The pandemic has made cynics of us all

16 October 2021

9:00 AM

16 October 2021

9:00 AM

A report by MPs into the spread of the coronavirus has concluded that the government’s approach constituted one of this country’s worst ever public health failures. The MPs say the early fondness for herd immunity plus the delay in locking the country down ended up costing thousands of lives. What makes this worse is that everything the government did was done at the suggestion of its leading scientific advisers, Whitty, Vallance and Sage.

And so one feels another slippage of faith. On this occasion relating to the imperium not of government, but of scientists. I know some people will be amazed that I should have any remaining trust in government scientific advisers. But everybody has to trust somebody, and I tend to trust people who know about things I do not. If I break a bone I do not do my own research into the best ways to heal it, but rather go to the professionals. Likewise, if a global pandemic hits, then I trust the people whose job it is to have been thinking about this before today.

Of course, much of what has happened in the past year and a half has spectacularly eroded that trust. Watching Neil Ferguson’s predictions proving to be off again and again did not help matters. Nor the fact that the faulty predictions just kept coming. I know people who haven’t trusted anything they have been told over the past year and a half. Some are now in the position of refusing to take the vaccine and hunkering down for a life of home cooking. I don’t agree with them — I am pro-vaccine, anti-mandate — but I see ever more clearly where their position comes from. Once you have seen through an institution it is very hard to unsee things.

Yet we already know where this leads. The American right offers a strong but salutary example.

This is not to beat up the American right, as British columnists are wont to do. I actually like the American right. But recent years have offered a stark example of what happens when the public see through their institutions. Even five years ago you would speak to conservative Americans and be able to predict with great ease which aspects of their nation they had faith in. They would be reliably pro-law enforcement, wildly in favour of the armed forces and the nation’s security apparatus. And while everybody was used to political figures letting them down, there were plenty of parts of the state that still produced a feeling of respect, indeed reverence.

In the space of only a few years, all that has changed. Today the American right is openly contemptuous of institutions and individuals it revered only a few years ago. It still admires the soldiery, but it loathes the military top brass. The evening talk shows and conservative journalists do not only disagree with the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. They mock him. It is the same with the CIA, FBI and NSA. The nation’s intelligence and security agencies used to be regarded as the Rolls-Royces of America’s national security armoury. Today the American right says things about each of these agencies that was said over the past decade only by Assange-ist or Snowdenite bloggers of the far left. American conservatives now loathe these institutions, viewing them as corrupt and untrustworthy. It is the same with other branches of government, like the Internal Revenue Service, much of the judicial system, and then the real biggie, the system of voter registration (or lack thereof) and the way in which votes are counted after elections. One recent poll found that 78 per cent of Republicans do not believe Joe Biden won the election last November.

To translate this into the British context: it would be as though conservatives in the UK loathed the heads of the military, were openly resentful and suspicious of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, believed that the Inland Revenue and every other arm of government was against them, and that the electoral system had put in the wrong winner. It is almost unimaginable. And besides, what exactly would be conservative about a person or a movement which believed that every single one of the nation’s institutions had been corrupted? Once you believe this, you must believe that the institutions should effectively be pulled down and salted over or subjected to some other revolutionary shake-up. At which point you have to wonder what exactly it is you are ‘conservative’ about.

But the American right did not get to this position accidentally. It got to it because institution after institution in its country actually did prove to be corrupted in some way. The chairman of the joint chiefs really was defending the teaching of critical race theory at West Point while Afghanistan fell into the hands of the Taliban. The former head of the NSA and CIA really did compare Trump voters with that same Taliban. The IRS and other government departments actually have been found targeting conservative institutions and individuals for political ends. And voter registration in the US is a corruptible mess. There is currently a row over whether or not voters should have to show ID when they show up at the polls. The left says (surprise, surprise) that it is racist to make such a demand. So it is that currently in many states you have to show more paperwork (in the form of vaccination certificates) to enter a McDonald’s than you do to turn up to vote.

The American public are right to be jaded and cynical about these institutions. And if the American left is mildly less cynical at present, it is only because its guy got in this time — always a good spur to suppress concerns. But it could happen the other way too. The American right got into this revolutionary position because its institutions proved corruptible, if not corrupt, and it saw through them one by one. As I watch the magisterium of the scientists recede in our own country, I am not happy about the thought that it could happen here too.

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