Tthere was a time when the Covid pandemic seemed to confirm many of our assumptions. He took down the people we considered villains. He raised up those we thought were heroes. It thrived people who could easily switch to working from home even as it problematized the lives of Trump voters living in the old economy.
Like all plagues, Covid often felt like God’s hand on earth, lashing out at people for their sins against higher education and visibly separating the righteous from the wicked unmasked. “Respect science,” warned the signs in our garden. And lo! Covid came and forced us to do it, elevating our scientists to the highest seats of social authority, from where they banned assembly, commerce, and everything else.
We blame so innocently in those days. We scold at will. We knew who was right and shook our heads when we saw the wrong ones playing in their pools and on the beach. It made perfect sense to us that Donald Trump, a politician we despise, could not understand the situation, that he suggested that people inject bleach and that he was personally responsible for more than one blockbuster event. Reality itself punished leaders like him who refused to submit to the experience. The prestige Media even discovered A way of to blame the worst deaths about a system of organized ignorance that they called “populism.”
But these days consensus is not as well consensual as it used to be. Now the media is full of disturbing stories suggesting that Covid could have come, not from “populism” at all, but from a lab error in Wuhan, China. You can feel the moral convulsions that begin when the question is stated: What if science itself is somehow to blame for all of this?
I am not an expert on epidemics. Like everyone else I know, I spent the pandemic doing what I was told. A few months ago I even tried to convince a Fox News viewer not to believe the lab leak theory about the origins of Covid. The reason I did that is because the newspapers I read and the TV shows I watched had assured me on many occasions that the lab leak theory was not true, that it was a racist conspiracy theory, that only the duped trumpists believed it, that it garnered infinite ratings from fact-checkers, and because (despite all my cynicism) I’m the type who’s always trusted the mainstream media.
My own complacency in the matter was blown up by the laboratory leak test which was published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists earlier this month; A few weeks later, everyone from Dr. Fauci to President Biden acknowledges that the laboratory accident hypothesis might have some merit. We don’t know the real answer yet, and we probably never will, but this is the time to anticipate what such a finding could ultimately mean. What if this crazy story turns out to be true?
The answer is that this is the kind of thing that could destroy the faith of millions. The latest global disaster, the 2008 financial crisis, shattered people’s trust in the institutions of capitalism, in the myths of free trade and the New Economy, and eventually in the elites who ran both American political parties.
In the years since (and for complicated reasons), liberal leaders have struggled to become advocates of professional rectitude and established legitimacy in almost every field. In reaction to fool Trump, liberalism turned into a kind of cult of science, experience, the university system, the “norms” of the executive branch, the “intelligence community,” the State Department, NGOs, the media. legacy communication lines and hierarchy. of credited achievements in general.
Now here we are in the last days of the disastrous global crisis n. 2. Covid is, of course, many orders of magnitude worse than the mortgage collapse – it has killed millions, ruined lives, and disrupted the world economy much more extensively. If it turns out that scientists, experts, NGOs, etc. They are villains rather than heroes of this story, it is quite possible that we will see the values of modern liberalism, which worship the experts, rise in a fireball of public anger.
Consider the details of the story as we have learned them in recent weeks:
Laboratory leaks occur. They are not the result of conspiracies: “a laboratory accident is an accident,” as Nathan Robinson points out; they happen all the time, in this country and in others, and people die because of them.
There is evidence that the laboratory in question, which studies bat coronaviruses, may have been conducting what is called “gain-of-function” research, a dangerous innovation in which diseases are deliberately made more virulent. By the way, the right-wingers did not dream of “gain of function”: all the great virologists have been doing it (in this country and in others) even when the squares have been warning against that during years.
There are strong indications that some of the bat virus research in the Wuhan lab was funded in part by the American National Medical Establishment – that is, the laboratory leak hypothesis does not involve China alone.
Seems to have been amazing conflicts of interest between the people assigned to get to the bottom of it all, and (as we know from Enron and the housing bubble) conflicts of interest are always the ones that trip up well-credentialed professionals whom liberals insist we all should heed, honor and obey. .
The media, in their zealous vigilance of the limits of the permissible, insisted that Russiagate was always so true, but that the laboratory leak hypothesis was false false falseand woe to everyone who dares not agree! Reporters swallowed whatever line was most flattering to the experts they were quoting and then insisted it was 100% correct and absolutely incontrovertible – that anything else was just a deranged Trumpist madness, that democracy dies when unbelievers speak, and so on.
The social media monopolies Really censored publications on the hypothesis of the laboratory leak. Of course yes! Because we are at war with misinformation, you know, and people must return to the true and correct faith, as agreed by the experts.
“Let us pray, now, for science” intoned a New York Times columnist at the start of the Covid pandemic. The title of his article establishes the fundamental faith of Trump-era liberalism: “The coronavirus is what you get when you ignore the science.”
Ten months later, at the end of a terrifying article on the history of “gain of function” research and its possible role in the ongoing Covid pandemic, Nicholson Baker wrote as follows: “This may be the great scientific meta-experiment of the 21st century. Could a world full of scientists do all sorts of reckless recombinant things with viral diseases for many years and successfully prevent a serious outbreak? The hypothesis was that yes, it was feasible. It was worth the risk. There would be no pandemic. “
Except there was. If it does indeed turn out that the lab leak hypothesis is the correct explanation for how it started, that the common people of the world have been forced to participate in a real-life lab experiment, at tremendous cost, there is an earthquake. morale on the road.
Because if the hypothesis is correct, people will soon begin to realize that our mistake was not insufficient reverence for scientists, or inadequate respect for experience, or insufficient censorship on Facebook. It was a failure to think critically about all of the above., to understand that there is no absolute experience. Think of all the disasters in recent years: economic neoliberalism, destructive trade policies, the Iraq war, the housing bubble, banks that are “too big to fail,” mortgage-backed securities, the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign, all. these disasters. brought to you by the complete and self-confident unanimity of the highly educated people who are supposed to know what they are doing, plus the complete complacency of the highly educated people who are supposed to supervise them.
On the other hand, perhaps I am wrong to display all this speculation. Perhaps the laboratory leak hypothesis is convincingly disproved. I certainly hope it is.
But even if it gets a little closer to being confirmed, we can guess what the next twist in the narrative will be. It was a “perfect storm,” experts will say. Who could have known him? And furthermore (they will say), the origin of the pandemic no longer matters. Go back to sleep.
Thomas Frank is a columnist for The Guardian US. He is the author, most recently, of The People, No: A Brief History of Anti-Populism
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism