I have been seeing more buzz lately on the theory that COVID-19 leaked from the lab in Wuhan. Six months ago, the voices who promoted that concern were labeled conspiracy theorists. An article in the NY Times today (See Good morning. The lab-leak theory is everywhere. We have an explainer, by David Leonhardt, NY Times, may 27, 2021) poses the question: what changed?
A cynic like me (and partisan Republicans) will say the change is that we have a new party in control of the White House. The lab-leak theory is no longer a conspiracy theory because that narrative has lost its expediency and usefulness with the change in political control.
As the article points out, the origin of the virus was unclear from the beginning. Some scientists, politicians and journalists urged consideration of the Wuhan lab. Those voices were drowned out, however, by louder voices.
Now, things have changed. The Times article reports:
“Two weeks ago, 18 scientists wrote a letter to the journal Science calling for a new investigation and describing both the animal-to-human theory and the lab-leak theory as ‘viable.’ And three scientists who last year dismissed the lab-leak explanation as a conspiracy theory have told The Wall Street Journal that they now consider it plausible.”
Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, now says, “We cannot exclude the possibility of some kind of a lab accident”, though he maintains it more likely that the virus developed naturally. Over a year ago, a couple of Chinese researchers wrote a paper concluding the virus “probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan”, but not many people were willing to jump on the bandwagon.
The Times article is refreshingly candid in its assessment that the dismissal of this lab-leak theory “appears to be a classic example of groupthink, exacerbated by partisan polarization”. I could turn this statement into a weapon for a particular political ideology, but I won’t. I also believe a lab-leak is less likely than natural causes based on my understanding of the facts that are known to date.
Regardless of what is more likely than not, the lab-leak appears to be more plausible than the scientific (and political) consensus would allow just six months ago. The political din has subsided long enough now for the disparate voices of scientists to be heard who maintain we should not rule out the lab at Wuhan as a potential source from which COVID arose.
This shift in the “consensus” can be attributed more directly to political ideation and political polarization, than science. This seems to be the indictment of the article.
We are so divided along partisan lines in our country (and world) that we can’t think straight; we can’t even get our facts straight. Our filter for determining fact from fiction and credible theory from conspiracy theory is so tainted by the dirty film of political dross that reality seems to be obscured to a large segment of our society by it.
As we careen toward Election Day in a world that might rival Alice in Wonderland for its oddities, I have been thinking about the effect of the criticisms of Trump in the press and on social media. Actually, I have been thinking about it since before the last election, but my thoughts are gaining traction now.
Prior to the last election, the press latched onto everything (so it seems) Trump said and did. It didn’t matter that 14 Republicans were in the running at one point; the press couldn’t get enough of Trump. He was a novelty, a media circus. What seemed like a side show to begin with became the spectacle in the center ring..
I assume that Trump was good for the news and media businesses. They like train wrecks and that sort of thing. It sells.
I was thinking as I watched the Republican primary lurch and stutter that the media gave Trump all the fuel he needed to become the front runner. He couldn’t have possibly asked for or gotten more press than he did. I assume that someone like Trump likes any press is good press. Without shame, the more the merrier.
I was aggravated at all the press coverage during the primary because, it seemed to me, the media was ignoring more solid candidates and handing Trump the Republican nomination. As the Primary was settled and the presidential campaigning shifted into high gear, the media attention turned increasingly more judgmental, but it didn’t matter. It was all fuel to the fire.
It was a kind of symbiotic relationship. Trump was propelled along by the inertia of press coverage, and, let’s face it, Donald Trump sold the news. They played virus and host to each other in the truest of symbiotic dances.
I will never forget the looks of chagrin on the faces of the media pundits as the numbers came in on election night. They couldn’t believe what they were seeing, but I could. They created this Frankenstein and shouldn’t have been wondering at the power they gave him.
By the time Trump became the Republican frontrunner, the press was decidedly weighing against him. He wasn’t just an amusement anymore. Many of the stories carried their own moral weight, but those in the press who were aghast didn’t trust the public, the common people, to judge rightly what they were seeing. Facts, themselves, are apparently no longer sufficient to carry their own weight.
People are smarter than the average bear (to mix another metaphor). They know condescension when they see it. Americans, in particular, don’t like to be told what to think or do. We love our freedoms. We boast about them. Americans are nothing, if not free, right?
Another element at play was the unending, unceasing, constant and continual criticism of Trump by all the Clinton supporters and Trump haters (who were not necessarily the same people). Trump couldn’t do anything or tweet anything or say anything that wasn’t immediately denounced, condemned and decried. Not that they had any lack of ammunition.
The Trump critics have proven to have the stamina of a racehorse and marathon runner combined. They don’t stop. They never stopped.
For over four years now, going back well before the last election, and continuing to the present time, the Never Trumpers have carried their torches boldly and loudly and often, posting unceasingly to all the world everything Trump says and does wrong on a daily basis. Not that they have lacked for material.
As the next Election Day approaches, it seems to me that Never Trump Fatigue set in somewhere along the line. I have been seeing it for awhile. People are tired of hearing it. People seem to have begun wondering, perhaps, whether the Trump critics doth protest too much.
I am not talking about the Trump supporters, who have been emboldened as the constant drone of criticism has continued to whine and increase. People on both sides of the divide have become more vocal as people in the middle, looking for some common ground or reprieve or sense of “can’t we all get along”, seem to be left, abandoned in the no man’s land in between.
The news is out that Russians have been indicted on charges of interfering in the last presidential election, much to the chagrin of Republicans and Trump supporters. The indictment is certain to curl the lips of Democrats, and Hillary Clinton supporters in particular, in grins of righteous vindication. But we need to resist these gut level reactions and take thoughtful stock of what is going on in our country.
We are polarized as never before. What the Russians did was simply to use our own momentum against us in a classic judo type of social engineering that proved so effective it should be frightening. And it should prompt us to take off our combative gloves and come together as Americans to reclaim the civility of Democracy that is our saving grace in a country that is often torn and divided by the issues that threaten to push and pull us apart.
This is the indictment:
“A grand jury in the District of Columbia today returned an indictment presented by the Special Counsel’s office. The indictment charges 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies for committing federal crimes while seeking to interfere in the United States political system, including the 2016 presidential election. The defendants allegedly conducted what they called “information warfare” against the United States with the stated goal of spreading mistrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.” *
Unfortunately, we are fat and easy targets.
We need to pay close attention here, but we have to put down our weapons against each other to absorb the full impact of what the Russians were able to do. They used us and against ourselves, and it was easy work – too easy!
The Russians set up Internet based operations making them appear to be owned and operated by people within the United States. They used fictitious and stolen identities, fraudulent bank and accounts and false documents. They posed as “politically and socially active Americans” communicating with “unwitting Americans” through Social Media action groups. They advertised on social media networks, and they engaged and paid “real Americans” to carry on political campaigns, promote political candidates and agenda and stage political rallies.
For instance, “’Black Fist’ … was confirmed to be part of the Internet Research Agency’s operation — the self defense classes were an apparent attempt to stoke fear and gather contact details of Americans potentially susceptible to propaganda.”**
According to the report, these Americans didn’t know they were communicating with and being manipulated by Russians. These Americans were so easy to manipulate because they are losing the ability to vet their own political inclinations; they are losing the ability to be self-reflective; they are losing the ability to be civil and respectful of each other. These Americans are quick to judge, quick to jump to conclusions, quick to affirm their own narratives and quick to criticize others.
These Americans are us.
The Russians pitted us against ourselves. But for what end?
“[They] engaged in activities and rallies to support the president-elect while simultaneously staging rallies to protest his election.” Sometimes they supported contrary rallies in the same cities on the same days. For those Republicans licking their wounds, this might be some solace; and for Democrats who might be tempted to smirk, this should give you pause.
The indictment indicates that the Russians “intended to incite discord in the United States and undermine confidence in Democracy”. The Russians simply fueled the fires that are already burning, and they did to sow discord and contention, and it didn’t take much effort for them to succeed.
In fact, I’m not sure they needed to do anything at all because we are already doing it to ourselves. They just gave us a nudge in the direction we have already been going. For instance, “‘Heart of Texas,’ a page that posed as a pro-Texas secession organization, promoted a ‘Stop Islamization of Texas’ protest at the opening of a library at an Islamic Center on May 21, 2016. The same troll group used another page, ‘United Muslims of America,’ to promote a ‘Save Islamic Knowledge’ event at the same time.” According to the same report, “After the election the group used its pages to promote events celebrating the election of Donald Trump and events protesting Trump’s election.”
While the liberal groups are screaming that the Russians meddled in the election to get Trump elected, the conservative groups are screeching about Hillary Clinton’s deals with Russians in the past – and the Russians are just smiling.
I actually wrote on this very subject last June, long before the recent indictments:
“Are we Americans that gullible? Or are we simply unwilling to suspend our penchant to believe everything that affirms our political views? Maybe its a matter of not being able to stop the momentum of our own biases as they carry us down the streams of our own predispositions…
“We are so hell bent on affirming our own biases about anything political that fake news has become a booming business!….”
“With virtually nothing growing in the no-man’s land in between, and little communication across the expanse, each side is primed for the propaganda it wants to hear. A little fake news here, a little drama there, and the war on both sides might be fueled for several generations to come, even while we seem know and admit that we are being manipulated.
“We just can’t stop ourselves.”***
Or can we?
Hopefully, we can stop this madness, but both sides will need to put their ideological weapons down long enough to talk peace. We need to replace party line politics with some real thought, analysis and self-reflection. We need be honest about our own ideological shortcomings and stop to consider that our political enemies are really our neighbors, our friends and even our own family members – they ultimately want what “we” want, which is a better America, a better world and a better future our children and grandchildren.
We all want the same thing!
Just because we disagree on how we achieve our mutual goals doesn’t mean that have to sharpen the pitchforks. We need to relearn civility and respect and the art of the compromise. If we can’t do this, we will continue to be the targets of future information wars that will wreak havoc on our socio-political psyches, undermine any remaining confidence in our political systems and threaten our Democracy.
Are we Americans that gullible? Or are we simply unwilling to suspend our penchant to believe everything that affirms our political views? Maybe its a matter of not being able to stop the momentum of our own biases as they carry us down the streams of our own predispositions.
I feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Throughout the presidential season, we were certain that our partisan counterparts were trapped in their own echo chambers, while we had an uneasy feeling, burping to the surface at times like the perpetual heartburn we work hard to ignore, that we might be living in our own. Even the most ardent political junkie looked forward to the day when he would sigh in the relief of victory or retreat to lick his wounds in relative peace.
But the peace never came. After a flurry of news and opinions on the scourge of fake news, we have been off to the same race we doggedly followed before. The Comey firing and hearing now is just the latest in the perpetual laps that go round and round.
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