Doubt is a treacherous path. We must avoid being diverted towards terminal cynicism

Conspiracy theorists around the world have blamed Bill Gates and other world figures for the pandemic

JVL Introduction

A measured analysis of the covid crisis and an important contribution to discussion about and understanding of conspiracy theories

Here Jonathan Cook responds to calls from some on the left, berating journalists for not being “outspoken” enough on the covid pandemic.

In response Jonathan Cook offers a mission statement, outlining what he and other journalists can and should do in their reporting.

They need to expose the very real and very visible and structural conspiracies perpetrated by our elites to maintain and expand their power.

But the covid pandemic is not one of those: it is hard to discern any meaningful western narrative about the virus other than an agreement that it is a dangerous disease for some sections of the population and that its rapid spread could overwhelm most countries’ health services.

To sow doubt for its own sake, argues Cook, would be a disaster: if “we see everything as equally a conspiracy, we will be paralysed into inaction and hopelessness…”

This article was originally published by Jonathan Cook's blog on Thu 1 Oct 2020. Read the original here.

Doubt is a treacherous path. We must avoid being diverted towards terminal cynicism

What I think of as the cynical left are once again berating the progressive critical left, myself included, for failing to write what they want written about Covid-19. I take this as a kind of unintended compliment: that they think we can write about their concerns better than they can themselves.

But even if I wished to write someone else’s argument rather than my own, it would still be difficult to know for sure what the cynical left wants from progressive writers: that we pronounce the pandemic fake, or that we declare the danger from it overblown, or that we denounce mask-wearing as an infringement on personal liberty, or that we argue lockdown is a prelude to George Orwell’s 1984. Or maybe all of these.

No matter, the reproval has at least spurred me into setting down the following 15 points that, I suppose, amount to a mission statement to my readers, using Covid-19 as a template. I hope they clarify what I am trying to achieve with my blog and why I see the cynical left not only as misguided and ineffectual but as ultimately a brake on progressive change. They risk contributing to the worst trends in our increasingly polarised and dysfunctional societies.

1. Let me start with a brief comment about Covid-19. I have nothing unique, informed or interesting to say about the virus I haven’t already said in earlier pieces on my blog. I don’t write the same thing over and over – at least not intentionally.

Were I to write at the moment about the pandemic, all I would add are statements that I think are relatively obvious and have already been made in the “mainstream” media:

  • that most western governments have proved deeply incompetent or corrupt in handling the virus;
  • that, even during a pandemic, there must be a balance between public health needs and our need for a tangible sense of community, and daily I entertain doubts about where that balance should properly lie;
  • and that governments in trouble will try to exploit the pandemic as best they can to impose more repressive measures on their publics, exactly as is happening right now where I live, in Israel.

Attacks on our freedoms need to be identified and addressed as they occur. I don’t see a global conspiracy to lock us all into our homes. Those who do see such a conspiracy should be writing pieces to convince me and others that they are right, not whingeing that I have not written the piece for them.

2. The incompetence and corruption of our governments in handling Covid-19 are not specific to the virus. They are the symptoms of defective political systems that were long ago captured by corporate interests. Western, technocratic governments have no real solutions for the pandemic in exactly the same way that they have no real solutions for the collapse of eco-systems or for making our economic systems, based on endless growth on a finite planet, sustainable. The reason these challenges defeat them is because they have no values apart from ever greater concentration of wealth.

3. Even were I or others to narrowly focus on Covid-19, there are far more pressing things to talk about than the threat of masks and lockdowns. Such as how we have increased our exposure to new viruses like Covid through rampant colonisation and exploitation of the planet’s final wildernesses, depriving other species of their natural habitats. Such as how economic incentives in food production ensure we are deprived of proper nutrition and encouraged to stuff ourselves with empty calories, provoking an epidemic of obesity and chronic illness, that has weakened our natural defences to disease, especially a new one like Covid-19. I am less worried about lockdowns than I am about western lifestyles that make lockdowns our only way to prevent higher mortality rates.

4. More generally, my journalism strives to attack western power structures where they are most overtly aggressive, most unjust, most exposed and most vulnerable. I expend my very limited resources and energies on trying to persuade readers of the very real and very visible conspiracies – structural conspiracies – perpetrated by our elites to maintain and expand their power.

5. There are very explicit conspiracies that can be grasped with only a little critical thinking, such as the current efforts to lock away Julian Assange for life for exposing US crimes against humanity and the five-year campaign to destroy the party’s former leader, Jeremy Corbyn, before he could reach a position where, it was feared, he would be able to disrupt the neoliberal status quo rapidly driving us towards extinction. That conspiracy embraced senior Labour party officials, leaked documentshave shown.

A similar conspiracy by the Democratic leadership in the US to prevent Bernie Sanders becoming the party’s presidential candidate in 2016 was exposed in a leak of the DNC’s emails, though that, of course, has been largely plunged down the memory hole and replaced with a straightforward narrative about “Russian” malfeasance.

6. There is a reason why overt conspiracies – like the ones against Assange and Corbyn – are not instantly evident to a larger proportion of western publics: the coordinated efforts of corporate media, from rightwing to so-called “liberal-left” outlets, to enforce narrative orthodoxy. That can be seen in the media’s blackout on what is happening in the current Assange extradition hearings, and in the media’s earlier, blanket disinformation campaign against Corbyn. I have focused on these cases because they can encourage readers to question whether the corporate media really are truth-seekers, as they claim, or are simply the public relations wing of the power establishment.

7. These political and media conspiracies are the Achilles’ heel of a grand narrative designed to relate the west’s moral superiority and global benevolence. Exposing these conspiracies is the best hope of getting people to raise questions in their own minds – questions that may put them on the path to understanding that our leaders and our political systems are now controlled by billionaire donors not even pursuing their own nation’s interests, let alone the interests of humankind and the planet. Rather, this billionaire class pursue narrow, self-destructive corporate interests, whether it is banks driving people into debt, oil companies fuelling systemic environmental crises, or arms manufacturers lobbying for endless wars against an intangible “terror”.

8. Covid-19 does not appear to be one of those weak points in the western narrative, not least because it is very hard to discern any meaningful western narrative about the virus other than an agreement that it is a dangerous disease for some sections of the population and that its rapid spread could overwhelm most countries’ health services.

To challenge and disrupt that narrative, one would need either to persuade the public that the disease is not dangerous at all or that health systems can easily cope with large numbers of people getting sick. Even if I believed that were true, which I don’t, my chances of persuading anyone – outside of the small circle of believers among the cynical left – that I should be listened to over a majority of epidemiologists would be close to zero. And even if I could persuade significant numbers of people, what would it suggest other than that our political leaders were fools to listen to the medical establishment? What kind of political awakening would that amount to?

9. If there really is a conspiracy about the virus, it does not need writers like me to expose it. This is not the equivalent of a journalist few of us have ever met being locked away out of sight, or a political leader few of us have ever met being uniformly pilloried in the media. It is a virus running wild through the population. If it is a hoax, if there is no danger, if lockdown is entirely unnecessary, the truth of that will eventually become evident to ordinary people without the intervention of pundits like me. People do not want to be locked up. Fear, for themselves or their loved ones, is what makes them compliant. If they reach the conclusion that the restrictions on their liberty are unnecessary, they will react – whatever I or others tell them.

10. While I am being berated yet again for not challenging the supposedly nefarious motives behind lockdown, I and my family are enduring a second one in Nazareth. From here it doesn’t look like Netanyahu is bringing the Israeli health system to the brink of collapse; it looks like the virus is. Most definitely, Netanyahu has been incompetent. And equally certain is that he hopes to shut down growing street protests against his rule by exploiting the public health crisis.

His abuses of the system do not mean that, as Israel grapples with what appears to be the worst per capita infection rate in the world, the renewed lockdown is necessarily the wrong policy. But it does mean the Netanyahu government’s motives are muddled and public dissatisfaction is growing. Other governments are surely watching to see how Netanyahu weathers this storm.

11. Fears about the threat posed by Covid to western health care systems do not look to me like a political or media conspiracy. Fears of that threat appear to be the consensus of the western medical establishment. It is possible that the medical establishment may eventually be proved wrong. But it is hard indeed to believe that they are saying what they are saying only because it is convenient for politicians – or even that what they are saying is what most politicians want to hear. Politicians are only too aware of the public’s mounting frustration at being repeatedly locked up, seeing their jobs disappear and local economies start to collapse. Western politicians look to me deeply uncertain, fearful of a potential popular backlash, not co-conspirators in a grand plot to lock us all up indefinitely.

12. We are on a knife edge, and I am not here referring to Covid-19.

On the one hand, we are in a race – if our societies are to survive – to arrive at a new consensus, a new social contract, recognising that we need urgent and fundamental change. That will require first a greater popular acceptance that our leaders are incapable of overseeing that change because they are trapped in defective political structures. Those structures are irredeemably defective because they were captured long ago by corporate interests that are themselves dependent on policies driving us towards extinction. We have to increase the depth and extent of popular doubt because, without it, there will not be enough people thinking critically to push for wholesale change.

13. On the other hand, too much doubt – doubt simply for the sake of doubt, or cynical doubt – will not improve our chances of reorganising our societies and giving ourselves a shot at survival. The danger is that justified, educated, targeted scepticism morphs into kneejerk, enervating, fatalistic cynicism. That is the very trend our leaders have been cultivating in us – mostly inadvertently – through their own nihilistic support for a neoliberal status quo that, it becomes clearer by the day, is hurtling us towards a desolate future.

14. Doubt is a treacherous path to navigate. It has a decisive fork along the way: one route could lead to salvation, whereas the other heads with absolute certainty towards ruin. If we become so filled with doubt that we are no longer prepared to believe anything, or we see everything as equally a conspiracy, we will be paralysed into inaction and hopelessness.

It is hard to live without hope. Humans need to foster hope, even when it seems clear there is no hope. If we lose a sense that we can create real change through our actions, we end up – as some are doing already – looking to authoritarians and father figures who can reassure us that, though our situation appears bleak, they can make everything better, they have the answers.

The cynical left wants to drag the critical left down a path that propels us towards this doomed future. It is not my path. I will continue to ignore the siren calls urging me away from constructive critical thought towards destructive cynicism.

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Comments (12)

  • Dr ALAN MADDISON says:

    Excellent article.
    I had an exchange with a guy who thought the ‘Covid 19’ pandemic was false and part of a conspiracy to sell vaccines.

    The figures just don’t add up though.

    If 40 million people were vaccinated in UK, with two doses and an expected price of £20 and manufacturing costs of £10 each, that would generate a pretax revenue of around £800 million, from which say £150 million R&D and clinical trial costs must be deducted. So £650 million net.

    The first to market may get the early business but then several more would compete, so this would be shared by several companies over the years. Many would fail.

    At the same time the lockdowns may cause a 10% loss of GDP, and that equates to around £100 billion pounds. We need to wait to see the final costs for the Govt., employees and other companies.

    But can you imagine all the losers of this £100 billion +, all the scientists and doctors going along with such a conspiracy for the much smaller benefit given to a couple of pharma companies?

  • John McGarrie says:

    Have been making the same arguments, admittedly to a smaller cohort. On a lighter point, I was so pleased to read that J Cook reached a fork in the road. So many writers lazily used crossroads when they’ve actually meant a fork. I have to agree, that our choice is binary.

  • Charlie says:

    I have great respect for Jonathan Cook and indeed his critique of the media and government collusion over what he terms “structural conspiracies” in reference to Jeremy Corbyn and Julian Assange have played a decisive role in my own dismaying realisation that this collusion not only exists but on a far greater and more comprehensive scale than I would previously have thought possible, to the extent that more or less the opposite of the truth can become the mainstream consensus. It is therefore disappointing that in this article he sets up a series of straw men to knock down in defence of a “progressive left” that is opposed by a supposedly nihilistic cynical left who believe in a Covid-19 conspiracy that apparently has no structural basis and therefore can’t be revealed by close analysis of media and government collusion, because apparently the medical establishment all agree that Covid-19 was so deadly or virulent that lockdowns were the only answer. What is the difference between this and the argument that most Jews think Jeremy Corbyn made the Labour Party a home for anti-semitism, so it must be true? Firstly, are Jews/the medical establishment not influenced by the same media-government collusion? Secondly, to what degree should we believe in this notional consensus of Jewish/medical opinion, when we learn of it via the same biased and corrupt media (and when there is growing evidence of censorship on social media platforms).

    I would recommend reading the following for an overview of issues from a medical perspective that clearly points to a wider conspiracy:

  • Charlie says:

    Point 9 is extremely bizarre. “People do not want to be locked up. Fear, for themselves or their loved ones, is what makes them compliant.” Er yes, this is why the so-called cynical left spend so much time analysing the ways in which this fear is being promoted and exasperated with those who accept the incoherence and constantly shifting narratives used to sustain this fear we are force-fed by the mainstream media. This is why significant voices outside the mainstream media are important. To write an article purporting to address and refute the arguments made by the cynical left (and to come up with this derogatory name) without even mentioning the case of Sweden (no lockdown, under 6000 deaths from Covid-19, significantly lower excess death, average age of death 83) or the role of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in determining global public health priorities is intellectually dishonest. To fail to see the near-global normalisation of rule by decree under emergency powers which act uniformly to undermine all non-digital forms of economy and society, with devastating consequences for the poorest and most vulnerable (also globally) as not really much to worry about because, you know, climate change, is – coming from someone as intelligent as Jonathan Cook – I suspect something more like denial.

  • Stewart Whitehead says:

    Good to read this, because it is true. There is also a danger that the cynical left may also be encouraging people to inadvertently fall into the hands of the extremely cynical and dangerous far right. I recently looked up a facebook group which seemed at first to be appropriately challenging misuse of the Covid-19 crisis by the British government to hide its incompetence and to take advantage of emergency measures to reduce civil liberties. On further investigation I realised it was just another front for antimaskers and anti-social distancers who don’t seem to be able to recognise that the virus is real. Thank you Jonathan for helping us to recognise where the dividing lines lie.

  • JanP says:

    A measured and thoughtful analysis. Thank you.

  • Kenneth Tomkins says:

    Very good article, Jonathan Cook has expressed a lot of my thinking, but much more eloquently & clearly than I could. Thank you

  • Ruth Knox says:

    A really welcome analysis

  • Les Hartop says:

    I agree with Charlie, and it’s important for the left to be visible opposing this second wave of restrictions.

    The majority are turning towards the opinion that this is not a second wave, but a wave of testing finding more people carrying the virus, an epidemic which is largely asymptomatic, with extremely low rates of mortality or even sickness.

    I don’t like the term ‘cynical left’. Not many people think there was really a conspiracy to create a virus scare, that is really a fringe idea.

    But, a lot of governments are opportunistically taking advantage :-
    * Gilets jaunes off the streets.
    * Police everywhere habituated to restrict the 99% from enjoying normal life even keeping them indoors.
    * Totally novel systems of monitoring and control to record all our movements through an app promoted with the NHS logo, which may become obligatory.
    * Opportunistically Johnson is avoiding public discussion about the trade talks with the US and Europe.

    I it is important we recognise that we are now at a crossroads. Children are now in school, the roads are busy. The virus has circulated and we are seeing extremely low numbers of deaths. At the same time new restrictions an threats being rolled out.

    The left must be against this, but instead is on track to leave the defence of ‘freedom’ to the far right (again).
    Freedom of movement, freedom from government monitoring, freedom to socialise, and, the freedom to go out and earn a living with an employer that has not gone bankrupt and freedom to visit a hospital for cancer treatment.. etc.

    The restrictions are not popular, so the left has a huge OPPORTUNITY to win back the ‘red wall’ by being seen in the front line to Get Back to Normality.

  • Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi says:

    Thanks Jonathan Cooke for a clear response to a set of dangerously muddled assumptions. The term “cynical left” is helpful, if depressing, because it points to a larger current than I had discerned when I wrote a Facebook post motivated by a disturbing departure from rationality on the part of erstwhile comrades. Please share this post if you approve of it.

  • DJ says:

    Calling covid deniers, anti vax campaigners and lock down opponents the “cynical left” is a mistake. They have nothing in common with the left and have no interest in discussing how socialists should respond to the economic, health and climate crisis we face. Those with a right wing libertarian agenda support “the law of the jungle”, and an unregulated market economy. They present anything that hinders the pursuit of private profit as an attack on freedom and democracy. This is why they seek to minimise the threat posed by the virus. For them individual freedom trumps social responsibility. The conspiracy theories they promote are dangerous because they undermine social solidarity. Letting the virus rip through society to defend their right
    to”go about their business”even if it means infecting others has to be rejected by the left. Our health is more important than the survival of global capitalism. So is the planet. If a shutdown is required to deal with the crisis those responsible for it should be made to pay for it! All this talk about going back to normal to protect the profits of the few is unsustainable. Don’t be taken in right wing conspiracy theorists. Their alternative to the shambolic policies of this Tory government with all this nonsense about the hidden agendas of Bill Gates and the “medical establishment” is a dead end. Campaigning to socialise the pharmaceutical industry and to end the marketisation and privatisation of the NHS is the way forward!

  • DJ says:

    The right wing libertarians and think tanks are running around to find scientists to support a herd immunity strategy to deal with the virus. Living with the virus means letting it rip among the fit and able in the community in the hope that it won’t spread to the vulnerable. What they want the vulnerable to do, is sit at home to avoid contact with those required to carry on as normal to sustain disaster capitalism. In the meantime those who become infected who do survive may suffer long term health problems and there is no guarantee that they won’t catch the virus again.

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