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What Turned Covid Politics Upside Down
And how to flip it back.
At the outbreak of the plague, even the highest authorities are likely to flee, so that the administration of justice is rendered impossible and no one can obtain his rights. General anarchy and confusion then set in and that is the worst evil by which the common wealth can be assailed; for that is the moment when the dissolute bring another and worse plague into the town.”—French surgeon Ambroise Paré (1510-1590)
We must stay focused during this coronavirus pandemic. The most important issue is that we must never allow lockdown, or what we prefer to call the indefinite house arrest of the general public, to become the default solution to all future pandemics.
The lockdown has built tensions in the psychology of the masses, which led to a social contagion. When we talk about pandemics, we aren’t talking about just the virus, but all contagious phenomena that happen during this time period, be they biological or social. Solutions for preventing and mitigating such future pandemics will come in “Biosecurity’s Faustian Bargains (Part III)” (read part II here), but for now, there’s a more urgent matter we must address.
We are pissed off.
We wanted the normalization of prepper culture, but instead we got accusations of being “fooled by the liberal media.”
We thought we got everything right about the virus…only to discover that we’ve had the wool pulled over our eyes—and it’s possibly too late to reverse this trend.
We did not realize that taking the virus seriously would somehow become synonymous with desiring the indefinite house arrest of the general public.
You see, back in January, we binge-watched prepper YouTube videos and stocked up on everything we could think of to survive a SHTF scenario. We thought that if things went badly, prepper culture would become more mainstream and preppers would finally get the respect that they deserved. We thought we had the pandemic situation all figured out.
We were correct in terms of the physical and economic consequences of the virus. But we were very wrong about the political consequences of the virus.
Rather than giving preppers their due credit, mainstream conservatives are laughing off the crisis and claiming that liberals started the mask meme. Wearing masks was our practice first. Preppers have been stocking up on gas masks for decades. Traditional plague doctors have been wearing their masks for centuries. Liberals didn’t start to wear masks until the scientists started to tell them to a few weeks ago.
In the age of surveillance and facial recognition software, we are rejecting this once-in-a-lifetime chance to normalize the obscuring of our identities. If you’re against masks, then you’re in favor of Big Government surveillance and against all the anonymous and pseudonymous users of the Internet.
If enough conservatives had claimed masks as their cultural practice, this could have been the aesthetic standard for masks:
Instead, we handed the right to set fashion trends to the liberals on a silver platter (as usual), so we ended up with this comedic idiocy:
Most conservatives are now against social distancing, but we forgot that the original social distancing was owning private land and telling people to get off your property. In the countryside, people naturally stand pretty far apart from each other, because they have the free space to spread themselves. The problem isn’t social distancing itself, but the current aesthetics around the mainstream promotion of it.
Mongolia, a rural country with a badass history, was the first country to take the virus extremely seriously and it still has zero deaths from COVID-19. If social distancing isn’t already instinctive to you, you might be an urbanite Communist who likes to ride on crowded subways.
Rather than supporting their prepper brethren and calling out liberals for poorly copying a practice with a long conservative history, mainstream conservatives have thrown us under the bus and claimed that masks are for liberals.
But the liberals were saying masks don’t work and that the virus was just the flu back in February. Now, mainstream conservatives are copying the liberal talking points from February and backstabbing preppers who stuck by conservative principles.
How did this reverse of positions happen?!
How the Narrative Was Lost
This is our theory:
The lockdown was a horrible response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but not because it was unlikely to decrease the number of cases. It was a very effective response on that level. It just had the terrible second-order effects of distorting our perceptions of risk and freedom.
Wearing masks and social distancing are natural conservative instincts, but because they were lumped together with the lockdown, conservatives started to revolt indiscriminately against all measures related to the pandemic.
The lockdown only happened because there weren’t enough masks to go around in the first place. Had there been enough masks for everyone, we wouldn’t have needed a mandatory lockdown.
This was exactly the case in Japan. The U.S. had about 100 times as many cases and deaths as Japan as of May 20th, 2020, despite only having about 1.4 times as many people over the age of 65 and 2.6 times the total population.
Many on the Right were praising the conservative culture of Japan right before the 2016 elections. Wearing masks to prevent contagious diseases is a big part of that culture. Rather than mocking masks, we should be learning from Japan’s effective actions.
Wearing masks and voluntary shutdown was enough for Japan to deal with the pandemic far more effectively than the U.S. did. Japan allowed their citizens’ own self-preservation instincts to kick in rather than shelter them with lies.
The conservative response against the mandatory lockdown is equivalent to having an auto-immune disease, wherein your immune system attacks your own body. The lockdown triggered an auto-immune response from many conservatives, who now see every measure taken against the virus as an affront to their freedom. They never stopped to think about which actions are actually real affronts to their freedom.
Had there been no mandatory lockdown, and had the liberal media continued to lie about the effectiveness of masks, conservatives would have voluntarily worn masks and practiced social distancing organically, just like the Japanese. Instead, we have this cluster of a situation in which people’s own good instincts are backfiring on them.
This is the fatal mistake conservatives made. They did not stick to their guns that the Chinese coronavirus is a serious threat and that to deal with a serious threat, we must take personal responsibility to sanitize, socially distance, and wear masks rather than depend on big-government solutions.
These Things Can All Be True
The nature of a pandemic is unrelenting and undifferentiated. It does not care about who you are. In the ancient past, plague was said to unite us all in a macabre dance of death. In the face of such horrors passed down through history since ancient times, it is curious that our self-preservation instincts, as well as our traditional political frameworks, seem to be breaking down around us.
Sometime in January, the coronavirus was making its way through various small Twitter groups and financial circles due to concerns about overseas manufacturing and transportation after China’s lockdown of Wuhan. At this point in time, any concern beyond whether shipping containers would be available was considered some form of right-wing conspiracy theory.
If you had a hazmat suit profile picture, people called you “fascist.” The WHO was saying that masks didn’t work, academic epidemiologists were more concerned with racism than with the virus, and the media barely even reported on the matter. Conservatives suspected that the liberal media was covering up the mysterious Chinese coronavirus.
A week before the lockdown, the ultra-conservative residents of our small town in rural Ohio bought out the entire inventory of toilet paper, cleaning supplies, meat, vegetables, and bread at local grocery stores. They were ready to self-isolate voluntarily had there not been a mandatory lockdown. For a while, it seemed like the whole country was united against the virus, with conservatives taking the matter more seriously than the liberals.
As soon as the lockdown occurred in the U.S., narratives began to shift. Liberal media began to endorse the lockdown as the only solution. Conveniently, they decided to sacrifice Trump as the scapegoat responsible for the virus. In response and as an act of mimetic rivalry, conservatives chose to sacrifice Bill Gates as the scapegoat responsible for the ”plandemic.”
To ”own the libs,” conservative media started to repeat the old liberal media talking points, dismissing the severity of the virus and the ineffectiveness of masks. This is a classic case of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face.
In February, we knew that lockdown could happen in the U.S. and that it would be hellish if it did. Yet very few people prepared for that possibility. We talked about how choosing between life and the economy was a false dichotomy in our previous essay, but apparently the message has not caught on. So the same message needs to be repeated in this essay:
- The virus is real and dangerous.
- Humans have dealt with contagious diseases in decentralized ways for millennia.
- Being self-sufficiently prepared against unknown risks (by doing things such as wearing masks and avoiding those you suspect are infected) are conservative instincts.
- Global mandatory lockdown is an unprecedented experiment, and we’re all lab rats.
- We can choose to save both human lives and the economy, not choose to sacrifice one or the other. However, we chose to sacrifice both.
- It’s satanic to sacrifice human lives to Mammon.
Had mainstream conservative pundits not downplayed the severity of the virus, small business owners could have taken the initiative to be leaders during this time of crisis. The conservative narrative could have been: “we knew that the virus was going to be serious before the liberals did, and that’s why we must take personal responsibility rather than depend on the government to resolve this crisis.”
It’s not just the conservative pundits that have failed us, though: it’s the institutions too. Part of the reason why people turned against masks is that the worst narratives about masks were promoted. At first, the WHO and the CDC both denied that masks worked. Then, when they finally admitted that they work, they stressed that masks are primarily for protecting others, not yourself.
This is a lie. Masks protect both parties, but they are primarily for protecting yourself. If the mask is only for protecting others, people have no incentive to wear masks when they are healthy. While asymptomatic transmission does exist, nobody seriously believes themselves to be contagious when they don’t feel sick and haven’t been tested.
The vast majority of transmissions are indoors. The asymptomatic shed far fewer viral particles. You’d need to be jogging maskless alongside an asymptomatic maskless jogger for minutes before even having a small chance of getting infected, so preventing people from partaking in outdoor recreational activities was a mistake.
However, if most people avoided crowds and wore masks in indoor spaces, such as grocery stores and office buildings, transmission could be decreased significantly. Policing everyone to wear masks everywhere rather than simply in certain key locations ended up decreasing adherence and increasing risks. Wearing masks should have been a natural self-preservation instinct, yet the lockdown and the resulting false narratives hijacked it.
The narrative was flipped once again when the protests started. Epidemiologists came out in masses making excuses that it’s fine for crowds to gather as long as they are protesting. All other gatherings are still banned. This obvious contradiction in policy further contributed to people’s doubts about the virus.
If we ever face a more lethal bioweapon or pandemic threat in the future, we are screwed, because now everyone sees that that coronavirus was used for political manipulation and few people still take the very real biological risks seriously. The floodgates for social contagion were opened and the biological contagion has not been solved.
Conservatives could have been the heroes who replaced the failing institutions with personal responsibility by applying their own effective solutions. Instead, they choose to be ostriches with their head in the sand. Because conservatives were indecisive for too long, masks became a tool of liberal propaganda. Now liberals have complete control over the interpretation of the pandemic and its solutions.
Pandemics and Herd Behavior
Classically, political conservatism has been characterized by a deference to living tradition, criticizing the utopian exaggerations and large-scale social engineering of progressives and fascists alike.
Modern and technologically overstimulated men may scoff at such tradition and remain skeptical until further data is acquired and analyzed in line with ‘scientific’ standards. However, this would miss the point that traditions are time-tested heuristics which operate as the last best option in the face of radical uncertainty.
In theory, and in the academic halls of scientific research, it makes perfect sense to remain skeptical of tradition and seek additional data and verification. In practice, this is not how we proceed in most situations.
No farmer has ever sat down and studied textbooks on physics, organic chemistry, or ecology before putting his hand to the plow. He doesn’t wait for scientific proof that now is the best time to plant his crop; he follows what his ancestors passed down to him, what he grew up hearing about. He knows that it is never certain when to plant, that a late frost could come, but plant he must.
When the progressive comes out with some new innovation, it is up to the living tradition to consider what constitutes a fad and what is a real gain. Once a fashionable new idea takes hold it can become very hard to alter course.
The decision to enact lockdown at a state level was a herd response by governors because they were highly uncertain about the outcome of the pandemic. Yet that response entirely ignored tradition. The decision to not wear masks rejects tradition in favor of a fashionable deference to scientism and reactionary politics.
If the lockdown had never happened, then it would be the conservatives who wore masks voluntarily out of traditional wisdom while the liberals avoid masks just to spite Trump. This is still the case for some conservatives, but too many other conservatives decided that they’d rather avoid masks to spite the liberals rather than following traditional wisdom.
The real conservative position should be telling the liberals, “When I was getting masks and canned food 10 years ago, you told me that I was a crazy conspiracy theorist. Now look at you guys caught with your pants down trying to cover up your mistakes.”
By the time we have data on the effectiveness of lockdowns, it will of course be too late to either affirm or deny. And because it has never been tried before, we lack epistemic certainty. While we may not be completely certain about the effectiveness of masks for preventing COVID-19, we know that they have been used for at least 300 years. If masks were not effective, they would have been abandoned long ago.
Here, to take precaution means to follow tradition. But mismanaged institutions and state intervention disoriented these instincts. WHO lied about the effectiveness of masks—a point conservatives should have jumped on, since masks have a long tradition.
Progressives stayed progressive with support for an unprecedented lockdown, yet they turned to tradition on masks as soon as the supposed scientific consensus began telling the truth they’ve always known. Sticking with tradition should provide consistency, not the kind of flip-flopping that results from efforts to keep up with the fad of scientism.
The consistent and conservative response is to go against the authoritarian total lockdown and to avoid blindly defining oneself in opposition to progressives, even when they make the case for traditional practices. True conservatives stick to timeless principles and practices.
Fake conservatives, on the other hand, change their opinions as often as the progressives just to remain in arbitrary opposition to them. A broken clock is still right twice a day, and turning the hands of a broken clock 180 degrees doesn’t give you the correct time. There are many ways to be wrong and few ways to be correct.
The opposite of one wrong way is usually just another wrong way. Just as a farmer plants his crops based on classical wisdom, not sterile in-vitro biology studies, we should retrieve masks from the past and reject the pace of hurly-burly innovation where the burden of proof is not met.
The more conservatives act like ostriches with their heads in the sand, the more severe the lockdown will continue to be. Acknowledge that the virus is in fact a serious problem—not just the flu—but insist that you can take personal responsibility to prevent its spread more effectively than top-down government policies.
Big government grows when individuals continuously demonstrate that they cannot take care of themselves better than the government could take care of them. If the Japanese can do it, why can’t we?
It disgusts us that so many conservatives are now talking about sacrificing their grandmas to save the economy. Human sacrifice is satanic, and respecting your elders is a conservative virtue. If liberals are sacrificing their elders in the name of social justice, we shouldn’t blindly compete against them in who engages in the most human sacrifice.
According to the mimetic theory of René Girard, the origin of pagan mythology was the sacrifice of the scapegoat by mobs during times of crisis. The pagans chose the wellbeing of the community over the innocence of the scapegoat.
Christianity was the paradigm shift in which Jesus Christ, the scapegoat, was explicitly revealed to be innocent. As Caiaphas said, “you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.”
When people say that they are willing to sacrifice their grandmas to save the economy, they are explicitly suggesting human sacrifices to Mammon, the idol of money. They are literally invoking satanic rituals in hopes of resolving the pandemic. This is the very abyss of herd behavior. Plagues aren’t merely biological contagions, but also mimetic contagions of social disorder.
According to Girard, during a plague,
the desire in each man to distinguish himself triggers instant imitation, multiplies sterile rivalries, produces conditions that make society unworkable through a growing uniformity. The process is one of undifferentiation that passes for extreme differentiation—false “individualism.” Finally, even the most fundamental distinctions become impossible.
Traditionally, a plague isn’t about a specific pathogen. Until recently, it was not a commonly accepted fact that specific microorganisms caused illnesses. Plagues have also been just as much about social contagions as biological contagions. Girard tells us that pandemics remind us of violent social contagions, not the other way around. The virus doesn’t see the differences we see in its victims, just as differences disappear in a war of all against all.
Everyone is Wrong about Everything
Contrarian conservatives desired to distinguish themselves from liberals who were obsessed with the virus. Ironically, in doing so, everyone has adopted uniform talking points and gotten caught in a cycle of imitating one another, until being against masks became its own type of false individualist fad.
The Japanese really respect the elderly, and the elderly in Japan understand the threat of the coronavirus. Unfortunately, Americans in general do not respect the elderly as much, and the elderly in the U.S. are ignorant about the virus.
The lockdown is essentially a bailout of institutions and people who weren’t prepared. Had there been a greater emphasis on self-protection from the very beginning and no mandatory lockdown, people would have quickly learned their lessons, acted more like the Japanese, and saved both grandma and the economy.
Somehow, we’ve arrived at the worst possible cultural heuristics for dealing with future pandemic & bioweapon threats. If a terrorist organization releases a real bioweapon tomorrow, half the country will dismiss it as a hoax or “just the flu,” and the other half will say it’s racist to claim that it originated from a lab.
Now we will have both months of lockdown for future nonlethal diseases and people dismissing serious bioterror threats as #justtheflu. Risk-management calibrations have gone full haywire. We aren’t choosing among life, freedom, and economy. We’ve chosen to give up all of them.
We can’t just blame the institutions for failing: we have to take action and personal responsibility to solve these problems in the future. Thus, we are founding Boreal Green to help individuals and families prepare themselves for future catastrophic risks on all fronts.
Appendix: Math of Contagious Disease Risk and Mitigation
“Statistics don’t bleed; it is the detail which counts.”—Arthur Koestler
Over the past couple of thousand years of recorded data, pandemics have been shown by Cirillo and Taleb to have extremely fat tails with a potential existential risk to humanity. Let’s look at a graph from their paper:
Pandemics, which follow extremely fat-tailed right-skewed distributions, should not be compared with car crashes or heart attacks, which follow normal distributions. The median does not describe the extremes, and in pandemics we care about avoiding the catastrophic losses at the extremes.
We also cannot use any single-point predictions of averages, because the distribution is right-skewed, which means that the mean is highly dependent on the extremes of the right tail.
The median epidemic does not kill many people. But every once in a while, you get an epidemic that kills more than 1000 times as many people as the typical epidemic. This makes predicting the deaths from contagious diseases extremely difficult.
Because we are dealing with fat tails and because we are making decisions in the real world (not some limit case), we may never see how far to the right that mean can go.
At an individual level, if one of these rare pandemics hits, we could face death or the death of loved ones. At a societal level we could face extinction as well if no measures are taken in the face of a true and present danger. “Statistics don’t bleed,” as Arthur Koestler observed “it is the detail which counts.”
The pandemic has a wide range of possible results. It’s not like predicting an election result in which one or the other candidate wins. It’s useful to frame the cost-benefit analysis as a logical problem based on a choice we all have to make. Are we going to assume COVID-19 is a big problem or not? We can frame the outcomes in a matrix:
The extreme uncertainty that comes with pandemics forces us to take some position on this. Do we act proactively as leaders or do we follow the opinions of the herd?
The most potentially profitable position to take is to assume that the virus is not a threat. If you turned out to be right, you got to save a few dollars on “unnecessary” protective equipment. But more importantly, you gain social capital: the reputation of being a calm shining light of reason in dark and uncertain times.
On the other hand, if the virus indeed turns out to be a huge problem, we would be caught with our pants down and face costs thousands, if not millions, times higher than the costs of protective gear. Even if the disease doesn’t kill you or someone you know, it could still age you biologically by years, decreasing your life expectancy and costing you a fortune in healthcare fees.
If you take the position that the virus is a very real threat—no, even just that it could be a real threat, things turn out quite differently.
The cost of being wrong here, assuming you purchased some protective equipment and took precaution, is very small: pennies, even, at the policy level. What is the cost of having some spare respirators, dry food, and ammo compared to the trillions that governments are currently spending? You can store these easily and use them for the next catastrophe, or even use them during everyday life.
If you take precautions and assume that the pandemic is real and a clear and present danger, you won’t be happy to be right. But you may be a bit more secure, and at least you won’t have evaded action completely. You may still spend a ton on medical bills or even suffer casualties, but you’ll at least know that you’ve done your best to prepare.
At a policy level, where decisions are made that affect many people’s freedoms and lives, it is all too obvious that inaction in the face of total ruin is an unacceptable failure of leadership. If Governors put their heads in the sand and mimetically follow the decisions of other states to maintain plausible deniability, we could face a ruin scenario in both our economy and our civilization.
If another massive pandemic sweeps the globe in the future, will lockdown be our default response? Shouldn’t it be a critical matter of national security to prepare for the white swan of pandemic? The precautionary principle can guide us away from unnecessary government intervention and toward our traditional instincts.
The low cost and effectiveness of masks has always been fairly well known, but the value of a lockdown as a response to a pandemic is tenuous at best and destructive at worst. The extremely high densities of cities with shared ventilation in large apartment complexes combined with low Vitamin D from lack of exposure to the sun could be a breeding ground for the pandemic or other health related problems. Economically, small businesses in remote and rural areas are devastated by what seems to them like a needless government intervention.
What may appear to be a small and reasonable risk—say, to not wear a mask at your local grocery store—when done many times over, may accumulate inevitably into a certain irreversible harm in the presence of a highly contagious and novel virus making its way through globalized transportation networks.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.