As a rabbi, I have always looked at patterns and historical repetitions, and I have to admit… I am starting to get truly frightened. Not of coronavirus, earthquakes, or an increase in crime.
I am starting to get scared of “science”.
Not the scientific method that I grew up with of hypothesis, proof, and conclusion. But this strange and questionable “science” upon which public policies are now getting based. It is starting to remind me all too much of other policies based on “science” in the past. Historically, when public policies have been based in the science of the time, the policies have often led to dangerous and painful results.
When over 100 Chicago clergy opened their doors this past weekend to provide the essential services of spiritual nurturing through prayer in defiance of the stay-at-home order of Illinois Gov. Pritzker (D), the governor tweeted that he had “sympathy for leaders struggling with those choices — but not for those so intent on disregarding science & logic that they put people’s lives at risk.”
Governors Cuomo (D-New York) and Newsom (D-Calif.) have imposed draconian measures of quarantine and isolation based on “science” and in the process have determined that cannabis clubs, abortion clinics, and bike shops are all more “essential” than religious institutions.
The World Health Organization claimed on April 6 that science had determined that face masks were unnecessary for healthy people, and then determined by May that the science showed that everyone should wear a mask. Mayor Garcetti of Los Angeles has determined that the science shows that everyone needs to wear a mask as soon as leaving the house to prevent further spread of the virus.
Here in Ventura County, Calif., Dr Robert Levin has made it clear that the county will be hiring over 50 new staff to track people who have been exposed to COVID-19 and quarantine anyone who has been exposed, even removing them from their home environment (he tried to walk back his words a few days later, but you can listen to his actual words here. Dr. Levin’s science-based procedures are for a county that has fewer than 1/100 of one percent fatalities.
History shows us these same types of isolation practices and singling out of individuals or groups based on “science” before. The 18th-century zoologist Carl Linnaeus determined that the “African race” (as opposed to those from Europe) were “sly, lazy, cunning, lustful, careless, and governed by caprice.” His science proved that Asians were “severe, haughty, greedy, and ruled by opinions,” whereas the Europeans were “gentle, acute, inventive, governed by laws.”
This “scientific racism” was extended by Christopher Meiners (1747-1810), whose science demonstrated without a doubt that “negroes… feel less pain than others” and are “without emotion.” These and other “scientists” like them paved the way for justifying slavery. If those of African descent were less than human, then there was no reason to not treat them differently and even enslave them.
In 1912, Henry Goddard “scientifically” tested immigrants at Ellis Island and determined that 87% of Russians, 83% of Jews, 80% of Hungarians, and 79% of Italians were “feeble minded and had a mental age of less than 12.” His scientific proof was the foundation for the Immigration Act of 1924, restricting American immigration.
The twentieth century demonstrated the epitome of the dangers of “science” determining public policy in Europe. By 1933, German scientists had “proven without doubt” that there were different classes of humans; that the pure Aryan race was scientifically proven to be superior to all others; and that other categories such as Jews were “sub-human” (Untermenschen).
By definition, this meant that, like the black slaves of the 19th century, these sub-humans could and should be marked (with a yellow star if Jewish to distinguish them from the other more human races), isolated and quarantined, and even medically experimented on…all for the purpose of science and to protect the general public.
The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 codified into official public policy these anti-Semitic behaviors, all derived from the “modern science” of the time and based on the idea that the general populace should trust those scientists in order to protect the nation. Ultimately, this led to the Holocaust and the systematic killing of over six million Jews.
All proven by and in the name of “science.”
The policies of Messrs. Newsom, Cuomo, Garcetti, Levin, and their supporters are all based in the current scientific understanding of COVID-19. Although there are many scientists who disagree with their understanding, and although the understanding of this virus is constantly changing due to new information, these leaders are insisting upon basing public policy on fears based in “science.” And their draconian policies are not only intellectually inconsistent (ten people are allowed to gather in a crowded liquor store but not in a church sanctuary that can hold 500 people), but far too reminiscent of the policies based on the science of the day that ultimately led to the persecution and death of millions.
Is there really a difference between isolating people because they have been exposed to COVID-19 for the benefit of the masses and isolating Jews into European ghettos? What is the qualitative difference between the State hiring people to report and enforce quarantining those who have been potentially exposed to the virus, and Nazi soldiers being conscripted to find the “sub-human” Jews and mark them with a yellow star? All are based in “science” and enacted to protect the nation. And all these practices are the definition of evil.
George Santayana famously said, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Some truths are eternal, but real science is always growing and evolving. To base public policy on “scientific truths” is to emulate the behavior of the slave owners, xenophobes, racists, and Nazis. Our political leaders need to remember history in order to avoid repeating it. The best intentions of creating safety through public policy based in science can all too easily morph into the horrors of the Holocaust.
If our leaders do not recognize the danger of the policies they are enacting based on today’s science (knowing that the most basic medical understandings of today may radically change tomorrow as new studies are reported) it is incumbent upon “we the people” to help them recognize the danger of their path through petitions to those policy makers, in the court system, and even through peaceful civil disobedience if absolutely necessary.
We all need to acknowledge and emulate the courage of the 100 pastors in Illinois and of the 700 pastors in California who on May 31 will be opening their church doors in peaceful defiance of Gov. Newsom’s stay-at-home orders.
Two leaders of the past give us words to remember during these challenging times. Two thousand years ago Rabbi Hillel taught: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Centuries later, Benjamin Franklin was asked after the 1787 Constitutional Convention if we had a republic or a monarchy. He replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
May we all remember to be for both ourselves and others. To guide our leaders into creating public policies that are just, righteous, and not based on the whims of an ever-changing science, and to act now to prevent a history of ugliness from repeating itself.
If not now… when?