Covid masks are a potent symbol of the West’s headlong flight from Enlightenment values
The long retreat of law, reason and freedom has now turned into a rout. It was caused by many things: the mob hysteria which flowered after the death of Princess Diana; the evisceration of education; the spread of intolerant speech codes designed to impose a single opinion on the academy and journalism; the incessant state-sponsored panics over terror; the collapse and decay of institutions and traditions.
These have all at last flowed together into a single force, and we seem powerless against it. Absurdly, the moment at which they have achieved maximum power is accidental, a wild, out of-proportion panic response to a real but limited epidemic.
Outside total war and its obscenities, we have not seen what we are living through now. To list the constitutional events of the last few months is to ask the complacent chattering classes of Britain what it reminds them of: the neutering of parliament into a rubber stamp controlled by the executive; the death of political pluralism; the introduction of government by decree; the disappearance of the last traces of an independent civil service; the silence in the face of these events of media and courts; the subjection of the police to state edicts rather than to law.
Then those who have for years objected to campus censorship but are oddly silent now should surely list certain consequences for individual citizens: the cancellation of their unconditional freedom of movement; effective house arrest; arbitrary punishment; forced unemployment; restrictions in internal travel; disruption of family life including compelled separation of living spouses at the ends of their lives, and bans on attending funerals; the abolition of the freedom of assembly.
Add to these a gap in the life of civil society so long that every remaining independent institution and corporation has been permanently wounded, and the habits of a free country have been forgotten and atrophied. Add also the compulsory cessation of religious worship, the actual cancellation of Easter, the greatest and most subversive of all the Christian festivals; the prevention or severe punishment of gatherings of all kinds (except those approved of selectively by the authorities) and the suppression of education; the introduction of compelled speech, through the forced wearing of face coverings which publicly signal both surrender to the state and acceptance of the utopian, unscientific policy which guides that state.
I have been in some trouble for supposedly making too much of the last of these. Perhaps because I have spent so much time living or travelling in despotisms, I understand the point and nature of mass propaganda better than those who have not. It is not there to make you agree with it. It is there to tell you that you are powerless against it, and must listen without protest to official lying.
It is increasingly a disadvantage in any debate to know anything about the subject under discussion. This obvious aspect of the facemask decrees has so far eluded those who have only just begun to live as citizens of a servile state. Yet I remain amazed that so many either cannot see, or pretend not to see the enormous symbolism of a population compelled by fear of the state to sacrifice much of their individuality, and to adopt a form of dress which is associated with submission. I sometimes wonder where all the amateur Freudians are, normally so ready to offer me analysis of my failings, at moments such as this. A cigar is sometimes merely a cigar, but a mask is seldom just a mask.
The government itself, when it was still being honest, repeatedly and explicitly admitted in its own documents that these face coverings were of little practical use: the sacred science was then against them. It said in a document published on 23 June that “the evidence of the benefit of using a face covering to protect others is weak and the effect is likely to be small” (and no experiment since then has altered this).
In any case they were introduced long after the disease had done its worst. If these admittedly futile things were party armbands or lapel badges, or the little red flags which citizens of Warsaw Pact countries were once compelled to fly from their crumbling balconies on communist feast-days, their purpose would be more obvious.
But even those nasty totalitarian obligations lacked one important thing which the wearing of face coverings does require. The Covid Muzzle demands an extraordinary act of personal self-cancellation. At a recent anti-lockdown demonstration in Melbourne, police were observed forcibly placing these muzzles on the faces of arrested protesters already in handcuffs and powerless to resist. The officers involved, many of them in heavy body armour, unwittingly illustrated their real purpose — to turn us into mouthless, voiceless servants of power. It is fascinating also to look back at the first pictures of prisoners arriving in Guantanamo, chained and humiliated in orange jumpsuits. They too are wearing the little blue muzzles over their mouths which, 20 years later, are now worn by normal citizens everywhere. Surely nobody can argue that this extra piece of subjugation and belittling was a health precaution.
No doubt this self-abnegation and self-cancelling appeals to some. Look and you will see that some wear them with a sort of pride. But most look baffled and captive, as if they are peering out through a slot in a wall behind which they have found themselves trapped. And the constant sight — on streets, in stations, in shops and on TV — of thousands of others, likewise suppressed, maintains the fear, alarm and panic which the government must now preserve for the foreseeable future.
Those who think this is scaremongering need to read an astonishing document still far too little known to the general public. It is a paper submitted to the government’s own SAGE committee on 22 March 2020, and it has the heading “Persuasion”. The key segment reads:
Perceived threat: A substantial number of people still do not feel sufficiently personally threatened; it could be that they are reassured by the low death rate in their demographic group, although levels of concern may be rising. Having a good understanding of the risk has been found to be positively associated with adoption of Covid-19 social distancing measures in Hong Kong. The perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent [my emphasis], using hard-hitting emotional messaging. To be effective this must also empower people by making clear the actions they can take to reduce the threat.
Documents of this kind are not supposed to get out. In better times than these, with active and critical media, this particular passage — with its clear implication that it was the task of the state to scare us into compliance — might have led to the fall of the government. As it is, you will struggle to find mentions of it in the British national press. They are there, but they are hard to find and not on any daily front pages. This is not because of censorship or because of any kind of collective action.
It is because most people, having lived all their lives in relaxed freedom, are quite unable to believe what is in front of their eyes. It is a Chestertonian paradox which Chesterton himself never wrote: a government changing the nature of the state successfully and without opposition because nobody can believe what they are seeing, and so everybody politely ignores it.
This could not have happened, in my view, 60 years ago. Rigorous education, especially of the elite, had at that time created a significant class of people who knew how to think, and how to assess evidence. There would always have been someone, whether it was a Tam Dalyell or a Churchill, to point out the true direction of events and warn against them, prominently. Much of the press would have given this dissent house room, rather than obediently conforming (in order to #ProtectOurNHS). But in the intervening years such rigorous schooling has been replaced by an egalitarian education system which teaches its students what to think, not how to think. Criticism of the past is obligatory, but any cold-eyed assessment of the present — in which new ideas benevolently rule — is disliked and ignored.
As well as this, there have been the various spasms of panic and emotion which convulsed the country after the Cold War ended. These were profound attacks on reason. They were also attacks on limited government and the rule of law, which rest largely on the power of reason. Most people quite like being afraid of something, and many dislike freedom and the responsibility that comes with it. The honest among us all admit it.
Once, before Charles Darwin, Ypres and the Somme, the Christian religion answered those needs. The Fear of the Lord was the Beginning of Wisdom, and the devoted service of Christ was perfect freedom. Faith offered eternal life and helped people to accept temporal death as normal. This belief helped to sustain earthly liberty because, as Edmund Burke pointed out, the man who truly fears God will fear nothing else. No despot can get very far if there are such men around in any number.
But fewer and fewer believed that, and the need for something to replace it had a lot to do with the rise of authoritarian movements all over an increasingly secularised Europe in the 1930s. After the cynicism and the acceptance that ends justify means promoted by World War Two, secularism grew still more.
But for 50 years the Soviet and nuclear threat provided a substitute — an Armageddon to fear, and a reason to rally round the state in the free countries of the West. It provided an unexpected bonus, which protected us all though we did not realise it at the time. Since the USSR was the arsenal of repression, political liberty in the Western lands was under special protection as long as the Kremlin was our enemy. Freedom was, supposedly, what we fought and stood for. Governments claiming to be guarding us from Soviet tyranny could not go very far in limiting liberty on their own territory, however much they may have wanted to.
That protection ended when the Berlin Wall fell. In the same extraordinary moment, the collapse of Russian communism liberated revolutionary radicals across the Western world. The ghastly, failed Brezhnev state could not be hung round their necks like a putrid albatross any more. They were no longer considered as potential traitors simply because they were on the left. Eric Hobsbawm, and those like him, could at last join the establishment. Indeed, fortresses of the establishment such as the BBC now welcomed political as well as cultural leftists onto their upper decks.
Antonio Gramsci’s rethinking of the revolution — seize the university, the school, the TV station, the newspaper, the church, the theatre, rather than the barracks, the railway station and the post office — could at last get under way. At that moment, the long march of 1960s leftists through the institutions began to reach its objective, as they moved into the important jobs for the first time. And so one of the main protections of liberty and reason vanished, exactly when it was most needed.
The BBC’s simpering coverage of the Blair regime’s arrival in Downing Street, with its North-Korean-style fake crowd waving Union Jacks they despised, and new dawn atmosphere was not as ridiculous as it looked. May 1997 truly was a regime change. Illiberal utopians really were increasingly in charge, and the Cultural Revolution at last had political muscle.
Then came the new enemy, the shapeless ever-shifting menace of terrorism, against which almost any means were justified. To combat this, we willingly gave up Habeas Corpus and the real presumption of innocence, and allowed ourselves to be treated as if we were newly-convicted prisoners every time we passed through an airport.
Those who think the era of the face-mask will soon be over might like to recall that the irrational precautions of airport “security” (almost wholly futile once the simple precaution of refusing to open the door to the flight deck has been introduced) have not only remained in place since September 2001: they have been intensified. Yet, by and large, they are almost popular. Those who mutter against them, as I sometimes do, face stern lectures from our fellow-citizens implying that we are irresponsible and heedless.
Now a new fear, even more shapeless, invisible, perpetual (and hard to defeat — how can you ever eliminate a virus?) than al-Qaeda or Isis, has arrived in our midst. There is almost no bad action it cannot be used to excuse, including the strangling of an already shaky economy for which those eccentric or lucky enough to still be working will pay for decades. Millions have greeted this new peril as an excuse to abandon a liberty they did not really care much about anyway.
As a nation, we now produce more fear than we can consume locally, hiding in our homes as civil society evaporates. We queue up happily to hand in our freedom and to collect our muzzles and our digital IDs. And those of us who cry out, until we are hoarse, to say that this is a catastrophe, are met with shrugs from the chattering classes, and snarls of “just put on the frigging mask” from the mob. If I hadn’t despaired long ago, I would be despairing now.