Scale and conspiracy
In 1995 Will Self published a short story about the fantastic morphine-induced hallucinations of a divorcee living beside a model village who loses his sense of proportion. As his reverie descends through 50 pages the notion of scale itself fragments and dissolves into a morass of homonyms – the scales on a reptile, the scale at the bottom of a kettle, the scales formed by the constellation Libra, and so on.
A pathological lack of scale afflicts political discourse regarding COVID-19 and many other areas. Western democracies can’t decide whether to stick or twist, with opinions hardening around either imposing harsh and punitive lockdown measures and fines on the non vaccinated, or lifting all restrictions and be done with it.
There should be space for personal accountability as well as social solidarity. But the social order depends on consent and taxation. Consent cannot easily be coaxed out of the angry and defiant to get themselves vaccinated and wear a mask occasionally. Who then should bear the burden of equipping the health services unable to sustain the COVID sick, overwhelmingly those unvaccinated, while those in need of more routine medical care are made to wait and suffer?
Now as a sign of the poverty of political groupthink, a novel form of liberal authoritarianism is emerging which penalises the unvaccinated, whether in the form of compulsory vaccination or fines or denial of welfare for dissenters.
Not enough attention is applied to the question of who is behind the explosion of conspiracy theories that people absorb and espouse as the new anti-gospel? Who is mobilising the 10s of 1000s of people to congregate and protest, providing cover to violent neo-fascist and anarchist cells, in Brussels and elsewhere? No doubt dark money, shady billionaires and hostile third countries are involved somewhere, though there is a risk of falling into the trap of conspiracy theorising about who is responsible for conspiracy theories.
What is indisputable is the spread of bullshit and the mobilisation on the streets are only possible because of the way a handful of platforms, more than anything Facebook and YouTube, choose to run their business. Equally indisputable is that these platforms rake in billions of advertising dollars through the engagement that compelling antivax content drives, amplified and recommended by their algorithms.
We need a sense of scale. The social bond frays and is need of repair and maintenance. But the penalty should not be paid by the shy dad at the school bus stop or the midfield enforcer in the football team or the wacko family of evangelicals who now share a belief that Bill Gates invented the vaccine to control humanity. However loony or selfish or annoying I might think they are, their impact on their respective social microclimates is negligible. They are entitled to their own views, and no civilised democracy should even contemplate forcing a needle into their arms against their will. Their defiance in the face of conventional wisdom will be to their cost anyway – when they find it harder to travel or enter premises because the owners and operators of those spaces insist on a vaccine passport.
So leave the little people – that’s most of the population – their trinkets of eccentricity. A sense of scale dictates that the tab should be paid by those who promulgate and profit from this junk, because it serves their agendas. A windfall tax on Facebook, Google and the handful of wealthy donors to antivax campaigns to fund health and social care systems.
This will not happen, because those are the people in positions of wealth and power who can always resist such visibility and accountability. But justice lies closer to such a solution than to blanket sanctions against the 10-20% of the population for whom antivax nostrums are now core to their own sense of identity and autonomy.