Published April 29, 2022
In his classic dystopian novel 1984, George Orwell famously wrote, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.” This striking image served as a potent symbol for totalitarianism in the 20th Century. But as Caylan Ford recently observed, with the advent of digital health passports in the emerging biomedical security state, the new symbol of totalitarian repression is “not a boot, but an algorithm in the cloud: emotionless, impervious to appeal, silently shaping the biomass.” The new forms of repression will be no less real for being virtual rather than physical.
These new digital surveillance and control mechanisms will be no less oppressive for being virtual rather than physical. Contact tracing apps, for example, have proliferated with at least 120 different apps in used in 71 different states, and 60 other digital contact-tracing measures have been used across 38 countries. There is currently no evidence that contact tracing apps or other methods of digital surveillance have helped to slow the spread of covid; but as with so many of our pandemic policies, this does not seem to have deterred their use.
Other advanced technologies were deployed in what one writer has called, with a nod to Orwell, “the stomp reflex,” to describe governments’ propensity to abuse emergency powers. Twenty-two countries used surveillance drones to monitor their populations for covid rule-breakers, others deployed facial recognition technologies, twenty-eight countries used internet censorship and thirteen countries resorted to internet shutdowns to manage populations during covid. A total of thirty-two countries have used militaries or military ordnances to enforce rules, which has included casualties. In Angola, for example, police shot and killed several citizens while imposing a lockdown.
Orwell explored the power of language to shape our thinking, including the power of sloppy or degraded language to distort thought. He articulated these concerns not only in his novels Animal Farm and 1984 but in his classic essay, “Politics and the English Language,” where he argues that “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
The totalitarian regime depicted in 1984 requires citizens to communicate in Newspeak, a carefully controlled language of simplified grammar and restricted vocabulary designed to limit the individual’s ability to think or articulate subversive concepts such as personal identity, self-expression, and free will. With this bastardization of language, complete thoughts are reduced to simple terms conveying only simplistic meaning.
Newspeak eliminates the possibility of nuance, rendering impossible consideration and communication of shades of meaning. The Party also intends with Newspeak’s short words to make speech physically automatic and thereby make speech largely unconscious, which further diminishes the possibility of genuinely critical thought.
In the novel, character Syme discusses his editorial work on the latest edition of the Newspeak Dictionary:
By 2050—earlier, probably—all real knowledge of Oldspeak [standard English] will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron—they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually contradictory of what they used to be. Even the literature of The Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like Freedom is Slavery when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact, there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.
Several terms of disparagement were repeatedly deployed during the pandemic, phrases whose only function was to halt the possibility of critical thought. These included, among others, ‘covid denier,’ ‘anti-vax,’ and ‘conspiracy theorist’. Some commentators will doubtless mischaracterize this book, and particularly this chapter, using these and similar terms—ready-made shortcuts that save critics the trouble of reading the book or critically engaging my evidence or arguments.
A brief comment on each of these may be helpful in illustrating how they function. The first term, ‘covid denier,’ requires little attention. Those who sling this charge at any critic of our pandemic response recklessly equate covid with the Holocaust, which suggests that antisemitism continues to infect discourse on both the right and the left. We need not detain ourselves with more commentary on this phrase.
The epithet ‘anti-vax,’ deployed to characterize anyone who raises questions about the mass vaccination campaign or the safety and efficacy of covid vaccines, functions similarly as a conversation stopper rather than an accurately descriptive label. When people ask me whether I am anti-vax for challenging vaccine mandates I can only respond that the question makes about as much sense to me as the question, “Dr. Kheriaty, are you ‘pro-medication’ or ‘anti-medication’?” The answer is obviously contingent and nuanced: which medication, for which patient or patient population, under what circumstances, and for what indications? There is clearly no such thing as a medication, or a vaccine for that matter, that’s always good for everyone in every circumstance and all the time.
Regarding the term “conspiracy theorist,” Agamben notes that its indiscriminate deployment “demonstrates a surprising historical ignorance.” For anyone familiar with history knows that the stories historians recount retrace and reconstruct the actions of individuals, groups, and factions working in common purpose to achieve their goals using all available means. He mentions three examples from among thousands in the historical record.
In 415 B.C. Alcibiades deployed his influence and money to convince the Athenians to embark on an expedition to Sicily, a venture that turned out disastrously and marked the end of Athenian supremacy. In retaliation, Alcibiades enemies hired false witnesses and conspired against him to condemn him to death. In 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte violated his oath of fidelity to the Republic’s Constitution, overthrowing the directory in a coup, assumed full powers, and ending the Revolution. Days prior, he had met with co-conspirators to fine-tune their strategy against the anticipated opposition of the Council of Five Hundred.
Closer to our own day, he mentions the March on Rome by 25,000 Italian fascists in October 1922. Leading up to this even, Mussolini prepared the march with three collaborators, initiated contacts with the Prime Minister and powerful figures from the business world (some even maintain that Mussolini secretly met with the King to explore possible allegiances). The fascists rehearsed their occupation of Rome by a military occupation of Ancona two months prior.
Countless other examples, from the murder of Julius Caesar to the Bolshevik revolution, will occur to any student of history. In all these cases, individuals gathering in groups or parties to strategize goals and tactics, anticipate obstacles, then act resolutely to achieve their aims. Agamben acknowledges that this does not mean it is always necessary to aver to ‘conspiracies’ to explain historical events. “But anyone who labelled a historical who tried to reconstruct in detail the plots that triggered such events as a ‘conspiracy theorist’ would most definitely be demonstrating their own ignorance, if not idiocy.”
Anyone who mentioned “The Great Reset” in 2019 was accused of buying into a conspiracy theory—that is, until World Economic Forum founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab published a book in 2020 laying out the WEF agenda with the helpful title, Covid-19: The Great Reset. Following new revelations about the lab leak hypothesis, U.S. funding of gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, vaccine safety issues willfully suppressed, and coordinated media censorship and government smear campaigns against dissident voices, it seems the only difference between a conspiracy theory and credible news was about six months.
Aaron Kheriaty, former Professor of Psychiatry at the UCI School of Medicine and Director, Medical Ethics at UCI Health, is a Senior Scholar of the Brownstone Institute.
Photo: Flickr/Ivan Radic