Category Archives: Trust and Distrust

Lies, damn lies, and conspiracy theories.

Mark Twain got it only partly right. It is true that there are  lies, damn  lies and statistics, but there are also  lies, damn lies, and conspiracy theories. One of the most horrid conspiracy theories in America history is one spread by the incomparable Alex Jones. And that is saying a lot because there are so many of them!  As Barry Craig said, “Alex Jones is so repugnant he makes Judas Iscariot look good.

 

This is one of Jones’s crimes against humanity: after learning of one of the most horrid mass shootings in American history when a lone gunman entered an elementary school in a quiet town in Connecticut—Newton, he went on a shooting rampage at the Sandy Hook School where he murdered 20 first graders and 6 teachers. Then when the parents of those children were suffering immeasurably, Jones added salt to the wounds, by taking the plain and uncomplicated truth of that well documented series of crimes and challenged those parents that it was all a hoax and that they were paid actors!  Jones spread these outrageous and putrid lies just to gain publicity so he could sell more of his cheap goods online.

Craig was reviewing a book by Elizabeth Williamson, called Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth when he said this:

“Almost as criminal as those killings, says Williamson, was Jones’ unconscionable misuse of his far right and virulent social media platform, Infowars. With the dead children still lying in the schoolyard, he said the shootings were faked and the grieving parents nothing more than actors in a conspiracy staged by government to support the need for more gun control.”

 

In other words, as Craig said, they were “the undeserving people Jones tortured for years.”  It is not surprising that Craig called this a “degenerate reaction.” Craig also wrote this:

“In his trademark bombast, Jones called on his viewers — largely conspiracy believers — to descend on Newtown in outrage to bully and harass the people in this bogus massacre. It not only worked (and terrified the community), it made Jones rich hustling overpriced merchandise on his program.”

 

The  thirst for vile baubles appears endless. I heard he earns about $65 million per year selling lies and junk! But this is not the most astonishing part.  Here is the part that is really difficult to comprehend: Despite the degenerate part Donald Trump the leader of Trumpism declared his approval of Jones shortly after his election and commented how well respected he was! Only among fools and charlatans was he respected, but that did not matter to the Donald. Trump liked Jones because he was so much like himself. Both men have no compunction about spreading lies provided they serve their private purposes.

Williamson made some interesting comments about Jones and conspiracy theories. First, she drew attention to a fascinating statement by columnist Richard Grenier who defined “conspiracy theories as sophistication of the ignorant.” She also pointed out Jones’ conspiracy theories went well beyond harming the families of the victims. As she said,

 “Jones’ success in making lies true and truth lies encouraged conspiracy theorists in every major conflict after Sandy Hook: numerous shootings, the COVID-19 pandemic, the oxymoron of “alternative facts,” Donald Trump’s bogus claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him and last year’s assault on the U.S. Capitol building which he challenged his followers to carry out to “stop the steal.” She says Trump is much like Jones in that he convinces people what they (already) want to believe.”

 

Williamson reported how the hapless parents of murdered elementary students had to put up with angry and aggressive conspiracy theorists harassing them with leers attacking them like “an army of swarming and aggressive news media,” constantly demanding that they relive their nightmare and then spreading lies about them. Finally, they fought back against the malicious lies in court by suing Jones and the manufacturer of the gun. As Craig said,

“While millions of Americans continue to wallow in ludicrous conspiracy theories fanned by liars that make it sound like the truth, Sandy Hook’s victims of this mendacity are also getting back at their perpetrators through court decisions they initiated that are denting their detractors’ bank accounts. By 2018 some 10 Sandy Hook families were suing Jones… He has already admitted he was wrong; the parents recently turned down his first monetary offer to settle their defamation suit against him. In addition, he is being fined by the courts at a daily rate for failing to co-operate. That bill alone is over $500,000 and counting. The parents may well end up with millions, but it’s still in the courts.”

 

Of course, as Craig said,

“(Canada is not immune to the same kind of viral lies. The Senate has been flooded by conspiracy theory claims that changes to basic income legislation is the work of a shady global elite.) It seems not only news travels fast — so does nonsense.”

 

We Canadians have little right to feel superiority to our American neighbours. Conspiracy theories are a plague on us all. One of the things they do is spread mistrust helping to dismantle society which needs trust to survive.

 

 

Sniper Massacre and Fictitious Atrocities

 

On February 20, 2014, 44 Ukrainian civilians were massacred by snipers on the Maidan. Ukrainian President Yanukovych at the time agreed to leave office, as the protesters would no longer accept him and the Russians were happy to get rid of him as well. He fled his garish mansion that included records of cash payments to his advisor Paul Manafort who later resurfaced in the US as campaign manager for Donald Trump in his successful 2016 presidential election campaign. The downfall of Yanukovych provided cover for the Russians in their efforts to disintegrate the Ukrainian state. As Timothy Snyder said,

“In a few days between the sniper massacre of February 20 and the Russian invasion of February 24, shocking but fictitious reports appeared about Ukrainian atrocities in Crimea, and about refugees from the peninsula who needed urgent assistance. Russian military intelligence created fictitious personae on the internet to spread these stories. A group of paid internet trolls in St. Petersburg, known as the Internet Research Agency, was at work to confuse Ukrainian and international opinion. This was by now a signature of Russian foreign policy: the cyber campaign that would accompany a real war.”

 

I don’t know if they ever read Hannah Arendt, the brilliant political philosopher, but Putin’s propagandists learned what she said, namely that it was not necessary to convince people of the truth of their outrageous claims. All that was needed was that people were confused so that they did not know what to think, and this was sufficient to open the door to fascist manipulation. That insight proved invaluable in Ukraine in 2014, the UK in 2016 and most astonishingly, the US in 2016.

That is an essential insight into fascist propaganda and how it works its incredible magic. That is why the sleep of reason and decay of belief in truth is so important. As Goya said, and a I have quoted many times, it brings forth monsters. That is what we see in Ukraine today and what we saw in both the UK and US in 2016.

Demolishing Factuality

 

Why do oligarchs prefer fascism?  There can be little doubt that oligarchs like fascism. There are very few fascisms of the left. Why is that?

 

Oligarchs naturally turns to fascism because it is so congenial to their outlook.

 

Timothy Snyder described Russia at the time this way:

“Russia in the 2010s was a kleptocratic regime that sought to export the politics of eternity to demolish factuality, to preserve inequality, and to accelerate similar tendencies in Europe and the United States.”

 

The Russians wanted to disrupt American democracy for decades, but for decades lacked any success at all, and found instead only derision for their efforts. But in the 2010s they found remarkable success. In large part that was because Russians efforts found such fertile soil for confusion and American minds astonishingly receptive to the most incredible stories. The soil in America had been fertilized through generations by credulity. In America the death of truth had laid the groundwork for successful interference in their election to such an extent that they were like lambs being led to the slaughter.

 

Snyder posits the following as political virtues: individuality, endurance, cooperation, novelty, honesty, and justice.  He claims these are not merely platitudes, but actual facts of history.  All of these virtues are important, but one of them has proven particularly significant in the age in which we live—honesty. When all is lies all is permitted. That’s what we must avoid at all costs. We discovered that in American politics, in the pandemic, and significantly, but little understood, in both wars of Ukraine in 2014 and again in 2022.  However, “virtues are inseparable from the institutions they inspire and nourish.” Without trust in those institutions it is very difficult for truth to grow to avoid being crowded out by lies.

 

Sadly, those institutions are no longer robust anywhere. They are covered in rust from years of abuse. Yet those institutions are needed to preserve democracy. As Snyder said,

“An institution might cultivate certain ideas of the good, and it also depends upon them. If institutions are to flourish, they need virtues; if virtues are to be cultivated, they need institutions.”

 

Since those institutions in the west are under merciless attack by the forces of unfreedom (both inevitability and eternity in Snyder’s terminology) it is difficult for one to remain optimistic about the future of freedom and democracy in the west. When people suggest fascism in the west is a real possibility one can only harbour grim humility. As Snyder said,

“It is the politics of inevitability and eternity that make virtues seem irrelevant or even laughable: inevitability by assuring that the good is what already exists and must predictably expand, and eternity by assuring that the evil is always external and that we are forever its innocent victims. If we want to have a better account of good and evil, we will have to resuscitate history.”

 

We will certainly have to resuscitate truth. We desperately need honesty and truth.

 

Blitzkrieg on the Truth

 

When Hitler invaded Poland and other countries in the 1930s he famously created a new form of war that he called Blitzkrieg. It was striking how fast European nations caved into his attacks.  Putin has been trying to something similar in the wars on the Ukraine. First the one in 2014 and then again in 2022.  In their own way they were both as impressive as Hitler’s “wins.”

Vladimir Kara-Murza described what happened in Russia this way in the Washington Post:

“While Vladimir Putin’s planned blitzkrieg on Ukraine appears to have stalled in the face of firm resistance by the Ukrainian military and its people, another, much less noticed assault has brought the Kremlin swift and total victory. Within a single week, all — literally, all — of Russia’s remaining independent media voices have been silenced in a co-ordinated effort by the prosecutor general’s office and the government’s main censorship agency.

One after another, media outlets that dared to report honestly on Putin’s assault on Ukraine had their signals cut off and their websites blocked.”

 

One of the early casualties of this war on truth was a famous radio station in Moscow called Echo of Moscow. To many people in Russia, it symbolized the best of journalism in Moscow for over 30 years.  They also shut down TV rain a popular online news source.

Many people who have become cynical about media think western media is as untrustworthy as Russian media.  That is a dangerous illusion. They are not equivalent. Nowhere in the west has media been shut down completely as happened so fast in Russia. We should remember that. If we are led to believe our media is as untrustworthy as that in Russia, we will not trust it when it is vital to trust it, such as during a pandemic. Or a war. The lack of trust crippled our response to a pandemic and cost many lives. The same thing can happen during a war. I am not advocating for blind trust in any media, but trust based on critical reasoning. Blind trust is as bad as blind distrust. We are not the same as Russia. Our media is not perfect, but it is much better than what Russians enjoy.

 

Russia tried to shut down all media during the failed coup d’état by the hard-line communist leaders in August 1991. That closure did not last long because hundreds of thousands of Russians took to the streets of Moscow to quell the putsch. While the Communist failed, Putin has succeeded.  Recently, the Russian authorities have  also completely shut down dozens of other news outlets, both Russian and foreign, which Russian officials claimed had been spreading false information about the activities of the Russian armed forces in the Ukraine. Roskomnadzor, the Russian censorship agency that is obedient to Putin’s will, has also completely blocked Twitter and Facebook, even though both are very popular with many Russians.  Millions of them use these platforms but the agency closed them down.  The CBC and most western news agencies have been kicked out of Russia or left because of the constraints.  As Kara-Murza said, “Near-total darkness has descended on Russia’s information space with frightening speed.

 Vladimir Kara-Murza described the situation in Russia this way:

“In other words, the journalists’ crime was telling the Russian people the bloody truth about Putin’s war — the truth that is completely absent from Russian state television, which is presenting viewers with an Orwellian reality in which it is Ukraine and the West, not Putin, that are to blame for the hostilities, and in which there is no war and no civilian casualties — only a highly targeted “special operation” directed against the imaginary “Neo-Nazis” in the Ukrainian government.”

Such a total lie depends on a similarly total monopoly on news coverage. After silencing critical voices on television — the largest source of information for most Russians — early in his rule, Putin tolerated smaller outlets such as Echo of Moscow as part of a pretend democratic facade for the West’s benefit. But under the conditions of war, even small pockets of independent media that could show Russians what heinous crimes their government is committing could present an existential danger to the system.”

Not all news agencies were banned in Russia, but the government made it so uncomfortable for them that almost all of them have left the country. As Kara-Murza said, Russia passed a law with lightning speed that had the effect of “criminalizing honest reporting”.  The penalties for the “crimes”  can run as high as 15 years in prison. A day after the new law was passed the police raided the offices of Lev Scholsberg a well known Russian opposition politician who had until then been a vocal critic of Putin since 1914 when Russia invaded the Ukraine the first time. The police also detained a Russian orthodox priest who spoke out against he war through his sermons.

 

 

As the Guardian reported,

 

“Global news media said they were temporarily suspending reporting in Russia to protect their journalists after a new law cracking down on foreign news outlets was passed that threatened jail terms of up to 15 years for spreading “fake news”.

Britain’s BBC said Friday it had temporarily halted reporting in Russia, and by the end of the day, the Canadian Broadcasting Company and Bloomberg News said their journalists were also stopping work. CNN and CBS News said they would stop broadcasting in Russia, and other outlets removed Russian-based journalists’ bylines as they assessed the situation.”

 

Meanwhile Russian media spreads the now unchallenged party line that Ukraine is led by Neo-Nazis.

The point I want to make is that you might distrust media in the west, but no one can say they spread falsehoods like their Russian counterparts. We would be very foolish to conclude our media is the same as theirs. That would be a dangerous mistake.

 

Russian Disinformation

 

Russian weaponized the techniques of disinformation it had used in the first war in Ukraine in 2014. in the Brexit campaign and in the 2016 US election campaign. No doubt those astounding successes, and the lack of resistance from the west led Putin to believe western democracy was weak and ready to have it feathers plucked

 

According to Carole Cadwalladr of the Guardian

 

“From 2014 to 2016 Putin had carte blanche across our entire information system. So in St. Petersburg he set up the Internet Research Agency  and we know that thousands and thousands of trolls and fake accounts flooded out information system. And that is the thing that really confused people and distracted people. It wasn’t that Putin set out to support Trump,  or had any political agenda, in 2014 it was simply about spreading confusion, making us more divided, increasing polarization. It was divide and rule if you think of it like that.”

 

He had learned what Hannah Arendt had said. It was enough to sow confusion. The Americans and English would do the rest. Putin must have been stunned at how easy it was and how successful that was it. Even after the FBI marvellously exposed his nefarious efforts, Americans were again deflected from the real issue. First, the Democrats smelled the blood of Donald Trump in the water and attacked him in a misguided frenzy. Not that I think he was innocent. They thought this would be enough to get him impeached. Then Trump hit back saying there was no collusion. When the Mueller report did not come out clearly that there had been collusion, the Republicans, were also distracted and began a similarly misguided frenzied attack on Democrats that deflected attention away from the real issue, the fact that a foreign power and the second most militarily powerful country in the world had interfered with a free election and then nobody seemed to care. He got away it completely!  Both Democrats and Republicans failed to attack the real wolf at the democratic door in their unseemly haste to attack each other. Putin perhaps without knowing how he did it, found an open path to the heart of the democracy he wanted to attack and no one was concerned about what he was doing. Each side was only concerned about what the other side was doing. No one raised a finger to stop the Russians or even criticize them. Putin must have been thunderstruck at this luck or at the foolishness or the Americans or more likely, both. It was the same in England. The opposite parties hated each other they ignored the real danger—Putin.

 

Besides the astonishingly polarization of the country, Putin was aided and abetted by the fact that the international media giants were private closed black boxes that allowed Putin to operate in complete darkness without public objection. As Cadwalladr said,

 

“we had no idea what was going on inside them and it was only in 2016 that the FBI started telling us what was going on, and only after the election journalists and academics slowly picked out the truth of what was happening. It was through the social media platforms that Putin launched this information war against Ukraine and against us. And those social media companies can still be used in that way!”

 

This attack had huge societal impacts, it was discovered and yet it was largely ignored as Americans in America and the English in the UK concentrated on attacking each other rather than the much more vicious foreign enemy that was eating their vital innards.

 

Both sides used language to minimize what Russia had done. In the US and UK the referred to Russian “meddling” in the elections. It was really a declaration of war. As Cadwalladr said,

 

“this was a military strategy and it was carried out in many ways by military intelligence! The GRU which is Russian military intelligence, they are the ones who carried out the hack and leak on Hillary Clinton emails for example. Those intelligence GRU officers are there now playing a fundamental war in Ukraine now. It was those same GRU intelligence officers who helped to poison a former Russian military officer and double agent for the British intelligence agencies Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia Skripal, in the city of Salisbury England. Again, the English resistance to this was minimal. Again, Putin must naturally have reached the conclusion that the West was weak and ready to be plucked.”

 

As Cadwalladr said, “this was Putin using an unconventional chemical weapon on British citizens in Britain and he got away with it.” We here in Canada are fairly familiar with how many Americans did not want to hear about Russian interference in the US because they saw this as an attack on the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s presidency and saw all such claims of election interference as Democrats looking out for their own interests. The same thing happened in the UK. People who supported Brexit did not want to hear any allegations that Russians interfered with that referendum because they did not want to see that vote as illegitimate either. In both cases the “winners” did not want the distraction of foreign interference. In both cases Putin learned a very valuable lesson, namely, to insert himself inside the widening polarized rifts between conservatives and liberals in both countries, was easy and very profitable. In each country, Putin was handed a golden opportunity to wreak mischief and havoc on account of the host countries polarized populous!

 

Carole Cadwalladr pointed out that,

 

“All the way through this reporting we see this really clear line Brexit, Trump, and Russia. And there is a triangulation there. There is a straight and clear line through multiple individuals and organizations and via the tech platforms…I America the Mueller report got bogged down in this question did Trump collude with Russia? And actually the big takeaway from the Mueller report should have been Russia successfully attacked America! This was a military attack and it got away with it. And that same attack was across the information systems which we all use and in that year 2016 they were completely unprotected! And in Britain we have been blind to waking up to that. The US had this massive investigation by the FBI and Congressional committees. In Britain we have had not one single investigation. There was one report and Boris Johnson personally tried to suppress that report.

 

In both countries the political parties think the issue is about politics. It is not about politics. It is about power and Putin. Of course this weak response from the UK and the US emboldened Putin and he is now using the same techniques in Ukraine but not with as much success.

 

Unfortunately, Cadwalladr has been attacked by a wealthy businessman in the UK for libel based as a result of her reporting. It has cost her 1 million pounds and 2 &1/2 years of her life. She was lucky she got crowd source funding. But such efforts have a chilling effect on the search for truth. And that is now common place around the world. It is really truth itself that is under attack. In the US CNN was targeted as a news organization as “fake news” by Trumpsters. The terminology of fake news has been weaponized. These are dark times. This is what happens when we acquiesce with attacks on truth.

And attack on truth is a declaration of war.

Truth: The First Casualty of War

 

It is not clear who first said truth is the first casualty of war. What is clear is that whoever said it was a very smart person.  It might have been Samuel Johnson for he was a very wise man and he said, “’Among the calamities of war may be jointly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.‘ (from The Idler, 1758). The second part of that statement is also important—the insidious effect of credulity is very important. Many of us have been conditioned to believe without evidence or reasoning. Critical thinking matters and the abandonment of critical reasoning is vitally important. We learned it in the pandemic and we are learning it again in the war.

Apparently in Russia about 2/3rds of the country support the war against Ukraine. Of course, they do that based on false information. Most of them don’t know the truth. They believe what they are told.

Many people in Canada and the US ask how is it possible that so many Russians believe the propaganda?

Are we any better?  It is estimated that in the US about 1/3rd of the people believe that last presidential election was “stolen” by Joe Biden, despite the fact that there is almost no evidence to support this claim and it flies in the face of any critical thinking. As Ioffe said, “it turns out it is not that difficult to fool people.

I heard a fascinating interview with Russian born American journalist Julia Ioffe who is an acknowledged expert on Russia. She has spent a lot of time there and has friends she can trust and call to find out what is going on now. Her articles have appeared in many respected journals including some of my favourites.

In Russia people have learned that people who ask questions or protest the government actions are often severely punished. Added to that, Russians have suffered a lot of trauma. Over 50 million Russians including Ukrainians, lost their lives in wars, terror campaigns, and pogroms between 1914 and 1945. In the 4 years the Russians fought World War II they lost 15% of their population. This was after waves of political arrests. As a result Russians are among the most cynical and distrusting of all people. This includes Russians who have moved to Canada. I have talked to some of those Russians hers in Manitoba and I understand this.  They have good reason to distrust their governments. That distrust spills over to our governments too.

Ioffe pointed out that we should remember as Ioffe said, “Russians have been living under an ever tightening noose of censorship for 22 years. So, they have been conditioned not to question what they are told.” What excuse do Americans and their Canadian fellow travellers have?

Distrust is dangerous for democracies and standard fare for autocracies.

Trust and Mistrust

 

One of the things that is so interesting about this pandemic is the astonishing fact that so many people mistrust so many so deeply. The distrust is virtually unshakeable. I am trying to understand why that happens. And it happens a lot where I live, in Southern Manitoba.

This has caught me by surprise. Or at least it once did. After nearly 2 years of this pandemic, it no longer surprises. I expect it. I am surprised when someone demonstrates trust.  I think it has something to do with the deeply felt religious beliefs in our community, but that still does not explain it.

Here is what Winnipeg Free Press reporter Dylan Robertson said about exactly this issue:

“Manitoba children could qualify for COVID-19 vaccines within weeks, but evangelical parents might not let their kids roll up their sleeves.

In a recent Probe Research survey shared with the Free Press, two-thirds of evangelical Manitobans said they “worry about the long-term effects of COVID-19 vaccinations in children,” compared with 41 per cent of overall respondents.

In addition, 49 per cent of those identifying as evangelical said COVID-19 as an issue was “overblown,” compared with 28 per cent of the overall population.”

 

What would lead Manitoba parents to distrust government or the authorities so much that they would put the lives of their children in danger when the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence, and by now, real life experiences, make it so clear that not taking vaccines is a dangerous choice?

The newspaper interviewed Rick Hiemstra, research director of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and this is what he said, “A lack of trust and polarization have come home to roost.” So many of these evangelicals now identify with their group—Christians who don’t trust vaccines. They don’t trust scientists. No matter how many of them. They don’t trust the government. Instead, they trust what other members of their tribe have told them or trust what they have “learned” from their own “research” on the Internet. And they do so while they put the lives of their children in danger.

Here is what a local theologian said as reported by the Winnipeg Free Press,

“Evangelical scholar Nicholas Greco said numerous factors cause that gap, from a desire to rely on God for healing, to science clashing with creationism, to general skepticism of media and government.

“Evangelicals often are reflective of a social and political conservatism, which calls for smaller governments (and) personal autonomy, but also tends to lead to a mistrust of government,” said Greco, who is provost of Providence University College in Otterburne.

Greco, a long-time communications professor, said there’s a perception the government wants to control everyone, and that the media is overhyping the virus as part of some sort of conspiracy.

“The rhetoric I hear from many of my colleagues… is that we don’t want the government to have further control, because if they do, we will lose our freedoms,” he said.”

 

The evangelicals believe conspiracy theories rather than scientists and they believe them so strongly they put the lives of their children in danger. It is like an article of their faith that vaccines are untrustworthy, and no reasoning, no data, or no actual experiences will shake them from their convictions.

Here is what the Free Press reported, “

 

“At a recent panel, one congregant said everyone who got the vaccine is going to die within a few years, and that they’ll all go to hell.”

As an aside, think for a moment about what a monstrous God this person believed in—a god who would punish someone for eternity for doing what our scientists have strongly recommended.

It is as if denial of vaccine efficacy has become part of their religious faith.

 

Manitoba shreds the Public Trust

As faithful readers of this blog will know, I have been posting about the lack of trust among people of lower incomes in particular because they have felt abandoned by their government, the political leaders, and political elites.  Then just as I thought I was done for now on this subject Manitioba’s premier demonstrated how true this is.

I was shocked to read the Winnipeg Free Press yesterday. The paper reported on our new Conservative Premier as follows:

“As the Omicron variant roars across the province, Manitoba’s premier conceded the public—and not the government—must be responsible for limiting its spread. “This virus is running throughout our community and it’s up to Manitobans to look after ourselves,” Premier Heather Stefanson told reporters on Wednesday.”

 

I don’t deny that Manitobans must take responsibility for their own health. Failure to do so leads to all kinds of harms, but that does not mean we should be abandoned by our government for that too leads to serious harm, for all of us. This is exactly what Anita Sreedhar and Anand Gopal said in the New York Times:

“Over the past four decades, governments have slashed budgets and privatized basic services. This has two important consequences for public health. First, people are unlikely to trust institutions that do little for them. And second, public health is no longer viewed as a collective endeavor, based on the principle of social solidarity and mutual obligation. People are conditioned to believe they’re on their own and responsible only for themselves. That means an important source of vaccine hesitancy is the erosion of the idea of a common good.”

 

The Premier of Manitoba made it clear that this is exactly how she feels about Covid-19. We are on our own! It’s no wonder many Manitobans no longer believe in the common good and as a result the trust so necessary in a democracy has been shredded. It appears that this is what our Premier wants. She wants us to go at it alone.

 

What she is forgetting is that will have consequences for everyone. We all benefit from the public trust when it is robust. Then we are all prepared to do our part. Take vaccines, listen to sound advice from trusted experts, and chip in for the good of all. The Premier is forgetting that we all need to look after each other, particularly in a time of pandemic. We want others to take vaccines not just for their benefit, but our benefit too. They won’t do it if they feel abandoned. Then we when need them it will suck to be us.

 

Health is a Common Good

 

So how do we get public trust? We earn it.

Anita Sreedhar and Anand Gopal said in their New York Times article that the history of the vaccines in the US is relevant here.  In the US where vaccines have been available for as long as vaccines have been around, when vaccines for smallpox, a very deadly disease, were first introduced, In the US in the early 20th century, efforts to vaccinate people met with some strong (virulent?) opposition. But attitudes of people changed sharply after World War II. In the 1950s the government had a hard time keeping up with the demand and, this may seem shocking to us now, by the late 1970s nearly every state had laws mandating vaccinations for schools and there was very little opposition.  Why was that?  That is the big question. A Public good demanded strong public policy.

 This was the time when big government was appreciated!  That seems like forever ago doesn’t it? Governments in the west brought in ambitious social programs for things like Medicare, Old Age Security and things like that. They called it the welfare state. People loved these benefits of government. In the mid-‘60s in the US there were a number of social programs targeted at helping poor people, even black people. In the US President Johnson declared War on Poverty and pursued what he called “the Great Society.” Specific government programs sought to achieve greater public health among the poor and were very popular. As Sreedhar and Gopal said about some of the organizations created under these programs, “they embodied the idea that public health is effective only when community members share in decision making.” They demonstrated  an appreciation that health care was a common good! And that made all the difference.

As Sreedhar and Gopal said,

“The experience of the 1960s suggests that when people feel supported through social programs, they’re more likely to trust institutions and believe they have a stake in society’s health. Only then do the ideas of social solidarity and mutual obligation begin to make sense.”

 

The types of social programs that best promote this way of thinking are universal ones, like Social Security and universal health care. Universal programs inculcate a sense of a common good because everyone is eligible simply by virtue of belonging to a political community. In the international context, when marginalized communities benefit from universal government programs that bring basic services like clean drinking water and primary health care, they are more likely to trust efforts in emergency situations — like when they’re asked to get vaccinated.

 When such attitudes are present, and when the common good is respected, and not disparaged, as it has been disparaged now for about 4 decades, people trust the government and their institution’s.  They are not suspicious of them and then don’t sneer at them as they do now. The world is then a different place. I would say, then the world is a better place. And that attitude helped to make the world a better place. As Sreedhar and Gopal concluded:

“If the world is going to beat the pandemic, countries need policies that promote a basic, but increasingly forgotten, idea: that our individual flourishing is bound up in collective well-being.”

 

The pandemic has made starkly clear how important it is to have a feeling of common purpose and a respect for the common good. We now are starting to appreciate the enormous importance of such beliefs for their absence makes the most important enterprises—public enterprises—impossible.

America, and to a lesser extent Canada, and the world, will have to realize that 40 years of conservative policies that included reductions in basic social services while their incomes stagnated and while the rich people have seen their incomes rise enormously, will exact a terrible price on society. Ripping the social fabric of a country does not come without costs. In fact, it comes with enormous costs. That can even come back to haunt the rich who benefited from the reduced taxes. Perhaps they even gained less than they lost! Sometimes it takes something like a pandemic to make it clear that we need each other. We actually are in this together. If we can’t get the poor to participate in important social programs like vaccinations, we will all be stuck with a hefty bill.

Yes, social programs cost money; so does ripping them to shreds.  We should remember not to be cycnics. For as  Oscar Wilde said, “the cynic knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing.”

A Shared reality is Necessary for Trust

 

The pandemic has made it clear that the cost of people not trusting the government is enormously high. That does not mean we should not critically examine everything they tell us.

This is the root of the problem in many parts of the world, particularly areas of great inequality of economic wealth, such as the United States, where the upper income classes and the lower income classes often don’t share the same reality. The world does not look the same from the penthouse as it does from the doghouse. Or homeless shelter. That is why they look so differently at vaccines. As Anita Sreedhar and Anand Gopal pointed out in their New York Times article:

 “As the emergence of the Omicron variant shows, vaccine mandates in the United States are not enough to solve this problem. Hesitancy is a global phenomenon. While the reasons vary by country, the underlying causes are the same: a deep mistrust in local and international institutions, in a context in which governments worldwide have cut social services”

 

In the US, unlike Canada and most other countries in the developed world, the people don’t enjoy as many public health services and they have been radically declining for about 40 years. They have only meager socialized health care. As Sreedhar and Gopal drew to our attention in their Times article,

“Research shows that private systems not only tend to produce worse health outcomes than public ones, but privatization creates what public health experts call “segregated care,” which can undermine the feelings of social solidarity that are critical for successful vaccination drives.”

 

Not only in the United States, but all countries where public health care benefits have been declining, such as Canada, feelings of ‘we are in this together’ have sharply declined. Both upper and lower classes don’t really believe this. The upper classes don’t want to be in this together, and the lower classes know very well it is not true.  They see it every day.

According to research by Sreedhar and Gopal in many developing countries people are not as grateful for aid as we in the west might expect. For example, they pointed out, the WHO has spent a lot of money promoting vaccines for polio. These are very worthy programs. We in the west know that. People in developing countries however see such programs as demonstrating mistaken priorities. They see polio as a vague threat. At the same time, they are often going hungry and they don’t see any help for that. Here is what they found:

“We have starvation and women die in childbirth,” one tribal elder told us. “Why do they care so much about polio? What do they really want?” Researchers find these sentiments echoed in poor and marginalized communities around the world.”

 

Interestingly, poor people in rich countries often feel the same way. Distrust is very difficult to overcome. Words won’t do.