Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #157. First published in the St. Cloud Times online July 31, 2020; in print Aug. 2

In Robert Bolt’s play about Thomas More, “A Man for All Seasons,” More’s enemy (and sometime friend), Thomas Cromwell, gently coaxes Richard Rich to reveal details about an action of More’s that will subsequently be used against More in the trial that results in his beheading.

Rich initially hesitates, but Cromwell chips away. Once Rich coughs up the desired details, Cromwell says to him, “There, that wasn’t too painful, was it?” Rich (with stage direction “laughing a little and a little rueful”) replies, “No.” Then, Cromwell’s hymn to human frailty: “That’s all there is. And you’ll find it easier next time.”

How have we come to where “‘only’ 150,000 dead” is acceptable to close a conversation about a public health catastrophe? “That’s all there is.” And we are all too likely to find it even “easier next time.”

Our current interlocking crises – pandemic, social justice, economy – have highlighted ways in which the unacceptable has become “acceptable.” We need to readjust by calibrating with science and history.

Science doesn’t know it all but knows how to find things out.

The White House’s attempt to discredit Dr. Anthony Fauci by cataloging his changes of mind is in fact to honor him as the true scientist he has been for half a century. The coronavirus is called “novel” for a reason. You don’t know what it does until it does it. Scientists are among the least dogmatic people I know.

The suspicion of science, which surfaces in climate change denial as well as in the scorning of mask wearing, is hardly surprising in Minnesota, despite our excellence in higher education and medical technology.

A 2014 Pew Research study found that 34 percent of Minnesotans do not believe in evolution. As a great geneticist, Theodosius Dobzhansky (who went to church), put it in the March 1973 issue of “The American Biology Teacher,” “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

Minnesota’s 34 percent who discount “the light of evolution” put us near the middle of the pack (28 states have a lower percentage; 21, including the District of Columbia, have a higher; we’re tied with one – Pennsylvania).

A local instance of the contempt for science that bedevils us is A.J. Kaufman’s Your Turn (Times, July 26), “It’s time to reopen schools.” “Over 99% of those infected by COVID-19,” the writer declares, “face no major health problems. And children especially have no significant maladies.”

These claims, echoing President Trump, are highly selective. I wish Kaufman would listen to the heart-rending cries of medical personnel who describe, often in excruciating detail, the torment of patients, more and more of whom are not in the 1 percent Kaufman dismisses.

And there is no warrant for saying, now, that the infected “face no major health problems.” Every day brings new reports of hitherto unseen complications in people of all ages, and who’s to say children are exempt from such?

Has Kaufman followed the recent Minnesota statistics? Does Kaufman pay attention to Dr. Michael Osterholm, in whose expert opinion things are going to get worse? The virus does not care at all about our wishes.

This does not automatically mean we should not reopen schools. It does suggest that we pay attention to some very good evidence, from European schools that have opened, about what it takes to open well and safely. Low community spread is a prerequisite.

History teaches us to be skeptical of our certainties, especially when those certainties exclude people unlike us.

The killing of George Floyd has stripped the mask from our nation’s (and much of the world’s) cultural and systemic racism. So much that has been “acceptable” for so long is tumbling down, both literally and figuratively.

A recent instance here of an endemic “acceptable” appearing in public is in a remark made by Paul Brandmire in a meeting of the St. Cloud City Council: “I mean if we can mandate masks we can certainly mandate that any COVID-positive people wear some sort of identification badge, maybe like a bright yellow star or something on their lapel.”

Brandmire subsequently disclaimed any malign intent, but there is no excuse.

As Daniel Wildeson, director of the St. Cloud State University Center for Holocaust and Genocide Education, said, Brandmire is “asking us to compare victims of a virus to victims of a state-sponsored machine that was trying to exterminate a group of people from the earth.”

Brandmire linked the Holocaust to an effort by the City Council to protect the health of its citizens. Anti-Semitism, like racism, need not be deliberate to be real.

One way to move forward as a community is to run Cromwell’s remark in reverse: make it easier to turn what has become “acceptable,” with habit and often with inattention and sometimes with meanness, back into the unacceptable where it belongs.