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George Pyle: It can be hard to know who to trust. And easy to know who not to.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, listens as President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Wednesday, April 1, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’.”

Isaac Asimov

The key to having a free society — one that is both really free and truly a society — is for most of us to be pretty good at knowing when we should do as we are told and when we should not.

In matters from medicine to education to construction we defer to the experts, because they know things. Not the meaning of life or the mind of God, but what pill to take, when to introduce long division and how thick the wall has to be for the roof not to fall down.

Sometimes, those smartypants are wrong. Sometimes they change their minds. (Which should be taken as a sign of true intelligence but sometimes undermines others’ faith.) And then we wonder if it is a good idea to trust the same person, the same profession, the same government agency, the way we did just the day before.

But we just do not have the time and the smarts to do all of our own thinking for ourselves. Every passing day brings more knowledge to the world and increases the necessity for that knowledge to be broken up into digestible chunks and assigned to different sets of specialists, who handle that part of the world and to whom we refer when we don’t understand something.

It isn’t blind obeisance so much as a lack of expertise that has sometimes left us following the head lemming right off the cliff. Vietnam. Thalidomide. The Electoral College.

They are the best and the brightest. They are experts. They must know what they are doing. They have our best interests at heart. You’re the doc, Doc.

I was only following orders.

So now, when vast numbers of people all over the world need someone smart to tell them what to do, there is a significant danger that we will listen to the wrong person. Or won’t listen to anybody.

And, yes, there remains the possibility that the smartest person in the room, or in the country, might be wrong. There is still no reason to assume that, oh, say, a ginormously indebted New York real estate speculator — or his father-in-law — knows more about evaluating threats and recommending actions in a time of global pandemic than, oh, I don’t know, the guy who has been running the nation’s infectious disease response program since the Reagan administration.

The key reason not to trust the sitting president is that he has made his cult of ignorance quite clear from the beginning. All he has is division, racism, xenophobia and paranoia. That’s it. Take those away and he disappears. And those characteristics are the core of ignorance. Not just his ignorance, but key indicators of ignorance everywhere.

His prolonged insistence on calling it “the Chinese virus” was a sign of that. He might have gotten away with it — because the COVID-19 virus was, in fact, first detected in China — if he didn’t already have a history of making everything about the threat from the dirty others. Because he came to the discussion dripping in racism, that is understandably how his remarks were heard.

People are also looking at the difference between how the coronavirus outbreak has been handled in the United States vs. in South Korea. The first cases were detected in each nation on the same day, but they quickly got a handle on it and flattened the curve amazingly fast, while we lost months refusing to do anything.

It’s been suggested that Koreans solved this puzzle because they are more obedient and docile than Americans, consenting not only to distancing and isolation but also to having their contacts and movements tracked.

Ask Park Geun-hye just how obedient the South Korean people are. She was the president of that nation until, in 2017, millions of people took to the streets to demand her ouster on charges of corruption and cozying up to a weird pseudo-religious guru. It worked. And, while they were at it, the people pushed until other powerful people engaged in bribery and favoritism — including the head of the company that made my computer and television — actually went to prison.

Now, when it was important that people follow the instructions of their government, it can only have helped that that government is the one the people put in after having tossed out the last one.

Too bad we missed our chance.

George Pyle

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, probably wouldn’t know about what happened in South Korea if cartoonist Pat Bagley hadn’t visited there a couple of years ago and brought back the story.

gpyle@sltrib.com

Twitter, @debatestate

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