briefing, Albert Mohler

Monday, February 3, 2020

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Monday, February 3rd, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

World Health Organization Declares Coronavirus a Public Health Emergency: How China’s Autocratic Rule and Wet Markets Led to the Threat of a Pandemic

Just five days. It’s hard to imagine five bigger news days in staggering significance than last Thursday until at least this coming Wednesday. Just consider the sequence. Thursday of last week, the World Health Organization reversed its decision of a week previous and declared the coronavirus to be now a World Health Emergency, no small thing. And then on Friday at 11:00 PM London time, the United Kingdom left the European Union. Again, staggering. And then on Monday of this week we will see the Iowa caucuses. On Tuesday, the President of the United States will deliver the State of the Union Address and on Wednesday it is expected that the United States Senate will hold the final vote in the impeachment trial of the President of the United States. Just five days out of one week, consider the significance of those headlines. We’re going to be taking them in turn. Of course, the Iowa caucuses begin tonight and that will be huge news as we go into the new cycle on Tuesday. We may or may not, as we shall see, have greater definition about the Democratic race for the presidential nomination.

But in terms of urgency, the most important issue we must consider is the announcements concerning the coronavirus. It is now being described as a likely pandemic. These are words that are not intended to cause panic in the world’s population, but they are horrifying words, almost like the word “plague.” When you think of pandemic or epidemic or world health emergency, it underscores the fact that we are now in the modern age not only to detect these kinds of viruses, to pinpoint them and to follow them as we do now and even hopefully eventually to develop new kinds of treatments and vaccines, but the ominous reality is that anyone could get on a plane just about anywhere and take a disease almost anywhere else within less than 24 hours. And that’s long before the disease itself might even be detected.

But as we’re looking at the numbers as reported last night, the World Health Organization estimates there are now 17,205 confirmed cases. Again, that says of 11 o’clock Eastern time in the United States last night. Of the 17,205 confirmed cases, there have now been 361 confirmed deaths. There are now confirmed cases of the disease in 27 different countries and yesterday the Philippines reported the first death outside of China. The World Health Organization did on Thursday declare a world health emergency and that tells us something else because just a week previous to that they decided not to do so. But there’s a huge story behind this. There’s worldview significance just about everywhere we look. And of course as we are thinking in worldview analysis, when we look this particular virus and its origins, and we look at how it exploded on the world scene, there’s just a lot for us to consider.

Previously on The Briefing when this story first began to break, we considered pestilence and plague, infections and viruses as consequences of the fall. And furthermore, one of the horsemen of the apocalypse, one of the great enemies of humanity in this age. But when we’re looking at the situation now, it is human complicity that comes very much into the view. You’re talking about China after all as the source not only of this particular virus but of many similar epidemics. That’s not an accident. And you’re also looking at the fact that China is an autocratic state under the control of the Chinese Communist Party.

We now know that doctors began to signal concern about the emergence of this new virus far earlier in December than had been reported, but local party officials in Wuhan did not want to have that kind of news leak out. It would not be good for them, it would not be good for the party. There were even doctors who were told to stop, to cease and desist from talking about this virus because after all, it could lead to low morale. That’s what we are looking at when you consider an autocratic government. It will always think first of its own interest. And especially when you’re talking about a one-party state and especially when that state is an atheistic communistic dictatorship, then obviously that party is going to think of its own interests before it thinks of anything else. And when you’re talking about the Chinese regime and you’re talking about China’s experience as we mentioned on The Briefing previously, the SARS epidemic of the previous generation followed a very similar pattern.

Brianna Abbott of The Wall Street Journal reporting on the decision by the WHO said that its designation points to “an increase in the number of cases and it indicates the international public health authorities now consider the respiratory virus a significant threat beyond China where it originated back in December.”

But as you’re following this story, we need to recognize that the World Health Organization had to act in the course of a week, reversing its decision not to declare a world health emergency. Why? Because this is the way that pandemics work. They begin small and then they begin to grow and then suddenly they begin to accelerate almost to the point of mushrooming statistics. And here’s good news, just consider the fact that of the 17,205 confirmed cases, there have been only 361 deaths. If you’re looking at the math, that is about 2%. And if you’re talking about that 2% of deaths—obviously the death of every single human being made in the image of God is thus extremely significant and worthy of note—the reality is that the common flu in its variant of 2020 has killed far more people, but here’s where this has to be right now in our thinking. As you’re thinking about the new epidemic, the new coronavirus, that 2% becomes very, very crucial.

If that number stays constant, if the death toll of the confirmed cases remains about 2%, then if you’re looking at 17,205, that amounts to 361. But if this continues to mushroom, if there were to be 10 million cases of the disease, that would amount to about 200,000 deaths. And if there were to be 100 million cases of the disease, that would lead to as many as 2 million deaths. But when you think about China with its hundreds of millions of people in its population, it is no longer unthinkable to imagine something like 100 million confirmed cases of the disease. That would be a very significant escalation, but that’s really the point. And the good news is that the vast majority of people in China do not have the disease. And the vast majority of the people who get the disease do not have an extremely significant form of the disease. And even if there are more significant cases of the disease, the death toll was still relatively low.

But you can understand now why there was such political pressure, not only medical and scientific pressure, upon the World Health Organization to go ahead and declare this a world health emergency. And the numbers have just continued to grow after the WHO made that decision on Thursday. Health authorities in the United States had been extremely clear that so far as they’re concerned, the United States is in a situation of low risk. Furthermore, we have a very advanced healthcare system, but what we need to really fear is that this kind of epidemic would spread to regions of the world with very close urban populations that do not have advanced medical care. There, it could really become a very deadly situation.

And the worldview issues, when it comes to the form of government there in China, the dominance of the Chinese Communist Party, all this becomes extremely important. Yesterday’s front page of The New York Times included an article, the headline: “China Kept World in Dark as a Health Crisis Dawned.” That article by reporters Chris Buckley and Steven Lee Myers pointed to the fact that as one senior fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations said, “This was an issue of inaction. There was no action in Wuhan from the local health department to alert people to the threat.” Later in the article, we are told that by the time the authorities galvanized into action on January the 20th, “The disease had grown into a formidable threat. It is now a global health emergency.”

But even as the reporters do a very good job of uncovering the chronology of the emergence of the disease and when it was detected and then political efforts to suppress that knowledge, the article cites one governor who said, “Stressing politics is always number one.” He said, “Political issues are at any time the most fundamental major issues.” Well, there you have it. It is politics above.

At The Wall Street Journal, Daniel Henninger argues that what we’re looking at is what is called in the headline of his article: “A Communist Coronavirus.” He goes on to say, “China’s political system is going to damage the world by accident or intent.” In the article, he makes very clear that there are two different dimensions of this communist coronavirus. One is the context in which the virus actually developed. More on that in just a moment. But then the Communist Party’s attempts to suppress the knowledge of the illness and thus to avoid a public scandal or scare, and then the fact that once it reached a certain point, the Chinese Communist Party could no longer deny it. World Health Organization officials by the way, and medical authorities internationally, are giving the Chinese Communist Party a mixed report card on this. Clearly when it came to refusing to deal with the illness in the beginning, that’s an F mark. But in terms of actually disclosing the genetic composition of the disease and other information, the Chinese authorities are given far higher marks.

But one of the points made by Daniel Henninger is that the Chinese people, “Know they are not allowed to hold anyone in Beijing accountable for this virus or for the sickening pollution of their air and water.” One authority he cites, made clear as he says, who calls the shots, “As a local government official, after I get this kind of information, I still have to wait for authorization before I can release it.” Again, a classic situation of a one-party communist dictatorship that looks out for its own interests and does not really allow for any free flow of information whatsoever because that free flow of information would subvert the autocratic solitary power of the regime.

Ian Johnson writing an opinion piece in The New York Times yesterday entitled: “The Panic Epidemic Engulfs China,” points to the fact that there are other worldview dimensions we might not have noted. For instance, he asked whether or not the actions of the Chinese Communist Party in this situation will cause it to lose power and he says probably not. Why? Because as he says, “The Chinese people have at least to a considerable extent, bought the argument of the Chinese Communist Party that a nation that is geographically so large that includes so many different people groups and has such a massive population, requires a government with a very strong and at times unrestricted hand.” That’s a very dangerous argument, but you can see now how the Chinese Communist Party might even use that argument to its advantage.

A democratically elected government tends to be at times, even if it is technocratic and advanced, somewhat bound, of course, by public opinion in taking actions. But an autocratic government is bound by no such considerations. Ian Johnson explains it this way, “In this sense, the population has absorbed the government’s narrative of Chinese exceptionalism. Running China requires a strong hand, and these measures as absurd as they seem are proof that the government is doing a good job and pretend that the party will come out of this as always triumphant.” One reason for that, by the way, is that as the annals of this epidemic are told eventually in China, the only records are going to be those allowed by the Chinese government, dominated by the Chinese Communist Party.

But there’s one other issue that is very interesting and it has a couple of interesting plot twists as well. How in the world or why did this particular virus emerge from China and why was no one surprised? Holman Jenkins in another article for The Wall Street Journal explains it this way, “China is the planet’s premier incubator of new flu strains, blamed for the 1918–19 Spanish flu, 1957 Asian flu, the Hong Kong flu of 1968, the Russian flu of 1977. Yet the story is one of progress.  China’s backyard agriculture where ducks and pigs are raised in close proximity was long considered a key culprit.”

Indeed the suspicion is not only for those agrarian practices but also for the wet markets in so many Chinese cities including Wuhan. What is a wet market? Well, here’s something of scientific and moral significance. These wet markets are common markets where there are all kinds of animals of different sorts that are brought together for their meat. Many of them are brought in alive, butchered on the spot, their carcasses sold and their meat consumed. Some of these animals are domesticated animals, but some of them are wild animals.

Steven Lee Myers in The New York Times reports it this way, “Some sell more unusual fare, including live snakes, turtles and cicadas, guinea pigs, bamboo rats, badgers, hedgehogs, otters, palm civets, even wolf cubs.” Now again, this is for human consumption. Now remember the fact that it is not only the forms of meat and the animals that are in the wet markets as they are known—wet referring to butchering and fresh meat available for sale—but it is also the insects and the other flora and fauna, especially bats that are in the region.

The swine flu as it was known was named for the fact that pigs often become the mammals of transmission in which a disease that could not go, for instance, from bat to human being goes from bat to pig, from pig to pig, from pig to pig, until the virus begins to mutate and it moves from pig to human being. And then of course the next deadlier step is from human being to human being. When you’re looking at these markets, you are looking at what amounts to a giant Petri dish for the formation of deadly viruses.

Now at this point, Americans and others in Europe and elsewhere might be reminded that at one point in our own societies we had something like the equivalent of wet markets. It was almost never the case that the animals would be quite so exotic as what we saw in that list from The Wall Street Journal as included in many of the Chinese wet markets. But nonetheless, you are looking at the fact that agriculture in its modern sense is after all modern. And in its modern sense of agribusiness, often criticized by many, you have to recognize that all of that regulation and all of that standardization. And the fact that in the West they are mostly single species farms of any size and that is for economy’s sake, but it also amounts to a great health protection because there is far less opportunity for the transmission and the transmutation of these viruses from species to species.

Part II

Britain Officially Leaves the European Union: National Sovereignty and the Danger of the Administrative State

But next, shifting to the United Kingdom, the exit of the UK from the European Union at 11 o’clock London time on Friday, amounts to one of the biggest political developments in the lifetimes of anyone now living. We are talking about a major modification of the European experiment and we are talking about a redefinition and a new statement of self-identity for the British people and beyond that for the entire UK. And it has come with tremendous travail and also massive issues of worldview significance.

As The New York Times reported on Saturday, “To the recorded peels of Big Ben and the gentle fluttering of Union Jacks, Britain bade farewell to the European Union at 11:00 PM on Friday, severing ties to the world’s largest trading block after nearly half a century and embarking on an uncertain future as a mid-size economy off the coast of Europe.” Now that’s a very interesting way to put it. That lead was written as if to insinuate that Britain has done a very unwise thing. I don’t believe that’s true, but it is going to come with a tremendous cost and we are looking at numerous uncertainties. We’re looking at months if not years of uncertainties, but at least at this point Britain is now in charge of its own destiny and it now stands without the encumbrances of alliances with the European Union and membership in a governmental structure over which it had decreasing say to the increasing consternation of the British people.

The team of reporters for The New York Times continued, “For Britain having transitioned in the post-War era from a globe girdling empire to a reluctant member of the European project, it was yet another epic making departure.” Yes, indeed it was, and a bit of history here would be very helpful to us as we consider how in the world this came to happen and how all of this ties to the identity of Britain, the increasingly complex identity of the European Union, and of course the relationship of all of this to our understanding of a proper mode of government. Let’s just look at the history for a moment.

Britain won World War II. It didn’t do so needless to say by itself, but as a part of a coalition of allies that most importantly included the United States and then the Soviet Union. It was the United States that emerged as the great partner to Great Britain. But in between and including the two World Wars in which the United States became the absolutely essential arsenal of democracy and the great army coming from the West. Well, at that point, Britain that began the 19th century unquestioned as the senior partner in the relationship between the United States and Britain. Britain became the junior partner by the time World War II was over. And that was made abundantly clear by statesmen of the time such as Sir Winston Churchill, who recognized that the price of victory which could come only with the Americans in World War II, that was his most urgent concern. Understandably, it would come with the essential demotion of Britain to a second rank power.

Actually, by the time World War II was completed and Britain was completely broke, the reality was that Britain really wasn’t a second-rate power. It had fallen further. That’s the condescending statement that was implied by The New York Times in its coverage. And the exit of Britain from the European Union would amount to something in the United States like the exit of Texas from the United States. As you’re thinking about that, it would be an extremely significant exit, but Britain is now on its own and The New York Times is not wrong. It is now a far smaller economic power than the European block and it is now a nation offshore from the European continent. Fascinating history to consider here.

At the end of World War II as Britain experienced the breakup of its empire, it began to believe that it could stand alone, that it could negotiate a position over against the Soviet Union for a friendlier relationship with the United States and it could look to Europe as a trading partner without joining the European project. Meanwhile, the end of World War II meant for Europe, especially for Germany and France and the other nations of Western Europe, they were trying to pull together some kind of European identity that would be somewhat analogous to the United States as a federal system. But of course, Europe can’t do that. The United States is overwhelmingly an English speaking nation. It has common laws, and even though it is geographically diverse, the reality is it is very clearly a nation. The 50 states are in a federal system. They are not independent nations.

But in Europe the situation was very different and this led to fits and starts with the Europeans trying to come up with some kind of unified identity. Very sadly, the unified identity that emerged in the European Union in recent decades is a hyper-liberal, very socially progressive, quasi-socialist and European experiment that is explicitly secular. Famously or infamously, the European Union even voted down a recognition of the Christian roots of Europe. That just tells you something about where it is headed.

Furthermore, in worldview analysis, we need to consider this. The British people voted in 2016 by a narrow margin, but they voted. The majority was clear, voting to leave the European Union. How did Britain get in it in the first place? Well, it did not join immediately after World War II. It resisted joining in the 1950s but by the 1960s there were those in Britain who were afraid that Britain was falling behind economically, falling behind the European Union, then the European Economic Community and its trading block. So Britain tried to get in, but they were blocked by France twice, famously by the French president, Charles de Gaulle, who did not want Britain in the European Economic Community because he considered it a fraternity of truly European States. And he thought that England was an island state, that after all spoke the same language as the United States and was just too close to the dominant American power.

But then by the time you get to the 1970s, Britain does join the European Community. It did so in 1973, but just two years later, the European Community began to move towards a governmental consolidation, not only in economic unity. And at that point Britain got very nervous. An economic union became a political union and Britain has never been at peace with that. Furthermore, by the time you get to the last 20 years, unnamed, unaccountable bureaucrats in Brussels and other European cities began actually becoming significant legislators in effect for affairs on the ground in nations such as the United Kingdom, coming right down to who could fish where, even in British waters.

But that’s a major issue of worldview significance. In the European Union, virtually all of the major decisions and policies are made by bureaucrats, by what James Burnham in the United States warned of as the administrative state, rather than by elected officials. The European parliament is basically toothless and it is the bureaucrats who are in control. It is a regime of elite experts. That’s the way the Europeans want it because they want a government that is basically bureaucratic, but it is to the significant interest of the British people that they recognize that is not their tradition. After all, remember, we share that English speaking tradition, which is not a tradition of a managerial state, but a tradition of parliament in the UK and constitutional democracy in the United States, not rule by bureaucrats.

By the way, the great danger in rule by the administrative state is that the basic rule becomes that of this unelected elite of intellectuals and experts. This also comes down to two very significant categories. The nation is one category. Over time, the development of the nation state has been one of the great advances for humanity, and this is a very significant statement of the nation state, which is the United Kingdom asserting its own sovereignty over its affairs. That’s a very good thing. Sovereignty, national sovereignty is essential if a government is to belong to its own people and that’s one of the reasons why the British people voted as they did.

The second category is subsidiarity, an issue to which we return over and over again on The Briefing. It is the Christian, theological, and ethical principle that reminds us that it is the smallest unit of order and meaning that is most efficient and faithful, which is why we look to marriage and the family as the base unit of civilization. By the time you get to something like the European Union, not to mention the United Nations, more is less and less is more. The United Nations is inefficient precisely because it violates the principle of subsidiarity and the European Union in its own way also, especially in its current form, denies that basic principle of subsidiarity. It’s going to be very interesting to see what Britain does, but now what Britain does is largely in British hands.

Part III

Iowa Caucuses Take Place Today: What Message, If Any, Will Iowans Send as the First Votes Are Cast in the 2020 Presidential Election?

Finally, today is the day of the Iowa caucuses and Democrats in particular have been waiting for this day for a very long time. It is the first real voter action, the first real votes that are going to be cast in the 2020 race for the Democratic presidential nomination, but it’s complex. Tomorrow on The Briefing we’ll talk about what a caucus is, how the Iowa caucuses work, and to the extent of the information available, what the caucuses mean. We may find out that there is no clear message set by Iowans at all or maybe they do send a message. We’re going to have to wait to see what they do. But in about 1,600 different places in Iowa tonight, Iowans are going to be sending some message. It may take the rest of the country some time to figure out what that message is.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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