Sitting in homebound isolation gives the mind the opportunity to muse on many things, not least the lockdown itself, which is an unprecedented, muse-worthy event that gives us, perhaps, an interesting opportunity to glimpse the Australian “soul.” As I sit peering through the curtains doing my bit by doing nothing, I marvel at the ease with which the government has imposed this astonishing lockdown — the way virtually the whole population has simply rolled over and submitted to the State’s whim.
So many people are allowing themselves to be persuaded by “experts”, even when there are so many conflicting expert opinions to be sampled, and even when “expert” opinion itself seems to change on a week by week, even a day by day, basis.
Remember when face masks were ineffective? Except for our “frontline heroes”, who squealed to the press every time they looked like running short.
Remember when it was madness to close our borders, until it wasn’t?
Remember when the purpose of “flattening the curve” was to ensure the continuing availability of hospital beds and ventilators? Now its purpose is to ensure the complete elimination of the COVID-19 before we can get lives and the economy back on track.
It now looks like the world can be divided into two parts – those aiming at a COVID-free status, and those whivh are not, with permanent border closures between the two, I assume. I’m not sure how that will work out in the long term. But then it is not my problem or yours. We’ll cede such discretion and judgement to those “experts”,who can be counted on to urge an immediate prescription — until tomorrow, when they will offer another. I have no idea which of the “experts” is right now, and will be right tomorrow, and which are wrong, but if there is one thing I have learned over the years it is scepticism of “experts.” And of “expert” opinion. Thomas Sowell is the only “expert” I feel that I can always rely on:
It is hard to imagine a more stupid or more dangerous way of making decisions than by putting those decisions in the hands of people who pay no price for being wrong. 
Such “experts” are seldom held to account. Most recently, because of the release of the Michael Moore film Planet of the Humans, I was reminded of the predictions of Professor Paul Ehrlich.  This environmental guru painted a fearful picture of doom, gloom and mass starvation in his 1970’s best seller The Population Bomb, confidently asserting that between 1980 and 1989 some four billion people, including 65 million Americans, would perish in his “Great Die-Off”. Strangely, what followed was a global pandemic of obesity. That has been a salutary lesson, one for which I am grateful, as it has encouraged my robust scepticisml of “expert” opinion ever since. Remember “acid rain”? Remember “peak oil”? Remember no more snow, dams that will never fill, the ice-free Arctic?
There is another aspect to that last point which needs highlighting: the way “expert” opinion simply erases error and proceeds without embarrassment. I refer specifically to the Medieval Warm Period, which I learnt about at primary school in lessons about the settlement and later abandonment of Greenland by Vikings. Vikings keeping dairy cows and growing wheat until the climate changed and things fell apart. Yes, even back in the Sixties fifth-graders understood climate change. Below is a global temperature reconstruction graph from the IPCC Report of 1992. Notice that it explicitly annotates both the Little Ice Age and the Medieval Warm period.However, by 2002, just ten years later, the IPCC presented the chart below as its new, authorised, global temperature reconstruction, the-now infamous, “hockey stick” graph. Notice how the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age were both airbrushed from existence. Not much prospect for a Viking settlement in this representation of data, and yet it actually did happen!
My point is that, up until 2002, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of consensus-rich climate “experts” had been working around the globe collecting data and writing expert papers confirming the existence of the Medieval Warm Period and of the Little Ice Age. Then, suddenly, when this new graph appeared, the Medieval Warm Period disappeared from the scientific literature to be replaced by “unprecedented warming”. Hardly any of the establishment climate “experts”, and virtually none of the academics who had been “experts” on the Medieval Warm Period the week before, had a word to say about the hundreds of years of contradictory data scrupulously accumulated but which suddenly had been banished from “the science”. The “experts” fell meekly in behind a globally orchestrated reconstruction essentially based on tree-ring data from a single tree from Yamal in northern Russia. It has fallen to non-experts to expose the flawed nature of the hockey stick graph, and yet such people are still dismissed by those same academic “experts” as “scientific flat-earthers” and “deniers.” Hey, “climate experts” with all your “unprecedented” warming, are they again growing wheat and raising cattle in Greenland once more?
Another striking example of this phenomenon appeared recently in another academic discipline. For 200 years, “expert” academic anthropologists have been carefully studying and collecting data on the hunting and gathering lifestyle of the Australian Aborigines. There was without exception an uncontested consensus. Then, suddenly, one person publishes a book on Aboriginal “farming” based on the most addled interpretation of doctored quotes from explorers’ diaries, and again the academic “experts” meekly fall in behind the new narrative without any form of dissent. Their life’s work and that of many others is trashed in front of them, yet they bite their tongues and go meekly along with the scam. Again, it is left to the non-experts to raise arguments and attempt to preserve the integrity of the discipline and the reputations of past colleagues who can no longer defend themselves in the face of this freshly-minted narrative. It is popular to lambast our early settlers as being disrespectful to traditional Aboriginal culture, and yet here we find the professional academics, archaeologists and anthropologists, contributing to the destruction of traditional Aboriginal culture by remaining passive and diplomatically silent bystanders.
Are we supposed to respect genuine Aboriginal culture, or is what we regard as “genuine” negotiable to fit a modern fad? As Gertrude Himmelfarb noted, postmodern historians (and other “expert” academics) have been liberated from the tyranny of facts. Apparently, it is only non-professionals who are constrained by truth:
… postmodernism takes the rejection of absolute truth as a deliverance from all truth, and from the obligation to maintain any degree of objectivity. 
Strangely, as Himmelfarb pointed out, academic experts, having rejected fact as the route to absolute truth, do not feel overly concerned about inserting their own confected “facts” and then insisting that these represent “absolute truth”.
However, more importantly, if, as we have seen in the two examples presented above, “experts” can turn on a dime and repudiate their own “expert” scholarship with such insouciance whenever a new political imperative arrives, just how much importance should we give to the “expert” opinion of a today? What value can we ascribe to the “expert” opinion, for example, of the men from WHO, or the medical “experts” who meekly fell in behind them?
This leads me to a sombre observation: the Australian public appear to have accepted that a consensus of “expert” scientific opinion can be completely fluid, signing up to go wherever that consensus takes them.
In the case of COVID-19, we have fallen in with the government lock-down directives coming from government-endorsed “experts”, doing so with an eagerness I would never have had the nerve to predict. Australians have been so conditioned to believe it is the government’s job to provide solutions to everything and anything that, when a COVID virus strikes or some other black swan event makes itself apparent, we accept without question whatever course is laid down just so long as there is a suitable “expert” to stand behind it. It is almost as if it has been decreed the height of bad manners to question any and every “expert consensus” irrespective of facts and logic, or lack thereof, underpinning it.
What stands out clearly is the different attitude in the US. Sure, there are plenty of Americans, particularly the celebrity “social influencers”, who have eagerly sought out self-isolation and the opportunity to signal their virtue, but then there are the others: the Californians who are prepared to demonstrate against lockdown rather than miss a day on the beach; the Texan lady who is prepared to go to jail rather than apologise to the judge and the State for refusing to close her beauty parlour and put her staff out of work; the large number of protesters who stormed Michigan’s State Capitol building with banners and guns in opposition to unilateral decision-making affecting their livelihoods without effective consultation.
What accounts for the difference between two nations which have otherwise so much in common? History, basically. Is it the cultural memory of the War of Independence in 1775 that gives Americans a healthy suspicion of government?  Is it the cultural memory of their not-so Civil War that still feeds a belief that principles are worth defending, even dying for? It’s easy to mock the Americans, to look down one’s nose at their gun culture and the like, but I can’t help thinking that this residual hint of intransigence will ultimately serve them better — much better than the far more compliant attitude in a country founded by convicts who preferred obedience to the lash?
THE suggestion that a bit of dissent may be a healthy attribute in a modern society came early. Consider the eighteenth-century Scot, Adam Smith, in particular this passage from one of his lectures at the University of Glasgow (my emphasis):
Another bad effect of commerce is that it sinks the courage of mankind and tends to extinguish martial spirit. In all commercial countries the division of labour is infinite, and everyone’s thoughts are employed about one particular thing … The minds of men are contracted, and rendered incapable of elevation. Education is despised, or at least neglected, and heroic spirit is utterly extinguished. 
Samuel Johnson who, with diarist, companion and local Scot James Boswell, visited Scotland in 1773, noted and feared the same thing:
Still, the fate of the Highlands and Highlanders bothered him (Samuel Johnson). Before the Forty Five (the Jacobite rebellion of 1745), “every man was a soldier, who partook of national confidence, and interested himself in national honour. To lose this spirit, is to lose what no small advantage will compensate.” This led Johnson to wonder whether in fact any nation ought to become “totally commercial” or whether “it be necessary to preserve in some small part of the empire the military spirit”. 
This had been made plain to Smith and Johnson during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. The royalists of the Lowlands had been pacified and disarmed for years, while the warrior Jacobite rebels in the Highlands were not. The defence of Scotland from these Jacobite rebels fell to local militias from the cities, and they were not much more than a joke. This exposure of the shortcomings of the soft, compliant, liberal, city dwellers left an indelible mark on the minds of Smith, Johnson and the like. That, of course, is not to say that either of them could not see the importance of an orderly, lawful civil society for the conduct of a properly functioning economy, and would ever have traded that for a gun-toting independent spirit. Preventing this kind of “mental mutilation”, Smith says in the Wealth of Nations, “deserves the most serious attention of the government.”  Here is Smith once more, this from his Wealth of Nations published in 1776: Preventing this kind of “mental mutilation”, he says in the Wealth of Nations, “deserves the most serious attention of the government.”
It’s the universal problem of being “civilised,” of being disarmed, pacified, and utterly dependent on our governments for law and order and protection, and consequently exposed to any inadequacy of preparation or foresight on the government’s part, while, of course, the “barbarians” around them made their own provisions.
As an example, consider the Romano-Britons, pacified for over 400 years, and who were no match for the Saxon and Pictish invaders after the withdrawal of Roman troops from Britain in 450AD. Even the Forty Five was actually a closer run thing than might be expected, with Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Highlanders getting as far south as Derby, while around that time the English Parliament under Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, had been privately exploring terms and conditions with James Stuart, pretender to the Crown, in the advent of a restoration of the Stuart monarchy.
Maybe the Americans haven’t forgotten the old lessons, and maybe there could be an advantage in remaining just a little uncivil. Perhaps that independent spirit provides an explanation for America’s robust economy and position as a world power. In Australia, the birth of a nation lacked the smell of gunpowder and traumatic post-natal complications experienced by American democracy, while here trust in government has never been seriously tested. Here with barely a murmur we witness our government’s insidious creep into every aspect of our lives on the promise of cradle-to-grave safety. Our politicians buy our acquiescence with our own money. Every individual life is precious, they assure us, and in the name of protecting the individual, we will lock you all up and take a quarter of a trillion dollars of your future earnings to pay for it. From Gertrude Himmelfarb again:
And when the absolute principle (of liberty) proves inadequate to the exigencies of social life, it is abandoned absolutely, replaced not by a more moderate form of liberty but by an immoderate form of government control. This is the source of the disjunction between individualism and paternalism that is so conspicuous a feature of modern liberalism. 
Languishing today in lockdown, re-reading my old copy of Spengler’s Hour of Decision , I am surprised and amused by the author’s prescience. Substitute “Australia” for “Germany” and he seems to describe our situation very well:
The liberal formula: “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” derives from the English materialists of the eighteenth century … The vision of the proletarian future, therefore, embraces not only the happiness of the many, which consists in happily doing nothing – once more, panem et circenses – and perpetual peace in which to enjoy it, free from all anxiety and responsibility …
… The degenerating effect of this freedom from all responsibility, which is seen similarly in children of very rich parents, has overtaken the whole working class, especially in Germany: at the first sign of any distress, appeal for help is made to the State, the party, society, or, in any case, “others.” We have forgotten how to take decisions ourselves and to live under the stress of real anxiety. 
Hour of Decision‘s next chapter reveals how it all worked out — probably not recommended reading for those who have forgotten how to live “under the stress of real anxiety”. It’s safer, at least in the short term, to stick with the panem et circenses.
 Thomas Sowell, 2000.
 Gertrude Himmelfarb, 1994. Postmodernist History. In: On Looking into the Abyss : Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society. Vintage Books. Page 137 See a book review “Himmelfarb’s Enlightenment” by Keith Windschuttle Quadrant Online.
 Spengler, Oswald, 1926. ‘The Decline of the West’. Here, I quote from the abridged-into-one-volume version by Helmut Werner, published by Modern Library, New York in 1961 , page 265
 Herman, Arthur, 2001.The Scottish Enlightenment – The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World. Fourth Estate, London, page 210-11
 Herman, Arthur, 2001.The Scottish Enlightenment – The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World. Fourth Estate, London, page 153.
 Herman, Arthur, 2001.The Scottish Enlightenment – The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World. Fourth Estate, London, page 211. “Mental mutilation” is presumably Smith’s term.
 Gertrude Himmelfarb, 1994. Liberty : “One Very Simple Principle”? In: On Looking into the Abyss : Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society. Vintage Books. Page 104.
 Spengler, Oswald, 1934. The Hour of Decision, the sequel to The Decline of the West.
 Spengler, Oswald, 1934. The Hour of Decision.