The virus is now worse in this country than it’s ever been, and it’s likely to get worse still. Meanwhile the vice president is bragging that sure, infections may be up, but death rates are not, as if that’s reassuring. Donald Trump pulls back federal funding for tests, in Texas, where it’s raging, prompting a mild letter of protest even from sycophantic senators who will go down in historical shame for their complicity in Trump’s madness. Larry “Crazy Eddie” Kudlow keeps just saying shit, arrogant enough to think that if he says it, then surely it has to come true.
They’ve given up. They’ve run up the white flag. The position is: The hell with it, people are going to get sick, some are going to die, with any luck not enough to cause a scandal, but we’re not shutting anything down again, and if people want to go to the movies and football games this fall, well, they’ll just have to roll the dice and man up, it’s on them, not us, cuz this is America, and we didn’t steal all that Indian land and conquer the world by being a bunch of stay-at-home ninnies, and in the meantime we’ll just hope that the scientists—you know, the people we constantly denounce because they talk about, you know, science—discover a vaccine. Ideally on about October 8 or so, in which case Republicans and Fox News will be carrying on as if Trump had donned a lab coat and developed it himself (“I know more than the scientists”).
It’s a moral scandal of immense proportion, and so surreal that Buñuel couldn’t even make a film about these people, since the reality of what they say and do on a weekly basis is so much more bizarre than any fiction. But it can get worse. With these people, it can always get worse.
Here, I have a little historical story I ran across a few weeks ago that I’d like to share with you. It’s quite illuminating as to our current predicament, and it has the advantage of carrying with it not one but two morals.
It was the spring of 1954. Polio had been afflicting millions of children in America and around the world for generations. Cases surged in 1952 just as Jonas Salk of the University of Pittsburgh was beginning to make some important breakthroughs. That same year, he developed a promising vaccine, and he and his laboratory began injecting some children with it. In 1953, he injected his own children. By early 1954, massive trials were undertaken.
At the time, Walter Winchell was the most famous journalist in America. He had a newspaper column, syndicated everywhere, and a radio show that was more popular than Jack Benny’s. Once an ardent New Dealer, he was, by the 1950s, a conservative, or indeed a reactionary crank. He was a feral supporter of Joseph McCarthy. He was friends with Roy Cohn, mentor of you-know-you. He launched a vicious attack on Josephine Baker, who’d said once that she wasn’t allowed into the Stork Club—the swank East Side spot where Winchell held court and never picked up a check—because she was Black. Ed Sullivan, God bless him, the same Ed Sullivan who a decade later would happily risk offending Southern CBS affiliates’ racist sensibilities by taking Diana Ross’ hand, said, “I despise Walter Winchell because he symbolizes to me evil and treacherous things in the American setup.”
Salk’s vaccine used dead viruses to build up immunity to the disease. It was produced in different batches and tested on groups of children and animals. Apparently, some months before, some tests produced for upcoming trials had shown evidence of containing a live virus. Further tests on monkeys showed spinal lesions that were a possible sign of polio, according to David Oshinsky, a historian at New York University and author of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize-winning Polio: An American Story.
And so it came to pass that on the night of April 4, 1954, Winchell opened his radio show with his customary salutation, followed by a broadside that must have sent a terrifying chill through his audience: “Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America, and all the ships at sea. Attention everyone. In a few moments I will report on a new polio vaccine claimed to be a polio cure. It may be a killer.”
He went on to say that in one test, the vaccine had killed several monkeys. Switchboards across the country lit up. Salk was on the defensive.
He answered back immediately, visiting the newsroom of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on the very night of the broadcast. All vaccines dispensed to children, he argued, had been triple-tested—by his own laboratory at Pitt, by the manufacturers, and by the National Institutes of Health. I have even, he said, given this vaccine to my own children. Others in the scientific community backed up Salk. The furor settled, and the next year, the vaccine became widely available. Salk became one of the greatest Americans of the 20th century, for developing the vaccine and especially for refusing to take a patent for it, and Winchell is recalled as one of the century’s leading dirtbags.
And now to the morals of the story.
Moral one: If Fox News had existed in 1954, we might never have had a polio vaccine, or at least it might have been delayed for a few years. As it was at the time, Winchell, though he commanded a huge stage, was not part of a larger right-wing fake news ecosystem that created its own “reality.”
Luckily, in the America of 1954, the mainstream media and the scientific community were able to push back successfully against Winchell, who had been fed his information by a doctor who’d been fired years before by the March of Dimes and had an obvious axe to grind. The information—shocker here—turned out to be false. “The monkeys did not die,” Oshinsky told me via email. “They did not have polio, and the vaccine used for the trials was perfectly safe.” Huh. He used dubious information to whip up public paranoia. Sound like anybody you know?
Winchell was outgunned. But if there had been a Fox News and dozens of talk-radio hosts and all these wingnut websites that we have today, who knows how long the war on Salk would have lasted?
Moral two, and far less hypothetical: Let us suppose that next year, Joe Biden is the president of the United States, and a vaccine is developed. And suppose, as seems somewhere between likely and inevitable, there’s a glitch in the trials. What Fox et al. will do will make Winchell look like an undergrad at a debating society. They’ll move heaven and earth to do exactly what Winchell tried to do, but times ten. They will hammer away at and inflate every little problem. They will in other words prefer that people die in order to deny Joe Biden any kind of bank-shot credit for anything.
Oh, come on yourself. Don’t be naive. Of course they will.
As Trump and team quit even trying on the virus, his defenders will become even more insistent that the emperor is wearing clothes and the plague is contained. No real-world fact is more important than crushing science and the libs. And as the Winchell-Salk episode shows us, it didn’t start with Trump.