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Life of a Lie
What happens when a narrative takes hold?
Recently I wrote about how bullshit narratives are born. It doesn’t take much: a well-placed interview here, a scathing op-ed by a think tank employee masquerading as a gimlet-eyed intellectual there, and suddenly the bullshit is worming its way into our collective consciousness. By focusing on bullshit in its infancy, though, I fear I might have understated its potential to cause long-term damage once it reaches maturity.
Whenever some senior fellow from The Koch Institute for Keeping Things Just As They Are shows their ass in the Wall Street Journal, it’s usually regarded with a mixture of derision and pity by those who know better. It’s such a patently obvious attempt to sway public opinion that it beggars belief that anyone would actually fall for it, so why spend time crafting a rebuttal when you can just quote-tweet the article with a simple Get a load of this absolute idiot?
Usually there’s nothing wrong with this response. All bullshit seems harmless in its nascent stages, and besides, most of the time these narratives end up fizzling out on their own for various reasons anyway. The problem is that in the moment, we have no way of knowing which narratives are destined to flop and which ones have the potential to gain steam. So we can either challenge every piece of bullshit we see (but given the sheer volume of it caroming around the internet at any given moment, that seems impossible), or we can pick our spots and hope the bullshit that gets through isn’t absorbed by the extant formless mass comprised of all the other bullshit that’s already out there, because once that happens it is almost impossible to dislodge.
Sometimes we get lucky, other times we don’t. And when we miss, we miss big: that little piece of bullshit takes root in our collective consciousness, where it eventually becomes indistinguishable from fact. We don’t know how we know it, but we know that we know it, and that’s all that matters. Thus, what began as clumsy fearmongering by some billionaire’s greasy little marionette ends up changing the way we view the world—and, in so doing, changing the world itself.
A recent Pew Research Center survey found that Americans’ feelings about China have become increasingly negative in the last three years. In 2018, 46% of Americans surveyed said they felt “cold” toward China; in 2021, that figure jumped to 67% (including a whopping 79% of Republican or Republican-leaning respondents).
The most obvious explanation for such a dramatic increase in American antipathy towards China is the COVID-19 pandemic, which originated in China. In October 2020, a poll found that 29% of Americans believed the conspiracy theory that COVID-19 is manmade and was developed in a lab in China. Yet despite there being zero evidence to support this theory, the number of Americans who subscribe to it has actually increased as the pandemic has dragged on: in July 2021, a new survey found that 52% of Americans now believe that China is responsible for COVID-19.
But COVID isn’t the only driving force:
This offers a little bit more insight into what, specifically, Americans don’t like about China, but it’s still sort of vague. “Economy” could mean respondents feel China has a negative impact on the American economy; then again, “China hurts the U.S. economy” is its own line item. “Political system” (17%) is another, but the context and connotation are again unclear; however, answers that include the words “Dictatorship” or “Communism” add up to almost the same total (16%), so maybe “Political system” is a catch-all category. My best guess is that they tried to categorize the responses based on their overall theme (with varying degrees of success; this may be the most confusing graph I have ever seen)
General sentiment towards China is, it seems, not great. “Generally negative adjectives”—and I truly pity whoever had to wade through those responses—were three times more prevalent than positive ones. What’s interesting is that most of these answers don’t seem to be based on anything specific: only 3% of respondents mentioned the Uyghur genocide, for example, and fewer than that (if any) mentioned Tibet or Taiwan. Americans just seem to have a gut feeling about China, and it’s not a very good one. But why?
China and America have been allies since the 1940s. We’ve never had any open hostilities with them, and the two nations have close economic ties. None of that factors into the way we think about China, though; instead, we go right to AUTHORITARIANISM! Commies taking our jobs! It’s almost reflexive at this point. But ask yourself this: who stands to benefit from the average American having such a strong reaction to the very mention of China?
Obviously China doesn’t; their capacity for mass production is only useful to the extent that there are willing buyers for what they produce, so anti-Chinese sentiment is bad for business. (I’d also argue that the “cheap Chinese crap” trope is somewhat overblown and leans heavily into the myth of American exceptionalism; i.e., the only way someone can be better than us at manufacturing is if they cut corners. After all, the majority of the world’s iPhones are assembled in Shenzhen.)
So China doesn’t benefit. The average person doesn’t either; if anything, refusing to buy products made in China creates more of a financial burden since it costs more to “buy American,” even though the quality is practically identical because American manufacturing workers toil away in harsh and unyielding conditions not all that dissimilar from those of their Chinese counterparts. American workers don’t benefit, either: the extra revenue from the higher price tag hardly ever makes its way to the workers’ pockets because that would cut into profits.
The only winners are the <Bernie Sanders voice> millionaiahs and billionaiahs who own and operate American companies. It behooves them to make China the scapegoat. America’s manufacturing industry has declined dramatically over the last 20 years, most of it thanks to business owners who, in a bid to cut down on labor costs and maximize profits, sent millions of manufacturing jobs overseas rather than pay American workers to do them. Adding insult to injury, these business owners will also use China as an excuse not to fairly compensate the smattering of American workers still hanging on for dear life. And if Americans are willing to buy that particular line of bullshit, so much the better.
Business owners shrug and mutter that it’s just a shame, a damn shame indeed that they can’t hire more Americans to do these jobs. What they mean is that it’s a damn shame they can’t get away with subjecting American workers to the same conditions and pay as Chinese workers. Not that they don’t want to, mind you, because they absolutely do, but alas they find themselves shackled by onerous government regulations. So they’ll work hand-in-hand with legislators to slowly erode workers’ rights just enough that eventually, those business owners can bring those jobs back to America. Not out of a sense of obligation to American workers, but because American workers will have been squeezed for so long that they’ll accept Chinese working conditions and pay just to have a job, at which point it doesn’t make financial sense not to bring those jobs back. And we’ll celebrate it as a big win for America.
We look at Japan as innovators, yet we treat China like a nation of snakes in the grass. Why? Because Japan plays by America’s rules—which exist above all to serve America’s interests before anyone else’s—and China doesn’t. China and America are fighting for global economic dominance, and China is winning. If Japan’s GDP suddenly outstripped ours, I bet we’d see a rapid influx of op-eds and bullshit about how their growth is “unsustainable” and “hazardous to the global economy.”
China is committed to eradicating COVID (more than can be said for America) and takes a responsible approach to a COVID outbreak, even going so far as to provide residents with free food so they don’t have to leave their homes for the duration of the lockdown. Yet to the Washington Post, it’s a chilling display of authoritarianism that further underscores the differences between the oppressive Chinese government and us liberty-loving Americans.
These poor Chinese! So downtrodden by the government that they’ve never known the true freedom of not being able to taste flame-broiled Whopper™ or a Heath Bar Blizzard™ from Dairy Queen. They have to stay in their homes and eat free vegetables instead of coughing into each other’s mouths at a Cheesecake Factory. Thank the lord we live in a civilized nation that would never do this sort of thing, sequestering people against their will in some sort of…oh, what’s the word. Something “camp,” maybe?
Of course, China’s authoritarian government plays a major role in China’s ability to implement and enforce such rigid lockdown protocols. The point I’m trying to make here is not “hmm, perhaps China is good?” but that China is good at this. Yet we can’t—or won’t—acknowledge it, because to do so would undermine the narrative about China that has been carefully cultivated over the past 50 years. This is what happens when bullshit is allowed to grow and spread: objectivity goes out the window. Our opinion is solely based on the who, not the what. Russia discovered a source of infinitely renewable energy? Probably building a weapon, take us to DEFCON-1. North Korea found a cure for the flu? That’s what they want us to think, go to DEFCON-1.
Earlier on in the pandemic, 10 countries pursued a “zero-COVID” strategy: Australia, Canada, China, New Zealand, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Tonga. It’s a sound approach, not least because we know lockdowns work. Fighting infectious disease is a lot like fighting a wildfire: as long as there’s fuel, it will continue to burn and spread. The only way to stop it is to deprive it of fuel; ergo, you need to separate what’s already burning from what has yet to catch fire.
For proof, we need only look at how these countries fared in controlling the spread of COVID before the vaccine was available. These are the peak 7-day averages of new COVID cases in these countries in 2020:
Australia: 552 (0.002% of the population)
Canada: 6,906 (0.01%)
China: 4,602 (0.0003%)
New Zealand: 74 (0.001%)
Scotland: 2,323 (0.04%)
Northern Ireland: 4,821 (0.2%)
Singapore: 1,037 (0.01%)
South Korea: 623 (0.001%)
Taiwan: 23 (0.00009%)
Tonga: 1 (∞)
Almost all of these countries eventually gave up on the zero-COVID strategy. And almost all of these countries have seen massive spikes in new COVID cases, even after vaccine distribution began. Since abandoning the zero-COVID approach, the highest 7-day average in Canada is 46,750; in Australia it’s 109,715; and in Scotland it’s 18,610.
Every other country has decided that their economic interests are priority number one: it doesn’t matter how high the body count rises or how many people are permanently disabled, just as long as the money keeps flowing in the right direction. But China’s still out there tilting at windmills and trying to keep people alive. That’s the real problem here: China just won’t get with the program.
Media outlets will do anything to paint China’s efforts to eradicate COVID as naïve, or authoritarian, or economically foolhardy. The substance of the criticism doesn’t really matter, because A) it’s all bullshit anyway, and B) the purpose of criticizing whatever China is doing is to distract us from all the things America is not doing.
The purveyors of bullshit have a vested interest in making people continue to go to work. Without those workers they have nobody to exploit, and without anybody to exploit their fortunes will crumble into dust. Everything else—like schools—is just a smaller piece of the larger narrative being pushed that there is nothing we can do about COVID; we just have to accept it and keep moving forward, with brief pauses along the way for a loved one’s funeral or a stay in the hospital.
The pandemic has laid bare our role in this whole sordid enterprise. We are cogs in a machine that makes products we can’t afford to buy. That machine cannot function without us, yet we are granted only an infinitesimal fraction of its spoils. We are told to be grateful to have received that much, reminded at regular intervals that we are replaceable. When disaster strikes, we are expected to sacrifice ourselves on the altar of Economics, lest we anger the gods of Mount Inflation. The beast must be fed; net worths (not ours) must be doubled. We are told all the while that there is simply no alternative: this is the way things are, because this is the way things must be. Unless, of course, you’d rather live in…communist China. We are cannon fodder.
What do we get in return? Temporary permission to work from home. Two stimulus checks in two years, plus a lecture on how you shouldn’t even need those checks if you just budgeted properly. Laid off the moment your company realizes they can wring the same amount of profit out of fewer employees. Lied to by economists who make dire prognostications about the economy, yet never seem to land on “pay people a living wage” as a possible solution. A fresh serving of bullshit.
Don’t believe me? Take a look at this chart:
The red dot represents mid-April 2020, when COVID deaths were skyrocketing to their highest total to date. On April 23rd, the Brookings Institute published this article:
Along with the rest of us, Litan and Lowy watched as corpses piled up in hospitals across the country, overflowing morgues to such a degree that freezer trucks had to be brought in just to give them somewhere to put the bodies before they started to rot. Like everybody else, they bore witness to Americans dying daily, in numbers that doubled the daily average of the Cambodian genocide. But while normal human beings saw America pass the 50,000-death threshold and wondered whether they were next, these two ghouls were hammering out a strategy packet to expedite our return to the killing floor.
The bullshit has calcified, and two years and some 800,000-odd deaths later, here we are. We can’t go back to lockdowns, because China does that and China is bad. We can’t get financial support from the government because of inflation/deflation/stagflation (dealer’s choice). We can’t stay home because we have to work in order to have a home, because our blood is the grease that keeps the economy moving. We can’t make vaccines or boosters mandatory (except in cases of legitimate medical exemptions) because of freedom. We can’t require masking and social distancing for unvaccinated people, also because of freedom.
We can’t fix our dilapidated infrastructure or protect our right to vote because Joe Manchin is the most powerful man in the universe. We can’t demand higher wages because it would harm those poor small business owners who can’t turn a profit without exploiting their workers. We can’t expect those currently in power to do anything about any of this.
But good news! According to the peddlers of bullshit dressed up as Serious Political Analysis, there is one thing we can do:
We can go fuck ourselves.