The Last Citizens

Citizens - CropThe Last Citizens may already have been born. The ideals that made it possible to be democratic citizens of a nation protected by international human rights have become so corrupted, and indeed purposefully distorted, that it is far from clear that anyone is still a citizen in the sense that came to exist immediately after World War II. But the Last Citizens are still citizens in at least one sense: they remember what it means to be part of a democracy of rights... and even the capacity to remember what this means provides some glimmer of hope for the future.

Despite its influences in the ancient world, citizenship in the sense of belonging to a democracy of rights is a comparatively contemporary idea. Unrest in the imperial nations brought an end to the old faith in the divine right of kings that had sustained monarchy as the sole legitimate mechanism of rule. The English Civil Wars ended in 1649 with the execution of Charles I - a situation previously unthinkable. Yes, one monarch had executed another, and wars of succession had a long history, but this was something different. The king was found guilty of asserting "unlimited and tyrannical power to rule according to his will, and to overthrow the rights and liberties of the people". The world's first Bill of Rights arrived forty years later. But we were not yet citizens.

There is a certain irony to the way that the American Revolution was also a revolt against the British crown, that is, against the monarchy formed through a merger between the Scottish and English crowns. The throne had been restored after the English experiment in republicanism ended in failure after just eleven years, but it now faced in 'the colonies' what it had previously faced at home: revolution. Yet the Declaration of Independence in 1776 still did not create citizens, and even the constitution of 1789 did not allow for this understanding until the addition of the Fourteenth Amendment, in 1868. Conversely, the French Revolution that followed soon after proudly announced in 1789 the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

As Benedict Anderson remarks of these events, the combination of a revolution followed by a declaration of rights and citizenship created a model for a nation that could be creatively 'pirated', and citizenship spread around South America and the former imperial colonies bordering upon the Pacific with a certain inevitability. Anderson's claim, oft repeated but seldom fully appreciated, was that the arrival of widespread printing created novels and newspapers that allowed people to imagine themselves as part of the same community. These imagined communities were the origin of the nation in a sense that was radically different from that of monarchy. No longer subjects, we were now citizens.

The usual interest in Anderson's arguments is rather shallow, since it is taken as a diagnosis of nationalism, taken in the negative. But Anderson's interest was broader and more intriguing - he expressly denies we should think of 'nationalism' as an ideology, like liberalism or fascism. Rather, he sees 'nationalism' as akin to 'kinship' or 'religion' - as different ways of imagining human relationships. Indeed, a large part of his book is taken with showing how the imagined communities of religion served a role similar to that of the nation in the half millennia beforehand: people imagined themselves as members of a religion that united them with vast numbers of strangers long before they imagined themselves as members of a nation.

To be a citizen of a nation, however, is to recognise one's membership in that nation, just as to be a Hindu, a Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim, or a Jew is to recognise one's membership in that religion. In both cases, what matters is not merely recognising membership of a set, but a metaphorical brotherhood and sisterhood with others who also belong to that set. Those who leap from Anderson's book to nationalism-as-ideology misunderstand his purposes. Racism, he argues, justifies repression and domination within the nation; nationalism leads to wars with others in order to protect 'our' land. Whoever loves their nation is willing to die for what it represents, just as one who loves God is willing to die for that faith represents - and contrary to how this is usually taken, this need not mean being willing to kill.

The lazy assumption that these imagined nations are a pathology betrays us. We are lured into thinking that those people who believe in nations are terrible and need to be excluded and repressed. In other words, demonising the love of a nation is itself a path to the bigotry being reviled - a pattern we have seen so many times, with each and every belief system whether religious, national, or secular. In this regard, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, whatever its flaws, attempted to transcend nationalist bigotry by declaring not only rights for everyone, but a right to citizenship itself (a right to belong to a nation). It was a spirited attempt to make good on everything that had gone wrong when the old conception of 'Natural Rights' that had fuelled the Revolutions had been discredited by the two World Wars.

No, nationalism as such is not necessarily our problem. Indeed, it was love of the United States that led people to protest against the Vietnam war in the 1960s, as Anderson himself later made explicit. The citizen of a nation is capable of feeling ashamed of crimes their country has committed, for which the concept of 'not in my name' carries some weight. While we are still citizens, we must have this connection to a nation, because it is only in the context of a democratic nation that we can be citizens, and we can be so solely if we belong to that nation. It is the erosion of this sense of imagined community which is precisely why citizenship has begun to unravel.

The problem, as Chantal Mouffe brilliantly explored in the early twenty first century, is that the 'left' and the 'right' ceased to be mutually engaged in citizenship any more. The entire point of this original division, which commenced in the French Revolution with the first seating of the National Assembly, was to distinguish two different perspectives within one common nation. But as Mouffe traces, the 'left' gradually lost this commitment, and this in two ways: through adopting extreme forms of individualism, that elevated the individual and denigrated the nation, and also through an obsession with a zealous rationality that is often named 'Science' but has nothing whatsoever to do with scientific practice.

Thus for those caught up in the imagined tides of the 'left', identarian politics invited people to join different imagined communities - as LGB or one of its later permutations, as neuro-diverse, as queer, as black, as trans, and ultimately, when all the seats outside of white and male had been taken, as these final accursed categories, which became the reviled and excluded remnants of the identarian parade. These alternative identities pulled people away from imagining themselves as part of a democratic community united as nations. Nowhere was this clearer than in the nonsense of the last few years, when the mistaken belief that experts could establish, at the drop of a hat, scientific and therefore medical truth, led people to abandon citizenship for a brutal and ignorant technocracy. Nations were suddenly irrelevant: what mattered was your chosen identity and your loyalty to a specific political surrogate for scientific truth.

Between these two forces, the imagined ideal of the citizen in a democracy of rights was entirely torn apart. Rather than the 'left' and 'right' having different imaginings about the same nation, the 'right' continued to imagine the nation, while the left began to imagine internationally, which is to say (like the subjects of the English and French crowns before them), they began to imagine an empire. As I wrote in The Third Accord, our image of citizenship has thus been torn into two fragments. The 'right' clings to the image of membership in a nation that belongs to them, while the 'left' has carried the freedom to dissent to an absurd extreme that now denies any disagreement. For this 'new left', any attempt to imagine belonging to a nation has become secondary to the coalition of imagined identarian communities united in commitment to an empire of magical science.

Nowhere is this collapse of the ideals of citizenship clearer than in the cries of 'Not My President' and the deranged denouncement of political opponents as inhuman, evil, and beneath contempt, such that any thought of compromise or debate with them is unthinkable. The absolutism of monarchy has returned in the divine right of idiots to believe in their own stupidity so completely as to become incapable of listening to any other perspective at all. On this path, even censoring free speech and tampering with elections becomes morally justified because 'they' cannot be allowed to 'win'. The United States has all but lost any notion of citizenship because it has abandoned its commitment to debating disagreements and working collectively to forge a common image of what the nation could or should become. And the other nations are never far behind the mistakes that the United States leads the world in making.

Yet all is not lost. The Last Citizens may indeed have already been born, but these are still the people among us willing to listen and compromise. These brave souls - or those that follow them - might be able to forge the third accord, to reunite the many different worlds of our one, shared planet into a common political ideal. Those that were seduced away from freedom by the deceptions of a false necessity have at least this one redeeming quality: they still believe in ideals... it is just that our collective imaginings have been so corrupted they can now cause only harm. We must rebuild either the notion of citizens within democracies of rights, or an ideal that can replace it. And the only way this can come about is if we discover how to pursue this momentous undertaking together.

The opening image is a detail from Citizens by Chris Arlidge. No copyright infringement is intended and I'll take the image down if asked.


Our Duty to the Truth

Two months ago, on 29th November 2022, I wrote a Rapid Response to an opinion piece at the British Medical Journal entitled "Understanding and neutralising covid-19 misinformation and disinformation". My reply was longer than the article and the editors chose not to run it (quite possibly for reasons other than length, though). I include it here, unedited, since the points it makes are salient. You do not need to read the original opinion piece for context - it will all be quite clear from my response.

The Worst Thing About CensorshipDear Editors,
This is surely a timely topic, with California having recently passed the controversial legislation Assembly Bill 2098 that the authors refer to in passing. This is a law that allows doctors who express views that depart from 'consensus' to be struck off, and prevented from practicing as doctors. The authors' argument revolves around the claim that that since misinformation and disinformation are by definition a harmful distortion of the facts, such laws are desirable and ought to be pursued. Yet as scientists, we are obligated to remain open to new evidence as to what the facts might be - otherwise, we foreclose investigation and can no longer claim to be acting as scientists.

To a great degree, the authors conclusions rest on a series of presumptions that are not well-supported by any of their chosen citations. For example, it is apparent from the text that the authors have reached the following conclusions about non-pharmaceutical interventions:

a) That 'lockdowns' and other disruption of assembly measures are effective at halting transmission of respiratory viruses and/or SARS-CoV-2 specifically
b) That community masking is effective at halting transmission of respiratory viruses and/or SARS-CoV-2 specifically

The authors do not provide any evidence in support of these assumptions. Instead, they provide a link to evidence that "long covid has risen substantially in children and young people". This is a tangential question, and one that is also a matter of ongoing scientific research and debate. The decision not to provide evidence in support of the implicit claim that non-pharmaceutical interventions are effective constitutes a substantial flaw in this text. Having followed the research on these topics closely for two years, I would personally judge that the balance of evidence was currently against both of these hypotheses, but as a scientist I am always open to hearing new evidence, and would readily acknowledge that the scientific discussion is far from being concluded in these matters.

Because the success of non-pharmaceutical interventions is assumed, and not evidenced, the authors' discussion of mis- and disinformation takes an odd turn. The authors imply UsForThem, HART, UK Medical Freedom Alliance and Children's Health Defence are propagating mis- and disinformation about these and other interventions. Are the authors correct? It's not possible to tell this from their text and its citations. Perhaps more importantly: how could we possibly know if they are correct while these matters are still live research topics...?

It is worth noting that the organisations named are of very different kinds. Conflating a parental activist group (UsForThem) with a research coalition (HART) is a dubious proposition, although it can be acknowledged that there is some political commonality in the groups mentioned, just as there is a political commonality between the authors of this paper and the sponsors of Assembly Bill 2098. This political dimension may be considerably more important than the authors allow.

In the implied denouncement of the previously mentioned organisations, the first two articles cited by the authors are from the Byline Times. One of these pieces claims HART is "a COVID-19 disinformation group which harbours a range of conspiratorial views about the pandemic." This claim is unsubstantiated in this citation and appears quite implausible on the basis of a brief review of HARTs published commentaries. The Byline Times' view is one that could only be reached by pre-supposing the outcome of ongoing scientific research topics. The same article later terms the Great Barrington Declaration (a statement reinforcing what was the standard view on pandemic response up to 2019) a "pandemic disinformation network" - which is an odd and implausible claim, although one that goes beyond the scope of this rapid response to explore. The inclusion of these Byline Times articles as cited evidence significantly weakens the authors claims to speak in a scientific register, as this cited article is a deeply politicised perspective with negligible scientific relevance.

Their third citation is a BBC article that itself contains a factual error: it claims that all the groups mentioned by the authors are engaged in putting out a message 'against vaccines'. But the matter being discussed in the article cited is specifically the mRNA vaccinations for use in the context of SARS-CoV-2, and even then in the specific context of administering these to children. As new drugs, and treatments that received approximately 90 days of safety testing (versus, say, 5 or 10 years of assessment as was expected prior to 2020), conflating doubts about these specific new medical treatments with opposition to vaccination in general (as both the authors and the cited-BBC article engage in) is questionable and misleading. It might even qualify as misinformation - or even, if either party purposefully intends to mislead on this matter, disinformation.

I certainly condemn those who mislead parents by falsifying an NHS Consent Checklist and circulating it, as the BBC article reports. This is certainly not the action of a reputable scientist. But the BBC article does not provide any prima facie evidence against any of the groups the authors mention. Instead, it expressly admits the difficulty in drawing such a connection. Rather, the BBC article assumes that because certain scientists are questioning the mRNA treatments, all such individuals can be grouped together in the vilified category of mis- and dis-information. As scientists, we must take much greater care on these issues, especially given the fact that - as the BMJ reported in November 2021, Pfizer's trial for their mRNA treatment entailed serious data integrity issues.

It is noteworthy that the BBC did not report this story, a point I will return to below.

I would venture to suggest it is implausible to assume any scientific misconduct on behalf of HART et al with respect to what is, after all, a treatment with incomplete safety and efficacy data. It is far from clear to me, frankly, that "contrarian messages" (as the authors put it) are where our concerns regarding mis- and disinformation ought to lie, especially since the engine of scientific discovery is precisely the engagement of contrarian interpretations with our prior assumptions. To be opposed to contrarian messages is to be opposed to the very possibility of new scientific discoveries.

However, the authors are surely correct to draw a parallel with the way that alcohol and tobacco industries distorted the research and media landscape in connection with the health risks of their products. It is plausible to assume that similar interference has occurred in connection with the mRNA treatments, especially given the tremendous advertising expenditure provided by Pfizer and Moderna in the United States via all major television news services, which have played a substantial role in framing debate around these issues.

As BMJ editor Peter Doshi has repeatedly stressed, what is required at this point to restore trust is for Pfizer to release anonymised data of its original trial in order to see where it's "95% effective" figure came from. It is now quite clear from the data on the ground that these treatments were not in any way 95% effective, and it is apparent from the BMJ's whistle-blower story that fraud is one possible explanation for how the now-falsified figure was obtained. In the question of mRNA vaccines and mis- and dis-information, this aspect of the situation ought to be a far more significant area of investigation than "the extent to which groups promoting contrarian messages were able to influence policy" that the authors judge of particular importance.

In this regard, it is worth noting that on 10th December 2020, the BBC announced an alliance dubbed 'the Trusted News Initiative', which included AP, AFP; BBC, CBC/Radio-Canada, European Broadcasting Union (EBU), Facebook, Financial Times, First Draft, Google/YouTube, The Hindu, Microsoft, Reuters, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Twitter, and the Washington Post. The stated purpose of this media group was to:

...ensure legitimate concerns about future vaccinations are heard whilst harmful disinformation myths are stopped in their tracks.

The implication was that this group would report all factual issues about vaccines. Yet as far as I can ascertain, not one of these sources reported the whistle-blower story covered by the BMJ, which certainly constituted "legitimate concerns". As such, we have reasons to doubt that this media group was able to follow-through on its original commitment, with the inevitable implication that its attempt to prevent mis- and disinformation might ironically have ended up operating as a source of mis- or disinformation in at least some cases.

When we act as scientists, our duty is towards the patient assembling of the truth. This is not something that happens quickly or easily. Prior to 2019, we spent five to ten years establishing the safety of vaccinations before green lighting them for population-level distribution. As such, the earliest we could realistically expect to be able to make assessments of mis- or disinformation with respect to these new mRNA vaccines would be in the 2030s, when there has been sufficient data gathered, and time for adequate debate. Unless that time has passed and that discussion has occurred, it is impossible to ascertain with any certainty whether groups like HART will have their concerns vindicated or disproven. Certainly, it is premature to assume on the basis of a single BBC article that HART is a greater risk of mis- and disinformation that, say, Pfizer, for whom the BMJ has already confirmed malfeasance.

Ultimately, the authors suggestion that the inquiries into the response to SARS-CoV-2 ought to be widened to examine the extent to which "groups promoting contrarian messages" feels terribly misguided, even on the logic of their own discussion. If it were reasonable to expand the inquiry into such areas, the priority ought to be establishing the extent to which news organisations such as those who joined the 'Trusted News Initiative' were unduly influenced by pharmaceutical companies in a manner parallel to the author's references to alcohol and tobacco companies. The question of importance here ought to be the degree to which scientific investigations have been disrupted by pre-empting the dissemination of facts and the withdrawal of support for open debate in public channels on the topics of both non-pharmaceutical interventions and mRNA vaccines.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that what should be topics of open scientific enquiry and debate have become politicised, and therefore distorted. If we are acting as scientists, this concern ought to be of far graver importance than attempting to police singular interpretations of the facts by smearing alternative interpretations as mis- or disinformation. The authors consider Assembly Bill 2098 in California an "appropriate course of action". Contrary to this opinion, I would call it a shameful betrayal of the ideals of scientific discourse, and a potentially unlawful attempt to supress both free speech and open scientific enquiry.

If we are scientists, our first duty is to the truth, no matter how elusive it may be. When we pre-empt the ongoing search for that truth, as every attempt to assert the categories of mis- and disinformation on an active research topic must necessarily entail, we are no longer acting as scientists. We have let our political beliefs blind us, and we have betrayed the very ideals upon which scientific investigation rests.

Dr Chris Bateman


Changing the Game

Advance notice that I am moving my philosophical basecamp to Stranger Worlds and How To Live In Them over at Substack, although the Game is not yet concluded.

Romance of PlutoDear Players of the Game,

It has been seventeen years, and during that time this blog has transformed in many ways. Remember in the early days when it was all about games...? That seems forever ago now. I marvel at the volume of material I have thrown into this blog over the years, but I am unsatisfied these days with the disparity between the time spent writing essays and the volume of discussion generated, which has become exceedingly low.

Partly, the downturn in discussion reflects what has happened in traditional blogs as reading has more and more been captured by services (Medium, perhaps, foreshadowed what was to come, although Twitter is an important part of the story too). Partly, however, I fear the lack of discussion here results from reaching a point whereby the intersection of people who feel confident enough to discuss my chosen topics with me and those with the time and inclination to do so is close to a null set. Mostly, however, I am certain that the Age of Distraction has continued to intensify, and even my efforts to promote Only a Game on Twitter, which represented a substantial additional investment on top of the blog itself, are not having any noticeable impact.

My experiences with WAMTNG have encouraged me to begin another project at Substack. This is Stranger Worlds and How To Live In Them, which you can discover yourself by following the link. In brief, it's a philosophy blog focussing on principles for life, building upon my philosophy books without requiring anyone to have read them. It starts tomorrow. Primarily, the purpose of beginning this project is to have a Substack where only paid subscribers can comment. I have some hope that this format has sufficient psychological impact to break through the forces of distraction amassed against the few defenders of equality. Even if it does not, I cannot pretend that the Game still plays the way it did. Golden ages never return, and their glittering sheen arises chiefly from nostalgia. As such, beginning something new feels appropriate to my circumstances, especially since my fifth international move is imminent.

I am not done putting essays on Only a Game, but I see no point continuing to put 30-40 essays a year here. I'm expecting it to end up with more like one a month, but I have no specific plan. More than posting here less frequently, however, I am decamping from here. This has been my writing basecamp - whatever I have done elsewhere, I have posted links to it here. But I see no reason to continue doing this (although if you do, please do let me know - this matters to me greatly!). Rather, Only a Game will become home to my longer philosophical essays just as ihobo.com became home to my writings on games. But neither will be 'my blog', and both will become 'one of my blogs'.

As ever, I offer my enormous gratitude to every Player of the Game, past and present, and I am still happy to hear from you whenever you are willing to take the time to write, here, there, or anywhere else. Your time here has been very special to me. But if discourse with me matters, or if you just like to read my ramblings from time to time, please join me at Stranger Worlds

With unlimited love and respect,

Chris.

The new Substack, Stranger Worlds and How To Live In Them begins tomorrow.


Sabbatical

Pine TryptychDear friends of the Game,

It is almost time for my Autumnal Social Media Break, but this year I have no plans to come back in December. The philosophical landscape hangs in the balance... I need to know if we are going to rescue our ideals of democracy, free speech, and open scientific discourse, or if those that seek this are to be forced underground into an ethical resistance to the New Empire that has seized control of the planet in a quite remarkable coup. I find it is too difficult to write philosophy without knowing if I should be preserving the ideals I have lived for all my life, or whether I need to be adapting to these 'new dark ages' by forming new trust networks outside and beyond the reach of imperial censorship. By early 2023, I expect this will become quite clear.

So I am taking a longer than usual sabbatical from my philosophical essays this Winter, although WAMTNG will keep boldly going where we've all been before... just slightly differently. I still would love to hear from you, so please feel free to comment on anything here at Only a Game - we have seventeen years of essays to talk about. I am still open for blog letters, as usual, I just probably won't be writing replies any time soon. And if you liked anything I wrote this year, I'd love to hear from you. It's always good to know when I am 'hitting the spot', and philosophy is a lonely enough vocation as it is, even without being a renegade philosopher such as myself.

I leave you with the hope of a human solidarity that truly delights in the unbounded diversity of human existence.

With unlimited love,

Chris.

Only a Game will return in the Gregorian New Year.