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

1 October 2020 — Jonathan Cook

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 documents have 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.

15. 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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