Matt Shapiro's Marginally Compelling
Matt Shapiro's Marginally Compelling
Marginal Podcast: Interview with Michael Brendan Dougherty

Marginal Podcast: Interview with Michael Brendan Dougherty

A view of COVID from the earliest days to how we are dealing with things right now and what we expect in the coming year

This week, I had the privilege to talk to Michael Brendon Dougherty about his experience with COVID as a pundit and a parent living in upstate New York. I asked him on after he mentioned some frustration that his extended family experienced a rather substantial COVID outbreak and nearly everyone got it, the rich and the poor, the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike.

Michael has been early to some of the most important moments of this pandemic. He was highlighting Chinese journalists trying to speak to the world back in January 2020 and he wrote an absolute classic on masks in June 2020, where he notes that a long-term masking strategy is antithetical to the Western cultural mindset.

To prep for the interview, I read his book My Father Left Me Ireland, which we didn’t really talk about but you should still pick it up because it is excellent.

A huge thank you to Michael for agreeing to the interview. I’m including a summary of the discussion below for everyone who doesn’t have an hour and a half, you can jump to the fun parts.

1:15 - How It All Started - MBD describes learning about the virus in January of 2020 and becoming interested in it before anyone was really talking about it.

5:46 - The First Two Months/Shutting Down Schools - Early in March, a friend in Hong Kong advised MBD to pull his kids out of school. Later that same week, the schools shut down.

6:42 - The Unsustainability of Zoom Life - MBD describes the difficulty of quarantine with three children under six years old. “It was very quickly revealed this was not a tenable way to live for a long time.”

7:46 - Learning More - More data was revealed, including the fact that transmission in schools and outdoors was not a problem. “Eventually, we started learning more about this disease and my opinion started shifting.”

8:26 - Kids and Mental Health - With the reopening of schools in September came mask requirements for kids. Anxious and stressed adults were making the kids stressed in turn. MBD describes the difficulty of trying to explain the threat of a potentially deadly virus to children. The mental health component is what caused MBD to become against masking kids. “You can’t explain to a six-year-old a one-in-millions chance.”

10:15 - Policies vs. Reality - Even after understanding that the virus seemed to be dependent on social and seasonal patterns, there was little effort to reel in mask mandates and other policies. “It seemed to me like we should start trimming our interventions to fit what we’re actually seeing.”

11:07 - Media Narratives/Red States vs. Blue States - The discrepancies in COVID cases between the upper and lower half of the United States were to due seasonal, not policy changes, but the media seem hellbent on driving a red vs. blue narrative. MS says “[The media] sets up this us versus them, good versus bad, sick versus healthy dichotomy that’s really hard to decouple when the situation switches.”

12:58 - Vaccines/Misinformation - The initial claim and goal of the vaccine was that it stopped transmission of the virus by 90%. However, the reality was that while vaccines prevent serious disease or death, COVID was a constant and endemic disease. Stopping the spread simply was not a viable goal. MBD: “The ‘all-or-nothing’ approach has been destructive.”

15:09 - Protect Yourself vs. Stop the Spread - I talk about the difference between taking the necessary steps to protect yourself if you’re elderly or immunocompromised and forcing everyone else to take those same precautionary measures in the name of “stopping the spread”.

16:33 - Hospital/ICU Capacity - MBD explains that the sentiment behind stopping the spread was to prevent overwhelming the hospital system, but few hospitals were actually at above-normal capacity.

19:25 - Political Blame-Shifting/CDC Guidelines - MBD discusses the game between the CDC and policymakers where the CDC maintains that their recommendations are just guidelines, not rules; politicians make those guidelines into rules and say they’re just following CDC guidelines. Neither one is taking responsibility for these mitigations. I note that CDC guidelines are not in line with available data, they’re just a list of things that might stop the spread of the virus.

21:17 - Mitigations in Europe/Masking Children - MBD visited his father in Ireland over the summer and describes the difference in mitigations in Europe compared to America, which included no mask regulations for children under 16.

27:35 - Why Stay in New York? - Moving away from New York would take MBD away from his extended family, most of which is concentrated locally. “I’m not yet ready to be a refugee in my own country.”

30:19 - The Debate is On the Left/Liberal Journalists Waking Up - MBD says the left finally seems to be moving in the right direction when it comes to COVID policy.

31:27 - Big Pharma - Moderna and Pfizer have a financial incentive to advocate for more doses. “We are the human challenge trial. Once you’re beyond three doses, you are beyond what’s been tested in any significant way.”

36:29 - Vaccinated People Catching COVID - MBD: “I don’t anything could have done more damage to the reputation of vaccines than the way things have proceeded since the summer.”

40:13 - Potential Vaccine Risks Ignored by Media - MBD talks about how the problems with menstrual cycles after taking the vaccine were largely ignored by the media or dismissed out of hand. The risk should be seriously considered by someone trying to get pregnant. 

43:23 - Media-Controlled Narratives/Decentralization and Social Media - I wonder how decentralization of the media will change overarching narratives, and MBD notes how the social media bubble is so different from the “normie,” fear-driven media bubble.

47:27 - How Political Leadership Affected Regulations - MS: “I think a lot of people needed to have a Democratic president in office while this is happening to see the difference between one versus the other. Because they needed to know that actually, this isn’t controllable. There is not a thing you can do to stop this, especially at the federal level.”

50:39 - Long-Term Historical Effects/Mental Health - I noted that the kids who were around during the pandemic will grow up and retroactively change the narrative based on what they observed. MBD likens it to the Vietnam War: “Everyone kind of pretends they were more against it than they were at the time.” A case of suicide in Ireland leads to a discussion of the broader mental health implications of pandemic policies. 

53:17 - Effects, Culture, & Symbolism of Masks - I note that it’s hard to meet or recognize people with masks. MBD asserts that we won’t adapt to the masks because seeing each other face-to-face is too much of our culture, shaped by ideas in the Christian liturgy like the beatific vision, as opposed to a “veiled” culture like Islam.

1:01:28 - Who Has the [Emergency] Power? - I recounted how school board representatives in Washington had no discernable positions on COVID. MBD comments that the school board says it has no authority to change COVID regulations, forcing people to go higher in the chain of authority. MS: “It feels like you have to own the process from the literal teacher who teaches your child up through the governorship in order to, as a parent, control what’s going on.”

1:07:21 - Expert Rule - We discuss how the attempt to “depoliticize politics” has just led to a kind of aristocracy within government that insulates congressional representatives from responsibility. MBD: “It’s this idea that somehow there are these people who are qualified to translate the science into policy, and the people that are qualified to do this are insulated from the prejudices of the people that are being governed, and that will improve government somehow. But it’s the exact opposite. It’s precisely because they are so insulated from popular opinion that they put through guidance that is disruptive and unfollowable and then, in turn, disrespected.”

1:10:32 - The Constitution vs. Utopia - MBD: “Our form of government, messy at is, imperfect as it is, acknowledges the problem; the governed in some way have to tolerate the government […] and here is machinery for producing a legitimate, tolerated government that is not always just, but has room to be adjusted.”

1:13:28 - Predictions - I mention the implausibility of halting COVID reporting; MBD describes how the media was able to pressure Boris Johnson into implementing a lockdown. MS: “The way around this is to stop paying attention. It’s to stop watching the data, stop caring, stop putting it on the news.”

1:18:10 - Natural Immunity/The Trouble With Variants - It’s hard to make vaccines for coronaviruses because they evolve so quickly, and the vaccines may not be as effective against variants so a large part of this is hoping and guessing.

1:21:34 - The Strategy Going Forward - I mention how I look to Ron DeSantis as a reference point for how we should be dealing with COVID—that is to say, the only path forward is to say “we’re done”. MBD points out that COVID is never going away and our policymaking going forward should reflect that reality.  

Disney Shorts: The Vanishing Private (1942)

I love the World War 2 Disney shorts. As part of the war effort, Disney produced a ton of work for the military in which they were barely compensated for the cost of making the films. But there are also these wonderful shorts that were meant to help the morale of the people at home and the boys over there by painting Army life in a lighthearted way. Most of these cartoons featured Donald Duck as the hapless private and Pegleg Pete (who apparently regrew his leg) as the onerous drill sergeant.

These shorts are all great. This one, however, is perfect. Donald is tasked with camouflaging the canons and discovers invisible paint in the research division. He then paints the canon to be invisible and, through a series of unfortunate but entirely predictable circumstances, becomes invisible himself. This leads to a fantastic comic escalation between Invisible Donald and Pete that is just packed with good gags and misunderstandings. Such a great piece.

Matt Shapiro's Marginally Compelling
Matt Shapiro's Marginally Compelling
An honest attempt to parse data, wrestle with uncertainty, and suss out events in real time. Also cartoons.