The true and the false vision: Towards a general theory of political stupidity
The Covid response was a lot of things, but above all it was just really, really stupid. This stupidity was in no way unique; a lot of what modern states do is mind-numbingly idiotic. Covid was different only to the extent that intense media attention cast this stupidity in unusually sharp relief.
Over the years I’ve proposed various theses of political stupidity, but as I reread old press reports and leaks for my book, I’m struck by one recurring tendency above all. This is the ambition on the part of technocrats to maintain – and their failure to sustain – a double vision of reality. On the one hand, they arrogate to themselves the privilege of seeing things as they really are; they alone have the true vision. On the other hand, they insist on conveying to the public an exaggerated or false vision, because the public cannot be trusted to act correctly if they are merely presented with the world as it is. As soon as the political arm take up their false vision and the press report it, however, the technocrats lose contact with whatever true vision they imagined themselves to hold, and they can act only according to the false vision they concocted.
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Our rulers, in other words, are constantly talking down to the people and feeding them Sesame Street versions of reality, only to find themselves plunged into and forced to act inside of the very same fictional kindergarten muppet world they built. This is why everything they do ends up being so stupid all the time.
Examples of this are everywhere, so I’ll limit myself to the illustrative case of mass testing and centralised disease statistics – one of the most openly idiotic obsessions of the pandemic era, which politicians, medical bureaucrats and everybody else in power routinely misused in manifold ways for years.
In the very beginning, attitudes towards these statistics were far less stupid. In the so-called ‘panic paper,’ produced under the auspices of the German Ministry of the Interior to marshal political support for mass containment in late March 2020, we find these telling remarks on the very first page:
Citizens must understand that the measures can only be implemented for their benefit and with their assistance ... Social contacts must be reduced to a minimum for a certain period of time ... and ending these measures must be made dependent on their readily comprehensible public effects ... The effect of the measures can best be made comprehensible for all citizens in real time by extending testing ... Large-scale testing conveys the importance of the state’s active crisis management to citizens affected by restrictions ... A centralised collection of all tests carried out and those to be carried out in the future is indispensable ... This is the only way to enable intervention in economic and social processes appropriate to the situation and to increase the acceptance and meaningfulness of measures restricting freedom.
This frank statement all but admits that infection numbers were compiled above all for the purpose of propaganda. Their primary role was to inspire public support for lockdowns. Germans had to understand that their freedom to go outside depended on their cooperation in bringing the infection curve down to appropriate levels. Only once in this whole passage are the numbers granted a practical purpose, that of determining interventions which are “appropriate to the situation.” I think this is best read as a sign that the double vision of the pandemicists was already experiencing its rapid, inevitable collapse.
Now let’s jump ahead more than two years, long after that collapse had occurred, to the protocols of the Corona Expert Council. This group was established by Olaf Scholz to advise final stages of the pandemic response in Germany, and its members had occasion on 14 June 2022 to ponder the utility of official case statistics once again:
RKI disease surveillance is important, but it is not a substitute for the 7-day incidence [of Covid infections]. RKI surveillance is based on the following data: 1.) population (GrippeWeb, with approx. 9,000 regular users), 2.) 500 paediatricians and general practitioners, 3.) 70 clinics. They therefore record no asymptomatic cases and do not account for population antibody rates. It is precisely the representation of asymptomatic cases that is important for calculation infection waves and their peak. Symptom surveillance is not a substitute for incidence. It was also pointed out once again that wastewater surveillance is a good idea and that these data must be made available to everyone.
The remark about antibodies is puzzling, as Germany never surveyed for them in any regular systematic way, and the 7-day incidence certainly never accounted for them. Otherwise, we see that infection metrics, established in 2020 primarily to drive public support for measures, had by 2022 become the sole orienting statistic of German pandemic policy – even long after Covid had ceased to be more dangerous than influenza. The virus propaganda intended to inspire public support for lockdowns had become the sole reality in which the pandemicists operated, blotting out even their ability to moderate their demands in the face of much milder Omicron.
Now, it makes plenty of sense that this should happen. Once press and politics are saturated with the false vision, there’s no hope of acting on the true one any longer. Yet it’s remarkable nevertheless that everybody involved appears to forget so quickly that there is any reality beyond the false vision at all. Equally curious is the fact that nobody ever demonstrates the slightest awareness of this corrosive process. You’d think some bureaucrat back in March 2020 would’ve bothered to ask whether it was really a good idea to hang future success or failure on fluctuations in the positivity of PCR tests, but this never happens. The only goal is public manipulation, and this short-sightedness is why – despite their substantial messaging powers – the technocrats seem to be failing all the time. They could, after all, concoct self-serving false visions which would merely ensure their success and vindicate their expertise, but this never occurs to them.