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Corona Censorship And Covid-19 Politics
Report|May 25, 2022

Corona Censorship And Covid-19 Politics

Authoritarianism Is Our New Normal. There Is No Room For Free-Thinking In Corona-Era.
Gideon Rozner

When Novak Djokovic won his first case against the Australian Government in January, I turned on the live coverage on Sky News, recognised the building in the background, and made the five-minute walk to join the couple of hundred Djokovic supporters celebrating outside the courthouse. 

Almost all of them were members of Melbourne’s large Serbian community, and the good news had turned the protest into a kind of Bulkan carnival. There were flags, folk dances, a good many wearing traditional Serb dress, teenage girls with face paint, excitable 20-something types on their summer break. A Serbian Orthodox priest said a prayer, and the crowd went silent then started up again. An old man gave me his hat – one that turned out to be exceptionally well-made and most likely quite old, making it one of the most thoughtful gifts I’ve ever received.

It wasn’t, though, just about Melbourne’s Serbs rocking up to support one of their countrymen. Like everything else, the day was laced with politics – COVID politics. In between the hugs and dances and vox pops to the handful of journalists floating around, many of them pulled me aside to tell me what they thought about lockdowns, vaccine mandates, the dangerous trajectory on which Australia and the world was heading.

That’s the thing about eastern Europeans. They know authoritarianism when they see it, and they tend not to want Australia to descend into the kind of savage hell from which they escaped decades ago. So I loved sharing in their joy, and the common feeling that something, something had delivered a blow to the COVID state.

In the end it didn’t matter. The government invoked a special executive power, the subsequent court appeal was lost, and Djokovic was deported the following Monday.

By the time the case was appealed to the full bench of the Federal Court, the government’s grounds for booting Djokovic out anyway had been whittled down to just one. They could not demonstrate that Novak had done anything improper, anything unlawful, or anything that would endanger the health (in any real sense) of a single man, woman or child on Australian soil. But what they did argue was that because he was a high-profile vaccine objector, his mere presence in the country risked stoking ‘anti-vax sentiment’.

The specific power that allowed the feds to do this is contained in section 116 of the Commonwealth Migration Act. The clause gives the immigration minister the discretion to cancel a visa if he or she is satisfied that the holder of said visa is a risk to ‘the health, safety and good order of the Australian community’.

It’s far from the first time this power has been invoked. Australia has a long history of barring controversial figures from the country, from holocaust denier David Irving to provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. But at least in those cases, the ban was made on the premise, real or imagined, that the person being banned intended to be making a speech that poses some vague risk of societal unrest. Here, the government was arguing – successfully as it turned out – that there was a problem with the private, personal views of some bloke who wanted to come to Australia to play tennis.

And over vaccines, of all things. In a country with one of the highest vaccination rates on earth, three federal judges decided that it was reasonable to believe that having Novak Djokovic in the country would make a critical mass of Australians somehow change their mind.

The risk was, the court concluded, not just that Novak would gee up ‘anti-vaccination groups [with] extreme views’, but equally that he could influence ‘people who may simply be uncertain or wavering as to whether they will be vaccinated’.

And there, in the 106-paragraph judgment, the judges gave the game away. For months, the unspoken job of absolutely anyone in a position of power and authority – from the federal government to major media outlets – was to push an unambiguous get-the-jab message. With the Djokovic case, the Federal Court of Australia rubber-stamped the notion that in corona-era Australia, there was simply no room for a free thinker who said no.

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THE RISE OF POLITICAL CORRECTNESS

Like so many other forms of madness foist upon us by the cultural left, political correctness is an easy phenomenon to recognise, but difficult to define – and harder still to account for its origins. But it is clear that political correctness was born not out of polite western sensibilities, but the dogma of totalitarian ideologies.

The phrase likely originated in American communist circles in the 1930s. Writing in support of radical socialist front group the United Farmers’ League in 1932, US Communist leader Harrison George noted that while ‘few [actual] farmers would ever understand’ the group’s platform, it was 
‘politically “correct” to the last letter’. Two years later, the New York Times observed that in Nazi Germany, ‘all journalists must have a permit to function and such permits are granted only to pure “Aryans” whose opinions are politically correct’.

By the 1980s, the concept of ‘political correctness’ had entrenched itself in the western zeitgeist, and was routinely referenced by an equal mix of supporters and opponents. In a favourable 1986 article about the popularity of Nicaraguan ‘fair trade’ coffee, a gushing waitress was quoted as saying: ‘It’s delicious, and even more important, it’s politically correct!’ That same year, a columnist for the conservative National Review criticised the then-newish The Cosby Show because its themes were ‘to use a hideously canting phrase, “politically correct”’.

As the 1990s dawned, political correctness went mainstream, raising the silent ire of ordinary Americans who resented the omnipresent hand brake on the national conversation. ‘The notion of political correctness has ignited controversy across the land,’ noted then-President George Bush in 1991. ‘And although the movement arises from the laudable desire to sweep away the debris of racism and sexism and hatred, it replaces the old prejudice with new ones.’

And so as the Berlin Wall came down, a new iron curtain was being built internally within the ‘free’ west. What had originated as a tool of authoritarian dogma had morphed into a well-intentioned fad among the chattering classes. As former Soviet countries began the long and fractious journey to liberalisation, western intellectuals were hardening the arteries of public debate. Just as liberal democracy had achieved global hegemony, it was imbibing the seeds of the ideologies over which it had triumphed.

Had ‘political correctness’ remained an informal and largely cultural phenomenon pushed by campus lefties and officious HR types, then perhaps it would have gone away on its own. 

But, soon enough, politicians got in on the act and ‘political correctness’ was rebranded as the countervailing force against the more sinister-sounding ‘hate speech’.

The evolution is important here. Where in the 80s and 90s political correctness was concerned with the distasteful and insensitive, ‘hate speech’ was posited as being positively harmful, inevitably invoking state intervention as a necessary remedy to said harm. Upholding ‘anti-hate speech’ provisions in the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code in 2013, the Supreme Court of Canada insisted that ‘as the majority becomes desensitized to the effects of hate speech, the concern is that some members of society will demonstrate their rejection of the vulnerable group through conduct, [and so] hate speech lays the groundwork for later, broad attacks on vulnerable groups’.

CHATTERING CLASSES PANIC

Then in 2016, when Britons voted to leave the European Union and Americans thrust Donald Trump into the White House, a sense of panic set in among the chattering classes. Faced with electoral developments that they barely understood, let alone agreed with, the political and cultural elite figured that something had gone horribly awry in the democratic process. 

Soon enough, they settled on a culprit – social media, and the unprecedentedly low barriers of entry for independent broadcasters and citizen journalists. The problem wasn’t necessarily that voters were getting it wrong – although they were, in the eyes of the gatekeepers of polite opinion – it was that they were being fed the wrong information.

The denizens of Silicon Valley were, naturally, horrified at the notion that they had facilitated the rise of the deplorables. And so, as the fractious and volatile back-end of the 2010s raged on, we started to hear more and more about the growing ‘threats to our democracy’ – ‘online extremism’, ‘right-wing terrorism’, and above all else, the spectre of 
‘misinformation’.Australia has a long history of barring controversial figures from the country

THE GREAT UNWASHED PROTEST

By the time the ‘freedom convoy’ arrived in Ottawa and deplorables by the thousands made their last stand outside the Canadian Parliament, uber-‘progressive’ Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had his rhetorical arsenal in place. Faced with the most dramatic protest seen anywhere in living memory, Trudeau rattled off just about every talking point that had been used over the previous two years to downplay opposition to the COVID state worldwide.

The protesters were a ‘fringe minority’, Trudeau insisted, despite the fact that they had attracted tens of thousands of people from all around the country. Protesters were driven largely by ‘racism’ and ‘white supremacy’, despite the fact that Canadians of many different ethnicities had made their way to Ottawa. Those who supported the convoy, by definition, ‘stood with the Swastika’. With nothing to back that there was only one report of an attendee who had actually displayed one, and he had been summarily booted by other protesters.

The closest Trudeau came to honesty throughout the whole saga was when he pointed to the one infraction of which the protesters were actually guilty. These were people, Trudeau insisted, with ‘unacceptable views’, the great unwashed who deserved everything that came to them.

And so as Trudeau’s finance minister scrambled to invoke anti-terror financing laws to drain the peaceful protest movement of funds – amounting to outright seizure of bank accounts belonging to anyone suspected of wrongthink – the Royal Canadian Mounted Police cleared the capital with bloody and violent force.

As one policeman would say in a group WhatsApp thread leaked to Canada’s Rebel News, ‘[it’s] time for the protesters who hear our jackboots on the ground’. They did.

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UNSPOKEN CAVEAT

Even for someone like me, who analyses public policy for a living, getting to the bottom of an issue as politically charged as COVID vaccines can feel damned near impossible. 

Official statistics and triumphant sound bites from sundry ‘experts’ suggest that the vaccines have been effective in driving down hospitalisations and deaths. But there is always the unspoken caveat, that uneasy sense that there is something that we are not being told.

Those of us who are used to being on the unfashionable side of public policy debates will tell you that something about this whole debate feels alarmingly familiar. 

To me, it’s analogous to the long, exhausting debate around ‘climate change’ that has been foist upon us for decades and counting – eminent scientists who are finding themselves unable to be published for the first time in their careers; a media class that takes every government utterance on face value; social media algorithms that flatten absolutely anything to do with the vaccines that veers from the official script.

Taken together, it all points to the most recent and perhaps ultimate iteration of the beast that is ‘political correctness’. We’ve moved past distasteful ‘offensive’ speech and even positively hurtful ‘hate speech’. 

‘Misinformation’ has become such a hobby horse of the political and cultural elite that it is, they insist, literally dangerous. One problematic utterance on vaccines or masks or the need for ‘social distancing’ can apparently put lives at risk. And when you turn free speech into a life-or-death menace, it’s easy to snuff it out without the majority noticing or caring.

At time of writing, financial markets are being batter by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Xi Xinping’s long-awaited play for Taiwan, it seems, will not be far behind. 

Right on cue, the same western leaders who have spent the past two years suppressing every conceivable human liberty in the name of suppressing a respiratory illness have started talking up the importance of sending troops overseas to ‘fight for freedom’.

There may not be too many who’ll answer the clarion call this time around. In a world of autocrats, we can all be forgiven for looking at Putin and Xi on the one hand, and the likes of Trudeau, Boris Johnson and Joe Biden on the other, and what, if anything, is the difference.