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.
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.
Earlier this year, Brownstone Institute published my book Blindsight Is 2020, which 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.
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