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Essay

COVID-19 and The New York Times as an Ideological Gatekeeper

By Gary Olson

“Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets.”

— Karl Marx

I’ve been negligent in failing to acknowledge my gratitude to op-ed writers at the New York Times for their frequent doses of insidious misinformation which demand disassembling and refutation. They didn’t disappoint on May 5, 2020. In the lead op-ed, “Will We Get Used to the Dying?”, Editor-at-Large Charlie Warzal expresses his gut-wrenching feeling that Americans are already beginning to adapt to Covid-19’s deadly consequences. After informing readers that the Federal government has ordered an extra 100,000 body bags and that a reliable computer model projects 3,000 deaths per day in early June, Warzal suggests that most Americans are likely to “simply carry on with their lives” and finds parallels with the indifference now shown toward mass shootings across the country.

Warzal goes on to offer a detailed and accurate laundry list of Trump’s sins of commission and omission on Covid-19. He blames American citizens for their childlike notions of personal freedom “where any suggestion of collective duty and responsibility for others becomes the chains of tyranny…where the idea of freedom is also an excuse to serve one’s self before others and as a shield to hide from responsibilities.” He concludes — rightly I think — that “this kind of freedom has a price that will be calculated and then set by a select few. The rest of us merely pay it.” Setting aside the fact that Mr. Warzal opines from his laptop in Missoula, Montana and in all likelihood will not be one of those “paying the ultimate price”, what else can we learn from this article?

What we see here is an honest explication of horrific symptoms but a troubling, almost “blame the victim” explanation in lieu of addressing the actual cause of the problem. First, the narrow notions of “freedom” that Warzal skewers didn’t arise out of thin air but have been carefully cultivated. This rapacious system logic overtook the nation in the post-Reconstruction era of the Gilded Age and has remarinated the world of business and finance since the time of Thatcher and Reagan. Today the muting of empathic impulses is almost complete as the “common interest” is subjugated to the cultural construction of selves based entirely on market values. Even morals have been deregulated.

The “freedom” Warzal cites but fails to connect to the larger system is only the freedom to pursue economic self-interest as a hyper-competitive, perpetual consumer. As Noam Chomsky has asserted, “[T]he very idea that we’re in it together, that we care about one each other, that we have a responsibility to one another, that’s sort of frightening to those people who want a society which is dominated by power, authority, wealth, in which people are passive and obedient.” Or, as the famed primate scientist Frans de Waal succinctly puts it, “You need to indoctrinate empathy out of people to arrive at extreme capitalist positions.” The United States is not unique in this regard but the extreme difference in degree almost makes it a difference in kind.

Second, what we see in Warzal’s piece is the ideological demarcation line which can never be crossed by journalists who aspire to reaching the profession’s elite echelons. In this case, he leaves the impression that Trump and a “select few” others made the decisions about opening up the country but in fact it’s an entire class of people. who, paradoxically, also don’t have a choice of sending a certain percentage of workers to needless death. Wall Street and the politicians who serve it are compelled to take this action under the ineluctable logic of ceaseless capitalist growth and profit-making — or watch their system totally collapse. This is the dirty truth that can never rise to the level conscious thought much less ever be uttered.

Third, in perusing the online Comments section (1,085 and now closed) we find an entirely predictable response that’s confined to debating gun control and trashing Trump. The latter attribute our problems to Trump’s ego and personal ambition. A tiny fraction condemns Americans for the selfishness but if there’s a single comment that raised any deeper questions, I missed it.

Now, lest I be misunderstood, I’m not suggesting the Times’ editorial board gathers around a virtual table like a coven of diabolical conspirators and conjures up creative narratives to deceive the paper’s readers. Quite the contrary is the case. They are enablers for a class of individuals who behave according to system which has an inherent dynamic: expand or perish. As such, these cultural coordinators for the powerful, take on beliefs that are deeply entrenched and congruent with their perception of journalistic integrity and the responsibilities accompanying it.

Advancing views of elite interests is a prerequisite to attaining and retaining these positions. And there’s an enormously satisfying symmetry between their beliefs and their self interest. Their role of frontline, ideological gate keepers affords them substantial economic rewards, privileged lifestyles and immense status among their peers. And just to be clear, these folks are sharing their genuine convictions. Psychologists tell us that people experience cognitive dissonance from lying repeatedly so they come to believe what they’re writing and saying. They don’t lose sleep over it and it’s safe to describe their behavior as psychopathic.

Gary Olson is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. His most recent book is EMPATHY IMPERILED: Capitalism, Culture and the Brain (New York: Springer Publishing, 2012). Contact: olsong@moravian.edu.

First published in Countercurrents.org

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author.

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