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Book Review: Questioning the COVID Company Line
Critical Thinking in Hysterical Times, by Laurie Calhoun
“Rationalist theorizing…is only one branch of medicine, but it makes such grandiose claims that its practitioners come to imagine themselves the only medical experts in the world. But when you bring them down to earth and give them a patient to look after, they turn out to be as useless as someone who has never even opened a single medical textbook. Often in the past patients have entrusted themselves to these people, won over by their way with words, and have come close to losing their lives, even if they had nothing seriously wrong with them in the first place…People often find a plausible argument preferable to examining actual facts…thanks to the inability of ordinary people to see things clearly, by the arrogant verbiage of the theorists.” - Polybius [12.25d]
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Questioning the COVID Company Line: Critical Thinking in Hysterical Times. Published by The Libertarian Institute. 2023. 279 Pages.
Full Disclosure: I have known Laurie [online] for several years and consider her a personal friend. We do not, however, have the sort of relationship which would prevent me from being critical of her work, though I liked this book for the same reasons I like her as a person.
Updated Disclosure 8/25/23: I actually got picked up as a writer by The Libertarian Institute in the time since I published this, but that is unrelated to this review.
“Trust the science!” they said. “Listen to the experts!” During the “Coronapocalypse” we heard the same tired refrains until we wanted to gouge out our eardrums. In reality, the “experts” were incredibly wrong about their own narrow specialties, and even had they been right about the medical side of things, they are not experts on the costs of public policy. The covid cultists called us “grandma killers” and said we “only cared about the economy,” as if grandma couldn’t herself easily stay home and the economy only impacts the rich. There is a proverb of unknown provenance which says “truth is the first casualty of war,” and indeed, once they declared war on a coronavirus, there was a blare of propaganda the match for any dystopian film, whipping the public up into a fury of irrationality. Those of us standing against the wind from the beginning were at the greatest of disadvantages when the only things informing decision making were an unwarranted fear of the “unknown” and a bias for action. By the time more were on our side, our enemies were hopelessly dug in. In Questioning the COVID Company Line: Critical Thinking in Hysterical Times, Laurie Calhoun presents a series of essays spanning from August of 2020 through March of 2023, a period after the initial panic but which covers the rise and fall of the vaccines and ultimately the end of the years-long “state of emergency.”
Calhoun, who has a background in chemistry and philosophy, is different from the “expert” class in that she has a well-rounded intellect and is able to thoroughly consider what is right and wrong, apply logic, and examine the ethics of the costs of government policies. Perhaps more importantly, as a long-time foreign policy writer who has written a book about the drone war, she understands the costs and counterproductive nature of America’s real wars and why they should not be a model for a figurative war on infectious respiratory disease. This collection provides profound and useful insight from two and a half years in the life of a sane and sagacious woman in a mad and foolish world. We should all strive to follow Calhoun’s path of critical thinking and common sense instead of letting fear drive us into trusting the crackpot theories of a specialist class.
To start with the physical book itself, everything is well put together and of impressive quality, especially for having been independently published by a small non-profit. I was offered a free advanced PDF in the knowledge that I would review the text, however, as I have the spirit of an elderly person who fears technology, I insisted on buying a “dead tree” copy. The acknowledgements say the book was put together by Ben Parker, Mike Dworski, and Grant Smith, who did a wonderful job of turning this collection of online essays into a proper text- it does not at all have the feel of something which was simply copied off the internet. The citations have all been converted from the original hyper-links into convenient end notes. There is also a thorough index of place and personal names for easy reference. It is refreshing to see a new book from an independent publisher so well put together, given the gate-keeping from the neurotic “woke” women at mainstream commercial publishers. Books which encourage people to think critically and question the most deranged aspects of our society are more important than ever, and The Libertarian Institute has done a good thing by getting this one into print. I must note that my first copy was improperly bound and many pages fell out [perhaps damaged in shipping from summer heat,] but Amazon replaced it for free without requiring me to return the first copy, so it cost me nothing but a few days of waiting.
As to the content of the book, Calhoun started these essays in August of 2020, which as she explains in the introduction, was after the legendary anti-war broadcaster Scott Horton invited her to join The Libertarian Institute. However, there is another benefit to this timing, in that there was a lot of genuine confusion in the earliest days and we can be more charitable towards the people who were initially taken in by the panic, as to fear diseases is human, and it all seemed severe when the government was ginning up a panic instead of telling us to remain calm [of course, in retrospect, it’s clear that if it was serious they would have told us to remain calm.] As I have said for around 3 years now, anyone who didn’t get it by the end of June, 2020 is unlikely to ever get it. This is not an arbitrary cutoff: June, 2020 is when after months of telling us to stay home and calling us evil for demanding our rights, suddenly the “pubic health experts” did an about-face and declared that “racism is a public health emergency” and encouraged the “mostly peaceful” BLM riots despite that we were still supposed to stay home for all non-rioting purposes. The jig was up for anyone with a shred of rationality and credibility, at which point the covid cultists dug in even harder.
Calhoun, a permanent world traveler, was in Europe at the beginning of the “Coronapocalypse,” as she likes to call it. She ultimately had to return to her native United States to continue her wanderings, as the lockdowns made living abroad unfeasible- including that hotels were shuttered in the United Kingdom. Each essay starts with a date and the location it was written, which gives the text a “dispatches” sort of feel, taking the reader on her journey with her and conveying the experience of being one of the last remaining travelers viewing a society put into a sort of induced coma. The author also got a severe case of the virus early on in Europe, and as a person who maintained rationality, knew this meant she had a great deal of immunity. Being as viruses become less deadly but more contagious over time, it is understandable she would have been greatly impacted catching it in Europe in the Spring of 2020, as opposed to the later era of constant testing and symptom-less “cases.” Calhoun, a believer in what was called the “dangerous theory” of natural immunity, knew she could continue to travel without presenting a risk to herself or others.
For all of this, once the vaccines were released the fanatics still would not let her travel abroad without one. As was pointed out by many, including the author throughout these essays, a vaccine works by the same basic method as natural immunity, so it is inherently true that a vaccine could not work for any disease for which natural immunity does not develop. Regarding the mRNA shot, I must say that after reading this I still don’t know what an mRNA shot is and I still don’t want to find out, though Calhoun is among those who call it a “gene therapy” and does explain it in a way which should make sense to most interested readers.
Since anyone who is reading this review was likely forced to learn and understand more about the science of disease than he ever wanted to know throughout the “pandemic,” I am not going to focus on where the essays explain things about disease which suddenly became “forgotten knowledge” in early 2020. However, it is important to remind everyone just how counter-productive many initial measures clearly were if the goal had been to reduce transmission and care for those who were ill. This all goes much farther than the sheer insanity that was closing hospitals to routine medical procedures before those areas had any covid hospitalizations, thus giving us the horrible phenomenon of the bored nurses doing TikTok dances. At the time I likened this to having food rations for a month and then not beginning to consume it until the 15th day. The rational thing to do was to run through as many routine and preventative appointments as possible in anticipation of hospitals being overwhelmed [which of course never happened anyway] and we can assume Americans still die daily from cancers that could have been removed if they were detected early at routine screenings. Calhoun notes in the introduction that, along with other measures, shepherding everyone home to America from abroad seemed particularly counterproductive. She writes,
“I was so puzzled by these measures, taken seemingly under advice from public health officials, that I pondered the following hypothetical question: If one wished to spread the virus to as many people throughout the United States as possible in the shortest amount of time, what would be the best way to do such a thing?” 
Her answer, of course, is exactly what they did do. I experienced the same thing at the time, where instead of people being distributed throughout society as was once normal, in the early “pandemic” everyone was in the grocery store all the time because there was no other place to be. Some time into all of this the county public health director in my own county said that the university being closed was encouraging disease spread, which greatly confused the covid cultists. Of course, he was right: with the university open the lowest risk population would be together all day, whereas with it closed they were all everywhere all the time, including grocery shopping at the same time as “grandma.” And of course, human nature being what it is, all of those young people socialized even more at night, due to the deprivation of “distance learning.” On top of that, Calhoun notes that when she was in Austria you could avoid a mask fine by always being eating, drinking, or smoking [7,] and it was the same here: surely plenty of these students were doing their schoolwork in cafes after they opened, not needing to wear a mask so long as they sipped coffee with some frequency. In one particularly absurd instance, for her to leave Austria for the United Kingdom, she had to travel through Ireland, as Austria had put the United Kingdom on a “no-go” list due to whatever arbitrary virus rate number. Of course all this accomplished was her being on an extra airplane with another group of people and increasing everyone’s chance to catch the virus [3.] The breadth of the irrationality and idiocy of the covid response, of which there are many examples in this text, is vast enough that no one should be forgiven for not, at the very least, thinking the government responded with drastic incompetence. I am as skeptical as anyone of statistics the government has put out on this, but one of the illuminating facts in this text is that the United States spent a higher percentage of GDP on the covid response than any other country besides Singapore, and had the worst outcome of any wealthy nation, both in terms of virus deaths per capita but also in excess mortality [191.] The beatification of Dr. “The Science” Anthony Fauci notwithstanding, by the government’s own numbers they failed miserably.
The irrationality of government messaging and policies has made it difficult for anyone to parse through the “pandemic” era and come to coherent conclusions. Calhoun noted in April of 2021, shortly before the “lab leak theory” was finally allowed to be discussed that it was such an unusual illness that the subjective experience of having it had made her wonder if it was a man-made “Frankenvirus.” She writes,
“The idea that COVID-19 was developed in a lab and released by human error was rejected by all the CNN-certified authorities, so I naturally listened to “The Science” and began focusing on other matters, such as whether the project of inoculating all of the 9 billion people on the planet with a vaccine might be a way of ending the pandemic” [67.]
I confess that I myself also didn’t give the topic too much thought until the incredible Vanity Fair investigation from early June, 2021. What is important about what this illustrates is that we were fed so much contradictory information and faced so many threats that it was difficult for anyone to focus on even those things which they would have believed from personal experience. Calhoun notes in an essay about virtue signaling and the irrationality of social media discourse the difficulty of holding coherent opinions even in normal circumstances,
“Given the entirely unsystematic means through which we arrive at our beliefs, it seems likely that each of us holds at least some contradictory views…It would be irrational not to modify beliefs in the light of new revelations, and as the COVID-19 story continues to unfurl, rational people stand ready to acknowledge when they were wrong” [146.]
The government and media weaponized this premise and flooded us with so much contradictory information about their ridiculous response that it was difficult for the covid skeptics to maintain non-contradictory stances. For some examples, was covid a normal cold, an escaped modified virus, or a Chinese engineered bioweapon? Did China’s policies show that only the most severe lockdowns would have impact and would still ultimately fail, or were China’s numbers always a lie? Was the covid response evil by design or just incompetence which was later taken advantage of by a rapacious oligarchy? [On this last one I would note yet again that the evil/incompetence matrix is generally the hardest thing to analyze about government.] Since unlike the covid cultists, for the most part the skeptics do have a degree of logic and integrity, these contradictions pose a problem, though we’re helped by the fact that, as I noted recently, random right wing crackpots did remarkably well at predicting everything about covid so we at least are left with much less to correct than the Fergusons and Feigl-Dings of the world. Still, I need to take this opportunity to share a remarkable recent piece from Jordan Schachtel at The Dossier which actually consolidates the main contradiction:
This puts together something I was struggling to express for some time: they clearly thought they were responsible for releasing an unprecedented supervirus, but they are also completely incompetent. I see a great advantage in already being familiar with Schachtel’s theory as one reads this text.
One place where this text particularly shines is Calhoun’s thorough understanding of philosophy. Throughout the Coronapocalypse we were constantly told to make this or that sacrifice for the “greater good,” but their claims of what constituted a greater good were ludicrous. There is no serious philosophy that I know of which would argue it is ethical or desirable to ask an entire society including children to make enormous and costly sacrifices that the very elderly could perhaps avoid dying of natural causes. The author’s interest in philosophy, most of all ethics and individual rights, impacts every part of the text. The philosophical problems with covid policies are stated most clearly in the essay “How Not to Treat Human Beings as Moral Persons.” She compares deontological approach of Kant to the utilitarianism of philosophers such as Mill and Bentham, most of all calling attention to the way a sort of quasi-utilitarianism is used to promote wars and other such damaging and anti-human policies [97-98.] Calhoun does reference the libertarian “Non-Aggression Principle” multiple times, perhaps thinking of her expected audience at The Libertarian Institute; while I personally have little use for this, there were some dreadful faux-libertarians making absurd claims such as that by spreading disease through incidental contact you are “aggressing” against people, so there is a value to setting them straight about how that belief would apply to all of this. However, you don’t need to be some sort of medical ethicist to know that doctors should “do no harm,” whereas covid policies caused vast collateral damage. “The Great Barrington Declaration,” included as an appendix in the book, which called for “focused protection,” IE protecting those who need it, was called an “ethical nightmare” by a major publication. Meanwhile, the lockdown policies we actually had didn’t work while causing enormous harm but generating corrupt profits for pharmaceutical corporations. That is what’s been so frustrating the whole time is that there is no political or ethical philosophy which justifies the insanity we have experienced, and none of these ideas ever should have moved past a college essay prompt about why not to do any of it.
The aspect which makes this text the most unique of the many books which have and will continue to be written about this is Calhoun’s background in covering the War on Terror. I don’t want to go deep into it as I think for this aspect it is best if you read the text yourself, but suffice to say, the “War on Covid” very much follows the same pattern of naming a shadowy enemy, creating a hysteria, and then running roughshod over life and liberty at home and abroad in the name of solving it. As the author points out, this is not so different from what they did to Gaddafi in Libya [98,] where they insisted a mass casualty event was imminent, responded with extreme brutality, and made things worse for an entire society. During all of this the phrase “virus gonna virus” arose, to describe the extreme hubris of believing that infectious respiratory disease could be controlled through oppressive government. The ever shifting orders and propaganda each time the virus would break out somewhere new bore a remarkable similarity to the “whack-a-mole” game of targeted drone strikes based on random and unreliable data because political leaders decided to do whatever depraved and incompetent “experts” said [59.] In many ways the covid era was the final realization of every civil libertarian’s worst fears when the PATRIOT ACT was passed in 2001: the end of all of your rights. We saw surveillance, totalitarianism, censorship, and thought control taken to some of the greatest extremes in human history in our era’s kamikaze attack on a cold. Yet, a lot of 2001 civil libertarians were among the most enthusiastic proponents of these egregious violations, because for some reason that is still not clear to me, people of a more liberal disposition have a tendency to be obsessed with doctors and disease.
If not for my desire to review this book to support a friend, it is unlikely I would have read it at all, as I lived through the covid hysteria and don’t like to remember. Further, I read some of these as they were published [and am even thanked in the acknowledgements for publicly interacting with them in a time when most were still silent.] However, I am glad I read it, as Questioning the COVID Company Line not only provides an excellent chronology of the insane and shifting narratives and policies under which we suffered, but also because Laurie Calhoun is quite a bit more thoughtful and measured than most of us manage to be. It’s remarkably refreshing to read someone with a more holistic education who is able to properly examine this complex issue from multiple angles. In reality, 100 years ago any well-educated person would have her knowledge of chemistry and philosophy, though she is a good writer by the standards of any era. Even now, people who have attended the elite institutions our rulers attend certainly should have the background in both fields to have known what was wrong with all of this. What got them, I imagine, besides just cowardice and corruption, is the belief that technology has changed the world- in this instance, the belief that scientists made an unprecedented new disease and technology gave them new ways to fight it. The truth is that while technology has changed the mechanisms by which many things function, human affairs as a whole are unchanging, and viruses are also just as they’ve always been.
Calhoun notes in the conclusion that hardly any of her writing rises to the level of polemic [248,] which is true, though in my opinion perhaps it should have: there is much to be angry about. In retrospect she also might have benefited from being more conspiratorial- like many responsible people on the correct side of this she tried to keep a measured head only to find out over and over again that government and corporate guilt was worse than we possibly could have imagined. I do, unfortunately, believe that convincing people of anything about covid is a lost cause, a frustration Calhoun herself expressed in an August 2022 essay, writing, “I am frankly tried of trying to reason with people who want so ardently to believe, that they will never read any article, much less an entire book, critical of the Fauci-CNN narrative” [192.] However, this wonderful text is not a lost cause, as it gives succor and encouragement to those of us “carrying the fire” of sanity within our society. Just as in South Park the characters Stan and Kyle take turns being the one who stays rational and the one who goes along with the hype of the week, there is always a risk that the next social mania will get you- and the government seems to come up with several a year [though mercifully our society has now broken into “current thing” and “anti-current thing” camps.] You might not feel that you need to learn anything about the covid era you’ve just lived through, but you should read Questioning the COVID Company Line anyway, as there is always more to learn about the practice of critical thinking, and Laurie Calhoun is a wonderful teacher.
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