Thursday, April 16, 2020

What an Anti-Chinese Fox Piece Tells You About the Republican Party

Here's the piece, entitled, "Sources believe coronavirus originated in Wuhan lab as part of China's efforts to compete with US." The Cold War-era editors of правда--which we in English call Pravda, and was once the Soviet Communist Party's Official Newspaper--would be smiling upon the Fox News Division right now, content to know that the dark arts in which they made their mark, specifically, propaganda, still has a happy home. (Actually, they're still around, and though the Billy Rubin Blog staff is woefully under-educated about the details of Russian oligarchy, we wouldn't be surprised to learn that there isn't much truth to be found in the Pravda of Putin's Russia, either.)

Big shock coming: the Fox piece doesn't really tell you much about China, as it is effectively one big Lie wrapped in a cocoon of half-plausible journalistic conventions to provide the scantiest justification for being circulated to millions of rubes who will swallow the story without much fuss, happily scarfing down the news equivalent of canned tuna laden with mercury and PCBs.

But what such a story does tell you about is the increasing desperation of Donald Trump, the Republican Party, and its various subsidiaries to pin the tail on whatever donkey they can find, so as to distract from their own glaring incompetence in the COVID outbreak, which at this point is most appropriately described as "murderously stupid," the occasional competence of a Republican governor such as Charlie Baker, Mike DeWine, or Larry Hogan notwithstanding.

Let's start all the way back in early February--in other words, what seems like a lifetime ago--with the original irresponsible speculation about the Chinese origins of COVID to see just how feeble the current attempt at reportage really is. The full details can be found here in a piece by Foreign Policy, but the gist is that some Indian researchers working in a lab circulated a manuscript looking at the protein coat of the COVID virus, and noted some similarities to the outer surface of HIV. An Indian scientist and columnist named Anand Ranganathan, in what can only be described as a flight of fancy, wondered aloud in a Tweet on January 31 whether this could mean that Chinese scientists had been mucking about with HIV in a lab and somehow ended up with a version of Frankenvirusstein that got out on the loose. By later in the day, Ranganathan thought better of his armchair speculation, and withdrew the Tweet, which if you click on the link above, you will see. (The scientific paper was withdrawn before submitting to the peer review process, as well.)

But by that point, like the actual virus itself, the Chinese-bioweapons-lab origin story was on the loose and circulating across the globe, and causing only slightly less mayhem. Conspiracy theorists picked up the ball and ran with it, where it almost immediately found a happy home among Republican Party leaders; Oklahoma Senator Tom Cotton was so confident in its plausibility that he gave interviews suggesting "we need to at least ask the question" of whether the Chinese government was behind the whole thing.

That a high-ranking Republican politician would resort to base sophistry and rhetorical gimmickry in 2020 shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone, given the Red Team's penchant for similar shenanigans in other charged topics where there's a clear scientific consensus, such as "teaching the controversy" of evolution (hint: there's no controversy) and encouraging denial about the reality of man-made fossil-fuel driven global warming (maybe the Republican consensus there might be beginning to crack, though no sane person should be holding their breath). Cotton could always claim he wasn't actually alleging this was a fact--since that would require outright lying, something even scalawags like Cotton hesitate to do--but merely noting that since a rumor existed, however ridiculous, it should be considered. Thus, the Senator from Arkansas was able to have his xenophobic cake and eat it too. (Of course, Trump lies without the slightest hesitation; Cotton might demur simply because he isn't sure he can pull it off as well as his master.)

Since the allegation was built on high-octane paranoia mixed with dark fantasy, it made the rounds for maybe 72 hours before submerging itself into the collective right wing id, and would have evaporated into nothingness. But Fox, along with other right wing media, appears to have regurgitated the story in what seems like a desperate attempt at pointing fingers at anywhere other than where they should be aimed, namely, at a fumbling and laughably inept White House. And it plays like a movie sequel in which a lazy producer simply pops a Roman numeral up, cycles through the same cast, and hopes for further profits to roll in. Since there's no new hard news, Fox News is required to truth-launder its claims by a reliance on "sources." Here's the key graf:

The “increasing confidence” comes from classified and open-source documents and evidence, the sources said. Fox News has requested to see the evidence directly. Sources emphasized -- as is often the case with intelligence -- that it’s not definitive and should not be characterized as such. Some inside the administration and the intelligence and epidemiological communities are more skeptical, and the investigation is continuing.

In other words: this stuff is still just made up, but it's made up by people inside the government, and therefore they can be considered "sources" to lend an air of legitimacy to the claims as if this were a well-sourced New York Times story. In reality, it almost certainly means that a Trumpparatchik sent an email to a Fox staffer after reading a feverish post on 4chan repeating the yarn. But now the Fox staffer can pass it along as coming from a secret government official who really knows their stuff. Fox even add the nice buyer-beware touch of noting that this story is not definitive and should not be characterized as such. In the immortal words of Sidney Morgenbesser: yeah, yeah.

To note that Fox News wants to whip up outrage against an un-American Other (which is to say, not white) like China, and that it considers innuendo to be no less important to their brand of journalism than reporting unassailable facts, is not precisely an earthshaking revelation. So why care at all? Because there are plenty of entirely legitimate reasons to criticize China. So much so that it's like shooting fish in a barrel. And yet, with the ammunition sitting out on the table, practically begging to be used, Fox chooses not only to hold their fire, they don't even lock-and-load.

If the Federal US response has been an abject embarrassment, China hasn't precisely coated itself in glory, either. When physicians and scientists, all of whom were working at great personal risk, tried to raise the alarm that a frightening new virus appeared to be circulating in Wuhan, local government leaders used their authority to silence or otherwise intimidate the experts as troublesome worry-warts whose interference might have negative effects on the economy. (Sound familiar?)

As the epidemic worsened, the US Government, along with the World Health Organization, offered help by sending leading virologists, physicians, and epidemiologists. China refused the offers until finally relenting and allowing in experts by the end of January.

As January progressed, the outbreak became out of control and could no longer be swept under the rug by local leaders. So the damage control response was to erase the evidence, as the "wet market" where the virus almost certainly originated was wiped clean, preventing any opportunity to fully understand the circumstances of the virus's jump into humans. (Side note: "wet market" is, at least according to one reporter, akin to the American concept of the Farmer's Market, and as such isn't particularly exotic; some wet markets, such as the Huanan Wholesale Market in Wuhan, do substantial traffic in exotic animals, and one of those animals, perhaps a pangolin, is highly likely to be the original host. All the early epidemiology points to the Huanan Market as Ground Zero, but the trail has been forever lost due to the local government's eagerness to cover it up.)

After reeling in January and early February, the national Chinese government responded in full force, and with a level of competence that has thus far put the Americans to shame. They famously built a large hospital for those with the virus in less than two weeks, shut down travel in Hubei Province, did reasonably well at feeding a locked-down population the size of New York, and, to use the parlance commonplace today, flattened its epidemic curve. But what pride it could have taken in a job well done was eclipsed by the Chinese government's worst authoritarian tendencies: they have prevented honest reporting of the outbreak, "investigated" critics of President Xi to the point where they simply disappear, and publish data about their epidemic that has increasingly strained credulity, suggesting that they are finding ways by which they are juking their stats to look more impressive than they really are.

So with all these easy targets out there in broad daylight, wagging their tails, why would Fox pick the tin-foil hat, kooky theory to promote? And to promote it in a way that anyone other than a total doofus could see was a con?

The answer, of course, is that Donald Trump approves of ignoring experts, silencing journalists, destroying evidence, intimidating opponents, protecting personal interests above those of the public good, and sidelining the civil servants who protect that public good. Trump's admiration of President Xi's worst dictatorial tendencies couldn't be more plain. These things constitute his political program, so of course Fox wasn't going to criticize China for that stuff.


postscript: Since the precise origins of COVID are not firmly established, could there be some kind of a link to a lab researcher who got infected doing research and then spread it? Perhaps it doesn't involve the fanciful bioweapon component, but could COVID have originated from a lab tech making a mistake simply in a scientific research institute? Similar accidents have occurred in the United States, so why not assume it could have happened there?

Two answers. The first is: yes, it's possible; some scientists acknowledge that possibility here. But if so, a lab accident simply becomes a different version of the wet market origin, which is to say, there may be human error at bedrock, but not the kind of nefarious Chinese world domination scheme that is driving episodes of nocturnal emissions among the Fox staff. One doesn't need to resort to science fiction to see evidence of China's imperial ambitions: they're making it perfectly obvious for anyone to see. And yet that, which is a legitimately concerning development years in the making, remains a relatively quiet story in American politics.

The second answer is, simply, that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. After being fed a daily diet of Whoppers by the Republican party, not only in the form of Donald Trump although he is their most enthusiastic practitioner, the policy with respect to any of their pronouncements should be: where's the beef?

1 comment:

  1. I personally have been digging the new Burger King fake Whoppers, so there is no beef. And if you put bacon and cheese on it you're cancelling out the trayf.