Column: COVID-19 and the Enlightenment – Opinion – MetroWest Daily News

Posted: April 20, 2020 at 10:47 am


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The novel coronavirus is unknown and rightly frightening. Like some terrible ghost, it seemingly defies all borders and boundaries.

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The novel coronavirus is unknown and rightly frightening. Like some terrible ghost, it seemingly defies all borders and boundaries. Many hoard toilet paper in the flimsy hopes of sopping up fears of helplessness. Others horrifyingly stock up on guns. Those on the more anxious side of the personality spectrum redouble efforts at meditation and breathing exercises. But just as scary as the COVID-19 virus itself is its unleashing of the worlds two oldest pestilences, irresponsible ignorance and its twin evil, scapegoating. We need, now more than ever, a double dose of the Enlightenment.

The era of Enlightenment advanced many values. On the one side were reason, rationality, and fine-tuning the individuals moral conscious against the sway of unfounded tradition. But the Age of Reason was hardly an emotionless machine. On the other side were compassion and humanism. Amid the current epidemic, both sides of The Enlightenment seem scarcer than a bottle of Purell in a Wal-Mart.

Consider the Oval Office. The current administration has abdicated its duty to promote what the Preamble to the US Constitution a great exemplar of the Enlightenment - calls the general Welfare. The president has set his illogical crosshairs on both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In another stroke of willful recklessness, he jettisoned the National Security Councils Office of Global Health Security and Biodefense. Of equal folly was appointing the vice president as chair of the White House Coronavirus Task Force (which is more than 90% male). This medieval man lacks any background in medicine, science, or public health. He denies global warming and the connection between smoking and cancer, refused as governor of Indiana to address the AIDS epidemic, and attacks one of our most important and heroic healthcare organizations, Planned Parenthood, with the zeal of the Spanish Inquisition.

Moving from unscientific folly to intolerance, it hardly needs saying that there is no such thing as the Chinese Virus. So why would President Trump and his followers insist on using the slur? Most likely, to further his political platform of xenophobia. In times of crisis, its always easier to point the accusatory finger at someone else, preferably foreigners. Its a time-honored political tactic, fine-tuned especially by those who excel at demagoguery. But it has no basis in fact or scientific nomenclature, only in fear and prejudice.

Of course, the president has plenty of company in this bigotry, as the rising tide of racist tirades, assaults, and harassment against anybody who looks even remotely Asian amply attests. The FBI warned us as much only a few days ago. News media have amply documented instances of illegal hostility towards Orientals, a term that refers not to real people but to a stereotype wherein Hmong or Thai, Japanese or Indonesian American, it makes no difference, they are all some Typhoid Mary. CoughingWhileAsian is not just a twitter hashtag but a justifiable dread of extremist violence. The model minority, as many headlines proclaim, has rapidly turned into the yellow peril.

Jews, the original model minority, know this slipperiness well. Indeed, the coronavirus fright has also fomented resurgent anti-Semitism. In the eyes of many, were poisoning the wells all over again. Florida pastor Rick Wiles, who previously dubbed the impeachment effort a Jew coup, recently thundered that the Almighty is spreading the virus through synagogues because the Jews are guilty of deicide: Repent and believe and the plague will stop. (Perhaps he reads from the same hymnal as the Iranian regime?) One might dismiss the good pastor as a kook except that his news service, TruNews, has been granted press credentials by the White House.

Of course, the pandemic has also spawned no shortage of religious madness. The irrational fear of rationality also afflicts those who are themselves targets of bigotry. A few communities of ultra-Orthodox or Haredi Jews (as they prefer to be called) shun basic science as much as many fundamentalist Christians, mosques, and church leaders from Brazil to St. Petersburg. Too many clerics seem intent on shepherding their flock into the emergency ward. A few of the faithful may welcome a fast-track to heaven but those of us who know better prefer to hang on to our mortal coils just a little bit longer.

As a cultural anthropologist, I am fiercely and unapologetically dedicated to cultural diversity. Yet belief is no excuse for ignorance. That was a central tenet of the Enlightenment that we desperately need today. Religion often soothes angst. But devotion at the expense of science is a danger we hardly need today. And scapegoating, while a convenient way to avoid your own culpability in a situation run amok, always proves rather less convenient for the person just spat upon.

Theres nothing like a pandemic to expose the dangers of self-delusion and xenophobia. Neither hair shirts nor hurling invective were much use before the Enlightenment. They certainly are not now. We should have learned that lesson four centuries ago. Its not too late.

Eric Silverman, a former Research Professor of Anthropology, is a Senior Scholar at the international law firm McAllister Olivarius and affiliated with the Brandeis University Womens Studies Research Center.

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Column: COVID-19 and the Enlightenment - Opinion - MetroWest Daily News

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April 20th, 2020 at 10:47 am

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