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From Passover to Pentecost on Substack
When I sat down to write the latest weekly wrap-up, I realized that I started this Substack immediately after the Passover seders, and that we are now on the brink of Pentecost. In other words, I’ve been doing this for almost precisely the duration of the counting of the omer.
That’s appropriate in a way. The counting of the omer is a mitzvah that has long felt to me like a kind of synecdoche for religion as such, a radically reductive ritual where literally all you do is count the days between two spiritual high-points of the religious calendar. Similarly, I started writing here in part to make writing a more daily part of my experience—something you’d think I’d have learned to do long ago, but sadly that is not the case—in the hopes that doing so would help me bridge projects of greater scope and significance.
It hasn’t happened yet; more writing hasn’t begot more writing, and those larger project still loom, in various states of completion. Perhaps that’s because this hasn’t become a daily practice; I haven’t missed a week yet, but I’ve certainly missed many days. So I’m left hoping that a weekly discipline still “counts.”
But this seven-week period also has another significance for me this year, one that is pandemic-related. The pandemic hit New York not long before Passover in 2020, and necessitated moving our seders onto Zoom. While I don’t think “lockdown” is an appropriate way to describe the social deprivations of the year that followed—by the summer we were socializing regularly outside, eating outdoors in restaurants, even participating in an outdoor service for the High Holidays, and we made use of testing to visit with my parents and step-parents relatively safely—the ritual calendar was nonetheless profoundly disrupted, in particular by the absence of in-person services at our synagogue. In 2021, though, thanks to the vaccines and the waning of the pandemic in New York, we were able to be with family for the Passover seders, at our house and at my sister’s. And tomorrow morning, for Shavuot, I’ll be participating in my first in-person service at our synagogue since the pandemic began. It’ll be a service hedged about with numerous restrictions that, if I am honest, I believe we could have imposed last summer to facilitate some kind of partial resumption of services then. But we’ll be together again. That’s what matters. The rest is commentary.
The process of reopening is a fraught one, and I try to be charitable both to those who are wary of relaxing vigilance and those who are flatly sick of counting days until things get back to normal in a complete sense. I count myself much more among the latter than the former (as should be unsurprising to regular readers), and so it behooves me to remind myself regularly not only how ridiculously lucky I am to be in a position to have those kinds of complaints, rather than to be mourning a parent or sibling, or watching a child wither on a diet of Zoom school and Zoom playdates, but also of what I gained during the pandemic along with what I lost, not the least of which is the knowledge that I have a life that, when radically reduced, remains joyful and full of basic contentments.
That recognition doesn’t diminish in the slightest the degree to which I am looking forward to tomorrow morning. I can’t wait until I have gotten so accustomed to being back in shul that I resume complaining about services the way I used to do in the Before Times.
With that, the wrap-up proper.
The Lab-Leak Hypothesis and the Culture War
My latest at The Week is about the hypothesis that the pandemic began with an accidental leak from a virology lab in Wuhan. I hasten to point out that I am in no position to evaluate that hypothesis. But the piece isn’t really about that; it’s about how the hypothesis has been covered:
[F]or over a year, there has been considerable skepticism in well-informed circles about the theory that COVID-19 emerged in the wild and originally spread through the Wuhan wet markets, and suspicion that, in fact, it emerged by accident from a Wuhan lab specializing in coronavirus research. Why, then, does that view still feel like a fringe conspiracy theory? Why has it not been a relentless focus of mainstream reporting from the beginning of the pandemic?
I go into various possible reasons, and then summarize:
I doubt there's any one answer, but what my various hypotheses share in common is the suspicion that those covering the story let questions about how the story would be understood get in the way of finding out what the story was. Rather than be driven by the desire to know the truth, and to speak that truth to power (whether that power was in Washington or Wuhan), I fear a brake was applied to serve some ill-defined social interest, even if the only interest was backing the public health authorities that we were all relying on to get us through the pandemic, and who had been quick to affirm the story that the virus was of natural origin.
I encourage you to read the whole thing, but with an important caveat. Early on I cite a piece by Nicholas Wade, the acclaimed science journalist, that makes the case that a leak is the most-likely explanation for the pandemic. That piece has come under some fierce criticism for over-claiming certain parts of the argument and flat-out misunderstanding some of the research that he criticizes. A reader who is a biophysicist helpfully pointed me to this piece that pre-dates Wade’s, making the opposite argument, that the virus is unlikely to have been engineered or leaked. I encourage readers to check that piece out as well.
But I’ve also gotten pushback on the political side of the argument, from people saying that the forceful rejection of the lab-leak theory in the absence of solid evidence is necessary to preserve a good working relationship with China, and that there’s a great deal of hypocrisy on the part of those seeking greater disclosure from Chinese labs when American labs have been no less sloppy and no more forthcoming. And I pretty much reject that view. I don’t the press should be concerned with facilitating good working relationships between American and Chinese labs; I think the press should be adversarial in their skepticism toward both American and Chinese authorities, because that’s the way to get both to be more forthcoming. Nor do I think the mainstream press can tamp down conspiracy theorizing by calling it that; in our current media ecosystem, that just polarizes public opinion. This is a comprehensive problem, not limited to the question of the origins of COVID-19, of course. But that’s the real subject of my piece at The Week.
If you want a deeper dive into how the coverage of the subject got politicized, one that doesn’t take a strong view on the actual origins of the pandemic, I recommend this piece from Medscape by Charles Schmidt.
Apart from this morning’s re-post of an old piece about counting the omer, I only wrote one other piece for the Substack in the past week, but it was a doozy—far and away the most-read piece I’ve written here so far. “Fertility, Fear and Futurity” is about the existential terror of becoming a parent, climate change, and what all that might have to do with the hate piled on Elizabeth Bruenig (whose name I misspelled continuously through the piece, for which I apologize) when she wrote a Mother’s Day piece about how happy she was to have kids. I credit Ross Douthat for publicizing it, and encourage readers to check out his own thoughts on the more specifically anti-religious currents that might underlie some of that hatred.
Given that this is also a seven-weeks’ wrap-up, though, I’ll take the opportunity to highlight a handful of other pieces of mine that might be worth taking a look at if you haven’t seen them:
“The Small Voice of Stillness” is a meditation on the spirituality of the movie, Sound of Metal.
“The Female Vagrant” grapples with the relationship between fiction and non-fiction, author and subject, in last year’s Best Picture winner, Nomadland, with particular reference to William Wordsworth.
“Authority and Expertise” touches on how to get people vaccinated, and the limits of relying on the latter for the former as opposed to relying on personal relationships.
“Reparations and the Black Nationalist Counterfactual” wades back in to a topic—reparations for slavery—that I’ve written about before, with a new angle.
“The Autobiography of an Idea,” meanwhile, comes at the whole question of nationalism from another angle, to find some commonality among apparent opposites.
But I encourage new subscribers to read—and share—any and all pieces from the archives. It’s all here for you, after all!
The World Elsewhere
Israel-Palestine: I haven’t written anything yet about the violence that has erupted both inside Israel and between Israel and Gaza, but I expect I will do so at some point in the coming week, either here or elsewhere. This is a subject on which many people have extremely dug-in views that they trot out whenever and however violence erupts. I’ll try not to do that here, as I generally try not to do. With that preamble, a few thoughts that are preliminary to a much fuller treatment.
Regardless of the precipitate cause of the violence, the deep cause is Palestinian statelessness. I think that Shadi Hamid is correct to that degree. But identifying the cause of a problem is not at all the same as identifying a solution. I think Damon Linker is correct to that degree. But warranted pessimism, in turn, does not imply that indefinite patience is truly possible. I think Gershom Gorenberg is correct to that degree.
It’s important to separate the situation between Israeli Arabs and Jews in cities like Lod that are inside Israel proper from the war that has erupted between Israel and Gaza. The latter is depressingly familiar (which shouldn’t insure us to its horror). The former is distressingly novel. Before the outbreak of violence, Israel was on the brink of breaking the longest-standing taboo of the country’s politics, by forming a governing coalition reliant on an Arab party’s support. Moreover, that party would have been supporting a prime minister from a right-wing party strongly oriented toward the interests of Jewish settlers. It’s impossible for me not to see the current violence in that context.
American critics of Israel often point to South Africa as a precedent for outside pressure ultimately yielding revolutionary change. I think it’s worth pointing out that far from Israel becoming more isolated, Israel has been building more and stronger links with the rest of the world, including the Arab world, as the Palestinians have become more and more isolated. The UAE, for example, for example, has been largely mum about the war in Gaza, and clearly wants to stay as mum as possible. That should give those critics pause as a strategic matter. Even within the United States, while the relationship with Israel has become a contentious topic in liberal and progressive circles, it has become a bedrock commitment of a Trumpified GOP. Just as an objective matter, that’s not a situation conducive to any strategy to use American pressure to change Israel’s behavior.
The pandemic: Two really interesting pieces on vaccine hesitancy reinforced my previously-expressed views on the subject that “hard-core” vaccine rejection is not a problem, whereas access and reassurance from trusted intermediaries are.
First, The New York Times reported that many Hispanic Americans who want to get vaccinated have held back because of concerns related to employment or immigration status rather than because they have concerns about the vaccine itself. That’s a powerful argument for bringing the vaccine to the people to make it cheaper than free rather than resorting to punitive measures to force people to get vaccinated.
Second, Kevin Drum notes that Republican hesitancy with respect to the new COVID-19 vaccines—which is notably higher than Democratic hesitancy—is nothing new. Republicans have always been more hesitant about vaccines, going all the way back to polio. The partisan difference has been growing over time, but it didn’t jump notably with the election of Donald Trump or the advent of the pandemic, and it probably has more to do with longstanding cultural differences between rural and urban/suburban areas and between the South and the rest of the country—differences whose partisan salience has risen dramatically over the past several decades—than with disinformation. That’s a powerful argument that working with trusted intermediaries will work better to encourage vaccine uptake than relying on media suasion—and certainly better than media contempt.
On the international front, the pandemic continues to rage horribly in both South Asia and South America. It’s worth noting, though, that this is already having notable political consequences in both regions. If populist-nationalist governments in Brazil and India are ultimately toppled, or at least badly weakened, by their terrible performance in the pandemic, that strongly suggests that democratic accountability has not been obliterated in these countries, notwithstanding their clear turn toward illiberalism. And that would be at least one silver lining to a terrible cloud.
Ms. Mayor: My preferred mayoral candidate here in New York City, Kathryn Garcia, just got endorsed by both The New York Times and The New York Daily News. I don’t expect The New York Post to make it a trifecta, but it’s still a rather extraordinary development. If Garcia doesn’t wind up in the top three at least, I think that will put paid to the idea that newspaper endorsements can have any material impact on even a highly contested race.
Meanwhile, I wanted to highlight the following exchange from Garcia’s conversation with the Times prior to their endorsement:
Nick Fox: In an online Q. and A. you said the police commissioner should have the final say on disciplining officers. Why? Commissioners don’t have a very good record on holding officers accountable for misconduct.
[Ms. Garcia, splitting from some of her rival candidates, has said, “My police commissioner would be strictly accountable to me on discipline decisions, and I would hire someone I trust to have final authority on that decision.”]
The past commissioners have not had a very good track record of holding people accountable on discipline. But if you don’t make them responsible for discipline, then you’re giving them an out — that they are not fundamentally responsible for managing their force and for holding the chain of command completely responsible for ensuring that discipline is maintained.
Garcia also knows how much a home costs in Brooklyn, but I think her understanding of where the buck stops, and why it’s important that the buck stop there, is far more notable in an era when a lot of executives sometimes think of themselves more as pundits than as people who are actually in charge. I include our current mayor and our last two presidents in that general indictment.
Deep history: Two of the coolest pieces I read recently are Razib Khan’s on what civilization owes to the Mongol conquest and Anusar Farooqui’s on how the most archaic family structures prospered during the rise of modernity, and facilitated its spread. I love this kind of thing and wish I read more of it.