×
Follow the Political ScienceFollow the Political Science

Follow the Political Science

In the second of two parts, Travis Smith argues that our responses to the pandemic reveal a Canada progressively squeezing out its commitment to liberty.

Travis D. Smith
14 minute read
Like Convivium? , our free weekly email newsletter.

Part One: The COVID Golden Calf

“The passion to be reckoned upon is fear.” 

– Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

“There are no deferrals, Tommy.” – Kathy H

– Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go

Canadians have been exceedingly fortunate, living in a society where political contestation transpires mainly in broad daylight and the stakes have seemed relatively low. Apart from those of us who are recent immigrants from despotic nations, we have forgotten that circumstances like these are exceptional within the political history of the world. We often fail to grasp what and how much is truly at stake. We’re inclined to underestimate the ambitious and powerful. Our ingenuousness is part of what normally makes Canadians so adorable.

Recently in the pages of Convivium I asked whether we aren’t now living in Not-Canada. As a student of classical and early modern constitutional theory, I would like to consider what that might mean in the form of a thought experiment. I certainly do not posit with great confidence that these speculative musings represent factual reality. Indeed, they sound maddeningly mad. I don’t presume to know who Chrystia Freeland’s real boss is, for example, supposing it’s not the guy nominally in charge. No, nothing like that.

I entertain this hypothesis mainly on account of policies like the passports, mandates, and travel bans attending our ongoing vaccination campaign, plus who knows what other penalties and restrictions remain on the horizon. Not long ago it was a conspiracy theory to imagine that measures like these would ever be imposed and embraced in this country. Now it is a conspiracy theory to recall that they used to be called conspiracy theories.

I have argued recently elsewhere that we should employ Orlando Patterson’s category of social death to designate the condition that threatens those who continue to abstain from these newfangled injections. In Patterson’s words, social death is what befalls “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 the “permanent enemy on the inside.” Obviously, as of mid-November 2021, social death in full has not been inflicted upon the non-compliant. It is nonetheless in principle what the policies already in place portend should they be indefinitely prolonged and extended.

From the perspective of classical political science, regimes are defined by who counts as a citizen. On the terms of Aristotle’s Politics, Book 3, Chapter 1, someone who cannot serve in a legislative assembly, hold a public office, or sit on a jury simply cannot be properly regarded as a citizen. Changing the definition of who counts as a member of a political society itself constitutes a regime change—something also known as a revolution.

Aristotle further observes that political societies look to exclude from their memberships persons they perceive as irrational and vicious. The implementation of vaccine passports and the increasing exclusion of those who do not possess them from places of employment, public spaces, and even private gatherings begins to fit the bill.

Presently, Canadian provinces trail a few places worldwide with respect to the restrictions they’re imposing on individuals, but winter is almost upon us. By the end of November, the unvaccinated will be effectively unable to leave the country. Is that like trapping people behind the Iron Curtain? Or serfs stuck on the lands of their feudal lords?

To the extent that we effectively squeeze former members of society in good standing out of their roles as citizens, workers, and neighbours, we increasingly look like we have decided to change the nature of the community to which we belong—and in which they no longer fit. Prior to 2020, Canadians would have been disconcerted by distinctions drawn to determine whether somebody should count as one of us based on the presence or absence of synthetic materials in their cells. Distinguishing insiders from outsiders with reference to artificial genetic strands starts to look like the beginning of a new brand of speciesism—a category that goes a step even beyond racism.

It has been extraordinary to behold the immensity of the consequences attending the introduction of these nanoparticles and the foreign proteins they force our bodies to manufacture. What big changes from such small things—and how quickly and so easily!

One emergency measure at a time, region by region, we are progressively working our way toward determining that what it means to be fully Canadian is no longer the same as what it used to mean. Is this change something we have chosen for ourselves, or we were maneuvered into it?

We just endured a federal election campaign in which these outlooks and prospects were paraded before us. Our re-elected party leader expressed open contempt for those Canadians who are not fully on board with his new criterion for full inclusion in the community. His language and tone encouraged and urged ordinary Canadians to treat these loathsome types as inferiors, indicating plainly that they deserve to be met with hostility and discriminated against in ways big and small, denying them the exercise of a variety of the rights that his own father had proudly enshrined.

A full third of Canadians explicitly consented to continuing along this trajectory. That the share of the vote secured by the victors was less impressive than they had hoped in no way chastened them. Boldly emboldened, a new mandate was instantly declared for the continued transformation of the nation. As Canadian legends Bob & Doug McKenzie would say, “I’m gonna do the steamroller!” What remains to be seen is whether everybody else will roll over. Being Canadians, we mostly will. Still, there may be some snags along the way, necessitating more sneering speeches like the one delivered to caucus on November 8 admonishing the defiant, or firm action.

Campaign platforms and speeches on the election trail impose no real obligations. Voters are simply stuck trusting their selected leaders to do whatever they design to do irrespective of whether anybody was informed in advance. Maybe the prime minister’s emotional intimations insinuating some sinister sounding intentions only constituted manipulative talk designed to win votes based on focus groups and polling data. Hatred is easy to sell to people you’ve rendered desperate and terrified. Won’t it be delightful when we’re back to sunny ways?

Our provincial premiers in particular seem barely in charge, deferring to public health authorities for more than a year and a half while enduring unrelenting criticism and humiliation from the media for being insufficiently authoritarian. The news media makes every effort to keep Canadians uninformed about what’s going on elsewhere in the world, where policies responding to COVID-19 are largely replicated continent to continent, country to country, allowing for variation regarding timing, degree, success, and failure. Implementing some of the more onerous versions of these initiatives, Canada has taken a leadership role globally. At one point, Ontario bragged about hosting the severest lockdown measures in North America.

The relative uniformity of the response to COVID-19 around the world has led some to speculate whether international organizations, multinational corporations, and other transnational entities aren’t giving the orders. To what extent do sovereign nations retain meaningful independence? Is Canada now part of some larger emerging alliance or empire, a jurisdiction of some nascent Tianxia? I’m reminded that well before the pandemic started the prime minister proclaimed that we had gone “postnational.”

There is no new set of rulers to whom our leaders prostrate themselves in public ceremonies, offering up the population and our natural resources as tribute. The secrecy surrounding Canada’s contracts with Big Pharma does nothing to mitigate the feeling that we have been owned, however. Fortunately, the prime minister has a squeaky-clean track record when it comes to dealing with large corporations and organizations on our behalf.

For a while, the Roman Empire conducted itself as if it were still premised upon the institutions of the Republic. If it were the case that Canada were now Not-Canada it might well proceed outwardly and officially as if nothing significant had changed. Our elected representatives could perform their roles as if they were responsible to Canadians even if they were instead beholden to others elsewhere. Is our leadership accountable to Canadians anymore, or can it act without constraint or meaningful opposition with impunity indefinitely? Leading up to our recent election, the federal Tories gave voters ample reason to conclude that little about the pandemic would be handled differently were they in charge. It’s as if the path ahead were a fait accompli no matter who stands at the podium. (And no, I don’t believe Maxime Bernier could have made a difference.)

COVID times have shown us that classical political science wasn’t wrong about how much people want to be ruled. Whereas modern political theory asserts the natural freedom of all human beings everywhere, classical political science suggests that most people aren’t particularly well prepared for the life of free citizenship. Freedom is something that typically belongs only to the few, Aristotle argues—those who are liberated from labour by making others do it all for them.

To get back to our ordinary lives of production and consumption, Canadians are apparently ready and glad to forfeit the privileges of self-governance and submit to the authority of those who purport to be smartest. Who needs the frustrations of political debate when public health modeling can calculate how to constrain and configure our lives for our own good? Who needs indirect government by bumbling elected officials when we can be ruled directly by those in possession of the science and the necessary vision to impose it rightly and precisely?

Classical political science has a name for beings who are capable of heeding the commands they’re given but cannot be expected to and therefore shouldn’t be permitted to deliberate and decide for themselves what actions to take or which rules to follow.

If you were going to find a way to render a previously free people like Canadians unfree, medicine would be the way to do it. Nothing about the human condition belongs to the realm of necessity more than our bodies, which we prize nowadays more than our souls. We cherish medicine more than our rights, and we’re more than ready take the rights of others away for the sake of “health security.” Disease is more fearful to us than subjugation. You know the saying, “You haven’t got anything if you haven’t got your health”? If you believe that, anybody who can convince you that your health is permanently in jeopardy can make sure you haven’t got much else, either.

According to early modern constitutional theory, such as one finds in the writings of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the initial compact that establishes a new regime must be unanimous. Everybody who wants in must agree they’re in. That typically involves an awful lot of duress, Hobbes observes, but in his eyes that doesn’t delegitimize any agreement made thereby.

According to Locke, anybody who decides to remain in some territory to enjoy the opportunities for security and prosperity the region affords has thereby implicitly consented to its laws. Although, at least in the case of Locke’s teaching, human beings retain certain inalienable rights that no government may rightly override. People rightly resist a government that establishes a consistent pattern of and continued commitment to rights violations.

Laying the theoretical groundwork for late-modern revolutionary politics, however, Rousseau’s view is that sovereignty is totalizing. Anything the sovereign wills may be done to every member of the community. On Rousseau’s terms, a society may call itself legitimate and free no matter how little liberty it leaves anyone personally.

Rousseau was also a fan of civil religion. In Hobbes’s view, all commonwealths are essentially theocratic. Even those that don’t boast an official state church have governing doctrines about all things, first and last things included. These yield rules, penalties, and rewards regarding religious practice and expression. The modern effort to formally separate church and state, or religion from politics—a move Hobbes implicitly recommended and Locke expressly defended—depended on persuading people to revise their religious views, alter modes of worship, and reform religious institutions. All conquest is therefore religious conquest. As Niccolò Machiavelli would tell you, every Romulus needs a Numa. Every founding needs a new cult to cement itself.

Hobbes explains that the compact instituting a new regime isn’t merely an agreement regarding the regulation of people’s property. It’s a psychological transformation that brings into being “a real unity” in occult fashion. That is the most metaphysical aspect of his supposedly materialistic doctrine. That Hobbes named his principal treatise, Leviathan, after a demon is telling. His conception of the formation of a commonwealth is practically indistinguishable from a ceremony that summons a spirit into being, to whom and in whom all those who covenant shall henceforth belong.

I always assumed that when the revolution arrived, it would be the angry, vengeful earth goddess of the environmentalists to whom we would be dedicated or sacrificed. Instead, for the sake of our bodies incarnate, it looks like we are to receive salvation from injectable biological concoctions. How many microscopic messengers, I wonder, fall upon on the tip of a syringe? Admittedly, there is no reason to think that our hypothetical new order—this Christ-free land—won’t be polytheistic. In time, digital deities may be added to the pantheon, and perhaps also some new Lady Justice, sans blindfold.

Something else modern theories about the origins of political society tend to agree upon is that if you don’t confirm that you’re in and conform to the laws, you’re out. And if you’re out, you’re really out. You remain instead in, or are relegated to, the state of nature. The state of nature is not a happy place to be—as all of us who love artificial things so much already realize. According to Hobbes in particular, people have no moral obligations to anybody in the state of nature; it’s indistinguishable from a state of war and individuals there may be treated accordingly.

If passports and mandates are designed to signal who does and who doesn’t belong to the emerging post-COVID community, how will we treat those whom we exclude? The uninjected were, at least, still allowed to vote in the last election. As I write, nobody in an official capacity is publicly advocating that we must round them up expeditiously or worse. To be sure, it would never come to that. Not in Canada.

Right now, in Ontario, the government says its certificate program is temporary, and it hopes to lift it by March. Based on past behaviour, I expect that the authorities will tether that tantalizing prospect to the proportion of five-year-old boys and girls who get the shot. If their projected milestones aren’t reached, or if Kieran Moore keeps pushing the targets further back yet again, get ready to see those little brats and their “stupid, selfish parents” blamed for holding us all back come spring.

I keep being reminded of those war movies where the drill instructor punishes the entire unit for one private’s minor transgression. Or of abusive parents who pit their children against each other for their own gratification. Will providence send us another Joseph to see us through this situation? Preferably without the subsequent centuries of slavery this time.

The prime minister’s enormous pre-order of booster shots gives us reason to think that this state of emergency is expected, if not intended, to last a long, long time to come. Also, knowing how public administration works, once a new technology like these passports has been developed and a new bureaucracy is built around their implementation, it is unlikely they’ll prove temporary or limited in scope. They herald a permanent revolution in how we do anything or go anywhere—and what we must do or have done to us to obtain the requisite approvals.

In those moments when I most succumb to dystopian gloom, I wonder about those who are to be excluded from much of society—especially should they start finding it difficult to sell their labour or shop for necessities. Will they even be allowed to survive on nature’s bounty, like the fowls of the air? Maybe not; look how much trouble Katniss caused with just a bow and arrow in The Hunger Games.

Perhaps the new regime will be magnanimous enough to allow the uninjected to survive, unassimilated, excluded from the new normal and all its wonders, if not as hermits, then as residents of some Brave New World-style Savage Reservation. There might even be reason to keep some original-generation homo sapiens around, if only for scientific curiosity or use.

There is no story of progress to be found in the New Testament. Progress is a modern, secular myth. From the Tower of Babel, through the various empires the Israelites suffered under, past the account of the Third Temptation of Christ, all the way to the final chapters of the New Testament, Scripture is clear: Aspirations to global governance are a sure sign of villainy in mere mortals.

Christians should remember that the princes of this world are bound to be more like Herod and Pilate than Moses or Jesus. We should not be surprised by corruption, abuse, and oppression within the system. We should expect more of it the larger the domain, the greater the stakes, and the more powerful the stakeholders. One should certainly not expect the obscenely wealthy to be aligned with the truth. Their own truth is too tempting.

In these times, Christians—vaccinated and unvaccinated alike—need to remember the virtues of love, mercy, gratitude, and forgiveness. These were the virtues that members of the early church were called to practice under the oppression of the Romans. I’m sure it wasn’t easy then, either. That it’s becoming harder again is therefore no excuse. Hope, too, remains essential, but it’s easier to practice all the Christian virtues if one remembers that one is not supposed to deposit their hopes in this world above all.

That realization is no counsel of despair. If I had zero hope for this world, I would not bother to write; I would simply get my affairs in order. That said, I remember the scene from that picture from 1993—the one that familiarized us with the language of “essential workers”—about the limits of appeals to mercy when made to those who possess a vulgar understanding of strength.

I prefer to be reminded instead of a scene in Ghostbusters. Our unlikely band of heroes find themselves in jail and they’ve discerned the nature of the impending apocalypse, but instead of succumbing to glum, Dr. Venkman starts singing, “So be good, for goodness’ sake! Whoa, Somebody’s coming!” Bill Murray reminds us that comedy is of the essence of faith. The same faith reminds us that medicine is not our highest good because these bodies are not all that matter.

On the one hand, I look forward to discovering that all these conjectures about what’s presently unseen are entirely misplaced and wildly off the mark. Perchance within a year the pandemic will be over and the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike will once again feed together, as friends, without fear. I look forward to this thought experiment’s thoroughgoing falsification—when our prime minister, his deputy, and our premiers are revealed as good shepherds, and we, the lambs in their care, discover that we have nothing to fear from any wolves or dragons from beyond the perimeter of our pastures.

On the other hand, if what we’re witnessing is in fact something like a global revolution designed to make us kneel forever and ever before public health divines and their masters? I’d rather that the guys we were made to be afraid of twenty years ago had conquered us instead. At least they knew to believe in something greater than themselves.

Part One: The COVID Golden Calf

Photos in order of appearance: 13on, Unsplash; Ryoji Iwata, Unsplash; Chris Barbalis, Unsplash


Convivium publishes texts that do not necessarily reflect the views held by Cardus, the Convivium team, or its editors. In the spirit of discussion, dialogue, and debate, we ask readers to bear in mind that publication does not equal endorsement. Thanks for reading. Join the conversation!

You'll also enjoy...

Coping With Covid’s Confusion

Coping With Covid’s Confusion

In these days of pandemic disorientation and fatigue, uncertainty over the right thing is all right but failure to be good neighbours will be more toxic than the disease itself, Travis Smith writes.

The COVID Golden Calf

The COVID Golden Calf

In this first of a two-part essay, Travis Smith teases out the new ersatz religiosity of our political, clinical and social pandemic responses.

Putting Aside Pandemic Mistrust

Putting Aside Pandemic Mistrust

We must not let the stresses and fear of the COVID crisis seep into suspicion and crowd out mercy, Father Tim McCauley writes.

Join Convivium

Convivium means living together. Unlike many digital magazines, we haven’t put up a digital paywall. We want to keep the conversation regarding faith in our common and public life as open as possible.

Get a weekly wrap up of the latest articles delivered right to your inbox.