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Nevertheless, Stancil Persisted
Suggesting that the lab leak hypothesis is not a conspiracy theory shouldn't get you labeled a "serious threat"
If you spend any time in progressive discourse spaces, Will Stancil is a ubiquitous presence. Not on account of, you know, earned intellectual influence, or for having made really any substantive contribution to progressive discourse, but for being an indefatigable hyperventalist with a legendary capacity for mischaracterizing his opponents’ views.
Stancil tweets a lot, usually offering running commentary delivered with a preening whininess that is genuinely impossible to respect. But on most occasions the problem isn’t his tone so much as his actual positions on things, such as describing Bernie-Sanders-voting, progressive-website-founding Matthew Yglesias as “fancy Rush Limbaugh.”
So the first thing to note about Stancil is he flattens everything to his right to such an extent, and with such a willfully incurious zeal, that it leaves him cognitively incapable of discriminating between (a) a political shock jock who gleefully aired a “Barack, the Magic Negro” jingle on his radio program and (b) a milquetoast left-of-center pop-wonk blogger. This is textbook bad faith.
More recently, Stancil has suggested Yglesias and other liberal columnists have become “a serious threat.” What?
Imagine yourself sitting at home, reading the news. You flip to the opinion page. What kind of takes would you have to come across for you to feel provoked enough to publicly call for an “explicit conversation” about the writers you’re reading constituting a “serious threat” to the political health of the nation?
Personally, it would take a lot to get me there. Maybe if I saw “Cannibalism: A Second Look?” or “Putin is Actually Rather Lovely” or “Paper Straws Aren’t That Bad,” I’d work myself into some mild worrying. What about Stancil? What’s his threshold for outrage? What is the kind of take that, for Stancil, justifies his vigorous and incessant culture-Karening online?
Let’s have a look. Here’s a screenshot of the article that provoked a Stancil ragethread.
Oh, wow. Truly terrifying stuff.
In all seriousness, Yglesias isn’t even endorsing the lab leak theory; he’s just saying it shouldn’t have been preemptively ruled out. And he’s right. Stancil, true to form, is conflating Trumpian “kung flu” rhetoric with an empirical openness to the possibility that Covid’s origins are in a lab. Being open to the latter doesn’t implicate one in pushing the former.
It’s important to understand the extent of Stancil’s position: he’s saying it is beyond the pale to caution against prematurely disqualifying, in advance of the evidence, the possibility that Covid was caused by human accident.
This is crazy. To empirically close ourselves off to a live possibility, with this much at stake, is investigatory malpractice. Consider that if the lab leak theory does turn out to be correct, following Stancil on this issue would have meant directing our scientific attention away from looking into the true source of a world-stopping viral cataclysm. That is profoundly troubling.
And it’s typical for Stancil. Late last year, Stancil was really mad that Democrats hadn’t come up with a way to block Elon Musk from buying Twitter. Did it matter to Stancil that Democrats lacked the constitutional grounds to torpedo Musk’s takeover? Not one bit. They should have just done it. No excuses. But that’s not even the crazy part: in a tweet further down the thread, Stancil went on to complain about how his fellow liberals lack the “common sense” to recognize that Musk was doing all of this to kill people.
That’s right, an edgelordian quantum billionaire sought to purchase a microblogging site in order to perpetrate a genocide.
Stancil had written that “the Democratic Party sitting idly by and allowing Musk to take over Twitter without even attempting to toss any wrenches in the works is a mistake that all of us will likely pay for, for years.” When I pointed out that “sitting idly by” is a misleading way to describe the government refraining from illegally intervening in a private affair, Stancil suggested that it’s a government prerogative to ensure that “systematically important companies” don’t fall into the hands of “malign actors.” Plus, he said, the Democrats being in control of the White House and Congress means they should be able to do something. We run into a problem, though, when that something—in this case, barring ideological foes from business ventures without cause—amounts to little more than progressive authoritarianism.
Stancil’s a priori decision to cast Musk as “a malign actor” smuggles in Musk’s entrepreneurial disqualification—Stancil doesn’t even invite a discussion on it, Musk’s just obviously unfit and our elected officials ought to have conjured up a plan to keep Musk from acquiring Twitter.
Stancil claimed Musk “wants to kill us.” And now Stancil says Yglesias is “a serious threat” to the political health of the nation. At least on this occasion he gestures at a rationale: Yglesias and his ilk are a serious threat, he says, because they are “preoccupied with rationalizing right-wing ideas.”
What set Stancil off was Yglesias suggesting that the lab leak theory of Covid’s origins should have never been culturally lumped in with QAnon fantasies. In other words, Yglesias isn’t saying the lab leak theory is correct, or even that it’s the leading explanatory candidate, just that it shouldn’t be preliminarily disqualified until we can rule it out with actual evidence. You could, if you wanted to, bizarrely call this an exercise in rationalizing right-wing ideas, or you can call it being intellectually sensitive to the limitations inherent in our current understanding of Covid’s origins.
Stancil’s approach is backwards—he’s prioritizing his progressive sensibilities above the public’s interest in its government incentivizing an unfiltered pursuit of truth on a matter of great social concern. We’re supposed to divert funding, resources, personnel away from a particular explanatory avenue because … it overlaps with what some conservatives are saying? We’re supposed to turn away from a theory with a potentially promising explanatory value because some right-wingers have pushed kooky versions of their own?
Stancil’s rejecting something not for evidentiary reasons but for associational ones: there are crazies out there who have pushed the lab leak theory, so any article on it that they’d want to share is ipso facto discrediting.
It’s the same idea here, where he implied criticizing Taylor Lorenz puts you in ideological mission-alignment with antivax advocacy.
Earlier, Stancil’s wild characterization of Musk was used to theoretically justify deploying the machinery of the state to block him, an ideological dissident, from acquiring a tech app. Obviously, the idea that Musk is trying to kill us grants us wide latitude to stop him, which means that even though there’s no legal path to thwarting Musk’s Twitter bid, according to Stancil the government should think bigger. The same dynamic is at play in his more recent characterization of Yglesias and others as a “serious threat to the political health of the nation.”
I don’t know. Perhaps people who howl the loudest at the dangers of misinformation could find a more productive use of their time than raving at conspiracists sending web traffic to Slow Boring.