Solstice garden update and merry christmas

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need. 


I thought I would end the year with a garden update given that it’s the summer solstice down here in the Southern Hemisphere. The garden has proven to be a sanctuary over the past two years in Melbourne where we’ve spent almost a whole year in lockdown. It was the one place I have been legally allowed to be outside without wearing the obligatory face nappy. It’s not lost on me that the drive to suburbia in the earlier part of the 20th century was in large part a drive to get away from the pollution and disease of the inner city. In some of the older inner suburbs of Melbourne, where property prices these days are astronomical, it’s still considered necessary to have your soil tested before growing food producing plants because those areas were previously set aside for heavy industry and heavy industry comes with toxic byproducts that decades later are still hanging around.

It was away from this pollution that the emerging middle class moved seeking the fresh air and clean soil of the suburbs. The possession of enough land to grow a garden was also considered a positive and prior to the wars everybody would have had a kitchen garden and a lemon tree as a bare minimum. In the postwar boom years the kitchen garden was replaced by a lawn. These days, there’s almost no lemon trees to be found and the lawns are a lot smaller. The new suburbs are full of properties that are lucky to be on 1/8th of an acre with a McMansion that stretches from one fence to the other. A garden of any interest is an impossibility on such a block. Although, this is no problem for most people for whom even mowing the lawn is too much of a chore. The reason people move to the suburbs now is not to avoid the inner suburbs but because they cannot afford the inner suburbs. The result is that the outer suburbs are more or less like the inner suburbs, at least as far as size of land goes.

When I made the move to the suburbs it was with an old fashioned garden in mind and so I deliberately chose a place in an older suburb where the new fashion of sub-division hadn’t yet taken hold. The house came with a lemon tree which, by a random meeting with the daughter of the ex-owner, I learned was planted in the 1950s by the original owners.

Old eureka lemon still producing beautiful fruit all year round

Sadly, the subdivision trend has now arrived in this area too. Just this year the property at the end of my street was split in two. It was once a quarter acre with a number of big fruit trees near the fence. I admit to helping myself to some of the peaches when walking past a few times (the owner didn’t seem interested in them). But the peach tree, perhaps planted around the same time as the lemon tree on my property, is no more. Along with the others, it was uprooted to make space for a huge house which takes up basically the entire block. Where I used to reach over to grab a peach you can now touch the side of the house, that’s how close it is to the fence. This kind of subdivision has been happening in Melbourne for two decades now. It’s all inflation, of course. The prices of properties continue to go up as the size of the land goes down. The median house price in Melbourne is now more than a million dollars and is completely untethered from underling reality much like the rest of our society these days. 

One of the valuable things about a backyard garden is that it provides close contact with reality. This year I’ve had to battle aphids who did some damage to one of the apple trees before I managed to get them under control. I had to learn the hard way that the grass I planted, even though it said “drought proof” on the box, is not suitable for the climate where I live so I’ll have to plant something different once summer is over. And I’ve also had the usual battles with pests, although this was the first year I remembered to net the almond trees before the cockatoos got to them so baring unforeseen circumstances I should get an almond harvest for the first time. 

I’ve also been in the process of changing the design of the garden from the original edible forest garden concept to an orchard-and-separate-veggie-garden setup. In the process I added 5 new fruit trees which brings the total to 25 along with 3 grape vines and a number of passionfruit vines. In addition, I added about 8 square metres of veggie gardens to bring the total to just under 20. I expanded my composting operations with the aid of the chicken manure from the coop and I have achieved another goal which is to grow all my vegetables from seed. Next year’s goal will be to grow all vegetables from seeds which I saved myself. Now that high summer is here, there’s nothing much to do except sit back and harvest the goodies.

I’ll be taking a break from blogging for the next few weeks to knuckle down and see if I can’t finish off my fourth novel “Once Upon a Time in Tittybong 2: Catch My Disease” (yes, the theme is heavily influenced by corona). I wish everybody a Merry Xmas and a happy new year. Doing either of these things now amounts to an act of rebellion so embrace your inner rebel and remember the Devouring Mother wants you miserable.

Here’s some updated garden pics.

A new addition to the front yard contains perennial veggies, herbs and flowering plants for the bees and butterflies
The giant peppercorn sucks up all the moisture from the soil, so these beds are all raised wicking beds which cuts back substantially on the amount of water needed for irrigation and turns this part of the garden into a productive area
The “orchard” has apple and pear trees to the right, newly planted olive and mandarin in the middle and lemon and macadamia to the left
I introduced Diogena, the cynic chicken, in an earlier post. Here she decides that the dry, warm, secure environment of the chicken coop is not to her liking and has decided to start roosting on, of all places, the pipe that leads from the gutter to the rainwater tank.
Like a true cynic, getting ready to sleep under the stars

The Socio-Politics of Truth

Whatever the truth is in its truthness – perhaps an attunement to the ground on which the revealing of a concealing manifests as the disclosing of an unfolding (sorry, just channelling my inner Heidegger) – there is an inevitable socio-political aspect to truth. One of my favourite examples of this, which I have mentioned on this blog before, is a study done where they invited test subjects into a room to complete a number of very easy tasks. The subjects came into the room with about twenty others who they were led to believe were also subjects in the experiment but who were in fact paid actors whose job it was to give an incorrect answer to a very simple question “which line is the shortest” in relation to three lines that had been drawn on the board at the front of the room. The lengths of the lines were such that nobody with functional eyesight could fail to see that the one on top was longest and the one at the bottom was the shortest. The correct answer was thus C. The trick was that the paid actors would all be called on first to give their answer while the test subject went last. Put yourself in the test subject’s shoes. You’re in a room full of strangers who all answer that Line B is the shortest even though you know for sure that the correct answer is Line C. Nineteen people go before you and answer B. Your turn comes around and you are asked to answer verbally for all to hear. Do you speak the truth and say Line C or do you just copy the others and say Line B is the shortest? It turns out that a majority of people will copy others rather than speak the truth.

Now you might argue that this is a trivial experiment in which the test subject doesn’t have any skin in the game and is just giving the easiest answer. But that’s the whole point. The extent to which truth is spoken is not just a function of truth. Other factors play a role. This is an uncontroversial statement. People lie when it suits their interests just as they stay silent or follow the group when it suits their interests too. But it gives rise to a field of study which I have seen called the Epidemiology of Truth: the study in how the truth, or lack thereof, spreads through society. One of the factors governing the spread of truth or lies is socio-political and that is what the line length experiment reveals.

This is no mere academic indulgence, however. It is of real-world importance. I recall an example from my working life where the truth should have mattered. I was working on a project where tens of millions of dollars were being spent by a corporation. Several high-ranking managers in the organisation were directly involved in the project. On most projects I have worked on, the high-level managers show up at the beginning to give a pep talk and aren’t seen again until the party at the end. This was the first time in my career I had worked in the same room with such people.

There’s always a period at the start of a new project where things don’t make a lot of sense because you lack the context for understanding. In my experience, it takes about two to four weeks for the fog of confusion to lift. Thus, it was at about the fourth week of this project where I first suspected that one particular high-level manager we were working with was a complete moron. It took me a further month or so to confirm my hypothesis. This particular person would speak nonsense. Not complete nonsense, mind you. It was clear the words coming out of their mouth were elements of more or less grammatical sentences of the English language. Scam artists use this trick all the time. They make the language sound legit but at the end of it you don’t understand what was said and this is where it gets interesting because your decision on where to look for the cause of the misunderstanding is partly determined by the socio-political context. In the context in which I was in, there was a senior manager of a large and successful corporation. That is to say, a powerful person. Somebody who could, if they had wanted, have me fired. Humans are social animals and we arrange ourselves into dominance hierarchies. This happens by default. There is also a meritocracy assumption that we bring to the table. We assume that the people at the top of dominance hierarchies got there by merit. Therefore, we assume a senior manager in a successful company is not a complete moron and when we receive evidence that they are a complete moron we discount that evidence in favour of some other explanation. The most common explanation is “I don’t understand”. In other words, the problem lies with me.

Consider an alternative situation. You could transcribe the exact words of the senior manager and have them read out by a shabbily dressed drunk on the street or an ultra-sleazy used car salesman. In those cases, you wouldn’t assume that “I didn’t understand”. You would assume the drunk was drunk and that the used car salesman was trying to baffle you with nonsense as a sales tactic. Same words, different socio-political context. With the drunk or the salesman, you just walk away. What do you do when you have to work with the senior manager? Again, socio-politics determines the course of action. Let’s say you’re in a meeting and the senior manager is talking nonsense. One thing you can do is ask for clarification perhaps using language that you do understand to try and lead the meeting away from the coral reefs of hogwash and towards the calm seas of meaningful discourse. You ask a question. The answer makes no sense. Can you ask again for clarification? Maybe you can get away with a second attempt. But three times and you’re out of luck. Three times and it is you who is starting to sound like the problem. Why? Because nobody else in the meeting is asking questions. Like the test subject in the room calling Line B the shortest, they just go with the flow. Most people elect to call Line B the shortest and most people in meetings do not ask questions even if they have no idea what is going on. The dominance hierarchy dictates this when dealing with a senior manager. Politeness dictates it when dealing with a colleague. Either way, there are barriers in the way to speaking the truth.

These socio-political issues tie in with individual psychology. At a certain age, young children will believe whatever they are told by somebody higher in the dominance hierarchy than they are i.e. any adult. This normally starts to change in the teenage years when children first start to realise that their parents and teachers are not right about everything which can often turn into the idea that because they are not right about everything they must be wrong about everything. Young people might be disillusioned about their parents but as they join the workforce they still hold the meritocracy assumption. I remember getting a summer job as a teenager in a small manufacturing company. On my first morning, the boss was busy so he told me to go and help another worker, who we’ll call Bill. Bill was a middle-aged man who seemed to know what he was doing. I went over and started to copy him. That was alright until after lunch when the boss came over to check up on me and noticed that we had been doing it wrong all morning. Turned out that Bill didn’t know what he was doing either. It was the blind leading the blind. I remember being very surprised that such a thing could happen but it happens all the time. Of course, nobody is perfect; even the boss. At some point in your career you get enough experience and enough self-confidence to contradict the boss. That works well in functional organisations and it’s the sign of a well-run company when the boss not only allows themselves to be contradicted but wants to be contradicted as long as the contradiction is done with good intention and as long as the truth is revealed by doing so. In my experience, this is almost always the case in smaller companies and almost never the case in larger ones. To return to the senior manager moron from earlier, you did not contradict this person. They had that combination of narcissism and stupidity that is very dangerous for those lower in the pecking order; the kind of person who cannot be reasoned with. The more informal the pecking order, as in smaller groups, the less this kind of person is a problem.

The interesting thing is that many people who work in such large organisations are not even aware that their manager is dumber than a second coat of paint. The reason comes back to the default assumption about dominance hierarchies being meritocracies. That is an assumption we must learn to overcome just as we must learn that our parents are not infallible. But many do not overcome it. For many people, those higher in the pecking order are right and, when there is a miscommunication, it is their fault. They say “I don’t understand” and not “The boss doesn’t understand”. The primary antidote to this is to work in a technical field where things must be made to work. In such fields, bad ideas lead to bad outcomes. The same is not true in corporations where tens of millions of dollars can be spent on some big complex project which achieves no result but nobody knows or cares because it’s not their money. Complexity protects the managers in such corporations. There are too many moving parts to know what the true cause of failure is and most of the time failure is simply swept under the rug and forgotten about. What made the project I was working on interesting was that it was small and self-contained enough to realise who the problem was. It was the senior manager.

The low-level jobs in such corporations are usually bullshit jobs where you spend most of your time trying to deal with the failings of the organisation structure itself. Such failings are almost always communication problems caused by the fact that somebody didn’t tell somebody else what needed to be done which then caused somebody else to screw up. In bullshit jobs, the problem is rarely if ever a technical problem and therefore something with an objective solution. It’s almost always a people-problem and thus a political problem. The cool thing about technical problems is that you can talk about them objectively without anybody getting upset. The same is not true of people-problems. This is one of the reasons that bullshit jobs are psychologically traumatic.

The other cool thing about technical problems is that you realise that nobody has a monopoly on truth and that in order for technical problems to be solved at all there must be an absence of our ingrained dominance hierarchy assumption that just because somebody is higher in the pecking order they must be right. For this reason, the more experienced people at the top of technical dominance hierarchies are usually very humble and happy to be corrected when they are in error. Outside of technical domains, dominance hierarchies become an end in themselves and those who fight their way to the top are often not the best at all. In fact, a combination of narcissism and stupidity can often be a bonus in such situations since it keeps potential rivals and subordinates off balance and once nonsense has been accepted for any length of time it becomes a political impossibility to overturn it. Easier to let the fool rise through the ranks c.f. The Peter Principle and The Dilbert Principle.

What all this boils down to is that truth by itself is not enough. One must encourage the conditions in which truth can prosper. At the societal level, all else being equal, a society of smaller organisations where people work in technical jobs producing things that “work” would be far more likely to be able to deal with truth than a society of large corporations filled with bullshit jobs. The former would feature people who are aware that nobody has a monopoly on truth and that true meritocracies are ones in which it is acknowledged that anybody can contribute to the truth as long as they have the right intentions and good will. The latter would feature people who think truth is whatever those in power say it is and that the cool thing about climbing the ranks is so that you get to be the one to say how it is for a little while. I’ll leave it to the reader to answer the question which of these best describes our society at the moment.


During my internet travels over the past couple of weeks I stumbled across three takes on corona from well-known thinkers that highlighted a facet of the corona event that I have touched on in previous posts but which is now taking on increased importance given that events in Europe are escalating into new and very dangerous territory. The three thinkers are all self-confessed “rationalists” who have constructed a story about corona which is not only incredibly naïve but also dangerous. My first encounter with this story was a tweet by Richard Dawkins which read as follows:

“Ingenious scientists worked around the clock to find vaccines, with spectacular success. Will their noble efforts to beat the virus be defeated because of a new epidemic – new virus, a virus of the mind, the memetic virus of anti-vax propaganda spread by gullible fools?”

There is much to unpack in these two short sentences. Let’s start with semantics. Are these “vaccines“ really vaccines? By the old-fashioned definition of a vaccine they are not because they do not prevent infection. That used to be part of what it meant for a vaccine to be a vaccine and it’s also what the general public still thinks is meant by the term vaccine which is causing all sorts of cognitive dissonance at the moment. Because the “vaccines” do not prevent infection, on what basis can they be called a success let alone a “spectacular success”? The original dreams of reaching herd immunity have gone up in smoke. The vaccines have been rolled out on mass and yet the pandemic continues including in places such as Israel, Gibraltar and Iceland where uptake was as good as universal. Dawkins is always going on about how science is about empirical evidence. Where is the evidence that the vaccines are a success? And what are they a success at? They are not a success at getting us to herd immunity. The next best claim would be that they are a success at preventing serious illness but even that claim seems uncertain giving that any lasting protection seems to rely on booster shots. In the grand experiment that is corona, I would say there is little evidence for success so far and, in any case, we need to gather more evidence. The experiment isn’t over yet and yet Dawkins is already claiming victory. Or is he?

In the second sentence we find out that the supposed success of the vaccines is under threat but not because of any actual problems with the vaccine. No, it’s under threat from gullible fools spreading propaganda. The “virus” that threatens our ability to defeat the biological virus is a virus “of the mind”. How exactly could this virus of the mind stop the vaccine from working? Isn’t the whole point of science that it works whether or not you believe in it according to materialists such as Dawkins? If Dawkins means that the virus of the mind will prevent people from taking the vaccine, how would that negate the success of the vaccine given that we know herd immunity cannot be achieved via the vaccine? And, again, given the examples of Israel and Gibraltar where as good as universal uptake of the vaccine has not prevented further lockdowns, isn’t there numerous grounds to call the success of the vaccine itself into question?

The dichotomy that Dawkins sets up between the noble, enlightened scientists working tirelessly to save humanity and the fools whose ignorance will bring the whole thing undone has very little to do with the reality around corona and everything to do with the Enlightenment values of reason which “rationalists” like him ascribe to. The distinction between the men of reason (the Enlightenment was almost exclusively male) and the mob had been present ever since the start of the Enlightenment. Back when the Enlightenment was really kicking into gear, there was no universal suffrage, for example. Voting was an activity exclusive to land owners and the gentry. Even though the Enlightenment was ostensibly about removing the power of the state and opening up the “public sphere”, in reality the intellectuals congregated in closed societies in coffee houses and salons. The mob, the people who couldn’t see the light of reason, has always been a problem for Enlightenment thinkers because reason is supposed to be universal and yet there exists people who can’t be made to see the light. The Marxists resolved this by creating the notion of “false consciousness” a terrible affliction by which the working class were made blind to the superior reasoning faculties of their intellectual superiors. Nowadays, we don’t call it false consciousness, we call it conspiracy theories or anti-vaxxer. The underlying principle is the same. Thus, by invoking the dichotomy between “scientists” and “fools”, Dawkins follows in a tradition that has been around since the start of the Enlightenment.   

This leads me on to the second “rationalist” that popped up on my computer screen in the last weeks; a snippet from Stephen Pinker’s new book called “Rationality”. Pinker is one of the most enthusiastic exponents of Enlightenment values and is  the author of Enlightenment Now, apparently one of Bill Gates’ favourite books. Pinker’s new book on Rationality makes explicit reference to the corona event. In the precis for the book, Pinker states “Today humanity is reaching new heights of scientific understanding–and also appears to be losing its mind. How can a species that developed vaccines for Covid-19 in less than a year produce so much fake news, medical quackery, and conspiracy theorizing?” This is, of course, the exact same dichotomy as presented by Dawkins. The noble, rational scientists set off against the ignorant conspiracy theorists. Later in the book, Pinker would also echo Dawkins’ claim that the vaccines are a great success. For him, they represent a “glorious new achievement in the history of rationality” as vaccines “likely to end a plague” were being administered less than a year after the arrival of the plague. Again, we have semantic quibbles here. Pinker has no problem with calling them vaccines or accepting that we are in a plague. He does, however, at least appear to understand that the idea that vaccines could end a plague is new. This harps back to something that has been present in the corona event from the start, namely the idea that corona could be a “glorious new achievement in the history of rationality”. This was the dream of the “rationalists” right from the get go. But it was just that; a dream. At best it was a hypothesis and a scientist and rationalist should understand that a hypothesis needs to be proven before it becomes a fact. The dream that the vaccine could work needed to be tempered by the inherent risks involved and yet none of the so-called rationalists have ever acknowledged those risks at least as far as I have seen.

This leads me to the third and final “rationalist”, the Australian writer and founder of the Quillette website, Claire Lehmann. Like the other rationalists, Lehmann has been all on board for the vaccine since day dot. She has also become an apologist for the actions of the Australian government variously praising them and lately ignoring the more extreme measures taken. As Quillette is a popular site in the US especially amongst the libertarian and centre-right crowd and as the situation in Australia has become a hot topic among that demographic in recent months, Lehmann has found herself at loggerheads with her US readership who look on in horror as the Australia state governments have done things that would be impossible in America. Thus, Australia has found itself in a strange position of being vilified by the centre right in the US while also becoming something of a poster child for the “rationalist” cause by virtue of having a heady combination of low covid numbers and high vaccine uptake. In order to get there, of course, we have had to trample on the human rights of the population and it is this which Lehmann’s US readership have been up in arms about with particular focus on the Howard Springs “camp” in recent weeks. Lehmann has been happy to write off these human rights abuses as being a necessary element in the “success” of Australia’s response as measured by the low death count relative to the US. As with Dawkins and Pinker, Lehmann seems completely untroubled by how the death statistics were arrived at, how accurate the PCR test is or any of that. She is happy to take the numbers at face value and note that Australia is doing far “better” than the US. Of course, we already know what is in store for Australia. It is the same as happened to Israel, Iceland and Gibraltar. It is still too early to call Australia a “success” but that is what Lehmann, Pinker and Dawkins have done. If it does happen to “fail”, it won’t be the fault of the scientists but those pesky online fools who like to point out that locking healthy people in camps for two weeks without their consent is a betrayal of other Enlightenment values such as the concept of natural rights. Watching the state trample on those rights should have been at least a concern of so-called rationalists who claim to believe in the Enlightenment but apparently this is not the case.

The irony of all this is that the Enlightenment was supposed to be about removing the power from a small handful of people who claimed to be the sole repository of truth and wisdom by democratising access to the public sphere where everybody could have input. The internet is perhaps the ultimate expression of that and yet we now have proponents of the Enlightenment who lament the fools and conspiracy theorists poisoning that public discourse. All this while there are enormous problems with the accepted narrative on perfectly logical and rational grounds. It doesn’t seem to occur to the rationalists that their abject dismissal of reasonable concerns is precisely what is fuelling the “conspiracy theories”. The less we are able to acknowledge the real issues with the vaccine and with the government response to corona, the more likely people are to look for other explanations including that the government no longer has their best interests at heart. In the real world, there are trade-offs and simply ignoring the legitimate concerns and objections of people and pretending everything is a “spectacular success” is not a recipe for a functional discourse.

Of course, it’s worse than that. By invoking the dichotomy of the noble scientists versus the ignorant fools, the rationalists are now providing intellectual cover for what is increasingly looking like a genuine atrocity in Europe where governments now feel empowered to openly discriminate against people based on private medical decisions to the point of locking them in jail. Doesn’t sound very Enlightenment to me. Sounds more like The Inquisition. It sounds like exactly the kind of thing that the Enlightenment was supposed to prevent from happening. That is should be promulgated by people who advocate logic and critical thinking and yet have apparently applied neither to the corona event is all the more strange.

Pinker defines rationality as goal fulfilment. Rationality is a toolkit for achieving goals. The standard of rationality is therefore that which achieves the goal, preferably in the most straightforward way. So, we have a “pandemic” and our goal is to put a stop to it notwithstanding the fact that we have never been able to put a stop to a pandemic in history. We know that “vaccines” prevent the infection and spread of viruses. Ergo, the only thing preventing us putting a stop to the pandemic is the absence of a “vaccine”. Coming up with a “vaccine” to stop a pandemic is “rational” according to Pinker. Anybody who disagrees is by definition irrational. Could such a naïve, literal understanding of the world really be what counts for rationality in these people’s minds? I don’t see why not. Pinker’s book begins with a number of “trick questions” of the type presented in a logic 101 class. The kinds of questions that the average person always gets wrong because they are framed in such a way as to lead them down the wrong path. Rationalists love to get the “right answer” to such kinds of things just like the kid who always put their hand up in school dying to show the teacher how smart they are. The right answer to the pandemic question is the vaccine. End of story.

If rationality is goal fulfilment, who is setting the goals? In school, we know it’s the teacher and behind the teacher the education bureaucracy. The rational answer is that which pleases the teacher just like a good employee will give the “rational” answer which is exactly what their boss wants to hear. Is it rational once in a while to give the wrong answer just to see what happens? Is it rational to refuse to enter into the game of giving the right answer and thereby question the validity of the game? According to Enlightenment thinkers it is not. That is “postmodernism”. It gets into the messy business of power games and psychology which lie in the dreaded realm of the irrational. By definition, the irrational is chaos and disorder and so must be avoided at all costs. And yet even cognitive science has learned that it is the irrational that drives human behaviour. Decisions made on purely rational grounds are rarely followed through at the individual level and are often complete failures at the institutional level. People blindly following the (rational) means to an end without questioning the end is the definition of Kakfaesque and the whole 20th century provided ample evidence of what happens in those circumstances. Yet here we are in 2021 about to go down the same horrific path and we have the rationalists not only not questioning the matter but actively egging the whole thing on happy to scapegoat those with genuine disagreements. As any good rationalist should know, such scapegoating is an ad hominem fallacy. We appear to be right in the middle of another fallacy: the sunk cost fallacy of “just one more booster”. These are things rationalists might be talking about in more enlightened times.

Here we go again

As I noted in my book on the subject, one of the foundational elements of The Plague Story is that the plague must come from an exotic location far away. In the case of corona, the initial exotic location was Wuhan, China replete with wet markets, bat soup and, it later turned out, murky goings on in viral laboratories. When the delta variant hit the headlines about a year ago, its exotic origin was India. So, last week when a new variant came on to the scene, I noted with wry amusement that its purported origin was another exotic location, this time South Africa/Botswana. Is there any scientific reason why all these variants come from places far away from the West? For the original coronavirus, sophisticated stories were created to explain why the virus arose in China. Maybe it was weird culinary practices or the fact that people live in too close a proximity to wild animals (bats) or what have you. But now we have a virus that, according to the official story, has had two years to spread around the world and mutate. Why then do none of the evil new strains come from Tennessee or Birmingham or Munich? The purported origin of Omicron in Africa is all the more weird given that covid rates there are amazingly low, something that apparently has the “experts” exasperated. Of course, we know now that it has nothing to do with science and everything to do with The Plague Story. The plague comes from somewhere far away. That’s just part of the story. Meanwhile, we are told that variants that arise in the west are “symptomless” or mild. Very convenient, isn’t it? Both the South African and Botswanan authorities were quick to point out last week that they had no indication that Omicron caused more severe disease than other variants but that didn’t stop western governments imposing new travel restrictions just like they did with delta and with the original variant (For delta, the Australian government went to the extraordinary length of even banning Australian citizens who had been to India from returning home, a truly shameful act that won’t be forgotten by a lot of people). Of course, governments take action is another part of The Plague Story and so what has really happened in the last week is that we have begun a new round of The Plague Story. This is actually the third time through. First we had the original variant, then we had the delta plague story. Now we have the third one. Chapter 3: Omicron rises. As news of Omicron circulated, some people wondered whether we are “back to square one”. Indeed, we are. Back to the start of The Plague Story.

This new plague story does have some elements that are different from before. First is the speed with which have progressed through the early parts of the story. In this case it was mere days from the announcement of the variant to governments responding. That is not surprising as all the infrastructure is now in place to enforce new restrictions with the stroke of a bureaucratic pen. What is more interesting, though, is the status of the cure. Recall that the modern plague story ends by the experts providing a cure. For both the original variant and delta, the cure was yet to arrive. But for Omicron, we already have the supposed cure in the form of the gene therapy vaccines that have been rolled out globally. This led to the awkward fact that the only people travelling internationally now are the vaccinated and so, by definition, the only people who could be spreading the new variant are the vaccinated. So, the cure we were promised during the first two plague stories wasn’t really a cure after all. That didn’t stop politicians again promising a cure for this new version of the plague story. Our wonderful state Premier here in Victoria, with the rabid certainty that is his trademark, had no hesitation announcing that the booster would solve it. In Britain, Boris Johnson looked far less certain promising only that the booster might offer “some protection” but nevertheless announcing that the government would increase the rollout of the boosters. Meanwhile, Big Pharma was quick, a little too quick some might say, in announcing it could have a booster specifically designed for Omicron on market within months. Will this wash with the general public? Will the speed with which history repeated cause some people to reflect on why we are back in the same story again? Time will tell. What is noteworthy is the fact that we are back in the same story for the third time.

I have compared corona to WW1 in a previous post and this repetition of the same story, the rehashing the same failed policies that didn’t work before, is once again relevant. The same thing happened in the war too. In the war, it wasn’t new variants that provided the déjà vu but new battles; some great new plan to finally break through enemy lines and bring the war to an end. Just another push, boys. Just another truckload of dead bodies to return home or bury in the mud of the Somme or Ypres. The booster looks set to fill the identical role of the thing that is going to bring corona to an end but never really does. It’s tempting to think that the continued failure of such stories will be that which finally snaps people out of the malaise and brings them back to their senses but that didn’t happen in WW1. Partly that’s because to admit the failure of this particular plague story would invite us to reflect on whether the last versions of the plague story were also failures and you would end up back at the start having to admit the whole thing was a giant catastrophic error. That’s an outcome the politicians can never allow but it’s also true that individuals would not want to contemplate it. Part of the reason is because most people in hindsight would realise the original justification was absurd and this would call into question our entire belief that the world operates according to logic and reason. That is no trivial matter. It is the founding myth of the enlightenment. It’s one of the things our society cannot, as a matter of faith, contemplate.

One of my favourite jokes from the comedian Norm Macdonald, who passed away recently, was this one about how Germany twice went to war against “the world”. It’s funny because it sounds ridiculous in hindsight even though it’s true. What the jokes glosses over, of course, is the historical reality that Germany never intended to go to war against “the world”, that’s just the way it ended up. In fact, Germany got into WW1 explicitly trying not to fight against the whole world at once. Here’s an imaginary dialogue to capture the “reasoning”:-

“Dude, why are we invading France?”
“Because Austria attacked Serbia.”
“So what?”
“So, Russia is threatening war with Austria.”
“We need to avoid a two-front war.”
“But we don’t have to attack Russia if we choose not to.”
“Don’t worry. It’ll all be over before Xmas. Schlieffen has a plan.”

I’m sure future comedians will find corona to be a rich source of material. “Remember that time we tried to wipe out the flu? Boy, that was a disaster”. How we got to that absurd outcome is similar to the chain of events that started WW1. Here’s another imaginary dialogue:-

“Dude, why are we going into lockdown?”
“Because China went into lockdown?”
“So what?”
“So, they’ve set a precedent that we can copy.”
“Since when is China the expert on public health science?
“Dude, there’s some models that predict a huge number of deaths. We have to do something.”
“But the models don’t match the known data.”
“Don’t worry. It’s just two weeks to flatten the curve.”

It seems to me that an absurd and invalid use of an existing story/myth such as described in the fictional dialogues above is a feature, not a bug in archetypal takeover because it amounts to an assertion that is beyond logic and is therefore irrational. The ability of irrationality to drive events has been captured well by Nassim Taleb with his concept of the Minority Rule. The Minority Rule states that a minority can bend a majority to its will by being irrationally intolerant (it’s one of history’s perfect ironies that Taleb himself has been one of the most prominent irrational true believers throughout corona and was influential early on in providing the intellectual backing that got us into this mess). The intolerant minority, such as those insisting that anybody who disagrees with them wants grandma to die, can get their way to the extent that the majority are indifferent and consider it easier to go along with them. The example Taleb uses is kosher foods. The majority of the population have no objection to eating kosher. If you have even five percent of the population who will only eat kosher, it is easier to just make all food kosher rather than have a completely separate process that caters to five percent of the market. During corona, the acquiescence of the majority was secured early on by way of cash payments to offset any financial losses. That was fine as long you didn’t care about the state of the national budget and most people were happy to go along with it. That would have been enough to put the matter to bed if government had rolled out the vaccine, allowed whoever wanted it to take it and then brought the matter to an end. But the matter didn’t end and we swapped from the carrot to the stick. Governments are now attempting to win acquiescence through coercion. That is a very weak strategy. It works in the short term to get some unvaccinated to take the shot but governments are now talking of rolling out the coercion to those who don’t want the booster too. At that point we are longer operating according to the logic of the minority rule. Doing the same thing over and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. Thinking you can coerce whole populations into taking a booster shot indefinitely is a different kind of insanity, but is still insane.

What is guaranteed to start happening now is another mechanism with a successful history: civil disobedience. Some dissenters have been calling for civil disobedience from the start of corona and they are right to do so. But the civil disobedience that makes a difference won’t require any conscious intention to happen. It should happen automatically as a small but ever increasingly share of the population refuse the booster shot. From there we should see the resistance expand into other areas of life as people simply don’t observe whatever restrictions are in place. That has already started to happen where I am. The government still requires masks to be worn indoors but, at least at my local supermarket, half the people are not bothering any more. A similar thing happened earlier in the year on public transport. Civil disobedience is a viral phenomenon and once it takes hold the government will need to explicitly enforce any rules it wants observed. But government does not have the power to enforce the excessive, arbitrary and often contradictory plethora of rules that only a government bureaucracy could dream up. Ergo, the rules become redundant. What we may see is the government trying to win compliance by making an example of a small subset of the population by fining them or sending them to jail. Again, this may work in the short term but not the medium term. Something like that is exactly what happened at the end of WW1 in Germany during the Kiel mutiny. The naval command wanted to launch one final attack on Britain but the sailors were not having it. Some sailors were punished and this worked for a couple of weeks but set off a sequence of events that led to an outright mutiny. The mutiny then spread to the rest of the country and saw the Kaiser abdicate and the period of Weimar Germany begin. That was not a good thing in hindsight because Weimar Germany contributed greatly to the rise of Hitler. That seems to me to be where we are right now. If governments insist on trying to gain acquiescence through coercion, eventually something big will break. Ironically, it’s Germany, Austria and Italy who are pushing that failed strategy again. In the US, a form of civil disobedience has already taken hold and Biden’s mandates look dead in the water as a result. Those are the two options we seem to have from here. Civil disobedience or self-inflicted destruction. Europe looks set once again to destroy itself while the US might get away with it. Here in Australia there are some promising signs that we might follow the US. Let’s hope so because the other pathway leads nowhere good.