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The Trouble with the Center


In April, 1978, when I was college sophomore, I went to hear a night-time guest lecture by Michael Harrington, the sociologist and author of the influential 1960s book, The Other America: Poverty in the United StatesThe book profiled various impoverished American demographic groups who missed the 1950s wave of prosperity. 

Though Harrington was a socialist, he was an entertaining, boisterous speaker. Harrington entitled his address America: Left, Right and Center. In front of an audience of about 70 people, mostly professors, he opined that although America might then be said to be moving either socially and politically left or right—or in his words, in both directions at the same time—the US was a stubbornly centrist culture and would remain so. 

To illustrate his thesis, Harrington told an amusing anecdote about Hubert Humphrey, the ingratiating former Vice President and Presidential candidate. While a senator, Humphrey was chairing some hearing. One witness criticized Humphrey for being too conservative. The next witness called him too liberal. According to Harrington, who mockingly imitated Humphrey, Humphrey beamed as he said, “Mr. Jones says I’m too conservative. And Mr. Smith says I’m too liberal…”

Humphrey had found the sweet spot. Like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, being in the middle was jusssst right

And in politics, this is an effective approach. It gets you elected.

But there’s nothing intrinsically virtuous, epistemologically sound or sensible about taking the position midway between two poles. The soundness of the center depends on where the poles are set. One, or both, of the poles can be completely undeserving of serious consideration. If I say it’s good to drink one beer a day and my friend says you should suck down 12, that doesn’t mean it’s right to consume six. 

Unfortunately, during Coronamania, most people hewed to some perceived center and sought comfort in the bosom of the crowd. Despite the obvious extremism and illogic of locking down/masking/testing/injecting everyone to “crush” a respiratory virus with a clearly limited risk profile, most people went along with society-wide “mitigation” because their peers, the media and ostensible experts endorsed these measures and because these measures seemed incremental and temporary.

By reciting—and then quickly disregarding—the obvious problems caused by the various forms of mitigation, those who went along convinced themselves that they’d adequately considered these problems and could righteously adopt the ostensibly centrist media and government pro-lockdown/mask/test/vaxx, etc. stance. To them, a cursory mention of mitigation’s downsides made their view balanced and “nuanced.” Though mostly, they wanted others to like them.

Week after week, people redrew their lines in the sand regarding which government restrictions or mandates were tolerable. Their degenerative—and factually groundless—rationalization process went something like this:

“True, we’ve never confined people to their homes over a virus and doing so seems destructive and dystopian. But it’s only two weeks; to flatten the curve, and all.”

“It’s sad that people can’t hold the hands of loved ones dying in hospitals. But if it saves just one life, then I guess some people should die alone.”

“I doubt that masks work and I don’t like wearing one. But doing so couldn’t hurt. And I don’t want to cause a scene.”

“People should be able to gauge their own risk and gather with family or friends, attend funerals or worship. But it’s safer if we all just use Zoom instead.”

“Yes, printing 6 (or 8 or 10) trillion dollars might cause impoverishing inflation and a deep recession. But we’ve got to help those who lost their jobs due to lockdowns.”

“Sure, it seems silly to wear masks in restaurants until food arrives and then take them off for an hour. But every little bit helps.”

“Kids should be in school because they’re not at risk. But maybe they should close the schools for three months, because some kids might infect some teachers.”

“I know I’m not at risk and I don’t know what’s in these shots. But I’m willing to take them because I want to ‘stop the spread.’ 

“It’s obvious that online school doesn’t work and that kids desperately need social time. But I guess it’s OK if they close the schools for another year, just to be safe. And kids are resilient.”

“I think it’s morally wrong and unconstitutional to make people take shots by threatening to fire them. But if it means we can ‘get back to normal,’ it’s worth it.”

And so on. It was all so equivocal and senseless. But most people went along, largely because they feared others’ disapproval. And they thought that the majority was right, because, well, it was the majority. 

The Japanese say that “The nail that sticks up will be hammered down.” The unwillingness to question the many absurd, destructive mitigation measures reflected a fear of being ostracized or labeled “an extremist.” Passive Americans were far too willing to placate the actual extremists who supported locking down a country, closing schools and testing, masking and vaxxing everyone.

Many governments refuse to bargain with terrorists. But Americans let their media and government terrorize them. And once Mitigation Mania began, people reacted as if they were negotiating with their captor/government. They told themselves that, “If I only make the next concession, they’ll make this whole nightmare end.” 

They didn’t understand that their Dear Leaders weren’t playing that game and weren’t bound by either truth or good faith. 

For decades, many have insisted that Americans were morally obligated to vote because young men shed their blood fighting for our rights. But from mid-March, 2020 to the present, when governments took away many basic rights, e.g. to assemble, to travel, to worship, to express themselves in public forums without censorship, and to reject unwanted medical treatments—plus the government’s dilution of voting rights by authorizing fraud-facilitating vote-by-mail—people forgot about all those 20-year-olds who came home in boxes. 

By paying lip service to the harm caused by the ludicrous and destructive mitigation measures, but nonetheless going along with these measures, people could see themselves, and have others see them, as thoughtful centrists. Heaven forbid that they take, and hold, an independent, reasoned stance that might bother some people. 

By degrees, and in order to avoid social disapproval, most people gave away their, and other peoples,’ rights. Direct observation and studies have shown that this forfeiture was all pain and no gain. Predictably, none of the widely-supported mitigation measures yielded public health benefits. All caused deep, lasting damage.

Republished from Substack

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