How do you talk about a monster of an issue when the two sides are so far apart? Mónica brings together two unlikely guests to find out: Dr. Francis Collins, a man who helped shape the U.S. COVID response (and was Dr. Fauci’s boss!), and Travis Tripodi, a New Hampshire resident who believes that response was deeply wrong and misguided. In Part one of this two part story, Francis and Travis describe how they weathered very different challenges during the pandemic, their radically different perspectives on what went wrong during the crisis, and the extraordinary way that their perspectives first collided last summer in Gettysburg. What makes COVID disagreements so painfully divisive in the first place? Mónica and April follow up to unpack the giant barriers that complicate these conversations, and how their experiences both during the pandemic and in its aftermath have shaped their own novel perceptions on power, truth and morality.
Senior Producer & Editor: David Albright
Producer: Jessica Jones
Contributor: April Lawson
Artist in Residence: Gangstagrass
Cover Art & Graphics: Katelin Annes
Publishing Support: Mike Casentini
Show Notes: Ben Caron and Don Goldberg
Featured Song: “You Can Talk To Me” by New Middle Class
A production of Braver Angels.
Financial Supporters: M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust and Reclaim Curiosity.
- Additional Background: Derate the Hate Interview with Dr. Francis Collins
- Additional Background: Derate the Hate Interview with Travis Tripodi
- NIH: Vaccine Q&A with Dr Francis Collins (May 7, 2021)
- Braver Angels Convention Panel – A Deplorable and an Elitist Walk into a Bar: Francis Collins and Wilk Wilkinson
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Dr. Francis Collins shares his experience of the beginning of the pandemic [06:57]
- Collins: “I’m a physician. I’m a scientist. I always hoped that I would be able to use what I knew about medicine and science to help people. That’s why I decided to go down this road many years before. And it felt like, ‘okay, this is a moment to try to use whatever experience I have, but also to learn as quickly as I can from other people.’”
- Collins: “There were some serious blunders early on. The testing was a big part of that. The CDC’s effort to develop a test probably never should have been allowed to go on as long as it did before admitting failure and then finally getting tests reliably done by the private sector. That was a big lost opportunity in terms of time. And then they request, sometimes not request, command, about things like masks which seem to change from one time to the next about, ‘no, you shouldn’t wear them,’ ‘now you should.’ I think we blundered a lot in the communication and people began to think, ‘Who are these guys? And do they know what they’re talking about?’”
- Collins: “We’re doing the best we can. Don’t be surprised if it changes next week or the week after when we have more data. I don’t think that came across. I think maybe it was just– trying to get people to pay attention and change behaviors. Maybe we made it sound like we knew more than we did.”
- Collins: “It did feel just minute to minute like you can’t make a mistake, you can’t waste time. People are dying. You can see that every night on the evening news and it’s up to us. You felt that. It’s up to us to find answers, to save lives, or we will never be able to forgive ourselves.”
Travis Tripodi shares about his experience of the pandemic and what angered him about the response [11:56]
- Tripodi: ‘They would oftentimes use CDC guidance to say, “This is why we’re doing what we’re doing,” and I would then go on the CDC website, and I would say, “Well, the guidance doesn’t even say that.” And they would say, “Well, too bad. That’s what the policy is.” And so, you know, we would joke and call it “CNN guidance” because that’s really what it felt like, was that it was more about how the media was presenting the problem than actually analyzing the data and making policies based off of it.’
- Tripodi: “In my field I deal with measurement instruments, and with measurement instruments you have this like repeatability and reliability metric that basically says “how likely is this going to measure this accurately” like when you use it, and I was reviewing the COVID testing kits at the time and showing that they had like a irresponsibly low reliability to be not communicating it in my opinion accurately to the public. And so, you know, people were deciding whether or not they would not go to work based off of taking these tests. And, you know, to me, I like, looked at that and said, ‘this is, this would never be approved in a standard situation.’”
- Tripodi: “It was like a silencing that the environment that we were living in was causing you to self -censor.A lot of people were worried about saying what they actually thought about masks because they might be vilified and told that, you know, ‘you don’t care about other people.’”
Mónica asks both guests, “What happened during the COVID pandemic that made it such a polarizing event for this country?” [18:28]
- Collins: “It wasn’t one thing. Certainly there were blunders, the government did things that ticked people off with closures of businesses and schools that weren’t necessarily easy to understand or maybe even all that justified. And people began to feel oppressed by their government instead of benefited. And so they began to question everything that was said. And then there was a huge impact there of social media and cable news who fairly quickly adopted, you know, at least… in some instance, as a contrarian point of view. And to be honest, we had a president during 2020 who was giving very mixed messages about what people should do and whether you should trust the science or not. And pretty soon it became much more of a political question whether you were interested in being vaccinated than a scientific question. And that was a terrible mix of ways in which people could make decisions.”
Tripodi shares a personal story of a cousin he recently lost who suffered from addiction and how he was affected by the government response during the pandemic [22:17]
- Tripodi: “I feel about the pandemic that we have somebody who was a vulnerable member of our society who was left behind by how we handled the pandemic. He was on the edge, he lost his job, he lost his support system, he lost his community, he was not able to reach out and and spend time with friends even because of the environment that we were in at that time. And so I think that as a society, we did not do a good enough job at considering the vulnerable. I think we could have done better.”
- Tripodi: “We claimed the things were backed in science, and things were more backed in people that did science that would then offer advice based off of their expertise. And it was not necessarily using the scientific process to come to conclusions.”
Mónica shares how Collins and Tripodi met at the Braver Angels National Convention in 2023 [26:22]
Introducing our supporting partner, Acton Institute [30:11]
Mónica discusses the interviews with Collins and Tripodi with her red counterpart, April Lawson [32:09]
Mónica and April discuss their own experiences of the pandemic, including difficulties creating spaces to bridge divides with different COVID safety practices [35:26]
- Mónica: “I knew where I stood on things. I knew what I trusted. I knew that the actions I took for my family were clear. Clear. And I looked around in my society, and I saw this like contempt to dismissal, narrowing, distrust, separation of worlds. And maybe that was the scariest thing of all for me.”
- Mónica: “We better be careful about the rules we set out and the ways that we use physical safety and danger to justify keeping human beings from the most important thing we have, which is each other.”
- Mónica: “I believe in truth. I believe in getting to our best understanding and acting on it. I believe in that. What the last few years have taught me is that when truth is not collectively searched for and explored, then it doesn’t have the power it needs and it’s incomplete. Which is the part that I think will be controversial to many of people I know in journalism and elsewhere who think of facts and truth in a certain way as a very discreet thing that you go for and then you protect and you defend. But like, there are steps on the way to truth. There’s foundations you build under it for it to work. And you mentioned the one earlier, which is that you cannot unlock truth without trust, you cannot do it. We rely on diversity and disagreement in this country. It’s messy AF, but we have to wrestle with that. And so the burden on not just community, but engagement, listening, that’s something that our institutions don’t do. So that’s the way I see truth is like, we’ve been blind to how important trust has been to truth all along.”
April and Mónica discuss the importance of Collins and Tripoldi’s conversation about their differing perspectives on COVID [55:40]
- Mónica: “According to conventional wisdom, we’re not supposed to be doing this, you know? But I am really glad, really glad we’re doing this…We’re saying something absolutely radical here. We’re saying something absolutely radical, that modeling these conversations, bringing them together and having facts not be the most important thing to listen to, and listen for, is actually not only okay, but necessary.”
- Mónica: “I also know that out there in the world, people are having conversations across different collections of knowledge all the time. And we never elevate them and let ourselves learn from how they can work, and how there are other things that you can connect on, challenge, push, pull that may not begin and end with the objective fact and truth of what happened, in part because there’s a piece of truth that is about how we see what happened and what it means to our lives. Because we are all people, and I love this country because we do still have our freedom and our power to disbelieve. We have our freedom to disbelieve and to go look for something else and no one can make us believe what we don’t believe yet.”
Introduction of Braver Angels membership [58:45]
Preview for the part 2 of this story [59:48]
Song: “You Can Talk To Me,” written and performed by the group New Middle Class [1:01:30]
End Credits [1:02:11]
Today, we’re diving headfirst into one of the most contentious divides we’ve seen in our lifetimes. Yep, we are talking about COVID. But we aren’t just talking about it.
We are bringing together two voices. who come at this from wildly different perspectives. For a conversation you won’t wanna miss.
I had just come off of reading Robert Kennedy’s “The Real Anthony Fauci.”
Although it doesn’t really mention Dr. Collins very often, a lot of my perspective was like the least generous perspective. I told myself like, you should go shake his hand and who knows what will come of it.
All that and more is going to be ahead in part one of the special two -part story. Can we fix what COVID broke?
Welcome to A Braver Way, a show about how you, yes you, can disagree about politics without losing heart. I’m Mónica Guzmán, your guide across the divide to help you hear and be heard by people who confound you.
We don’t wanna be at war in our country. We wanna be at home. So strap in, ’cause it’s time we learn how to turn up the heat, turn down the fear, and get real about things that matter with more of our fellow Americans than we thought possible.
Four years ago this month, we had no idea what was about to hit us. Billie Eilish swept the Grammys. Kobe Bryant and his daughter died in a plane crash. An impeachment was underway for President Donald Trump.
And then on January 21st, the CDC announced the first confirmed case of a strange new coronavirus here in the United States. The things that tore us apart around the COVID pandemic were as consequential and universally aggravating as I ever want to see.
Our disagreements weren’t about our preferences, they were about our choices. At every level, from the federal government to each private citizen and every employer, school, and policymaker in between. It was life and death, and it was heartbreaking. Relationships were tested and broken. Respect was questioned and lost. Between family, between friends, and between many of us and the institutions we thought were there to pull us up and pull us through things like this.
Like many of you, I found myself arguing over what is and isn’t true, who is and isn’t credible, and which values should win out when a crisis pits them against each other.
Freedom versus safety. Life versus livelihood. Being proudly in community. versus being proudly independent. I’m talking about this like it’s all behind us, but it’s not. It’s clear to me talking with people all across the country that a lot of what broke during COVID for them is still broken today. A lot of us are done fighting about it, but that’s not because we let it go. It’s because we are exhausted by so many fights that give us bruises and not much else. But I’m not okay with letting broken things just lie there, or with letting bitter divisions drain life and hope right out of a public discourse that ought to be able to handle them. And I know a lot of you aren’t cool with that either.
So for this two -part story, we’re going to the belly of this beast. We’re going to invite two people on opposite sides of the COVID divide to come together on this podcast and have that fight.
Why? Because these fights a lot of us are so hungry to have. These big unleashed arguments that put it all out there across giant differences in opinion, perspective, or even power. They don’t have to be exhausting or bruising. Yeah, anyone can say that, I know, but stick around,’cause I think we found two unlikely people who just might be able to show it. One of them played a pivotal role in shaping our nation’s COVID response. And the other saw a lot wrong with that response and made his choices accordingly. The story of how they met is pretty incredible. And it starts the same way a lot of fights do, with anger.
It was July 2023. The Braver Angels Convention was in full swing at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, and the attendees equally split between liberals and conservatives were having starkly different reactions to what turned out to be a controversial session about truth, trust, and COVID. On stage for that session was Dr. Francis Collins, which was kind of a big deal. Dr. Collins was the director of the National Institutes of Health during the pandemic. He was on the White House Coronavirus Task Force that Vice President Mike Pence chaired to set strategy at the federal level. And he didn’t just work with Anthony Fauci. He was Fauci’s boss.
The reactions to this session, like I said, were mixed. Some thought that Francis didn’t get enough chances to defend his decisions against what they saw as unfair attacks against generally good policies.
But not Travis Tripodi. Travis, who came to the convention from New Hampshire, thought the session let Francis off the hook for what he saw as a COVID response gone horribly wrong.
Travis was mad, and he wasn’t alone. When I heard about these wildly different responses to the same panel, it made me want to ask the question that’s at the heart of this episode.
How can you disagree openly and well when the two sides are starting so very far apart? To begin exploring that question and make our way toward the open debate for Francis, and Travis will have on this podcast Let’s rewind to the year that changed everything 2020 What in their experience of COVID led them to have such different views of it?
Let’s start with Francis.
Dr. Francis Collins:
I had been the director of the National Institutes of Health already for about nine years. This is the most important supporter of biomedical research in the world, the NIH, and to be the Director was both a remarkable privilege and a pretty exhausting experience at times. But it got a whole lot more exhausting in January of 2020, when the first news came out of China that there was something happening that sounded alarming.
And my job was to then try to do everything possible to learn what we could about this virus and to try to plan quickly. I was in high gear. How could you not be when you saw this threat coming at you? I’m a physician, I’m a scientist. I always hoped that I would be able to use what I knew about medicine and science to help people. That’s why I decided to go down this road many years before and it felt like, okay, this is a moment to try to use whatever experience I have, but also to learn as quickly as I can from other people.
By the time we got to March, it just felt any opportunity that we passed by that we should have taken just feels like a terrible blow. So, you’re carrying the weight of this responsibility very heavily on your shoulders?
And you needed to make lots of decisions right there at the beginning. Walk us through that experience.
Dr. Francis Collins:
For vaccines we had to come up with a strategy that would potentially get a vaccine much faster than had ever been possible before. The usual is a five- or 10-year time-table. We didn’t have five or 10 years the way this was spreading, But boy, we were all just stretched day by day trying to figure out not just the science, but how to implement this kind of effort in record time.
And what was your experience seeing how the country was receiving what you were doing?
Dr. Francis Collins:
At first it felt okay, we’re all in this together. This is a big threat. Everybody is frightened. I was frightened when you started to see what was happening even by March or April in some of the big cities like New York, it was clear this was a virus. It was capable of killing a lot of people. So, I think that motivated most of us to say, “okay, we’re gonna have to make some sacrifices here to try to save lives.” But it didn’t stay that way. There were some serious blunders early on. That testing was a big part of that. CDC’s effort to develop a test probably never should have been allowed to go on as long as it did before admitting failure and then finally getting tests reliably done by the private sector.That was a big loss to opportunity in terms of time. And then the requests sometimes not requests, demands about things like masks, which seem to change from one time to the next about, no, you shouldn’t wear them now, you should. I think we blundered a lot in the communication and people began to think, “who are these guys and do they know what they’re talking about?
The big thing I don’t think we got across was we don’t really understand this virus well enough right now to be sure of what we’re recommending. We’re doing the best we can. Don’t be surprised if it changes next week or the week after when we have more data. I don’t think that came across. I think maybe it was just trying to get people to pay attention and change behaviors. Maybe we made it sound like we knew more than we did.
What else do we need to know, about your experience through here to understand how you arrived at the perspective you have on COVID and public safety.
Dr. Francis Collins:
I wanted to be sure that everything we were doing was scientifically rigorous. This was not a time for just hoping that something was gonna work. And there was a lot of hopefulness out there being put forward in claims about things that I didn’t think had actually been proven. Like Hydroxychloroquine was a big motion behind that.
The data wasn’t there, but there were certainly people pushing for it. So when it came to the vaccines, had to be sure that they were tested in the most rigorous way. And that meant very quickly putting something together called a master protocol and insisting that the trials for these vaccines had to be really big and really diverse, so you would actually know at the end of a few months whether they had worked or not, and not just have some anecdote drive all of this.
That was all of that, and it did feel just minute to minute you can’t make a mistake. You can’t waste time. People are dying. You can see that every night on the evening news, and it’s up to us. You felt that. It’s up to us to find answers to save lives, or we will never be able to forgive ourselves.
While Francis was leading the NIH through the pandemic. Travis was having a very different pandemic experience at home in New Hampshire.
I actually kind of joke sometimes that I had a happy pandemic I did not necessarily experience a lot of the negative consequences of either the virus or the public health policies that other people did. I’m part of the laptop class so I was able to, I was already shifted to working remotely and I just, doubled down on that. I ended up eventually having some disagreements with my company with regards to the vaccine rules that they were putting in place and I ended up leaving and starting my own independent consulting business, which has been going great, so , you know, like it…
You left, because of the disagreements over the vaccine.
Nothing’s that simple, but yes, it was also limiting my ability to go back into the office, which limited my effectiveness, but my overall…
Can you be, can you, I invite you to be specific about the disagreement? What did you think? Travis Tripodi:
The policy at the time was that you had to be vaccinated or you had to wear a mask in the office. And my understanding, at the time, is that the vaccine never really had any impact on transmission. And so if you were allowed in the office, the mask really should have, it was redundant. And then additionally, I had natural immunity at that time, and I didn’t think that there was enough consideration going into how much natural immunity was relevant to the conversation, especially with, studies coming out of Israel at that time, showing that in some cases, or at least in that study, natural immunity, was offering more protection than the vaccine. they would oftentimes use, CDC guidance to say, this is why we’re doing what we’re doing. And, I would then go on the CDC website and I would say the guidance doesn’t even say that. And they would say “well,.too bad. [laughs]
That’s what the policy is. And we would joke and call it CNN guidance because that’s really what it felt like was that it was more about how the media was presenting the problem than actually analyzing the data and making policies based off of it. I just, I felt like this is not a good enough reason to get, a medical intervention.
So my point about saying I had a happy pandemic is that I never really experienced very many negative consequences. It was all mostly a principled approach to it. I have kind of a libertarian philosophy and that I don’t really think that the government has the right to tell small businesses to close down. I was also looking around at the time my background is in medical device and health technology in the quality field, which is the part of the business that interacts with the FDA guidance. And so I had a certain amount of understanding of how the FDA regulated these products and, things like emergency use authorization and how long it takes for drugs to be approved and what goes into it. And so I had a professional kind of like understanding of that, that was guiding some of my skepticism as well.
Do you remember a particular moment where you felt, ugh, can you walk us through some something, in your experience… Take us to a moment.
In, in my field I deal with measurement instruments and with measurement instruments you have this like repeatability and reliability metrics. So it basically says how likely is this going to measure this accurately? Like when you use it. And I was reviewing the COVID testing kits at the time and so showing that it, they had a, irresponsibly low, reliability to be not communicating it in my opinion, accurately to the public. And people were deciding whether or not they would not go to work based off of taking these tests. And, to me I like, looked at that and said, this is, this would never be approved in a standard situation. And if this was a measurement device that I was using at work, the FDA would never accept that I measured something with this and got that result. So they would absolutely question it and reject and require a higher level of certainty.
And so that, and just generally, and I think this is common for a lot of people, but I think it’s really important is that it’s, it was only kinda like my 1984 moment, the, or Orwellian like situation it felt like that you’d walk into a restaurant and you would be told that you needed to wear a mask to walk the six feet from the door to the table, and then you could take your mask off and that was gonna protect you. It just felt very disturbing to have to live in an environment where people were operating with so much fear. and not rationality. It didn’t seem to be, at least in that situation.
So how did you communicate, what you were thinking and feeling during this period of time?
That was part of the problem is in terms of communicating. It was very limited in how I could communicate because there was such a discrepancy between, What you were seeing in the media, what my liberal friends were watching on CNN and what I was seeing I watched mostly independent media, and what my parents were watching on Fox News, It became like it’s so difficult to have a conversation with people that it was just difficult to communicate, at all. And then you ended up feeling it impacted relationships. I have a friendship that just, she has two kids. And we were talking about vaccinations, and it’s do you vaccinate your kids? And we were on, so two different, entirely different worlds on that issue. And it was such an important thing that it’s I can’t tell you what I actually think because that the implications of telling you what I actually think are just so painful and dangerous to our relationship that it’s just it never happened. So it was like a silencing. The environment that we were living in was like causing you to self-censor. A lot of people were worried about saying what they actually thought about masks, because, they might be vilified and told like, you don’t care about other people or, whatever it was.
So that’s Travis. And I gotta tell ya. I really don’t miss the uncertainty of that whole awful time. The confusion, the judgements, the fear…and the loss. I can hear how that weighs heavy on both of them to this day.
Lost opportunities. Lost lives. So next, I asked first Francis, then Travis a pretty pointed question:
What happened during the COVID pandemic that made it such a polarizing event for this country? What went wrong in your view, and where to you place the blame? As one of them answered, the other listened.Here was Francis’s response.
Dr. Francis Collins:
During 2020, I was totally wrapped up in the science efforts, but becoming more aware that the public uncertainty, maybe even distrust, was growing. I imagined that somehow that would basically fade away once the vaccines actually had been tested. And if they turned out to be really good, everybody would go, okay, now we got something.
That’s what happened then in November of 2020, and the vaccines in this vigorous rigorous testing turned out to be even better than I would’ve dreamed with efficacy against a serious infection at 95% or thereabouts, and almost no side effects in trials of 30,000 people. And I thought at that point, oh, it’s paid off.
We’ve done this in 11 months. That’s never been done before. People are gonna look at this in a hundred years as the greatest achievement that science has probably ever mounted on the basis of trying to protect human health. But then it didn’t seem that everybody agreed with that. And by 2021, as the vaccines became freely available to everybody, it was clear there was a substantial fraction, not a fringe at all, maybe 50 million people were like, “Nope, that one’s not for me.”
So how did that happen? ’cause even today, looking back on it, I grieve that that happened because it led to a lot of lost lives.
Mónica: So what is your answer to yourself? How did that happen? What do you think?
Dr. Francis Collins:
It wasn’t one thing. Certainly, there were blunders, the government did things that ticked people off with closures of businesses and schools that weren’t necessarily easy to understand or maybe even all that justified. And people began to feel oppressed by their government instead of benefited.
And so they began to question everything that was said. And then there was a huge impact there of social media and cable news who fairly quickly adopted, at least in some instances, a contrarian point of view. And to be honest, we had a president during 2020 who was giving very mixed messages about what people should do and whether you should trust the science or not.
And pretty soon it became much more of a political question of whether you were interested in being vaccinated than a scientific question. And that was a terrible mix of ways in which people could make decisions. And that all piled together, so that by the time we got to the summer of 2021, 50 million people said “I’m not trusting that, that’s not for me. Maybe this isn’t that bad a disease after all, maybe they’re lying to us about how many people have actually been that sick or died from this.”
And all the data kinda went off in the corner and seemed to get replaced by a lot of opinions, anecdotes, and frankly, some of what was going on on social media was evil. It was not just people confused, it was people intentionally spreading around false information and sometimes making money off of it as well.
And then I turned to Travis and asked him the same question I asked Francis.
What happened during the pandemic that made it such a polarizing event for this country? What went wrong, in your view and where do you place the blame?
It is an interesting question. And Mark, if you don’t mind I’d like to share one, one additional thing with regards to my experience also. And it’s an intersection between my story and the story of my cousin Robbie. And Robbie was a recovering drug addict, and he was working as a server down in Boston at that time. at the time of say, February, 2020, when we started to learn about more, see more cases the restaurants just basically shut down entirely. People stopped coming in. There was this like environment of fear and he lost his job.
And at that time, he was already struggling again with his addiction. And he slipped back into it. At that time he had committed himself to a rehab facility in Boston. And because of the capacity restrictions, he was kicked out of the rehab facility because of the covid capacity restrictions. We didn’t hear from him for a while. And then the next I heard my brother was removing him from methadone bile, which is a common area of Boston and committed him to a facility. If you’re familiar at all with addiction, it’s difficult for a family. And at that time we had to draw some boundaries and we didn’t see him for a long time. And I share the story with you because on, on Monday I learned that we lost my cousin. And I want to, I wanna share the story because, and I don’t want to overweight too much. How much it relates to the COVID policy in the COVID environment, because addiction is complicated and, he was, sick already.
But to answer your question, about the, how I feel about the pandemic is that, we have somebody who was a vulnerable member of our society who was left behind by how we handled the pandemic. He was on the edge. He lost his job, he lost his support system, he lost his community. He was not able to reach out and spend time with friends, even because of the environment that we were in at that time. And so I think that as a society we did not do a good enough job at considering the vulnerable. I think we could have done better. and so anyways, thank you for allowing me to share that. It’s something that’s very heavy on my mind right now and it’s difficult to get through this without at least it expressing it. On top of thinking that, we’ve left, we didn’t do a great enough job accounting for the vulnerable in our society. I do think that we were responding to a lot of things in fear. And I think that to me at least, there was a discrepancy between when we claimed that things were backed in science and things that were more backed in people that did science, that would then offer advice based off of their expertise. And it was not necessarily using the scientific process to, to come to conclusions and specifically with regards to public policy things like mask mandates and when to, potentially like covid vaccine mandates for different areas of the community. And so, my impression of the pandemic is that we operated a lot in fear, and I think that was not, not great for and heavily impacting the trust that, that and then the dissolving of trust in our institutions.
I mentioned earlier, that the story of how Travis and Francis first met was pretty incredible, even though it started kinda rough. After watching Francis onstage at the Braver Angels convention, Travis wasn’t just made at Francis, as he saw it got to avoid real scrutiny for his actions during COVID. He was also pretty frustrated that the session, in his view, didn’t give perspectives like his a good airing. Even at the Braver Angels convention, where open disagreement was the whole point. Here’s how he described it.
I felt as though the conversation was very congenial and it really left a lot of things unsaid. I think that, I felt that Dr. Collins was speaking from a position of authority and not really leaving a lot of things up for questioning. And I had so many questions at the end of it and so many feelings where it was just like unresolved and bottled up.
The next day, still at the convention. Travis took part in a different session that invited people to. share their perspectives on COVID. As we like to say at Braver Angels, ‘fully, freely, and without fear.’
This time, Travis was a speaker and Francis was in the audience as an observer.
Dr. Francis Collins:
The first three speakers were in favor of the public health efforts, and the next three were against it. And so it was a good Braver Angel moment here to see the contrast and try to understand the logic and that was a lot of why I was there.
But I had been particularly troubled by Travis’s involvement because he clearly was so upset. When he first tried to speak I think he got three or four words out and then got really emotional and was tearful and talked about how, just how angry he was. And I thought, “I need to understand that.”
After that session wrapped up, Travis glanced at Francis, this powerful man in the room, and made a pretty surprising decision. With his bottled up frustration still swirling through him. Travis decided he wanted to approach Francis just one-on-one.
I wanted to take an opportunity to reach out and connect with Dr. Collins because I had been spending a lot of time vilifying him and dehumanizing him.
I’m gonna, I’m gonna ask you to be specific. When you said you spent time dehumanizing him, what do you mean?
I had just come off of reading Robert Kennedy’s the Real Anthony Fauci, which is like not a very generous interpretation of the state actors, although it doesn’t really mention Dr. Collins very often, a lot of my perspective was that was like the least generous perspective that one could have and that it’s these things were done for money reasons or negligence apathy, all of these very negative traits. And that’s what I mean when I say dehumanization. So I told myself like, you should go shake his hand and who knows what will come of it.
Dr. Francis Collins:
After the breakup of the session and walking back towards where the lunch was, I was happy to see him there. I didn’t realize that he had particularly planned for us to meet at that point. But he was gracious extending his hand and I thought, oh, this is exactly the conversation I want to have too.
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To learn more about Braver Network and how your organization can join the movement for civic renewal, go to “Braverangels.org/abraverway.” So unless you’ve managed to skip any of the the last four or so years, in which case, lucky you, there is a good chance that what Francis and Travis shared this episode brought up for you not just opinions and reactions, but some all -too -recent memories.
We all had hard moments, some a lot harder than others. Maybe you drew lines in the sand. Maybe others pushed you away.
And maybe all of that, to you or someone close to you, felt uniquely justified. There is so much that the story we’re telling in this podcast stirs up, personal and social, and everything in between. So what makes this particular divide tear at us with such force wherever we sit on the political spectrum? And how do we really confront it? Here to break it all down with me is my friend and a political red to my blue, April Lawson.
With a sigh and a deep breath, Kick us off. we Start by highlighting the standout moments, the favorite moments to us. So what stood out to you? April:
Sure. Two things. the one for Francis and one for Travis. for Francis it was, ugh. I love that he was open to sharing that. Like when they finally found the vaccine, this was like this victorious moment and like this is gonna be seen as one of the great scientific achievements. And then people didn’t react that way. the deeper fractures in our society came up and ate what should have been a unifying experience for all of us. And,I just can only imagine that must have been crushing to the people involved. And I hadn’t thought really about that.
And then the other one was, I really appreciated Travis telling the story of his cousin because one of the things about this issue that is different from a lot of others is it’s personal. Of course. Yes. Many of our political issues that are hot button issues are personal in some way. This is, this almost can’t not be personal for anyone
A friend of mine from high school had long covid and just got very depressed and took his life and, yeah, there’s just I hadn’t talked to him for a long time, so I’m like, okay.
But, this thing just, it rippled into everything,
Yep. I also had written down Travis’s story as a favorite moment for me.
And then for Francis, when he said, and how he watched Travis at the Braver Angels Convention get choked up and Francis said, that he saw how angry Travis was..And I needed to understand that, What does it take for that to be the reaction of someone like Francis, who, you know, when somebody, is so angry for the impulse to be, I’m curious.
Yeah. That reminds me of at the Braver Angels Convention where Francis and Travis met, we saw a level of hate directed at Francis that I have never seen in a braver Angels context before. You get all these people together who were like self-identify as wanting to be part of the solution. And someone just walked up behind Francis on the sidewalk and said something like, “How can you sleep at night? You’re a mass murderer” or something. And just like the, I don’t know if that was the exact accusation, but it was like that and wow. And so I, I say that because I do think. You can think whatever you want about Francis’ positions. And I actually think there is room for legitimate debate on those, but the fact that he can respond with curiosity knowing that he’s getting that kind of thing, yeah, you’re right. What does it take to respond with curiosity and I don’t know. I’m impressed.
Yeah. And when I first thought about the question, what’s my favorite moment? I couldn’t think of a moment because the overwhelming thing that I thought was amazing about all of this is the fact that Francis and Travis came together at all. the whole thing still blows my mind.
So let’s turn back the clock. April, that time. I know that a lot of people ,are happy to have gotten past most of that time, but I think for us to really get ready to hear what’s coming up in part two of these episodes, let’s remember what was happening. So, what do we remember from our experience? Is it okay I’ll just launch on this one. I Remember being angry, that the following was true, that for the first time in my experience, it was physically dangerous to be with other people. What the hell is that?
I’m someone who’s, grown and conditioned and built a lot of what I do around the fact that we need each other and that technological connections are a shadow of what we need from each other. So that was, it felt like this crazy injustice to me
I remember a couple of things that really come up during that time. One is a conversation with someone very close to me who lives in another country. And she tells me in no uncertain terms how dangerous the vaccine is and how threatening and all these terrible forces in business and in the corporate science that she distrusts so much. And I remember telling her I’m planning to get my kids vaccinated and I’m vaccinated. And there was just this. Silence. And I could tell because we love each other that she was in that moment going, what do I say? And as I was asking her questions, I was having conversation with myself about all the mixed up stuff and what I wanted to say and what I couldn’t say and ugh. And so that really stood out to me.
Yeah. I remember there was a story in the New York Times. I ended up mentioning this in my book that really affected me because it was about people who were protesting the lockdowns, I think in April or May in the Midwest. I remember seeing a Facebook post before I saw this New York Times story where someone that I know had talked about the people protesting and compared them to like zombies. ’cause they were up against this glass window at the, like capitol in Ohio or something, and they were like banging and angry. And so in her post she compared them to zombies to and then the commenters were like. they were making allusions to Darwin and evolution and hope these people all die, kind of thing. I felt this like disgust at the disgust that I was seeing building between people.
And so I’ll mention one more thing. There was when my book first came out in early 2022, so really tail end of the worst part of the pandemic. I had an event in a bookstore here in Seattle and I got an email from someone who said:
“When I saw the email about your book, I was excited. I went to sign up for the event happening this evening at this bookstore as I live close by and I plan to invite some friends to come. And then I saw that the event required proof of vaccination to attend. I want to point out the irony and hypocrisy of planning an event to discuss how to discuss controversial topics with people who have differing opinions at a location which continues to discriminate against people for their medical choices, and therefore excludes a group of people who hold those differing opinions.”
That stayed with me too. It’s like, I knew where I stood on things. I knew what I trusted. I knew that the actions I took for my family were clear. Clear and I looked around in my society and saw this like contempt to dismissal, narrowing, distrust, separation of worlds. And maybe that was the scariest thing of all for me because I was lucky enough not to have to worry too much about my life or my livelihood. So that’s, that was my experience.
Thank you. It’s sad even just remembering it. One other, just follow up just as I’m curious, how did you react to the thing about like proof of vaccination required? ‘Cause I remember. Because Braver Angels tries to work with people on both sides.We talked a lot about that, and I remember being frustrated at other sort of communal or bridging events that required masking and proof of vaccination because it felt like it, just like from the get go, you defeat the purpose almost. On the other hand, of course I understand the public health argument for it, but yeah. Did that change your view or how did you end up looking at it?
It’s a good question. I’m looking at my response. I’m literally looking right now at my response to her via email. I did apologize. I said I’m sorry that the bookstore excluded you and your friends. I wrote that, and I actually brought it up during my book talk that night that someone had emailed me to point out precisely what you pointed out.
So I remember. I said it felt like an uncomfortable moment for the audience, but it was important to bring up. So I remember receiving that email and being grateful for the excuse to bring it up that night. I remember getting that email and going, yes, this gives me the ability to say something that I would want to say, but I don’t think anyone would hear if I said it without this very real example
It’s there, there’s a scientific truth to that or… But man, We better be careful We better be careful about the rules we set out and the ways that we use physical safety and danger to justify keeping human beings from the most important thing we have, which is each other. That’s my answer. Okay. So you had a pretty extraordinary experience. So tell us about it.
Oh yeah. When I think back to that time, I remember like just feeling like it was impossible to have things be clean enough or to do the right thing enough, like the, they said wash your hands. like you’ve got a bunch of glitter on them. And I was like, oh mygosh. Like, how do we, that’s not, and so partly at the beginning, one of my reactions to this as this happens sometimes with me is I was cavalier about it. It’s ,we’ll do some basic things to try to stay safe, but you can’t let this control you And then I got sick.
I got COVID in, April of 2020. That was a big deal because I was sick for three weeks and I have never been that sick in my life. It was early on there was no vaccine, there were no good tests. I couldn’t get into a hospital to get tests because I, they were only letting in people who have underlying conditions. and obviously the hospitals were overflowing, which was very scary. it was the first time in my life that I thought, seriously that I might die. And I remember thinking like many people, every once in a while I’m like, this is all too much. What if it were all just over?
But then, when I was in a moment where I was like, I might actually die, that changed how I looked at it because I was like, no, I actually there’s something real precious here. And please, God, don’t let me, don’t let me leave this early.yeah, that was a very formative thing.
So I remember that. And then the other thing I, that I remember is trying to figure out how to, you and I both, we work with people and try to help people talk about this stuff. And so I ran the Braver Angels Debate Group was trying to figure out how do we do this? And it was it was difficult. And I remember specifically when we were talking about putting on our first covid debate. Periodically people will ask us questions about oh, should you really talk about that? Whatever. They almost never come from inside my team.
And we had a doctor on our team and she said, look, I just don’t know if I can do this like I’m a doctor. There is gonna be misinformation. I’m afraid that we are going to contribute to people dying. And, to be honest with you. I was not totally sure either at the time. And we did end up doing a debate, and I still believe in it because I think that building trust is the first step towards anything good happening. But I wasn’t sure. And I remember she, she really wrestled with that and like it’s I remember even just like days before the debate her saying look, This might just be immoral for me. And then when we actually had the debate, I remember watching, ugh, people’s faces, like it was, they were some of the hardest. We’ve done a bunch of covid debates at this point, and they are some of the hardest we’ve ever done up there with race and abortion and the others because. I feel like the question about like, why is this so hard to talk about? The stakes are, like, we talk about like life and death with lots of issues like the border, our country’s gonna be taken over like what China, but like this is actually life and death in a very immediate, intimate way.
Exactly right. And basically we’re segueing. Now we’re segueing a bit into that question of what makes this so hard? And I had the exact same thing. Everyone is implicated, everyone in some way. There’s some issues. You can go it’s not really about me. You’re a human being and there’s a virus, and there’s information about that virus and things that people are saying and they know and they don’t know, and what are you gonna do?
The gravity of that particular issue, the universality of it, in some issues you can say, “.Okay, wait a minute. Your choice doesn’t really affect me.” This case, there was also a compelling case that no, your choice of what to do with your body or how you protect yourself, or whether you have a pod or stay home or whatever. can threaten me and there’s the science and it’s physical and it’s real and not conceptual and not about my mindset. And so a lot of people had that approach. But I do really wanna quickly wanna pause because as you and I have been talking, I’ve noticed right, that even though you are red I am blue, we’re different politically, we actually have a very similar lifestyle, that COVID impacted in a certain way.
So I wanna acknowledge that people had drastically different experiences through all of this. And I’m thinking in particular of my friend Sandy, down in Sherman County, Oregon. I visited in November of 2020 just after the election. And there was this whole thing, this is a very rural county with very few people spread out over a long, a big space. And I actually sent Sandy a COVID test and I asked him to take it and he was like.
I don’t want it. This is weird, and I and but he agreed. He said, “okay, if this is what it takes for you to come visit yeah, okay, I’ll take it.” But then some stuff went wrong with the mail and whatever, and I just had to face that decision of do I still go and visit, Am I gonna feel at risk? Because very few people are vaccinated or anything down there. And I was like, no, I wanna be with people and I’m gonna take a little risk. And so I went and I remember feeling after I came back like this envy almost, because here I was in a big city. You and I both are in big cities. But in a lot of rural areas it just, there are some people who don’t know anyone who died of COVID.
There actually are plenty of people like that, and for whom this was happening on tv, and some of the folks in rural Sherman County, were feeling like all this is happening on TV and laws are being changed and we’re over here. This is weird.
And I wanna build on that with the, just the fact that I think for those folks who are particularly attuned to government overreach, it’s also the case that when there’s a massive. Global or national event, that’s when governments can become authoritarian with impunity.
And so I think that, some of the reactions that were like, wait a second hold up.What about my rights? That’s, that makes a lot of sense actually, if you’re coming from that context. And I was thinking about how in some ways what all of our work is about is to try to help people not do the you disagree, therefore you’re a bad person but me, and with this issue when you not wearing a mask right now could cause me or somebody I care about serious physical harm, man, the temptation to be like, I’m not sure you’re so great. Like, why don’t you care about me? That, that escalated. Mónica:
That escalated. I had friends for whom like they saw the decisions of, relatives in their family as the deepest betrayal. We have to talk about truth because your story about the doctor on your team, the morality of truth, what you know to be true, what you believe is untrue.
Yeah. I’m really curious how you saw that since, my journalist friends went nuts because, like truth is y’all’s thing, right? Like, how was that?
No, it was really eye-opening really hard for me, because there’s the signs, there’s signs everywhere. I believe in science And on people’s lawns. and so I believe in I believe in truth. How do you not? I believe in truth. I believe in getting to our best understanding and acting on it.
I believe in that. What the last few years have taught me is that when truth is not collectively, searched for and explored, then it doesn’t have the power it needs And it’s incomplete, which is the part that I think will be controversial to many of people I know in journalism and elsewhere who think of facts and truth in a certain way as a very discreet thing that you go for and then you protect and you defend.
But like there are steps on the way to truth. There’s foundations you build under it for it to work. And you mentioned the one earlier. which is that you cannot unlock truth without trust. You cannot do it. We rely on diversity and disagreement in this country. We, it’s messy, AF,but we have to wrestle with that. And so the burden on not just communication, but engagement, listening. That’s something that our institutions don’t do. So that’s the way I see truth is like we’ve been blind to how important trust has been to truth all along.
It just, so no I don’t think I, I certainly don’t look at it as there’s a lot of people that just didn’t value truth Bullshit. That’s not it at all. We all value truth. We all value truth. We’re just looking for it in different places, and we’re not looking for it together.
I liked that you said that the truth is incomplete. That’s the thing. I deeply believe that if we shut out, the people who won’t wear a mask at the event, like you’re not gonna get the whole truth because they know things that you don’t and that, no…
I wanted the questions that she and her friends would’ve asked me that night,
…that they would be in that room. And I have to say through all of this, it’s like I’m hearing myself and you and I’m going, huh. But we’re past COVID now. In the covid moment. Isn’t the doctor on your debate team that the moral thing. I, and these questions are still in our heads, man.
In that moment isn’t the right thing to like the best understanding you have of truth? From, yes, the people who have the knowledge that is closest to the solutions that we know should exist. This is our bodies. Okay. It’s almost like the crass way to put the question is shouldn’t we become authoritarian when lives are on the line? And isn’t it wrong to do anything else? and I remember that dilemma and I don’t wanna dismiss it just because we’re so much further out of danger now. I do believe in science, like we should all believe in science, and I do believe a lot of people die who shouldn’t have had to die.
I do too.
So, what do about that, April?
So this is part of why I am really glad that Travis is the person that we have contra Francis Collins. And I know that, we’ve gotten critiques before that if we have a Francis Collins, we need somebody who has similar credentials on the other side. But I actually think, and this is a little bit radical, y’all may hate it, but
I love, no, you love, I love “radical…”
Okay. I think that, the best counterpoints to the truth produced by the establishment these days are often produced by individuals who are doing their own, as they will say, their own research. And that part of what is going on is that in our country institutions have… you can say that they are not trusted and that’s people’s fault. People should just trust them. But I think a lot of our institutions don’t earn that anymore. I love, I think that fixing trusted institutions and our institutions is essential to fixing our country.
But there is. a rise in people who I think are like whistleblowers, like watchdogs, sometimes they take it a little too far in my opinion, but they’re like saying I’m not, what is it? I’m taking the red pill? And the, just the idea that like, I think Travis represents A lot of people and an approach to truth that I actually think is worthy of respect. I think that having an independent researcher who is a thoughtful, intelligent person who has life experiences that feed into the truth that they then articulate, like, that’s real valid as far as I’m concerned, and that’s worth as much as a bunch of scientific credentials now on what, probably not on the methodology of a study, but on how should we relate to a pandemic in our lives? Yeah. And so and this is one, I guess one more thing I’ll say about this. I come to this partly as somebody who, has experienced some gender-based, challenges in life. And so I have some awareness of what it’s like to not be the powerful one and not be the person who’s controlling the narrative. And there just are things that people who are not in charge know and the people on the fringes know. And does that mean that when we’re saying, let’s have a debate about whether everyone should take the vaccine, that I don’t worry?
No. but I frankly just, this is an intense thing to say, but I’d rather live together or die together.I’d rather do all of it together than leave a bunch of people behind or declare them Darwinian sacrifices or whatever it is. I just I also think it’s the only way that we will get there. So I think there’s a moral piece and also a practical piece, but I to me, that feels like what’s right.
Yeah. You know that this episode was challenging even to decide to do maybe in some of the same, ways that, that your debates were challenging. And it’s certainly challenging. a journalist, my job. When I’m being a journalist is to, if I’m asking questions and I know that someone is saying something, unfactual, It is my professional obligation to correct the record, and so it’s been a journey for me to start to believe that that is not the only mission that one can pursue to serve truth. And that building the glue and, persuading an extraordinarily skeptical society that engaging each other when each other’s perspectives feel awful to the point of threatening is worth it. So these episodes we are putting Travis next to Francis Collins, the former head of the NIH, which many of my fellow journalists would say is unethical and wrong because one of them has the credentials and and the other one does not. And according to commercial wisdom, we’re not supposed to be doing this,
But I am really glad, really glad we’re doing this.
I cannot tell you, and I am so glad that Travis is doing it. He and I have had conversations. It’s just what you said. He is so thoughtful. And he cares, he really cares. and yeah I don’t know. I think you hit on something really important that is nonetheless, like really controversial. Like we’re saying something absolutely radical here. We’re saying something absolutely radical: That modeling these conversations, bringing them together and having facts not be the most important thing to listen to and listen for.
…is actually not only okay, but necessary. So next In part two, we’re gonna have Travis and Francis talk to each other. And I’m not gonna fact check! I’m not, in part, because I haven’t done anywhere near the research the two of them have.
I know that out there in the world, people are having conversations across different collections of knowledge.all the time and we never elevate those and let ourselves learn from how they can work and how there are other things that you can connect on, challenge, push, pull that may not begin and end with the objective fact and truth of what happened.in part because there are, there’s a piece of truth that is about how we see what happened and what it means to our lives because we are all people, and I love this country because we do still have our freedom and our power To disbelieve. We have our freedom to disbelieve and to go look for something else. And no one can make us believe what we don’t believe yet. And thank God for that. And maybe it has hurt. Maybe it has hurt us. Maybe it has killed us.
I think it has hurt people.The problem, the question is,
Mónica: …Do we really want it any other way?
Yeah. It’s that.
Right? God. Oh God. Okay. Yeah.
I’m really looking forward to and Travis’s conversation because I think they’re both a little bit extraordinary in that they sought it out and I trust them and this is pretty risky terrain.
Yeah. Yep. And, I was there. So buckle up April.
All right, I’m ready.
A braver way is here for you, not just because the circumstances demanded, but because a growing and brilliant nationwide community supports it. Braver Angels is part of the nation’s largest cross -partisan, volunteer -led movement to bridge the political divide. Through community gatherings, real debates, and grassroots leaders working together, we’re offering America what it needs to overcome the bitterness of our politics. And you can join us and be a part of the solution. By becoming a member of Braver Angels, you can fuel our movement at whatever level feels comfortable and meaningful to you, starting as low as just $12 a year. You’ll also become part of our grassroots community, working to fix our broken politics from the ground up, and will plug you in with updates on our impact, as well as opportunities to learn more, build new skills, and take action. Head to “Braverangels.org/join” to get started. Find the link in our show notes to become a member and support our growing movement. Coming up in part two of our story, Francis and Travis, one on one.
I keep going back to this in my mind where Rachel Maddow coming on and saying that the vaccine protects you against transmission, which we know is not true. true. And then—
Dr. Francis Collins:
Did we know it wasn’t true then? Because remember, we didn’t really understand about transmission until several months went by and we had a new variant.
Well, Rachel Maddow didn’t know, and she was saying it with certainty. People saw that and latched onto it and said, you know, they’re lying to us.
Dr. Francis Collins:
So there it is, you’re talking about the default is to assume that somebody is actually carrying out some nefarious action. I know most of the people in the public health community, they are good, honorable people who are doing their best under terrible circumstances. How do we get to that point where, as a society, we made those assumptions about people’s motives that were really unjustified?
There are decisions that you made during the pandemic that had significant impacts. on my life that I need accountability for, you know, as a citizen of this nation.
There is more where that came from. Don’t miss part two in episode nine, where Francis and Travis, whom you’ve now gotten to know, get into it. It’s out now. That’s right. We dropped two episodes at once this week, and I can’t wait to hear what you think. See you there.
With that, I’m ready to send you brave souls back to your worlds with a song. It’s called You Can Talk To Me, written and performed by the group New Middle Class. It was a submission to our 2020 Braver Angels Songwriting Competition.
Take a listen.
(music fades under)
Thank you for joining us on this first of a two -part story on a braver way. A braver way is a production of Braver Angels. We get financial support from the MJ Murdoch Charitable Trust and reclaim curiosity and count USA Facts as a proud sponsor.
Our senior producer and editor is David Albright, our producer is Jessica Jones. Our theme music is by the fantastic #1 Billboard Bluegrass. charting hip hop band, Gangsta Grass.
A special thanks to Ben Caron, Don Goldberg, Mike Cassantini, and April Lawson. I’m your host and guide across the divide, Mónica Guzmán. If you liked what you heard here, subscribe, share, leave a review. And if this episode sparked questions or stories you wanna share with us, don’t hold back. We are here for all of them. You can always reach us.at email@example.com.
Take heart everyone. ‘til next time.
If we listen hard enough then maybe we can hear the braver angels on our shoulders whisper in our ear. So come closer,a little closer. When you’re near I hear you better What we hold in our hearts sometimes keeps us apart But we could be stronger together you can talk to me yes you can talk to me. In the end my friend we might agree to disagree. Maybe we can work together you can talk talk to me ♪ ♪ Oh,you can talk to me ♪ ♪ Yes, you can talk to me ♪