The Ineptitude is The Point

On weaponized incompetence.

The Ineptitude is The Point
CDC Photoshop Fail

It was the year before all of this started.

A friend came by my office to tell me she was quitting. She told me a story that summed up her daily experiences working in my university's IT office. One day, she asked a colleague to fix a mistake he'd made before breaking for lunch. Instead of adulting, he pretended not to hear her. As she repeated herself, raising her voice, he started shuffling toward the exit, eventually bursting into a full on charge through the door. He came back two hours later, smelling of hot wings and ranch dressing, and smiled at her.

He asked if she "still needed help."

She told him no.

He grinned to himself. Then he walked over to his supervisor's office, where he spent the afternoon schmoozing.

Sometime around then, I read an article by a relationship coach, describing how her husband spread the flu throughout their house by constantly "forgetting" his medical mask, sneezing into his hand, then touching handles and doorknobs. She let him have it, and then she felt guilty about losing her temper.

He said he didn't know it was that important.

My first real encounter with this behavior happened when I had an important flight canceled and wound up sleeping in the airport. A kiosk worker told me the pilot had "timed out" on purpose by pretending to be disoriented.

Maybe you've had moments like this, regardless of your age or gender. Maybe it was a coworker. Maybe it was a boss. Maybe it was a parent or an in-law. There's a term for this behavior, and we'll get to it in a minute.

But first:

The CDC recently posted a tweet highlighting the risk of Long Covid. It was long overdue, given that Long Covid has now ruined the lives of millions of adults and children.

There was just one problem.

In the tweet's featured image, a patient "wears" a photoshopped earloop mask, upside down.

The CDC also photoshopped the letters "N95" onto the mask rightside up, driving even more confusion. As some have pointed out, an earloop mask doesn't meet the minimum standard for an N95. It has to have a head strap.

In short, the CDC demonstrated to the world that they can't pass a high school science class. They don't truly understand what an N95 mask is, nor how to wear one properly. If that weren't enough, only the patient wears a mask. The doctor she's talking to wears nothing at all. It's honestly unclear whether the CDC intended to convey the notion that healthcare providers share no responsibility for an airborne virus, or whether they were just too lazy to photoshop another upside down mask.

Topping things off, the report itself recommends vaccines as "the best tool" to prevent Long Covid, saying nothing about masks or clean air at all. Below the image, you can see a notice:

"Readers added context they thought people might want to know... The image in this tweet has been digitally altered to show the patient wearing an upside down KN95 mask. The lettering on the mask has also been altered to remove the K from the KN95, and to not be upside down." Imagine having to correct your own government's central institution of public health, the agency charged with protecting and informing you.

Days later, the CDC has yet to issue any form of correction or apology, which tells you one thing: It wasn't an innocent mistake.

It's not just the CDC.

Around the same time, the FDA was caught preparing a booster shot for an old Covid variant, only updating their recommendation after intense public outcry.

As we face down another likely pandemic, the incompetence intensifies. A world-famous epidemiologist named Seth Berkley recently said it was "shocking to watch the ineptitude" of the U.S. response to bird flu. He's right. The FDA just admitted they were watching the dairy industry willfully mix bird flu into the nation's milk supply, even after studies have shown the virus can survive pasteurization, and they've instructed the public to disregard that knowledge.

Meanwhile, they go around begging instead of ordering states to curb the sale of raw milk.

The head of the USDA has gone on record telling the public his plan to deal with bird flu entails "cornering the virus," which means letting it spread until it exhausts itself, a strategy that has never, ever worked on any pathogen without causing massive numbers of casualties. Spokespeople for the agency say some cows have died from bird flu, others failed to recover, and others were struck down by secondary infections thanks to weakened immune systems. But they can't tell us how many. They don't know.

They're not keeping count.

Oh, the ineptitude...

Now we're learning that U.S. intelligence agencies still can't agree whether one of the most dangerous viruses in history (Covid-19) came from a meat market or a lab that was trying to grow dangerous viruses. While they argue and debate, the Pentagon has been spreading misinformation to sabotage the public health response of other countries. They've targeted China in particular, nurturing anti-vax and anti-mask rhetoric in Asia.

This form of ineptitude looks especially malicious, but it's still ineptitude. After all, if you ever hope to eradicate or even contain a pandemic, you can't undermine the public health of other countries, even ones you don't like.

You would expect leaders in the upper echelons of our governments to understand these basic concepts. You would expect them to understand that in order to fight disease, you need to cooperate with other countries, track viruses, and give the public effective examples of wearing protective gear.

Apparently, they don't.

Instead, we see nothing but ineptitude. We see them project their own incompetence, ignorance, and even their own fear onto the general population. It takes the form of constant reminders that we never panic or overreact.

The perpetual failure of our institutions to know anything, say anything, or do anything coherent about matters of life and death have compelled many of us to do the work ourselves. We've had to take on the job of public health.

We didn't have a choice.

As bird flu, Covid, and other diseases ranging from whooping cough to measles and tuberculosis make stunning comebacks, our leaders still aren't doing public health. They're doing the opposite. If they're not photoshopping upside down KN95s onto patients, they're trying to pass laws that make it harder, if not outright illegal, to wear medical respirators.

The state of North Carolina recently passed a law making it legal for virtually anyone to ask someone to remove their mask "for identification," even though studies have shown that sunglasses do more to conceal someone's identity than a surgical mask, and facial recognition algorithms encounter virtually no difficulty identifying someone in a respirator. On top of that, peak viral exposure happens five seconds into a personal encounter. These facts make mask bans completely nonsensical.

But laws don't have to make sense.

On the heels of the NC law, the governor of New York went on CNN and then held an entire press conference provoking only fear and confusion about medical masks. It was fearmongering in the truest sense. She was even forced to admit later that there's a difference between an N95 respirator and a ski mask. That distinction will be lost on the larger public. She said nothing about how these laws empower and embolden anti-mask bullies, who already harass and assault children. Under these new laws, standing up to anti-mask bullies itself becomes a crime.

You have to wonder what's going on.

There's a fundamental, intentional stupidity running across all of these failures. In any given situation today, our leaders are doing the exact opposite of what would keep us safe.

Maybe the ineptitude is the point.

Most of us know this ancient secret: If you don't want to do your job, then just pretend you're bad at it.

If the ones in charge of the CDC, the FDA, and the USDA didn't want to do anything to stop diseases because it would interfere with profits or economic growth, then it would make perfect sense to look like they were trying but were just too dumb, lazy, or otherwise incapable of doing their jobs.

There's a term for that.

It's called weaponized incompetence, sometimes strategic incompetence. You see it when politicians and bankers say things under oath like "I don't remember" or "I didn't know that." You see, it's not a crime to be stupid.

Weaponized incompetence has become a popular term in articles about work, relationships, and parenting. It's been all over social media the last year, but curiously absent from political discourse. It describes a situation where one partner, coworker, or spouse has to constantly explain to another how to do basic tasks. They have to review that person's work and fix their mistakes. Often, the competent partner or coworker finds the extra labor so exhausting they take over the job entirely, or they stop delegating work to the incompetent person.

That was the plan.

Before the pandemic, you probably experienced this infuriating phenomenon with at least a few individuals. They never bothered to learn how to do a job on their own.

They faked incompetence to get out of work.

Now it's everywhere.

Our families and friends have weaponized incompetence throughout this pandemic. If they have to wear a mask, they're going to wait until someone asks them and then make a big deal out of it. They're going to do it badly, and then complain it didn't work. Celebrities are going to hold superspreader concerts and then offer the pathetic excuse, "I didn't want to let my fans down." The CDC is going to bungle PSAs with bad photoshops.

That has left millions of us diving through medical and scientific journals to stay a few steps ahead of the latest threats to our health while the government officials we pay lush salaries sit back and pretend to be bad at their jobs. Because agencies like the CDC or the FDA don't want to have hard conversations with politicians or the public about anything, we take on all the responsibility of figuring out ahead of time what's safe.

There's a subconscious level of intent here. It's hard to call someone out for their weaponized incompetence. It makes us look mean. In western cultures, the ultimate crime is making someone feel bad and expecting them to do better. If you're just bad at your job, that's mostly fine.

So when you see the CDC or the FDA doing a bad job or shocking health experts with their ineptitude, understand that some of it, or even a lot of it, isn't just incompetence. It's on purpose.

Let's call it what it is.

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