For nearly two years now, Anthony Fauci has been an object of fascination, adoration, even worship in an America both frightened and polarised by the coronavirus. From the beginning, the Left identified him as the public health expert to trust: the one member of Donald Trump’s Covid response team who was willing to contradict him in public, our own personal mole in the White House, a voice for science and sanity in the face of the president’s bluster and incompetence.
He was the one who undermined Trump’s “just the flu” narrative; he was the one who told us that the virus wasn’t going to disappear in the spring. When Trump was touting the unproven benefits of hydroxychloroquine to treat Covid, Fauci stepped in with a reality check — and yet always, somehow, stayed just enough in the President’s good graces to keep his job.
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And so, after last year’s election, we greeted Fauci as a hero who’d emerged safely, against all odds, from behind enemy lines. Journalists sat with him for breathless interviews, asking how he “survived” his time as Trump’s advisor. Time magazine wrote, jubilantly: “Anthony Fauci Is Finally Getting to Do His Job”. The New Yorker declared him “America’s Doctor”.
The fact that he was still standing, preaching the gospel of science while Donald Trump slunk away with his tail between his legs, took on its own significance. Fauci was more than the sum of his parts; he was a figurehead. And while he did decry the tragic and unnecessary politicisation of the Covid pandemic from his new perch as Biden’s Chief Medical Advisor, it was a winking sort of neutrality: when the man wishes out loud that “we had a country where people realized the importance of a communal effort,” it’s not like we don’t know which people he’s talking about.
Given that half the nation wants to canonise him as the Patron Saint of Public Health, it was probably inevitable that Fauci would be ultimately unable to resist buying into his own hype — but it was still remarkable to witness. In a recent interview with Face the Nation, Fauci explained why the criticism he’s weathered from politicians like Senator Ted Cruz, who accused him of lying under oath about what kind of viral research the NIH was funding, is not just distasteful but dangerous.
“They’re really criticizing science because I represent science,” he said. “That’s dangerous. To me, that’s more dangerous than the slings and the arrows that get thrown at me. I’m not going to be around here forever, but science is going to be here forever.”
For some, this statement was nothing more or less than a terrifying profession of absolute power: La science, c’est moi. But let’s be charitable and imagine that what Fauci was trying to say — inelegantly — is not that he believes himself to be synonymous with science, but that other people treat him as such, attacking him as a proxy for the ideas they find offensive.
The thing is, that’s not really any better. These comments reveal a monumental hubris no matter how you slice it, a conviction that no criticism — whether it’s of him or his ideas — could ever be valid. If he’s not accusing his detractors of heresy for questioning capital-S Science, he’s still accusing them of anti-science bigotry and bad faith — and excusing himself from ever considering the possibility that at least a few of them might have a point.
For those old enough to remember it, this rhetorical style was last used to great effect in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, when our leaders waved away any notion of examining how the United States might have come to be seen as an avatar for imperialism, oppression, and Western decadence by declaring that the terrorists simply “hate us for our freedoms.” Fauci invokes the same immunity from self-reflection when he declares of criticism that “anybody who’s looking at this carefully realizes that there’s a distinct anti-science flavor to this.”
Never mind the documented inconsistencies in Fauci’s statements on masking, vaccine mandates, or boosters; never mind his lobbying for continued school closures until Biden’s stimulus bill had passed, which would have negative implications for hundreds of thousands of children; never mind the frustrating and opaque debate surrounding gain-of-function research at the Wuhan lab. The real question is: why do you hate science?!
It’s not hard to see the appeal of framing one’s critics as motivated by bigotry, which not only shuts down discussion completely but also has a way of rallying defenders to the cause. Suddenly, science is not about ideas but identity, an ideology with a tribe all its own. It’s a neat trick, this sleight-of-hand. And it is infectious.
The wheels of this social change were already turning before the pandemic. It was mid-2019 when I first encountered one of those rainbow-coloured “in this house we believe” signs, hung on the wall of a local yoga studio like a bible sampler for the Lululemon class. The “beliefs” in question are liberal platitudes, just this side of a thought-terminating cliché:
BLACK LIVES MATTER
WOMEN’S RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS
NO HUMAN IS ILLEGAL
SCIENCE IS REAL
LOVE IS LOVE
KINDNESS IS EVERYTHING
At first, these signs were just a form of political expression, a way for members of the educated liberal class to recognise other members of their tribe. But the isolation and uncertainty of Covid has kicked this mindset into another gear. SCIENCE IS REAL isn’t a statement expressing the literal existence of science; it’s yard-sign catechism, the shriek of a true believer.
And in this world, science isn’t something we do, a method of systematic structure and study that separates fiction from fact and hypothesis from conclusion; it’s something you believe in, like Santa Claus or alien abduction or the ability of your struggling but spirited football team to come through against all odds and win the championship. Secular people have put their faith in science the way the devout put their faith in a God — right down to anointing the most pious among us as institutional figureheads.
But the result is not just oddly religious, but perverse. Unlike actual science, which is one of the most vital truth-seeking mechanisms we have, this “science” is utterly incurious, hostile to questions, incapable of admitting fault. And while this would be an alarming development at any time, it’s especially bad amid a global catastrophe in which it’s never been more important to stay humble and ask questions, even if they’re politically inconvenient, even if they make powerful people bristle at your insubordination.
We can try to blame Anthony Fauci for this: for accepting the accolades, for licensing his bobblehead likeness, for letting us call the vaccine the “Fauci ouchie,” for buying wholesale into the myth of his own infallibility. But while Fauci may be at fault for getting a bit too high on his own supply, he didn’t appoint himself to this position; we did, when we decided to make him the Science Daddy without whose say-so we can never live normal lives again.
For two years, a frightened populace has looked to Fauci for the answers to impossible questions, for a sense of control amid the uncertainty, for assurance that we’re on the right side of history — even though nobody can tell us exactly what went wrong. We made science a civic religion, and we told Fauci he was the Pope. Unfortunately, he believed us.