Brownstone Institute - Our Last Innocent Moment

Where Are We Now?


[The following is the first chapter of Dr. Julie Ponesse’s book, Our Last Innocent Moment.]

Pretending something doesn’t matter doesn’t make it matter less. 

Jennifer Lynn Barnes, All In

Do You Matter?

I am Kelly-Sue Oberle. I live at [address]. I belong to someone, and I matter.

These are the words on the slip of paper that Kelly-Sue Oberle places under her pillow every night. The note isn’t an affirmation. It isn’t a self-help exercise. It is a link to her existence, a literal reminder to her future self of who she is in case she wakes up one day and forgets.

On June 23, 2022, I was at the Citizens’ Hearing organized by the Canadian Covid Care Alliance on the 16th floor of a skyscraper in Toronto’s financial district, listening to story after story of the harms of the government’s COVID-19 response, including many whose lives were impacted by vaccine injury. Kelly-Sue’s testimony leaves me shaken even now. 

In 2021, Kelly-Sue was an active 68-year-old with a busy work schedule. She walked 10 miles a day and worked 72 hours a week for the charity she founded. She was a typical A-type overachiever and was looking forward to retirement. Sun-bleached and very fit, she was the picture of activity and industriousness. She initially took the Pfizer COVID shot as a manager of 700 volunteers tasked with feeding over 800 children on weekends and holidays to “stay open for them.” After her first shot, she experienced pain in her calf and foot and went to a vascular surgeon who informed her that she had blood clots in her femoral artery. 

By the time of her diagnosis, Kelly-Sue had already taken the second shot, which left her suffering from a chain of strokes and Transient Ischemic Attacks (TIAs). One stroke left her unsure of who she was after awakening from a nap. She is now blind in one eye. 

In her testimony, Kelly-Sue described her doctors as impatient and gruff, one advising her not to return unless she suffered a catastrophic stroke. “Correlation is not causation,” she repeatedly heard. In more and less explicit ways, she was told that her experiences don’t matter, or at least that they matter less than those who suffered and died from COVID, less than those who fear the virus and follow the narrative.

But Kelly-Sue refuses to be silenced. She refuses to be unseen. She refuses to be a number. Without the validation of others, she has to remind herself every day of who she is. The note she leaves beside her bed is a reminder to herself that she matters.

At some point over the last two years, you probably wondered if you matter. Maybe you felt like a misfit, a foreigner within a new operating system in which silence is golden, conformity is the social currency, and doing your part is the mark of a good 21st century citizen. Maybe you felt like your government cared less about you than those who chose to follow the narrative. In truth, they probably did. 

Without these assurances, you trudged along with the message that you mattered less, that you were devalued and ignored for your choices, that your unwillingness to follow the narrative was leaving you somehow behind. And that is not an insignificant burden to bear. For most, the stigma and bother of questioning this system is too risky, too inconvenient. But for you, it’s conformity that is too costly, and the need to question and, possibly resist, too hard to ignore.

I know this operating system well. It is the one that singled me out, expressed its intolerance for my nonconformist ways, and ultimately tried to string me up in the proverbial public square

In September 2021, I faced what felt like the supreme ethical test: comply with my university’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate or refuse and likely lose my job. For better or for worse, I chose the latter. I was quickly and efficiently terminated “with cause.” I had spectacularly failed the test according to my colleagues, our public health officials, the Toronto Star, the National Post, the CBC, and the New York University bioethics professor who said “I wouldn’t pass her in my class.”

What Have We Learned?

When I wrote My Choice almost two years ago, my perspective was largely personal and prospective. Few were speaking out, few had been publicly terminated or outed for their COVID-heretical views. Few knew what the price of dissidence would be.

I wrote the book because I was worried. I was worried about what the world would look like if the mandates continued, if the mRNA vaccines were rolled out on a large scale, especially to children and pregnant women. I was worried about the effects on health, certainly, but I was also worried about the new era of medical discrimination we would be ushering into health care and into our collective consciousness, more generally. And I was worried that the mandates would create a division in society that we might never be able to repair.

We no longer have the burden, or the benefit, of relying on worries and educated guesses. We have seen the COVID protocol play out in real time and with real effects on our bodies, our relationships, and our families, and on public trust and civility.

By all measures, the public health response to COVID by every major world government was an unprecedented catastrophe, a tragedy even. We saw the colossal failure of “Zero-COVID,” and the effects of waves of masking orders and mandates for employment, education, travel and entertainment. We saw the vaccine program rolled out across all continents, in all age groups, and its effects on individual health and all-cause mortality.

We saw the power of gaslighting, backpedalling, and narrative spin as the science changed. We saw the messaging morph from the directive in 2021 that the ‘vaccines’ were guaranteed to prevent people from contracting COVID-19 to the more dilute suggestion that the goal all along was merely to minimize the severity of the virus. 

We saw our prime minister, Justin Trudeau, impose vaccine mandates for all federal employees in October 2021 and use hatred of the unvaccinated as a successful campaign promise, and then tell a group of students at the University of Ottawa in April 2023 that he was never targeting those who were rationally cautious. We saw our Deputy Prime Minister, Chrystia Freeland, insist on the vaccines’ ability to prevent transmission and then a Pfizer Executive admit to the European Parliament in October 2022 that they never tested the vaccine’s ability to prevent transmission.

(A number of fact-checking articles then emerged to show why it wasn’t news that the vaccines didn’t perform as advertised.)

We learned that the Trudeau government’s vaccine mandates for travel and federal employment were driven by politics and not science, and that the Emergency Order was based on narrative hysteria, not evidence of genuine threat. We learned that the federal government has a $105 million contract with the World Economic Forum for the Known Traveler Digital ID, and that China locked down the cities of Wuhan, Huanggang and Echo in January 2020 against the recommendation of the World Health Organization. 

On a more personal level, it’s been a dizzying year. My daughter, who was born a month after the pandemic was declared, is now three years old. Miraculously, she has learned to walk and talk, to reason and feel and imagine while the world shifted around her. 

I’ve sat for more than 75 interviews, written essays, op-eds, and expert reports for legal cases, and spoken at rallies and events, including the Freedom Convoy in Ottawa. I even returned to Western, the university that terminated me two and a half years ago, to speak on the ‘Concrete Beach’ at a student-organized rally. 

I’ve spoken with virologists, immunologists, cardiologists, nurses, lawyers, politicians, historians, psychologists, philosophers, journalists, musicians, and athletes. My YouTube content generated over a million views and 18 million Twitter impressions.

But more importantly than any of that, I met you. I looked in your eyes, I shook your hands, I saw the trauma of loss and abandonment on your faces, and I heard your stories. 

We leaned in for a hug over the broccoli tower at the grocery store when tears started to well up in our eyes. We exchanged knowing looks when we met at rallies and events, at the dog park, and once even at the gas pump. That look of ‘You get it,’ ‘I see you,’ of someone who sees that something fundamental has shifted in the world and we may never be able to go back.

I learned how easy it is for us to betray one another and how COVID exposed the fault lines in our relationships. But I also saw humanity all around. I saw hugs and connection and immense warmth everywhere I went. I saw the worst side of humanity and the best, and I witnessed the indomitable power of inconvenient truths. The COVID-19 battleground has certainly created its heroes and villains, and we have all taken sides about which is which. 

I had the honour to interview and be interviewed by some of the best, those the world has vilified. Below is just a snapshot of the insights they offered that struck me the moment I heard them:

  • Zuby: “This is the first pandemic in history where a significant number of people want it to be worse than it is.”
  • Jordan Peterson: “The truth isn’t a set of facts. The truth is an approach to dialogue and discussion.”
  • Bruce Pardy: “The law is the product of the culture and, as the culture moves, so does the law. In our case, the legal culture has been changing for decades.”
  • Bret Weinstein: “We had something deeply flawed but highly functional. Something that could have been repaired. And instead of looking at what was wrong with it, and being realistic about how to fix it, and at what rate we could reasonably expect it to get better, we foolishly allowed ourselves to become unmoored. And I don’t think people have yet understood how dangerous it is to be unmoored in history. We have cut ourselves loose and we are now adrift. And what we cannot say is where we will land.”
  • Michael Driver: “There’s a lovely line from Canadian poet Mark Strand, which is that ‘If we knew how long the ruins would last we would never complain.’ This is it. This is the moment that we have as humans. There is no alternative to optimism. The ruins of our lives won’t last for an eternity after we’re gone. This is it.”
  • Trish Wood: “The people who were awake first took the biggest risks. In my view, they were all people who are deeply, deeply humane.” 
  • Susan Dunham: “Since 9/11, every threat to come down the mainstream news cycle seemed to huddle us around the same consensus, that some fresh element of our liberty was making the world hurt and that we were selfish to hold on to it.”
  • Mattias Desmet: “The people who are not in the grip of mass formation, who typically try to wake the people up who are in the mass formation, usually won’t succeed. But… if these people continue to speak out, their dissonant voice will constantly disturb the hypnotizing voice of the leaders of the masses and they will make sure that the mass formation doesn’t go so deep…. Historical examples show that it is exactly at the moment that the dissonant voices stop speaking out in public spaces that the destruction campaigns started that happened in 1930 in the Soviet Union, in 1935 in Nazi Germany.”

You may have noticed that few of these comments are directly related to COVID-19 science or politics. They are about human nature, our weaknesses and inclinations, history, culture, and how these brought us to this particular place and time.

You’ve probably learned a lot about yourself over the last two years, what you are able to tolerate and endure, what sacrifices you are willing to make, and where you draw your line in the sand. As I write this, I wonder about your stories: What are your experiences of alienation and cancellation? How has your thinking evolved over the last four years? What have you lost that is irrecoverable? What relationships have you found that wouldn’t have been possible without it? What allows you to weather the storms of shame and ostracization when others can’t? What keeps you on the road less travelled?

Over the last year, my perspective has changed a lot, morphing from future to present and past tense, and I wonder, Where are we now? How did we get here? 

What I think about these days has little to do with data or science. We have all drawn our battle lines on those fronts and we aren’t seeing much movement across them. The pro-narrative position is alive and well. Conversions are uncommon and mass revelations unlikely. Furthermore, I don’t think the situation in which we find ourselves was generated by a miscalculation of the data but by a crisis of the values and ideas that led to it.

Since writing the book, I’ve had a lot of time to think about whether my original reasoning was sound, whether my prospective concerns bore out. Given the numbers against me, I must admit that my confidence ebbs and flows. With the exception of maybe two or three other ethicists in the world, I alone challenged the mandates. Was I wrong? Did I overlook something obvious?

I try very hard to be alive to this possibility. But every time I run the argument in my head, I return to the same place. And in this place, two years later, it is now even more clear to me that the COVID response was a global failure from which we will be recovering for decades, and maybe centuries.

What we learned over the last year only confirms, and intensifies, my initial thinking. We learned that the vaccines are doing exactly what the clinical trials indicated they would do, which is fail to prevent transmission and increase mortality in the vaccine group. As a paper by some of the world’s top scientists and bioethicists shows, 22,000-30,000 healthy adults aged 18-29 would need to be boosted with an mRNA vaccine to prevent one COVID-19 hospitalization and, to prevent that one hospitalization, there would be 18-98 serious adverse events. (Incidentally, this is the age of most students at Western, the last university in the country to lift their COVID vaccine mandate.)

We learned that countries with the highest vaccination rates have the highest COVID and death rates. And, as of August 2023, the CDC is reporting excess mortality for ages 0-24 at 44.8% above historical levels, a super-disaster given that a 10 percent rise is a once in 200-year disastrous event.

Winning at the Wrong Game is Still Losing

The evidence undeniably shows that the government response to COVID-19, the mandates in particular and especially for young people, are unjustified on a cost-benefit analysis. But I worry that trying to show they are unjustified is playing the wrong game, and winning at the wrong game is still losing. Acquiescence to medical coercion would be unethical even if the vaccine was a harmless placebo. To see this, think for a minute about what a mandate does which is, essentially, to divide people into three groups:

  1. Those who would have done what the mandate demands even without it, making the mandate unnecessary.
  1. Those who wouldn’t do what the mandate demands even with it, making the mandate ineffective.
  1. Those who choose to do what the mandate demands only because of it, which makes their choice coerced, something we have spent seventy-five years since Nuremberg trying to understand and avoid.

The crucial element of informed consent that has been overlooked for the last three years is that it is not about what’s best from an objective point of view. 

Consent is personal. It is about some particular person’s deeply held beliefs and values, and it should reflect the risks that particular person is willing to take. A judge made this point in a case (a case which was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court) involving a twelve-year-old trying to resist her father’s request to be vaccinated when he wrote: “Even if I were to take judicial notice of the ‘safety’ and ‘efficacy’ of the vaccine, I still have no basis for assessing what that means for this child.”

Furthermore, most arguments in favour of informed consent and autonomy over compliance, and most responses to these arguments, focus on the moral significance of risk of harm. Arguments claiming that we have a moral obligation to vaccinate, for example, claim that we have an obligation to reduce the risk to the health of others by accepting an increased or unknown health risk to ourselves. And even arguments against the mandates tend to proceed on the basis that novel vaccine technologies impose an undue burden of risk of harm to the patient. 

But, as ethicist Michael Kowalik points out, because mandatory vaccination violates bodily autonomy, it constitutes not merely a risk of harm but an actual harm to any person made to accept vaccination under duress. When we aren’t able to make our own choices, or to act on the choices we have made, we are harmed. This doesn’t mean we can always do just whatever we want to do. Some choices are practically impossible to execute (e.g. we want to fly off a high cliff unassisted) while others are too costly to others (e.g. we want to go on a wanton stealing spree), but the crucial point to realize is that overriding individual choice is harmful, even in cases where it might be shown to be justified.

So the ethics of forced or coerced vaccination isn’t a matter of balancing risk of harm to self versus risk of negative health effects to others; these are distinct moral categories. Forcing a person to be vaccinated against her will, or even undermining the consent process that would make a fully informed choice possible affects, as Kowalik says, “the ontological dimensions of personhood.” 

In spite of all of this, the “Do your part” narrative is alive and well and, with it, the obfuscation of consent, the central pillar of medical care.

In Plain Sight

There is no doubt that the government response to COVID-19 is the largest public health disaster in modern history. 

But what most interests and worries me is not that the authorities demanded our compliance, not that the media failed to ask the right questions, but that we submitted so freely, that we were so easily seduced by the assurance of safety over freedom, and the invitation to applaud shame and hatred of the non-compliant. What shocks me still is that so few fought back. 

And so the question that keeps me up at night is, how did we get to this place? Why didn’t we know?

I think part of the answer, the part that is hard to process, is that we did know. Or at least the information that would have allowed us to know was hiding in plain sight. 

In 2009, Pfizer (the company we are told exists to “change patients’ lives” and “make the world a healthier place”) received a record-setting $2.3 billion fine for illegally marketing its painkiller Bextra and for paying kickbacks to compliant doctors. At the time, associate U.S. attorney general Tom Perrelli said the case was a victory for the public over “those who seek to earn a profit through fraud.” 

Well, yesterday’s victory is today’s conspiracy theory. And, unfortunately, Pfizer’s misstep is not a moral anomaly in the pharmaceutical industry. 

Those familiar with the history of psychopharmacology will know of the drug industry’s profile of collusion and regulatory capture: the Thalidomide disaster of the 1950s and 1960s, the Opioid epidemic of the 1980s, Anthony Fauci’s mismanagement of the AIDS epidemic, the SSRI crisis of the 1990s, and that just scratches the surface. The fact that drug companies are not moral saints should never have surprised us.

So why didn’t that knowledge get the traction it deserved? How did we get to the point where our blind adherence to “follow the science” ideology led us to be more unscientific than arguably at any other moment in history?

How Much Freedom is Your Safety Worth?

If you heard one of my speeches over the last couple of years, you might be familiar with the parable of the camel.

On a cold night in the desert, a man is sleeping in his tent, having tied his camel outside. As the night grows colder, the camel asks his master if he can put his head in the tent for warmth. “By all means,” says the man; and the camel stretches his head into the tent. A little while later, the camel asks if he may also bring his neck and front legs inside. Again, the master agrees.

Finally, the camel, who is now half in, half out, says “I’m letting cold air in. May I not come inside?” With pity, the master welcomes him into the warm tent. But once inside, the camel says. “I think that there is not room for both of us here. It will be best for you to stand outside, as you are the smaller.” And with that the man is forced outside of his tent.

Let me put my head in, then my neck and front legs, then my whole self. Then, please step outside. Wear the arm-band, show your papers, pack a suitcase, move to the ghetto, pack another suitcase, get on the train. “Arbeit Macht Frei” until you find yourself in a lineup for the gas chamber.

How does this happen?

The camel’s lesson is that you can get people to do just about anything if you break the unreasonable down into a series of smaller, seemingly reasonable ‘asks.’ It is the humble petition of the camel—just to put his head in the tent—that is so modest, so pitiful, that it seems unreasonable to refuse.

Isn’t this what we’ve seen over the last two years?

It’s been a master class in how to influence a person’s behaviour one step at a time by encroaching a tiny bit, pausing, then starting from this new place and encroaching again, all the while unwittingly transferring what matters to us most to whoever is coercing us.

This idea that our liberties are something authorities can wantonly suspend is reflected in the eery reasoning of British epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, who said this about what inspired his recommendation of the lockdowns:

I think people’s sense of what is possible in terms of control changed quite dramatically between January and March…We couldn’t get away with it in Europe, we thought…And then Italy did it. And we realized we could.

We got to this point because we consented to tiny encroachments that we never should have consented to, not because of the size but the nature of the ask. When we were first asked to lock down but had questions, we should have refused. When doctors were first asked to deny available therapeutics for COVID, they should have refused. Today’s physicians who are ordered to follow the CPSO’s guideline to prescribe psycho-pharmaceuticals and psychotherapy for vaccine-hesitant patients should object.

We got to this point not because we consider autonomy to be a reasonable sacrifice for the public good (although there are surely some of us who do). We got to this point because we are suffering from “moral blindness,” a term ethicists apply to those who would otherwise act ethically but because of temporary pressures (like a coercive medical body or a myopic obsession to “do our part”), and are therefore temporarily unable to see the harms we do.

How can little things like autonomy and consent possibly stack up against saving the human race? How could freedom possibly win out over purity, safety, and perfection? 

In My Choice, I wrote about the nudge paradigm (based on the 2008 book, Nudge), a form of behavioural psychology that uses the active engineering of choice to influence our behaviour in barely discernible ways. I have since learned much more about how most major governments employed this paradigm in their COVID response.

Behavioural insights teams like MINDSPACE (UK) and Impact Canada are tasked not only with tracking public behaviour and sentiment, but planning ways to shape it in accordance with public health policies. These “nudge units” are composed of neuroscientists, behavioural scientists, geneticists, economists, policy analysts, marketers, and graphic designers. Members of Impact Canada include Dr. Lauryn Conway, who focuses on “the application of behavioural science and experimentation to domestic and international policy;” Jessica Leifer, who is a self-control and willpower specialist; and Chris Soueidan, a graphic designer responsible for developing the Impact Canada’s digital brand.

Slogans like “Do your part,” hashtags such as #COVIDVaccine and #postcovidcondition, images of nurses donning masks that look like something from the movie Outbreak, and even the soothing jade green colour on the “Get the facts about COVID-19 vaccines” fact-sheets are all products of Impact Canada’s research and marketing gurus.

Even the steady flow of more subtle images in familiar places (on electronic traffic signs and in YouTube ads), of masks, syringes, and vaccine bandaids, normalizes the behaviour through the subtle suggestion and justification of fear and purity consciousness.

With greater than 90 percent reported vaccination rates in some countries, the efforts of the world’s nudge units seem to have been wildly successful. But why were we so susceptible to being nudged in the first place? Aren’t we supposed to be the rational, critical-thinking descendants of the Enlightenment? Aren’t we supposed to be scientific?

Of course, the majority of those who were following the narrative thought they were being scientific. They thought they were “following the science” by reading The Atlantic, and the New York Times, and listening to CBC and CNN. The fact that media articles might have contained obfuscated, missing, and misleading data, as well as intimidating, often shaming, language from those deemed medical “experts,” never appeared as conflicted with their view that they were being scientific.

The Fear Factor

One of the great lessons of the last two years is just how powerfully we are all affected by fear, how it can alter our capacities for critical thinking and emotional regulation, shifting us to abandon existing beliefs and commitments, and become irrationally pessimistic. 

We saw how fear makes us particularly susceptible to the media’s negative framing that focuses on case and death numbers and not on the fact that, for most, COVID causes only mild symptoms. We saw how fear reframes how we relate to one another, making us more suspicious, more ethnocentric, more intolerant, more hostile toward out-groups, and more susceptible to a saviour stepping in (think of Canada’s Transport Minister frequently claiming that everything the government has done over last two years is to “keep you safe”). 

We are also starting to understand how our manipulated fears caused the mass hysteria to set in, and how our moral panic was generated in the first place. Parents are still paranoid that their children are at great risk from COVID even though in Canada not one child has died from COVID without a comorbidity.

Our fear didn’t develop naturally. The nudging didn’t emerge ex nihilo in 2020. Our blindness, our reflex to persecute those who threatened our ideas of purity, is the culmination of a long-term cultural revolution and devolution of all the institutions we trust so deeply: government, law, media, medical colleges and professional bodies, academia, and private sector industries. It would take a book to explore all the ways our institutions have undergone a synchronized implosion over the last several decades. Maybe I’ll write that book one day. 

But for now, I think of how prescient were the words of Antonio Gramsci who said that to achieve a wholesale shift in thinking, we must “capture the culture.” Couple this with Rudi Dutschke’s exhortation to take a “long march through the institutions” and you have the perfect recipe for the cultural revolution that brought us to this point.

Each of the core institutions that we have been trained to trust was transformed by a paradigm shift in values, a shift towards the “politics of intent” which assumes that, if your intentions are noble and your compassion boundless, you are virtuous, even if your actions ultimately lead to disaster on a colossal scale. Those who refuse to surrender moral turf to the so-called ‘progressives’ are shamed or cancelled into oblivion so that the Utopian world of absolute purity can be realized.

This is the social operating system that has proven its ability to reshape society without limitation, that led to my termination, that tells Kelly-Sue Oberle “correlation isn’t causation,” that upheld the suspension of Dr. Crystal Luchkiw for giving a COVID vaccine exemption to a high-risk patient, that led you to read the words on this page now. And the fallout from this progressive shift is the moral blindness that plagues us now, the hijacked moral consciences, the belief that our compliance is harmless or even impeccably virtuous.

Some Internal Juggling

Now in my forties, my birth date is unfathomably closer to the end of WWII than to today’s date. I feel young, all things considered. I certainly haven’t lived long enough for humanity to forget the lessons of our greatest human atrocity.

I was born the month Saigon fell, signalling the end of the Vietnam War. I have lived through the Columbine massacre, 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, the Rwandan and Darfur genocides, the War in Afghanistan, and the rape and murderous spree of Ted Bundy, but I experienced nothing that presented a crisis on so many fronts, creating so much personal and global instability, as what transpired over the last four years.

I mentioned in the introduction that people like myself, who question the narrative, are considered foolish for doing so. Foolish not just because we are presumed wrong but because we are assumed dangerous, that our failure to see things the “right way” poses a risk to others.

I have often wondered if I am a fool. I am many things: a former philosophy professor, a reluctant public intellectual, a wife, a mother, a friend. But I am also the noise in the study, the outlier, the nonconformist, the kink in the collectivist agenda. I am the one who cares more about being able to sleep at night than fitting in.

What makes me different? I really don’t know.

I can say that I have experienced more internal juggling over the last four years than at any other point in my life. The stakes were high. They are high. And, alongside my very public work, I underwent much personal transformation. I became a mother, which has been the most personally transformative experience of my life. 

To see and feel these two parallel experiences — the personal and the public — weave in and out of one another has been both exhausting and as authentic as any could be. The experience leaves me feeling mentally emaciated and invigorated at the same time, while the waves of new challenges roll over me on a daily basis. And I wonder every day if I have been made better or worse by them, or if I am just different than I would have been without them.

When I first stepped onto this battlefield three years ago, I felt fiery and equipped with as much energy as I would ever need to fight this fight. But, in late fall 2022, it all stopped. The well of energy dried up. I hosted an event for The Democracy Fund with Conrad Black interviewing Jordan Peterson in Toronto and, while waiting to go on stage, I had the feeling it would be my last public event. I had drained the resources that made public appearances possible. I was fighting a war I didn’t understand. The energy output felt futile. I couldn’t imagine that yet another Zoom call would make a difference.

Offers from ever-more popular freedom personalities came rolling in but it all felt insignificant, and I felt foolish for thinking that any of it mattered. In early 2023, I felt battle-weary and mentally drained. To be uncomfortably honest, I wanted to retreat, to recoil to my own little corner of the world, and shut out the eerie chaos around me.

Even now, I struggle with how to balance my obligations to my family with having a more public role. I wonder what I’ve lost and what life would have been like without the crisis. And, I resent the time this fight takes away from being able to enjoy my daughter’s childhood and to relive my own through hers. It’s hard to leave this peaceful, playful world and step yet another day onto the battlefield.

People often ask what moves me. In My Choice, I talked about being a hardcore individualist who sees consensus as a ‘red flag’ about what to avoid. But there is something even more basic than this. I love truth and I love my daughter. And I want to create a world for her in which she never needs to make the sacrifices I’m making now. In which she can make daisy chains without worrying about the next lockdown, and read to her children without thinking about digital passports.

It’s not a coincidence, I think, that so many of the freedom fighters are parents, the ones who are most motivated for the fight but have the least time and energy for it. We are the ones who see the future in our children’s eyes, who have a vision of what their lives will be like if we do nothing. And we can’t bear to have this world be our children’s future.

Where to from Here? 

So how do we cure this moral blindness? How do we wake up to the harms of what we are doing?

Though it pains me to say, I don’t think reason is going to do it. The last few years have proven philosopher David Hume right, that “reason is and ought only to be a slave of the passions.” I have yet to hear of someone being convinced of the absurdity of the COVID narrative on the basis of reason or evidence alone. I worked for months with the Canadian Covid Care Alliance to provide evidence-based information about COVID-19 but I didn’t see any real effect until I made a video in which I cried. 

In saying that, I don’t mean to disparage the importance of rigorous scientific evidence or to elevate careless rhetoric. But what I have learned from speaking with thousands of you at events and protests, in interviews and over email is that my video had resonance not because of any particular thing I said but because you felt my emotion: “I cried with you,” you said. “You showed what we were all feeling.” “You spoke to my heart.” And that’s what made the difference.

Why did you cry when you saw that video? Why do tears well up over broccoli at the grocery store? Because, I think, none of this is about data and evidence and reason; it’s about feelings, good or bad. Feelings that justify our purity culture, feelings that motivate our virtue signals, feelings that we have been told we don’t matter, feelings that, for all our efforts, there will one day be no sign that we ever walked on this earth.

You were responding not to my reasons but to my humanity. You saw in me another person embracing what you felt, reaching out across the gulf to connect with the meaning we all share. The lesson we can learn is a confirmation of the Belgian psychologist Mattias Desmet’s exhortation to keep reaching for what we all deeply crave: meaning, common ground, connecting with the humanity in others. And that’s how we have to continue to fight.

Do facts matter? Of course they do. But facts, alone, will never be able to answer the questions we really need to ask. The real ammunition of the COVID war is not information. It’s not a battle over what is true, what counts as misinformation, what it means to #followthescience. It’s a battle over what our lives mean and, ultimately, whether we matter.

Kelly-Sue needs to tell herself that she matters at a time when the world won’t listen. She needs to testify to her own story until it registers on our cultural radar. She needs to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves. 

In telling herself she matters, she has already done all any of us can do. She has found meaning and purpose; now she just needs to get on with the life of pursuing it, as we all must do.

Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
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  • Julie Ponesse

    Dr. Julie Ponesse, 2023 Brownstone Fellow, is a professor of ethics who has taught at Ontario’s Huron University College for 20 years. She was placed on leave and banned from accessing her campus due to the vaccine mandate. She presented at the The Faith and Democracy Series on 22, 2021. Dr. Ponesse has now taken on a new role with The Democracy Fund, a registered Canadian charity aimed at advancing civil liberties, where she serves as the pandemic ethics scholar.

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