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How others are organising the Covistance: ideas for those who want to help.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 02/11/2020 - 10:02pm in

How are we going to escape the authoritarian nightmare and regain our liberties and zest for life? This long read is written for organisers of new Covistance initiatives, explaining the logic of what others have done and what could further be done. So I am speaking to those of you who want to help and are looking around for how you could help. I will discuss website-based Covistance initiatives (lockdownsceptics.org, pandata19.org , covidplanb.co.nz , viruswaarheid.nl, and social media groups) , petition-type activities (timeforRecovery.org and others), Covistance media (including do-it-yourself activities), and others.

There are many things people with different talents can do and very little is being done already. There is for instance no organisation or initiative yet that really is dedicated to people who initially went along with the covid-hysteria and have woken up to the realisation that they have been a victim of scare-mongering and disinformation. We are seeing hundreds of thousands of people around the world in essence “waking up” from a kind of cult-nightmare, bewildered and uncertain. There is a real role for groups and initiatives of an Alcoholics Anonymous type where people can share experiences and tips on how to cope, how to recover, how to help their families and friends snap out of the hysteria and support them through the transition, etc.. Teaching material needs to be generated for such organisations, including written and visual material. Pastoral care is urgently needed. TalentedFree Community Service Cliparts, Download Free Clip Art, Free Clip Art on Clipart Library empathic people can set up these types of organisations and really make a contribution to their immediate environment.

I also think artists have a really important role. We need plays, songs, paintings, poems, etc., to remind us of beauty and the good life. Now is very much a time for art to play its role as a source of solace and hope.

There is also of course a need for scientists to research the hysteria and what kind of societies we should try to become. This is something I have written about a lot in the past (see https://clubtroppo.com.au/author/paul-frijters/). There is now plenty of good material by top scientists and institutions that tell a Covista what is going on and what policies our societies could adopt. It needs adding to by those with real skill in that area, but it is not the biggest bottleneck at the moment.

The biggest bottleneck at the moment is community formation: the creation of groups and organisations that help people become engaged citizens. The new organisations needed include new media networks that offer a Covistance perspective and new academic-type institutions where people can learn and study. There is also a need for local organisations to engage in local and regional politics. I want to discuss the many initiatives in different countries that have emerged so far, pointing out the more successful models.

Is more help needed at all, you might wonder? Unfortunately, it is becoming clear that many countries in the West and elsewhere will not be returning to the old normal anytime soon. Not only is it highly unlikely that any vaccine will mean the end of covid-19 deaths, but more fundamentally is it now the case that a machinery of coercion and control has arisen in many countries. That machinery has a very strong incentive to keep going, either by finding new threats or by ramping up the fear of whatever remains of the current threat.

So those with an interest in personal liberty, joy, reason, and all those other good things we had and took for granted, should organise. True, some us can just migrate to places that still have joyful liberty and let jealousy and poverty chip away at the authoritarian systems they leave behind. But not all of us can or want to migrate, as many want to create a good place where we are now. They will have to organise a resistance and find solace and joy doing so.

There are many very worthy and heartening Covistance initiatives underway in many countries. Some initiatives have transformed existing institutions, others have set up new ones. So there are now newspapers, tv-stations, and political parties that are part of the Covistance.

New civic society communities are sprouting up all over the place, fighting the misery and authoritarianism of the covid-mania that has such a stranglehold over the vast majority of existing media and institutions. I want to discuss some examples of what others have done and the internal logic of their choices so you can judge whether doing something similar is for you.

 

Lockdownsceptics.org

The most successful type of community building I have seen so far among the Covistance initiatives is the lockdownsceptics.org website run by Toby Young, a British journalist. He does two mains things:  he gives a daily update on events relevant to the Covistance in the UK, and he provides a forum for people to share and discuss what is happening in their own neck of the woods. Both of these things are done in a very clever, but cheap and easy to copy manner.

Writing his daily updates must take Toby Young a fair chunk of each day: he gets sent and looks for interesting academic papers and commentary on what is happening. He uses extensive quotes rather than his own summary. Importantly, he flatters whom he approves of and brutally takes down whom he ridicules, with no in-betweens. His daily update then consists of about 5 summaries of particularly noteworthy contributions and events, introduced by a funny cartoon and usually with a few graphs, topped up with a list of 10 to 20 links to other pieces written elsewhere. The site also has a compendium of longer pieces on particular issues people often ask about (like herd immunity, the crowd-nature of the covid-mania, the issue of the PCR tests, etc.) and forums for particular discussions. But every day you basically get to see a new update as the first page, where you can click through the daily updates of previous days.

The second part of the daily updated page is just as important and much less work: a comment section in which, daily, some 1,000 to 2,000 mainly British citizens share their personal experiences, joys, laughs, and observations. I have watched this comment section evolve and it is like seeing a community emerge. There are regulars who push their views on covid and their personality each day. There are many who had a bad covid-related experience just recently and for instance need to vent about their cancelled cancer-screening, a co-worker who committed suicide out of loneliness, or a wedding that cant go ahead. There are those who share jokes or good news that they finally found a job. Then there are many who only write in once to say how much support they get from just reading about others who share their views. Then there are those who tell of personal resistance where they are, ranging from refusing to wear masks to writing to their members of parliament, to assembling lists of evidence. Toby never engages in these comments but seems to pick up some links from it now and then anyway.

Toby’s daily update forms a symbiosis with the commenting community he has enabled on his website, in that they send him interesting new information which he sometimes takes up in the next update. He is also in symbiosis with a community of Covistas in UK academia, business, and the public service. They write to him and send him secret documents, eye-witness accounts of what happened in crucial places (like hospitals or during demonstrations), or analyses of what is happening elsewhere. Toby is acutely aware of this symbiosis and thus links to his Covista friends. He is also very deliberate in forming communities and for instance has a “postcard from” section in which his readers get to hear about life somewhere else in the world, as well as a “love in times of covid” website where the Covistas find dates with each other.

So Toby is creating and enabling a mainly British community of Covistas consisting of ordinary citizens, academics, public servants, journalists, lawyers, and many others. He is the spider in the web of that Covistance community, making introductions between different members of that community (both via that website and by email), selecting what he thinks is worthy and trying to understand what is going on.

Note what Toby does not do on that website: whilst he provides forums on the same website for people to have their own discussions on lots of topics, he does not share the main story-telling with anyone else. The daily updates are his and his alone, though he doesn’t write ‘the world according to Toby’ pieces but rather tries to make main points by extensively quoting others. Also, he does not form a community of journalists who all post their own updates, nor does he allow real challenge to the conclusions he has come to. He thus uses the website to push some of his favourite opinions on other matters, and he does not have a board of trustees that verifies or judges what he does. It is thus not an academic place, nor is it a blog or a society. It is a mixture of infotainment and community-formation enabling.

The reason lockdownsceptics.org works so well is that Toby Young puts a huge amount of effort into it, he is quick on the uptake and so can sift through mountains of new information every day, has a good feel for what his constituency will have followed in the mainstream news, makes the site visually appealing and funny, and is willing to network far and wide on this topic. He is damned good at all of this.

Importantly, in my opinion Toby is not that good at reading the academic side of things. I actually think that is a strength because it allows knowledgeable outsiders to genuinely think they have something to add (and he often lets them), and regular readers will forgive him for making mistakes. So the direction of travel changes with new insights and what the high-status Covistas say whom Toby follows (so it does very much follow a class-system logic, which is probably a strength at this point for him). He also seems difficult to get on with personally, at least according to the comments I have seen on other sites by quite a few of his journalist colleagues who knew him for years. He is thus not a slick communicating super-scientist but a journo who has spotted a mass hysteria when he saw it, trying a new model which can be followed by those with similar strengths and weaknesses.

I have seen nothing like that endeavour elsewhere, though perhaps there are lots of other websites on different topics which work the same as his. But I think his model would work in many countries and would also attract sponsorship and some help (for instance with those cartoons). I can see it work in the Netherlands, in Australia, in the US, in New Zealand, etc. Maybe they already have such sites, but I don’t know about them.

Indeed, as a way of making a name and a new network for yourself as an unknown journalist, starting your own lockdownsceptics.org endeavour in your own country seems a great idea to copy if you have a similar skill set. If you can do the cartoons yourself or find someone who allows you to copy theirs, which is important because you will need funny visuals, it seems pretty cheap to do as well in terms of overhead.

 

Let me use the lockdownsceptics.org (LS.O) initiative to discuss some other community-building endeavours I have seen in the Covistance, like social media forums and blogs.

Money Heist Mask La Casa De Papel Vinyl Decal Sticker Car Window Wall in 2020 | Marvel comics wallpaper, Doodle art drawing, Mask paintingA good example of a Covistance social media forum is the facebook group in Victoria about this: https://www.facebook.com/groups/endthelockdownaustralia/ organised by Tim Flynn. It works like a regular facebook group in that those who are members can put up their own posts, on which everyone who is a member can comment. Anyone can apply and are usually let in, but I guess Tim Flynn decides. There are some very loosely defined and obeyed rules of the game, such as not posting conspiracy theories.

From Tim Flynn’s point of view, this Facebook group is much less work than LS.O as there is a whole community of people who post. He and his friends will have to do some policing and some inviting of new people, plus the occasional post by themselves. But it’s not a large daily job and does not involve constant networking and keeping up to date with what is happening on various fronts. So it’s the low-effort way of trying to create a bit of a Covistance community.

I have observed that Facebook group for a while and I find it of some use, but not all that much. It has become a bit of an echo chamber in which it’s the more energetic (which unfortunately does mean the conspiracy theorists and disgruntled) who post the most. There is a lot of swearing, the level of debate has not moved up, and there is little interest or attempt to get to a more constructive and informed Covistance. It is not really conducive to the formation of grassroots organisations either, such as walking groups, reading groups, and other groups that meet physically and thus become groups of friends who take on joint Covistance projects, although it does allow people to announce they are going to protest in particular venues. It’s very much an angry mob appealing to authority to save them from that same authority. Its a good source for funny cartoons.

This is not to deny that it has some benefits, which is mainly to allow the good people of Victoria to vent their anger at what is happening, share some personal hurt stories, and allow some coordination on events. So it helps to reassure many they are not alone.

From the point of view of the organiser, this facebook group type of endeavour is not highly appealing either. Tim can’t ask for money and it is not a means to have high-brow conversations that allow for networking with academics, businesses, politicians, and civil servants. So it can’t grow to anything that will help Tim’s standing and career.

Exactly the same issue pertains to lots of other social media Covistance groups that you see on Reddit, TikTok, Instagram, Telegram, Twitter, or wherever. They help people vent, grieve, and share some information, but the format is not useful for anything more effective and transformative. If you like, in the ecosystem of Covistance communities, they form easy-access “thank god I am not alone and can swear at the b*stards who have done this to us” groups.

Compared to LS.O they are also rather inefficient in sharing information and in forming a clear group: because lots of people are shouting at lots of different times, there is no central shared narrative but more a cacophony in which most things said are unnoticed by most involved. There is thus a huge waste of energy and insight happening there, much as if you have a church with 100 part-time priests shouting from the pulpit at the same time. It is cathartic for a while, but no more. There is no program, no direction, and little organisation.

 

pandata19.org , covidplanb.co.nz , and viruswaarheid.nl

A very different attempt at community formation can be seen in the websites run by groups of people with academic training, who try and convince their own countries of what they think is going on. Let me discuss three examples of this genre: the Dutch viruswaarheid.nl which is run by a virologist and a lawyer in order to convince the Dutch population about covid-mania, the Kiwi covidplanb.co.nz which is run by medics to advocate a different set of policies on covid in New Zealand, and pandata19.org run by South African academics and actuaries to convince the South Africans of the folly of what their government is doing.

A general point about all three of these is that they are focused on the debate inside their own country, with little attention to what is happening elsewhere. This reflects the fact that the populations of each country have become more insular and focused on what is happening in that country, which is what fear does. It is also the case that each three are “let me tell you what I think” websites, all based on the particular professional expertise of those running them. This helps with conserving a clear message the creators believe in, but puts a severe limit on the degree to which they enable community formation.

Now, covidplanb.co.nz is the least sophisticated of these website-based initiatives, perhaps reflecting that New Zealand is the smallest of the three countries involved and that the handful of medics running it only have very limited time to run it. It is basically a collection of pages on a specific website that says what the organisers think of covid policies in New Zealand, plus some letters and links regarding related activities and findings of others.

Unlike the community building Covistance endeavours talked about previously, there is no interaction at all on covidplanb.co.nz, nor are there daily updates or anything necessarily current. It goes through weeks of total inactivity and so will not hold a community of people regularly tuning in: a golden rule of any community is that there must be regular community life. covidplanb.co.nz is more a billboard plus a couple of email addresses for Kiwi journalists to look up if they need someone to comment with a particular opinion. True, they did run a conference with foreign guests, whereafter they posted the results on the website, but without regular life one simply does not have a community. So it’s a resource and a statement, but not more than that.

The logic and difficulties of covidplanb.co.nz are clear: the organisers want to be very careful with the message they sign up for as they have their careers to worry about. So they write little and try to link as much to outside high-status academics as they can in order to make their views look reasonable and respectable (which they are). Only in an extremely loose sense do they team up with anyone else, thus signing the Great Barrington Declaration but not providing a mechanism for similar opinion formation inside New Zealand. So what they do is low effort with no personal reward, but a very clean message.

The viruswaarheid.nl endeavour in the Netherlands is more ambitious. The main organisers are a lawyer and a former PhD in virology who ran a dance studio for a few years but clearly still knows how to read the medical academic literature. So they are capable, young, and energetic, but neither have academic careers that could be ruined and so are free to simply say what they and their invited contributors think. They engage in three activities: they organise court cases against government decisions and laws, they write various critical stand-alone pieces (which they post in three languages, including English), and they organise protest activities.

The comparison with LS.O is instructive here: like LS.O they have standing pieces, videos, and are involved in attempts to work within the institutions of the country. Like Toby Young, the organisers of viruswaarheid.nl are also networking behind the scenes and have invited pieces and exposés using the tips given by others. It also attracts funding. What they do not do is provide a means of community formation, forums to discuss lots of aspects of the problem, or a daily update to attract a crowd and basically be involved in the 24/7 media cycle. So viruswaarheid.nl does similar ‘high brow’ activities as LS.O but is much less involved in enabling a grassroots and media-integrated movement. Hence while Toby Young effectively each day puts 20 others in the limelight (academics, civil servants, random passers-by), viruswaarheid.nl praises no more than maybe 2 others each week.

I think this is one of the reasons why the Covistance in the Netherlands is still much less organised than in the UK: there has been no equivalent of lockdownsceptics.org to help engender a community of Covistas to emerge, network, and to skill up via discussion forums on lots of issues. Now, that partly reflects that in the Netherlands the grassroots organisation takes place in some of the main political parties and the country has lots of social media Covistance groups, but all that is far less effective than LS.O at building links between grassroot experiences and high-brow resistance.

However, from an organisational point of view, viruswaarheid.nl is much easier to run because it is essentially an occasional-write-and-post endeavour, leaving the organisers free to spend their time preparing court cases and protest marches. They can’t do everything. If a good ambitious journalist would team up with them to run something like LS.O on their already existing website, I think that would put a huge multiplier on their existing activities.

Now, the most sophisticated of these academic-type initiatives is the South African pandata19.org endeavour run by 4 volunteers. It is basically run as a slightly more tech-savvy version of the Dutch endeavour. The website has videos, posts, running graphs with daily predictions and updates, articles, and outside links. It has explicit policy advice and a broad narrative on why covid-mania has happened and all the failures in national and international civic society (including academia) that have allowed it to happen. The people running it are often on their own national news, and are putting a lot of effort into running predictive models of the pandemic as it is happening in South Africa, producing small reports on what is happening in particular places and sectors. So it is very similar to the website of a small research outfit. They thus also have a ‘scientific advisory board’ made up of the people who organised the Great Barrington Declaration whom they simply mailed. They have also made interviews calling for international cooperation.

The pandata initiative takes a lot of effort and specific expertise in the way they have done it, with slick graphics and media-oriented narratives. So to copy it one would need serious scientific expertise, some money, someone really good at maintaining a website and someone with a lot of expertise in media management.

Unlike the Dutch viruswaarheid.nl though, the pandata people are not organising protests inside South Africa, nor are they involved in court challenges: while they talk within their own high-level networks about these issues and thus lobby personally, they are not openly challenging the system.

Like the Kiwi and Dutch initiative, they don’t highlight what many others do or enable the formation of a broad Covistance community. This is probably one of the reasons they by their own admission are not getting anywhere with their efforts in South Africa, despite the fact they are on the news frequently and can credibly boast to have better predicted all aspects of the epidemic than official forecasters. They are coming to terms though with the fact that truth matters for very little in politics nowadays and are openly musing what they could do further.

 

Joint declarations like gbdeclaration.org and docs4opendebate.be/en/open-letter/

In many countries by now, groups of professionals have banded together to pen a Covistance declaration. In Australia, there were the 500 Victorian doctors saying covid-lockdowns there were doing more harm than good, echoing similar declarations by German, American, Dutch, French, British, and other groups of doctors. You have had groups of concerned citizens, economists, lawyers, and businesses doing the same.

The Belgian doctor effort in docs4opendebate.be/en/open-letter/ is typical of the genre: a small group of doctors who probably knew each other already got together to sweat over a joint declaration, which they then got as many colleagues as they could to co-sign, after which they bought a website and posted their declaration. The Belgian doctor declaration is quite extensive and lashes out at the World Health Organisation, the Belgium government, and even makes a big effort to explain the epidemic to the Belgian parliamentarians in the hope that truth matters in Belgian politics.

These things are getting bigger and bigger, with the next biggest one “timeforRecovery.org”, a UK group made up of people from lots of walks of life. They call for inquiries, balanced approaches, public debate, etc. Its a huge effort.

What is true of nearly all these efforts is that they lead to nothing and had no follow up. The good doctors, lawyers, economists, and citizens spoke up, were ignored, and sat down again. I have personally co-written one of these things, so know exactly how it goes. One feels all brave and useful doing them, and very happy when lots of others sign them indicating one is not considered a mad loner, but there is no follow-up and the mainstream media interest in them last a few seconds.

As a statement of what the values and opinions of a whole profession is, I think these things are useful because they provide legitimacy to other efforts. They are an open signal that many high-status people (which all these professionals are) ascribe to the Covistance. That signal is noticed by everyone else in those professions and by public servants, so they are not entirely without merit. Furthermore, they are often not that much effort to write and organise, basically using existing networks and some basic website technology.

The most successful and important of these so far is the Great Barrington Declaration. It was more noticed than all the much earlier ones put together because the signatories were of particularly high-status in the very academic field from which the health bureaucrats instrumental in the covid-mania emerged (virology, immunology, epidemiology). So many who signed national declarations, like myself, teamed up with the Great Barrington Declaration and pushed it in their private networks and websites. This made it too big to ignore for mainstream media, politicians, and some parts of the population.

Now, setting up declarations is relatively easy to do for high-status and high-profile people and they serve as a signal to everyone else that its ‘ethically and intellectually ok’ to be part of the Covistance. However, as we have seen, they don’t move the policy dial on their own an inch anywhere and the signatories get relentlessly attacked by the machinery and hangers-on of the covid-mania. They allow a low-entry step for the covid-hysterics though to move towards the Covistance and that is a valuable role.

They have disadvantages. They come with a numbing and entertaining effect that reduce the Covistance into yet another show for the majority to boo or barrack for. They are not the solution but rather an inevitable element of the road to freedom and fuller recovery.

 

Covistance media and lobby such as @talkRadio , Zerohedge.com , and aier.org

A few existing media sites and blogs have essentially turned into the media arm of the Covistance. In the UK you have @talkRadio. In Australia you have Allen Jones of the tv network Sky News and Adam Creighton of the newspaper the Australian. They relentlessly push the message along their other topics, having successfully dragged their local media group with them in their stance, providing a platform for academics and others in their country. Internationally there are blog sites like Zerohedge that have added a Covistance element to their offerings. You also have some existing societies that have basically turned into non-stop Covistance outlets, like the American Institute for Economic Research (aier.org) that went from 1 article per week in January on covid to 10 a day at present. The Australian Institute for Progress by Graham Young (aip.asn.au) was similarly quick to wisen up to what was happening and has done similar things to aier.org

The advantage these media and lobby/research institutes have is that they have an existing network of people that is already susceptible to the message because they come from a similar ideological or intellectual mindset as those running the institutes. So the convincing is less difficult and the ability to raise profiles, money, and to push out books and such is much more developed. Basically these places took up the Covistance as another product to add to their shelves and implemented their standard production protocols on them.

These institutions are great helps to the Covistance and they don’t need any advice on what to do or how to network, though it is useful for self-made Covistance people to know they exist and can be cooperated with. Each has an existing prior slant and is usually also pushing for something many Covistas will not agree with, but that is inherent in any existing media, political party, scientific group, or profession. Collaborating with them on an issue of joint interest does not mean endorsing them on everything, nor do such groups agree with everything their contributors say or write on topics.

It is true that one will always be attacked for the groups one teams up with, so a new Covistance contributor has to use judgment whether one finds that group too unpalatable on other matters. I personally don’t find libertarians, who make up most of the early Covistance media and societies, so bad and have joined in with quite a few of their conferences and media events. They seem to sense that their ancient preoccupations with freedom and the value of small businesses now has a real chance of becoming mainstream if they dial down some of their other messages.

You also see quite a few people going alone and streaming interviews and videos on youtube or elsewhere, hoping to make a name for themselves. The Dutch video interview site cafeweltschmerz.nl is a good example. I don’t know how to judge what they do so well, but as they are essentially trying to replicate a mainstream format there is little new to say about them in terms of techniques or organisation. They play an important function but they invariably do not really enable the formation of civic society. Rather they provide outlets, information and entertainment, which has a numbing effect (“coming up next: the Covistance”) as much as a validation and rousing effect.

 

Evaluating and summing up: what to do

We are seeing the emergence of a lot of Covistance groups and civil society institutions around the Western world, ranging from academic groups unpicking the science of the virus and the damage of the policies, to radio stations relentlessly criticising governments, to facebook groups where individuals vent.

For my money, the most interesting and effective attempt at galvanising people and building networks for the least amount of effort is lockdownsceptics.org in the UK. It is a model that can be copied in other countries by young ambitious journalists or others with that kind of skill set, though it would be good if it also becomes more of a conduit for more local community formation.

Lawyers and media-interested medical academics could do worse than look at the tricks used by viruswaarheid.nl, particularly if they could combine that with the key tricks of lockdownsceptics.org

Still, all these efforts, including the more organised academic efforts of the Great Barrington Declaration and the seasoned lobby machinery of aier.org or Australian Sky News, are still just scratching the surface of what can be done and what needs to be done. As said in the introduction, we need all kinds of initiatives and organisations, ranging from art, to pastoral care for those recovering from covid-hysteria, to political activism.

Consider what being truly ambitious would look like. I’d like to see new universities, or reoriented existing ones, that take up the task of teaching new scientists in such a way that they wont repeat the mistakes of the current majority of ‘mainstream’ scientists. I’d like to see new political movements that don’t just have an anti-lockdown mantra, but that also think seriously about the democratic machinery under which our societies would not repeat the mistakes next time. I’d like to see the emergence of whole new social media platforms in which the current censorship by Big Tech is no longer possible, one that is preferably more immune to the hysteria sweeping through existing social media platforms in February and March. I’d like to see citizen assemblies working through the many issues involved, coming up with recommendations and perspectives. I’d like to see the general population taking more responsibility for their own education and become politically active, though I do not know how to achieve that.

I see many worthy challenges for the Covistance of which I have no idea how to achieve them or whether they can be achieved. Maybe you can?

Covid and the lessons of the Dreyfus affair

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 18/09/2020 - 7:23pm in

One can tell many stories of how current times resemble some earlier historical period. The conflict between nationalism and internationalism, as personified by the controversies surrounding Brexit and Trump, has been seen as somewhat of a re-run of the conflict between fascism and socialism in the 1930s. The conflict between the West and radical Islam made many think of the crusades. The covid pandemic and its effects has been likened to the Plague, the Spanish Flu and the Asian Flu.

Though they are never perfect, I like looking for such analogies because they give some idea as to the outcomes and the dynamics that are possible. They tell us what humans have been capable of believing and of doing in similar situations as we have now. So I have looked for the historical analogy that best fits the “narrative” aspect of the current covid controversies.

Ask yourself: which historical event had the same combination of an official narrative that had great popular support but was just an ossified mistake versus a small minority narrative that gradually became more and more dominant? The clearest case I can think of is the Dreyfus Affair from 1894-1906. If we are witnessing a repeat of the dynamics of the Dreyfus Affair, there are sobering lessons for both sides of the covid debate. Consider the parallels from my point of view, ie as an avowed “lockdown skeptic”.

Albert Dreyfus was a proud captain in the French army at a time when France was very divided and its army command was very worried about German spies, still smarting from the German invasion of 1871. When it was discovered in 1894 that details of French armament were sold to the Germans, the secret police more or less randomly arrested Dreyfus who was promptly convicted by a tribunal and sentenced to life imprisonment on “Devil’s Island”, a notorious prison camp with conditions few survived for long.

Albert’s brother Matthieu was a man with very powerful connections and could call upon Jewish solidarity with an accused member. For instance, the Rothschild’s of London took up Dreyfus’ case. So a lot of money lined up to fight Albert’s cause. The evidence in the case was so pitiful that intellectuals with all kinds of ideologies (socialist, anarchist, pacifist, etc.) got organised as ‘Dreyfusards’. They wrote petitions, held rallies, lobbied politicians, encouraged high-ranking officials to start new investigations, etc.

Initially, the Dreyfusards got nowhere. Over 99% of the politicians (but not all!) affirmed the conviction in a parliamentary vote. Books were written on the evil influence of Jews in France. Newspapers were full of disinformation. Officialdom celebrated Albert’s conviction. The population was totally on the side of the army. It was a time of hysteria.

In 1896 there was a breakthrough in that a new investigation actually found the culprit who even confessed to selling secrets to the Germans. How did the French army react? They posted the investigating officer (the head of the secret service no less!) somewhere far away, took no notice of the confession and even paid the culprit to stay away and keep quiet. In a new trial, they simply convicted Dreyfus again, dismissing the new evidence. Once more, the majority of the population rejoiced.

Now the Dreyfusards really got going, buoyed by their belief that they were onto a winner and that the case was all they hoped for: evidence of all the ills of authority and whatever else they thought was wrong with France at that time. They managed to improve the actual conditions of Dreyfus stuck on his island so that at least he’d survive, basically by bribing and threatening the key authorities involved. They organised more rallies, petitions, etc., the most famous of which was the “J’accuse” letter by Emile Zola, who was then the eminence grise of French literature. In that famous letter he accused the entire elite of France of all manner of evils, a libelous accusation he knew they would put him into jail for. Which they did.

The force of the argument, as well as that of the international press and the money on the side of the Dreyfusards built up the pressure, such that in 1899 there was another high-profile trial in which the commanders of the French army stood accused of stupidity, cover-ups, and all the other things they had actually done. The jury consisted of junior French army officers who exonerated their own army commanders and duly convicted Dreyfus again, despite the international media mocking their convoluted arguments. Mainly to get rid of the pressure, the French president then offered Dreyfus a presidential pardon, which he took, much to the chagrin of the Dreyfusards who wanted him to refuse out of principle and keep going with court cases.

The Dreyfusards fell apart a bit after that, particularly because it turned out Albert Dreyfus had no interest in being a rebel or to blame those who had him imprisoned unfairly for 5 years. All he wanted was to get back into the army and fight wars for France. He got that wish in 1906 when a 6th and last trial finally exonerated him, after which he promptly reapplied to the French army, which took him and gave him a promotion. Later on he got wounded by a fervent nationalist still smarting about the case, but he survived and fought in the first world war, getting all sorts of medals. He died in 1935. The anti-antisemitism that was fanned by officialdom during the 1894-1906 period has been seen as a factor in the vicious behaviour of the Vichy-regime of 1940-1944.

Now, I see many parallels between the narrative dynamics of the Dreyfus Affair and the covid debates now increasingly raging.

The modern Dreyfusards are all those railing against the imprisonment of the population (lock downs and social distancing), starting with very few initially but gradually growing in strength. They are a motley crew from all kinds of persuasions with totally different hopes for what happens once they are seen to be right. They have all kinds of beliefs as to what lead to the initial hysteria and the imprisonments, most of which are absurd conspiracy stories. They have some money and power behind them, namely from the business community and parts of the artistic and intellectual elites. They can all see the suffering of the population and the absurdity of the arguments concocted to keep the hysteria and imprisonment going, but they hit a solid wall of authority, the popular appeal of the hysteria, and legions of intellectual enablers.

The modern opponents of the Dreyfusards are authority, institutionalised health advisers, most of politics, and the institutionalised arbiters of truth. Whilst the French courts in 1894-1905 made absurd ruling after absurd ruling, today’s regulators, Lancet editors, and many ‘scientists’ equally contort themselves into bizarre twists to rationalise previous decisions and the instincts of the public. At least, from my perspective!

The discovery in April-June 2020 that covid was nowhere near as lethal as previously said, whilst the effects of the imprisonment were just as bad as foretold, is like the confession of the actual culprit in the Dreyfus case in 1896. And, like then, the revelation that the entire basis of all the previous decisions was completely wrong, something already known by a handful at the start, has made little difference to authority or the arbiters of truth. At least, not in the short run. Authority doubles down and uses covid for an increasingly destructive agenda, aided by the majority of the population who doesn’t want to believe they have been fooled.

Like then, the modern Dreyfusards initially have had to operate on the fringes of the media but are gradually becoming more mainstream. Like then, the early Dreyfusards  dreamed truth would prevail in a matter of months, disappointed at every turn at how long it takes and how intransigent authority and its intellectual enablers can be if their own honour is at stake.

I think this last element is what draws me most to the Dreyfus analogy: the involvement of a sense of honour on the side of those who insist the right choices have been made. It is not so much that they truly think they are doing the right thing right now, but more that they are incensed by the open suggestion that they f*cked up big time initially and have been covering up every subsequent step of the way. They feel their honour is at stake and they extend that personal indignation: to question them is to question authority, the nation, science, and reason itself. As with the Dreyfus affair, this time round a growing group inside authority know exactly what is happening, but at the same time a large group has convinced itself and will probably never recant.

The analogy contains a very sobering thought for the modern Dreyfusards, which of course includes me. If the same pattern holds now as then, the population will not be grateful for being saved from the follies of authority and the absurdity of their intellectual enablers, but will flock back to authority immediately after being released. The vast majority of authority and enablers will then survive in their position, wreaking more havoc at some later point. The hopes of the modern Dreyfusards will largely be proven vain, and the origins of the most memorable slogans of the fight (“J’accuse”) will be forgotten.

So I really do hope the analogy is less than perfect.

Evaluation is not a thing

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 14/07/2020 - 3:49pm in

An earlier version of this piece was published last week on the Mandarin.

Because the idea I have called “the Evaluator General” is several ideas knitted together to try to resolve a number of dilemmas, it comes with numerous implications that are often missed or misunderstood. So I’ve addressed them separately in specific articles. This article does the same, explaining that a central goal for me is for evaluation to become less of a ‘thing’ – separate from the activity it’s evaluating.

For better or worse, policymakers tend to come at evaluation from one of just two perspectives. First, for program managers it can give them an independent set of eyes to help assess how they’re going and how to improve. This can be particularly important in the public sector where objectives are multiple and won’t generally map onto any financial metric the way profit is the ultimate indicator of success in the private sector. Second, for those governing and funding programs, separate evaluation also meets accountability needs.

This and various other exigencies, such as people’s desire to build and participate in ‘professions’ has led to the growing institutionalisation and professionalisation of evaluation. There’s plenty to like about this. And as a new discipline and profession, evaluation is much fresher than mature disciplines whose intellectual foundations ossified years ago even when palpably unsatisfactory. This is true of my discipline economics,1
but of others too, their commanding heights confined to academia, an increasingly bureaucratised, fast foodified institution

The discipline of evaluation contains riches. But it is also a vast, loose network of approaches. Alas, in the push for more evaluation, it is being taken to be something far more settled and definitive than it is – as if getting something evaluated were like getting an auditor to check financial accounts or an engineer to check the structural integrity of a bridge. 

Indeed so called ‘goal free evaluation’ is an interesting and productive area of the discipline. There, the evaluator assesses the impact of the program without calibrating it against – or ideally even knowing – the program’s stated goals. This can improve program hygiene just as double blindness adds to the hygiene of a randomised controlled trial. It can also facilitate wider, and so potentially more powerful evaluative insights. These include unintended and/or negative consequences of a program, as well as its efficiency and effectiveness including system/network effects normally outside the program’s defined scope. (Nothing could demonstrate its value better than the central agencies obliviousness to its existence. It rarely dawns on the Great and the Good to forbear from exhaustively specifying the goals of the endeavours they fund).

Further, ‘evaluation’ didn’t play much of a role in the great technical achievements of humanity – the Apollo program or the development of the internet. And nor did ‘evaluation’ – conceived as formal and separate from delivering the goods – play much of a role in the delivery of AlphaZero’s technical wizardry in chess or the miracle of the Toyota Production System.

All those achievements required endless evaluative thinking.  But it took place as part of the process of doing the work, not as a ‘thing’ delivered from outside. But this isn’t how professions work. Professions sell services and so ‘evaluation’ is being brought into the production of government services as plumbing or landscaping would be. That’s just one reason why it’s not working well and won’t if we continue to misunderstand it. 

The PC’s recent work on indigenous evaluation, argues that:

Evaluation is most effective when it is integrated into each stage of policy and program development, from setting policy objectives and collecting baseline data, through to using evaluation findings to inform future policy and program design.

But it’s hard to operationalise these requirements except by bringing evaluation into and alongside operations in an ongoing capacity. Evaluative thinking is of the essence in most of the improvement organisations manage. And it’s in short supply – thus for instance the New Zealand Government’s Wellbeing strategy is focused on measuring wellbeing without directly considering how they can improve it. I hope an evaluator draws their attention to that sometime. But they’d be much better reflecting on it now. 

Good program design should contain a great deal of evaluation. If a particular mechanism is important – that children with particular learning needs are best handled in some particular way – it can be tested before we commit to it. And then again and again after we have. This is one of the things that, sad to say, it took ‘nudge units’ to introduce into many government programs – but as consultants from the outside of programs. But evaluation and testing goes on all the time in a well run organisation. It’s going on in Facebook and Google and Amazon and Toyota in numerous sites and programs as we speak.

Sometimes there’ll be a case for stepping back and so putting some space between operations and their evaluation. But that’s really quite rare in well run organisations. In many if not all of numerous examples presented in boxes in the PC’s work on indigenous evaluation, evaluation answers questions that come up, and could easily be handled as the program went on.  

Be that as it may, this was one of the things I wanted to encourage with my proposal for an Evaluator General. Under the arrangements as I envisage them, those delivering services work away for their line agency alongside those with expertise in evaluation who report to the line agency but are formally under the direction of the Evaluator General. Together those whose job is to do, and those whose job is to know collaborate to understand and improve the program day in day out. 

In his best-seller The lean start-up Eric Rees writes about how start-ups should use their presence in the market to learn. Instead of making complex plans based on lots of assumptions, he recommends making:2

constant adjustments with a steering wheel called the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop. Through this process of steering, we can learn when and if it’s time to make a sharp turn called a pivot or whether we should persevere along our current path.

Now re-read the earlier passage from the PC. I defy you to explain how what’s called for can be delivered if evaluation is separated from what its evaluating. That’s why in my model, the Evaluator General is responsible for monitoring and evaluation. It also creates a scaffolding in which the distinctions between different types of evaluation in the literature, for instance between a summative focus (focused on accountability for impact) and a ‘formative’ one (focused on program improvement) can often mutually reinforce one another rather than be formally separated. 

The Evaluator General’s officers are tasked with knowing and recording, and prompting the evaluative thinking which, while it should assist with meeting pre-set program goals, should also range more broadly around all the things the program is achieving and might be brought to achieve.

Thanks to Keryn Hassall and Alexandra Ellinson for helpful comments on earlier drafts.

  1. As the philosopher Martha Nussbaum put it, “we have to grapple with the sad fact that contemporary economics has not yet put itself onto the map of conceptually respectable theories of human action. (Indeed, it has repudiated the rich foundations that the philosophical anthropology of Adam Smith offered it)”.
  2. Eric Ries. The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, Currency, p. 41.