I spent the last days of innocence before Trump and Brexit heavily pregnant. Like many first-time mums, I read a lot of pregnancy books, but the one I liked most was Expecting Better. Written by Emily Oster, an economist, the book sifts carefully through many of the dire warnings doled out to pregnant women about food, drink, birth choices, and so on, assessing the evidence for each.
On Monday, the same author published an essay arguing for “a pandemic amnesty”. We should, she suggests, move on from the conflict, fear, uncertainty, and doubt that roiled the pandemic years, and focus instead on the urgent issues of today. But while I can understand why Oster might wish to put all the Covid-era bitterness back into a box labelled “the common good”, her effort to do so has not been well received. And this is a consequence of the very policies which Oster would now like everyone to forgive and forget.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
Reading avidly in the run-up to my daughter’s birth, it was already clear to me that many of the so-called “mummy wars” are proxies for class issues. Against this emotive backdrop, Oster’s book felt like a refreshing counterbalance. It’s astonishing, in fact, how recently it still felt possible to weigh competing claims on the evidence, and settle on something reasonable. But a great deal has changed since then. And it’s easier to understand why when you consider the difference between trying to settle the “mummy wars” via science and trying to agree upon public health policy during a pandemic.
If the “mummy war” is a class war writ small, Covid policy followed the same dynamic. It was, in fact, a class war writ so large it encompassed minute micromanagement of nearly every facet of everyday life, for years on end, and doled out material consequences for dissenters. And it was all justified with reference to the supposedly neutral domain of science.
This tracks a slow convergence of supposedly neutral governance with partisan class differences that was well under way before the virus, a phenomenon exhaustively documented following the two plebeian revolutions of Brexit and Trump. These events gestated concurrently with my daughter; I won’t rehash the debates here, save to note that they represented the first shot across the bows of the End of History belief that technocracy could be genuinely neutral, and based in objective evidence.
In questioning this doctrine, the mutineers dragged an incipient class war into the open, between what N.S. Lyons characterises as the “Virtuals” of the laptop class, and the “Physicals” whose work is more rooted in the material world. Amid this conflict, Oster’s plea for amnesty is unlikely to be heard, since under those appeals to neutral science much of Covid policy served in practice as a Virtual counter-volley to the 2016 uprisings.
In its most rarefied, de-materialised, Virtual form, the contours of that counter-volley are captured by a short series of declarations of faith. This text, a kind of Nicene Creed for Virtuals, first appeared in response to Trump’s election, and has multiplied across posters, t-shirts, tote bags, and (in America, where they do such things) signs stuck into the front lawns of the faithful.
The Virtuals’ Creed reads as follows:
In this house, we believe:
Black lives matter
Women’s rights are human rights
No human is illegal
Science is real
Love is love
Kindness is everything
Each of these dicta sounds unimpeachable in theory, but is far more contentious in practice. “No human is illegal”, for instance, sounds true; but how do we manage the welfare state, without a means of distinguishing between citizens and non-citizens?
When this lawn sign first appeared, I could have given you a critical run-down of the political pitfalls and ideological sleights-of-hand buried in all those dicta, bar the claim that Science Is Real. Since then, though, I’ve seen this line in the Virtuals’ Creed weaponised without compunction, as a bludgeon to enforce a moral consensus that wasn’t scientific, and wasn’t rational.
This consensus was, instead, far more religious in character. Even famous and high-profile dissenters have faced harassment at its hands, for airing topics that ought, you’d think, to be within the scope of objective discussion. Celebrity podcaster Joe Rogan has faced calls to be cancelled after asking Covid questions. UnHerd’s Freddie Sayers was censored for interviewing lockdown dissenter and former WHO cancer lead Dr Karol Sikora.
Nor is having expertise or evidence on your side much of a defence. Dr Peter McCullough, a top American cardiologist, argued against vaccinating those with natural Covid immunity, and voiced concerns about the effect of the Covid vaccine on cardiac health. For expressing such views, and despite evidence that natural immunity is more robust than the vaccine and that myocarditis is a recognised side-effect of the vaccine, McCullough now faces being struck off by an American medical board.
Even as scientific debate has been stifled, obvious inferences from widely available evidence were ignored where these conflicted with settled Virtual consensus. There was, for example, no rationale for mandatory vaccination once it became clear that — as acknowledged as far back as December 2021 by even the Virtuals’ house journal the New York Times — vaccines didn’t prevent virus transmission. And yet mandates remained in place across many locations long after that date. Indeed, around the time the NYT article was published, Oster herself was advocating escalating pressure to vaccinate, from public shame to stopping the unvaccinated from travelling, working or attending events.
It may be optimistic of Oster, and others of the Virtual class, to try to restore public faith that Science Is Real. But it’s also understandable. First, for reasons of self-interest: those who drove Covid policy presented themselves not just as people doing their best, but as the sole bearers of rational truth and life-saving moral authority. Doubtless the laptop class would prefer that we judge Covid policy by intention, not results, lest too close an evaluation result in their fingers being prised from the baton of public righteousness.
But the rot goes deeper still, for the very foundation of that moral authority is a shared trust in the integrity of scientific consensus. And Covid has left us in no doubt that there is a great deal of grey area between “science” and “moral groupthink”. Where “science” shades into the latter, British care workers and American soldiers and police officers dismissed for refusing a vaccination that doesn’t stop transmission can attest that science is sometimes “real” more in the sense of “institutionally powerful and self-righteous” than in the sense of “true”.
This touches on another source of rage that many would doubtless like to forget: the asymmetry in whose shoulders bore the heaviest load. It wasn’t the lawn-sign people who bore the brunt of lockdowns — they could mostly work from home. Rather, lockdown shuttered countless small businesses permanently, or burned them to the ground in lawn-sign-endorsed riots that were justified on public-health grounds even as others were fined for attending Holy Communion in a car park.
Our journey to this point was, at every stage, narrated as the inescapable conclusion of Science, which is Real. But nearly three years out from the start of the pandemic, it looks a great deal more like the massed consensus of “public health” officials and their journalistic cheerleaders has delivered a public that is sicker, unhappier and poorer across a host of measures.
Oster lists among the urgent issues of the day the learning loss experienced by children as a consequence of Covid policy, with the youngest and poorest hardest-hit. She notes the drop-off in routine vaccinations (also a consequence of Covid policy). To this list we might add the rise in non-Covid excess deaths, also a consequence of Covid policy, not to mention the stagnant economy and the rocketing inflation rate.
And these are all downstream of a pandemic-era public discourse that felt like the Brexit/Trump wars on steroids: a battle for class dominance, in which one side used its stranglehold on public institutions to frame censorship as “fact-checking”, and all dissenters as stupid, unscientific, or actively hateful. It’s not that “we” collectively tried to get it right, and “mistakes were made”. It’s that a self-righteous cabal arrogated to themselves a priestly right to determine the proper social order, and to excommunicate those who didn’t conform. Their record in securing the common good speaks for itself.
Public faith in objectively shared political ground was already dissolving while my daughter gestated. If the Virtuals have a problem now, it’s that their counter-volley to Trump and Brexit consumed the last vestige of trust in that shared political ground: our faith in science. And the notion that such ground exists is the sine qua non of Virtual political legitimacy in its current technocratic form.
In this light, Oster’s call for amnesty can present itself as an effort to rebuild the neutral space of shared political endeavour after a period of conflict. But it reads as a continuation of now-familiar efforts to weaponise the appearance of such neutrality and common purpose, in the interests of one side of that conflict.
We all knew every pandemic policy would come with trade-offs. The lawn-sign priesthood forbade any discussion of those trade-offs. I don’t blame the class that so piously dressed their own material interests as the common good, for wanting to dodge the baleful looks now coming their way. But no “amnesty” will be possible that doesn’t acknowledge the class politics, the corruption of scientific process, the self-dealing, and the self-righteousness that went to enforcing those grim years of lawn-sign tyranny.
Science, it turns out, is not always “real”. And nor, I suspect, will kindness now be everything.