There follows the transcript of an address given at the Brownstone Institute Annual Conference and Gala in Dallas, Texas, on November 4th 2023.
Before I start, let me pose a question for you to ponder. How many people around the world have been helped to retain their sanity, and perhaps even to escape self-harm, by the existence of entities like Brownstone in America and the Daily Sceptic in Britain? Jeffrey Tucker and Toby Young: I salute you both and your stable of writers.
Jeffrey, Ladies, and Gentlemen:
It is a sign of the times we find ourselves in that this age-old greeting is condemned as evidence of far-Right extremism, wrongthink, hate speech, even literal violence.
Back in May, Jeffrey wrote a thoughtful essay on the 12 challenges that remain to be addressed in the world shattered by Covid. I still struggle to understand how we got into the dystopian world of Covid-era lockdowns, masks and vaccine mandates in the first place.
Toby Young has argued that “the pink conquistadors” may not be in office but they are very much in power and populate most civic, political, corporate, media and sporting institutions in the professional-managerial ranks. Their worldview and value system has become the ascendant religion in Western societies. Those who would challenge the metaphysical beliefs and rites of the Holy Woke Empire are the minority cultural deviants.
In June-July we had an extraordinary confirmation of this in a possible watershed case of peak woke. The well-known but not universally-liked British politician, Nigel Farage, was ‘debanked’ by Coutts, a subsidiary of NatWest that is 39% Government-owned. The bank initially tried to ride out the furore with the silent treatment, then lied about the reason for its action by leaking quietly to a top BBC journalist, and generally just kept digging the hole deeper. The key point was well captured by columnist Allison Pearson:
Those of us who thought that the ‘culture wars’ were just something waged by Leftie teachers or right-on theatre groups will have realised that the woodworm of woke is gnawing away at the foundations of all our institutions.
I will argue tonight that the spreading dominance of the woke agenda was a key enabling environment in 2020 for the Covid interventions. Wokism is a war on Western civilisation. Resisting the Covid tyranny is a war to defend such products of the Western Enlightenment as individual-centric civil liberties, political freedoms, human rights and empirical science.
As I am a somewhat lesser man than our hero Jeffrey, I offer you not 12 challenges but 11 pathways on the journey from the Kingdom of Woke to the Dystopia of Covid restrictions. Just so you don’t get too worried about my ambitious agenda for tonight, like Henry VIII said to each one of his six wives: I promise not to keep you long.
Three Examples of Convergence
In March, the WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts issued a revised roadmap for prioritising the use of Covid vaccines that refers to “pregnant persons”. In May, Pfizer endorsed the Australian Government’s promotion of a constitutional amendment to entrench an Aboriginal ‘Voice‘ which sought to re-racialise Australia’s governance construct.
The Chief Medical Officer when Covid struck Australia, Dr. Brendan Murphy, is now Health Secretary. In that capacity, at a Senate hearing in April last year, he was unable to provide a definition of ‘woman‘. Because the issue is “a very contested space”, he said, the Department would take the question “on notice”. Maybe we should send him to Hamas to learn how to tell a man from a woman.
Nearly three months later, Murphy offered up a 78-word word salad definition that reads like it was cobbled together by a gender studies department of a woke university:
The frameworks adopted to define a person’s gender include chromosomal makeup, the gender assigned at birth, and the gender with which a person identifies. The Department of Health does not adopt a single definition. Health policies and access to health programmes are based on clinical evidence and clinical need for all Australians, regardless of gender identity, biological characteristics or genetic variations. Our programmes are designed to be inclusive and to provide better health and wellbeing for all Australians.
1. The Corruption of Science
The first and most important parallel is the manner in and extent to which science itself has been corrupted. Common elements include:
- All existing science, knowledge and understandings of males and females were overturned. This preconditioned people to accept throwing out a century’s experience, science and policy settings on pandemics;
- This was done with lightning speed in the context of the extremely long arc of history on the woke agenda regarding the definitions of men, women, family, marriage, etc., and with the “speed of science” with lockdowns, masks and vaccine development and mandates;
- Technocrats and experts insist they know best;
- Governments are brainwashed and intimidated into changing laws at the behest of shouty groups;
- The laws are used to coerce citizens into compliance;
- Biologists and medical personnel, despite knowing the transgender drive was science denialism, became complicit through silence because they chose to keep their heads down. Covid policies gave them the opportunity to rinse and repeat.
In other words, the rapid march of wokism was met by and large with inertia, complacency, ideological confusion and moral-cum-intellectual cowardice. Preconditioned into compliance with anti-scientific rubbish in order to show our caring side, we were ripe for the pandemic-triggered biosecurity state.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, what a man! Mr. Science himself. For three years I’ve been trying to fix on the word that best captures him, and the winner is: cockwomble: “A foolish, obnoxious person, prone to making outrageously stupid statements, and inappropriate behaviour, yet with a very high opinion of his own wisdom and importance.”
If I had to choose Mr. Science, it would be Dr. Jay Bhattacharya. Deep knowledge of epidemiology, commitment to grounding theory in empirical research, professional integrity, courage of convictions, unassuming, and a thoroughly decent and nice person — even if he has difficulty pronouncing his own name.
Fauci is the only person I know of who possibly believes himself divine. Reminds me of a man during the days of the Caliphate. At the weekly court hearing, a prisoner was brought to him in chains.
“What’s the charge?”
“Sire, this man claims to be God.”
That caught the Caliph’s full attention. He looked the prisoner up and down and asked: “Is this true?”
“That you claim to be God.”
“Why do you claim to be God?”
“Because I am God.”
“That’s very interesting. Last week I had a man brought to me in chains who claimed to be the Messenger of God.”
“What did you do with him?”
“I had him beheaded.”
“You are very wise, Sire. I had not sent him.”
There is a certain allure to that image, isn’t there — our friend brought to a court in chains to face justice?
Biological Reality vs Trans Ideology
Who among the icons of the movement’s pioneers would have believed that in the 2020s feminists would be fighting over the right to call themselves women? The phrase ‘pregnant persons’ was used 65 times in the WHO’s abortion care guidance published in March 2022. Why would we accept this organisation as an authority on medical science and take any of its medical advice seriously?
Sex-based differentiation between sperm and egg is observable at every level of biological function. Women have two X chromosomes (XX), and men have one X and one Y chromosome (XY). In addition, on average albeit not in every single case, men and women differ in height, weight, strength, speed, endurance, facial features, bodily hair and so on.
2. Silencing and Cancellation of Dissent
The full force of stifling intellectual conformity and punishment of scientific dissent has been felt by critics of Covid lockdowns. Regulators threatened dissenting doctors with professional disciplinary action and the threat was indeed carried out in a few instances. Their modest numbers do not invalidate the tactic. Authorities successfully adopted Sun Tzu’s advice to “kill one, terrify a thousand”.
The new Science™ on cultural issues and pandemic interventions is enshrined in legislation and diktats of the administrative state, and enforced by the state as well as through mechanisms of social control and psychological nudging. All dissent is ruthlessly suppressed and dissenting voices are silenced and cancelled.
Yet, science is a work in progress, not an encyclopedia of facts. Although the long arc of science bends towards truth, progress is neither linear nor irreversible. Scientists have a responsibility to subject the existing consensus to searching scrutiny in line with empirical observations. They must have the corresponding right to challenge the prevailing dominant narratives. Diversity viewpoints on contested elements of knowledge and rejection of attempts to suppress dissenting voices provide necessary safeguards against reverses of knowledge.
If the infrastructure of the surveillance state and collusion of the Censorship-Industrial Complex had been available to authorities and gatekeepers of public morals and knowledge in previous eras, we would all still be flat-earthers!
To paraphrase Churchill on Munich – on lockdowns, masks and vaccines, faced with a choice between dishonour and fighting for principle, most universities chose dishonour and have got, or will get, a fight.
3. Cult of Safety
Western kids are the equivalent of Prince Siddhartha before he became the Buddha, shielded from any exposure to life’s miseries and sorrows, the most insulated of any generation from any calamity, obsessing over modelled and forecast threats, microaggressions, need for trigger warnings and counselling if someone utters the n-word, petrified by imaginary threats well beyond the time horizon of their own life cycles, living in Mysophobia, dissenting speech is hate speech, offending speech is literal violence, people with different moral frameworks are super-haters, etc.
The sway of ‘safetyism’ creates demand for safe spaces and the right not to be hurt and offended. It’s a short distance from this in the culture wars to the demands on the state to protect people from the terrifying new virus. That short distance was covered in a sprint.
4. Threat Inflation
I have come around to the view that environmentalism is part and parcel of wokery, starting with moralism. To believe in the anthropogenic destruction of the natural world helps to define a moral and civilised human being. Framing climate policy as a moral imperative permits the imposition of any individual and societal cost and harm as the necessary price to pay.
Non-believers can and should be subjected to public mockery and banished from polite society. Science has been collapsed into abstract mathematical modelling built on a priori assumptions. No amount of empirical anomalies in observable data can discredit and invalidate The Science™. Dissidents must be defenestrated from the priesthood as heretics.
Writing a whistleblower-equivalent exposé on the Free Press site on September 5th, Patrick Brown explained how in order to get an article published in the high-impact, career advancing journal Nature, his team had left out ‘the whole truth’ part of their research findings. Instead they stuck to the narrative that they believed would appeal to the editors, namely focussing exclusively on the role of climate change in causing wildfires while ignoring (1) other factors of equal or greater explanatory potency like forest management practices, and (2) practical measures to minimise risks and limit damage.
Only bias-confirming research may be published in the proper journals, and climate science departments, research institutes and policy think tanks must be purged of all contrarians. This ensures that the purity of the approved narrative is not corrupted and The Science™ remains ‘settled’.
In order to connect The Science™ to policy action, the scale, gravity and imminence of the apocalyptic threat must be exaggerated. To my great regret and some embarrassment, SG Antonio ‘Chicken Little’ Guterres has joined the ranks of the catastrophists. On July 27th, he declared that “the era of global warming has ended” and “the era of global boiling has arrived”. But do not despair, he said in the spirit of all snake oil salesmen: “We can still stop the worst. … But to do so we must turn a year of burning heat into a year of burning ambition.” On September 20th, he was back to alarmism because: “Humanity has opened the gates [Gates?] to hell” with stubborn inaction on climate change.
The boy who cried wolf versus Goebbels: serial false warnings mean people fail to respond when the threat does materialise, versus A Big Lie repeated enough times becomes the truth.
An unpleasant experience does not make one a ‘survivor’. The use of the n-word in historical or literary context is a traumatic experience only if self-actualised. For healthy people of sound mind, insisting on biologically correct pronouns does not lead to thoughts of suicide.
To gain public backing for the degree of state intrusion into peoples’ private lives and control over nations’ economic activities without precedent even in wartime, the immediacy, gravity and magnitude of the coronavirus threat had to be made apocalyptic. COVID-19 is not remotely as lethal as the Spanish flu. Our health systems and treatment options are infinitely better than a century ago. Yet authorities did not close down whole societies and economies in 1918. In other deadly pandemic episodes also we suffered but endured.
5. Deny and Downplay Harms of Interventions
To militant woke activists, there seems to be no limit to the collateral harms that are accepted as mere roadkill on the highway to social justice heaven. Warnings of collateral harm of Covid interventions were dismissed as exaggerated, speculative, without evidence, etc. Yet evidence continues to mount on the many different pathways through which the Grim Reaper claims his growing mass of victims from the panicked responses to Covid.
To fight for trans feelings is to actively undermine the actual hard-won rights of women. A policy that balances the needs of all individuals and groups would exclude trans people from some women-specific spaces and activities on grounds of safety, trauma, privacy, dignity and fairness: refuges, rape counselling centres, hospital wards, changing rooms, toilets, relevant sports.
Similarly, physical, psychological, learning and developmental harms resulting from wearing facemasks for extended hours over many months were dismissed as minor inconveniences for the greater good of keeping the community safe.
- How many victims will it take before authorities move to protect women prisoners from manipulative and abusive male predators?
- How many children will be sacrificed on the altar of the brutal trans ideology before the medical profession calls a halt to unnecessary and risky treatment?
- Ignoring the forest of safety signals flashing in bright neon lights, how many children will be sacrificed to vaccine harms before Covid vaccines are banned for healthy children and adolescents?
- How many poor children around the world missed out on life-saving immunisation schedules and years of schooling because of lockdown restrictions that saved very few healthy young lives?
- Why was the QALY metric abandoned for a disease with an exceptionally steep age gradient, and cost-benefit analyses not done or not published?
6. ‘Her Penis’: Language Matters
The debate on language is not an argument about human rights, but over truth and science versus lies and dogma. Lies can be turned into truths by laws: who knew? The fightback must also begin with decolonising language from the Empire of the Woke and the Covid authoritarians.
On Covid we saw the conflation of infection and case fatality rates; the counting of PCR positive results at 40 Ct as cases; collapse of the distinction between dying with and of Covid; the redefinition of vaccines to circumvent the lack of sterilising immunity, and the declaration that mRNA treatments before an illness were vaccines, etc.
Examples of virtue-signalling language from the land of the woke are legion. Born male versus ‘assigned male at birth’.
Gender-truthful people are dubbed ‘gender critical’ by sympathisers and TERFS by critics. The U.K. Ministry of Justice has decreed that convicted criminals must not be called “convicts” but “persons of lived experience”. Meanwhile paedophiles are minor-attracted persons. God help us.
Language matters. Choice of words has empirical consequences for ordering society. ‘Shelter-in-place’ camouflages the violence of ‘mass house arrests’. ‘Gender-affirming’ sounds not just innocuous but actually positive, whereas ‘female genital mutilation’? What exactly is the difference between the two? On second thoughts, strike that question — I don’t really wish to know.
The precursor-cum-precondition of the gender-fluidity-driven changing social practices was the preferred pronouns initiative. The willful suspension of biological reality with pretend facts is a threat to women. Women’s rights would not be under such severe threat if transwomen were honestly described as biological males and correctly ‘pronouned’.
In the Alice in Wonderland world in which we have allowed ourselves to be trapped like frogs in water brought ever so gently to the boil, a U.K. maths teacher was sacked in May for ‘misgendering’ a pupil. He included a female pupil who identifies as male in saying, “Well done girls”.
Think of the enormity of this case: the state can compel you, on pain of being fired, to speak a biological lie. Jordan Peterson was right in 2016 to reject Government diktat on pronouns untethered to biological reality. J.K. Rowling has courageously said she will go to jail for two years if a Labour Government criminalises misgendering.
The war to protect women’s identity, rights and dignity is lost at the point where you accept the science fiction of addressing as ‘she’ a 6’3” bearded man with a functioning male organ which he will proudly display in a woman’s spa heedless of how embarrassed and offended the girls and women in there might feel. How can you possibly refuse someone you call ‘she’ the right to compete in a women’s swimming competition? Transwomen do not have the right to colonise the language of women’s sports and spaces.
On matters Covid, the most memorable public statement was former New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s demand that the Ministry of Health was “the single source of truth”. IPSO made adverse findings against Toby Young for a column in the Daily Telegraph, and against Peter Hitchens. After the Lockdown Files were published, Hitchens wrote: “I intend to have a bronze medal struck, which I can wear on ceremonial occasions, recording this censure, intended as a rebuke and taken as an insult but which I will in future regard as an honour.”
Change will not come until the majority turns on the spineless cowards at the top of social institutions and channels Howard Beale in Network: “We’ve had enough and we are not going to take it anymore.” This is as true of woke as of Covid extremism.
7. Culture of Censoriousness
The pursuit of social justice animated by group rights has become a war on truth, science, facts, merit and achievement. The “increasingly hegemonic set of ideologies” has infiltrated and captured the classroom, boardroom, newsroom and public and professional institutions, and morphed into cancel culture. Criticism, ridicule, sarcasm, an alternative point of view to the orthodoxy — all these today can be interpreted by someone, somewhere, on some occasion, as microaggression, hate speech, making them feel unsafe, etc.
Rowan Atkinson warned that we live in “‘a creeping culture of censoriousness”. A culture “that with a reasonable and well-intentioned ambition to contain obnoxious elements in our society, has created a society of an extraordinarily authoritarian and controlling nature”. And, I would add, one that is singularly devoid of any joy, pleasure, and cheer – or even a sense of humor, Atkinson’s forte.
All this is equally applicable to the pandemic. Atkinson’s address was 11 years ago. And that is my central argument: that the syndrome he had identified became an essential enabling environment for the rise of, shall we say, Faucism.
8. Curtailment of Free Speech and Civil Liberties
A free society cannot exist without free speech. Universities were bastions of critical inquiry that, operating behind impregnable ramparts of intellectual freedom, interrogated every kernel of received wisdom. Today’s campuses are the vanguard of efforts to enforce thought-conformity through trigger warnings, microaggressions, deplatforming and safe spaces.
Militant disruptors have acquired a heckler’s veto over expression of critical opinions with respect to protected group rights based on race, religion and gender identity. Similarly, lockdowns and mask and vaccine mandates were the most egregious and wide-ranging assault ever on the civil liberties, political freedoms, free speech and human rights of citizens.
The compulsion and coercion behind lockdowns, masks and vaccines never had any ethical justification and decisions should never have been left to the self-appointed custodians of The Science™. The exaggerated scale of the Covid threat, the collateral harms from each of these policy interventions, and the benefits-harms equation for the vast majority of the population, mean that the medical justification propping them has also crumbled by now.
Gabrielle Bauer problematised this by distinguishing data-dependent from data-agnostic arguments. The former is an argument over the scientific bases of collectivist public health policy and the overall conclusions will change with the data. The latter is an argument over the ethical principles in which public policy is grounded (personal liberty, individual autonomy, bodily integrity) and remains constant despite changed empirics. The policy challenge then becomes, in her words: “How can we protect grandma while also safeguarding dignified and purposeful living in the free world?”
Unchecked medical tyranny seemed hellbent on destroying Western society of free peoples as we know it, with the presumption that we are all sick, whether we know it or not; or will soon be sick; and we must be dealt with as potential germ-ridden disease carriers who pose a constant threat to all others.
Citizens have inalienable rights and freedoms. Governments have limited powers. Which part of this equation do governments not understand? The unprecedented no-limits intrusion of the state into the most intimate spaces of individual behavior and economic activity would have been unimaginable before Covid. What I am suggesting is that the first wave of restrictions on culturally sensitive topics helped to prepare the ground for the second on Covid restrictions.
9. Collective Benefit Trumps Individual Harms
Individual human rights have been progressively subordinated to group-based collective anti-discrimination laws. Public health by definition is a collective good. In the name of ensuring the safe health of everyone, governments trampled willy-nilly on previously inviolate individual rights. Western medicine has been predicated on the norm that the doctor’s primary responsibility in assessing benefits against the risk of harms of treatment options is the welfare of the individual patient.
The messaging on “my house arrest/mask/vaccine protects you and your house arrest/mask/vaccine protects me” turned this long-standing principle of Western medicine on its head. Vaccines were mandated on the slogan “No one is safe until everyone is safe”, ignoring the admission implicit in the slogan that they do not protect the vaccinated.
Most Western Governments succumbed to the fatal conceit that one group of citizens has the right to use coercion, to set their personal protection as an absolute value, and to disregard the safety-values balance of others. The intersection of the cult of safety and the prioritisation of the collective benefit over individual autonomy led us from the open society down the blind alley of a closed society. Have we normalised the use of centralised and concentrated power to extend the state guarantee of protection against feelings of some being hurt by words of others, the spread of viruses and change of climate?
10. Axis of Big State, Big Media, and Big Tech
To overcome the hesitations of history and experience, the threat from Covid had to be inflated in order to panic countries into drastic action. This was successfully done by state propaganda in alliance with the mainstream media, social media and Big Tech.
Anti-discrimination measures require legislative enactment and administrative enforcement by states. Edward Murrow warned prophetically: “A nation of sheep will beget a Government of wolves.” Governments intruded ever more invasively into the personal sphere with regard to speech and behaviour in citizens’ dealings with protected groups, especially gender, race and religion.
Lockdowns didn’t kill the virus dead but did destroy the three Ls of lives, livelihoods and liberties. Human rights are abused most systematically, pervasively and widely by governments. In the name of keeping us all safe, the entire machinery of the state was let loose upon citizens. Governments effectively stole three years of our lives.
Now the social engineering is also being extended to cover the decarbonisation agenda in pursuit of Net Zero goals.
The two bookends for the parallel universes are represented by the Freedom Convoy of protesting truckers in Canada and the farmers’ protests in the Netherlands. In the two cases, the laptop class and the middle and upper class and comfortably-off young people engaged in disruptive extreme climate activism, and have pitted themselves against the working class producing and moving goods from factories and farms to consumers.
The instantly-forged mass consensus on Covid policy, predicated in the liberal conceit that governments can control virus behaviour, has delivered sicker, poorer and unhappier populations. Similarly, Net Zero is bent on reversing the biggest global health, wealth and education gains in history for the masses that was delivered by the Industrial Revolution powered by fossil fuel-based energy. We will all be poorer to satisfy the conceit that humans can operate the control knob of climate patterns.
11. Moralisation and Sacralisation
Western publics strongly supported lockdown measures, masks and vaccines despite collateral harms, including loss of livelihoods, elevated mortality from neglect of other diseases and ailments, ‘deaths of despair’ from greater loneliness, and police abuses. The explanation lies in the moralisation of the restrictions that deepened into sacralisation.
To maintain public support, authorities mocked, demonised and denigrated legitimate scientific debate on the lethality of the virus, the effectiveness and ethics of lockdowns, masks and vaccine mandates, and the harms inflicted by these interventions. The effort would have faced many more challenges but for the prior success in turning the debate from a scientific discourse into a moral imperative.
Fear was instrumentalised to terrify, shame and guilt citizens into staying home, isolating from colleagues, family, and friends, snitching on neighbours who broke lockdown and mask rules, and getting vaccinated. Those who asked for evidence to justify the biggest expansion of state power in Western political history were shamed as wanting to kill granny.
Were not the lockdown, mask and vaccine-hesitants ‘selfish libertarians’? No.
- Selfish was demanding everyone be put under house arrest because I don’t feel safe.
- Selfish was the rich outbidding poor countries for booster jabs before the latter’s primary jabs.
- Selfish was the petulant provincialism of state border closures so Queensland hospitals could be reserved for Queenslanders. Yes, the Premier of Queensland really did say that.
- Selfish was the panic run on toilet paper rolls.
- Selfish was destroying the future of the young who are least at risk, for a few more months of existing-without-living by the elderly most at risk.
So please, don’t come a-waltzing morality on me.
A Congenital Optimist
I have traversed a lot of ground on a sobering and dispiriting journey. We meet also at a time of increasingly dark storm clouds of war gathering on the global horizon. At heart I am a congenital optimist. For any of you depressed and worried that the world will end tonight, let me remind you: it’s already tomorrow in Australia.
Ramesh Thakur, a former UN Assistant Secretary-General, is Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University, Senior Research Fellow at the Toda Peace Institute, and Fellow of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. His new book, Our Enemy, the Government: How Covid Enabled the Expansion and Abuse of State Power (Brownstone Institute, 2023), is out now. This article was first published by the Brownstone Institute.