Science for the righteous

15 Apr

Is it just me? Or should we all be wary when a forty-five word tweet houses three instances of science, one of non-scientists, one rational, a hysteria, a hysterical, a don’t-know-anything and, for good measure, one old fashioned scream?

Oh, and a ‘Left’ in inverted commas. Which I take as backhanded tribute to socialism, even if it does rather imply that most who describe themselves that way are imposters, outed as such by their failure to get with the science. You know, the kind that doesn’t support hysteria.

Am I off-target in sensing a tweetorial perspective falling a shade short of the dispassionately objective? I am? Oh well, we’ll say no more about it then …

Because I too am alarmed by the potential of Covid-19 to act as trojan horse for sinister inroads into hard won liberties. See this OffGuardian collation of headlines from around the world for a taste of what we’re looking at. The trouble is, I also sense that even those of my brothers and sisters in alarm who don’t take it as read that the whole thing is cooked up, precisely to achieve that end,1 are not always free of the following tendencies:

  • A bias toward downplaying the severity of Covid-19, not only by cherry picking which experts to cite. Some also cherry-pick what even their chosen experts say. To this end some cite Professor Bhakdi’s open letter to Merkel (which raises valid questions) but omit that he expressly does not wish to “downplay the severity” of the virus. Similarly, Professor Wittkowski is quoted as though herd immunity and social distancing were not only mutually exclusive but articles of religious faith for folk who, two months ago, would have thought the terms referred to animal husbandry and the worldview of the pathologically introvert. (When I watch that interview I see a mildly eccentric but quite pragmatic man.) I’m not ruling out that the severity is indeed overstated, but I see the evidence as still too confusing to call – by the way, what are nurses, interns and other frontline health workers across the world saying? – and the jury still out.
  • A tendency to hyperbole and vituperative abuse of a Left which, while fiercely and in my opinion rightly denouncing capital’s response, has in the main accepted the virus as a new and grave threat. In this it may be right or wrong. But I’ve seen ‘treason’ and ‘cowardice’ spat out in bizarre rants at commentators I hold in high esteem. Shit, I’ve even seen a ‘hysterical’ or three tossed across the ether in a manner that calls to mind those age-old words: pot, kettle and black.

Not that libertarians have a monopoly on these things. I’ve seen or heard those who rightly ask – it is always right to question where there is uncertainty on matters of importance – if the virus is as bad as is claimed, and whether lockdown is a proportionate or even an effective response, rudely dismissed as ‘idiots’.

Or worse. This, from the WSWS site on April 6, quoted in my post, More questions:

Under the slogan, “The cure should not be worse than the disease,” the capitalist media began arguing that the economic damage caused by the shutdown of businesses and factories would, in the long run, prove more harmful to society than the deaths that would result from a rapid return to work, even if the pandemic was not under control.

With consummate cynicism, the media presents itself as the champion of working people and the poor. For example, the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, which has never complained when corporations slashed jobs and cut wages to boost corporate profits, now professes, in an editorial statement published Friday, to worry about the shutdown’s “psychological toll on Americans who can least afford it

Worthy stuff in my opinion. Except that, as I commented at the time, the hijacking of an idea for manifestly self-serving ends neither negates nor affirms its truth. For what it’s worth I suspect that lockdown will end soon because that combination of the hit to capital, and divisions within the scientific community,2 will make the case for ending it irresistable.

That would not, from a people’s safety perspective, make it right (or wrong) to end it. Still less would it mean automatic restoration of freedom lost.3 It would mean simply that, as always, the voice of profit carries the greatest weight.

Until the day comes when enough of us decide otherwise.

* * *

  1. In a nutshell my reasons for rejecting conspiracist accounts, despite my belief that conspiracies are routinely perpetrated by our ruling classes, are: (a) the involvement of China, Cuba and Russia; (b) the hit to capital of lockdown; (c) the initial response by governments, UK and USA included, to downplay the threat.
  2. In his Spectator piece, cited in yesterday’s post, Dr John Lee flags up a truth none of the camps – lockdowners, herd immunitists, ‘no-worse-than-flu’ pundits – may claim as their property. “A theory from a group of scientists is just that: a theory. Believing the opinion of that group without critical verification is just that: belief.”
  3. History shows that inroads on our freedom, pushed through amid moral panic, are not easily reversed but are prone to being used in circumstances far removed from those they were ostensibly devised to address. On misuse of ’emergency’ powers, we need look no further than the Stanford 15, convicted under terror-related legislation after a peaceful protest to halt a deportation flight, or local councils using the same to police residents’ use of their dustbins. Not that these are isolated incidents.

30 Replies to “Science for the righteous

  1. A bit harsh to imply that the OffGuardian output on this is a ‘conspiracist account’? Their general line is that this is more ‘hype’ than ‘hoax’, and I tend to agree with them. The hysteria & fear seem, at times, far more virulent than the virus itself.

    • A bit harsh to imply that the OffGuardian output on this is a ‘conspiracist account’

      I neither imply nor believe this, Steve. What on earth gave you that idea? Can you be more specific?

      • Steve may be thinking more of the comments below in OG. Not surprisingly, these threads have practically exploded over the last two weeks i.e. in terms of size. (But I expect that’s true of the general activity on the net with everyone being stuck at home.) There is certainly a rich plethora of invention there including actual anti-Semitism. But as far as I have seen, OG has never endorsed such speculation although they permit it since their founding idea was NOT to censor.

        • As a matter of fact I’ve had two quarrels, both fairly serious, with a pal of fifty years (full reconciliation effected) and a Jewish ex (rels stil a tad frosty) over this question. They drew no distinction between BTL and ATL comment. I do.

      • Sorry – I don’t get notifications of follow-up comments on here, so have only just read your reply (and George’s). My question was a reference to your ‘note’ no.1: your ‘reasons for rejecting conspiracist accounts’ , which appeared to explain why you didn’t necessarily agree with the OffGuardian editorial line on this. Perhaps I put 2 + 2 together and came up with 5?

        • Just a tad, Steve. You gave me cause to check carefully that I had expressed myself unambiguously. I believe I did. Not that it’s a big deal. If you inferred something I neither intended nor said, so might others. In which case I have to thank you for giving me the chance to make clear that I know Off-G does not – unlike a noisy section of its readership – believe this to be a hoax from start to finish.

  2. Your third footnote raises the question of whether the moral panic in question is spontaneous. It is quite possible that, while coronavirus is a spontaneous severe influenza pandemic, the concerted actions by the western G20/EU governments to stoke up panic and then use it as cover for unprecedented reshaping of freedoms and centralised control of the economy … are not.

    Sorry, that last sentence ran away with me. Anyway, as always the questions are why here and why now?

    • It parses perfectly well, BQ (though if you’ll permit me to say so, the ellipsis strikes me as superfluous). And no, I don’t rule that out.

      For that matter I can’t absolutely rule out wall to wall conspiracy. It’s famously difficult to refute a conspiracy theory, not only because some are accurate but because it calls for the even more famously difficult task of proving a negative! I just deem conspiracy highly unlikely here.

  3. Phil, the issue of the severity of COVID-19 to one side, would you not agree that the single biggest difference between the two camps is that the Off-G contingent would like to see “normality” (as in the old normality) being restored as soon as possible. Whereas the Left (no scare quotes) feel that this old normality was a severe problem (as acknowledged by OG too) and that no return is possible or even desirable?

    The point is that we have had four decades of ruthless neoliberalism and that has continued despite the old Thatcherite rhetoric no longer working on the majority i.e. they are fed up with it and long to see the end. There has been no end to this neoliberalism and it must be clear to everyone that there will be none unless there is some great “shake up”.

    Now this virus, whatever the truth about it, has certainly had the most unprecedented effect on the entire lives of all in the West. It thus appears – to both Left and Right – as a “liquidising” of all relations and therefore as an opportunity for both sides.

    For one thing, there has been talk of a Universal Basic Income. The OG lot see this in entirely negative terms but the Left are keen to point out that it could have a positive and progressive side.

    I have certainly come to feel that what I have called the OG side have a tendency towards despair – possibly the same despair that you find amongst grand conspiracy theories i.e. the forces against us are too vast and powerful to defeat. The despair may also come from an undialectical point of view where things are either for good or bad and nothing can have both aspects.

    • You say much that I agree with, George, but can we just clear one thing? I’m still waiting on Steve to come back and say where he got the idea I see OffGuardian as peddling a conspiracist account. We can all of us fall short as writers but I do try hard to be clear; to say what I mean and mean what I say.

      I know Steve to be a big hearted soul so am sure he’ll elaborate or retract. Meantime three points. One, I have a monthly S/O to that much needed organ. (Not much but I’m an OAP, and like to believe it’s the thought what counts.) Two, I’ve written dozens of pieces for it. Three, the only place in this post I cite OffG is via a thoroughly approving link.

      The despair may also come from an undialectical point of view where things are either for good or bad and nothing can have both aspects.

      Yes! I could write screeds on this but, yes, yes!

      • I perhaps also took the main thrust of the opening part of this post to be an expression of disquiet about OffGuardian’s line on the crisis. Again, I might be wrong, and they certainly don’t need me to stand up for them(!), but the tweet screengrab you use to open the piece was an OffGuardian tweet, was it not (even though only the body of the tweet is visible)? And so I took your reference note ‘1’ to be at least partly referring to them somehow claiming that ‘the whole thing is cooked up’. Again, apologies if I’ve misunderstood, but that was my take on it.

        • Actually I got the tweet from you Steve, in a FB post! I cropped out the Off-G reference precisely to avoid associating it with any one source. (And of course, they too must have got it from somewhere – whether Twitter or further links in a chain of length incalculable.)

          My issues with Off-G are confined to aspects set out in the two bullet points – and in my more recent open letter

          • Yes, that why I knew it was theirs… because I’d seen it on their twitter (created, I believe, by them, not RT-ed from elsewhere) before I posted it on FB.

  4. Perhaps the best outlook now is to concentrate on what we can do as of now. Part of the frustration, anger and even despair going on over in OG comes from the matter of desperately trying to recover a previous position which the “general drift” (for whatever reason) is taking us increasingly away from. What I mean is that once a certain point of view has been established, you have to make allowances for it, no matter what you think.

    In the case of this virus, I have always had my suspicions, but I can see the vitriol being flung from both sides and Frank Zappa’s old adage “People will agree with you only if they already agree with you. You don’t change people’s minds” certainly applies. But the point is that THIS is the situation we are in i.e. the lockdown, the social distancing. I have gone along with it since I have no alternative. I do care work and would lose my job otherwise. I also have steered away from pointless arguments with friends and family. Not too long ago you, Phil, spoke about two conversations you had with different people expressing diametrically opposed views on Brexit. And you said it would be stupid to openly contradict either view.

    One of the great things about Marx is that he lived by his adage, “Nothing human is alien to me” He was always keenly aware of this matter of doing what COULD be done under the circumstances that pertain. A perfect example was his view on religion. He was famously atheistic – but as a materialist, i.e. assuming that ALL points of view have their root in the material world, he acknowledged that religion was a “reasonable” and “rational” response to certain material conditions. Therefore there was no point in petty point scoring of the sort indulged in by e.g. Dawkins. Concentrate on changing the material conditions. And let the religion take care of itself.

    • I’ll drink to that George. And it’s certainly true that no one group has a monopoly on stress with regard to all this. Anyone who truly puts themselves out there, whether above or below the line, can expect to take a lot of heat. I try to allow for this in the way I conduct myself in debate. Time will tell how well I’ve succeeded.

      By the way, the ‘nothing human is alien’ adage was indeed used by Marx but I don’t think he coined it. I’ve heard Spinoza cited, but this too is contested. Whatever, it’s so true. From a certain point f view there’s only one human experience.

      • The maxim that Marx liked, “Nothing human is alien to me” apparently comes from an ancient Roman playwright called Terence. Marx declared this his own maxim from a Victorian parlour game called Confessions. His full answers are here:

        https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1865/04/01.htm

        Note his favourite motto: “Doubt everything” and yet he felt the most excusable vice was gullibility. I see that as a sign of immense generosity.

        • Yes, Terence it is! The poor chap was doing fine till he rode into the night, accelerating his motorbike.

  5. Three observations.

    One:

    In the contextual terms of what is being suggested the question arises;

    What was normalcy?

    – The travel restrictions and lockdown preventing movement of pickets during the miners strike? (Not to mention all the other associated issues of police state behaviours during this that time*)

    * For most of that year I was cabling and jointing up the building sites in the Dearne Valley, N. Derbyshire and N. Notts. Travelling to site, particularly along the the Parkway link (from the TEC) between Sheffield city center to the M1, which took you past Orgreave, really did look as well as feel like a police state. With obvious heavy police presence on all the bridges.

    – The armed patrols on the streets during the IRA campaigns? (Not to mention everything which was going on during the dirty war in NI where those who committed murder in any number of different ways had just as much chance of being from or associated with the security services as the paramilitaries. The Miami Show band case being perhaps the most high profile).

    – The infiltration of civic action groups by undercover security services? – From Greenham Common to the Newbury by pass; the McDonald libel case to the entire left from at least the end of WW2 as detailed by Robin Ramsey back in the 1990’s, a practice which went even further back to the origins of the Economic League in 1919 and the police involvement with blacklisting. (Something not limited to the UK as any perusal of similar incidences in the US and other member states of the “free world” will demonstrate).

    As always the name of the game is to control both or all sides of the narrative. The above examples being only one way of doing this.

    – The security service actions which triggered riots in the 1980’s and again in 2011 across much of the UK?

    As with industrial action – even the so called wildcat local strikes in the 50’s and 60′ s before The Royal Commission/In Place of Strife – when a pot boils over it’s not instantaneous. A lot of little things have been accumulating over time to get to that point.

    – The fitting up of high profile suspects – The Birmingham Six, Guildford Four etc?

    – The Hillsborough cover up?

    – The institutional racism in the Met? (Stephen Lawrence case, amongst others)

    – The gunning down on a tube train of an innocent Brazilian worker?(Just how high up did Cressida Dick end up in the police hierarchy?)

    – The hassling of people by police over the phone over reported “hate” crimes which are based on subjective opinion about an opinion?

    – The sacking of individuals from their job for supposed “hate” crimes upheld by the State through the court system.

    And Umpteen other instances which could easily be cited.

    There’s barely a month gone by over the past forty years when to my recollection I’ve come across some report, written, verbal, electronic or whatever, similar to the recent videos of police arresting a member of an ethnic minority for delivering food to a relative in Manchester or a team of police breaking down the door of a flat containing one occupant on the basis of a “complaint” received.

    The question occurs as to WTF have people been during that time? Asleep? Switched off in the corner of a room?

    The left have been hammering at these issues for decades. They certainly don’t need any advice from anyone who seems to have only just discovered how things really work in the “free world.”

    Two:

    The last time I looked the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” looked just as it has just been written down. In that order.

    Not ” Liberty, life and the pursuit of happiness.”

    Or “The pursuit of happiness, liberty and life.” Or whatever other combination.

    And it’s in that order for a very good common sense reason.

    Which has something to do with the fact that you can’t have liberty or pursue happiness if you are dead. Without the life bit the other two are superfluous.

    Which is why life comes at the front of the queue. It’s the priority liberty. The liberty other people have a right to as well as individual “libertarians.”

    Three

    It’s not just experts who people are picking and choosing.

    Scepticism is also subject to this kind of pick and mix approach.

    Let’s take as an example the valid scepticism around “fear porn.”

    That’s a term which does not have a monopoly. There’s just as much fear porn been bandied about in regard to narratives pushing terms and concepts such as Police State, fascist takeover etc as there is about Covid-19.

    And it is just as legitimate to express scepticism towards those narratives as any others.

    People abandoned the Guardian because of its very obvious in your face bias towards particular narratives to the exclusion of others except in cases where other narratives could be pulled apart, ridiculed and dismissed.

    It was and remains very rare, if ever, that the Guardian will publish anything which contradicts it’s favoured house narrative/company line.

    An observation which is not, unfortunately, limited to the Guardian these days.

    There was once a time not so long ago when this blog site was not the the only place on the net where the writings of the site author could be read, perused and commented on in the context of a wider active readership.

    That is no longer the case for some reason.

    And in the spirit of scepticism it seems reasonable to claim this is because the writings of this blog’s author don’t fit a particular company line and narrative. Just like with the Guardian.

    The more things “change” the more things stay the same.

    In this regard the term ‘Meidci cura ti ipsum’ springs to mind.

    • Addendum:

      Over the past several days I’ve been ploughing my way through a certain Report running into well over 500 pages which first broke on Sky a few days ago.

      Perusing the very detailed lengthy transcripts, only a small proportion of which are being republished in some of the non MSM media, provides a timely reminder that you don’t have wear a uniform or be a member of the police or security services to police democracy or undermine it.

      Such activities and the attitudes which generate them are normally kept well under the radar and these transcripts demonstrate the truism that limits to what we like to pretend is democracy are, and have been for a long time, policed and undermined in many subtle non ‘sexy’ in your face ways.

      Well before Covid-19 was a twinkle in the milkman’s eye.

      Still, I suppose being very late to the front line barricades is better than not having turned up at all? However, in such circumstances it’s probably best to curb the urge to take charge and control, even of the narrative.

        • One good turn deserves another. You recently supplied a link to an article by Mike Davies. A comrade has sent a link to another similar article by the same author.

          Which seems relevant in terms of the debate on “liberties”. Highlighting in stark terms the point about the right to stay alive being the primary civil liberty here:

          As the antibiotic revolution is rolled back, old diseases will reappear alongside novel infections and hospitals will become charnel houses. Even Trump can opportunistically rail against absurd prescription costs, but we need a bolder vision that looks to break up the drug monopolies and provide for the public production of lifeline medicines. (This used to be the case: during World War II, the Army enlisted Jonas Salk and other researchers to develop the first flu vaccine.)

          As I wrote 15 years ago in my book The Monster at Our Door – The Global Threat of Avian Flu:

          “Access to lifeline medicines, including vaccines, antibiotics, and antivirals, should be a human right, universally available at no cost. If markets can’t provide incentives to cheaply produce such drugs, then governments and non-profits should take responsibility for their manufacture and distribution. The survival of the poor must at all times be accounted a higher priority than the profits of Big Pharma.”

    • Fair points about previous norms and fear porn as manifesting in different ways. But in regard to the former, those examples (the miners’ strike, Hillsborough) were cases that involved limited groups for limited periods – even if such events were numerous. With this virus lockdown we have an unprecedented halt to all movement everywhere and for an indefinite period. This is most emphatically a new “normal”.

      • On further reflection, it seems to me that re: previous norms, the examples (the miners’ strike, Hillsborough etc.) cannot be regarded as norms at all but anomalies – even though they may indicate the truth about the underlying structure. The lockdown on the other hand has the aspect of a universal condition at present.

        • … miners’ strike, Hillsborough etc. cannot be regarded as norms at all but anomalies – even though they may indicate the truth about the underlying structure

          Not the first time in recent days I’ve seen you draw a nice distinction. Credit where it’s also due, though, I think the second part of it is very much what Dave is getting at.

          • Ellen Meiksins Wood made a point – which I’m sure is in Marx too – about the peculiarity of the capitalist system as one in which power, usually wielded through politics, i.e. direct coercion, is now shifted over to the economic realm where it now functions indirectly. The convenience of this latter arrangement is that the society appears as “free” and, through that appearance, gains the consent of all.

            But in a crisis, this appearance collapses. And that’s what happened in e.g. the miners’ strike when the full force of the state intrudes. I suppose you could say that in those circumstances, capital’s velvet glove comes off to reveal the steel claw below.

            Now of course we have a crisis through the virus. And thus the potential for naked confrontations. These are “interesting times”.

            • Ain’t they just. I keep putting away that Lenin quote, only to pull it back out again and onto my masthead: “there are decades when nothing happens, and weeks when decades happen”.

        • I’m getting out fairly regular at present. Walking, volunteer shopping and prescription collection etc. via the local volunteer system as well as our own weekly trips.

          I know the weather has been good for this time of year but out walking there are certainly more people out and about than normal whatever time of day. Walkers, cyclists, prams, joggers, dogs, old, young, refugee shoppers from Meadowhall. Cruising through the estates for back and forth on deliveries (an average of two a week so far) and our own supply visits you can see people sat outside their own houses – terrace as well as detached.

          All being very sensible, crossing over or into the middle of the road to keep social distancing. We might have to organise a proper roster – cyclists at 9:00; joggers at 10:00; prams at 11:00; dogs at 12:00; walkers at 13:00 and OAP’s at any time because they won’t do as they’re told and you can’t do owt with ’em so it’s pointless trying.

          Fox Valley is not as busy as normal as most non essential shops are shut. But not the supermarkets in the Town, the chemists (including the large Boots store) nor the local butchers and his sandwich shop. The beer off where HS1 works is open and custom everywhere is regular.

          Yesterday’s volunteer shopping trip took over two hours queuing up outside Aldi and Home bargains as well as Lidls. One of the local chemists also had a long queue yesterday – fortunately not as long today for a volunteer prescription pick up and delivery I was asked to do this afternoon. Where I watched two assistants at the entrance to a local supermarket struggle together trying to fix a one of those long advertising tarpaulins to the fence.

          No masks.

          And, not a busy in sight.

          HS1 confirms this on a regular basis in tones of incredulity at so many people being out and about in what is being touted and sold as an official “lockdown” in some quarters and a takeover by Nazi stormtroopers in others.

          The question arises: Are we unique? Did someone announce compulsory house arrest and forget to tell Stocksbridge? Why aren’t the police/stormtroopers out on the streets enforcing this?

          I don’t think we can be unique given all the pictures of crowded tube trains and other public transport. Not to mention all the flights into Heathrow, some of which could well be reported imported Labour from Eastern Europe to pick UK crops before they for in the ground.

          A surprising turn of events as one would have thought there would be at least 17 million people chomping at the bit to do that? The thought occurs there could well be a proportion of the population who think the supermarkets and other stores get their shelves stacked by the shelf stacker fairy?

          Who knows?

          Thing is there’s theory and there’s practical reality. And the practical reality is the “lockdown” is like the leaking dyke. It’s not actually happening to the extent that the fear porn merchants doing their level best impression of Cassandra from Up Pompeii are making out. It’s not even enforceable in theory.

          Moving on….

          Miners strike. One off?

          Okay. Obviously not enough examples provided.

          Let’s have a look. Steel strike 1981. Check✔ Print workers Strike. Check✔
          Poll Tax Riots. Check✔ Student fees protests (complete with contraversial mettling techniques). Check✔

          And thats just the obvious list of the liteny of apparent “one offs.”. We could go further back to Saltley and a shed load of other examples from the 70’s but that should do for now.

          It’s not always the headline issues which count though. The one strike I missed out, because there was no big set too scenes for the media was the 87 telecom strike.

          But that does not mean nothing covert was going on either in that dispute (before and after) or any of the others.

          And some of the covert information from that period ended up in at least one surprising place.

          From where I’m sitting the ‘one off’ theory is, I’m afraid, getting no traction.

          Sorry. That’s just the way it is based on individual experiences over decades.

          • The point I was making is that the very fact that you can give these examples indicate that they were not the norm. Not in the way that everyone in the whole country is now on lockdown. THAT is the norm for us now.

            • And the points I’m making George is that:

              (a) In the dire terms in which it is being portrayed there is no effective lockdown. Even the model from Imperial College which informs Government policy factors in about only 50% or so of the population adhering to the proposed measures.

              Consequently, it’s not reasonable to expect anyone to deny the evidence of their own eyes on a daily basis.

              (b) If more examples are required I’m willing to provide them. The fact is that every major demonstration, strike or civil action, even day to day trade union and civil activity generates the same approaches from the security state.

              Even anti- frackers are classified as potential radical elements on a par with domestic terrorists. It’s the default state operating at various levels including telephone tapping outside as well as during industrial unrest; along with restrictions on movement, picketing levels, numbers allowed at demonstrations/pickets etc.

              You can go as far back as the General Strike, the suffragettes, the Chartists, Tollpuddle, Peterloo and beyond. These are not anomalies they are the normal operating condition and response at every level – from everyday low level stop and search to tagging anyone outside of a narrow mind set as a dangerous radical – which people experience all the time on an ongoing basis.

              If there was the odd example of the opposite occurring, that would certainly be an anomaly.

            • “there is no effective lockdown”

              Umm almost everything has stopped. Evidence of my own eyes.

              And there’s a big difference between a situation where protest action is met by force and an order that has basically frozen time. Again evidence of my own eyes – as well as a report on my own everyday life and that of everyone I know.

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