Right and Wrong, Narrative and News


Have you noticed that the talking points have solidified?  If you resist the government’s COVID-19-related impositions — even to say that people should do what they’re asked, but that they should be asked rather than told — you’re “selfish” and want people to die.

An exchange I had earlier with former Providence Journal reporter and UConn journalism professor Mike Stanton was enlightening.  It started with Stanton retweeting a since-deleted list of some RI religious leaders who aren’t ready to open, yet:

Stanton: Some faith leaders get it. Meanwhile, critics threatening to sue seem to think it’s about religion, not science & math. Churches are hot spots, even some that reopened too fast with limited capacity. 25% at a church = more bodies than 50% at a restaurant. Sometimes, literally.

Me: It’s about rights and treating people as adults, not subjects. Creating special restrictions for religious organizations because of what they do on the premises is plainly unconstitutional.

Stanton: No, it’s about selfishness and people not acting like adults for the greater good. Not “special restrictions” on what they do but the physical numbers in the space. Just like restrictions on theaters, concert halls, which remain closed. Other faith leaders can see it, and agree.

Me: That’s prior restraint. No church-goers have failed to act as adults in Rhode Island because they’re being dictated to. Labeling others’ religious views as “selfish” doesn’t give government a workaround for civil rights. This is the essence of dictatorship. … Basically: “We can’t trust people with rights because they’ll act selfishly, so we should take those rights away.”

As it happens, I was thinking about the lack of instructions for the reopening of theaters and similar businesses earlier and wondering why no progressives have objected that the governor has fallen afoul of the Constitution by privileging religious organizations and allowing them to open at all.  But the word has apparently gone out that more closing is desirable, and that is the message.  That is the narrative.

This brings to mind a couple more recent tweets, by Jon Levine of the New York Post.  Levine juxtaposes two news reports, The Atlantic calling Georgia’s reopening an “experiment in human sacrifice,” and Fox News reporting lower case counts following Georgia’s reopening.

Levine:  There won’t be any contrition. There won’t be any apology. But they’ll pretend to wonder why people don’t trust them. … When they’re wrong, they just power through it, but if you’re wrong, they’ll put it in headlines about you for the rest of your life and then after you’re gone

That resonates across the board and at every level of government and politics: “When they’re wrong, they just power through it.”  The reason gets back to another tweet by Stanton, responding to the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s #WeWantOurSummerBack campaign:

Stanton:  Imagine a summer with a global pandemic.
– Where people ignore science, health & reason.
– Where folks have hissy fits about masks & other precautions that would actually make it safer to reopen.

When summer fun turns to fall funerals.

However one might characterize this tweet, it isn’t about “science, health & reason.”  Science adjusts for facts on the ground, which have become considerably milder in the past few weeks (in terms of spread and of our understanding of the virus).  Reason makes distinctions between a call to resist overly burdensome restrictions and a “hissy fit” about any precautions at all.

Rather, Stanton has a set narrative and that is the end of the story.  In his view, people who object to the idea that they can’t make decisions by themselves and must be told how to live in minute detail so as not to be “selfish” simply have their heads in the sand about how foolish they really are.  For further evidence that he’s putting narrative over actual news, consider these additional tweets from the thread above:

Stanton: Naysayers are in denial. Even many faith leaders get it. Some churches resumed services at 25% & regretted it; one had 31 people attend – 24 got sick, 2 died.
Do the math – 25% of a church seating 150 is more bodies than 50% of a restaurant that seats 40.

As of this writing, he hasn’t responded to my question, but he appears to be referencing an incident that I addressed two weeks ago, and if so, he’s practically making the story up to fit his narrative.  It wasn’t a church reopening with precautions at 25% capacity.  Rather, near the beginning of the pandemic, the church had a catered birthday party with 41 people, which could be 90% of the building’s capacity for all we know.

When you’re claiming to be speaking from a position of science and advocating policies that restrict our rights and that have massive implications for the real lives of millions of people, details are important.

But the people pushing these talking points won’t adjust.  They won’t apologize.  They’ll power through, because it’s all about the narrative.