Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New York. Here we talk about science, Trump, Fauci, and anti-intellectualism.
*Interview conducted on March 23, 2020.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: So, there has been a lot of things going on around Covid-19. In the United States, it is having rapidly increasing numbers as we are going after the expansion of the curve. It is March 23rd, at the date of recording. While I looked at the statistics yesterday, New York is, probably, half of the numbers in the United States.
So, it will be the first to, probably, cap out of all states in the United States. From a secular humanist perspective, what are some of the issues that are concerns that you have been having through this entire process in the United States?
Jonathan Engel: It is interesting because what I am hearing or what I am seeing. I live in New York City, which I may call ground zero for the epidemic here. I mean, it is not surprising we have so many. We have lived so much on top of each other. That is not surprising. The mayor of New York City is Bill de Blasio and the governor is Andrew Cuomo.
I mean they are okay. They are not, maybe, my favorite politicians, but they are alright. They have handled this in the way it needs to be handled. In a sense that, they are viewing this as a public health emergency, and they are taking the steps, whatever steps they can take, on a local level to try to stem the tide of the virus.
I have been pretty much inside my apartment. Last time I left, it was Friday. I do not plan on leaving again until I need to and “need” means I am out of food or whatever it is.
Fortunately, I get the New York Times online. With Trump, we all know. We’ve known for a long time that his only concern is himself. He’s afraid that the economy will plummet. Yes, there’s good reason of being afraid about the economy.
I mean, nobody wants a depression or recession, no less than depression. There are good reasons to be concerned about it, but the number one issue must be keeping people alive. He does not seem him to be concerned about that at all. He sees that as, “This is making me look bad.” We do not care about how you look. We care about the lives of our friends, families, and fellow Americans and not to mention everyone around the world.
At least, I do. That, again, is a sort of a secular humanist way of looking at things because one of the principles of secular humanism is that every human being in the planet matters and has a right to a decent life. So, I am concerned as a secular humanist about people getting sick and dying. Trump is most certainly not a secular humanist.
He would only be qualified as a humanist if he is the only person left behind because the only person he cares about is himself. He is using that to scare people. To get people above the economy and to contradict the scientists. That is something that is remarkably interesting because the scientists are the ones who bring the scientific method to a problem such as this and they know.
They look at the facts. They look at the research. They do the research themselves. They will go with the research. Whereas you have a lot of people in this country, especially, on the right – certainly, none of them are secular humanists, who believe in their dogma. They believe in certain things. I will give you an example. The United States has a law that was enacted during the Korean War.
A law that says that the president has the authority to get the United States manufacturing sector working towards alleviating a national emergency as opposed to what they already do. An example of that, this is before the law was passed so this was voluntary, but in 1940, a year and a half before the United States ended World War 2; FDR was negotiating with the car manufacturers in Detroit. He got them to stop making cars and start making tanks and war planes and that’s what this law is all about.
It’s like going to a dress manufacturer and saying, “Look, we need you to manufacture gowns and masks, right now, and the government will compensate you for whatever loss you have eventually. But right now, we need you to stop making dresses and start making gowns and masks.” That is the law, but Trump will not use that law.
I mean, he has sort of said something about it. But he has not actually used it. The reason why is because of conservative dogma is that, “Government is bad,” and the free market rules everything and let the free market manufacture the gowns. Now, the researchers telling us there are not enough gowns, there are not enough masks, what they call PPE, Personal Protective Equipment.
It is getting bad down in the trenches, in all hospitals and clinics, but he will not use that because the right-wing dogma is “Government is bad.” Government should never tell industry what to do despite the nature of this emergency. So, as a secular humanist, I am looking at it from the science and what is out there.
We have people running our country, unfortunately, not a state or city but the country, who believe that, “No, my underlying beliefs are always right, and I don’t care what the evidence shows. I do not care what I am seeing before my eyes. I believe what I believe.”
Jacobsen: How long until maybe 40% to 80%, as per one of the news reportages of New York, gets an infection?
Engel: I do not know exactly, but I know that I am taking this seriously and my family is taking this seriously. But I do not know how long it will be. It is terrifying. Especially, since one of the things that Dr. Fauci said early on that our health care system, such as it is, that you can’t even call it a system. It is not geared towards this kind of emergency. The reason it’s not geared is that it’s all in private hands even when it’s non-profit. It’s still in private hands.
If you are running a private business, for profit or nonprofit, you are gonna look at this situation and say, “I have to keep my fill.” So, I am not gonna increase my capacity, so that I can handle an emergency because most of the time that increase capacity will be empty and that is a bad business model. So, we are in that situation where I know here in New York City, the hospitals are overwhelmed.
Hospitals are simply overwhelmed. That’s, obviously, a huge problem. It will be as bad or worse in rural areas because in rural areas, a lot of hospitals have been closing for number of years because one thing is in states that did not accept the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid Expansion; hospitals are going under. They view them not as public necessities, but, rather, another business.
So, when they do not have enough business, paying business, people who can afford to pay, who have insurance, they go under. What’s gonna happen to rural communities when their hospitals are gone? It’s frightening and right now, it seems so much so that we’re in a battle between the scientists and the medical health professionals and Trump and his minions. There are still people in the United States who believe that this is some sort of liberal plot designed to get Trump out of office.
“Oh, if we pretend that there’s a big health emergency, it’ll hurt the economy, and then Trump will lose the election.” So, they think that this is somehow being made up by the liberal media. Those people need to shut themselves into their houses and shut up, but that’s where the fault line is between people who believe in science like secular humanists or a few religious people who, obviously, believe in science, too, compared to the people who believe, “This is dogma. This is what I believe. This is what I think and that’s it.”
If science does not win here, we are in the even worse trouble than we think, but I will tell you something else. Me, personally, I am following the scientists. I am following what Dr. Fauci is going to say. It’s Trump. People are wondering about in a week. If he says, “Okay, everybody, go back outside. Go back to work. Go back to school.” I ain’t going. I am not going to listen to him. I am not going to risk my life. I do not want to risk anybody else’s life either. I am going to follow the science and, hopefully, a lot of people in this country will. But when will it be solved? I do not know.
Jacobsen: How is this being handled by the individual who is put in charge of it by the current president, Vice President Mike Pence?
Engel: Well, Pence is an empty suit. You know what I mean? [Laughing] People on the coronavirus task force that Pence is running. They are scientists. They know. Dr. Fauci knows, but Trump is such a damaged person, such a defective individual. The scientists sit around and talk about, “What could we say that will get the truth out to the public but so he won’t fire all of us?” It is an exceptionally fine line. Fauci has talked about that himself, sometimes.
By the way, the scientists who are on the committee have been trying to tell Pence to tell Trump that he should not be in these hearings; these daily press conferences. He should not be there, but he does not have his rallies because his rallies have been cancelled. He must be in front of everything, so he is there. He stands up there saying things that are clearly not the case and are dangerous for people’s belief, and then Fauci gets up there on a nice edge, tries to say, “I gotta make sure that the public gets the truth, but I gotta try it in such a way that doesn’t make this man child angry.” Otherwise, he will shut down the whole thing.
There will not be any scientists up there talking to the people and it is an exceedingly difficult thing for them to try to handle. Most of them, they get up there and say, “Oh, how do you deal with Trump?” “Oh, you have to praise him. You must praise him.” You have to say, “Oh, the president is doing such a wonderful job,” and then turn around and tell the truth.
It’s not easy for them and a lot of people, including me, are worried that Trump is – if he keeps hearing things from Fauci that aren’t anything other than, “Yes, what the president said was 100% true and isn’t he a tremendous leader?” Then Trump will fire Fauci. This guy is a guy who worked on the AIDS epidemic, Ebola, and H1N1.
I mean, this guy is, when it comes to infections, the leading public health authority in the United States. We’re sitting here terrified that when the country needs him. I mean, the man is 79 years old, he can be sitting back in retirement, and say, “Let somebody else do it,” but when the country needs him. He’s willing to come forward and to work and to help the country get through this terrible crisis. He might get fired.
Which is, absolutely, one of the most extraordinary things you could imagine. If I want to hear the truth, I do not care. That’s what I want to hear. So, as far as I’m concerned, again, living in New York City, the governor of the state in New York, Andrew Cuomo, my opinion of him, in general, is up and down. But when it comes to this, he’s doing a good job of talking to the people and telling them the truth about how bad it is and what we need to do and also being a little bit inspiring.
I bought a new book about Winston Churchill by Erik Larson. The name of it, I cannot remember. I am about to start it. It is about Winston Churchill in World War II and how much his communication to the people of England meant. He did not lie to them. He did not say, “Oh, the Nazis will be gone in a couple of weeks, don’t worry about it.” He told the truth, but he also inspired people to keep going. Cuomo is giving us a little of this. But from the president, you are not getting anything like that at all.
Jacobsen: What has been a conversation among New Yorkers about some of the reportage around individuals of infamy in jail getting coronavirus?
Engel: Purely capitalist society, now, I’m a capitalist in a sense that I don’t think government ownership of all business works well and that planning from the top works well, but I think that the capitalism needs to be tempered with the pubic good because you can talk about, “Oh, we want this company to do some public good.”
Kind of like, “Don’t expect them to do some public good because they won’t.” So, you gotta keep an eye on them. You gotta regulate them. You gotta make sure that the public good, at least, comes in to play. Even though, it is not the primary motivating factor. The reason I am talking about stuff like this is because the people who are the least among us have only suffered the most in tragedies like this, which is wrong.
Talking about people who have the least, people in prison, have the least. I have heard a lot of talk about, “Geez, what can we do about that?” But I have not heard quite much in the way of answers. They’re not the top priority, which is, again, an anti-humanist way of looking at things. A humanist would say, “Well, they’re human beings. Human beings are important.”
Yes, I have heard that they are worried about outbreaks. Think about it, people living on top of each other. I mean, some people are worried about that. In a way, it is the same kind of things with the nursing homes and senior living places. My 96-year old mother lives in a senior living place. She is locked down in her room.
They locked the whole place down. Not only can I not go visit her, but she cannot even go out anymore. She cannot go to the dining room and have dinner there. They bring the food to her. She cannot go out even to take a walk around the hallways. That is, probably, the way it should be. But is anybody doing that in the prison setting? I hate to say this, but as a society; I do not think we care enough about those people to be intervening.
It does not look that way. Hopefully, at least, here in New York City, that will change, but that is a frightening thing. Imagine yourself being and knowing that this disease is around, it is like, “Well, that’s the way it goes.” Time for breakfast and everybody in the prison marches into the same huge table room and it is like, “Well, that’s the way it is.”
My mother, at least, there is some caring in the sense, “Okay, we’re going to bring your meals to you.” But in prison, it seems that we do not, in many ways, care enough about people who have broken the law. Yes, they have broken the law and many of them belong in prison. Not all of them, in my view, but many of them belong in prison, but that does not mean that they should be thrown away. At least, I do not think so. I do not think any humanist thinks so.
We know that in a purely capitalist society that it does not have the same sensibility. People are going to be deemed disposable. That goes against anything humanism believes, but, unfortunately, that is kind of the way it is now. Sometimes, I have been keeping my eye on that, but I have not seen any measures put in place to protect people who are in prison.
Not to mention, the prison’s staff; I mean, if you cannot get enough humanity to care about offenders, at least, care about the staff. There still must be guards and medical personnel, clerical personnel, all the rest of that stuff in the prisons. At least, care enough about that. I do not know what exactly is being done. I hope that it is going to be something that will help stop the spread in prison and, basically, everywhere else too.
Jacobsen: Are some of these statements around the treatment of prisoners, around the lack of respect for scientific knowledge and expertise, as per the Fauci example, indicative of significant portions of American culture encouraging, if not, being anti-humanist?
Engel: I think so. I mean, I have not seen research on that, so I would say I am talking about my own opinions forged by my own experiences, but, yes, I think so. They call it the cultural wars here in the States. It tends to be a little bit crazy. “There are people who talk about expertise and science. They think they know better than I do.”
Several years ago, when Jon Stewart was still doing The Daily Show, he had a segment on hearings that were held in Congress, where Republicans invited these people to come up and talk about education. They advised people, “I know better than teachers who went on teaching school. Who knows better what my children should be learning than I do?” And Jon Stewart then, in that clip, said, “We might as well be having hearings bringing in people saying, ‘I know better than airline pilots how to transport my family to the air.’”
Engel: For expertise, “Oh, those liberal colleges where you learn this, you learn that, you don’t learn about God. Your religious kids, send them to college, and then they find out that the Earth is 4.6 billion years old, not thousands of years old. How can they teach them that stuff that contradicts me?” There’s anti-intellectual, anti-thinking about something, in this country. It is impacting on this disease.
No question about it. I saw pictures last week from Wednesday of last week of these idiots in Florida on spring break. Hundreds and hundreds of young people doing what they usually do on spring break. I am looking at that saying, “This is insane.” But I think part of that comes from people.
They are a bunch of liberals. Things like that. As far as the science, President Trump is there telling me that it is okay to do this, it is okay to do that or that anybody who wants to get tested can get tested. I am not going to follow the science. I do not listen to that and whatever they hear that this is a liberal thought.
Up until about a week and a half ago, Fox News especially, the people who say, ‘This is a plot by Democrats to take down Trump. That is what it is. Hundreds of people were dying every day in Italy. What are you? You do not believe that? You do not think that is true? That is not happening. All the pictures that we are seeing on the news. They are all made up. It is manufactured. We never landed on the moon.’
It is incredible that there is this vent. I read a book a while ago called Idiot America. He was saying that the United States has always been a great place for crackpots because we have freedom of speech, etc. He said, ‘We used to laugh at crackpots. Now, we send them to the Congress.’
Engel: He is right. I mean, we have a senator from Oklahoma, which is where my older brother lives. He always roll his eyes at his own senators.
Jacobsen: Oh, is this the “Snowball and, therefore, no climate change guy?” Oh my gosh.
Engel: Snowball. It was a cold day in Washington. I thought of climbing up at him, “Hey, idiot, it’s hot somewhere in the world today, you know? It’s global warming, not Washington D.C. warming” [Laughing].
Engel: We can laugh at it. We should because I do think the humor is so important to get through anything. We can laugh at it, but it is serious. This is part of that anti-science, anti-intellectual strain in this country that a United States senator can do that.
But he is a United States senator. He will not follow the science. You saw that right there. I mean, it is on climate change. On a lot of things, I think the future depends on climate change. Before this virus came around, climate change, the future depends on our ability to convince people to follow the science, and not superstitions and gut feelings and things. Mainly, Trump has said it several times, ‘I have a feeling, I don’t know. It’s what I think,’ but ‘I think’ as opposed to some guy who’s been studying it all his life.
Yes, that is a real danger in this country for many of these things. Of course, it is the virus right now. Thinking that, “What I believe is what’s true,” as opposed to, “This is what the science shows, and if it shows something antithetical to what I believe, then I guess what I believe was wrong.” Think about that, to try to even get a religious person to say, “Here’s the evidence, so I guess what I believe was wrong.”
But I feel that myself in my own life, there are times when the evidence shows this. I thought it was something else. I say, “Well, I guess I was wrong.” It is not the worst thing in the world to think that you were wrong. In fact, it is a sign of a healthy mind to believe that you were wrong about something about whatever. It is a sign of a mind that can learn.
It is the ability to adapt and to learn. Part of that comes from the amazingly simple ability to say, “I used to think that, but now that I’ve seen more evidence. I know that I was wrong then.” It does not mean that you are a stupid person, in fact, quite the opposite. It means you are a smart person because it means you can learn and take in information, data, and conclude based on that data.
That is a good thing. That is not a bad thing. On the last debate, I saw between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden. They spent a lot of time attacking each other on votes that were taken. These are all guys, like 20-30 years ago.
“Yeah, I made that vote. It was wrong, I was wrong. I’ve seen evidence since then and it shows that I was wrong. Now, I’ve changed my mind.” People think, “Oh you’re a flip-flopper,” when they should be thinking, “Oh, you’re an intelligent person who learns things.” It’s so much of it here. It is about dogma. It’s about what I believe as opposed to, “It’s okay to believe things. But hey, if somebody shows me that I’m wrong, I’m going to change it.”
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Jon.
Engel: Okay. Thank you, Scott. Stay healthy, my friend. Wash your hands.
Jacobsen: On it [Laughing].
Jacobsen: Take care.
Engel: Take care. Take it easy. Ba-bye.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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