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A World Historical Tragedy

Philadelphia crowd today (NBC 10 screenshot)

All through the day I have been following the news on social media and on websites, about the vast protests against racism. Look at this:

This image has been repeated in capitals around the US, and in Europe.

What we are seeing today is a tragedy of mythical, world-historical dimensions. For the past several months, the world has faced down a deadly pandemic that is spread through personal contact. Governments have imposed strict public health measures to save lives, at the cost of wrecking economies. The hope was that we could limit the spread, prevent mass death, and give scientists more time to come up with a vaccine. By imposing a heavy cost now, public health officials hoped to spare us all an even heavier cost.

Did it go too far in some cases? Without question. But you have to remember that this pandemic is something that no one alive has had to deal with. On this blog, I have said for months now that the virus doesn’t care about your politics. I was speaking to my fellow conservatives, and my fellow conservative Christians, many of whom resisted, and even resented, lockdowns, masks, and other public health measures, in part because these policies interfered with what they preferred to believe.

We all saw people on the left lashing these conservatives as selfish fools who cared only about themselves, and not the common good. This was the common narrative in the media.

But now, with the Floyd killing, the left has cast all caution to the wind. Nicholas Christakis, one of the country’s top public health experts, made an obvious point here:

Remember what happened the last time Nicholas Christakis tried to reason with a woke mob? It did not end well for him.

Two days ago, Politico wrote:

For months, public health experts have urged Americans to take every precaution to stop the spread of Covid-19—stay at home, steer clear of friends and extended family, and absolutely avoid large gatherings.

Now some of those experts are broadcasting a new message: It’s time to get out of the house and join the mass protests against racism.

“We should always evaluate the risks and benefits of efforts to control the virus,” Jennifer Nuzzo, a Johns Hopkins epidemiologist, tweeted on Tuesday. “In this moment the public health risks of not protesting to demand an end to systemic racism greatly exceed the harms of the virus.”

“The injustice that’s evident to everyone right now needs to be addressed,” Abraar Karan, a Brigham and Women’s Hospital physician who’s exhorted coronavirus experts to amplify the protests’ anti-racist message, told me. “While I have voiced concerns that protests risk creating more outbreaks, the status quo wasn’t going to stop #covid19 either,” he wrote on Twitter this week.

It’s a message echoed by media outlets and some of the most prominent public health experts in America, like former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Tom Frieden, who loudly warned against efforts to rush reopening but is now supportive of mass protests. Their claim: If we don’t address racial inequality, it’ll be that much harder to fight Covid-19. There’s also evidence that the virus doesn’t spread easily outdoors, especially if people wear masks.

This is insane. It represents the ideological corruption of science. Never again will people take public health experts seriously. They have destroyed their authority for the sake of left-wing politics.

The moral passions of the crowds have led them to abandon all reason. What we have seen today, and in this past week, is a mass of people coming together for a public ritual to cast out a demon (racism), and in so doing pass among themselves a virus that causes sickness and death. Christakis again:

We might get lucky. But if not, all the sacrifices that we collectively made this spring will have been for nothing — all because masses of people, seized by a kind of religious frenzy, decided that their moral convictions would defeat reality. As Ross Douthat writes:

The progression I’ve described, though, in which all sides have embraced delusions or found something to value more than public health, does signal that there will be no further comprehensive attempt to fight the virus. Trump and conservatism won’t support it, the public health bureaucracy won’t be able to defend it, and we didn’t use the time the lockdowns bought to build the infrastructure to sustain a campaign of actual suppression.

So in this sense we are back with Elkus’s original point. All the virus wants is targets, and if it doesn’t ultimately find another hundred thousand victims, or more than that in some autumn second wave, it will not be political decisions or public health exhortations that save us. On the left and right we’ve exhausted those possibilities, and like the earthlings unexpectedly preserved from alien domination at the end of “The War of the Worlds,” now only some inherent weakness in our enemy can save us from many, many deaths to come.

We are in another world now. The mass demonstrations will not have ended racism. But they will have ended the lives of vast numbers of people, and made it likely that the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression will be prolonged — with all the destruction and strife that will bring. This is tragedy at the level of myth.

Here is another example of leftist fantasy today. Two videos of Jacob Frey, the woke Millennial mayor of Minneapolis, trying to appeal to a protest crowd today. They don’t want to hear it. They want to hear him say that he, the mayor of a big city, will cut all the funds to the police — leaving a major American city unpoliced. Watch what happens when he tells the crowd the truth. It’s devastating:

Progressive crowds cannot handle too much reality. But reality does not care. Defund the police, and violent chaos will reign. But this is what progressive crowds prefer to believe:

So: one month from now, if we see an explosion of Covid-19 cases, overwhelming hospitals, the media propaganda machine will ramp up to blame racism, or to find some other scapegoat for a fate that was completely predictable. What’s more, the institutional authorities at hospitals, universities, in the media, and elsewhere, will be merciless in their attempts to suppress the truth about why the plague has returned to us with such vengeance. They meant well, so they will expect to be absolved. The tragic guilt of all those who took to the streets to protest the evil of racism will be intolerable to bear. So someone else is going to have to bear it.

The autopsy on George Floyd found that he had coronavirus.

History doesn’t get much bigger than this.

Here in south Louisiana tonight, it’s raining outside, and the wind has picked up. A hurricane is coming. Seems about right.

UPDATE: You know, this morning I have to say something positive about Mayor Frey. I think the worst of him over his performance in the Minneapolis crisis. It was he who ordered the police away from the Third Precinct, allowing the mob to burn it down. If you watch those videos, he abases himself shamefully in front of the mob. But when they demanded of him something that no mayor of a city could give — a promise to effectively abolish the police force — he said no. He said no even though he was surrounded by thousands of angry protesters, and he stood alone, with no bodyguards, or any protection. He said no, and he walked away with his head held high, through the barrage of insults.

He redeemed his honor. Maybe now he will learn something about the woke mob.

UPDATE.2: Reader Clyde Schechter:

As an epidemiologist myself, I am deeply embarrassed and angry that so many of my colleagues who engage on social media or with the press are denying or minimizing the obvious and blatant recklessness of these mass gatherings simply because they sympathize with the political goals. I am just as appalled as any of them by the murder of George Floyd, and more broadly by the abuse of police power visited on poor people in America. But make no mistake: Christakis speaks the truth. These protestors will spread the disease, first among themselves, and then to other who come into contact with them. What they are doing is irresponsible. Covid-19 has killed more than 100,000 Americans just in a couple of months. I doubt that there have been 100,000 police murders in all of US history. While outdoors can be less problematic than indoor gatherings, the difference between them makes much less difference when there is severe crowding, as we are seeing here. And the difference is less still when people are shouting and chanting. Not to mention the even worse situation that occurs when the authorities intercede using agents that provoke coughing, rhinorrhea, sneezing and eye-watering.

Unfortunately, at this point the country has pretty much given up on fighting the epidemic. We are rushing headlong into re-opening when the first wave has not even passed its peak yet. There are parts of the country where it has, and others where it never took much of a hold. And for those parts, gradual re-opening makes sense. But even relatively sensible states like California (in this context) are now throwing caution to the winds and allowing high-risk activities to resume even though the epidemic is still growing exponentially in much of the state. Trump has all but said that he wants the economy to resume and even if that provokes a second wave (which, in reality would just be a continuation of the first wave since the first has not yet ended) we aren’t going back. Most public health authorities now have trashed their credibility by excusing inexcusable mass gatherings. And Douthat is completely right: the sacrifices that have been made up to this point are being thrown away, as we did not use the time we had to build up adequate other means of dealing with the epidemic.

I despair.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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