by Victor Davis Hanson
Americans are acquainted with predictable but ultimately failed progressive efforts to suppress free expression by preemptive invective and politically correct finger-pointing.
To believe that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s accusers revealed too many contradictions, too many lacunae, too many episodes of timely amnesia, and too many unsubstantiated accusations in their testimonies was chauvinistically to attack/smear/silence all women’s voices – at least until the same sort of memory-repressed accusations focused on handsy Joe Biden.
To express skepticism that current global temperatures are uniformly rising almost entirely due to human carbon emissions, that this state of affairs poses catastrophic dangers that may end civilization as we know it, and that this emergency can only be addressed by the radical restructuring of global economies is to be rendered a denialist, a crank, a fool.
But these parameters of censorship have a logic and predictability, given their race/class/gender/environmental orthodoxy.
Shifting Pandemic Orthodoxy
What explains the current taboo on topics regarding the coronavirus?
It is now a truism that almost every influential model that has been advanced about the spread of the coronavirus was flawed. They almost all erred on the side of exaggerated morbidity. But to suggest that in public is deemed heresy.
Even when the Imperial College scarifying “2.2 million” dead in the United States was withdrawn, or when Gavin Newsom’s “25.5 million infected” by early May in California seemed hysterical, or today’s prognostications from the University of Washington modified older models that politicians used to set policy, there was more ridicule leveled at the original skeptics than at the promulgators of such myths – despite the fact that some disastrous public policies resulted from assurances that hundreds of thousands would likely die soon from the virus.
The same strange reaction met most who suggested that the virus might have reached the United States earlier than late January, or that it might already have infected far more than once thought, or that it was likely to be less lethal than assumed from the commonly used calculus to determine its toxicity.
Similarly taboo was questioning the notion that everyone who died with COVID-19 died because of it, even when the dying and the deceased were not tested for the virus and the methodology of ascertaining causes of death seemed too often reinvented or changed weekly.
We were not to question the weird formula of assessing a virus’s morbidity by dividing the number of deaths only by the actual number of those who had at any time had tested positive for an active infection. Yet nearly the entire scientific community had agreed that the real number of those infected by the virus could be 10 times or more than the misleadingly precise number of positive tests.
Nonetheless, daily referenced fatality rates were drawn from such a flawed equation. Certainly, if such a procedure were used in flu cases – of requiring only positive flu virus tests to ascertain the denominator – then the lethality to case rate of influenza might well appear as 10 percent and send the country into shock.
When some frontline physicians, or a rough sampling of patients, or preliminary studies suggested that in some pre-ventilator cases hydroxychloroquine seemed efficacious in treating the virus, even the use of a medicine prompted a weaponized debate.
Supposed pre-Enlightenment rubes were now to be corrected by the defenders of the scientific method. After all, there were all sorts of newer antivirals being used off-label around the world to treat patients in extremis, but none earned quite the opprobrium of the antimalarials, despite the latter’s tolerable side-effects having been chronicled for decades in a way not true of more expensive, new designer antiviral medicines.
More Taboo Questions
From the outset, the world noted the close proximity of a P4-level virology lab in the hills near Wuhan. Its staff was known to have studied coronaviruses similar to SARS-CoV-2.
Most in the West knew from the prior 2002-2003 SARS epidemic that the Chinese government had habitually covered up the origins and transmission of that virus.
So naturally, speculation immediately focused on the role of the nearby lab, even as the Chinese blanketed the global media with the official explanations of a natural viral birth amid the wet markets of Wuhan. We were variously told that pangolins, bats, and snakes were the petri dish culprits for the global epidemic. They may be, but then, again, the recombinant viruses from them might have escaped not from a butcher’s hook but a scientist’s vial.
Chinese government propagandists blasted any doubt of their narrative as illiberal. Its methodology was often embraced as useful by the American media. If one discussed the possibility of some role of the lab in global catastrophe, the question was almost deliberately obfuscated and recalibrated as a “conspiracy theory” accusation (the Chinese were adept in using such a loaded American expression) that the lab had made a bioweapon or that a natural virus had been let loose intentionally.
But few mainstream observers ever floated such theories. Usually, they instead questioned the safety practices of the lab – a concern echoed by U.S. embassy officials in China – and wanted assurances from China about its abilities to prevent accidental releases of a coronavirus under study.
Instead, they were stonewalled. Stories spread of data destroyed. Researchers disappeared. Official dates surrounding the origins and transmission of the virus were altered constantly.
Yet the more China in Orwellian fashion tried to modulate its own prior communications about the lab, the more American media also joined its chorus of demeaning legitimate inquiries, and the more it became clear that China was terrified of any scrutiny directed toward the top-secret facility.
After all, on January 23, in fear of the growing contagion, China forbade travel in and out of Wuhan, but not to European and American airports that, for a while, kept such routes open. When they finally closed, Americans were blasted by the Chinese (and Joe Biden) as racists for doing what Beijing had done earlier. Only the U.S. media would accept that the Chinese were not racists for allowing their own citizens, at a time of contagion, to travel abroad to the U.S. in a manner they could not fly freely at home – but yet the Americans were dubbed bigoted for allowing them to continue to do so as well for a critical week.
In contrast, far less vituperation met a series of contradictory, constantly changing, and often downright illogical declarations emanating from the best and brightest at the World Health Organization, the CDC, the FDA, NIH, and from the Surgeon General.
We were at different times told that the virus was not transmissible from human to human. Travel bans were expressions of illiberal panic not reflections of ancient scientific quarantine protocols.
The FDA’s monopoly over test kits was supposedly the best and most rapid way to ensure that millions got into the hands of doctors and hospitals.
Orthodoxy told us that masks for the general public were at first selfish, then useless, then of some value, then essential. Infectiousness came largely from touching facial orifices with fingers contaminated by surface viruses. Or was it more dangerous to breathe the contagion in as it spread from coughing, sneezing, or mere talking? And were the viruses hitchhiking on droplets or aerosolized mists?
What were we to make of ventilators? Was their availability tantamount to a litmus test of America’s ability to defeat the epidemic? Or was it that most patients on them usually never got off but delayed rather than avoided death?
The Patience or Paranoia Paradox
The list of these “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” constant adaptations and corrections was met with public patience. A forgiving public shrugged that science is never absolute but on a constant learning curve and the domain of the most moral and learned among us – thus deserving a tolerance of error not extended to natural skeptics of other topics.
So, what explained the paradox of near paranoia to some inquiries but magnanimous tolerance of other absurdities? Usually, one of three explanations suffice – or sometimes all three together.
First, to the degree an issue involved Donald Trump, the media and political consensus were predictable. He was for the experimental use of hydroxychloroquine; therefore, the drug must be seen as analogous to early uses of mercury or arsenic. If the Chinese lab was at fault, then Trump was deemed less culpable. So the lab was not at fault.
Second, we were to worship at the altar of Lord Pessimism. The more the numerators of death increased at a rate not matched by the denominators of positives, the higher the virus’s lethality appeared, and the more the public would be willing to put up with Draconian lockdowns.
The problem with the Stanford researchers and other antibody researchers was that if they were correct, then quarantines might be loosened a bit and normality might return sooner. And so they were not correct.
As I have written earlier, the psychology of the pessimist is always win-win: when wrong, his terrifying models are still efficacious in scaring the public into doing the right thing (and thus are often deliberately exaggerated). When right, “he bravely warned us of Armageddon.”
The poor optimist is trapped in a lose-lose dilemma: if right in doubting the end of days, only the response to the pessimist made his own hopeful reservations prescient. If wrong about a return of the Black Plague, then he is a veritable murderer, in a way that the flawed pessimist’s modeling is never held culpable for destructive shutdowns and lockdowns.
Third and finally, the subtext to the entire array of virus issues soon became the November 2020 election. The exalted left-wing hopes in Robert Mueller and impeachment were crushed on the eve of the epidemic. The coronavirus was soon seen as the magic X-ray machine that finally might penetrate Trump’s lead shield and reveal to the clueless voter the diseased organs of incompetence, pathology, and narcissism beneath.
A wearied Joe Biden, exhausted from the campaign, was supposed to recuperate at home. Refreshed, he was to be courted in photo-ops by would-be diversity vice presidents. Biden would issue daily folksy fireside chat takedowns of Trump’s buffoonery, as only ol’ Joe from Scranton could.
But the more Biden rested at home, the more he appeared exhausted and enfeebled – and the more his impromptu and teleprompted lapses terrified the Democratic establishment that they had not chosen a soaring eagle to talon Trump, but an albatross now hanging around their collective neck.
As a result, a virus became the opposition candidate of sorts. The scarier COVID-19 became, the more the need to shut down the nation, the more likely the economy would tank, the more it became certain that Trump would face a lose-lose decision in late April, as his win-win critics would either damn him as a latter-day Herbert Hoover who wrecked a booming economy or some sort of odious Wall Street financier who put profit over lives.
Either way, the New York Times will soon have pictures of the dead, with captions insisting the infected died due to Trump’s premature return to normal, or committed suicide given his needlessly long lockdown that wiped out small businesses.
Lost in all this conundrum were legitimate questions of the virus’s genesis, spread, and innate nature, China’s responsibility for deceiving the world and its culpability for thousands of deaths, the chronic confusion of bureaucracies – and any sense that the coronavirus was a deadly collective enemy rather than a partisan wedge.