Land of Coercion, 2

Part Two: Ontario! Yours to Discover No Longer Unless

“This deal is getting worse all the time.”

Lando Calrissian, The Empire Strikes Back

On the policy side of things, there are a few items that concern me. There seems to be a full court press in effect in advance of winter. I write this essay from Ontario—or Totalitario, as I’ve taken to calling it for fun when I’m glum. We’re a few weeks in from the implementation of our province’s vaccine certificate program. Some localities are already requiring proof of vaccination for purposes that exceed the province’s rules, such as Oakville’s policy that couples can’t apply for marriage licences without them. Some commentators, like Father Raymond de Souza, have described the program as a “necessary evil,” while insisting it must remain temporary.

Premier Ford has assured his subjects in Ontario that the certificates are indeed temporary, which would be more reassuring if he hadn’t previously promised that he wouldn’t introduce them in the first place. The federal government has offered one billion dollars in aid to the provinces for the establishment of vaccine passports, which doesn’t sound like an investment in something temporary and limited. Once these technologies are invested in and bureaucracies are built around them, dismantling them will be a challenge, simply given how public administration operates.

One troubling aspect of the certificates’ adoption in Ontario was that a week before the premier caved and agreed to implement them, public health administrators declared that if he didn’t do it, they would. COVID times have allowed bureaucrats to exercise and usurp the authority that belongs to legislatures in ways that we always suspected they longed to do. What’s more, many voters seem to cheer it on, either unaware that they are in effect being relieved of their roles and responsibilities as citizens, or else they’re relieved that they are being so relieved of them.

Before Ford announced the certificate policy, demands abounded calling for him to exhibit leadership. What was meant by leadership, however, was in fact the opposite of leadership: his utter capitulation. For a year and a half now, Doug Ford has been devoid of bluster and swagger, his posture and body language that of a defeated and broken man, his soul hollowed out, his vacant eyes wide and strained from having looked into the abyss and discovering his insignificance.

People clamoured for and embraced the certificates or passports while still making fun of conspiracy theorists, apparently unaware of or indifferent to the fact that these technologies were the lynchpin of many conspiracy theories that long claimed that the pandemic was part of a plot to usher in the surveillance state and worse. I am aghast that with respect to the probable non-natural origin of the virus and now the vaccine passports I find myself discovering that the kooky crazy whacko nutjobs weren’t totally off-base about everything. I really wish they had been. Everybody: Please stop making the conspiracy theorists look good.

I’m sure the baby boomers aren’t prepared to hear that the passports they’re so chuffed about might represent the precursor technology to whatever will turn their grandchildren into serfs. But hey, enjoy your tasty appetizers and hockey games! The retirements they worked so hard to earn have been interrupted. They have endured a year and a half of an unrelenting barrage of alarming messaging targeting them directly, daily. It has been the greatest hardship endured by a generation that has overall experienced more progress, peace, and prosperity than any generation in the history of humanity. What might they be unwittingly consigning future generations to in exchange for a likeness of their old lives?

One doesn’t have to be an old-school anti-vaxxer or radical libertarian to understand that normalizing the principle that governments and private entities can effectively treat us like they possess control over our bodies—not merely outwardly but at the subcellular level—is a bad idea.

Of course, indicting the boomers like that is entirely unfair. Gen-Xers and their own children are just as cheerful about downloading the app and uploading their proofs for the sake of fast food and music festivals—or as the ancient Romans called them, bread & circuses.

The fact that the injections don’t prevent the vaccinated from spreading or getting the disease is enough to show that the passports are not intended to reduce virus transmission; they’re a mechanism for reward and punishment. A room full of vaccinated people is already a potential super-spreader event. Risks may vary, but that data remains new and disputed, and nebulous relative risk should not form the basis of absolute distinctions. I realize that doesn’t prevent Jonathan Kay from saying that young males who have abstained on account of the risk-benefit ratio for their demographic should nevertheless be confined to their homes indefinitely so that he feels super safe attending a Blue Jays game. I mean, I appreciate the psychological attraction of the passports. Many people are enticed by the viscerally gratifying prospect of saying “I have been a good girl or boy, so I get a cookie; you’ve been bad—no cookie for you.”

We should enjoy our relative advantages now in case they pale in comparison to the disadvantages we’ll endure for having gone along with this scheme. The arrangements we’ve acquiesced to look profoundly short-sighted.

Let me be clear: I would not minimize for a moment the real suffering that the virus itself has caused. Nor would I minimize the additional hardships heaped on top of the suffering caused by the virus on account of the lockdowns and other restrictions. But if the coercive ethos currently taking hold becomes normalized and routinized, the amount of hardship that will befall us all and our children’s generation may well be orders of magnitude greater—dwarfing COVID’s cost to human well-being. I am not referring merely to the hardships still to be inflicted upon those individuals who stubbornly insist on forgoing the vaccine, enduring whatever exclusions, marginalization, or other indignities that await them. I mean with respect to all of us who live to see what unfolds over untold years to come.

I think Doug Ford is being honest when he says the certificate program will be temporary. If they aren’t folded into a national program co-sponsored by Justin & Jagmeet, I suspect they’ll be absorbed into Ontario’s nascent Digital ID initiative soon enough, and that system will prove even more difficult to opt out of. Who knows what directions whomever replaces Ford in 2022 will take that program at the further urging of businesses and bureaucrats? We know that the World Health Organization would like to implement a global digital identification program, too. Imagine what it would be like for our personal health considerations to be weighed against the wants and needs of the whole world, as adjudicated by the humanitarians in charge there. I see that the World Economic Forum and President Xi want to chip in any way they can with complementary technologies.

I have seen the memes saying that access to “non-essential” aspects of life is a privilege, not a right, as well as those that pretend that a digital certificate that governs your everyday comings and goings in all their minutiae is no different than our old paper medical records. I’m sorry, but the principle behind the passports is that the government can take away the life that used to belong to you, as much as it pleases, whenever it wants, as if it belongs to them now, dispensing it back piecemeal, contingent upon their discretion and your behaviour—and you should be grateful to them for that. Once your consent to that principle is established, you should assume that governments will feel at liberty to indefinitely expand the number of aspects of your life they can hold hostage on any number of pretenses asserted as necessary to protect and advance the common good.

I’m sorry, but the principle behind the passports is that the government can take away the life that used to belong to you, as much as it pleases, whenever it wants, as if it belongs to them now, dispensing it back piecemeal, contingent upon their discretion and your behaviour—and you should be grateful to them for that.

If you would not draw a line at bodily autonomy upon the initial buy-in, there’s no reason to think this will end with the nth round of COVID shots or whatever other medicines they determine you must take or procedures you must submit to, whether you like it or not, to ensure that you pose no threat to public health according to their models, algorithms, and calculations. Responses to other crises could be incorporated into the system, too: climate change, financial collapse, systemic injustice, cybersecurity, war in East Asia. Who knows how much of your behaviour might require daily carrots and sticks? Could our governments shut your whole life down as quickly as Bell can cut your service? If so, they might restore it as slowly as Bell does, too.

One doesn’t have to be an old-school anti-vaxxer or radical libertarian to understand that normalizing the principle that governments and private entities can effectively treat us like they possess control over our bodies—not merely outwardly but at the subcellular level—is a bad idea. Personally, I recommend against calling what vaccine passports and the mandates accompanying them represent “slavery.” That said, Andrew Wiggins did not mince words when he said “you don’t own your body” anymore.

We should make recourse instead to a concept Orlando Patterson explored in 1982: Social Death, a condition describing “an insider who had fallen, one who ceased to belong and had been expelled from normal participation in the community because of a failure to meet certain minimal legal or socioeconomic norms of behavior,” rendering them a desocialized, depersonalized outcast, the “permanent enemy on the inside.”

Social death suffices as a label for what the vaccine passports portend for those individuals they start to exclude. As of September 22, social death was only implicit within the principle of Ontario’s emerging program, the specifics of the policy not yet extending so far in practice. By all reports, however, Lithuania by comparison hasn’t dithered or flinched on that front, despite its living memory of totalitarianism. As of October 12, it looks like Italy doesn’t want to get left behind in the race to leave people behind, either. What we’re witnessing so far at home is but a mustard seed, but we can already see how pleased some people are at being given permission and encouragement to discriminate. Treating others as our inferiors can be intoxicating, especially if we believe they really deserve it.

Shall we deny people any access to health care since they obviously don’t care about their health—just as we have always done with the obese, addicts, and heedless risk-takers like motorcyclists and snowboarders? What other public services and resources can we exclude them from? How much ignominy can we subject them to? If we’re on board with inflicting social death upon our neighbours, including some family members or former friends, what else are we okay with? A process like this won’t be easily stopped once it has built up some momentum. What further humiliations will we approve should the passports and mandates fail to stop the spread of the virus and we’re still told it’s the fault of the unvaccinated, however arithmetically implausible that accusation becomes? Destitution? Incarceration? Separating children from parents for their safety and re-education?

The New Brunswick education minister was recently caught on camera telling some abrasive voters he obviously found despicable that their offspring are really “the province’s children,” a comment that prompted a reaction online. As a political theorist, however, the part of the exchange that most caught my attention was his further claim to represent those who stand for building “a genuine community.” That has creepy overtones. I wish I was kidding, but he wasn’t.

Allow me to admit that my pessimism might be misplaced. As I write, Ontario is making tentative gestures toward loosening the reins a smidge. Just as no vaccine is 100% effective, I grant that there is a non-zero chance that our governments at every level will in time rescind all their emergency powers, abolish intrusive and discriminatory measures like these passports, and return us to pre-pandemic normalcy. Responsible government will reign again. International organizations will lay off. Boy, won’t I be embarrassed for all the days of my life.

Unfortunately, we have been given some slack before only to discover the whip at the ready. Soon enough the finger-pointing blame game begins again. At this point, I would rather we remained on guard, in our hearts and intellectually, like our anthem commands all of us to be, rather than credulously optimistic.

Travis D. Smith is Associate Professor of Political Science at Concordia University in Montreal. He holds a PhD from Harvard University. His prize-winning dissertation, On the Generation of New Natures, 2005, examined the political meaning and significance of modern medicine. His publications in political theory include several contributions to the study of the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. In addition to his interest in issues at the intersection of politics, technology, and religion, he also teaches and writes on topics exploring the relationship between storytelling and education. In 2018, he published Superhero Ethics.

This is part 2 of 3. To read Part One, click here.
Part Three will be published on Tuesday, October 19 here.

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