Paul Krugman has done it again. His latest column combines the erudition of a Nobel laureate with the plain speaking of an excellent writer: A Plague of Willful Ignorance. A hundred years ago, he writes, there was a plague of pellagra disease in the South. A doctor working for the federal government diagnosed the problem as poverty combined with a corn-based diet, which led to a lack of niacin, which led to skin sensitivity, gastro-intestinal issues, and eventually to neurological disorders and death. (Niacin deficiency was only partly responsible; treatment also requires a well-balanced diet.)
The South’s reaction to this 1915 diagnosis was . . . interesting:
However, for decades many Southern citizens and politicians refused to accept this diagnosis, declaring either that the epidemic was a fiction created by Northerners to insult the South or that the nutritional theory was an attack on Southern culture. And deaths from pellagra continued to climb.
If this sounds familiar, Krugman says, it should. We are seeing exactly the same response to Covid-19.
[I]n America, and only in America, basic health precautions have been caught up in a culture war. Most obviously, not wearing a face mask, and hence gratuitously endangering other people, has become a political symbol: Trump has suggested that some people wear masks only to signal disapproval of him, and many Americans have decided that requiring masks in indoor spaces is an assault on their freedom.
Krugman isn’t accusing the South per se of leading this assault on reason; the South is a useful example of because of its reaction to the pellagra epidemic, which was largely confined to that region. But it is typical of the way a portion of the population, all across the country, reacts to science that they don’t like:
The moral of this story is that America’s uniquely poor response to the coronavirus isn’t just the result of bad leadership at the top — although tens of thousands of lives would have been saved if we had a president who would deal with problems instead of trying to wish them away.
We’re also doing badly because, as the example of pellagra shows, there’s a longstanding anti-science, anti-expertise streak in American culture — the same streak that makes us uniquely unwilling to accept the reality of evolution or acknowledge the threat of climate change.
Krugman acknowledges that most Americans are willing to listen to and accept science. But there is a “belligerent faction” that rejects science, rejects expertise, that thinks anything that challenges their preconception of the world is some kind of conspiracy against them. Only in America does science become a victim in the culture wars.
I think Krugman is highlighting an existential flaw in the American psyche — not in all of us, but a great many of us, enough to be a danger to the country as a whole.
I believe there are a number of reasons for this in our history. As this is not a history class, I will just mention two of them. One is the South’s reliance on slave labor, which required that they deny the reality that their slaves were human beings just as much as the slaveholders. Another is the model of the lone frontiersman (and later, the lone cowboy), the rugged individual who survives on his wits and his fists. He knows himself to be as good as any man, and — by a leap of “logic” — he knows that he knows as much as any man. He has no need of experts to explain what he plainly sees in front of him.
We’ve always had to cope with this type. But now we are being “led” by Bunker Boy, who not only embodies the worst of these traits but whose malignant narcissism blows them up out of all proportion. This is the basis of his appeal to his base: he has no more need of experts than they do.
That attitude may not be unique to the US, but our history inclines us to it, and it is stronger here than anywhere else, certainly anywhere in the western world. It explains the 38-40% floor that IMPOTUS stands on, and why trying to reach them is like trying to teach a pig to sing.
Changing that attitude will take generations and will face resistance from those who profit from it. But we can make a start heading toward November by nibbling away at it. Not just the election but our survival in this pandemic depends on it.