Why Wouldn’t America Talk About the Lab Leak?
On the world stage, the U.S. prioritizes inoffensiveness above all else. That doesn't bode well for our mounting rivalry with China.
Much has been written now—finally—about the remarkable groupthink fiasco in which America’s elite institutions sought to throttle any inquiry or even just any curiosity about whether the COVID-19 pandemic may have originated from a laboratory leak in Wuhan, China. Now we know that such a leak remains in fact a very real possibility, and many scientists, editors, and commentators are scrambling to shed their previous know-nothingism on the matter and join the inquiry on what really happened and why (while avoiding, in most instances, any acknowledgement of their earlier folly).
But some implications of the sordid tale haven’t received much attention. What does it say about America’s capacity for meeting the multifarious and growing challenges to its global leadership? Can a country utterly preoccupied with avoiding any imputation of negative feelings toward other peoples and other nations—those twin evils of “racism” and “xenophobia”—meet the kinds of challenges that inevitably emerge from other peoples and other nations?
Such questions take on added force when meshed with another set of questions related to the underlying cultural current of national self-flagellation gaining prominence in American thought and discourse: What kind of nation devours its own heritage and national narrative? Or labels itself as unworthy at its core and defines itself as having been born in evil and intrinsically incapable of rising above that evil? What kind of nation seeks to emphasize the point by separating schoolchildren into classroom groups labeled “victims” and “oppressors” based on actions of their forebears?
Such a nation is not well equipped to parry threats and challenges from other nations or well positioned to ask young men and women to fight and possibly die for the national honor and the national interest.
Such questions and musings flow naturally from the months-long frenzy of denial that the coronavirus pandemic could possibly have been connected with the nearby Wuhan Institute of Virology or other nearby labs. A turning point in the saga finally came with publication of Katherine Eban’s remarkable Vanity Fair piece, “The Lab-Leak Theory: Inside the Fight to Uncover Covid-19’s Origin.” From Eban and others we learn that the denial was pushed in part by people motivated by fears that a thorough examination of the matter could expose their own “gain-of-function” research—efforts to make the coronavirus more infectious and more deadly.
Eban paints a picture of scientists such as Peter Daszak, who ran a nonprofit outfit that directed U.S. federal grant money to gain-of-function research in China, scrambling to divert attention from any lab-leak possibility. Clearly, many scientists harbored subterranean motives that now, in retrospect, explain their actions. Eban’s piece employs such terms as “conflict of interest,” “totally unscientific,” and “smelled like a cover-up” in describing the efforts, at high levels of science and government, to ensure that the lab-leak theory was debunked as “morally out of bounds.”
But that doesn’t explain why the mainstream media, foreswearing any independence of thought or bloodhound instinct, joined in to insist that a negative had been proved and the matter was now closed. It doesn’t explain how the media went into complete collective overdrive in assailing any hint that it could be otherwise. The New York Times, the Washington Post, NBC News, CNN, the Guardian, the Daily Beast, the Poynter Institute’s “PolitiFact,” and many more news organizations jumped on the can’t-be-true thesis.
It seems to be a product of desperate fears on the part of growing numbers of Americans that someone somewhere may be harboring sentiments of racism or xenophobia, as defined with broad abandon by those with such fears. Thus, the lab-leak hypothesis couldn’t possibly be right because that might energize underlying anti-Chinese sentiments. But what happens to science or even just normal human cognition when avenues of inquiry are closed for fear of bad thoughts somewhere?
The racism trope was widespread during the groupthink frenzy. Charles Cooke of National Review excoriated lab-leak theorists for being “addicted to racism and xenophobia.” The Washington Post’s Leana Wen worried that “unproven speculation” (which, incidentally, is the starting point of any scientific inquiry) could “increase racist attacks…[and] fuel anti-Asian hate.”
New York Times reporter Apoorva Mandavilli released a tweet (later deleted) that said the COVID lab-leak theory “had racist roots.” And when some writers, finally taking the lab-leak theory seriously, cited earlier writings by former Times reporter Nicholas Wade, a socialist writer named Andre Damon quickly labeled Wade a racist.
Some resisted the tired thinking represented by such citations. Zaid Jilani suggested at Newsweek that Ms. Mandavilli’s Tweet may have been “emblematic of a wider mindset among American journalists, many of whom saw their mission as simply opposing any stance taken by the Trump administration…while also burnishing their anti-racist and anti-imperialist credentials by refusing to blame a foreign government for the pandemic.”
And writer Glenn Greenwald mischievously asked, “Can someone explain to me why it’s racist to wonder if a virus escaped from a Chinese lab, but…not racist to insist it infected humans because of Chinese wet markets?”
But this isn’t merely a matter of proper speech and charitable thoughts in the global sphere. The lead headline in the Seattle Times the other day, over an AP story about the recent NATO summit in Brussels, declared: “NATO leaders join U.S. in standing up to Russian, Chinese threats.” And the Wall Street Journal noted in its summit story that the 79-paragraph NATO communique mentioned China a dozen times, “a shift from past [NATO] summits, when Beijing was barely mentioned.” The paper quoted from the communique, “China’s growing influence and international policies can present challenges that we need to address…. We will engage China with a view to defending the security interests of the alliance.”
Tough talk. But how can America lead NATO in checking China’s growing power when it can’t even unite behind a thorough review of COVID’s origin for fear of bruising some people’s delicate feelings?
The NATO communique represents the growing awareness of a geopolitical reality that many foreign policy experts have discerned now for several years—namely, that America and China seem to be on a collision course stemming from a Chinese resolve to end America’s East Asian dominance and take on that role itself. It is to be hoped that that course can be obstructed peacefully and the collision averted. But, if not, we can bet that the Chinese people, and certainly their leaders and their elites, won’t be worrying about any American hurt feelings stemming from how they characterize us.
And the Chinese aren’t engaged in any internal handwringing these days about regime abuses or historical lapses, though abuses and lapses have been both abundant and at times horrific in China’s history and even in its present. China is too busy with big-picture ambitions of outstripping America economically, technologically, and militarily, so that it can upend the American-led global system and replace it with one more favorable to China.
In this epic geopolitical struggle, China has its head in the game. America doesn’t, as reflected in the silly groupthink bungle over the origin of COVID.
Robert W. Merry, veteran Washington journalist and publishing executive, is the author of five books on American history and foreign policy.