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Lies, Damned Lies and Covid19

Michael Lesher

Image source – Forbes/Getty

Growing up as I did in the Cold War, I still experience a special kind of shudder whenever I come across an anecdote like that of Katya Soldak, whose Soviet nursery school teacher once showed her class a photograph clipped from a Western newspaper, “depicting skinny [Russian] children in striped robes walking in a straight line.”

The capitalists who printed that picture wanted people to think Soviet children were “treated like prisoners,” the teacher declared angrily, “when in reality the kids were on their way to a swimming pool in their bathrobes.”

Which was a nice story (thought little Katya) — except that “I had never even seen a pool…. [T]hey existed in my mind as does an exotic animal or an unvisited city.”

A time capsule from a remote dystopia? Think again.

Staring at me right now from the latest quarterly newsletter of my alma mater, the University of Virginia, is an identical piece of bad-is-good fakery: a photograph of an involuntarily isolated graduate student named Kalea Obermeyer, accompanied by a caption blandly informing the reader that the woman seated alone on a trunk in the confines of a cramped dormitory room, clumsily swathed in a surgical mask, “shelters in place” in “her most secure housing during the pandemic.”

Welcome to Pravda, COVID19 style.

Being an honest sort, I have considered whether I ought to write to the editors of my old university’s magazine, accusing them of playing toady to democracy-destroying propagandists.

Should I remind these so-called educators of the young that the term “shelter in place” is properly applied to air raids, not to “pandemics,” and is a cruel hoax when pressed into service to describe what is actually an illegal quarantine?

That the young woman in the photograph is not “sheltered” but confined? That pandemics have occurred many times before, and that what’s new this time around is not the flu but the police state? That the governor’s order placing this student (and the rest of the citizenry) under virtual house arrest is probably unconstitutional?

And that while she’s stuck in her room — for no good reason I can discern — a whole host of local bus drivers, contract workers and university employees, including dining hall service workers who’ve labored there for decades, are all out of jobs?

I’d like to write all that, and more, to the purveyors of this bit of fake news. But I suspect I’d be wasting my time.

Mainstream media have recycled so many lies about COVID19 that by now every respectable editor with enough sense to come in out of the rain knows perfectly well what he or she is supposed to make the rest of us believe. And heaven help the dissenters!

Thus the once-respectable Atlantic, after months of promoting coronavirus hysteria, has published a kind of palinode that admits virtually every charge made by critics of lockdown policies — but still winds up gloomily insisting on the freedom-haters’ moral supremacy, facts or no facts.

The authors (Alexis Madrigal and Robinson Meyer) grudgingly concede the growing evidence that going outdoors, instead of being cooped up for months at a time per lockdown fiats, actually reduces the risk of infection.

They also admit that those who enforce our confinement clearly don’t believe their own hype about “social distancing”: police are “crowding protesters together, blasting them with lung and eye irritants, and cramming them into paddy wagons and jails.”

They even point out that the police themselves rarely bother separating from one another. But ultimately none of that matters to the liberal Atlantic: it’s “obvious” — evidence be damned — that just “standing in a crowd for long periods raises the risk of increased transmission of SARS-CoV-2.” Who says so? Why, Anthony Fauci does.

And what about all the evidence that COVID19, never anywhere near as deadly as officials originally assured us it was, is on the way out?

Here, too, the Atlantic’s paladins admit the facts but refuse to draw the obvious conclusion. They note that “the outbreak has eased in the Northeast,” the hardest-hit section of the US; that new cases have leveled off or declined in the great majority of states; and that “hundreds of public-health professionals signed a letter this week declining to oppose the protests [against police brutality] ‘as risky for COVID19 transmission.’”

They even admit that in Georgia and Florida, two states that enforced lockdowns least and opened up earliest, the numbers of new infections have been “relatively flat.”

In the face of so much good news, what are right-thinking police-state enthusiasts to do?

“[T]he US is not going to beat the coronavirus,” Madrigal and Meyer groan in unison in the article’s key paragraph. “Collectively, we slowly seem to be giving up.” Now there’s a specimen of doublethink even Orwell missed: victory is surrender; lockdown is safety; hysteria is virtue.

So I’m not planning to write to the editors at my alma mater — at least, not about that propagandists’ playground known as COVID19. When rights-trampling, economy-busting general incarceration is the fashion in the Land of the Free, when lying is good sense and wrecking lives is “health care,” my old ideas of rational persuasion start to look like a parasol in a monsoon.

Instead, I am going to do a bit of ranting about words — the elements that lies are made of. I do this because I am sure the twisting of language to cloak political and economic skullduggery — which I take to be the worst evils of the coronavirus outbreak — will be glossed over in future mainstream accounts.

And I do it because the politicians who tore up the Bill of Rights and thrust the US and much of the world to the brink of another Great Depression are not likely to change their spots — and unless we insist on calling their actions by their right names, we will be defenseless against their future machinations. “Political language,” Orwell reminded us, “is designed to make lies sound truthful…and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Well, here are some choice examples of “pure wind” that made “lies sound truthful” over the past three months:

Shelter in place. The fraudulent use of this term stands in synecdoche to all the rest. “Shelter in place” originated in US Civil Defense regulations in the context of a possible nuclear attack; over the following decades, the term evolved to mean any emergency order to “take cover until the coast is clear on order of officials.” But it has never had the slightest connection with disease control.

An order that restricts the movement of someone who is not ill, but who is suspected of contact with someone who is, is called a “quarantine.” But there are laws that regulate slapping quarantine orders on people — to say nothing of an entire population — and the governors and mayors who were bent on lockdowns clearly didn’t intend to be constrained by anything as pedestrian as the law.

So they dug up this irrelevant phrase and plastered it over their arbitrary confinements of huge numbers of citizens — in violation of quarantine statutes, without a court order, and without even a semblance of public debate — hoping nobody would notice the compounding of official malfeasance with verbal fakery.

It’s worth taking a moment to imagine how this trick must have been hatched in the bowels of some executive mansion.

I can picture someone like New Jersey governor Phil Murphy (last seen claiming that the constraints of the Bill of Rights weren’t part of his job description) barking at his aides, “Damn it, there’s got to be something to justify locking up the whole state without going through those pesky quarantine procedures!”

And I can see a harried assistant, having rummaged for hours in the archives, jogging into an office with the term “shelter in place” and a rather sheepish explanation that, well, it’s not about infection control, and doesn’t really have anything to do with the present situation, but it does say “in place” and, um, “shelter” and, you know…and anyway, for God’s sake, there isn’t anything else!

And then it’s not hard to imagine the boss (who knows the media better than his subordinates do) triumphantly working the words “shelter in place” into his next public address, confident that few mainstream reporters will ask him where the phrase came from.

The imagined details are less important than the obvious fact that “shelter in place” could not have been sprung on us by way of an innocent error. The term had to be found, and the officials who found it would necessarily have known what it meant, and therefore that its use in the context of a viral epidemic would constitute a fraud.

Thus, anyone — and I mean anyone — who has employed the phrase “shelter in place” over the last three months has been repeating a lie. It’s as simple as that. Every public health care official who has used the phrase is a scoundrel; every “journalist” who has used it is a shameless propagandist; every politician who has used it is an imposter who, in my view, deserves to be impeached or voted out of office forthwith.

Social distancing. This one runs “shelter in place” a close second. The phrase was nonexistent, or at best obscure, until rather recently; when officials of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention used it in a 2007 advisory memorandum, they felt obliged to explain the term in a footnote:

Social distancing refers to methods for reducing frequency and closeness of contact between people in order to decrease the risk of transmission of disease. Examples of social distancing include cancellation of public events such as concerts, sports events, or movies, closure of office buildings, schools, and other public places, and restriction of access to public places such as shopping malls or other places where people gather.

Note that this definition does not include keeping people six feet apart, stifling them with surgical masks, or barring them from inviting family members to their apartments. Evidently, not even the germophobes at the CDC were prepared to contemplate so brutal a disruption of human life just thirteen years ago.

In fact, the same memorandum stressed the importance of “[r]espect for individual autonomy” and “each individual’s general right to noninterference,” adding that even in the event the government did close office buildings or restrict access to shopping malls, “[a] process should be in place for objections to be heard, restrictions appealed, and for new procedures to be considered prior to implementation” — something never even remotely attempted during the last three months.

In other words, “social distancing” really means whatever the changing whims of our governors would like it to mean, as they continue to exercise “emergency” powers in what is clearly not an emergency. Meanwhile, the use of the term gives a false patina of scientific legitimacy to unprecedented government intrusions into the most basic interactions of human life.

The timing of the successive redefinitions of the phrase is itself instructive. In my own state of New Jersey, masks were not required as a component of “social distancing” until mid-April, by which time it was clear that the number of new cases in the region was already leveling off. (Masks remain mandatory in public as of this writing, even though the infection rate has fallen almost to pre-outbreak levels.)

Allow that point to sink in for a moment: “social distancing” took on a more extreme and divisive definition at just the moment that, by any rational calculation, restrictions should have been reduced, if not removed altogether! And the most recent fiats from the governor suggest that nothing like ordinary companionship is going to be permitted any time soon — regardless of the facts.

This implies that, at bottom, “social distancing” is not intended to serve any genuine medical purpose. It’s much better understood as an instrument of political repression — a way of keeping people apart and preventing any sort of public organizing.

I don’t consider it an accident that the “phased reopening plan” being peddled by nearly all media “experts,” and routinely attributed to Johns Hopkins University, was in fact produced under the leadership of Scott Gottlieb, a resident fellow of the American Enterprise Institute — the right-wing think tank that served as a major cheerleader for the Iraq invasion of 2003 and whose recent initiatives include efforts to sharply reduce federal spending on health care.

(Dr. Gottlieb, who until recently was Trump’s Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, now sits on the boards of pharma heavyweights Pfizer, Illumina and Tempus — so it’s not hard to see where his interests lie.)

That AEI is in no hurry to help small businesses reopen or to keep working people from losing their jobs will come as no surprise. What needs emphasis is that if such an outfit couldn’t hide its agenda behind the medical-sounding phrase “social distancing,” it would stand little chance of slipping its initiatives past the general public and into practice. But while we’re all creeping around with our faces wrapped like mummies, turned away from each other whenever possible, staying at least six feet apart, and speaking only when spoken to, how are we supposed to mount effective political opposition as the high rollers play their favorite games?

Emergency. Though it’s not often reported this way, the United States largely suspended democratic government back in March, when some 40 state executives declared “health emergencies,” granting themselves quasi-dictatorial powers to act without legislative approval or legal process.

They did this by invoking each state’s version of the Emergency Health Powers Act, a controversial piece of legislation crafted in the nervous aftermath of the September 2001 attacks and supposedly designed for a coordinated response to a massive act of bioterrorism. The American Civil Liberties Union was not alone back then in condemning the bill as “replete with civil liberties problems” and “a throwback to a time before the legal system recognized basic protections for fairness.”

Nevertheless, liberal media didn’t utter a peep when governors across the nation effectively scuppered democracy in the face of what, however threatening, didn’t even arguably resemble a catastrophic bioterror attack.

If that strikes you as a flagrant abuse of the word “emergency” for questionable political purposes — and it should — you ain’t seen nothing yet.

On June 4, New Jersey’s Governor Murphy issued his third consecutive extension of what was supposed to be a thirty-day “state of emergency” he had originally declared — unilaterally — on March 9.

What was the “emergency” this time around? In the governor’s own words: “there has now been a decrease in the rate of reported new cases of COVID19 in New Jersey, in the total number of individuals being admitted to hospitals for COVID19, and in the rate of reproduction for COVID19 infections in New Jersey.”

Got that? New cases, hospitalizations, even the “rate of reproduction” for the virus are all on the wane throughout Murphy’s jurisdiction. (And have been for months.) Yet in today’s Newspeak, that’s an “emergency” — enough to justify another month of democracy-free rule by executive fiat.

And I’m the Maharaja of Mysore…

I won’t even bother writing about that most buffoonish of phrases, “flattening the curve.” If that ever meant anything (which I doubt), it means literally nothing, or more accurately less than nothing, when applied (as it is now) to an outbreak that is demonstrably almost over.

I’ll only note that if the lockdown enthusiasts had been able to specify an actual goal, in intelligible language, they would have done so from the start. They couldn’t — because their true objectives were political, not medical — so they offered us a magical-thinking cartoon image instead. They must be hoping we still haven’t noticed.

As always, fraudulent language goes hand in hand with fraudulent political posturing, of which the Atlantic article I’ve already mentioned — oozing crocodile tears over the excesses of the cops while oblivious to the Constitution-defying antics of Governors Cuomo, Murphy, Whitmer et al. — is a rather rank example.

In a similar vein, Ross Douthat’s recent op-ed in the New York Times is an interesting confession of liberal dishonesty in the service of a slightly different form of liberal dishonesty.

Douthat correctly complains about members of the “public health establishment” who condemned anti-lockdown protesters just weeks ago as a dangerous death cult, but are now bowing and scraping before the parallel behavior of Black Lives Matter, “tying themselves in ideological knots” in the process.

Douthat’s indictment of highbrow hypocrisy on this score is so accurate that it is worth quoting at length:

[T]he original theory behind a stern public health response — that the danger to life and health justified suspending even the most righteous pursuits, including not just normal economic life but the practices and institutions that protect children, comfort the dying, serve the poor — has been abandoned or subverted by every faction in our national debate…. There is no First Amendment warrant to break up Hasidic funerals while blessing Black Lives Matter protests, and there is no moral warrant to claim that only anti-racism, however pressing its goals, deserves a sweeping exception from rules that have forbidden so many morally important activities for the last few months.

All this is perfectly true. But with a pinch more honesty, Douthat might have concluded that “the original theory” was a sham to begin with. If the Right Thinkers had been telling the truth when they herded us all into captivity back in March, they’d still be yelling “obey or die!” at every crowd that defies lockdown orders.

Douthat interprets their inconsistency as a surrender to the virus; he can’t admit that the Right Thinkers’ real battle was never against COVID19. It was against us.

The same conclusion stares us in the face from the Right Thinkers’ eulogizing of protests against police brutality — or, rather, from what their encomiums to those protests consistently omit.

The demonstrations spearheaded by Black Lives Matter focus on police-state tactics employed by uniformed enforcers of the will of the State; the much-maligned anti-lockdown protesters have been objecting to police-state tactics employed by political officials of the State itself.

The connection between the two sets of protests should be obvious. But have you heard any of the high-profile liberals who are paying homage to Black Lives Matter breathe a single word to the effect that these different groups of protesters ought to combine their efforts, or at least to coordinate their campaigns in order to increase their political effectiveness?

Of course not — and in my view, that’s the real reason behind the hypocritical nonsense being spouted in support of BLM by establishmentarians who merely sneered when the protesters were white working people.

As long as Black Lives Matter continues to observe the double limitation that has so far marked its demonstrations — protesting only along racial lines, and only against the police — the ruling class’s left-wing will go on blessing it, because it won’t constitute too large a threat to established order.

If the demonstrations start to talk about the rights of all people to be free of arbitrary confinement as well as violence, of all ordinary Americans to be able to work for a living as well as staying out of prison, the evils of all officials who stand in their way…well, that will be a horse of a different color.

Remember the snapshot of congressional Democrats kneeling in pious rows with those silly kente stoles around their necks?

That was styled as a “protest,” but don’t kid yourselves: if Pelosi & Co. were genuinely horrified about police racism, they would have done something about it years ago. I think those Democratic heavyweights knelt to pray that BLM doesn’t realize it’s confronting a broader issue than racist police violence.

As I write this, the US is teetering simultaneously on the edge of its worst financial collapse since the 1930s and on the brink of a descent into quasi-dictatorial rule. Sectarian protests, however justified, won’t halt that descent. General political resistance just might. And liberal pundits are scared to death that protesters, black and white, progressive and conservative, might figure out that they’re really fighting the same enemy.

Of course, nothing I can write is going to penetrate the minds of people who have drunk the lockdown Kool-Aid and will hear, in my dissection of the fraudulent language used by “public servants” to foment poverty and to shred the Bill of Rights, only some sort of “coronavirus denial.”

So let me say it clearly: the coronavirus epidemic is real. Okay? It exists — but saying it exists is a mere truism. Iraq exists too, and it was once ruled by a particularly vicious dictator — though the fact that his worst atrocities were committed with extensive US support is mentioned far less often than it should be.

But it is still true that the American and British publics were tricked into endorsing a criminal invasion of that country on the strength of false claims. And no assortment of after-the-fact apologetics can turn those lies into truths.

The same holds for COVID19 and its flagrantly deceitful handling by nearly everyone involved: politicians, reporters, pundits, public health “experts.” (The US leadership of my own Orthodox Jewish community has been just as bad.) Yes, this is a highly contagious respiratory infection that can have serious effects on unusually vulnerable people. But beyond that, just about everything we were told about COVID19 has turned out to be false.

We were told the virus would kill millions in the US alone, and that was false.

We were told lockdowns would make it go away, and that was false.

We were told we would only be confined until the rate of new cases leveled off, and that was false.

We were told that while the outbreak lasted no state government would tolerate any sort of public gathering for any reason, and that was false.

We were told that anyone who questioned the wisdom of the draconian restrictions foisted on us by our governments was a crypto-Nazi whose real goal was to kill off the weak — and that was false, not to mention slanderous.

Most unforgivably of all, we were told — and told, and told — that morality was entirely on the side of the democracy-destroyers. That was a lie of breathtaking proportions.

Not only did the lockdowns violate state laws and make a mockery of the US Constitution; not only did they deprive at least tens of millions of Americans of their basic liberties; not only have they cost millions of people their jobs and thrust the country into its worst economic straits since the 1930s — on top of all that, they have sown untold misery around the world, as mushrooming numbers of poor people experience acute food shortages and millions of children face the interruption of vital medical supplies.

And even as mainstream media begin to admit these facts, they still subvert reality by pretending that all this suffering is a result “of the coronavirus.”

That’s simply another lie. It would be as true to say that millions died in Nazi gas chambers as a result of the rise of Soviet communism. (The putative threat of “the Bolsheviks” was a crucial theme in the anti-Semitism that underpinned the Nazi “Final Solution.”)

The truth, of course, is that the coronavirus didn’t cause these hardships, at least not by itself. Politicians chose to inflict them. And unless we keep that knowledge alive, we will never be able to hold those responsible to account — nor prevent a repetition of such behavior in the future.

“The beginning of wisdom,” said Confucius, “is to call things by their proper name.”

Katya Soldak and her nursery school classmates could not dismantle their country’s ruling Communist Party, but they could refuse to call a prison camp a health resort. Surely we can refuse to cooperate in the use of language whose sole purpose is to swindle us. At present our civil liberties are under serious assault, as is the very principle of democracy. Can’t we call those ugly things the names they deserve?

I know what I am proposing is more difficult than it sounds. The enemies of honesty in politics have vast resources at their disposal, and they are not shy about abusing them. Already the UN’s euphemistically-named Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression, David Kaye, has openly applauded censorship of lockdown critics, even acknowledging that social media “platforms are serving as stand-ins for government authorities” in an effort to curb unwanted political protest.

The dishonesty infects even small details: the Washington Post, like most US media outlets with paywalls, makes an exception for COVID19“providing this important information about the coronavirus for free”; but the Post’s only story on the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s reversal of the governor’s mass-confinement order that contains the court’s explanation of its ruling is behind the same paywall as every ordinary article.

Evidently, stories that promote coronavirus hysteria constitute “important information,” while stories that lend support to dissenters do not — not even when they concern the reasoning of the highest court of a major state.

So yes, the COVID19 game is rigged — as games run by our rulers usually are. But false depictions of reality have power only to the extent honest people allow themselves to be deceived.

Powerful politicians, and their tame pundits, are plainly betting that the public can be manipulated by the fear of a novel virus. But the thing we should fear the most is irrational submissiveness, what Max Weber called “the cowardly will to impotence.”

The moral of the Emperor’s new clothes is as relevant as ever: a single honest voice can unravel the most elaborately designed fakery. People who demand the truth may be outnumbered. They cannot easily be overcome.


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