The Senator in the Soup

“Don’t blame me!” (Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters)Lindsey Graham performs outrage at the Chinese because all the other prospective candidates would make inconvenient scapegoats for the current crisis.

As a National Review reader and fan as well as a writer, I am absolutely tickled that our magazine recently published an excellent piece arguing that American-style factory farming presents a threat of future epidemics — and that this piece was written by Spencer Case, Our Man in Wuhan, presumably the home of the unnamed pangolin-soufflé connoisseur who accidentally foisted the COVID-19 plague on the human race. That is a wonderful juxtaposition. I assume that somewhere between the low-tech Wuhan wet market and the high-tech Tyson assembly line exists a golden mean of butchery.

Case is a critic of U.S.-style “factory farming” who wishes to see it heavily regulated — Senator Cory Booker has introduced legislation to do that — and then outlawed altogether. “Factory farms are an abomination,” he writes, “cruel to animals and a bad deal for humans, too. The sooner we abolish them, the better.” I disagree with his conclusions, but he is scrupulous about the facts of the case, and he correctly notes that the H1N1 “swine flu” epidemic (a “pandemic” by WHO’s reckoning) is suspected to have its origin in North American pork operations. (It gets complicated; viruses travel.) The Spanish flu epidemic that killed millions of people from 1918–1920 is thought to have originated on a pig farm, too. What price bacon?

There are a few conservatives who agree with the Case case, and National Review has hosted some lively exchanges on the subject. But Case is not exactly leading a chorus.

Lindsay Graham is.

The remarkably elastic senator from South Carolina has threatened to restrict U.S.–China trade unless Beijing agrees to shut down the so-called wet markets at which live animals, including wild ones, are sold for human consumption. These markets are “gross” and “disgusting,” the senator says. And indeed they are.

But if that is to be our standard, then Senator Graham should give some thought to the fact that his state’s two biggest farm commodities are chickens and turkeys, which are produced in intensive factory-style operations. Disgusting? Ask the locals: The stench arising from these is a matter of some public concern in South Carolina. Dangerous? We already know that deadly epidemics can and do arise from American agriculture. (One of South Carolina’s crops, tobacco, is thought to contribute to the deaths of some 7 million people around the world each year.) Perhaps the senator would like to visit a pig farm and contemplate the stew of pig manure mixed with “afterbirths, piglets accidentally crushed by their mothers, old batteries, broken bottles of insecticide, antibiotic syringes, stillborn pigs” etc. in the waste ponds he will find there.

The Interstate Commerce Clause is ready when you are, Senator Graham.

In fact, the denunciations of the Chinese wet markets have little or nothing to do with reducing the threat of future epidemics. The disgust may be genuine, but the rhetoric surrounding it is pro forma. If public health were the pressing concern, then Senator Graham et al. would be turning their attention to American agriculture, which was not the source of this epidemic but was likely the source of at least one earlier one and could very easily be the source of the next one — and which is, unlike the Chinese appetite for soupe à la Ozzy, directly under the control of American lawmakers such as Senator Graham. But these expressions are not part of a public-health debate. They are the contemporary Washingtonian knuckle-dragging spins on one of the most ancient features of public life: ritual denunciation.

Chinese wet markets are the sort of thing we do not really have in the United States, though they hardly are limited to China, either: Similar meat markets can be found throughout much of the world. The only Chinese city I have visited is Hong Kong, which may as well be Zurich as far as public hygiene goes. The situation apparently is different in the Chinese hinterland. Traveling elsewhere in Asia and Latin America — and Philadelphia too — I have smelled some smells that I would not care to experience again. But the point of the ritual denunciation of the Chinese wet market — like the insistence upon calling this the “Chinese virus” or the “foreign virus,” as though viruses carried passports — is emotional insulation.

It is comforting to tell ourselves that this sort of thing is alien to the American experience — so alien, in fact, that no one could reasonably expect the gentlemen in Washington who comport themselves as potentates to make reasonable preparations against it. Nobody could have seen this coming — except Bill Gates, George W. Bush, Alex Azar . . .

Somebody needs to be blamed for the situation in which the most powerful nation in the world currently finds itself, and it is not going to be Donald Trump’s government if he and his sycophants, of whom Senator Graham is the slavering chief, have anything to say about it. Disgust is a powerful feeling, one with enough force to overwhelm rational thought. That is of some interest to Trump et al. just now. But there isn’t any juice in giving the hairy eyeball to poultry farms belonging to friends of Senator Graham or red-state pork operations. So let it be the “gross” and “disgusting” Chinese, and give the “Mexican rapists” the day off.

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