When the common good becomes mutual harm

Back in June 2021, one month after the Covid health pass had been instituted here in France, I hosted lunch for a friend. At that time, the “passe sanitaire” required proof of Covid vaccination, a negative test within 72 hours or Covid recovery within 6 months for those over 16 years of age, in order to access most public venues such as restaurants, cinemas, gyms, cultural institutions, all public transport. It was also required for those employed in jobs where the pass was a requirement for the public.

As we chatted in the kitchen, the subject of mandatory Covid vaccinations hung in the air like a stubborn smell no matter how much lemon-scented bonhomie we tried to squirt at it, and I guess it was inevitable, since this friend (I’ll call her Valerie) and I had found ourselves sitting awkwardly on opposing sides of the issue, that we would have address it at some point.

I told Valerie (in my mediocre French) that I am very much pro-vaccine, but that mandating them is something else entirely. The mandates also made no scientific sense since the spectrum of risk for Covid was a thousand times different depending on age and health, even before Omicron. Everyone should have the right to access the vaccines and everyone should be able to reserve the right to refuse them, I said. It seemed to me to be the only position that a decent person could take. There was only one problem with this. Valerie was a decent person. A very decent person. I have since come to believe that the good intentions of people like Valerie has been cynically usurped for Big Pharma, Big Tech and Big Government to play out their own agendas. But that’s another post….

Rousseau’s social contract

This was back in the days when taking a position against Covid vaccine mandates did not automatically make me an ‘anti-vaxxer’ (Oh happy days!) That happened later on in a move seemingly designed to shut down all debate and critical thought which it succeeded in doing very effectively. But taking such a position did make me a kind of walking ‘variant of concern’ to people like Valerie who did not appear to differentiate between the right of access and right of consent.  

At no time have vaccines been a forced legal requirement in France (which would actually contravene existing laws), but an ever-tightening  screw has made them harder and harder to avoid in a relentless campaign of state and media pressure that has molded public opinion into a force of control in its own right. To not be vaccinated in France you needed to be willing to be excluded from ordinary public life, surrender freedom of movement, be treated as a pariah by your family and friends, and risk losing your livelihood.

Stories began circulating about vaccine free patients being denied medical care and being carted off to detention camps. On social media they were told to go away and die. You also had to accept that your government despised you and considered you a person of lesser status. When the passe sanitaire morphed into the passe vaccinal in France, a country with some of the strictest Covid measures in the world, it became almost impossible to fulfil the requirements without vaccination. Macron told a reporter that he wanted to “piss off” the unvaccinated, a comment that generated a certain amount of consternation. But it was what he said after that which was more disturbing- that he would continue to make life as hard for such people as possible until the “bitter end” whatever that meant. “That is the strategy.” What “strategy” is that exactly? He went further, calling the unvaccinated “non-citizens”. This was far more ominous to me than his vernacular griping. At the time, Macron probably imagined this stance would win him votes in the next presidential election, although his recent back-paddling, claiming that he said such things “in an affectionate way” suggest that either he misread the political climate or more likely that the perception of vaccine mandates has changed in light of its all too obvious failures.

Back in my kitchen, I could see that Valerie was getting agitated and I was over-stirring the fish sauce. We were doing our best to play nice but the fundamental schism of perspective between us was giving us both vertigo. She then said a phrase that we were soon to be hearing a lot – “le bien commun” — “the common good”. I recognized this as a watershed moment, where people such as myself who did not agree with the vaccine passport system were going to be tagged as somehow devoid of altruism, motivated only by self-interest.

Was I familiar with the French enlightenment philosopher, Rousseau, she asked. Only just but I appreciated the reminder that brushing up on one’s philosophers was a prerequisite for even a casual lunch in France. I had read something about Rousseau’s ‘social contract’ but only had a vague recollection of it. When I looked it up later that evening, I understood why Valerie had invoked his name during our conversation. In his treatise Du contrat social Rousseau wrote that individuals must defer to the interests of society at large. The end goal is the realization of the common good.

On the surface, this sounds reasonable enough. The common good, how could anyone argue against it? However, several scholars have argued that Rousseau’s treatise contains the seeds of despotism. Why? Because the ‘common good’ is open to interpretation. It can be interpreted in any way that those who wield power over the common people want it to be. Once a government can orchestrate collective ideological agreement of a common good in its citizens, all kinds of terrible possibilities are liberated from the restraints that individual rights and agency keep at bay.

In other words, in the wrong hands, the common good can very quickly degenerate into the common harm.

The good of the state before the good of the patient

People like me are not opposed to the principle of the common good. What we oppose is the interpretation. Informed consent was a principle that had been instated for the common good. So how did mandating a vaccine supplant that? Who gets to determine the nature of this common good, anyway? Are we sure that these people are motivated by the common good? Are we sure they would even recognize a common good if it sat on their face?

As we sat down to eat, Valerie firmly asked me if we could change the subject. She didn’t want to lose me as a friend, she said. I, on the other hand, worried that the friendship was more vulnerable if we didn’t have the awkward conversation. But I could see she was serious so we moved on to other topics. But it could not be denied that the air had thickened between us. The next day she wrote me an email:

I try to not to judge people based on their political views. I have friends all over the political spectrum, as well as on the far right.

She had friends on the far right? I didn’t even have friends on the near right. I wasn’t sure if I should be impressed or concerned. Wait – does she mean that she thinks I’m far right? I had to laugh out loud at the thought since by any measure my political views plonked me squarely in the camp of crusty old school lefties. (One of the multiple ‘not our finest hour’ pandemic moments was anyone voicing concern about the erosion of fundamental liberties being labelled ‘far-right’ – and that was on a good day.) I decided to assume the best of Valerie, and replied something along the lines that I appreciated her being open to the conversation.

Since that time, I have had several people knock at my door, jabbed and not, just to share a safe space to air their views without judgement or fear of reprisal. How strange it feels to have people afraid to share their opinions in a country that claims to be a liberal democracy.

What is fascinating to me is that those supporting the mandates seem to have difficulty imagining that anyone ‘decent’ could think differently to them. They cannot seem to imagine that someone looked at the same situation and came to a completely different conclusion about what to do about it using their own critical faculties. Either they were duped by nefarious forces or there must be something wrong with them. But is conformity of opinion the sign of a healthy society? Historian and political theorist Hannah Arendt who wrote extensively on the causes of authoritarianism didn’t think so:

Unanimity of opinion is a very ominous phenomenon, and one characteristic of our modern mass age. It destroys social and personal life, which is based on the fact that we are different by nature and by conviction. To hold different opinions and to be aware that other people think differently on the same issue shields us from Godlike certainty which stops all discussion and reduces social relationships to those of an ant heap. A unanimous public opinion tends to eliminate bodily those who differ, for mass unanimity is not the result of agreement, but an expression of fanaticism and hysteria.’ (The Jewish Writings)

 I couldn’t stop thinking about this phrase ‘the common good’ and wondering where I’d heard it before. At 3 am I woke up with the following rattling around in my head:

The common good before the individual good.”

I flipped open my laptop to find the phrase inserted into part of a speech outlining the program of the National Socialist German Workers Party on February 24th, 1920, just over century ago. The speech was delivered by Adolf Hitler.

There are valid comparisons to be made about the ominous direction that the State can take us when it enforces public measures that violate the rights of the individual and the rise of authoritarian powers in history. By the individual, I mean you and me. And by us, I also mean you and me, just to be clear.

In Nazi Germany, authoritarianism was aided and abetted by the way that national or public health — volksgesundheit— ‘took complete precedence over individual health care,’ notes Susan Bachrach, staff historian at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in the US.

The ‘volk’ or social order supplanted all other social contracts, even the ones that are designed to be personal, in particular the Hippocratic Oath, that established the duty of care and intent of non-harm of a doctor towards the patient. “What was good for the State was important, not the individual patient,” says Boston University professor Michael Grodin, M.D in the extraordinary documentary ‘Caring Corrupted’ that examines the extent of medical collusion in Germany’s extermination drives. It is sobering to recall that physicians made up the largest single professional group in the Nazi Party.

In Nazi Germany, the patient was erased and replaced with a faceless and soulless social order interpreted by the State. And this laid the foundation and the rationale for the later atrocities.

We are not living under a Nazi-style regime. Not yet, anyway. But regardless of your opinion on mandates, it is evident to all that the State, the media, public health officials and a willing army of ‘good comrades’ have for the past two years been pushing the idea of the precedence of national over individual health. In fact, saving national health care has often been elevated by public officials as justification for mass lockdowns, enforced mask-wearing and bio-medical dictates.

The fatal flaw of emergency powers

Special Emergency Powers are the three-magic words invoked by those who rise to the defense of such measures. Desperate times call for desperate measures and all that. But again, it is worth noting that Article 48 of the Weimer Constitution that allowed for the suspension of German law in a state of emergency was instrumental in Hitler’s rise to power, allowing him to pass the Enabling Act that gave him unprecedented powers. ‘Rather than a solution for national emergencies [it] became a crutch for authoritarian elites to resume ruling by decree. It also undermined the public’s faith in democracy.’ [The Holocaust Encyclopedia].

The ghosts of our un-glorious past would want us to keep history in mind as we are faced with legislation that extends and expands upon the emergency powers governments have used to enforce public health policy during the pandemic. One example is assembly bill 2098 currently under consideration in California that would require medical boards to censure and/or revoke the licenses of doctors who convey publicly or even privately to patients medical information or advice that the state has labelled as “misinformation” about Covid.

Who would you prefer to be treated by; a doctor who is free to use their best professional judgement to help you, or a doctor who follows only what the state deems appropriate to do or say?

In Shanghai, the residents are currently enduring a mass house arrest under China’s zero-covid policy. The videos circulating of people screaming into the night from their apartments and throwing themselves off balconies in desperation while puppies are bludgeoned to death in the streets expose ‘the dangers of giving dictatorial powers to public health officials,’ writes Dr. Jay Bhattacarya.

The harrowing situation unfolding there is a testament to the folly of a virus containment strategy that relies on lockdown. For two weeks, the Chinese government has locked nearly 25 million people in their homes, forcibly separated children from their parents, killed family pets, and limited access to food and life-saving medical care—all to no avail. Covid cases are still rising, yet the delusion of suppressing Covid persists.

If we learn anything from this it should be that any legislation that allows a government to override the law should include language that makes it as difficult as possible for that same government to abuse such powers.

What is ‘common’ what is ‘good’?

The divides around the Covid measures have tended to be geared around assumptions as to who is and is not in favor of the ‘common good’. But perhaps this misses the point entirely. Perhaps a more useful question to ask is how do we determine the criteria for a ‘common good’? This question does not presuppose malice and allows for a more nuanced expression of concerns and values. Lockdowns seemed to be a ‘common good’ but it is quite possible that they cost more lives than they saved. A meta-analysis by Simon Fraser University of Canada of over one hundred Covid lockdown studies concluded that this policy serviced the elites and the laptop class but did untold harm to the poor. The report ended in the following sobering line.

It is possible that lockdown will go down as one of the greatest peacetime policy failures in modern history.

Increasingly, science was informing us that the vaccines did not accomplish the very thing upon which the whole ‘common good’ argument depended.

The Covid vaccines do not stop transmission.

Stopping transmission was the entire raison d’être behind these vaccines, remember? They were going to help us reach herd immunity which, we were repeatedly told, could not be achieved any other way and certainly not through the learning curves of our own immune systems. When the vaccines failed in this regard, health officials morphed their purpose before our very (mesmerized) eyes. Suddenly no one had ever said that these vaccines would prevent us from getting infected by Covid or transmitting it. They were always intended to only prevent hospitalization and death. When it became clear that vaccination could not fulfil even this promise, health authorities simply fell silent on the matter, and then stopped publishing the relevant data. The CDC stopped publishing data on vaccine breakthrough cases on September 4, 2021, stating that doing so would encourage the perception that the injections were ineffective. Scotland stopped publishing its data on death by vaccination status in February this year. So, let me get this straight. You stop publishing data on a medical product because the data doesn’t support the effectiveness of said product. And we’re all supposed to just shrug our shoulders at that?

The common harms of mandates

There are no scientific reasons for these vaccines to be mandated, especially as the data mounts that the countries with the highest vaccine uptake are experiencing the highest case numbers. And yet, despite the current pause, recent murmurs suggest that health passes are not entirely off the table, and might well be redeployed for as yet undisclosed bio-medical dictates.

The Covid pandemic has brought about a shift in the relationship between the individual and the state, a shift that we ignore to our peril. The principle of informed consent has been long established as a core value of medical ethics; enshrined for decades in international treaties such as the Nuremberg Code, the Declaration of Helsinki and the UN Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights. Informed consent serves as a cornerstone of medical legal codes of liberal democracies. How this principle was violated so quickly and pervasively with such scant resistance is a testimony to the power of government messaging and their instruments of mass media to convince people of their own powerlessness.

The mandate-mentality also crushed research into Covid therapeutics, which at the start of the pandemic was a subject that was discussed openly and enthusiastically among medical professionals and scientific researchers. Several promising preventatives and treatments for Covid presented by doctors and scientists were either ignored, outlawed and/or made the target of mass smear campaigns. We have yet to assess the damage this policy of early treatment suppression has caused but some doctors suggest that hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved with early treatment. A generous interpretation would be that this was the result of concern about vaccine hesitancy. A less generous interpretation, that it was the result of the greed for mutual profiteering by Big Pharma and the state.

But the pandemic has also changed relationships within society itself. The mandate pushers took advantage of already sensitive political divisions, and upped the octane by shaming, bullying, censorship, exaggeration and fear-mongering. The pandemic has ushered in a “papers please” society the likes of which we haven’t seen since the second world war, while barricading all avenues of meaningful dissent.

We were suddenly thrust into one of two camps; those of us who were pinching ourselves on a daily basis to wake up from this latest episode of Black Mirror, and the rest who viewed the vaccine mandates as either an obvious net positive or nothing to be especially concerned about. Relationships, even between friends and within families, strained and sometimes snapped as people grappled with their values and consciences. There was plenty of fear and anxiety to go around, though not always addressed at the same thing.

There are survivors of the holocaust who are making more direct comparisons between the early stages of the Nazi regime and the orientation of Western liberal governments towards increasingly authoritarian dictates. In a speech delivered last month in Brussels at an anti-mandate protest, holocaust survivor Vera Sharav described what she regards as striking parallels between what she witnessed as a child in Nazi-controlled Romania, and Covid policies. She rejects the way that certain people attempt to block any such comparisons under the guise of racism. Since the entire point of remembering the holocaust, she says, is to ensure that it never happens again, those who attempt to shut down discussion about the rise of authoritarianism in the West are as bad as those who deny the holocaust happened at all.

‘As a survivor I’m appalled by those who control the holocaust narrative. They deny the relevance of the holocaust to current discrimination and increasingly repressive edicts. These vigilantes censor and silence those who speak out. By denying the relevance of the holocaust in the current repression, these vigilantes are holocaust deniers.’

Those who take offence at any parallels between Nazi Germany and the past couple of years, always focus on the ultimate horrors. They never talk about the process itself, perhaps because the points of intersection with that process – the dehumanizing of your fellow human beings, the belittling of bodily autonomy, the erosion of informed consent and the silencing of dissent – are so uncomfortably familiar.

Vera Sherav’s argument is that the freedom to make such parallels is the paramount reason for remembering the holocaust at all; so that we can pull it out at the roots whenever it begins to take hold. Those who cry that these parallels are inappropriate do not understand the point of recalling such history. Surely it would be better to err on the side of caution than to find ourselves sucked helplessly into a spiral of personal powerlessness without ever daring to raise a concern.

We need to be free to analyze the steps that outline the darkest periods of our history – for the simple reason that it is the steps we need to watch out for. Once mass exterminations are underway, it is far far too late. It is not so much the fruits of authoritarian notions but their seeds that we need to watch out for.

You can’t cross a line that doesn’t exist

Rousseau envisaged a time where it will be necessary for humanity to embark on mass communal endeavors to ensure future survival. But instead of inspiring altruism through the respect for the person and the recruitment of their unique potential and creativity, he anticipates the need for the total surrender of all individual rights to the State. There is another word for this. Slavery.

The pounding silence from those who yesterday cried out for ‘my body, my choice’ to the carrion calls in the press and social media to exclude, marginalize and even to medical neglect the unvaccinated, will I believe, be regarded as a cause for shame in the not so distance future.

The list of crimes in the name of the common good are too many to count. Doctors fired for insisting on informed consent for children; doctors suspended for treating their patients; Doctors resigning rather than being forced to impose a no confidence vaccine on their patients; Doctors threatened for questioning the safety of a medical product; Patients refused organ transplants; A sick pregnant woman left to slump half unconscious on the floor of a hospital hallway; A 3-year-old boy refused treatment for a heart condition because his parents were unvaccinated.

Remind me again what world we all ‘staying safe’ for.

Even if being unvaccinated did make a person more likely to contract Covid and end up in the hospital (which is highly questionable if you look at the current data), how does this justify the refusal of medical treatment? An argument I have heard is that such a person is taking up a hospital bed that could be used by someone else. By whom, exactly? Someone in hospital for lung cancer after a lifetime of Marlboros? A heroin addict with double pneumonia? An alcoholic with liver failure? Someone morbidly obese from decades of junk food suffering from with kidney failure? What about people who suffer injuries from other high-risk activities such as extreme sports, or how about a teenager who has attempted suicide? No treatment for STD’s if you’ve had unprotected sex? Where does it end?

It’s the question nobody can seem to answer. Where do you draw the line? Not we. You.

I have asked this same question of several of my friends who support vaccine mandates. They never answer it. It’s almost as if they can’t understand the question. As if it is not for them to say, not their responsibility to consider. They look at me as if to say, “It’s not my line to draw.” Have they handed over personal responsibility to the State along with their individual rights. The two go together. The fewer the individual rights that the State grants its citizens, the less individual responsibility is required from those citizens or is even possible to exercise. Personal responsibility becomes outsourced to the State.

Netflix tells us what to watch, Amazon tells us what to buy. Now the State will tell us what to think by way of its Big Tech enforcers. Where do you draw the line? If we cannot answer individually then we are prevented from answering collectively. In fact, if we cannot answer this question individually, there is no line to cross. Anything is possible in the most frightening meaning of that term.

It rolls out the red carpet for crimes of the collective, where no single person imagines themselves capable of formulating a moral objection, let alone engaging in actual acts of resistance based on internal values because the idea of individual agency has been erased. You can get such people to cross any line. Because the very idea of a line that can be crossed has also been erased.

I don’t’ want to live in a world where doctors are not allowed to raise questions about State-sanctioned drugs. And, I would argue, neither do you. What we need far more than corporate-state-stamped decrees on the common good is the common dignity of the individual in the field of mutual fellowship.

Although represented as devoid of altruism, people like myself are, on the contrary, deeply concerned about the common good. In fact, we think about it obsessively. We watch with growing concern as policies are stealthily put in place that we are told are there to protect people but which are in danger of severely harming those very same people. For us, the question must always remain on our lips – who gets to define the common good, and what evidence do we have that they have the interests of the common good at heart?

I believe that when Valerie and I meet again, as we keep planning to do, we will both be reminded of where we align instead of where we depart; as two people who care about the direction of our society and the wellbeing of our fellows. But I do believe that it is necessary to have the difficult conversation, to be willing to be tested in the mutual pursuit of truth. The alternative is a long blind march towards a time too late, where the difficult and uncomfortable can no longer break bread with one another because they have already become the impossible and intolerable.

About subincontinentia

writer and eternal optimist
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3 Responses to When the common good becomes mutual harm

  1. The Vichy regime and its “papers, please” requirements have never been abrogated by the French, which is why France seems very authoritarian to Americans.

  2. Darrell says:

    My main reason for never voting socialist. When those authorities gain power, so often there is an erosion of freedom and liberty.

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