Lindsay Beyerstein

An astonishing claim about the coronavirus 'lab leak theory' doesn't hold up to scrutiny

Zeynep Tufekci is attracting attention for her op-ed in the Times arguing that covid might have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Tufekci is a sociologist who made her name as a covid pundit for her early, evidence-based advocacy of masks. She has carved out a reputation for well-informed and carefully reasoned opinions on pandemic-related matters. This piece is not up to her usual standards, though.

The depressing truth is that covid probably arose from RNA-swapping between species of SARS-like coronaviruses carried by southeast Asian horseshoe bats. The last two deadly human coronavirus outbreaks, SARS and MERS, were naturally-occurring viruses that originated in bats and spread to humans via intermediate species, and experts predicted that it was only a matter of time before nature brewed up an even more transmissible version of SARS. Emerging infectious disease is a paradigmatically natural phenomenon that has afflicted humanity throughout history, despite the xenophobic conspiracy theories that accompany every unexplained outbreak.

As far as we know, every pandemic in history started without the help of a lab, except one. It's with this 1977 flu pandemic that Zeynep Tufekci begins her narrative, noting that the so-called "Russian flu" probably started with an ill-fated attempt to vaccinate troops against H1N1 influenza using a heat-attenuated live virus. This was no genetically-engineered chimera. What gave the game away was it was almost identical to a natural flu from 1950. The two strains were so similar, the only logical explanation was that the virus had been kept on ice for 27 years. The historical evidence and the virus's attenuation suggest that this wasn't even a lab leak. It was just a badly made vaccine for a natural pathogen that became a pandemic, because it had been out of circulation so long that nobody under the age of 30 had ever encountered it.

Tufekci goes on to make an astonishing claim. Sure, pandemics long predate laboratories. But that, in Tufekci's opinion, is what makes the comparison unfair:

"A better period of comparison is the time since the advent of molecular biology, when it became more likely for scientists to cause outbreaks. The 1977 pandemic was tied to research activities, while the other two pandemics that have occurred since then, AIDS and the H1N1 swine flu of 2009, were not."

Zeynep Tufekci seems to be trying to convince us that a third of all pre-covid pandemics in the era of molecular biology were "tied to research activities." This claim is blatantly, laughably false. For starters, the classical era of molecular biology began in 1953 when Watson and Crick unveiled the DNA molecule's double helix, if not earlier.

If we accept Tufekci's premise, that we should look only at the pandemics of the molecular biological era, we must fault her for leaving out the natural 1957 flu that killed 1.1 million people worldwide, and the natural flu pandemic of 1968 that killed another million. The definition of "pandemic" is somewhat contentious, but the flus of 1957 and 1968 are textbook pandemics in terms of their global scope and lethality. Nor does Tufekci include the original SARS, which many sources characterize as a pandemic on account of it spreading to 29 countries. It was only contained thanks to heroic human interventions. Some even count MERS as a global pandemic.

Restricting our horizon to the age of molecular biology is itself a dodgy move because people have been doing risky research with pandemic-generating organisms for well over a century. Better to consider the entire history of microbiology. I suppose that it's possible that neither Tufekci nor her editor at the Times knows the difference between microbiology and molecular biology, but let's just hope that's not the case.

French bacteriologist Louis Pasteur reported in 1881 that he could dial the virulence of pathogens up or down by serial passage. He even passed the rabies virus through a series of live dogs to create a vaccine. Spanish physician Jaime Ferrán inoculated 50,000 people in the city of Valencia with a live attenuated cholera vaccine of his own creation in 1885. Opinion was divided on whether Ferrán was a genius or a quack, but that only reinforces my point—humans have been doing questionable stuff with potential pandemic pathogens for a long time. Again, all pandemics except the 1977 flu have occurred naturally. It's not that human activity is innocuous. It's that everything scientists do pales compares to the billions of animals and humans swapping viruses.

Lab accidents happen. Outbreaks linked to labs have been happening throughout the history of microbiological research, but they tend to be relatively small and limited to researchers, their close contacts and the odd health care provider. Which is not surprising considering that, for all their faults, labs are designed to keep people safe from infectious disease within a larger world that offers no such assurances. Lab-based infections account for a tiny percentage of all infectious disease.

Tufekci specifically framed this as a discussion of the origins of pandemics, rather than infections, or outbreaks. Lab-based infections would look even rarer if we compared them to all infections, or all outbreaks, or to all known outbreaks of new diseases.

Whatever the flaws of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, it was surely more secure than countless roosts where bats are swapping SARS-like coronaviruses in innumerable uncontrolled serial passage experiments, all day, every day, with no biosafety protocols. We can debate about whether Biosafety Level 2 lab is secure enough for altered bat coronavirus research, but the fact remains that the corresponding Bat Safety Level=0.

Zeynep Tufekci is right in that we can't rule out the possibility that covid came from a lab a priori, but she's attacking a straw man. Nobody thinks the possibility can be discounted out of hand. Everyone thinks there ought to be continued investigation. But we don't need to pretend all possibilities are equally likely to justify it.

It's comforting to think that the risk of emerging infectious disease can be pinned on a few arrogant scientists. It's far more terrifying to acknowledge that the bats—and all the factors that make spillovers more likely—are all still out there, waiting for us.

Alabama district attorney aims to prosecute a woman for taking a prescribed drug while pregnant

Kim Blalock's spine is a mess. At 36, the Alabama mom is battling a degenerative disc disease as well as arthritis and chronic complications from back surgery. Two months before she got pregnant with her sixth child, a car crash compounded her agony.

Now she has been indicted on a felony charge because, when she was eight months' pregnant, she refilled a legitimate opioid prescription to treat her crippling pain. If Blalock were to be convicted, her case could set a dire precedent, not only for pregnant people, but for anyone seeking a prescription for a controlled substance in the state.

Blalock says her orthopedist never asked if she were pregnant when she came in to refill her hydrocodone prescription, which she'd had for years. Weeks later, she gave birth to a baby boy with no sign of neonatal abstinence syndrome. A positive drug screen, however, triggered an investigation. Investigators confirmed Blalock had a valid prescription. A pill count proved she'd been taking her medication as prescribed.

Then, in a move that appears to be calculated to evade provisions of Alabama's chemical endangerment law that are carved out for pregnant women taking legitimately prescribed medication, Lauderdale County District Attorney Chris Connolly charged Blalock with unlawful possession of a controlled substance.

You may be wondering how someone who filled a legitimate prescription for a real medical condition could end up possessing those drugs unlawfully. You're right to wonder. The law concerns itself with people who get prescriptions for controlled substances by "fraud, deceit, misrepresentation, or subterfuge or by the alteration of a prescription or written order or by the concealment of a material fact or by the use of a false name or giving a false address." In lay terms, the law applies to people who pull some kind of scam, including using fake names, faking symptoms, doctor-shopping or altering scripts to trick pharmacists into doling out more than doctors order.

The DA is arguing that the fact that Blalock didn't volunteer that she was pregnant counts as concealing material information and that makes her guilty. Logically, not volunteering information is not the same as concealing it. And maybe at eight months along, Blalock assumed it was obvious from her appearance that she was pregnant. But how is a patient supposed to anticipate and volunteer all the information a doctor might need to decide whether to prescribe a controlled substance?

"According to the prosecutor's theory of this case, women must know the moment they become pregnant and announce it to all—or face possible criminal charges," wrote Lynn Paltrow in an email to the Editorial Board. Paltrow is the executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, the legal nonprofit representing Blalock.

This level of overreach would be comical if it weren't so dangerous. Here's a lawyer who thinks he knows what an orthopedic surgeon would have done if he'd known his patient were pregnant. That the doctor didn't ask suggests pregnancy was not an important factor in his decision to prescribe the medication. If he should have asked and failed to do so, that would make Blalock a victim of oversight, not a criminal.

It's hardly a foregone conclusion that the doctor would have acted differently. Doctors sometimes prescribe opioids to pregnant people. After all, they can suffer same as anyone else, and pregnancy itself can cause painful complications. One analysis of the insurance claims of nearly a million pregnant women over a 15-year period found that about 12 percent of them got at least one opioid prescription during the later part of their pregnancy. And that's just opioids. The percentage would be even higher if you counted prescriptions for all controlled substances at all stages of pregnancy.

Blalock's lawyers at NAPW filed a motion to dismiss the indictment. NAPW argues the legislature never intended for the unlawful possession law to apply to pregnant women taking prescribed medication. The motion argues that there's no textual or historical evidence that lawmakers intended to criminalize pregnant women refilling their prescriptions. In fact, we can be extra-confident the legislature didn't mean to criminalize pregnant women who fill legitimate prescriptions, because in 2016 when it revisited the chemical endangerment of a child law that criminalizes drug use in pregnancy, it specifically exempted women who were taking prescribed medication.

This may be the first time a woman has been charged with unlawful possession of a controlled substance for not disclosing her pregnancy to a doctor. It's a transparent attempt to get around the legislature's clearly expressed intent. If Blalock were convicted, it would set a dangerous precedent not only for pregnant people, but for anyone seeking medical care that might result in them being prescribed a controlled substance. There's no way to know what medical and personal circumstances patients would have to volunteer to their doctor to steer clear of a felony charge in Alabama.

Hunter Biden is leaving the White House with no good options

"The whole thing is a really bad idea," ethics expert Richard Painter told the Post. Painter was talking about Hunter Biden's upcoming art show. It could apply to most of Hunter's business ventures and life choices, though. The younger Biden is continuing his longstanding pattern of trying to cash in on his father's name and office, and the elder Biden's administration is doing its best to distance itself from the spectacle.

Hunter Biden has the right to make art. The issue arises because he plans to offer his paintings for sale at high prices ($75,000-$500,000) at a New York gallery. Art experts agree that these are eye-popping prices for an artist with Hunter Biden's meager CV. Of course, these are asking prices. There's no guarantee anyone will actually pay that much for what art critic and author Jerry Saltz calls "generic post-zombie formalism illustration." So, bravo to the gallery owner for getting all of us speculating about whether it would be a problem if anyone did. Hype is truly its own art form.

Ethics experts like Richard Painter worry that Biden is profiting from his father's famous name and public service. Though in Hunter's case, it's hard to know where the cachet of his father's name ends and his own hard-won notoriety begins. A GOP dirty tricks campaign in the 2020 election didn't hurt Joe Biden. But it succeeded in making his ne'er-do-well son one of the most recognizable people in the United States.

To its credit, the gallery's website doesn't identify Hunter as the son of the sitting president. Unlike his predecessor, Joe Biden isn't using his office to promote his offspring's latest vanity project. But nobody is pretending that Hunter Biden's art work would be getting this much attention from the news media if he were Hunter Smith.

Donald Trump and the Republicans tried to seize on Hunter's activities in Ukraine as political fodder in the 2020 election. There's plenty of evidence that Hunter Biden exploited his father's famous name and his former office in order to get a spot on the board of a Ukrainian energy firm called Burisma, and that he tried to cajole his father into doing special favors. But there was never any evidence that Joe Biden gave his son any special consideration. The pattern seems to be reasserting itself with Hunter Biden's art career. His quest for celebrity is a thorn in the side of the administration.

In a bid to insulate themselves from any appearance of impropriety, the White House came up with a plan that seems slightly sketchier than doing nothing. Under the system, neither Hunter Biden nor the White House will know who bought a painting. The goal is preventing anyone attempting to curry favor by overpaying for one of Hunter Biden's pieces. Of course, anyone who bought one of these paintings could declare, publicly or privately, "It was me!" And, let's be real, that's exactly the kind of person who would pay half a million dollars for one of Hunter Biden's zombie florals.

Otherwise, there's no point. It would have been better if the agreement had established transparency rather than pseudo-secrecy. If the names of the buyers had been made public, it would be easier to figure out if the buyers got any special favors. That option was reportedly considered but rejected because the gallery, rightly or wrongly, thought it would decrease interest in the sale. Without the cooperation of the gallery, there's nothing the White House can do about this. They can't stop Hunter Biden and a private venue from selling paintings. They can't push buyers' names into the public. If the White House were to threaten or promise anything to motivate the gallery to see things its way, it might commit the conflict of interest it's ostensibly trying to avoid.

There are no great solutions. The adult children of presidents have to make a living in our celebrity-besotted culture, where any tenuous connection to a famous person is a marketable asset. However, it seems unlikely that Hunter Biden's art will be a vehicle for currying favor with the Biden administration. At this point, anyone who buys a painting from Hunter Biden and brags about it to the White House would be doing more to hurt their dreams of influence than help them. Surely, Biden wishes his son would retreat to private life and stop selling the equivalent of Billy Beer on canvas.

How a policy rooted in racism and respectability politics robbed a US track and field star of her lifetime achievement

American track and field star Sha'Carri Richardson will be sitting out the Tokyo Olympics this year. She tested positive for THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, after a record-breaking 100-meter dash at the tryout for the US Olympic team.

Richardson told NBC she used drug a few days before her tryout, to cope with the sudden death of her biological mother, which she was shocked to learn about from a reporter during an interview. Recreational cannabis is legal in Oregon, where the tryouts were held. Richardson was not under the influence when she set the record, and even if she had been, there's no evidence that THC helps anyone run faster.

The World Anti-Doping Agency should stop policing drug use outside of competition. It's none of their business what athletes are doing unless it's giving them an illicit advantage.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the watchdog of drugs in sport, doesn't pretend cannabis is a performance-enhancing drug. WADA bans cannabis because it is allegedly "frequently abused in society outside of the context of sport." Setting aside the dubious assertion that cannabis is "frequently abused," WADA is straying from its lane. Its stated mission is to get rid of doping, i.e., drug-facilitated cheating. Which raises the question: Why is a watchdog policing drug use that, by its own admission, is not performance-enhancing? The answer is the racist history of cannabis prohibition.

Dr. Michael Joyner, a physician and researcher on exercise physiology at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, who reviewed the evidence on cannabis and athletic performance for NPR, described WADA's THC prohibition as a "reefer madness sort of holdover."

Some have argued that Sha'Carri Richardson can't possibly be a victim of racism because the rule applies to all athletes. That, however, raises the question of why cannabis is stigmatized at all. Why is this benign plant still federally prohibited, illegal for recreational use in all but 18 states and banned in international sports?

Cannabis didn't become a topic of widespread social concern in the United States until 1910 when migrants fleeing the Mexican Revolution brought with them a thriving cannabis culture. Recreational cannabis use existed in the US before the arrival of these migrants, of course, but the practice was not yet widespread. It was racism that recast the plant as a threat. Suddenly, the most visible cannabis users in the US weren't elites like future US Secretary of State John Hay, but poor Mexican farm workers.

Predictably, respectable white Americans projected their fears and biases against a vulnerable minority onto the drug. It was perfectly circular racism: Mexicans were bad, so cannabis was bad. And Mexicans were bad because they supposedly used so much bad cannabis. This perfectly vicious cycle of racism repeated itself with other minorities and other drugs throughout the 20th century and continues to this day.

Newspapers printed lurid stories of immigrants going on stabbing sprees supposedly fueled by marijuana. In the American West, some farm workers cultivated and sold cannabis to augment their meager wages. Some did well enough to get a toehold in the middle class, and even buy land. Which, in the minds of the white elite, was not supposed to happen. The barons of US agriculture embraced Mexican migrants as a source of cheap labor for nascent industrial-scale farming because they assumed that Mexicans would remain a permanent underclass and wouldn't transition to farm ownership the way previous waves of immigrants from Europe had done.

By the time cannabis was federally regulated 1937, all states had moved to regulate the drug. Some of these laws were motivated by Progressive Era enthusiasm for clean living through bureaucracy, but many were justified in explicitly racist terms.

At first, the early cannabis growers sold mostly to their fellow farm workers, but by the 1920s, the market widened to include increasing numbers of white people, which only exacerbated the moral panic. The popularity of cannabis in the predominantly Black jazz community, at a time when jazz defined popular music, only stoked white prejudices and fears about "race-mixing" and the potential corruption of white youth.

Black people have disproportionately borne the brunt of it all. Drug prohibition is a pretext for large-scale surveillance, criminalization, disenfranchisement, incarceration and other forms of state violence against people of color in general, and Black people in particular. Black people are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis offenses than whites, despite the two groups consuming the drug at similar rates.

Sha'Carri Richardson was a favorite to win Olympic gold in the 100 meters, but her dreams were dashed because of a policy rooted in racism and respectability politics rather than science or common sense. This 21-year-old woman was able to set aside her grief and give the performance of a lifetime on the track, finishing in under 11 seconds, but her achievement will be stricken from the record books because of outdated and irrational prejudice. It's time for the World Anti-Doping Agency to stop policing drug use outside of competition. It's none of their business what athletes are doing unless it's giving them an illicit advantage, which cannabis clearly is not.

Trump is trying to clean up his reputation by relying on an ancient blame game

Donald Trump aims to ride a COVID conspiracy theory to reputational rehab. "Now everybody is agreeing that I was right when I very early on called Wuhan as the source of COVID-19, sometimes referred to as the China Virus," the former president said.

It's unclear why a president who failed to protect us from a bioweapons attack, or who failed to respond to the fallout of a lab accident, would be more sympathetic than a president who was outmatched by an ordinary virus, but let's set that aside. Trumpian rhetoric is not about logic. It's about arousing prejudice and grievance. Trump is playing the ancient game of scapegoating. He believes that if he can convince his supporters that COVID is China's fault, they'll forget the parts that were his fault.

Epidemics and conspiracy theories go together like crops and fertilizer. The imagery varies according to the technologies and anxieties of the era, but the basic logic never changes. In the pre-modern era, you were more likely to hear about poison and black magic. The tropes have since shifted to bioweapons and lab accidents. Faced with the horror of an outbreak, even modern people tend to forget that epidemic diseases are a natural and depressingly predictable feature of human history and existence. The conspiracists always say this time is different. This time our enemy hurt us on purpose.

More even-handed conspiracy theorists often allow for the possibility that our enemy hurt us by accident, on account of being inept, dirty and irresponsible. Theories that posit without evidence that the latest plague was an accidental release of a bioweapon, or an innocent experiment gone awry, fall into this category. Granted, lab leaks have occasionally resulted in outbreaks, but if you're pushing a lab-leak theory without evidence, and your theory involves someone covering up said lab-leak, you're probably indulging in conspiratorial thinking, especially if you're blaming an outsider for it.

There is no evidence that COVID was released from a lab. There is a mountain of evidence that animals infect humans with novel viruses all the time; that bats are a natural reservoir of numerous coronaviruses in the SARS family; that bats are constantly recombining them in their bodies; and that the wildlife trade is a vector for spreading them from bats to humans, often through an intermediate species.

After SARS, the question on every expert's mind was not: Will there be a more transmissible SARS? This pandemic was not just predicted. It was inevitable.

The idea that our enemies have caused the plagues that afflict us is one of the oldest propaganda tropes, much older than the germ theory of disease, let alone modern biolaboratory methods. During the plagues of the Middle Ages, Jews were often accused of poisoning wells. Europe saw multiple cholera riots during the 19th century, each independently sparked by rumors that the rich had deliberately poisoned the poor. (To their credit, the poor had correctly observed that the rich were less likely to die from cholera, but the killer was inequality, not poison.) During the great flu pandemic of 1918, Americans accused the Germans of releasing this viral scourge from U-boats, poisoning over-the-counter medicines, and other wiles—even though Germans were also dying from the flu. The AIDS epidemic spawned multiple sub-genres including a KGB-sponsored disinformation campaign code named "Operation Denver," claiming that HIV was an escaped US bioweapon. Historical records reveal that the goal of the disinformation campaign was to spread anti-American sentiment around the world and create controversy and division inside the United States.

When the original SARS coronavirus broke out in 2003, there was rampant speculation that SARS was a bioweapon. Foreign policy hawks blamed Beijing. Meanwhile, Chinese activists pointed the finger at Washington. We later learned that humans caught SARS from trafficked palm civets in a live animal market, who caught it from bats. The civet connection was exposed relatively quickly but it took 15 years for scientists to find one cave that housed a colony of bats carrying between them all the genetic building blocks of SARS. They still haven't found a bat with a complete SARS virus in its body, but because bat roosts are such fertile environments for recombining new viruses from existing viruses, the discovery was strong enough to close the case.

When the MERS coronavirus hit in 2012, a now-familiar style of argument recurred: "Many of the features [of MERS] are paradoxical and cannot be explained by known principles of epidemiology," claimed a press release on behalf of an Australian professor who argued MERS could be a bioweapon. In other words, this is new. It's got features we've never seen before and can't readily explain, and it's scary. Ergo, it could be a bioweapon. Spoiler alert: It was camels, who probably caught it from bats.

In 2021, we're still battling the same knee-jerk assumption that if we don't fully understand something, it must have been created by someone we hate. Novel features of the COVID-19 virus are being cited as evidence of artificial origins. As soon as one potentially artificial feature is explained, the conspiracy mill generates a new one.

Scientists have yet to isolate COVID from an animal in the wild. Nevertheless, there's a huge body of evidence to support the idea that COVID-19 came from the same place the last two epidemics of deadly human coronavirus came from: From bats encroached upon by humans and their livestock, or from some intermediate host that was infected by a bat before being scooped up by a poacher and ferried to a big-city wildlife market.

It's now considered unlikely that COVID made the final jump from animal to human at the famous Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, where the first cases of COVID were observed, because the earliest known case had no connection to that market. But there's no particular reason that the jump would have had to have happened at the market in order for the virus to be zoonotic. And it's noteworthy that about two-thirds of the earliest known COVID cases were associated with either the Huanan Market, another market that sold live animals or another source of live or dead animals.

It's hard to accept that random mutations in lowly horseshoe bats upended human civilization for over a year. It's always easier, cognitively and emotionally, to blame our enemies for our woes. It's a trap any of us can fall into if we're not careful. And as usual, Trump is positioning himself to capitalize on human weakness.

Here's why Michael Flynn is desperately trying to cover up his call for a coup in the US

The second-most revered figure in the QAnon conspiracy firmament called for a military coup in the United States. Again. Retired three-star general and former Trump campaign national security advisor Mike Flynn called for the end of democracy during a question-and-answer session last weekend at a QAnon conference in Dallas.

"I'm a simple Marine," a grizzled audience member said, "I wanna know why what happened in Minamar (sic) can't happen here." The room erupted. Flynn waited for the cheering to subside and said, "No reason. I mean, it should happen here."

Flynn reportedly called the conference organizers to backtrack. He's now denying that he said what we all saw him say, but let's get one thing straight: Mike Flynn is a liar.

Trump fired him for lying to Mike Pence about Russia. He pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, but he lied in his plea deal, so Trump had to pardon him. Now he's lying about how he called for a military coup in the United States. On video. This is nothing new for Flynn. After the 2020 election, Flynn privately urged then-president Donald Trump to send troops to "re-run" the election, an idea he'd previously floated in the media.

It's nothing new for QAnon either. QAnon supporters have been cheering on the coup in Myanmar since the military overthrew the democratically elected government in February. The junta has killed over 800 people, including more than 40 children, but QAnon supporters don't know anything about Myanmar's internal politics. They just like coups. After Trump's failed coup attempt on January 6, many of them found it comforting to know a military still could overthrow a democracy somewhere.

And why wouldn't they? The beating heart of QAnon's dark theology is The Storm, the military coup that is always right around the corner. The Storm is the day when Donald Trump and the armed forces liquidates QAnon's political enemies: Democrats, Hollywood celebrities, the media, and anyone who stands against them. The former president will retake his rightful place in the White House, democracy be damned.

According to a new poll, nearly a quarter of white evangelicals believe The Storm is coming to restore "rightful leaders." This mythology fits naturally with the Big Lie that Trump won the election. QAnon believers heard Donald Trump's call to come to Washington on January 6 as the coming of the storm. Many of them believed they were being summoned to take part in the long-awaited battle between good and evil.

Most normal people think of QAnon as the "pedo cabal" people. Indeed, QAnon talks a good game about saving the children from pedophiles. As disturbing as they sound, these child-abuse fantasies are good for recruiting unsuspecting converts. After all, everyone wants to prevent child abuse. QAnon has deep roots in evangelical Christianity and its most fervent proponents have thought long and hard—and written with uncharacteristic coherence—about how to best recruit. Attitude change begins with finding common ground. You can get almost anyone to agree that child abuse is a problem. That provides the common ground needed to begin a conversation in which the believer can plant seeds in the prospective convert's mind about other aspects of QAnon. This process is called "red-pilling," a reference to The Matrix, a movie during which the hero swallows the red pill to dissolve illusion and reveal ultimate reality.

The news media's focus on pedophilia obscures the core of QAnon's ideology, which is a longing for glorious, purifying and revelational violence. The pedophiles of QAnon mythology are the alter-egos of powerful Democratic politicians, Hollywood celebrities, journalists and Jewish financiers George Soros and the Rothschilds. These are the villains who will be purged by the military when The Storm is finally upon us.

Unfortunately for QAnon, normal people love democracy as much as they hate pedophilia. So recruiters don't open with talk of a coup. The faithful avoid talking about it to journalists. That's why Flynn is taking pains to walk back his comment. While The Storm is normal in QAnon circles, it's still taboo in the outside world.

The GOP's rejection of the truth is politically costly for them

A new poll by Ipsos shows that 53 percent of Republicans affirm that Donald Trump is the "true president." This is just the latest in a series of polls in which Republicans affirm the lie that Trump won. What's remarkable about this measure is a majority of Republicans respondents profess to believe something that's not merely false but nonsensical. What does it even mean to say that Trump is the "true president"?

Do all these Republican respondents believe the QAnon theory that "Joe Biden" is actually Donald Trump in a mask? Clearly, some do. Trump ally Lin Wood, the trial lawyer, claimed the former president is the true president, and shared a post falsely claiming that Joe Biden is dead and Trump is governing from the Oval Office.

Could these Republican respondents be telling these pollsters something slightly more coherent but still false? Maybe the claim that Trump is the "true president" is just a restatement of the Big Lie that's currently being used by Republican legislators to restrict voting in dozens of states. Maybe they mean that Trump is the "true" president, because he deserves to be president because he won the election and was cheated by voter fraud. Fifty-six percent of Republicans told Ipsos in the same poll that the election was stolen, which shows that Big Lie and the One True POTUS theory are highly correlated if they are not two ways of saying the same thing.

We could spend all day translating the unintelligible, about what Republicans really believe about Trump and the Big Lie of voter fraud. It's futile, though. It's bullshit.

The hallmark of bullshit, according to philosopher Harry Frankfurt, is indifference to truth. Frankfurt argues that bullshit is more dangerous than lying because the bullshitter denies the truth matters. Unlike the liar, who cares enough about the truth to believe one thing and assert another, the bullshitter does not care what's true. Bullshitting, in Frankfurt's sense, is a means to an end. In the case of Republicans and the Big Lie, that's power. They will say whatever they think will get them more of it.

In March of 2021, some Florida GOP websites still listed Donald Trump as the president. When called out by a reporter, some offices claimed it was an oversight, but at least one local official vehemently asserted his website was making this outlandish claim on purpose. "Trump hasn't conceded, and it's our opinion the election was stolen," the official, a former mayor of Vero Beach, told USA Today: "It's important to make a statement and to make sure the statement stays relevant for the next 3½ years." This is exactly what Frankfurt means by bullshit. The first claim, that Trump hasn't conceded is true but irrelevant. The follow-up, that it's politically important to keep the One True POTUS claim "relevant" is independent of whether it's true or not.

If Republicans can be said to believe anything, it's that Republicans, and only Republicans, deserve to rule. They are locked in a circular thought pattern that begins and ends with Democratic illegitimacy. Democrats don't deserve power, so when they win they must have cheated, and hence Democratic power is illegitimate, and so on.

Even dissident Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney, who lost her House leadership position for saying that Trump's failed coup was wrong, refused to acknowledge the fact that the same Big Lie that drew insurgents to the Capitol is animating the Republican Party's nationwide offensive against voting rights.

It is impossible to pinpoint where fringe theories end and "respectable" GOP opinion begins. There's no point in trying. It's a seamless gradient from your uncle on Facebook railing about bamboo fibers in the Maricopa County voting machines to the self-serving blandishments of Republican senators. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley falsely insist they didn't really try to overturn the election, they just had "constitutional" questions about whether the electoral votes of various states should be counted.

Which is another way of saying that Trump lost because of cheating, except in their intellectualized version Trump lost because state governments cheated, which in turn justifies new laws to make it harder to vote. And when pressed, the "respectable" GOP will use the unfounded fears of their base as an excuse to take away voting rights. They argue voting must be restricted because people believe, contrary to available evidence, that election security is compromised. Never mind that these doubts are based on conspiracy theories promulgated by the Republican Party and its media allies.

Luckily, the GOP's rejection of the truth has come at a political cost. In the month following the January 6 insurrection, over 140,000 Americans in the 25 states that make their records readily available, changed their party registration from Republican to independent. Fifty-three percent of Republicans are willing to set facts and logic aside to affirm that Donald Trump is the One True POTUS, but they only account for about a quarter of the US population, if the results of the Ipsos poll are indeed representative of the nation at large. This noisy minority is making a shameless bid to unshackle us from the very concept of truth. And our anti-majoritarian institutions make it easier for an aggressive and well-organized minority to monopolize power. However, the fact remains that the vast majority of Americans still care about the truth, and that's some consolation in the face of the Republican Party's unrelenting onslaught of bullshit.

The simple truth behind the Supreme Court's decision to take up a major abortion case

The United States Supreme Court announced on Monday that it would formally review a Mississippi law that bans abortions before viability. The question before the court will be whether pre-viability abortion bans can ever be constitutional. In order to say yes, the Republican-appointed majority on the Supreme Court would have to overthrow 50 years of precedent and strike down Roe v. Wade in fact, if not in name.

The justices had to conference an astonishing 12 times before agreeing to hear the case, suggesting that the conservative justices needed time to come up with a plausible reason to hear it in the first place. There is no new legal or constitutional question at stake. The federal appeals courts agree that pre-viability bans are unconstitutional, so there's no circuit split to be resolved. The court has agreed to hear this because at least four conservative justices want to overturn Roe v. Wade. It's that simple.

The Supreme Court has affirmed repeatedly that pre-viability abortion bans are unconstitutional. The precedent is so clear-cut that no federal court has ever upheld a pre-viability ban. That's because all of abortion jurisprudence in the United States comes down to the following kludgy compromise: A woman has a right to terminate a pre-viable pregnancy under the 14th Amendment. States may not ban the procedure outright. However, they can make it almost as difficult as they want to by piling on frivolous regulations designed to make abortion more expensive, time consuming and onerous—as long as nothing is an "undue burden" on a woman's right to choose. The whole edifice depends on treating pre-viability bans differently from restrictions.

For the last 30 years, anti-choice legislators have been methodically piling on frivolous restrictions designed to push abortion care out of reach of more and more women. And pro-choicers have been countering with court battles, abortion funds and clinic defense. Now that the balance of power has shifted on the Supreme Court, anti-choice forces are preparing to break the stalemate and gut abortion rights once and for all.

Now Mississippi has banned abortions after 15 weeks' gestation, which everyone agrees is pre-viability. The state's lawyers are arguing that the government should be allowed to do so because it's just another regulation and, therefore, allowed as long as it's not unduly burdensome. This is not a serious argument. This argument doesn't even rise to the level of sophistry, because sophistry is supposed to seem clever. Mississippi is simply asking the Supreme Court to relabel their ban as a regulation.

Even the conservative Fifth Circuit court of appeals was not persuaded, noting that Mississippi's 15-week ban is a ban, not a regulation. Again: any pre-viability ban on abortion is a violation of a woman's right to due process under the 14th Amendment.

Now that Republican-appointed justices rule the court, Mississippi may well prevail. The only question is whether the conservative majority will strike down Roe outright or preserve the figleaf. If Mississippi is allowed to ban abortions at 15 weeks, there's nothing to stop states from banning abortion at six weeks or earlier. At least 22 states already have laws that would restrict abortion if Roe were struck down outright.

The right to a pre-viability abortion has been sacrosanct for nearly 50 years. Poplar opinion is firmly behind reproductive freedom. Sixty-one percent of Americans agree that abortion should be legal under most if not all circumstances, and 70 percent want to see Roe endure. And no wonder: Social progress has for generations been contingent on women controlling their reproductive destinies. If Roe is struck down, it should refute once and for all the myth that conservative justices are reverent of precedent. Yet they are happy to legislate from the bench in order to control women's bodies.

Justice Stephen Breyer risks making a historic blunder

United States Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer is facing calls to retire before the 2022 congressional elections so that his successor can be confirmed while the Democrats have control of the United States Senate. The 82-year-old Breyer has signaled he's reluctant to retire because he doesn't want to be perceived as partisan.

But surely the principles that guide a judge on the bench are also relevant. Breyer's career can be defined by the defense of what he calls "active liberty," which boils down to democracy, the constitutional principle that the people should control government.

Breyer's judicial philosophy can be distilled to two key ideas. One, that the purpose of the Constitution is to preserve democracy and judges should interpret it in that light. Two that judges should take the practical consequences of their decisions into account. As a jurist, Breyer is often described as the most pragmatic justice. All of these are arguments for why the 82-year-old Breyer should retire immediately.

Breyer is famous for taking practical realities into account. In an ideal world, Supreme Court justices would have confidence that any president and any Senate would confirm a successor who would vote to uphold the basic norms of democracy. But we don't live in that world. In ours, one of the two institutional parties has rejected democracy.

Breyer is famous for saying justices shouldn't be "junior varsity politicians." But that's just the obvious truism that judges should decide cases on their legal merits, as opposed to fulfilling a policy wishlist for politicians who confirmed them, or imposing their own desired policies based on spurious arguments. For example, a judge shouldn't rule that a law is constitutional just because they like snowy owls or hate gambling. If the people elect legislators who seek to protect snowy owls or ban gambling, it's not for an unelected judge to second-guess that. It's the active liberty principle at work: People should be able to control the government through their elected legislators without worrying about unelected judges usurping that power.

Timing one's retirement at the age of 82 to secure one's judicial legacy, or indeed, to secure democracy itself, is the opposite of arbitrarily imposing one's policy preferences. A Supreme Court justice can step down for any reason. Surely, for Stephen Breyer, defending the active liberty of Americans would be a worthy reason.

Other modern Justices have more-or-less openly brokered their successors or implied it. Justice Anthony Kennedy tapped former clerk Brett Kavanaugh. Ruth Bader Ginsburg justified eking out a few more years by arguing that Hillary Clinton would be elected in 2016, implying that she planned to time her retirement accordingly.

Democracy is under assault by the Republican Party. Donald Trump was impeached for trying to overturn a free and fair election. The GOP is accelerating his anti-democratic ideology in his absence. Recognizing an anti-democratic movement isn't partisanship, it's pragmatism. David Atkins called the question in the Monthly this week: "What happens when Republicans simply refuse to certify Democratic wins?"

Joe Biden won the presidency with more than 81 million votes in what experts called the cleanest, smoothest election in American history, Atkins said. Trump tried to steal the 2020 election repeatedly, huddling with Republican state lawmakers, scheming to get GOP-controlled state legislatures to overturn the will of their voters, demanding that the Georgia Secretary of State find imaginary extra votes for him, and spreading outrageous lies about voter fraud. Trump finally called his supporters to Washington, DC, to disrupt certification of the electoral count. "It was a physical coup attempt designed to intimidate Congress into enforcing a legislative coup," Atkins said.

After the mob rampaged the Capitol, seven GOP senators voted for Trump's legislative coup. Forty-three GOP senators voted to acquit him for instigating the putsch. If Breyer doesn't retire soon, these people may end up confirming his successor.

The terrifying reality is that Republicans no longer feel compelled to acquiesce to election results. No matter how clean the contest, or how overwhelming the margin, there's always a conspiracy theory to explain why the GOP candidate is the winner. There doesn't even have to be a theory. Insinuation backed by a narrative of Democratic perfidy is enough. The fringe spreads lies and poisons faith in democracy, and more respectable Republicans are pointing to baseless fears as reason for saying that democracy must be further restricted to restore confidence in the process.

Trump is exiled to Mar-a-Lago, but his hold on the party remains unshakable. Leaders like Lindsey Graham and Kevin McCarthy have made clear the party needs to toe the line in order to remain viable. And they're not wrong: Trump is holding the GOP hostage. He could destroy the GOP electorally by launching a third party.

Republicans who stand up for democracy are being systematically purged from the party. This week, Wyoming Congresswoman Liz Cheney will be ousted as conference chair by ambitious former moderate New York Congresswoman Elise Stefanik who correctly sees the way to rise in today's GOP is to embrace Trump's Big Lie.

Time is of the essence. The Senate is split 50-50 with Vice President Harris casting the deciding vote. A single death or resignation could tip the balance. What's more, the ruling party usually loses seats in the midterm elections. So Democratic control of the Senate is likely to be fleeting. And Democrats are at a permanent structural disadvantage to win the Senate back should they lose it. Republicans have also made it clear since the theft of Merrick Garland's Supreme Court seat that they will never confirm a Democratic president's nominee as long as they control the Senate.

Many hoped that Republican anti-democratic extremism would ebb after Trump, but it only appears to be accelerating. If Republicans get to pick the next nominee, they will likely pick an even more extreme candidate. By stepping down, Breyer would not be playing politics. Rather, he'd be honoring values that have defined his judicial career.

The real reason right-wingers hate vaccines

"Go get vaccinated, America," the president urged the nation last Wednesday in his State of the Union address. Joe Biden had a lot of good news to report to the US Congress on the COVID vaccination effort: 220 million shots have been administered in his first 100 days in office, everyone over 16 is eligible and 90 percent of Americans now live within five miles of a vaccination site. Vaccine manufacturing is booming. Supply will soon no longer be a limiting factor. Yet even as eligibility has expanded, demand has plateaued across the country and vaccination rates have dipped from their peak.

Time is of the essence. More transmissible variants of the virus mean a higher percentage of the population must be immunized to reach herd immunity. We're in a race between the finest that human civilization has to offer and venal dumbassery.

In one corner is science, bolstered by billions in public investment. Eighteen months ago, there were no vaccines for human coronaviruses. Today, there are multiple safe, highly-effective COVID shots. Better yet, thanks to wise public policy and all-hands-on-deck roll-out, they're available for free to any American adult. The president even announced tax credits to reimburse small- and mid-sized businesses that give their employees paid time off to get vaccinated and to recover from vaccine side effects.

In the opposite corner are demagogues, clout-chasers and magical thinkers. These operators think they can gain political power, attention and, in some cases, money by undermining vaccinations against a disease that has killed more than 588,000 people.

Power-hungry Republicans like United States Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin are positioning themselves as heirs to Donald Trump by opposing vaccinations. Johnson recently told a conservative radio host that distribution should have been limited to the truly vulnerable and he questioned the need for broad-based vaccination.

Johnson also attacked the civic-minded values behind the push for herd immunity. "What is it to you? You have got a vaccine and science is telling you it's very, very effective," Johnson asked, "So, why is this big push to make sure everybody gets a vaccine?" The answer is obviously herd immunity, which offers protection for those who can't get vaccinated or whose immune systems can't respond to the vaccine.

It's a shrewd bet. Forty-two percent of Republicans say they probably or definitely wouldn't get a shot, even if it's shown to be safe. The "even if shown to be safe" proviso speaks volumes. Some Republicans claim to be against vaccination as a matter of personal liberty, but nobody's forcing them to get vaccinated. It's all rationalization.

Vaccine refusal is a tribal touchstone, even as vaccine hesitancy ebbs generally. Indeed, last summer's heavily armed anti-lockdown sieges of state legislatures were the dress rehearsals for the January 6 insurgency. Rejecting vaccines is about values, not facts. These right-wingers reject vaccines because vaccines represent science, the welfare state and the common good, which are antithetical to everything they hold dear.

Johnson isn't the only Republican riding anti-vaccine paranoia. Perhaps the perfect example of how vaccine denialism furthers extreme right-wing political ambition is Pennsylvania State Senator Doug Mastriano, who freely mixes anti-government and anti-vaccine sentiment. Mastriano beat the rush and came out against the COVID vaccine before it existed. He was also a central player in the bid to steal the election for Trump. (He actually had to be pulled out of a meeting with then-president Trump because he was found to be suffering from COVID.) But he recovered enough to organize bus transportation for the January 6 insurrection. Mastriano's antics have transformed him from an obscure legislator to a gubernatorial hopeful.

State legislators in 40 states have introduced bills that would undermine vaccine mandates. These bills are to legislating what vaccine denialism is to science. Few will become law, but they are potent messaging designed to further politicize vaccination.

Some entertainers are also milking COVID denialism for ratings and notoriety. Podcaster Joe Rogan, a UFC commentator better known for his takes on elk meat and DMT, and his willingness to host conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, opined that, "If you're, like, 21 years old, and you say to me, 'Should I get vaccinated?' I'll go no."

Rogan has 11 million listeners, many of them young. Predictably, Fox host Tucker Carlson defended Rogan's attempt to poison public understanding of vaccinations. Even Sean Hannity, who claims he's not anti-vaxx, flirted with vaccine denialism Tuesday, falsely suggesting there might not be any science behind the vaccine.

In a desperate bid to become Twitter's main character, a D-list Republican pundit gave the game away: "My primary reason for refusing the vaccine is much simpler: I dislike the people who want me to take it, and it makes them mad when they hear about my refusal. That, in turn, makes me happy." He's a troll, but he speaks the truth.

We're not just dealing with garden-variety vaccine hesitancy anymore. We're up against a cynical campaign to turn vaccination into a referendum on science, the welfare state and social solidarity. If that's how they want to play it, fine.

Vaccines are the greatest triumph of medicine. Public health is a crowning achievement of the welfare state. What we have done together to battle COVID is a testament to our love for ourselves, our neighbors and our country. Those are our values. The Republicans have called the question. Which side are you on?

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