Still off the rails

I’ve written previously about my disenchantment with James Howard Kunstler, who at one time had much to say that I found compelling, useful, or at any rate worth reading. I thought I’d take a tour through his most recent blog post (title: ‘Danger, Cover Blowing’) and see how things are going in Kunstler world.

Kunstler kicks off by actually condemning the notion of not spreading disease, if you can believe it. His reasoning? That the disease spread anyway, therefore efforts to minimize deaths, overwhelmed hospitals, and long-term health consequences for millions of people were ‘inane’. Kunstler depicts the economic consequences of lockdowns and quarantining as resulting from ‘the gift [he means the virus] from Dr. Anthony Fauci and associates’ (more on the associates below). We’re off to a very strong start here.

This second paragraph is quite the tissue of truth and error. Kunstler’s grasp of cause and effect when it comes to vaccines, and the coronavirus generally, is notably dim. First and most obviously: yes, viruses in general do spread and burn through populations, but that’s especially true if nothing is done to stop them. Fortunately, something was done to stop this particular virus, with notable success (although not without sacrifice, which I for one felt as keenly as anyone, and more keenly than most of those fortunate enough not to lose their job).

It shouldn’t be necessary to point out that when Kunstler cites the recent death rate from the virus as ‘strikingly low’, he’s talking about a world where… drum roll please… lockdowns, masking and especially vaccines have actually been deployed, and have had their intended effect. In addition to being effective, the viruses deployed against COVID-19 over the past year have been quite safe as these things are measured, with adverse events tracked in the range of 23 per 100,000 doses as of July 30 (with just 6 per 100,000 classed as serious adverse events – Canadian figures, but not likely to be much different in Kunstler’s homeland).

In a previous post, Kunstler likewise demonstrates his poor grasp of cause and effect. Citing figures from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), he argues that because deaths from vaccinations now exceed deaths from COVID (let’s just take his word for this), therefore vaccines are evil. Well, maybe, except that’s not the right comparison. A more meaningful comparison would be the number of vaccine-related deaths that have actually occurred, versus the expected number of COVID deaths had there been no vaccines. I’m reminded of the scene in Minority Report where Tom Cruise rolls a ball across a desk at Colin Farrell, to make a point about intervening in a foreseeable event. The line “The fact that you prevent it from happening doesn’t change the fact that it was going to happen” is correct. And with the pandemic, we don’t even have to invoke science-fantasy notions like people with precognition who can see murders before they happen. We only need to grasp the everyday notion that things we’ve seen happen before, like the spread of disease, can happen again in the right circumstances. The dog that didn’t bark in the nighttime, or that only barked once or twice, is far preferable to the dog that kept everyone awake barking its head off all night long. There’s nothing hard to understand about this, we just need to keep our heads straight.

Kunstler’s head is not straight. Measured by the number of deaths prevented, the vaccines have been a roaring success – roaring like a fire, possibly the metaphorical fire of a virus burning through a population that lacks all immunity. In fairness, he is hardly alone in finding these points somehow unintuitive. While it’s the job of public-health officials like Fauci and others to make this case as plainly as possible, there will always be people who prefer their own version, and if they bark about it all night long (which they do), others will start baying alongside them. But we have a right to expect better from a ‘social critic’.

At the end of paragraph two Kunstler tees up his pivot. Starting from the effort not to spread disease, which enrages him, he makes the pandemic somehow about the presence of unauthorized immigrants in the USA, which also enrages him.

“Many of them infected with strains of Covid-19.” All too likely true, considering impoverished Latin American countries are now far more vulnerable to infection than the largely vaccinated American population. There’s no originality in Kunstler’s xenophobia. Depictions of foreigners as bringing disease, and associating out-groups with disgust and degradation, are as old as the hills. If COVID weren’t already on the front burner and fit for purpose, he might reference AIDS instead, or syphilis. In fact Kunstler has a backhanded point here, given that vaccine refuseniks like himself remain as vulnerable as ever.

As for his claim that “the regime” (the word connotes illegitimacy) is fiendishly, i.e. apparently purposely, jockeying foreign detainees around the USA as a means of spreading disease, there’s no knowing whether Kunstler got this from some other commentator or is making it up on the spot. Certainly the detainees themselves don’t have any say in whether they get moved from detention at Point A to detention at Point B. Imagining for a second that Kunstler’s dark hint is correct and nefarious authorities have selected this particular, extremely inefficient, means of spreading disease, the logical follow-up question would be: how does Kunstler reconcile his judgement that this is “fiendish” with his equally vehement assertion that efforts to prevent the spread of COVID are pointless? What’s fiendish about the inevitable? The answer is, he doesn’t try to reconcile these incompatible positions, because he doesn’t give any thought to either one. He’s not speaking from a consistent world view grounded in fact.

Kunstler has taken to enclosing the name of the current POTUS in quotation marks for, I think, two or even three reasons. One, because he shares the sense that others have expressed that Joe Biden is ‘sundowning’ and no longer has his full faculties; two, he sees Biden as simply a pliable front man for the Democratic Party power structure, which in his view is still controlled by Barack Obama; and three, because Kunstler holds to the MAGA view that the 2020 election was stolen and consequently he will delegitimate Biden anyway he can. I’ll leave these aside for now.

The real issue here is Kunstler’s hobby-horse about ‘techno-narcissism’. In general he has more to stand on here than in many other areas, which is one of the reasons I kept following him for as long as I did. Technology is a very useful thing indeed, but there are some problems just can’t be solved that way, and require a different approach – possibly including, though not limited to, the way society is structured.

Here, though, he is once again simply dead wrong. I have no idea what Kunstler means by ‘strictly speaking’, but an inoculation that confers immunity is a vaccine by any other name. Nor is confidence in them misplaced, as the actual outcome of the vaccination campaigns demonstrates. As for the spike protein, I have no idea whether it damages blood vessels or not, but an unchecked COVID infection will certainly damage far, far more. The mRNA vaccines themselves contain no spike protein; what they contain is a set of instructions to be taken up by cells, whereupon cellular machinery will transcribe them into a finite quantity of spike protein for which the immune system will create antibodies. (Kunstler has also fallen prey to the superstition that the mRNA vaccines alter DNA, which they don’t. mRNA is transcribed from DNA within the nucleus, and travels out of the nucleus for transcription. There is no known mechanism whereby this can happen in reverse, and if some claim that it nonetheless can happen, they have signally failed to even begin to make a case.) While other vaccines possibly do contain spike protein, I’d wager in both cases the result is a nominal amount just capable of producing immunity – whereas the quantity produced by a virus actively replicating in a human body increases exponentially with no upper bound, ravaging organs as it goes, until the immune system catches up or the patient suffocates, whichever comes first. In short, fearmongering about the spike protein is simply barking mad.

Here Kunstler offers the theory that vaccinating people has the perverse outcome of creating new viral variants by increasing selective pressure on the virus. Since this is analogous to how the overuse of antibiotics has led to the evolution of multi-resistant ‘superbugs’, there is a sheen of surface plausibility here, but it breaks down immediately. Vaccines are not antibiotics – they don’t work the same way, and administering them doesn’t lead to the same results. Unlike bacteria, which are independent living cells, viruses are such radically stripped-down organisms it’s debatable that they are even living things. The mechanisms whereby bacteria evolve antibiotic resistance simply do not apply to viruses, which depend on subverting and parasitizing living cells. In any case, whatever prevents transmission or decreases the length or severity of infection, thereby decreases the number of viral replications, the resulting likelihood of mutation, and hence that of developing resistance – so long as the mechanism is applied with due attention to this unwanted outcome. The burden is on Kunstler to support this claim, and needless to say, he has not met it.

Well, could I paint a picture of a greater fiasco? Almost certainly. And must those be the emerging questions? Seems strictly optional to me. But here is where we see Kunstler turn to conspiracy theorizing: overtly attributing covert motives and intentional malice without, so far, any hint of actual justification. Note that word ‘perhaps’ at the end. We’ll see more of that kind of thing.

You could, I suppose. This paragraph plays an interesting role in Kunstler’s case. Since I’ll want to refer back to it, let’s call this Paragraph X. But that isn’t to say that Kunstler is putting these outlandish claims into his writing because he quite believes them, no:

Preposterous, you say? Oh good, we agree. That means we won’t have to worry so much that Kunstler is quite the kind of gibbering maniac who would advance such a claim seriously. This does raise the question, though: why say it, only to immediately reject it? What is Paragraph X doing here, exactly?

Ah, I see – Kunstler serves up the real conspiracy dish. We can see what Paragraph X is for: to provide a contrast, making this latter bit of cow plop seem more plausible by comparison. Holding our noses, let’s take Kunstler’s redolent fiction point by point:

  • Anthony Fauci, personally, wanted to be ‘the man who defeated all coronaviruses’.
  • He attempted to accomplish this by, apparently, funding research into a single treatment for all of them at once, for which he would claim sole credit.
  • Kunstler doesn’t say it, but we’re left to infer that to achieve this ‘silver bullet’, Fauci intentionally took unwarranted risks – i.e., ones that somehow exceeded those that would normally be incurred doing research on coronaviruses. This may be related to speculation about so-called gain of function research, but there’s not enough here to say.
  • Pursuing this agenda, Fauci ‘got in too deep with China’s PLA-connected bio weapons lab’. Presumably Kunstler means the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Whether or not the institute is associated with China’s military or receives funding from it, evidence that this laboratory was working on bioweapons is nowhere to be found. ‘Got in too deep’ suggests dealings other than normal science. No idea what those dealings supposedly were, except being obviously dastardly, and certainly no evidence is proffered.
  • Lastly, in some fashion not specified here, it was all of the above that enabled a release of COVID-19 from the Wuhan lab.

So Kunstler isn’t so much saying the virus was released intentionally, you understand; all he’s saying is that Fauci is to blame. That’s all! It’s not enough that Fauci gave possibly damaging advice early on, discouraging mask-wearing on the basis that the needs of front-line medical workers outweighed those of the general public. It’s not enough simply to hold Fauci to account for things he actually has done, or omitted to do. No, no; Fauci must be the initiator, the unmoved mover, the spider at the centre of the web. He and only he must bear the blame for the fact that one member of a widespread and naturally-occurring class of diseases emerged as a worldwide threat. You can tell that Fauci is to blame for all this, because that’s the story Kunstler is selling – selling via highly tendentious reasoning; while exhibiting significant bias against, and a lack of comprehension of, well-supported understandings of public health which have nothing to do with who is in charge; and, I reiterate, with absolutely no evidence.

A word about the Wuhan lab-leak hypothesis: it’s plausible. That’s all it is, plausible. Lots of things are plausible, mind you. Some subset of plausible things are even true, including surprising things. Even some extremely alarming things are plausible and also true. Beyond noting their plausibility, however, I have nothing further to say about plausible things. What’s called for is… I know you’re getting tired of reading this, just as I’m getting tired of writing it… evidence. Regarding the Wuhan lab-leak hypothesis, there is none of any note, though there is no shortage of vehement suspicion coming from certain quarters. Personally, I also would be very interested to know if in fact COVID-19 escaped from there or some other lab. That said, wake me up when there are more facts in. I’m not interested in speculation, still less in fire-breathing conspiracy-mongering of the kind Kunstler is engaged in here.

Kunstler wraps up this red-meat paragraph by pointing out that the scenario he’s laid out is advantageous for China, based on his imputed agenda of ‘socio-political destruction of [the West’s] once-cohesive cultures’. This is familiar ground: it’s the standard-issue injured entitlement of Us against Them – the perennial seed crystal of revanchist aggression, experienced as felt grievance, that grows again and again in human societies. This kind of thing is sometimes funny in small doses, generally tedious in large ones, and extremely dangerous when it comes to dominate the public conversation. He hasn’t accused the Chinese in so many words of trying to taint our precious bodily fluids, but do a search and replace of ‘China’ with ‘the Jews’ and this paragraph could have been transcribed from Der Stürmer.

Kunstler isn’t wrong about everything. What he says here is correct and extremely important, so far as it refers to the distrust and disbelief on the part of much of the U.S. population toward their government and ruling class generally. There really is a serious and growing credibility gap between the U.S. government and its people; liberal-identified corporate media really are overflowing with lies, BS, and a growing liberal authoritarianism, to match the well-established right-wing mediasphere; the Trump/Russia narrative really was a colossal hoax; MSNBC and other networks really have become shills for the ‘intelligence community’; the three-letter agencies’ intervention in the 2016 presidential election really was an unconstitutional, anti-democratic overreach; and on and on and on.

But Kunstler undoes himself, in part with fact- and science-illiterate conspiracy-mongering, and in part by showing his ass on the January 6 Capitol riot. Kunstler himself previously gave every indication of buying into, if not QAnon itself, then the QAnon-adjacent narrative that Donald Trump was going to serve up some kind of retribution, or at least subpoenas, against various malefactors that Kunstler and others blame for assorted American ills, both real and imaginary. This was the narrative that animated the rioters who trespassed into the U.S. Capitol building on January 6: their hero, a media creation who in their expectations (certainly not in reality) had written a cheque far beyond the power of his pudgy flesh to cash, needed their help and support to deliver the apotheosis they craved. And so they marched, stormed the barricades, and burbled around the halls of power for a bit while absolutely nothing they expected to happen actually happened. Having placed their faith in the hollowest man currently drawing breath, they were stunned by the anti-climax – and the aftermath was, as could be expected, a narrative reassessment. Blame for the fiasco has been deflected away from their blond hero, away from their deluded selves, and toward Nancy Pelosi, who whatever her faults – they are considerable – had as much to do with the riot as gonorrhea had to do with the conception of Trump’s father Fred (i.e., I presume she was there when it happened).

About this punctured narrative, I have little more to say – except to express my brimming, overflowing pity for anyone so clueless and desperate they looked to a demagogue as indifferent to republican virtue and as comprehensively incompetent as Donald J. Trump to be the protagonist of their cause. One wishes that social critics like Kunstler, who (unlike this hobby-project blog of mine) have an appreciable audience, would do better. Better, that is, than regurgitating propaganda takes that have already done multiple loops through the alimentary canal of fever-swamp confirmation bias.

To quote Han Solo: “It’s possible? Why don’t you find out?”

In Paragraph X, Kunstler calls ours the age of manufactured narratives, showing that he has an idea of the role that narrative – stories – play in justifying and sustaining power relationships. Given the kind of creatures we humans are, one and the same set of facts can easily give rise to multiple competing narratives, each contending to imbue those facts with meaning. Discover which narrative prevails and who plays what part in those narratives, and you’ve discovered who has power over whom, and what they need to do to maintain and increase that power. One particularly potent narrative is that of the lost cause, which in its various guises propelled past political movements as savoury as Nazism and as illustrious as the Ku Klux Klan. Donald Trump now has a lost-cause narrative of his very own, and Kunstler declares his fealty to it hook, line, and sinker.

“The release could be dangerous”, he concludes (and I’ve rambled on at far too much length myself). Long after his best work, this is a final illustration of what became most pathetically obvious about JHK in this declining arc of his intellectual career: how very badly he is jonesing for some kind of righteous release to make good on his resentments. Nothing he writes anymore fails to lead the reader toward the predetermined conclusion: one day, and that right soon, a real rain will come and wash away the pimps, the dogs, the hustlers, and whoever else falls under the baleful eye of James Howard Kunstler.

About Lorne Beaton

Just some rando.
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