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Brownstone Institute

Flagellantism Is the New Political Ritual


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From the Brownstone Institute


The old FedEx envelope was clever, a work of art even, optimistic and colorful, signifying speed and progress. What a beautiful contrast to the plainness of the US Postal Service. For years, I can recall dropping off these treasures and paying maybe $10 to assure its delivery across the country, even the world. For me, it was a fabulous symbol of an improved life, living proof that progress was baked into the historical trajectory.

But two days ago, the clerk at the FedEx office confirmed a different ethos. There was no doing business without a scan of my government-issued ID. I asked for confirmation: so if I did not have this, there is simply no way that I can send a package. Confirmed.

Then came the envelope. It was the color of the brown bag I took to school when I was a kid. Serviceable, drab, dull. Also the new one is stamped with a big green marker: recyclable. There is no design, no art, certainly no beauty. It’s all gone. Its main message is suffering.

What happened to the old envelopes? They’ve been replaced, the clerk explained firmly, with no more detail.

A recycle exhortation suggests shortage. We have to reuse everything because there just isn’t enough to go around. We must sacrifice. The color suggests privation. It’s an aesthetic of sadness and penance. Then of course the price tag came: $26 for delivery not tomorrow but in two days. So compared with some years ago, we pay 2.5 times as much for service half as good as it was.

Don’t complain. It’s just the new way. It’s the new way of life.

What happened to progress? It’s been replaced. The new path is flagellantism: in politics, culture, economics, and everywhere.

The flagellants were a medieval movement of public penitents that roamed from town to town in garbs of woe, flogging themselves and begging as penance for pestilence and war. They were infused with a fiery, apocalyptic, and millenarian passion that they could see terrible moral realities to which others were blinded. The theory was that plagues were being visited upon the earth by God as punishment for sin. The answer was contribution, sorrow, and acts of penance as a means of appeasement, in order to make the bad times go away.

It’s true that there were people who did so in private but that was not the main point. The central focus and purpose of the flagellant movement was to make one’s suffering public and conspicuous, an early version of the virtue signal. In the guise of personal sorrow, they were really about spreading guilt to others. They would show up at any public celebration with a message: your happiness is causing our suffering. The more you party, the more we are forced to bear the burden of the need to be in pain for your sins. Your joy is prolonging the suffering of the world.

Flagellantry is most recognizable in the aesthetic. The first signs I recall seeing of this occurred immediately during the panic of March 2020 when it was proclaimed from on high that a terrible virus was visiting the US. No, you couldn’t see it, but it is highly dangerous, everywhere present, and should be avoided at all costs. You must wash constantly, douse yourself with sanitizer, cover your face, dress in drab colors, and be sad as much as possible.

Fun things were banned: public gatherings, singing, house parties, weddings, and all celebrations. This whole scene took on a political patina, as people were invited to think of the invisible virus as a symbol of a more tangible virus in the White House, an evil man who had invaded a holy space whose malice had leaked out in the culture and now threatened to poison everything. The more you complied with mandatory misery, the more your work made a contribution to making the pestilence go away while we wait for the inoculation. That could take two forms: driving him from the White House or releasing the vaccine which everyone would accept.

Joseph Campbell was correct about the role of religious impulses in the human mind. They never go away. They just take on different forms according to the style of the times. Every single feature of traditional religion found a new expression in the Covid religion. We had masking rituals that were rather complicated but learned and practiced quickly by multitudes: mask on while standing and mask off when sitting. We had sacramentals like social distancing and communion with vaccination. Our holy water became sanitizer and our prophets on earth were government bureaucrats like Fauci.

Flagellantism did not disappear once the old president left and the new one came. Even after the pandemic ended, there were new signs that God was angry. There was the ever-present climate change which was a sign of earth’s anger for being drilled and carved up for energy sources. And the bad country said to be responsible for the unwelcome invader of the White House – Russia – was now rampaging through the holy land of its neighbors.

In addition, the broader problem was capitalism itself, which gave us things like meat, gasoline, fur, and other signs of evil. And what gave rise to capitalism? The answer should be obvious: imperialism, colonialism, racism, and the existence of whiteness – each of which called for mass penance.

The pandemic unleashed it all. It was during this period that corporations decided that profitability alone required signs of suffering and hence the rise of ESG and DEI as new ways to assess economic value of corporate culture. And new practices were added to the list of the highly suspect: monogamy, heterosexuality, and religious traditions such as Christianity and Orthodox Judaism that should now be regarded as deprecated, even as part of the underlying problem.

It was during this period when I found myself on an apartment hunt and observed a newly remodeled offering. I asked why the owner had not replaced the flooring. I was corrected: these are new floors. Impossible, I thought. They are gray and ghastly. That’s the new fashion, I was told. Looking it up, it was true. Gray flooring was being installed everywhere.

How does wood become gray? It dies. It starts to decay. It is swept away by rivers and floats around for years, alternatively soaked, baked by the sun, and soaked again, until every bit of color is drained away. It becomes driftwood, a survivor of the elements and a symbol of the brutality of the cycle of life. Gray flooring is therefore the ideal symbol of the age of suffering, the proper material on which to move back and forth pondering the evils of the world.

In a world governed by flagellantism, ugly formlessness rises to replace aspirational art and imaginative creativity. This is why public art is so depressing and why even the clothing we can afford at the store all looks dreary and uniform. In this world, too, gender differences disappear as luxurious signs of decadence we can no longer afford.

Two other anecdotes. The overhead bins on the flight just now were largely empty, simply because most passengers chose the cheaper Basic Economy fare. This also requires they have no carry-on luggage and hence be forced to pay for checked luggage or travel with all their belongings in a backpack. We’ve gone from gigantic Louis Vuitton steamer trunks to stuffing things in pockets and hiding them from authorities.

Another case in point. I asked the man in the high-end shoe shop why none of the shoes had leather soles. Instead all shoes have these cushy rubber soles that seem weak and pathetic, and make no noise when one steps.

“Everything has changed since covid,” he said. “All shoes are house shoes now.”

I had no words and walked away, my entire thesis confirmed.

Sure enough, all the data we have suggests the mighty triumph of flagellantism. Fertility is down dramatically. Life spans are shortening. People are sicker. Excess deaths are rising. We learn less, read less, write less, create less, love less. Personal trauma is everywhere. The groceries are more expensive so we eat whatever we can, when we can, while hoping for breezes and whatever sunlight there is to provide just the essential energy we need to slog through another day.

Degrowth is the economic model of flagellantism, reducing consumption, embracing privation, acquiescing to austerity. We no longer declare recessions to be on their way because recession is the new way we live, the realization of the plan. The word recession implies a future of recovery, and that is not in the cards.

Decolonization is another watchword. It means feeling so guilty about the space you inhabit that your only moral action is to stay put and reflect on the sufferings of those you have displaced. You can of course say a prayer of supplication to them, so long as you never appropriate any aspect of their culture, since doing so would seem to affirm your rights as a human being.

You want joy, beauty, color, drama, adventure, and love? It’s not gone entirely. Park yourself on a yoga mat on your gray floor and open your computer. Stream something on one of many streaming services you have been provided. Or become a gamer. There you will find what you seek.

The experiences you seek you can only observe as an outsider looking in. It is not participatory. Same with sex: you are there to watch, not physically engage in with others, unless of course you embrace a gender identity other than that declared at your birth. Social distancing never went away; it is how we live in a new age of unending penance.

So, you see, it’s not just about eating bugs. It’s about a whole theory and practice of life and salvation itself, a new religion to replace all the old ones. Cough up your government-issued ID, send your package if you must, think twice before complaining about anything on social media, and figure out a way to channel your depression and despair into quiet humble gratitude and acquiescence. Don’t forget to recycle. The flagellants have taken over the world.


  • Jeffrey A. Tucker

    Jeffrey A. Tucker is Founder and President of the Brownstone Institute. He is also Senior Economics Columnist for Epoch Times, author of 10 books, including Liberty or Lockdown, and thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press. He speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture.

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Brownstone Institute

Witnessing the Media’s Covid Coverage from the Inside

Published on

From the Brownstone Institute


If right-leaning outlets wanted my words and left-leaning ones did not, my Occam’s razor landed on ideology as the explanatory factor. So-called progressive media had a story to uphold and rejected any plot twist that threatened the cohesion of its narrative.

In the movie An Education, the main character gets sidetracked from her studies by a smooth-talking art dealer who turns out to be a criminal—and married. Our protagonist learns more from that experience than from all the medieval literature books she cracked open before. I have similar feelings about my own education. While I’ve been earning my living as a writer for the past 29 years, it’s only during the Covid era that I learned what the writing business is really about.

I wear two hats in my professional life: medical writer, creating materials for doctors and the healthcare industry, and feature-article journalist for consumer magazines. It wasn’t until Covid that I began pitching essays and op-eds for publication.

I started with a piece called “A Tale of Two Pandemic Cities,” which grew out of my short trip to Amsterdam and Stockholm in the summer of 2020, when the European Union opened its doors to “well-behaved” countries like Canada. The Covid hysteria in my country had made me desperate to visit more balanced parts of the world, and my trip didn’t disappoint. The article found a home at a Canadian outlet called Healthy Debate, though the editor asked me to temper my enthusiasm for the Swedish strategy with an acknowledgement of its risks. Happy to find a legit publisher for my first Covid piece, I capitulated, sort of. (You can judge for yourself.)

Thus began a feverish outpouring of essays, each one motivated by the same bewildered questions: What the hell is happening to the world, and why? Has everyone else gone mad, or is it me? I had written a few controversial articles throughout my career, but never before had I held a “dissenting view” about an issue that affected the whole world—or felt such an urgent need to express it.

The Great Divide

I quickly learned that certain news outlets were less open to my pieces than others. Salon, fuggedaboutit. Spiked Online, bull’s eye on the first try. Washington Post, not a chance. Wall Street Journal, a couple of “close, but no cigar” efforts and then finally a yes. It boiled down to this: the further left a publication leaned, the less likely it would publish my pieces (or even respond to my inquiries). I’m sure a statistician could write an equation to capture the trend.

So why the radio silence from left-wing publications? I doubted I was tripping their “Covid disinformation” radars, as my pieces had less to do with scientific facts than with social philosophy: the balance between safety and freedom, the perils of top-down collectivism, the abuse of the precautionary principle, that sort of thing. If right-leaning outlets wanted my words and left-leaning ones did not, my Occam’s razor landed on ideology as the explanatory factor. So-called progressive media had a story to uphold and rejected any plot twist that threatened the cohesion of its narrative. (Not that right-wing media behaved much differently. Such is the age of advocacy journalism.)

Most nerve-wracking of all were the publishers who accepted my articles but, like that first Healthy Debate editor, insisted I make substantive changes. Should I concede or push back? I did a bit of both. The most important thing, I told myself, was to make people reflect on the topsy-turvy policies that had freeze-framed the world. If I had to soften a few sentences to get the word out, so be it. I have the utmost respect for writers who refuse to yield on such matters, but 29 years of paying the bills from my writing have tipped my internal compass toward pragmatism.

I did stand my ground with an article on the mask wars. My thesis was that the endless and pointless disputes on social media—masks work, no they don’t, yes they do, no they don’t—had less to do with science than with worldview: irrespective of the data, social collectivists would find a way to defend masks, while my freedom-first compatriots would never countenance a perma-masked world.

One editor agreed to publish the piece if I mentioned that some studies favor masking, but I argued that quoting studies would undercut my central argument: that the forces powering the mask wars have little to do with how well they block viruses. He wouldn’t budge, so we parted ways and I found a more congenial home for the piece at the Ottawa Citizen.

Hidden Treasures

The process of pitching counternarrative essays, while arduous at times, led me to a smorgasbord of lesser-known, high-quality publications I never would have discovered otherwise. Topping the list was the glorious UnHerd, a UK news and opinion website with such daring thinkers as Mary Harrington and Kathleen Stock on its roster of contributors. The US-based Tablet magazine offered consistently fresh takes on Covid and never took the easy road in its analyses. In its pages I found one of the most powerful Covid essays I have ever read. The author, Ann Bauer (no relation), teased out the common threads between the “settled science” about the virus and the litany of quack theories about autism, which fed into her son’s death by suicide.

Then there was Quillette, whose contempt for the sacred cows of wokeism gave me a special thrill. True confession: I blew my chances with Quillette and it’s my own damned fault. Like many working writers, I sometimes pitch a piece to more than one outlet at the same time, a practice known as simultaneous submissions. This goes against protocol—we’re supposed to wait until an editor declines our pitch before approaching the next one—but the reality is that many editors never respond. With the deck thus stacked against us, we writers sometimes push the envelope, figuring the odds of getting multiple acceptances (and thus pissing off editors) are low enough to take the risk.

On this particular occasion, I submitted an article called “Lessons from my Half-Vaxxed Daughter” to three publications. Medpage Today responded right away, and I accepted their offer to publish it. (This was while Marty Makary, the dissident-lite physician who called out people’s distorted perception of Covid risk in mainstream media, led the editorial team.) A few hours later, Quillette’s Canadian editor sent me a slightly reworked version of my piece and told me when he planned to run it. I had no choice but to proffer a red-faced apology and admit I had already placed the article elsewhere. He never responded to my email or to a follow-up mea culpa a few weeks later—and has ignored everything I’ve submitted since then. I guess I’ll have to wait until he retires.

Podcast Polarities

Earlier this year, Brownstone Institute published my book Blindsight Is 2020which critiques the pandemic response through the lens of 46 dissident thinkers. By all standards a moderate book, it stays clear of any “conspiratorial” speculations about the origins of the pandemic or the political response to it. Instead, it focuses on the philosophical and ethical issues that kept me awake at night during the peak Covid years—the same themes I explore in my essays, but in greater depth. I wrote the book not just for “my team,” but for those who vehemently opposed my views—perhaps especially for them. I didn’t expect to change their minds as much as to help them understand why some of us objected so strenuously to the policies they cheered on.

After the book came out, a few podcasters invited me to their shows. I appeared on a Libertarian Institute podcast in which the host puffed on his hand-rolled cigarettes while we talked. I spoke to an amiable ex-con podcaster who made it his mission to share Ayn Rand’s ideas with the world. I bonded with Rupa Subramanya—a brilliant Canadian conservative journalist and podcaster featured in my book—over the Freedom Convoy we had both supported.

All told I’ve appeared on 22 podcasts to date, each of them hosted by a right-leaning or libertarian host. Crickets from the left. Not one to accept defeat, I’ve begun reaching out to left-leaning podcasters on my own. Perhaps one day I’ll hear back from them.

Covid media, like so much else in modern life, has become hopelessly fractured: the tall, left-facing trees dominate the landscape, telling the story of a deadly virus that we “did the best we could” to manage. Below the tree canopy lies the tangle of weeds that sway in the wind, whispering songs of freedom and warning against the totalitarian impulses that all too readily emerge during crises. While I’ll continue to throw my essays at those unyielding trees, the messy underbrush is where I’ve found my journalistic home.


  • Gabrielle Bauer

    Gabrielle Bauer is a Toronto health and medical writer who has won six national awards for her magazine journalism. She has written three books: Tokyo, My Everest, co-winner of the Canada-Japan Book Prize, Waltzing The Tango, finalist in the Edna Staebler creative nonfiction award, and most recently, the pandemic book BLINDSIGHT IS 2020, published by the Brownstone Institute in 2023

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Brownstone Institute

Why So Many Countries Followed China’s Lockdown Example

Published on

From the Brownstone Institute


The answer to why countries followed China’s lockdowns is simple. They were told to do so by the World Health Organization (WHO). Why did the WHO tell them to do that? You might want to ask Dr. Bruce Aylward

A novel coronavirus that was 10 times deadlier than the flu had gripped the world in 2019. Without a compass to navigate the Covid-19 pandemic, all lessons learned from previous viral pandemics were thrown out the window. The World Health Organization was adamant, “This is not the flu.” Tony Fauci terrified the US House of Representatives with forecasts of disaster. Global populations were defenseless without a vaccine for the novel coronavirus that no one had ever seen before. The only viable defense at the time was to shut down the world.

China took the lead in lockdowns. Media exported from China showed people dropping dead in the streets. Caskets were piling up. Doors to buildings were sealed to lock in tenants. Throughout the panic, all reasonable alternative assessments of risks from the viral outbreak were ignored, censored, or rejected.

Nevertheless, I wondered whether a video of a person falling down in the street was really representative of the entire population. Were caskets piling up largely due to families fearing to claim them because of contamination with the virus? I noticed that the front doors to my local mall in Ontario, Canada had also been sealed, just like in China apartment buildings, but this was only to control access through a single entrance to the building, not to seal in customers.

My first clue that the emergency response to the outbreak of the coronavirus didn’t seem to make sense was when I heard Fauci tell television audiences that if our response seems to be overreacting, then we are probably doing the right thing. What? Since when is overreacting ever the right thing to do? Do generals win wars by overreacting?

I looked at the numbers that Fauci had presented to the US House of Representatives concerning case and infection fatalities of the coronavirus. They were backwards! His 10-times deadlier prediction was simply a made-up number! This was in March 2020. By May 2020 it was obvious that people were NOT dying at the inflated rate Fauci had predicted.

I published a paper on Fauci’s coronavirus mortality overestimations: Public Health Lessons Learned From Biases in Coronavirus Mortality Overestimation. But when I mentioned all this to my friends, they responded that the lower than predicted deaths just proved the lockdowns were working. Fauci was off the hook. Back to China.

WHO/China Joint Mission on Covid-19

The answer to why countries followed China’s lockdowns is simple. They were told to do so by the World Health Organization (WHO). Why did the WHO tell them to do that? You might want to ask Dr. Bruce Aylward, the Director of the WHO/China Joint Mission on Covid-19 investigating the coronavirus outbreak.

Aylward noticed a precipitous drop in novel coronavirus pneumonia (NCP) in China during February 2020. This was before China adopted WHO’s name of coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19). Upon seeing China’s surveillance data, Aylward announced the spectacular findings to the world and told the world to do what China has done and lock down. But he appeared to make a fundamental epidemiological error by wrongly assuming that the association of China’s lockdowns with lower deaths proved the lockdowns were working (just like my friends had told me).

Soon after in March 2020, China published its latest case definitions for NCP (Covid-19). In a nutshell, the definitions showed that no one could be declared to have died of the disease unless they had viral pneumonia (a severe acute respiratory illness), and only if no other virus normally associated with viral pneumonia was present, except SARS-CoV-2.

Coinfections with the coronavirus were not acceptable criteria, and what should have been a broad surveillance case definition with high sensitivity to monitor the spread of the virus within the population narrowed down considerably into an overly specific diagnostic case definition. That pretty much sealed the deal to declare Covid-19 deaths in only single digits for many months during the pandemic throughout China. This super-low outcome impressed Dr. Bruce Aylward enough in February 2020 to implore the world to lock down. Did we ever!

In the meantime, other countries used case and death definitions that went to the opposite extreme of China’s narrow diagnostic definitions, disseminating overinflated surveillance numbers without adjusting the numbers to remove bias. Even Fauci eventually admitted that reported cases and deaths counted WITH the coronavirus are much higher than cases and deaths counted FROM the coronavirus. Ironically, the WHO had previously published material on the correct use and interpretation of surveillance and diagnostic definitions in infectious disease outbreaks. Aylward didn’t appear to get the memo.

There is more to the story. Was this even really a novel coronavirus, or just a novel genetic sequence of the coronavirus showing greater detail than previously available? China supposedly received updated genetic sequencing technology in late 2019. They had abandoned surveillance of SARS in 2003 for lack of technology.

Now they were back in business again by the end of 2019. The team of virologists that reported the genetic sequence of the virus in Wuhan noted that it would be necessary to investigate the epidemiological evidence to guide infection control responses. Who has time for that? Shut it down!

If the novel coronavirus isn’t really so novel, this would explain why the lockdowns didn’t work. We had already known that lockdowns don’t work in other viral pandemics. Even China eventually gave up its Zero Covid Policy after it was obvious that lockdowns weren’t working. My friends owe me some explanations to justify their lockdown views. Maybe Fauci isn’t off the hook after all.

For more information on biases in Covid-19 case and death definitions, see my peer-reviewed article with cited references: Biases in COVID-19 Case and Death Definitions: Potential Causes and Consequences.


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