The Treason of Epidemiologists
They erode the public trust when they tell people to stay home from church but encourage protests for a cause with which they agree.
Dear Reader (including the heroic editors of The New York Times who bravely refused to take responsibility for publishing a triggering op-ed by a sitting senator and boldly opted instead to throw one of their own junior editors to the mob),
I’ll be straight with you, I’m too angry for much jocularity today. So, let’s just get started.
We spent the last couple of months being hectored by public health experts and earnestly righteous media personalities who insisted that easing lockdown policies was immoral, that refusing to social distance or wear masks was nigh upon murderous. They even suggested that protests were somehow profane. But now that the George Floyd protests are serving as some kind of Great Awokening, many of the same are saying “never mind” about all of that. Protests aren’t profane, they’re glorious and essential—if they agree with what you’re protesting about.
Jeremy BLACK LIVES MATTER Konyndyk @JeremyKonyndykFor folks wondering why public health experts aren’t calling out the protests as violations of social distancing, take it from the former head of the CDC: https://t.co/F9jv7IPbVv
Now, I don’t begrudge anybody for believing that the fight against racism or police brutality is important. But this “argument” rests on some preposterous assumptions.
Frieden, the former head of the CDC, is very concerned about public trust. Me too. But you know what erodes public trust in people like Frieden? When they say that you’re a fool or monster who will get people killed for wanting to go to church or keep your business open but you’re a hero when you join a protest they approve of.
Second, the whole idea that these protests will solve “systemic racism” or police misconduct is a form of magical thinking. Let’s assume that there is legislation that can solve these problems that stem from human nature for all time. How many more days of protest are necessary to get them? If they go on for another week, will Trump be more likely to sign the legislation? How about another month? Will that do the trick? How long do they have to go on for, how much germ spreading for justice, has to occur before what the epidemiologists were saying becomes true again?
Frieden and these other medical experts know a lot more than I do about diseases, but they know less than a taste tester at a lead paint factory about the nature of politics if they think this is a chance for a moonshot cure to the problems of race in America.
The simple fact is that whatever legislation we’re going to get, we’d still get if the protests stopped this morning. In fact, a reasonable person would conclude we’d be more likely to get it if they stopped now, because the more these things go on, the more opposition and resentment will grow.
And you know what? Even if we get precisely the kind of reforms that Al Sharpton dreams of, he will still be talking about systemic racism the day after Donald Trump signs them into law (stop laughing). College professors who only know how to teach about systemic racism will still teach about systemic racism. None of the reporters on the racial justice beat will be reassigned to cover municipal water council hearings. The Southern Poverty Law Center won’t suddenly shut down or even switch to studying poverty. It will send out dunning letters saying, “This was a good first step, but so much more work needs to be done.”
You know how I know that? Because after 50 years of unparalleled improvement in racial issues, many of the same people say the problem is worse than ever and more people make a living from fighting racial injustice than ever before. If I thought for a moment that this would lead to “solving” whatever they mean by systemic racism, I’d be out there marching all day, too.
My point isn’t that we shouldn’t do anything or that reforms are unnecessary. And it’s certainly not that the protesters don’t have good reasons to protest. My point is that the excuse these epidemiologists are using to justify their about-face makes no sense practically. They are taking a sledgehammer to their own credibility by saying it’s okay to violate the rules they established, as long as you do it for causes they care about but not for causes you care about. You’re free to argue that their causes are more important or worthy than your causes—and you might be right—but that’s utterly irrelevant to the damage they’re doing.
Meanwhile, if we have a huge spike in cases because of these protests, will they say, “Well, it was worth it to end racism”? Maybe, except they won’t have ended racism. Sure, some will plausibly argue that any COVID-19 comeback was the result of evil Republicans reopening the churches and the barber shops. But that will be dismissed for the partisan hogwash and special pleading it will be.
And, if we don’t see a huge spike in COVID-19 cases after all of this, no one will believe the experts when we head into the fall (when it’s supposed to come back) and they say now we really mean it. So we’ll still have an intolerable amount of racism—at least according to the people who say we have an intolerable amount of racism today—and we’ll have another economy-crushing outbreak on our hands.
And, if—God willing—it doesn’t come back strong in the fall, well, no one will ever take these people seriously again, and for understandable reasons.
Democracy vs. democratic action.
My friend and AEI colleague Adam White makes an excellent point. A lot of the right-wing commentary—including much of what I just wrote—focuses on the hypocrisy of telling people you can’t go to a traditional church service but you can go to the church-in-the-streets of anti-racism. But there’s a more telling comparison: When Wisconsin Republicans refused to move their election day, Democrats, experts, and various media types decried the decision as immoral and dangerous during a pandemic. “Regularly scheduled, orderly elections with direct governmental consequences were either too dangerous, or insufficiently compelling,” Adam wrote in a late-night email. “Contrast that, of course, with Democrats’s evident belief that we absolutely must not delay these protests against police brutality. The protests—spontaneous not scheduled, disorderly not orderly, emotive not concretely consequential—simply had to go on.”
Protests and demonstrations are more important and indispensable than elections. The deliberate act of voting, essential to a democracy, can be put on a schedule delay but political catharsis must proceed on its own schedule. Mario Cuomo used to say that “We campaign in poetry but we govern in prose.” Now it’s poetry or nothing.
In my midweek G-File I noted that people today have an addiction to subtext but a cavalier, even dismissive, attitude toward text. What I meant by that is we’re obsessed with narrative over facts, emotion over reason, passionate interpretation over the plain meaning of words and laws. The Constitution, federal and state law, and tens of thousands (millions?) of pages of regulations and court decisions ban state-sanctioned racism. But these dead letters on the page provide no sense of transcendence or catharsis the way joining a crowd and letting loose your barbaric yawp against injustice (and what happened to George Floyd was obviously a heinous injustice). To paraphrase Blue Swede, we’re hooked on a feeling, we’re high on believing.
People keep telling me that populism is a healthy component of democracy. But here we have experts and elected politicians telling us that the marching is more important than the voting, that expressing cathartic rage is more important than the basic functions of the democracy that populism is supposed to make healthier.
I call bullsh*t on that.
And speaking of male bovine excrement …
On Gen. Mattis
Now let me aim my disgust rightward. Gen. James Mattis is, by any reasonable definition of the phrase, a consummate patriot. He’s dedicated his life to defending his country, and he never stinted in articulating the highest and best reasons for why it should be defended. He is a scholar and a warrior in the finest traditions of both. And he is a statesman. If Mattis were interested in currying favor with the Deep State or the “librul” media he wouldn’t have agreed to be Trump’s secretary of defense. Nor would he have waited until now to denounce the president. The guy had a book tour and steadfastly refused to denounce the president the way countless journalists all but begged him to. It’s not like he knew the Patriotic Battle of Lafayette was coming, and he was just biding his time. He was rightly appalled by the president’s behavior.
And about that: There’s no need to rehash all of the reasons that spectacle was a disgrace, incompetently executed. (But if you want a reasoned case, read my colleague David French today.) Even if you’re not persuaded by now, nothing I tell you will change your mind. But it’s telling that none of the people attacking Mattis actually dispute what he said. “Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try.” This has always been true of Trump—as I’ve written countless times—and it’s why his people love him. It’s why he talks about “my people” as if they’re the only ones who matter. It’s why he has dedicated so much of his presidency to fan service.
Even more telling, after Trump gave his Rose Garden Manhood Address, threatening to use the U.S. military on American citizens on American soil without being invited by governors to do so, and after using force to dispel peaceful protesters so he could pose with a book he’s never read in front of church he was not welcome at, the immediate response from the loudest of the praetorians was to bleat about how the media dared to say he used “tear gas.” And, on cue, the White House was quick to pretend this was the “real” outrage.
Now I’m not going to wade deep into this incandescently stupid and manufactured controversy. But suffice it to say, they used pepper spray—which the CDC classifies as a form of tear gas—and smoke to disperse the crowd. As Reason sarcastically puts it, “It wasn’t tear gas. It was a gaseous substance that causes tears.” But if this reporting is right, they actually did use tear gas.
I will be honest, I am furious that I even had to take the bait this much, if only to debunk it. You know why? Because it doesn’t matter. If the initial media reports had gotten the story exactly right, with nary a misplaced comma, never mind a scintilla of terminological inexactitude, it wouldn’t change anything. What Trump did would still be outrageous. And it would be the real story. And his defenders would still try to make the story about how the media is unfair to Trump.
This is the right’s subtext addiction. Whatever Trump does or says, no matter what depravities he indulges in, the real issue, the real controversy, the real outrage is that anybody has a problem with it. Even many on the right who concede that Trump’s photo op was a despicable or indefensible act, still reserve their anger for the media’s overreactions and exaggerations. “Oh, that’s just Trump, but did you hear what David Corn said!?”
Here’s the thing, that will be true regardless of who the president is. Oh, that’s just Woodrow Wilson. Oh, that’s just Barack Obama. That’s not a defense, it’s a description.
Every day, we hear how terrible the New York Times is for getting this or that wrong. Fine, it’s terrible. Let’s even concede for the sake of argument the Times not just terribly incompetent, but deliberately lying at the bidding of the Deep State or the Democrats as Trump and his MAGA minions insist every second of the day. That doesn’t change the fact that the commander in chief of the United States lies hourly to the American people. The New York Times’s lies are outrageous and worthy of retribution! The president’s lies? Oh, that’s just Trump. Sure, the commander in chief is talking about the military as an extension of his personal and partisan agenda and needs. That’s just Trump. But did you hear how the New York Times quoted anonymous sources inside the administration. That’s the real scandal!
The crap about the media is at best theoretical and anecdotal and at worst fictional narrative maintenance and subtextual piffle. Meanwhile, the plain text is staring these people in the face and … they just don’t care.
Last night on Special Report, Bret Baier read from Mattis’s damning statement and asked Mollie Hemingway what the “fallout” from it would be. Mollie replied: “I’m not sure how much fallout there is at all. Mattis is clearly a better tactician than he is a politician, and of course his tactics were also in dispute when it came to how he was handling the situation in Syria and Iran.”
After checking the box of insinuating that the inconvenient general is just politically motivated and getting in a bonus jibe at his military reputation, she pivoted to how bad the bad people Trump is at war with are. “But thinking about the content of what he said,” Mollie continued, “he was saying that Donald Trump is not unifying the country, and this was something that pleased a lot of people, who said yes, yes, Donald Trump isn't unifying the country. I think the problem is that the grounds for unity right now are being sort of set by a mob that is demanding subservience to a very far left-wing position.” She then went on to talk about looters and supporters of looting being very bad people.
It’s a clever response in that it doesn’t dispute what Mattis said, it’s just that the people who were “pleased” by hearing it are bad people. Of course, what Mattis said was true of Trump years before these protests. It’s just that Mollie doesn’t care.
The people insinuating that Mattis is playing political games, or is a quasi-racist warmonger abroad but a wimp at home, or, as Donald Trump himself reportedly believes, that he is interested only in going to parties are just as guilty of destroying public trust as the epidemiologists. The epidemiologists think all the rules should be suspended for performative protest. The Trump praetorians think all of the rules should be suspended for performative Trumpism.
Mattis has earned the right to be taken seriously. And if he sang Trump’s praises, he’d be hailed by his critics alongside Michael Flynn as one of the greatest warrior-patriots of the age. But that’s the point. Flynn was indeed a heroic and excellent military officer as his fans keep saying (and his critics ignore), but if he turned on the president they’d stop saying it, because the subtext of Trump worship and anti-anti-Trump partisan rage is more important than the text of what he actually does. If you don’t believe me, just look at what they’re saying about Mattis.
Various & Sundry
Canine update: First, the exciting news—despite hiccups in the national supply chain, we have gotten a fresh infusion of tennis balls. People often ask me how many tennis balls we go through in a month or a year. Exact figures are hard to come by given the different ways federal and state agencies compile these numbers. But going by Amazon order history, I’d say we go through about 150 a year. Now, you might ask why we lose so many when Pippa is so dedicated to them. Well, the attrition rate can be explained by several factors. First, Pippa will often drop a ball while, uh, dropping a Paul Krugman column. If it even seems to come close to poop, she will not pick it up, and sometimes I won’t either. Another common problem is that she will drop it in a fast-moving stream or rain gutter. And when that happens, she looks at me like it’s my fault. Then there’s sporadic loss of balls when she puts them down somewhere on the trail so she can chase critters with Zoë or sniff at things and then forgets where she put it. Also, if another dog steals it from her, she won’t defend her property rights. And if she even suspects mean dogs are around, she might abandon it. But the biggest driver of tennis ball depletion is probably the mater familias. Pippa always wants to bring her balls back into the house. But sometimes the balls are a muddy, slobbery mess, and the Fair Jessica simply throws them away, and for some reason the D.C. Human Rights Commission won’t take up Pippa’s complaints. In other exciting news, the fine people at Scout & Zoe’s (no relation), sent a selection of their treats for a test on Pippa and Zoë as part of a possible advertising campaign. So far the results are excellent. It’s no surprise that the Dingo likes all of it, especially the oxtails and the chicken jerky. But Pippa seems to dig them, too. More amazing is that both Gracie and Ralph, who are extremely particular about their treats, love the freeze-dried minnows. They’re kind of unpleasant-looking (but not smelling). Zoë and Pip like them too. Anyway, more news on that later.
As for the usual stuff, Pippa’s limp comes and goes, but we seemed to have found an equilibrium for the exercise on that. Pippa Leroy Leroy Jenkins’d Zoë again on a rabbit hunt and she was pissed. Oh, and something I forgot to mention last week. One of the fascinating things about Zoë is she’s a dedicated fly killer. When the weather was nice I took to leaving the door to the backyard open, so the animals could come and go. Unfortunately, a bunch of big nasty garbage flies came too. This angered Zoë. Every time a fly came near her food bowl she’d leap into action. Anyway, when Zoë was younger, she would catch and eat the flies (and bees and, if given the chance, murder hornets). And I assumed that’s what she was still doing. But then, while I was cleaning up for the return of the womenfolk, I discovered a heinous pile of masticated flies Zoë had collected and left on one corner of the carpet. She’s a warrior.
And now, the weird stuff
Photograph of a protest in New York by Ira L. Black/Corbis/Getty Images.