up on Good Morning America tomorrow with a cure for cancer, you can bet the Republicans would be angry.
They would insist that this so-called cure was developed through experiments on unwitting conservatives who were singled out by the IRS.
In both cases, people would be opposed not just to the politics of the discoverer, but to the fact itself.
That’s the important part. We have led our own cultural contest go so far that we are now willing to deny facts if they seem to belong to the other team.
In the humorously exaggerated examples I just gave, it’s not hard to see how we would actually end up with a nation in which Republicans enjoyed an entirely carbon-free lifestyle, and Democrats doubled their life expectancy in their fossil fuel guzzling SUV’s.
And how does this relate to the Compass of Power?
That is, does this reflect a tipping of the balance of power between the North and the South?
I can think of at least three ways to look at it through that lens.
First the North is very tied to higher education, and through that to science as a belief system.
Very briefly, America’s premier higher education institutions were founded in the North as training grounds for their ministers. Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York. To this day, higher education throughout the United States is modeled after those Ivy League schools. There are exceptions, like say the Virginia Military Institute.
But I think we can recall, looking back on the pandemic, that Northern governors in the so-called blue states were far more likely to cite “the science” as a reason for making their policy decisions. “The science tells us,” was a common phrase.
In that way, it was important for northern leaders to be seen as making decisions in accordance with science. As we’ve already discussed, to question the market’s origin story for coronavirus was seen as ignoring the science. And that’s capital T, capital S, “The Science.”
You might think that with the dedication to empirical evidence this would make Northern institutions more skeptical about the origins of the coronavirus, and therefore less likely to zero in on any theory until one had the support of the evidence.
That brings us to the second point, which is that the North has always been gripped by moralizing crusades.
The obvious example is abolitionism – opposition to slavery. That started out as a religious belief of the Quakers in Pennsylvania, but it really picked up steam when the Puritans adopted the stance and took it from passive resistance to Civil War. It became the basis for a new political party in the North – the Republicans.
But not every moral quest that sets the North on fire stands the test of history. Another Northern party, the Know-Nothings, were founded on anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic sentiment in the 1850s. The same feelings in the North fueled the second coming of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1910s and 20s.
Whether they are right or wrong, once the Puritans are on a crusade their goal is to remake American society. They certainly did that through the end of slavery, and they did succeed when the Klan was active in the North, by passing America’s first restrictions on European immigration in the 1920s.
In many ways, American politics today is about the current moral crusade of the North, which Northern elites call “equity” and Southern elites call “wokeism.”
We’re not getting too far in the weeds here, but I suppose I would define this concept loosely as a system of policies and beliefs that call for lowering the status of White Americans relative to other groups. The goal of this mission is to end what adherents believe is a privileged place for White people in our society, which has harmed non-Whites.
Democrats, particularly in the North, particularly amongst highly educated elites, believe it is long overdue given the nation’s history of prejudicial polices toward other racial groups.
Republicans, particularly in the South, particularly amongst the working class, feel it is an elite attempt to favor certain races over others.
It’s important to note here that the supporters and opponents of this broad concept do not break along racial lines the way you may expect. Given the focus on questioning White culture, you might think the strongest opposition be found amongst Whites. But some polls have shown liberal or progressive White people feel more strongly about this subject than non-White liberals.
At the same time, Republicans battling against what they call “wokeism” have seen some of their electoral numbers improve among Hispanic and Black voters.
I’m not here to settle the debate. I want to illustrate how this affected our approach to the coronavirus. The moral imperative of equity was so strong among elites in the North that it outweighed their commitment to empirical science. If entertaining certain questions about the origin of the coronavirus put the Northern elite in danger of violating the quest for equity, it’s not the quest that was to be sacrificed.
That’s why the “lab leak” origin theory became toxic to Democrats, who are the dominant party of the North. It seemed to give credence to Trump’s racialized politics.
Third and finally, when we look at the contest between North and South, we see a long history of denying one another’s facts.
Perhaps the most amazing example of this was just prior to the Civil War, when the South literally banned Northern publications that criticized slavery.
They banned the slavery debate in Congress. They actually tried to stop Northern papers from coming into the South by federal mail. And anyone caught reading a northern newspaper in the South in the antebellum era was risking serious harm.
The history books are closed on that chapter. Slavery clearly was wrong, not just by the Northern standards, but by global human standards. The South lost militarily, economically and morally.
On slavery, history gives the South zero out of five stars.
What is bizarre about the coronavirus story is that the roles regarding facts may be reversed.
The verdict of history on the origin and handling of COVID-19 is not in just yet.
There seems to be some serious doubt as to whether the policies favored by the Northerners, including social distancing, mask wearing, mandatory vaccines for some employees and shutting down schools were more effective than the less-restrictive measures favored by southern governors.
Here’s another little offhand comment in the press, this time from the New York Times regarding Florida governor Ron DeSantis.
During the pandemic, DeSantis lifted restrictions relatively early, and many experts predicted disaster. But Florida’s overall Covid death rate is only modestly higher than the national average, and its age-adjusted death rate is lower. Last year, DeSantis won re-election by 19 percentage points.
Those are grudging compliments for the Times. Perhaps not surprisingly, this week they also put out an intellectually minded explainer about how the coronavirus lab leak theory should be taken seriously.
Like I said, the history of the pandemic may not yet be written. At least not in stone.
Ron DeSantis, as we all know, is a presumptive front runner for the Republican nomination to presidency in 2024. I think it’s a safe bet that his performance during the pandemic will be part of his platform, and we will be debating the coronavirus for years to come.
Question is, will facts inform that debate, or be victims of it?
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