The other day, I listened to as much National Public Radio as I could stand and one point stood out to me. The experience was anodyne. The topics were nothing that mattered. It felt like a gentle ooze of news that always came to the proper conclusion at the end of the well-produced bit.
By proper, I hope you know what I mean. It confirmed the listeners’ biases. And everyone knows who they are: wealthy, mostly white professionals in urban centers with high-end salaries to match their educational credentials. Probably 90 percent Biden voters last time and next time, not because he is a great president but rather because he inherits the anti-deplorable mantle of his predecessor nominee.
NPR was raising money on that particular day, which they do despite the taxpayer subsidies. If you give money, you can get an NPR umbrella or be given a bit of nature trail to adopt or perhaps acquire a coffee mug for your desk to proclaim your loyalties to your co-workers or just reinforce your opinions while eating your breakfast of Whole Foods granola and soy milk.
The experience happened even as I’m reading, with great joy, Fear of a Microbial Planet by Steve Templeton. The book is about the ubiquity of germs, trillions of them everywhere. They can be a threat but they are mostly our friends.
Exposure, his thesis goes, is the path to health. Without it we will die. And yet, over the last three years, avoiding exposure has been the main goal of policy and culture throughout the world. “Stop the spread” or “Slow the spread” or “Socially distance” or “Stay home, stay safe” have been entrenched as slogans to govern our lives.
The phrases still have gravitas. It has been a maniacal fixation on a single pathogen to the exclusion of trillions of others that are truly everywhere in us and around us. It is like going back before the invention of the microscope when we didn’t know that every surface of everything is covered in creepy crawling things. We further indulge the completely unscientific fantasy that by doing some hopping-around dance to avoid others, plus covering our face and getting a shot, would keep us forever clean, meaning free of the bad pathogen.
Dr. Templeton’s view is that this is a potential disaster for human health. And he explains the point with great erudition and examples from all of history. He picks up on the extraordinarily keen insight of Dr. Sunetra Gupta, who has traced longer life expectancy in the 20th century to more exposure to a greater heterogeneity of pathogens as a result of transportation and migration. We don’t just need to learn to live with Covid. We need to live with them all and orient social and political organization around the reality of their ubiquity.
Now, what precisely is the connection between NPR’s sanitized “news” and the thesis of the Templeton book? It suddenly dawned on me. It is possible to understand nearly everything going on today – the Covid response, the political tribalism, the censorship, the failure of the major media to talk about anything that matters, the cultural and class divides, even migration trends – as a grand effort by those people who perceive themselves to be clean to stay away from people they regard as dirty.
And not just people but ideas and thoughts too. This goes way beyond some reemergence of Puritanism, though this is a species. The desire for purification extends to the whole of the physical and intellectual world. It’s the reason for the cancellations, the purges, the demographic upheavals, the loss of liberties, and the threat to democratic norms. It covers everything.
Let me see if I can persuade you.
The attacks on Elon Musk’s curbing of censorship on Twitter have been relentless. One might suppose that once he revealed that Twitter was operating as a censor for the Deep State, there would be outrage and a renewed celebration of free speech. The opposite has happened. As Musk opened the place up more and more, and non-conventional opinions started gaining traction, we saw panic ensue.
Sure enough, now we see all the usual suspects quitting the platform in a huff. More likely, individuals at these organizations are creating fake accounts so they can keep up with the news. Otherwise, they preserve their fan accounts on Zuckerberg and Gates’s platforms.
Why might they be doing this? They do not want their organizations to inhabit (or be seen to inhabit) the same space with dirty opinions that they don’t like. They believe their own platforms will do their best to avoid being infected by them. They would rather hide out in their country-club social spaces in which everyone is woke and everyone knows what to say and what not to say. At least the algorithms are skewed in their favor.
The line they use is that they want to be around those who are “house trained” but consider what that means. They don’t want pet waste on their carpet, thus comparing ideas with which they disagree with a nasty pathogen. They are seeking to stay clean.
In this case and in every case, they are glad for the government to operate as the clean-up crew. It’s dirty ideas and people who hold them they oppose. They don’t want to have friends who articulate them or live in communities where such people live.
They put out yard signs as signals to neighbors about where they stand. The issue in its particulars doesn’t matter (BLM, Support Ukraine, Water Is Life [huh?]). All that matters is the signaling system: Team Clean instead of Team Dirty. We all know what those slogans are and what they really mean and for whom they are displayed.
The coronavirus panic played right into this. Stay home and get the dirty people to bring you groceries, leaving them on the doorstep to air out before you pick them up. If there is a pathogen on the loose, better that they get it than us. To be sure, the people on the front line are heroes so long as we can cheer them from our windows.
This is why when it came to the vaccine, the nurses had to get them too despite having natural immunity. Vaccines were seen as an extra bar of soap to make sure that the dirty people whom we might encounter are extra free of the bad germ itself. Everyone had to get them. Those who refused, what can they say? At least we know who they are.
The virus too was a metaphor for an infected country, a land soiled by a bad president. Of course there was an outbreak. That’s why we had to lock down and wreck everything including our kids’ education. Anything to rid the country of the pestilence of Trump. And can we really be surprised that it was South Dakota that never locked down? It’s a dirty red state and they do dirty things like ride motorcycles, shoot animals with guns, and raise cows.
For the clean people, it was hardly a surprise that Georgia, Florida, and Texas opened first, since they were already intellectually infected by right-wing thought. And they were also places where vaccine uptake was low.
In the fall of 2021, the New York Times proved that red states that Trump won had lower vaccination rates: they are hopelessly blechy already. Look at the sheer number of evangelical churches, and AM radio stations, in those places where icky people gather to sing stupid songs about God.
The clean vs. dirty symbolism explains the whole of the vaccine push and even the mandates, since getting the shot was nothing but a gesture of tribal loyalties. This is why it didn’t matter when it turned out that the vaccine protected neither against infection nor spread. Who cares, since the vaccine does what it is supposed to do: separating us from them?
For a while, the clean ruling classes in New York and Boston even sealed off their cities to dirty people by forbidding them from going to movies, libraries, restaurants, bars, and museums. What a blessed world it became for the sanitized among us that they could navigate their favorite institutions in absence of the untouchables! This was to them how life should be.
No need to elaborate on the wild fashion for sanitizer and plexiglass. The meaning of those are obvious. Everyone needs to douse themselves as a precaution, especially when others are watching. And as customers we don’t want to be anywhere near the face of the merchant class. And for two years and more, every surface needed spraying with disinfectant after any human contact.
Then there is the sudden fetishistic longing for “contactless” menus, checkouts, and everything else in this corrupt and sinful world. Somehow it has become an ideal never to touch anything or anybody, as if we long to be followers of the Prophet Mani and evolve into Pure People of the Spirit. After all, only dirty people would pick up a menu or handle cash, because god only knows whom else has held it.
Remember the jars for clean vs. dirty pens at the hotel check in that still requires signatures? No need to elaborate on that one. It’s all part of the ethos of the untouchables, or the Dalit or Harijan in the old caste system. To inhabit a “contactless” world recreates the same thing under a different label.
Reflect on the masking practices for a moment. Why is it ok to take off your mask when seated but the server had to wear one when standing? Because the seated are already proving their cleanliness because they are paying customers and being served and hence well-to-do. It’s the servers who have to work for a living who are in doubt. And then if you got up to go to the restroom, of course you had to mask up because you might accidentally have a brush with a cook, cleaner, or server.
When the inflation started, one might have supposed that the people who shop at Whole Foods would have shifted en masse to Aldi or WalMart. But this prediction misunderstands the whole point of shopping at Whole Foods for a certain class. The point is that we don’t want to be around dirty people who buy dirty food. No need for the clean to buy in bulk to alleviate the inflation squeeze. Rather, the higher cost of groceries is worth it to stay apart from soiled, unvaccinated patrons, otherwise we could get infected.
Plus, to have the resources to spend 50 percent more on clean food bought by other clean people works to give off the all-important signal. All the better that the owner of Whole Foods was a huge supporter of lockdowns as a way to beat the competition.
Notice the way we talk about energy too: clean vs. dirty. Oil and gas, with their fumes and methods of processing, are contrary to the ethos of highly sanitized people. Electric cars make less noise so they are surely better, never mind that coal is also a fossil fuel and that batteries are a massive environmental hazard in disposal and even use more energy overall. Facts don’t matter. Only symbolism and clean-class identity carry the day.
To be sure, it’s not always obvious who is and who isn’t clean enough for social interaction. That’s why we need constant surveillance of ideas since views on matters like religion, politics, and even issues like trans rights are proxies to demarcate the difference between us and them. Surveillance makes the invisible visible and that enables the construction of whole systems to punish the unclean and reward the cleanly compliant.
All of this came to light with the pandemic of course since having a virus on the loose perfectly illustrates the core point that Anthony Fauci made in his August 2020 article in Cell. The emergence of migration thousands of years ago, and the building of cities over hundreds of years, mixed up the populations too much and created terrible epidemics of cholera and malaria. The solution was obvious to him: get rid of sports events, crowded urban conditions, pet ownership (blech), and mass population movements. Lockdowns were just the first step toward “rebuilding the infrastructures of human existence.”
We’ve all been startled that there hasn’t been more of a shift in mainstream media coverage despite the obvious failure of conventional “Covid science,” the revelations of endless scandals of the Bidens and pharma, and even the plummeting profits of major media venues. Even when BuzzFeed News goes belly up, places like CNN, the New York Times, and Vanity Fair continue on their merry way as if nothing were happening.
The reason is simple. The clean people are convinced they are right. They have no doubt about it. And they simply will not soil themselves with bogus ideas like objective journalism or unbiased coverage of actual news. That would be the equivalent of wallowing in mud, wrecking all that they have worked for their whole lives and the whole agenda of their profession, which is to purge their institutions of infectious ideological disease.
This is also why the basics of cell biology that previous generations learned in the 9th grade seemed lost on these people. The idea that you would allow yourself to be exposed to germs in order to protect against more severe outcomes strikes at the very heart of their manichean worldview. The point is to stay away, not mix it up. Their germophobia applies not only to the microbial kingdom but to society and the world of ideas as well. The notion of sanitization is a worldview that admits not natural immunity via infection, since that would only mean that you have the bad thing inside of you.
The science be damned. It was long ago trumped by the cultural predisposition to live in a germ-free world: purged curricula, purged cultures, and purged politics. Of course the spread needed to be slowed and stopped. Of course the curve needed to be flattened. Of course there should be social distancing instead of random milling around. The elites need to minimize exposure to everything in a time when the masses are so obviously unwashed.
When the Great Barrington Declaration proposed focused protection based on age, while letting everyone else go about life as normal, that was nothing but a scandal. Anyone can and will get old, whereas they wanted class distinctions based on social and political rank in order to more closely approximate clean and unclean, which is their real ideal.
This is also, by the way, why protests against racism in the summer of 2020 got a pass: people gathering for the right cause are more likely to be among the ideologically clean. And today, this demarcation is all around us, both physically and intellectually. Salmon: farmed is dirty and wild is clean, so it is far more expensive. And with work: from home is clean, while going into the office is dirty.
What can we make of all of this? Dr. Templeton in his book tells the fascinating story of two cities in Finland, one on the poor Soviet side and one on the Western side. After the end of the Cold War, researchers were able to compare health between the two cities, one dirty and one clean.
Although the two populations shared a similar ancestry and climate, there were some stark differences. The border between these two regions marks one of the steepest gradients in standard of living in the world, even steeper than the border between the United States and Mexico. Finland had become modernized as other countries in Europe after World War II, while isolated Karelia had remained impoverished under communism and stuck in the 1940s (and arguably wasn’t in the 1940s during the 1940s).
The researchers in the Karelia Allergy Study noticed some striking differences in the data they collected and analyzed. In Finnish Karelia, asthma and allergies were over four times more prevalent compared to Russian Karelia. Positive skin prick tests, which measure rapid swelling and allergic inflammation in response to common allergens injected under the skin, were also much higher in Finnish people.
Differences in children were even more striking, with a 5.5-fold increase in asthma and eczema diagnoses in Finland, and a 14-fold increase in hay fever. Russian children with allergies, as well as their mothers, also had much lower soluble IgE levels, indicating a significant decrease in the antibody isotype that rapidly induces allergic inflammation.
Autoimmune diseases like type-1 diabetes were also 5-6 times higher in the Finnish population when compared to their Russian neighbors. Not surprisingly, the microbial environments of people living in Russian Karelia were markedly different from that of Finnish Karelia. Russian Karelians drank untreated and unfiltered water that exposed their guts to orders of magnitude more microbes than their Finnish counterparts. Household dust samples from both locations revealed that Russian house dust contained more Firmicutes and Actinobacteria species with a coincident 20-fold increase in the gram-positive cell wall component muramic acid and a 7-fold increase in animal-associated bacterial species. In contrast, Gram-negative species, mainly Proteobacteria, were predominant in Finnish household dust.
Clearly the Russians lived in a much more diverse and abundant microbial ecosystem than the Finns, and these environmental differences were associated with decreased allergies and asthma.
So the dirty people were healthier people in particular ways. Fascinating, right? It’s only the beginning of what you will discover in this book. If I were to summarize, Templeton proves that there is no such thing as clean in the way that term is popularly understood, and every attempt to bring it about carries with it grave risks to human health. A naive immune system is a killer. This thesis could also be a metaphor concerning the attempts to clean up the public mind too: the more we censor, the more stupid we become. The more we cancel, the less fully human and safe are our lives.
The clean vs. dirty distinction was once an indicator of class, perhaps a desiderata of germaphobic pathology, even a harmless eccentricity. But in 2020, the obsession became extreme, an aesthetic priority that overrode all morality and truth. It then became a fundamental threat to liberty, self-government, and human rights.Today this demarcation has invaded the whole of our lives, and it threatens to create a horrifying caste system consisting of those who enjoy rights and privileges vs those who do not and serve (at a distance) the elites.
We need to see it clearly in order to stop it from happening. Freedom is rooted in an ethical presumption of equal rights, a cultural respect for the dignity of all human persons, a political deference to government by the people, and an economic experience of class mobility and meritocracy. Replacing those presumptions with a simplified, crude, aesthetic, and unscientific lurch into a neo-feudalism not only takes us back to pre-modern times; it overthrows basic postulates of what we call civilization itself.
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