Tuesday, October 20, 2020

UK: A lockdown on dissent

The attempt to shut down debate on Covid infantilises the public.

It’s not just pubs, restaurants and gyms that are being shut down in response to an increasing number of people testing positive for coronavirus. Debate is being curtailed, too. When the government’s chief scientific adviser and chief medical officer held a press conference last month to show off graphs with exponentially rising red lines, they left without taking a single question. Science had spoken: there was nothing more to discuss.

Yet, from the time news first broke of the Covid-19 pandemic, the science has been anything but settled. There have been protracted public disputes about the role of children in spreading the virus, the efficacy of face masks, the benefits of ventilators, how long people have immunity post-infection, and even the nature of coronavirus symptoms. There is still no real consensus on how best to respond to this new threat.

Back in April and May, despite knowing that much of the science was uncertain, the overwhelming majority of people kept to the strict lockdown rules. But now, as some parts of the UK face a return to full lockdown, it seems government ministers and their advisers, as well as many journalists, have decided that the public can no longer be trusted with uncertainty and we must be protected from any disputes over ‘the science’.

Last month, following the Whitty and Vallance fear-fest, a group of 32 scientists – led by Sunetra Gupta and Carl Heneghan from Oxford University and Professor Karol Sikora, former chief of the World Health Organisation’s cancer programme – penned an open letter calling on the government to reconsider its approach to suppressing the virus. They warned that lockdowns led to ‘significant harm across all age groups’ and asked the government to focus instead on more targeted measures. In response, they were accused of ‘spoiling for a fight with the establishment’. Sections of the media were criticised for giving their views a platform and for having ‘a tendency to amplify minority positions, particularly if they appear to confirm the right-libertarian worldview’. Challenging the apparent consensus was a ‘dangerous distraction’, which would do ‘damage to public discourse’.

In other words, talk of disagreement may lead people to question and challenge the restrictions they are asked to endure – and that cannot be permitted. So now, with the publication of the Great Barrington Declaration, written and signed by infectious-disease epidemiologists and public-health scientists who are concerned about the physical and mental-health effects of lockdown, the gloves are off.

Of course, anti-lockdown scientists should be subjected to the same rigorous criticism as pro-lockdown scientists. But this is not what is happening. As Fraser Myers has pointed out on spiked, the Great Barrington Declaration has prompted a barrage of censorship and smears. It has been ‘signed by fake experts!’, shrieks the Guardian, which finds much hilarity in ‘Dr Johnny Bananas’ and ‘Prof Cominic Dummings’. Another yawn-inducing piece points out that the think-tank backing the declaration, the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), is ‘part-funded by right-wing American billionaire Charles Koch’. The Observer, meanwhile, points to the AIER’s libertarian leanings, complaining that science has been ‘co-opted by shady ideological interests’. This is not advancing a scientific critique – it is simply an attempt to discredit by association. The aim is to present any dissent from lockdown as coming from a ‘fringe group of scientists’ who are out of sync with ‘most of the public-health experts in the world’.

We have been here before. Prior to coronavirus dominating every headline, we were told that the ‘scientific consensus that humans are causing global warming is likely to have passed 99 per cent’. Questioning this ‘consensus’ was – and still is – heresy. When it came to Brexit, if you challenged the experts you found yourself labelled mad, thick and low-information. The exact same urge to label Brexiteers as stupid plays out four years later in the bid to discredit the Great Barrington Declaration. All the same assumptions are there. The little people can’t be trusted with ambiguity and uncertainty. They need stark and simplistic messages. They need to be told not to kill their granny. Any hint of dissent must be removed from public discourse or the idiots will ‘let the virus rip’.

There are real problems with this approach to public debate. Scientific progress, like all knowledge, advances through challenge. Besmirching the reputations of those who don’t fall into line, or implying they have spurious motivations, chills debate. Important questions will go unasked. And rather than promoting trust in experts, squashing dissent in favour of one consistent message has exactly the opposite effect: it promotes conspiratorial thinking. For a time over the weekend, the Great Barrington Declaration was removed from the first pages of Google in a number of countries. This plays into people’s fears that facts are being withheld and they are being manipulated. Yet when a safe vaccine against Covid-19 is developed, people will be expected to trust scientists.

Not even the most watertight scientific conclusions can tell us how to deal with coronavirus. Our response is shaped by a host of ethical, economic and political considerations. The people whose lives are impacted most by lockdown restrictions need to be allowed to participate in these debates. This means trusting us all to cope with ambiguity and scientific uncertainty.


Conservatives Must Fight Big Tech or Lose

Facebook and Twitter’s desperate attempts to block a damaging story about Joe and Hunter Biden is the culmination of four years of work to transform social media into the media. Under the guise of false claims about disinformation, foreign election interference, bots, networks, deepfakes, public health risks, and assorted tech paranoia, free speech died on the internet.

The moment when the White House Press Secretary had her account locked for tweeting a damaging news story about Joe Biden brought home the Big Tech reality to most Republicans.

Just like the media, Big Tech is the Democrat Party, and the Democrat Party is Big Tech. But, unlike the media, Big Tech controls the marketplace of ideas to an unprecedented degree.

Facebook controls 80% of social media and Google controls 80% of internet search traffic.

And that’s bad news because Democrats see the internet in the same terms as Xi, Putin, or your average dictator just about anywhere in the world, as a dangerous system spouting disinformation, damaging social ideas, and disruptive political rhetoric that must be controlled using a combination of economic and social pressures, along with government regulation.

Republicans and Democrats are both unhappy with the internet. Republicans are upset because there’s too much censorship and Democrats are upset because there isn’t enough censorship.

That Democrats, who once championed a free internet, now view it the same way all totalitarians do, speaks volumes not only about the death of liberalism but also about the transformation of the internet from a vox populi to a walled garden controlled by a handful of Big Tech monopolies whose cultural views and politics closely align with those of the Democrats.

‘Bigness’ has its own political and economic gravity. Big cities are more likely to have big governments and their inhabitants are more likely to vote for big government policies. They’re also more likely to use and generate the core companies and cultures that make up Big Tech.

The old political alignments based on questions of philosophy are being tossed aside and replaced with a new alignment based on the primevally simple questions of size and power.

The struggle is less defined by abstractions, than by the question of how much power you have.

In the Trump era, the more proximity to power you have, the more likely you are to be a Democrat, and the less proximity to power you have, the more likely you are to be a Republican.

The most striking thing about the Never Trumpers and the Rust Belt and Southern Democrats voting for Trump is how much power the former have and how little power the latter do.

Politics is being reduced to naked power.

Democrats shifted their stance on the internet because they gained control of core national institutions, in no small part through the growing fortunes pouring out of Silicon Valley which have tilted elections, financed political movements, and transformed public perspectives on social issues. And they are using their newfound power to do what the powerful always do, dismantle the safeguards of an open society so that there are no more threats to their power.

They’re doing this under the guise of fighting for equality and justice, and of waging a revolution for the oppressed, but so did most modern tyrants from Stalin to Hitler to Mao.

The Democrats are no longer interested in a free internet, for the same reason that they’ve tossed away free speech, the filibuster, or any institution or procedure that isn’t serving their interests this very minute. This isn’t due to a new progressive enlightenment, Republican obstinacy, grave new threats to democracy, or any of the other talking points they serve up.

The simple answer is that they won.

The Democrats of the 90s who welcomed an open internet were waging an uphill struggle against the open institutions of a generally conservative country. The country is now much less conservative, the institutions are much less open, and every major institutional force, from the biggest companies to the media, is unreservedly and uncritically backing them every step of the way, while suppressing any suggestion that they shouldn’t rule unopposed for all eternity.

All that’s left is collecting their winnings by shutting down the opposition.

Support for free speech is a matter of principle and practical politics. America was built on principle, but the Founding Fathers had a common-sense assessment of human nature. Free societies may be built on principles, but they survive through a balance of power. Every major faction must go on believing that it is in its interest to maintain free speech, checks and balances, and other protections against tyranny because it might end up needing them.

The Democrats have accumulated enough power that they no longer think that they need firewalls because if they play their cards right, the future, the right side of history, is their own.

That’s the fundamental development that explains the current crisis, not only of free speech, but of free elections, and a free country. The internet, like any society’s marketplace of ideas, is a symptom. Free countries have a robust marketplace of ideas. Unfree ones are obsessed with censoring speech and monitoring their citizens, all the while spinning paranoid fantasies about foreign interference, the threat of dangerous ideas, and the risk to political stability from speech.

Anyone who came out of a coma and spent an afternoon listening to CNN (owned by AT&T), reading the Washington Post (owned by the CEO of Amazon), and perusing the latest round of Democrat complaints about election interference and disinformation would know what we are.

The problem isn’t simply radicalism. It’s power.

Democrat radicalism isn’t being driven by the powerless, but by the powerful. That’s why Democrats with PhDs are more radical than those with a high school diploma. The problem of Big Tech can’t be separated from the problem of a political movement with too much power.

The culture of political censorship isn’t merely radical, it’s powerful. Cancel culture by college students or Big Tech censorship aren’t disparate phenomena, they’re the same phenomenon, often practiced on the same platforms by members of the same inbred ruling class.

America has been reconstructed to favor some classes at the expense of others. This new machine combining political institutions, activist groups, and corporations controls public life.

Conservatives can combat it or, like Soviet citizens, make jokes, and wait for it to collapse.

Big Tech is at the nexus of the political, economic, and cultural power of this new machine. That’s why breaking its power must be the objective of any winning conservative movement.

The massive monopolies control political discourse and as they tighten the noose around conservatives, political speech on the internet will consist of media narratives, a few tame conservatives, and little else. Imagine the high point of media dominance with no talk radio or cable conservative news. That’s the future. And it’s not going to arrive a year from now, it may already be here by Election Day. And if not, certainly when the next presidential election arrives.

But Big Tech also holds the key to the radical money machine. AOC and the Squad wouldn’t exist without a founding engineer from Stripe. The founder of eBay is responsible for everything from The Intercept to The Bulwark, the former is the media arm of the Sanders campaign and the latter of the Never Trumpers. The Washington Post was transformed from a fussy government paper into a den of furious radicals by the CEO of Amazon. Google money financed the Bernie Sanders campaign. Big Tech has poured a massive fortune into Black Lives Matter, from Steve Jobs’ widow, to Jeff Bezos’ ex-wife, to Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter.

And that’s the tip of the iceberg considering Facebook’s Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative.

The cultural power of Big Tech is even vaster. Google and Facebook determine what most people see on the internet. Amazon and Netflix are swallowing the entertainment industry. In a decade, a handful of vast, mostly, tech companies, Apple, Amazon, AT&T, Disney, Google, Netflix, and Verizon will control the culture far more than the old entertainment industry ever did.

By then it will be much too late to do anything except huddle in a few dark web outposts and mutter hate speech like the controversial words of the First Amendment.

If conservatives don’t fight Big Tech now, they will lose. And they will lose everything.

Big Tech’s power is growing exponentially, but it’s still vulnerable. The companies that will become immovable oligarchies in a decade can still be brought down and broken up. The internet and the marketplace of ideas can rise again from the ruins of those monopolies.

Now is the time. If we don’t fight Big Tech now, America has no future.


My other blogs: Main ones below

http://snorphty.blogspot.com (TONGUE-TIED)

http://edwatch.blogspot.com (EDUCATION WATCH)

http://antigreen.blogspot.com (GREENIE WATCH)

http://pcwatch.blogspot.com (POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH)

http://australian-politics.blogspot.com/ (AUSTRALIAN POLITICS)

http://awesternheart.blogspot.com.au/ (THE PSYCHOLOGIST)

https://heofen.blogspot.com/ (MY OTHER BLOGS)


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