What If Ross Douthat Were Ten Times Worse?

Conspiracy theories
Questions Question Marks Confusion - Free image on Pixabay

In a column yesterday, the New York Times's Ross Douthat presented a thought experiment. Several thought experiments, really, but the main one was "What If Covid Were Ten Times Deadlier?"

This was partially in response to Chris Hayes suggesting conservatives wouldn't have been any less terrible about Covid if it were ten times deadlier, which seems like a fair assessment.

"I think I've come to believe that even if the Covid death toll was 10 times what it currently is," the MSNBC host Chris Hayes wrote a few days ago on Twitter, "the politics of all of it wouldn't be appreciably different."

Douthat likes examining this question, he says. He likes thinking about counterfactuals. Unfortunately, all the counterfactuals he thinks of are very, very stupid.

I like this question because I'm interested in Covid counterfactuals — whether ideology and identity and in-group loyalty determined everything about the pandemic response, or whether there's a world where Donald Trump went all-in for strict disease-fighting measures and liberals turned anti-lockdown in response, or one where Trump won re-election and hesitation over the "Trump vaccine" ended up stronger on the left.

Guess what? That doesn't happen. That would not happen. You can, in fact, see that it demonstrably did not happen, because Donald Trump was president for a good chunk of the pandemic, including the beginning when we all went into full lockdown mode.

Shockingly enough, I don't know too many people on the left, or even the center, who base their response to a deadly virus on doing the opposite of what a person we dislike suggests we do. Now, if it were literally just Donald Trump pushing these measures on his own? Yeah, we would probably question that. But conveniently for us,Trump is not the only person in the world. There are also scientists and epidemiologists, and that's who we were listening to all along, regardless of what Trump said or thought or did.

This theory ignores the foundational differences between the right and the left, chiefly that we care whether other people live or die and they do not. If Trump "went all-in for strict disease-fighting measures" they would've abandoned him. In fact, his supporters led him on how to react to the pandemic and to Dr. Fauci, etc. -- not the other way around.

But here is where Douthat drops the real wisdom:

[A]s terrible as it is that one in 500 Americans has died of Covid, it's still much easier to have gone through the pandemic without having a close friend or family member die of it — as I have not, for instance — than it would be were the toll one in 50.

Whaaaaa? So you're saying more dead people would be worse? Tell me more!

Before the pandemic, I once built a column around the psychiatrist-blogger Scott Alexander's concept of "the scissor," which describes a controversy or idea or event perfectly calibrated to divide people while making them think that the other side is bonkers. Arguably Covid's death rate makes it a perfect scissor: It's high enough to make the alarmed feel vindicated but still low enough that many skeptics feel vindicated as well.

So, 670,000 deaths, one out of every 500 people, makes people feel vindicated? How odd.

Also can we please not call them "skeptics?" They're not skeptics, they're true believers. A skeptic changes their mind upon receipt of new information. True believers will get new information and either ignore it or twist it in some way to claim vindication. When someone predicts the end of the world using Magic Bible Math and turns out to be wrong, they don't say, "Oh shit, guess the world isn't ending after all." They say "Ohhhh .... you know what? I was off by one year, please give me some money." Lather, rinse, repeat.

But I digress. Douthat explains, generously, that if the death toll were higher, the right would start to care and support public health restrictions.

[I]f the fatality figures were one-tenth as high, I suspect there would be much more internal liberal debate over the wisdom of the sweeping early response. And if they were 10 times higher, I think there might have been more red-state support for public-health restrictions of all kinds.

Counterpoint: This story about a Parkland shooting survivor whose dad went full QAnon, decided the whole thing was a hoax and that his son was in on it.

Not to mention the tendency of human beings to engage in what psychologists call "psychic numbness," meaning that the more people die, the less we care. Conservatives may have spent actual years demanding Terri Schiavo remain on life support, despite her being in an irreversible vegetative state, but they are just disgusted by the idea of having to wear a mask or get a perfectly safe vaccine, so as to avoid killing people left and right.

We don't have the problems we have because the right hasn't seen enough tragedy, personally. We have them because they do not translate that into "And I don't want anyone else to go through what I did."

[New York Times]

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Robyn Pennacchia

Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse


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