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There is No Cure for Washington’s Arrogance


Why were so many smart people so servile and intolerant during Covid-19 crackdowns? Federal pandemic follies were the natural result of the swagger of America’s self-proclaimed Best and Brightest. 

From the start, resistance to Covid edicts was taken as proof of ignorance or depravity. When anti-lockdown protestors rallied in the Spring of 2020, the media derided them. A Democratic congressional candidate proclaimed his hope that Covid would “disproportionately kill many” of the demonstrators – a sentiment echoed by many people on social media. 

Fear of side effects from the speedily-approved Covid vaccine was the top reason for “vaccine hesitancy.” A 2021 survey found that the lowest rate of “hesitancy” to get the Covid vaccine was among people with Masters degrees – only 8.3 percent balked at the injections. The Census Bureau reported that people who “received at least one [Covid vaccine] dose were twice as likely as the unvaccinated to have a college degree or higher.” According to the “well-credentialed,” people were fools not to absolutely trust the federal seal of approval for the new vaccines. 

I live in Montgomery County, Maryland, the most liberal swath of a liberal state. Shortly after the pandemic began, “I believe in Science” lawn signs popped up like mushrooms, soon accompanied by “Thank You, Dr. Fauci” placards. 

No matter how often politicians or bureaucrats changed Covid policies (no masks, mandatory masks, two masks are better than one), most Washingtonians retained blind faith in the wisdom of their rulers. Many of the same activists who castigated imaginary “microaggressions” cheered for the feds to forcibly inject everyone with the Covid vaccine.

Most of my socializing during the first years of the pandemic occurred on hikes that I led or joined inside the Beltway. The virtue-signaling on those jaunts was often thicker than the smog above a Beltway rush hour traffic jam. Some attendees boasted of getting the latest booster as if they had risked their lives to rescue drowning puppies in a raging river. 

I was astounded at how many Washingtonians hitched their emotional wagons to official proclamations. In May 2021, after most adults had gotten vaccinated, jubilation broke out when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the end of its mask mandate. One Meetup group celebrated by holding a mask-burning event. But people were required to bring their vaccination cards to attend (another great party I missed.)

The Sierra Club ceased all hikes in the Washington area for many months. A smaller club kept posting events but mandated that all hikers had to be vaxxed, boosted, and wear a mask at all times. Masks are not the ideal adornment while breathing hard ascending steep mountains. 

Another group permitted the unvaxxed to attend but only if they stayed at least 15 feet away from the vaxxed. Why not require unvaxxed attendees to wear torn clothes and constantly shout “Unclean! Unclean!,” as the Bible mandated for lepers? My hunch is that that group would have insisted on more than 15 feet if some hooligan showed up wearing a “Vax-Free Sperm Here!” t-shirt. 

The hiking group that I co-lead had a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on Covid vax status. Folks were outside and any exposure to pathogens would likely be minimal. It was a hike – not an orgy – and there was no need for medical disclosures. “Assumed risk” has always been a good standard for preserving freedom and encouraging individual responsibility. 

Though I kept quiet about my vax status, I have radiated disdain for pointless rules ever since I had to pledge obedience once too often as a Boy Scout. As we hiked along the C & O Canal Towpath on a glorious Autumn morning, a 60ish retired lawyer from California suddenly announced that she suspected I hadn’t gotten my Covid vax. 

I gave her my best Cheshire Cat smile, framed by my sunglasses and my “Bootlegger” style Aussie Outback hat. 

Then she proclaimed, “The reason you haven’t gotten vaccinated is because you are selfish!”

I burst out laughing. Heck, it wasn’t my fault that the vax efficacy was lower than Biden’s approval rating. 

She scowled: “What sort of work do you do?”

“I’m a writer,” I said.

She glared contemptuously over her bifocals: “But have you ever had a real job?” 

“I was Santa Claus at a Filene’s Department store in Boston,” I replied.

She snorted and hectored me about how decent people need to obey officialdom during an emergency. She was an independent thinker so astute that she agreed with every tenet of Conventional Wisdom. She had two Masters degrees as well as a JD so she automatically “won,” at least by her scorecard. In lieu of getting edified by her, I paused to take nature photos while she kept walking. 

I never attacked people for their opinions but sought to draw them out to understand their faith in officialdom. Most True Believers had little knowledge or curiosity about the rising controversies over Covid policies. Many hikers ritually echoed Biden’s prattle about a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.” When I gently pointed out that some states were reporting more Covid deaths among the vaxxed than the unvaxxed, people stared in horror as if I had suggested drinking bleach to vanquish the virus. Once frightened people equate submission with safety, reasonable discussion is impossible. 

“Everyone in Washington thinks they are the smartest person in the room,” as the old saying goes. That was epitomized by a retired NIH researcher who perpetually swaggered like a second-term congressman. This pint-sized fellow presumed everyone on hikes lusted to hear all the highlights of his career. 

Walking near the Potomac River on a cold morning in November 2021, he boasted of personally knowing many top Covid policymakers, all of whom were wonderful people. He touted the mRNA vaccine as “practically the greatest invention of the century.” 

“What about that Mayo Clinic study showing Pfizer’s efficacy has fallen to 42 percent?” I asked nonchalantly. 

“I didn’t hear about that. It’s an amazing vaccine and everyone should get it.”

I nodded my head. “Are you concerned the top FDA vaccine experts resigned in protest over the White House pressure to approve the boosters?”

“That doesn’t sound accurate. I subscribe to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post and read them every day and saw nothing about this.”

The Washington Post covered those resignations and ran testy op-eds by one of the former officials but I didn’t want to tax his memory. People don’t see what they don’t want to know. 

“Back in July,” I commented, “Biden said in his CNN Town Hall that anyone who got vaxxed wouldn’t get Covid. Now there’s millions of ‘breakthrough’ cases.” I refrained from muttering, “Close enough for government work.” 

The retired scientist became visibly annoyed. “That was based on prior data. It’s unfair to criticize the president based on information that is outdated.”

“What do you think about the clash between the White House and the CDC about mandating third injections for almost everybody?” I asked, striving for the same dispassionate tone an optometrist uses when asking about reading the letters on the bottom row. 

“I haven’t heard anything about it. But the White House and the CDC need to coordinate their messaging,” he snapped. Dude was perturbed I wasn’t deferring to the former Deputy Poohbah Research Coordinator for Sub-Molecular Federal Appropriations. 

“Messaging isn’t the issue,” I said. “CDC is concerned about the adverse health effects, according to a recent front-page Post piece.”

“The vaccine is safe, the FDA said so,” he indignantly replied. And then he launched into a fervent riff about how he personally knew Tony Fauci. “It’s a very bad thing to have politicians and the media criticizing scientists,” he declared with a wagging finger. Geez, no wonder this guy adored Fauci. 

I resisted the temptation to ask if he thought Saint Tony was going to prison for lying to Congress. Regardless, he stopped coming on hikes after that. I never got the chance to ask him about Fauci’s squirrely testimony in a recent lawsuit. My description of Fauci as “omniscient except during depositions” in a New York Post op-ed probably would not have amused him. 

Hiking schedules were at the mercy of local politicians. In late 2021, District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser decreed a vaccine mandate for any activities in her domain, so I stopped hosting hikes within the city limits. Former FDA press chief Emily Miller scoffed, “The purpose of a vaccine passport is for the #ScaredVaccinated to have a false sense of security.” 

In February last year, I ventured into DC and briefly stepped into an upscale Dupont Circle coffee shop to dodge a torrential downpour. Every table hosted a hefty warning sign: “Masks on & Vaccine Cards out!” Patrons were hectored: “All cafes and restaurants… are REQUIRED by the Mayor’s Office to check vaccine cards of dine-in customers. Thank you for helping us comply with local regulations to remain open!” Why didn’t that establishment just adapt the slogan: “Come Sip with the Gestapo!” 

I was mystified why people would pay $6.50 for a coffee to be treated worse than parolees. There was far less compliance with such edicts in lower-income parts of DC. The vax passport regime was approved by 86 percent of D.C. whites but only 63 percent of blacks. Blacks had a lower vaccination rate and the mayor’s edict effectively made them second-class citizens. That coffee shop went out of business shortly after my visit. 

Most Washingtonians I meet are color blind to other people’s freedom. At the start of the pandemic, government officials trumpeted terrifying statistical extrapolations of potential infection rates. Thus, they automatically became entitled to lock people in their homes, shut down their businesses, and padlock their churches. The credentials of experts receive infinitely more respect inside the Beltway than Americans’ constitutional rights. 

Public health leaders are calling for the appointment of a commission to investigate the failures of Covid-19 policies. But many of the most destructive edicts originated from the presumption that all Americans should bow to their superiors. There will be no reduction of Washingtonians’ arrogance no matter how many pandemic pratfalls are exposed. 

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  • James Bovard

    James Bovard, 2023 Brownstone Fellow, is author and lecturer whose commentary targets examples of waste, failures, corruption, cronyism and abuses of power in government. He is a USA Today columnist and is a frequent contributor to The Hill. He is the author of ten books, including Last Rights: The Death of American Liberty.

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