Jordan Peterson’s interview with Jay Bhattacharya is one of the more insightful conversations to come out of the post-pandemic period. It’s fascinating to see Peterson coming to terms with the sheer scale of the lockdown during which time he was rather sick. We could have used his voice then and I have no doubt that he would have been fantastic.
By February 25, 2023 9 minute read [https://brownstone.org/articles/a-contagion-of-cowardice/]
Fortunately for the whole world, we did have Jay. It’s not just his credentials or his position at Stanford University. It’s his erudition that gave him the reach to make sense of our times. In this interview, Jay explains the unfolding of events in ways I personally found compelling.
Summing up his message, the response upended a century of public-health practice based on computer modeling that was not informed by any medical knowledge or public-health experience. That modeling came to be fused with a military-style response that waged a war on a pathogen with no exit strategy.
That was further complicated by severe political division. Even though the lockdowns began under the Trump administration, opposing them mysteriously came to be seen as “right-wing” even though the pandemic policies violated every civil liberty, massively harmed the poor, divided the classes, and trampled essential freedoms, which one might suppose were concerns of the left, once upon a time.
Jay knew from the beginning that these policies were a disaster but his method of dissent was to stick with the genuine science. He worked with colleagues very early in the pandemic on a study from California that proved that this war on the “invisible enemy” was futile. Covid was everywhere and only a mortal threat to a narrow group in the population needed to have its guard up while the rest of society moved on. That study was released in April 2020 and the implications were undeniably devastating to the war planners and the lockdown pushers.
The conclusion of the study seems rather commonplace now: “The estimated population prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in Santa Clara County implies that the infection may be much more widespread than indicated by the number of confirmed cases.” But at the time, when dissent was rare if non-existent in scientific literature, and when the planning elite had declared its number one goal was to track, trace, and isolate, and thereby minimize infections through compulsion while we wait for a vaccine, this conclusion was anathema.
That’s when the attacks began. It was like he had to be shut down. The popular press began to go after him savagely, smearing both the study and his motivations (this later became outright censorship). At this point, he began to realize the intensity of the campaign against dissent and the push for full unity in favor of the policy response. It was not like normal times when scientists could disagree. This was something different, something fully militarized, when a “whole-of-government” and “whole-of-society” consensus was being demanded by every institution. That meant no heresies against orthodoxy were allowed.
At this point, the interview breaks and Peterson begins to ask probing questions of the sort he likes concerning the spiritual struggle all of us face in life, a subject that clearly consumes him. Peterson believes that all seeming political struggles are ultimately personal ones. Do we back off and acquiesce to conventional wisdom or do we continue to walk toward the light as shown by our conscience?
He asks Jay if he faced this moment, and Jay admits that he did indeed face this. He realized that continuing in this direction – researching to discover facts and telling the truth as he saw it – would massively disrupt his career, his life, and everything he had worked for. Everything would be different, away from comfort and into an uncertain and isolated frontier.
He faced that choice and made the decision to go ahead, undeterred. But the decision cost him dearly. He could not sleep. He lost tremendous amounts of weight. He faced social and professional ostracism. He was dragged through the mud daily in the press and scapegoated for every policy failure. He was accused of conspiring with the purveyors of dark money and every other form of professional corruption. He found himself vexed beyond which he had ever been in his entire career. But still he forged ahead, eventually gathering with other scientists to make what is now a famous statement of public health that has stood the test of time.
It’s fascinating to consider how few in academia and professional life made this choice. And the reasons why are also intriguing. Many in these high-end professions, particularly in academia, have far less job flexibility than we think. We might suppose that a tenured professor in the Ivy League could and would say anything he wants.
The opposite is true. They are not like the barber or auto mechanic who can leave one job and easily start another a few blocks away or in a different town. They are, in many ways, trapped in their own circle of influence. They know this and dare not depart from industry norms. And too often those norms are formed by funding. Yale University, for example, gets more overall revenue from government than from tuition. That’s typical among such institutions. And now we know that media and tech are also on the payroll.
These conflicts of interest combined with careerism played themselves out in brutal ways over the last few years. The high-end professionals who left their jobs to work in the Trump administration, for example, found that they had no jobs waiting for them at all when that presidency came to an end. They were not welcomed back, certainly not by academia. They were discarded. I personally know of many cases where people on advanced career tracks lost all merely by agreeing to what they believed would be public service.
The lockdowns era made this much worse. All over the country, scientists, media figures, writers, think-tank officials, professors, editors, and influencers of all sorts were pressured to go along. Not just that: they were threatened to go along. And it wasn’t just the opinions that mattered. There were all sorts of compliance tests along the way. There was the “social distancing” test. If you didn’t practice in it, that somehow marked you as an enemy. The masking was another: you can tell who was who and what was what based on the willingness to cover one’s face.
The vaccine mandate, appallingly, became another wedge issue that enabled all kinds of professions to purge people. Once the New York Times claimed (summer 2021) to have evidence that the unvaccinated were more likely to be Trump supporters, that did it. The Biden administration and many university administrators felt that they had the ultimate weapon to achieve the purge about which they had longed dreamed.
Comply or get tossed out. That was the new rule. And truly this largely worked. Diversity of opinion in many sectors of society – media, academia, corporate life, the military – is dramatically reduced after this epoch. It doesn’t matter that courts later came along to say it was all bad law. The damage had been done.
Still, we have to be curious about those who did not go along. What drove them to depart from their fellows? This is why Gabrielle’s Bauer’s book Blindsight Is 2020 is so valuable. It doesn’t cover them all but it does highlight the voices of many who dared to think for themselves. And yet here is the truth: among this dissident set, very few aren’t doing something completely different today from what they were doing in 2019. They have changed jobs, changed professions, changed towns and states, and even seen families and friendship networks shattered.
They all paid a huge price. I’m not sure I know any exceptions to the rule. Going against the grain and daring to stand up for truth in a time of totalitarianism is exceedingly dangerous. Our times have proven that. (Brownstone’s Fellows program is designed to give many of these purged people a bridge to a new life.)
I titled this article a contagion of cowardice. It might be too severe to call it that. Many people went along for entirely rational reasons. Another point to consider is that moral teaching in the great religions has not typically required absolute heroism. What it does require is not doing evil. And those really are different things. Staying quiet might not be evil; it’s only the absence of being heroic. St. Thomas even writes this in his treatise on moral theology: the faith celebrates but never requires martyrdom.
And yet it is also true that heroism in our times is absolutely necessary for the preservation of civilization when it is so brutally under attack. If everyone chooses the safe path, and crafts one’s decisions around the principle of risk aversion, the bad guys truly do win. And where does this land and how far can we slide into the abyss under those conditions? The history of despotism and death by government reveal where this ends up.
The best case for heroism over careerism and cowardice is to look back over these three years and observe just how much difference a few can make when they are willing to stand up for truth even when there is a big price to be paid for doing so. Such people can change everything. This is because ideas are more powerful than armies and all the propaganda that a machinery of power can muster. One statement, one study, one sentence, one small effort to puncture the wall of lies can bring down the whole system.
And then the contagion of cowardice comes to be replaced by a contagion of truth. Those who stood up for that form of contagion deserve our respect and gratitude. They also deserve to survive and thrive in the new renaissance that so many today are working to build.
More than people right now are willing to admit, civil society as we knew it collapsed over these three years. A massive purge has taken place within all the commanding heights. This will affect career choices, political alliances, philosophical commitments, and the structure of society for decades to come.
The rebuilding and reconstruction that must take place is going to rely – perhaps as it always has – on a small minority who see both the problem and the solution. Brownstone is doing its best and the most possible given our resources and the time in which we’ve had to operate. But much more needs to be done. The rebuilding requires a spiritual-level commitment to intelligence, wisdom, bravery, and truth.