On Bari Weiss and COVID-19

It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged, but I’m on my first long break in many years and dying to be away from social media so I’m trying this to see how things go. Who knows, maybe I’ll start a newsletter.

It should come as no surprise, if you follow me on Twitter, that I’m not the biggest fan of Bari Weiss, former New York Times writer and current Substack newsletter-er and podcaster. Her hypocrisy has been evident to me for a long time (I’d say since she branded herself a free speech zealot while refusing to address her own past protest against allowing the leader of Iran to speak at her alma mater), and her attitude reeks of…well, to put it frankly, grift. Although she’s been branded a truth-teller and self-identifies as a “classical liberal,” I see someone who likes to poke at fires for profit.

Despite my distaste for her attitude, I’ve put in some time to read her writing and listen to her podcast, and there are things she gets right. She’s not unintelligent; quite the contrary, she’s smart and knows how to manipulate facts to achieve her desired results. Never have I seen this more on full display than in her recent appearance on Bill Maher where she declared herself to be “done with COVID” after “going so hard” on it (including doing things like stripping at her front door, which was never recommended, and watching Tiger King, which nobody should do).

Some of her chief complaints are that liberals are afraid to say they’re done with COVID because they don’t want to be smeared as anti-vaxxers or Trumpers; and that “we were told” that vaccines would allow us to go back to normal (the implication being that we should be at “normal” by now). Now, on the first point, I’m absolutely sure there are some people who are afraid to speak their minds for fear of being attacked—one thing that I will admit Weiss has gotten right is in her assessment of the identitiarian left’s behavior on social media, though her utter failure to address the often worse behavior coming from the right and traditional liberals is a big part of why I struggle to take her seriously. I would wager that, in fact, many liberally-minded people (regardless of where they fall on the United States’ ridiculously binary political “spectrum”) are concerned with their fellow citizens, with solidarity with the chronically ill and vulnerable, and—tending to be college-educated—perhaps overly obsessed with data.

I’ll get to the latter point in a moment, but I want to address this from a personal perspective, as someone farther to the left than Weiss but also as a civil libertarian who has felt uneasy with some of the more draconian measures and with my own thinking around them, at times. I’m a cancer survivor with an autoimmune illness, and unlike Weiss (who appears to be healthy and is younger than I am), I don’t have the privilege or luxury of being “done with COVID.” I’m also not pro-lockdown; since getting my second shot in July of 2021 (things are slower in Germany, that was the front of the line), I’ve been pretty out and about. I visited my mother in the United States in October and even went to a few bars and restaurants there. In Germany, where things operate under “2G” or “2G+” rules (2G stands for “geimpft und genesen”, which means vaccinated or recovered within a 6-month period, while the plus means alternatively a booster or same-day test, both of which are free as in beer), I’ve gone to a few bars and restaurants. I also went to Poland, a country that pretty much operates like a red state, several times throughout the fall to teach a MA course, and with trepidation, went to restaurants there too, even as news of Omicron had begun to spread. I’ll admit that once Omicron was a clear threat, my friends and I all began to test more frequently—including before any indoor gathering—and I stopped going to indoor spaces where masks weren’t worn (fortunately limited only to bars and restaurants in Germany). But apart from the fact that they constantly fluctuate, I’m pretty comfortable with Germany’s rules, which could be summed up as “as long as you’re vaccinated and willing to wear a mask in places where vulnerable people might go, life is sort of normal.”

Now, Weiss’s second point—that “we were told” X and therefore X should have happened—surprised me a little bit. Although again, I’m quite skeptical of her honesty, I try to take her on her word that she’s a “free thinker,” and as such, would not expect her to utterly fail to…well, think on this one. Just because you’re told something—and by a government agency that has been driven by capitalism and condescension throughout this entire pandemic, no less—doesn’t mean that thing will necessarily be true. That seems obvious to me, as does the fact (yes, fact) that despite trials, there was no real way of knowing the effect the various vaccines would have in the wild, and on an ever-mutating virus. That seems so obvious to me, but sound bite Bari bypassed it in entirely in favor of an overly simplistic narrative that serves…well, who, exactly?

She also says that cloth masks do nothing, and that asymptomatic vaccinated people can still spread COVID (and therefore vaccine passports are pointless), and she’s not wrong there. But rather than see those data points as proof that we need a more scientifically sound approach to this deadly disease, she throws up her hands (just like her buddy, science denier Joe Rogan) and suggests that this is all the more reason we should just give up. She also points out the impact of lockdowns on teenagers and children, a point that resonates with me though I won’t get into detail because I haven’t read enough experts on the matter—but will acknowledge has undoubtedly caused harm via isolation to all of us.

But this brings me to my broader point: Weiss has fallen into the same trap as so many other American commentators, and that is getting sucked into a binary approach to COVID. You can see on Twitter, in sound bites from talk shows, in the pages of the Times and the Post (both of which have of late been publishing pieces that seem designed to get Americans riled up about European policies, many of which have broad support in their given countries).

So what are we to do? If you look, the real experts have been saying it all along: Get vaccinated and boostered. Wear a good mask (a KN95/N95/FFP2 or the like), and always wear it in places where vulnerable people need to be (like public transit and the supermarket). Keep an eye on the numbers and use caution when they’re high. Test before indoor gatherings. Limit your social contacts.

The problem with this advice is that it isn’t simple enough on a public policy level (at least not in the United States, apparently), and it requires constantly-shifting risk assessments, which most people aren’t very good at. But the frustrating thing for me has been watching the CDC and the American pundit class throw up their hands instead trying to, I don’t know, get people up to speed on how to make those assessments.

I’ve watched a lot of people I know struggle with all of this in various directions (such as ignoring advice or going hard on it and living in a bubble), and I’ve watched many of them come around to a reasonable, non-reactionary approach that yes, unfortunately includes having to think before making plans. It’s not fun. It’s tiresome. And yet, despite all of the aforementioned activities I’ve engaged in and my moderately high-risk status, I haven’t gotten COVID yet (knock on wood, etc).

Let me be clear: I don’t think bars and restaurants should have to close. I think people should be able to choose their own risk, provided they also behave responsibly and work to protect the more vulnerable members of society. I understand, also, as an American, that this runs counterintuitive to The American Way ™ and therefore isn’t going to get Bill Maher any new viewers or Bari Weiss any new Substack subscribers.