When the Next Thing You Know Is That You Have Covid

When the Next Thing You Know Is That You Have Covid 1

Bret Stephens: Hello from Covid quarantine, Gail, breakthrough-case edition. It’s been six months since my second shot of Moderna, and — presto! — I got it.

Gail Collins: Bret! I’m so sorry you’re sick. Or sickish? Do you think the vaccine protected you from really serious illness? Basically want to know how this affects your thoughts on the vax debate.

Bret: My case seems mild so far, touch wood, which I attribute to the vaccine’s capacity to prevent severe illness. Either that or the Delta variant wanted nothing to do with me the moment it got wind of my views on the climate summit in Glasgow.

Gail: I’m sure Delta is an avid reader.

Bret: Luckily, the entire experience has been more “Curb Your Enthusiasm” than “ER.” I’ve lost my senses of taste and smell, which, given that I’ve received multiple care packages from Zabar’s, makes me feel like the eunuch at the orgy. My wife and kids and friends keep phoning to make sure I’m still breathing, though secretly I’m delighted that I have an ironclad excuse to see nobody, do nothing, go nowhere. And I’m spending quality time with the world’s best dog, who just happens to be mine.

Gail: Now, long term, is this how you envision our future? With Covid, for the vaccinated, just like another kind of respiratory illness that has its season? If so, I guess we’ll just adapt and people will eventually lose interest — the next generation of Covid sufferers will be lucky to get a gift of Snickers.

Or does the fact that there are so many folks in denial mean something worse?

Bret: So hard to say. The scary news is the abrupt rise in cases in New Mexico, where nearly a quarter of recent hospitalizations involve fully vaccinated patients. Seems to me like a pretty good argument for making booster shots immediately available for the entire adult population, nationwide. The good news is that if the antiviral pills from Merck and Pfizer are as effective as they appear to be in trials, a lot of lives could be saved and Covid will hopefully become more of a nuisance than a plague.

Gail: Agreed, and although we’re supposed to be arguing, I’ve got to ask you about something else where I’m sure we’re in accord: the death threats to Republican lawmakers who voted for the infrastructure bill. Obviously terrible, but does it mark a new level of social decline or just another typical chapter in the 21st-century story?

Bret: We’ve long lived in the land of what Philip Roth called “the indigenous American berserk,” so I guess there’s nothing too surprising here. The surprise, even today, is that the term “berserk” also applies to a former (and possibly future) president of the United States and the congresswoman from Georgia’s 14th district. And for this renaissance of the berserk we have to thank dear old Steve Bannon, who’s busy trying to survive a federal indictment.

Gail: Ah, Steve Bannon — it’s been so long since I had to spend time dwelling on your … character.

Bret: Dwelling on Bannon is like imagining the love child of Lady Macbeth and Peter Griffin from “Family Guy.” Future historians will have to ask how a guy like him wound up doing the kind of damage he did.

Gail: You would be thinking of Trumpism?

Bret: Uh-huh.

Gail: Here’s a classic question for you to mull while you’re getting your temperature down: How much of the deep, mean polarization in American politics is because of Donald Trump? Or is he just the product of something that was evolving anyhow?

Bret: I’ve always thought of Trump as the symptom. The disease was the stupidification of the right, to use a stupid-sounding word to describe a stupid-making process.

Gail: I’m so obsessed with the way new media has changed society. I can’t help wondering if we’d be in the same awful morass without him — although obviously less focused on him and less celebrity-accelerated.

Bret: I blame Roger Ailes, the brains behind Fox News. He’s the guy most responsible for jettisoning old news values of objectivity, sobriety and balance for new news values of perfervid partisanship. Other networks then mirror-imaged the same destructive formula. I also blame Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, for reducing the art of thinking into the act of grunting. And I blame the algorithm people at Facebook, for accelerating our national descent into a collection of self-contained, self-reinforcing, mutually loathing echo chambers.

Who are your villains?

Gail: Happy to go along with your picks and especially interested in how folks like those algorithm people at Facebook are able to transform the national conversation.

Bret: Another thing historians will look back on with wonder: How did a bunch of 20- and 30-something tech geeks become the masters of our political fates?

Gail: But if I was going to go back a step, Trump-wise, I’d have to add Rush Limbaugh, who also pioneered the whole idea of turning shrieking political diatribes into mass media entertainment.

Bret: Fact check: True.

Gail: Now, on the disagreement end. Congress is moving on to the second part of the Biden domestic agenda, Build Back Better. Drives me nuts that we have to explain that Build Back Better is the non-infrastructure part. But beyond that, I’m a fan. Your take?

Bret: I’ve reached the point where I hope Senator Manchin has the guts and good sense to kill it. I think it’s a solution to secondary problems that we could address in a period of calm and prosperity — which, alas, is not now — and will exacerbate our primary problems, the chief of which is inflation.

I also think it will deeply damage the Democrats in the midterms. And, to our progressive readers who got mad at what I just said, please remember that the moment the Senate flips to Republican control, the Biden presidency will be dead in the water, including on all of his judicial picks.

Gail: We’re talking about a responsible bill to make life slightly easier for low- and moderate-income families with kids and for seniors in need of home health care to keep them out of nursing homes. Paid for with tax revenue from rich people who should have been anteing up before.

I guess in this political climate, the right wing could whip up outrage in the electorate. But if the public really comes to understand what it does, it’ll be a plus.

Bret: You may be right, I may be crazy, and it just might be another big expansion of government that America is looking for.

But I have a hard time seeing how pumping hundreds of billions of additional dollars into the economy after we’ve already spent trillions on Covid relief isn’t going to further raise inflation, which is rising at the fastest rate in 30 years and should be the one thing the Biden administration cares about most when it comes to the welfare of working people.

On a different subject, Gail, have you been following the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse in Wisconsin?

Gail: The Rittenhouse trial is another horror show about guns in this country. The bottom line is that you have a 17-year-old marching into a situation of public disorder toting a semiautomatic rifle he had no business possessing.

But the way the trial is going and the judge is behaving, I’m worried he’s going to be seen as a poor kid trying to defend his community.

What’s your thought?

Bret: I think we’re in accord that Rittenhouse should never have been where he was, much less with a gun. But teenage stupidity by itself isn’t a capital offense, or else most of us would have gone to jail for life.

Gail: But not, I think, for shooting someone. When you’re talking about killing people with what amounts to an assault weapon, I don’t know that “dopey teenager” is a good defense.

Bret: Unless the people he shot were attacking him, with one even pointing a handgun toward his head. The central point, it seems to me, is that the media and the prosecution seem to have a predetermined narrative that is crumbling under cross-examination. Which makes me grateful that we still have a concept of the presumption of innocence and a trial system that makes people take a much closer look at the evidence before rendering a verdict. I just hope Kenosha doesn’t erupt in violence again if he’s acquitted.

Gail: Well, I just hope the right wing doesn’t get to use it as another sales point for guns. But I’m not terribly optimistic on that front.

Bret: On that we agree. And on a final note, Gail, I was deeply struck by Marc Lacey’s poignant obituary for F.W. de Klerk, the white South African leader who wound up partnering with Nelson Mandela to tear down apartheid. A nice reminder that history also moves forward, thanks to people who know how to lose gracefully, even courageously. And how to change their minds.

Gail: Amen to that.

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