FOR A MAN DUBBED “Sleepy Joe”, President Biden has proved peculiarly perky in office, and recently sprung a new surprise by reviving the theory that covid-19 may have leaked from a Wuhan laboratory. Previously, liberals had dismissed this as an outlandish and dangerous conspiracy theory. The man-made thesis was even censored as part of social media’s crackdown on misinformation, until last week, when Facebook sheepishly reversed the injunction; now, in a demonstration of conformity in action, everyone is mulling the renegade hypothesis.
There are two interpretations of this volte face. Perhaps the censoring of the Wuhan leak theory was always a manifestation of Trump Derangement Syndrome. For a certain type of establishment liberal, everything the former President said must be confronted, debunked and ultimately censored. With every word from his mouth being a dangerous lie, it was necessary to rebut each utterance with an opposite claim. If he says yes, we say no; if he says A, we say Z.
This logic was always a trap that played right into Trump’s hands. Notions of “fake news” and “alternative facts” misunderstood the real horror of Trump, whose dangerous appeal was always about telling vulgar, unsayable truths just as much as fabricating falsehoods.
And while the desire to confront anti-Chinese racism seems admirable, in this case the logic was difficult to follow. It was never adequately explained why the lab-leak thesis was such a boon to racists relative to the explanation preferred by liberals, that the virus originated from Wuhan wet markets. Whereas the man-made notion points the finger at the Chinese state (in an American-funded lab), the wet market theory points to the culinary habits and thus ethnic peculiarities of the people. Surely the latter offers just as much fodder for racists as the former?
Another interpretation is that the lab-leak thesis isn’t well-founded in fact. Liberals were right all along. In which case, Biden and Fauci’s revival of the thesis is less about the disinterested pursuit of truth, and more about ramping up geopolitical tension with China, a conflict which will dominate the twenty-first century. This is just as plausible: the “pivot to Asia” was a matter of Obama’s foreign policy just as much as Trump’s. We shouldn’t ignore the possibility that we’re seeing a post-Trump, establishment-endorsed Sinophobia.
It’s possible we’ll never know the truth. Still, Biden and Fauci’s concessions to the man-made hypothesis have already transformed the parameters of debate.
For one, this could destroy revived, hard-won faith in scientific authority. Over the past decade, we had supposedly been living through a “populist moment”, defined by public incredulity towards elites and experts. The pandemic bucked that trend, with the scientific and public health establishment enjoying mass approval. Producing a vaccination within a year seemed to highlight a new optimism in scientific progress.
Now, what were once fringe conspiracy theories have the endorsement of the establishment. Censoring them from public debate, particularly on social media, casts down on the supposedly disinterested, non-political motives of scientific enquiry. It unnecessarily embroiled natural science researchers in a culture war.
Regardless of whether the lab leak thesis is remotely plausible, the liberal moral panic about Trump clearly had a chilling effect not just on public debate, but also on research agendas. Thus, in the name of defending technocracy against populism, liberals unintentionally worked to repress the disinterested pursuit of knowledge in the public interest.
One lesson is the danger in a public sphere controlled by massive, unaccountable corporations who, having no real legitimacy, surrender to every censorious whim to look like the “good guys”. Some speech is authentically hateful and even dangerous; but censorship, well-intentioned or not, always comes with a truckload of unintended consequences. Certainly, regardless of the truth, the decision to censor this theory will keep conspiracy theorists occupied for centuries to come.