I must admit that I’m getting a little tired of writing about the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) and its “spiritual child,” the Brownstone Institute, which was founded by Jeffery Tucker, former editorial director of the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), the right wing think tank that brought together the authors of the GBD together. (I did, after all, just write about the GBD and one of its authors Jay Bhattacharya on Wednesday.) Unfortunately, however, the GBD, its authors, its supporters, and its “spiritual child” just keep providing me such a “target-rich” environment for a blogger that I can’t ignore them, whether they’re parroting antivax tropes like fantasizing about a “Nuremberg 2.0” in which “lockdowners” and supporters of vaccine mandates and other public health interventions will be called to account for their “crimes”; likening public health interventions to slow the spread of COVID-19 to slavery, religion, or a Communist dictatorship; or just plain spreading pure, unadulterated antivax misinformation.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t look as though the GBD’s spiritual child is going to give me a break any time soon, at least not if an article that I saw yesterday is any indication. Entitled What Covid Crimes Will Victims Not Forgive? and co-authored by Paul Frijters, Gigi Foster, and Michael Baker, it marks a definite moment when the mask—yes, Brownstone’s mask—slipped so far that GBD supporters and the Brownstone Institute can no longer credibly deny that the GBD spiritual child has gone full-on, hard core antivax conspiracy theory bonkers and violent insurrectionist. (Oh, no! “Crimes”! Where have we heard that before? I remember! From GBD authors Jay Bhattacharya and Martin Kulldorff, as well as from the founder of the GBD’s “spiritual child,” Jeffrey Tucker—complete with a picture of a guillotine!) Of course, I’ve long been predicting that this would happen, given that the GBD was premised on a a favorite claim that antivaxxers have been repeating for years and years, namely that “natural herd immunity” will stop pandemics more effectively than vaccines; so it’s no surprise to me. I still feel the need to document it though, now that the Brownstone Institute is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish from the websites of antivaxxers like Joe Mercola or Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
One reason is simple if you think about it. The entire concept behind the GBD’s “let ‘er rip” strategy for COVID-19 was that the disease was not dangerous to the young and the healthy. Since AIER and its useful idiots who wrote the GBD believed that “lockdowns” were doing far more harm than the virus—never mind those hundreds of thousands of deaths even by October 2020 in just the US alone—they argued that governments should abandon “lockdowns” and just let the coronavirus rip through the “healthy” population. But what about those who aren’t young and healthy—also—never mind that the death toll among those under 50 has not been insignificant—you ask? The GBD was happy to provide a “solution” in the form of “focused protection,” apparently the idea that focusing “lockdowns” on just the elderly and those with health conditions and comorbidities that place them at high risk for severe disease and death (e.g., diabetes, heart disease, and the like) would keep them safe and allow those at “low risk” to go on with their lives, work, and produce, so that the capitalist overlords whom AIER serves could make money hand over fist again. I exaggerate, but not by a lot.
In fact, look at another article on the Brownstone Institute, where Frijters et al recommend…madness:
Think of some of the experiments that could have been tried in a more cooperative environment. As one example, suppose a regional government accepts the inevitability of a large wave of infections. It staffs the part of its health system in contact with the most vulnerable elderly with workers from other countries who had already recovered from the virus and were therefore probably immune.
Such a region could also try to achieve immunity in its own healthy population by openly encouraging healthy volunteers below age 60 to live normal lives, in the full knowledge that doing so brought a higher risk of infection. Once recovered, the now immune healthy people then could take over the care of the elderly and provide a larger pool of immune workers to share with other regions. You might call such a two-pronged experiment ‘targeted protection and exposure’. It capitalises on the general idea of herd immunity, which is that if some fraction (like 80%) of a population acquires immunity to a disease then small waves of infections die out because the virus is not transmitted widely enough to survive, protecting the 20% who are not immune.
The bottom line is that the reason that most public health physicians, scientists, and policymakers didn’t take the GBD seriously as an intervention plan for the pandemic was not because they were so ideologically tainted that they denied harm from lockdowns and were hopelessly biased against such a plan. Rather, it was because, from a practical and scientific point of view, the GBD could never work. It just never made sense, an assessment that was pretty clear at the time given that “natural herd immunity” was not achievable any time soon even if the virus didn’t mutate into more transmissible strains that could evade the immune system. Now that SARS-CoV-2 has proven itself to be quite adept at producing variants that are more transmissible and can evade immunity from prior infection, a GBD-like approach is even more obviously folly than it was in 18 months ago.
Now here’s the weird thing. (At least, you’d think it was a weird thing if you didn’t understand the anti-public health ideology shared by “lockdown” opponents, antimaskers, and antivaxxers.) You’d think that, two months later, when COVID-19 vaccines started becoming available to the public starting with healthcare workers and frontline workers, GBD supporters would have embraced them as the single best way to actually implement a policy of “focused protection.” They did, at first, but now, as the article about “crimes” demonstrates, the GBD and its spiritual child have predictably pivoted to opposing anything resembling mandates about anything, including vaccines. In fact, their rhetoric now resembles that of hard core antivaxxers. I debated what to quote first from the article, but I think this illustrates best what I’m pointing out:
More and more people will start worrying that they were injected with poison that damaged them permanently, particularly if the companies selling the poison could potentially be forced to compensate them for the damage. Obsessing about how one’s health has been damaged due to vaccines inflicted by others fits today’s grievance culture like a glove: it is personal, it invites virtue signalling, it names a culpable group, it allows for draconian actions, it demands redistribution to self, and it is simple to understand.
Team Lockdown, which subsequently morphed into Team Vaccine, will find it extremely difficult to avoid blame for vaccine damage, particularly since Team Lockdown/Vaccine so blatantly disregarded public health principles and scientific standards in medical trials. That the Covid vaccine project included deliberately exposing children to known risks for no significant reasonably expectable gain will be very difficult to hide from the population in the longer run.
No matter what distractions can be manufactured, the suspicion of permanent damage to self and to own children will keep creeping back, particularly as large majorities in most Western states have been cajoled, by hook or by crook, into accepting these vaccines.
Evidence of enlarged hearts, blood clots, long-term tissue damage, genetic alteration, immune system misdirection, and so on will remind people over and over again of the ongoing health loss inflicted upon them. Damage to their health will prey on the minds of the masses, particularly when expensive health problems befall them in the future. True or not, they will suspect that they would not have had those problems had they not taken the vaccines.
I can see what apologists for the GBD’s “spiritual child” might say, that Frijters et al weren’t themselves saying that the vaccines are “poison,” just that enough people think that they are. That rather obvious attempt at plausible deniability won’t fly given what Frijters et al follow up that passage with, the claim that the vaccines are dangerous, including classic antivax tropes that have been dusted off, tarted up, and repurposed for COVID-19 vaccines, such as the idea that the vaccines “permanently alter your DNA,” cause autoimmune diseases, and other “chronic diseases,” and are in general “poison” due to all the “toxins” in them. Indeed, does anyone remember the “toxins gambit“? Does anyone remember that that gambit first hit my consciousness when Dr. Jay Gordon and Jenny McCarthy (and many others) were parroting fear mongering nonsense about “formaldehyde” nearly 15 years ago? Frijters et al are parroting straight up antivax disinformation dating back decades, all while trying to maintain plausible deniability by framing the disinformation as “predictions.” Again, this is a common tactic used by disinformation spreaders who are trying to avoid the label “antivax,” to repeat antivax disinformation as something that (they’re observing and merely pointing out) other people believe.
The whole idea of this article by Frijters et al is that the ever-horrific “lockdowns” were a “crime” that is going to drive a thirst for
justice vengeance and retribution. First, though, they have to explain why, and in doing so they discount the mass death caused by the virus thusly:
First, people do recover from the death of loved ones. It takes about two years, but after that time passes, people are about as satisfied with life as they were before the bereavement.
So never mind about those million people—in the US alone!—killed by COVID-19! The families and friends will get over it and move on, and in around two years, give or take. Life will be normal for them again, again, never mind the million dead people (and still counting). Fortunately, one of the last great health journalists at The Atlantic (which has largely become a cesspool of bothsidesism about the pandemic), Ed Yong, has a perfect retort in an article from a couple of days ago entitled The Final Pandemic Betrayal, which when I first saw it was entitled The Grief of 1 Million COVID Deaths Is Not Going Away but appears to have been retitled (look at the URL if you don’t believe me). Now, if Frijters et al had wanted to make a humanistic argument about how harmful “lockdowns” were, they could easily have cited Yong’s article, which points out:
These experiences share qualities with other devastating crises. Sarah Wagner, an anthropologist at George Washington University who researches death and mourning, sees similarities between the experiences of COVID grievers and people whose loved ones went missing during wars. “Families didn’t know what happened and are left to imagine those horrible last moments” in a way that “still troubles their grief years later,” she told me. Sabila Khan, for example, knows little about her father’s final days, except that he likely spent them “in a warzone of an ER,” she told me. “What was he thinking? How do I even come to terms with that?” Many grievers know that dying from COVID is long and grueling. Sherry Congrave Wilson was tearful but unflinching when she told me that Felicia Ledon Crow, her best friend of 30 years, died suffering and alone. “I just hope and pray that she had a loving nurse, someone around who was kind to her,” Congrave Wilson said.
The aftermath of a COVID death is lonely too. Social rituals can help people cope with guilt and uncertainty, but during much of the pandemic, funerals, wakes, and shivas haven’t happened. Kristin Urquiza, a co-founder of the nonprofit Marked by COVID, lost her father in June 2020; aside from a bizarre virtual funeral where the connection kept glitching, she still hasn’t been able to mourn and celebrate him with the hundreds of people who loved him. And without outlets for collective expression, grief can stew. Hari Close, the funeral director, told me that some people felt they had failed their loved ones twice over, first by not being with them at the end and again by not being able to celebrate their life.
It was horrible, too, how many people died of COVID-19 alone, with no family or friends to comfort them or to personally grieve their passing. Of course, Yong also suggests why part of the reason that Frijters et al likely didn’t invoke this sort of argument:
After death, routine and social connection can help mourners cope. But grievers have been deprived of both because of America’s continued failure to control the pandemic. “In addition to mourning my dad, there was that extra layer of mourning my life,” Sabila said. Several people told me that friends or family members who once would have been supportive pillars became distant or unhelpful, either because they began to swallow pandemic misinformation or because they were simply exhausted. When Rekha, a family friend of mine who lives in Seattle, lost her dad in 2013, “everyone I knew showed up and took care of me,” she told me. That didn’t happen when her mother died of COVID this January because “everyone’s depleted,” she said.
Basically, Frijters et al are doing almost exactly what Yong talks about, discounting COVID-19 deaths by callously arguing that people do recover from the deaths of loved ones. While that is true in general, it is often not true when the deaths happen under extraordinary circumstances and people aren’t allowed to grieve but are instead told to “move on,” as Yong argues.
After ticking off other potential “crimes” and why the people will “rise up” against the “crimes” of lockdowns and mask and vaccine mandates, reasons including loss of freedom, the authors argue that “banging on about losses to freedom – as bad as they are for the longer-run development of human societies – is not the best approach if you want to rouse mass support against the feudal elites now running the show” because traction “in that area simply fades fast.” So what, according to Frijters et al, really burns people? What really gets them angry in a manner that—unlike those pesky deaths loved ones from which people usually recover within a couple of years—does not fade?
I think you can predict the answer, given the general tack of the GBD’s “spiritual child”:
What do people not get used to? They do not recover from reductions in social status. People only get over unemployment, for example, if they find another job or move into a different role that is equally socially valued (like “homemaker”, or “retiree”).
On this basis we would predict that someone who filled an important role in business but whose firm was destroyed by Covid restrictions will have a burning and lasting resentment against that loss until and unless she finds a roughly equal-status alternative role, because she continues to want the return of her lost social status.
That resentment will burn all the more brightly if there is a group with high status that she can blame for her loss, and whose status she can hope to capture for herself. Permanent damage to status coupled with the idea of restitution is powerful. It provides a motivation that keeps on burning.
I can’t help but note that the perception of a loss of social status, coupled with the resentment that it causes, has been a major factor in the rise of Trumpism. It’s become increasingly clear that it wasn’t economic hardship that led to his rise, but perceived threats to the social status of his base. You can even see that in Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again.” The implication was that America was no longer great. I used to have a grand old time on Twitter asking Trump supporters a simple question: You want to MAGA, but when, exactly, did America cease to be great? At least, it was fun briefly, until the ranting about immigrants, minorities supposedly given special consideration, President Obama, and the like became intolerable. In any event, this very argument totally tracks. Nor am I saying that loss of social status can’t be a horrible thing to those who suffer it; I’m just pointing out how these libertarians are arguing that it’s worse than the deaths of loved ones because people “get over” such deaths but don’t get over a loss of social status, either real or perceived.
Indeed, here Brownstone Institute flacks are saying the quiet part out loud. GBD’s “spiritual child” doesn’t hate “lockdowns” because they don’t work or even really because they are an assault on freedom. At least, those aren’t the primary reasons. (According to Frijters et al, they’re secondary considerations.) Rather, Brownstone Institute flacks hate “lockdowns” because business people lost their businesses and thus their status. One could, of course, argue that if governments had better supported businesses and working people during bans on in-person dining, concerts, and other activities where lots of people gather indoors, many fewer of them would have suffered such hardships, making this a failure of governments to provide enough support, not a tyrannical policy that reduced proud business people to just workers again. I would also argue that Frijters et al aren’t giving all the reasons; they don’t like how public health interventions against COVID-19 were bad for business in general. Indeed, I suspect that the whole appeal to the small business owners who lost their businesses is just a front for the real issue: Corporations losing money—or at least not being able to make as much money—because of government responses to the pandemic.
Concern for the poor benighted small business owners is not enough for Frijters et al, though. Note how they tie an antivaccine message to the message that “lockdowns” resulted in a loss of social status that will drive a thirst for vengeance against the “elites” who caused that loss:
The insight that loss of status leads to permanent resentment also goes for lost health and lost opportunities if those losses can be linked to a current group of culprits from whom something can be taken away. The idea that an important thing was stolen which, if somehow returned, would markedly improve life right here and now is extremely powerful. The idea that vaccines did permanent damage to health, or that people were robbed of their best years, coupled with the plausible culpability in both cases of a nasty elite, would fit this bill.
Following this line of logic, we expect to see the gradual emergence and ultimate success of a resistance storyline that the masses “have been deliberately damaged by a rich elite.” Vaccine damage in particular, real or imagined, is extremely powerful from a modern narrative point of view, because it ties into the obsession with self that characterises social media and underpins modern cowardice.
Shorter Frijters et al: “I’m not saying that COVID-19 vaccines rob you of your health and social status, but the idea that they do is feeding a ‘resistance storyline’ that the masses ‘have been deliberately damaged by a rich elite.'” (Also, Frijters et al left out this part: “Except that I really am saying that vaccines, being poison, do rob you of your health and social status.”)
Again, the idea that the masses “have been deliberately damaged by a rich elite” is a key component of what I like to call the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement dating back to decades—at least!—before the pandemic! Before the pandemic, the conspiracy theory was that big pharma, the government, and the medical profession were pushing childhood vaccines that they knew to be harmful, resulting in an “autism epidemic” and the “sickest generation.” Antivaxxers even sometimes referred to this “damage” as the “autism Holocaust.” (Sound familiar?) Frijters et al are very likely well aware of this old antivax conspiracy theory and are cynically repurposing it against not just vaccines, but “lockdowns.” Never mind that, contrary to the “carnage” that they attribute to “lockdowns” and vaccines, it’s now estimated that COVID-19 vaccines actually likely prevented 2.2 million additional deaths, 17 million hospitalizations and 66.1 million additional infections through March 2022. As bad as the pandemic’s toll has been, it would almost certainly been much worse without the vaccines; that is a hard argument to make, however, even when it is backed up by data.
Interestingly, Frijters et al even liken the coming reaction to COVID-19 public health “crimes” to the reaction in Germany that led to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, because of course they do:
Such a thing can get ugly. Once a population is truly convinced they have been betrayed by an elite that has both money and status (read: things to lose), all gloves are off. We are then in similar historical circumstances as those in which Germany found itself in the 1920s, where a belief spread in the idea that Germany had lost the Great War due to betrayal by socialists and Jews. This belief was dubbed the ‘Dolchstoßlegende’ (the ‘dagger legend’), and became a storyline used very effectively by you-know-who. Many believed to have done the betraying did not survive.
I like how, right before likening the public reaction to COVID-19 responses to the “stab-in-the-back” conspiracy theory about how Germany lost World War I that fueled Hitler’s promise to “make Germany great again” during the Nazi rise to power in decade before Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, Frijters et al blithely predict that a “range of popular books will doubtless emerge on the topic, drawn upon by all and sundry in political battles.” Why does that amuse me? Because Frijters et all have a book to sell just like their description and promoting the very idea likening the public’s predicted reaction to COVID-19 public health interventions to the Nazi myth of the “stab in the back” by Jews and Communists. Their book is entitled The Great Covid Panic: What Happened, Why, and What To Do Next. Unsurprisingly, GBD co-author Martin Kulldorff, and now scientific director of the Brownstone Institute loved this book, as shown by this blurb:
“A tour-de-force on how the pandemic response was driven by fear, crowd thinking, big business and a desire for control, rather than by sound public health principles. This is bound to be a classic.” ~ Professor Martin Kulldorff, Harvard Medical School.
So did Jeffrey Tucker, founder of the Brownstone Institute and the one who labeled it the “spiritual child” of the GBD and helpfully provided this blurb:
“When I received the manuscript, I was hooked from the first page and knew then that I would miss a full night’s sleep. I did indeed. My heart raced from beginning to end. As the publisher, I must say that this book is a dream for me, the book I never thought would exist, the book that I believe can change everything.” ~ Jeffrey Tucker, Founder Brownstone Institute.
But who are the authors of this article and book? Are they epidemiologists? Infectious disease experts, maybe? Public health physicians and/or scientists, perhaps? Perish those very silly thoughts! They’re economists, again, because of course they are:
Paul Frijters is a Professor of Wellbeing Economics at the London School of Economics: from 2016 through November 2019 at the Center for Economic Performance, thereafter at the Department of Social Policy. Gigi Foster is a Professor at the School of Economics at the University of New South Wales. Michael Baker, BA (Economics) from the University of Western Australia, is an independent economic consultant and freelance journalist with a background in policy research.Economists. It had to be…economists.
Interestingly, they are not historians, either, which also amuses me. Why? If they were historians, they might have recognized that their chosen analogy casts them—and the GBD’s “spiritual child” the Brownstone Institute—in the role of Nazis taking advantage of conspiracy theories to rise to power. After all, they’ve basically called the idea that an “elite” intentionally harmed high status people, coupled with another idea that this “harm” included a permanent decline in social status, a new “stab-in-the-back” conspiracy theory akin to the one common in Germany during Weimar Republic that Hitler used, among other things, to such effect during his rise to power. They’ve basically spelled out an argument that I made a couple of months ago about why there is such an affinity between fascists and antivaxxers. The idea that there was a “lost mythic past” that was taken from the “worthy” true group (by an “elite” who are unworthy) and must be reclaimed is very similar to the idea that there was a “lost mythic past” in which people like Frijters’ business people who were comfortably high on the social hierarchy before the pandemic but suffered loss of status and health because of COVID-19 “lockdown,” mask, and vaccine policies promoted by “unworthy” elites. Strike that. It’s not just very similar. It’s the same conspiracy theory.
Frijters et al even say so in their conclusion:
For better or for worse, a story of betrayal along these lines seems unavoidable at this point. A new dagger story is coming, this time partly because it is true, and partly because it fits both the needs of the resistance and the norms of the modern zeitgeist.
Just how powerful this story will turn out to be is difficult to predict, but what we can predict is who can be counted upon to champion it most vociferously: the businesspeople who irrecoverably lost their positions due to the Covid lockdowns and other restrictions, the young and single who for similar reasons lost the best years of their lives, and those who believe the vaccines did them and their children permanent damage. That alliance – forged in the fires of lasting hurt to human well-being – could produce a formidable adversary against the culpable Covid elites.
Actually, the “stab-in-the-back” myth promoted by fascists after World War I was no more true than the “story of betrayal” or “new dagger story” that Frijters et al say is coming. The “stab-in-the-back” (by Jew and Communist “elites”) was a myth that was promoted by the far right “elites” who had suffered a loss of social status—not to mention national pride—because of Germany’s defeat and a decade later amplified by the Great Depression. In fact, just as during the postwar years Hitler and his allies promoted the “stab-in-the-back” myth about Germany’s defeat in 1918, the Brownstone Institute and others promoting a GBD-like approach to dismantling public health, contrary to their seeming claim of innocence and that they are just “observing” the “new dagger story,” are in fact actively promoting this new “dagger story” every bit as much as Hitler and his fascists promoted the old “dagger story.”
That is what the Brownstone Institute is all about, which shouldn’t be surprising given its self-proclaimed status as the “spiritual child” of the GBD.