In the grittier, less sanitized adaptations of Aesop’s “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” it is not only the sheep that lose their lives but the eponymous “boy” as well, his repeated mendacity and ill-timed attention-seeking leading, ultimately, to his death. Behavior, readers learn, breeds behavior, dishonesty begets mistrust, and gratuitousness fosters insensitivity, for “Men bileve not lyghtly hym whiche is knowen for a lyer.” Alarm, that most useful of things, operates on broadly the same principle. If everything is terrifying, eventually nothing will be. And then what is to become of us?
Over the past few decades or so, “racism” has become one of Aesop’s wolves, “racist” having been converted into such a depressingly quotidian charge that even those who believe racial injustice to be ubiquitous have come to resent the frequency with which it is alleged. Conservatives have long rolled their eyes at the wanton manner in which their ideological opponents have sought to tarnish them with the word — Peter Brimelow famously observed that, in so many instances, the definition of a “racist” is a “conservative who is winning an argument” — but, of late, we have been joined in irritation by other fair-minded sorts who have just about had enough. Earlier this year, George Will noted correctly that on college campuses and beyond, the charge has “become a joke among young people” — to the extent, even, that discussions of the topic are being received with “mirth.” Their inquiry? “What wolf”?
This, I’d propose, is a mixed blessing. Insofar as we are seeing pushback against the silliness, the development is a welcome one. But, beyond that narrow victory, the trend is culturally catastrophic. This is not a perfect world, and we are still in need of a word to describe those few among us who genuinely do come to ugly judgments on the basis of nothing more than the color of a man’s skin. If, as has started to happen, the term “racist” becomes too diluted — or, indeed, if it comes to be thrown around with such a lack of care that nobody is quite sure what it means anymore — both our language and our intellectual life will have been significantly impoverished. All of us have an interest in making sure that this does not come to pass.
Just as Aesop’s shepherd had a responsibility to reserve his clarion calls for times of genuine crisis, then, America’s race-relations watchers can be said to have an obligation to avoid frivolous and ill-considered charges of hostility. Alas, such discernment seems rarely to be in evidence. Writing in the Guardian last week, Hannah Giorgis proposed seriously that the Western world’s pronounced fear of Ebola was merely a proxy for “fear of a black patient.” The man who brought Ebola into the United States, Giorgis noted correctly, “was black, he was poor, and he was African” — and this, she suggested, really matters. After all, Giorgiscomplained, “a Dallas hospital turned away” the patient — an “uninsured Liberian immigrant” named Thomas Eric Duncan — “after an initial exam concluded he suffered only from a ‘low-grade viral disease.’” Simultaneously, “the media turned [Duncan] into the unsympathetic, undeserving face of a contagion with which the west is frantically grappling.” Far from being individually notorious for having brought a lethal disease to the United States, Giorgis suggested, Duncan and other West Africans with Ebola have “become nothing more than disease vectors responsible for infecting innocent western health workers.” So too “Amber Joy Vinson, the second healthcare worker diagnosed with the virus,” who Giorgisbelieves has been criticized because she is black. Meanwhile, Nina Pham, a nurse at Texas Presbyterian who contracted the disease while treating a patient, is apparently immune from criticism, presumably because she’s . . . Asian?
This hypothesis — which has gained some currency in the sillier quarters of the cosmopolitan Left — carries about it all the hallmarks of a good old-fashioned conspiracy theory, convincing only to the unhealthily obsessed and the terminally ignorant. At first glance, one can just about contort oneself into imagining that Giorgis’s case might make sense. And yet, as with all ludicrous yarns, the whole kit and caboodle falls hopelessly apart at the first hint of inquiry. Thomas Eric Duncan was not the first person who has been misdiagnosed and turned away from a hospital, and he will not be the last. Moreover, that he was initially presumed to be suffering from little more than a “low-grade viral disease” is so unsurprising as to barely merit comment. The Pan American Health Organization records that the early symptoms of Ebola “can be easily attributed to several other diseases such as malaria, shigellosis, cholera, leptospirosis, rickettsiosis, relapsing fever, hepatitis, typhoid fever, meningitis, the plague or a number of other viral hemorrhagic fevers,” and that “confirmation of the Ebola virus can only be confirmed by laboratory testing.” As far as we are all aware, the United States has never hosted an outbreak of this disease before. So what exactly did one expect a community hospital in Dallas to think when they encountered Duncan? “Gosh, this man has a fever, it’s probably Ebola?” Hardly. Indeed, had medical professionals looked at the man and, taking stock of his provenance, elected to treat him extra cautiously, would this not have represented precisely the sort of profiling that the Giorgises of the world love to hate?
Martin Luther King’s famous injunction held that we might judge others not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. In which case, the salient question has to be: Can we make a solid case against both Duncan and Vinson purely on the basis of their behavior? Clearly, we can. The Associated Press — which organization’s rather insipid prose is not known for its racial overtones — has suggested that Duncan lied on a government form when leaving Liberia, assuring authorities that he had not come into contact with anybody suffering from Ebola. This, the country’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, suggested, was a disgraceful choice. “One of our compatriots didn’t take due care,” Sirleaf toldCBC, “and so, he’s gone there and in a way put some Americans in a state of fear, and put them at some risk, and so I feel very saddened by that and very angry with him.” Later in the interview, she described Duncan’s recklessness as “unpardonable, quite frankly.” Officials in Dallas County, too, have investigated the implications. “We are looking into whether or not Duncan knowingly and intentionally exposed the public to a deadly virus, making this a criminal matter for Dallas County,” spokeswoman Debbie Denmon told reporters last week. Are we to believe that this story would be different if Duncan had been from Prague?
The case against Vinson is almost identical, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Tom Frieden, having argued publicly that Vinson should not have chosen to travel on a thousand-mile-long commercial flight when she a) knew that she was getting sick and b) knew with which lethal and unpredictable disease she had recently come into contact. “She should not have been on that plane,” Dr. Frieden said bluntly. At no point did he mention her pigmentation. Are we to presume that she would have been given a pass if her race were different?
Being a sensible sort, Dr. Frieden appears to be hoping that no Americans will catch Ebola and die — an instinct that, in Hannah Giorgis’s peculiar little world, must surely be the product not of the universal human desire for self-preservation but of a racial animus so exquisite that it can only be revealed by monomaniacalGuardianistas. “Ebola,” Giorgis writes, “now functions in popular discourse as a not-so-subtle, almost completely rhetorical stand-in for any combination of ‘African-ness’, ‘blackness’, ‘foreign-ness’ and ‘infestation’ — a nebulous but powerful threat, poised to ruin the perceived purity of western borders and bodies.” On occasion, Mark Steyn has (half-)joked that all nations are capable of reaching a point beyond which they will become too stupid to survive. That “racism” was the initial reaction to the news that a lethal virus had reached America’s shores would appear rather to support his prediction.
All in all, we have a somewhat simple choice here. We can either regard the word “Ebola” as an opportunity for the promulgation of chichi sociology essays, or — preferably, I think — we can recognize that we are talking here about a serious problem that requires a serious remedy. I am nervous when I hear the word “Ebola” not because it conjures up in my mind images of people who have different-colored skin than I, but because it inspires images of a terrifying ailment that, per MDhealth.com, begins with “a sudden onset of fever, general weakness, muscle pain, chills, headaches and sore throat,” quickly provokes “nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, bloody stool, bloodshot eyes, rash, chest pain and coughing, stomach pain, severe and rapid weight loss, bruising, bleeding from various orifices (most commonly the eyes), internal bleeding and impaired kidney and liver function,” and, eventually, ushers in death, typically after “a catastrophic drop in blood pressure resulting from the damage done to the blood vessels and massive blood loss.” Oh, yes: And it “has no cure.”
There are times in which it is appropriate for a civilized people to ruminate on prevailing injustices, and there are times in which it is appropriate for them to attend to the basics and to shoo away maladies and hazards. By treating Ebola’s arrival in America as an opportunity for hollow contemplation and sophomoric allegations of bigotry, Hannah Giorgis and her fellow travelers have rendered themselves shepherds of the asinine, undermining the very cause to which they hope to draw attention and ensuring that, next time a wolf really is at the door, a few more of the townsfolk will pooh-pooh the warnings, roll their weary eyes, and leave the indignant messengers to their fate.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.