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Viral Truths and the Mouthpieces of Unreality

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What I want is to praise Hunt because what he had done has been incredible—and to praise those whose truths Hunt was in a position to make go viral.”

Truths can go viral. With the Internet as a catalyst, they often do so far faster than coronaviruses. Truths are more difficult to contain, and their curves are more resistant to being flattened. They are spread not by human contact, but by human will and human goodness. As with coronaviruses, entire governments (and even societies) can be mobilized to stop the spread of truths: mouthpieces of unreality trying to drown out the truth with the merely politically correct. But, as they say, the truth always gets out. 

But it does not get out all on its own. That is to do a grave disservice to those who risk their lives to tell the truth—and to those who seek out the tellers of politically incorrect truths to amplify and continue their spread. I can only speak for myself on this matter: I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Ben Hunt, who wrote on this very topic for Quillette in early March.

I feel slightly awkward singling out Hunt for such effusive praise. But I don’t really have a choice because this is a true reflection of my experience; he is the only reason I took the virus seriously when I did. I’m sure he will be embarrassed by all of this too, and, equally, I am sure many millions of people have their own versions of this story. I would highlight in particular the great, if brash, work of Nassim Taleb, as well as his frequent co-authors Yaneer Bar-Yam and Joe Norman. 

I have my differences with Taleb, but, in recognition of the severity of this moment, I will put petty Twitter squabbles aside without a second thought to help fight this fight. Twitter is not real life. The virus is the most real life has felt in a long time.

I will never be too proud to thank him for what he has done. I may treat him brutally on the topics of ergodicity and mathematical logic, but I will thank him for this until the day I die. The role played by Hunt for me—and Taleb for others—will certainly have been played by thousands or tens of thousands of like-minded people for their millions of readers and followers. I don’t think we could ever possibly exhaustively chronicle how many heroes were out there, doing what they could.

When Hunt wrote for Quillette, his first time away from Epsilon Theory in many, many years, I was thrilled to see him be given such a platform. I felt the tide might finally be turning on taking COVID-19 seriously. In short: on committing unequivocally to saving lives. I had been desperate and scared for weeks by that point, but we will get to that. And so the editors of Quillette are due my praise as well. But I must take the reader back much further to understand why I am reflecting on this in the way I am.

For some time, I have followed Hunt on Twitter, which Hunt kindly reciprocated, and I regularly read the blog to which he contributes, Epsilon Theory. We both work in finance, and we enjoy one another’s slightly wacky thoughts. Until the virus, there really wasn’t much else to add to this summary of our relationship. But we know how this story ends—or, at least, what happens next. 

On February 10th, I read, “Body Count,” in which Hunt convinced me beyond any shadow of a doubt that the Communist Party of China (CCP) was fabricating its public health data with respect to COVID-19. On February 16th, I read, “The Industrially Necessary Doctor Tedros,” in which Hunt laid bare the World Health Organization’s (WHO) corruption and complicity in the CCP’s lies. On February 24th, I read, “The Fall Of Wuhan,” in which Hunt convinced me that what happened in Wuhan was going to happen everywhere.

I slept on it. But on February 25th, I quietly raised the alarm with my close friends and family, conscious of trying to avoid causing too much of a fuss at work, on Twitter, or with those whom I knew less well. I was a coward. People may well have died as a highly indirect result of my egocentrism. They may yet die. But some may well have lived: I worked from home; I insisted my girlfriend do the same. I “prepped,” as it has come to be called, and I told my parents to prep, absolutely convinced of the inevitability of a pending lockdown.

I want to thank these people from the bottom of my heart for giving me and my family a fighting chance to survive this plague and to proactively avoid contributing to the deaths of others. 

Twitter followers, regular readers, or friends of mine will know that I did eventually snap out of this shyness and started making a very public effort to positively contribute. But I do not want to pat myself on the back because I could have done so much more. What I want is to praise Hunt because what he had done has been incredible—and to praise those whose truths Hunt was in a position to make go viral. “Praise” really doesn’t cut it, and I think it is perhaps even mildly offensive a word choice. I want to thank these people from the bottom of my heart for giving me and my family a fighting chance to survive this plague and to proactively avoid contributing to the deaths of others. 

(https://www.epsilontheory.com/wp-content/uploads/body-count.jpg)

Hunt’s “Body Count” begins with a haunting picture of Li Wenliang, the Chinese doctor who raised the alarm to his medical colleagues of a possible outbreak of a likely-viral illness eerily reminiscent of SARS in late December. Li stood up for what was right, and it killed him. His truth went viral faster than the virus from which it stemmed. The picture, reposted above, may well be the last there is of Li alive. However long the reader looked at the image, please go back and look again for longer. Everybody in the world needs to not only see this image, but to look at it. Take a moment, look, and reflect.

In early January, Li was censured by the CCP and forced to sign a false confession. In late January, he fell ill with COVID-19, caught from treating the infected in Wuhan, then well on its way to a complete societal collapse. While dying, Li took this photo as a final, desperate attempt to reach somebody—anybody—with his truth. He passed away on February 7th. “Body Count” was written on February 10th. I learned who Li was from Hunt. I suspect thousands of others in the West did as well. Li is a hero for doing what he did; Hunt is a hero for passing it on.

In March, Hunt’s focus shifted. On March 9th, he wrote “The Non-Linearity of Need. This is both his most impressive and important piece, in my view. The prior three were investigative journalism, from which I benefitted. “The Non-Linearity of Need” is a humanistic sermon from which everybody can benefit from, as long as this crisis lasts. But his Twitter activity changed as well. See here. And here

I could have reeled off many more, but there is really no point. I can reassure the reader that Hunt has been repeating this day in and day out ever since, using Twitter as a force for scarcely comprehensible good. As has Taleb, by the way. As have Norman, Bar-Yam, and many, many others. Hunt graciously turned down co-authoring this article because he is too busy doing exactly this kind of thing. Still, on April 30th, I cannot say it often enough, and I will keep on saying it for the rest of my life: These people are heroes.

In the rough Twittersphere both Hunt and I inhabit, the investor Naval Ravikant has a certain ironic cachet. Ravikant recently said that, “the real fault line isn’t left vs right – it’s centralised vs decentralised.” He followed it up by channelling Taleb’s rather more technical take:

“The division in politics can be summarized as between

+ Embedded, complexity-minded, multiscale/fractal localists (politics as an ecology/complex adaptive system)

+ Abstract one-dimensional universalists & monoculturalists (politics as a top-down engineering project)”

Contrary to popular belief, particularly prevalent in superficially stable (pre-pandemic) liberal democracies, government is an exercise in engineering and competence—not morality. What COVD-19 has demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt is how poorly engineered many governments are—and how easily that can manifest as abject incompetence in the face of a real crisis. This is not because their employees are immoral (necessarily; they may be immoral as well). They do not have the wrong ideas about how to govern. “Don’t let millions die in a pandemic,” is an idea all would get behind. They have the wrong incentives, responsibilities, capabilities, and competencies.

Those with the right incentives, responsibilities, capabilities, and competencies—but shut out of the corridors of state power—took to the Internet to make their case. Some already had a powerful online voice, but others did not. Thankfully, Hunt was in a position to help, as were many others. I was merely an engaged consumer of this increasingly terrifying news flow.

And yet, as tempting as it surely is to praise “the Internet,” entirely in the abstract, I once again cannot help but feel this sentiment lacks an essentially human vitality. I am reminded of Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything Click Here, in which, among many other subtle and yet potent lines of argument, he laments the common and lazy use of the phrase at all:

“Internet-centric explanations, at least in their current form, greatly impoverish and infantilise our public debate. We ought to steer away from them as much as possible. If doing so requires imposing a moratorium on using the very term, ‘Internet’ and instead going for more precise terminology, like ‘peer-to-peer networks’ or ‘social networks’ or ‘search engines,’ so be it. It’s the very low possibility that the whole, that is, ‘the Internet,’ is somehow spiritually and politically greater than the sum of these specific terms that exerts such a corrosive influence on how we think about the world.

None of the information to which I refer came from “the Internet.” It came over social networks, but it came from good people‚“good”—not in an aesthetic sense. But “good” precisely in the spiritual and political sense that Morozov begs us to recover from the mostly infantile way in which “the Internet,” as an expression, has come to be used.

And to be absolutely clear, I am not putting myself forward as such a person. Not by a long shot. I just tweet a lot, in normal times primarily about financial theory (lately about Taleb) and seem to have entirely accidentally emerged as a minor focal point for information flow from concerned individuals. Hunt emerged as a major focal point. It is these individuals who are the heroes; I am merely a chance amplifier of their concerns. Many will have breached employment contracts in reaching out to Hunt, myself, and others in similar positions. Some may even have broken the law. It is not “the Internet” for which we should be thankful; it is men and women brave enough to do the right thing in the face of unimaginable adversity and horror. “The Internet” is a tool. It turns bravery into inspiration, but it does not inspire all on its own.  

Grossman’s bravery in the face of authoritarian intimidation, much like that of Li Wenliang, caused his truth to go viral.

Unlike “the Internet,” good people have been here many times before. It may be difficult to find parallels to the widespread governmental incompetence in Europe and the United States (or maybe I simply know too little history to say), but the stories coming out of China in particular read like Communist dissident satire. Maybe in time they will become inspiration for exactly that. Compare my chronology above to the following passage in Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle. The imprisoned scientist Lev Grigorievich Rubin, 

“put his hands over his face. The worst of it was that no one in his right mind could regard a medical discovery as a state secret, because medicine that asked a sick man his nationality was not medicine; and on purely human grounds Rubin couldn’t help liking this man who had been brave enough to telephone a flat under surveillance, probably without realizing what a risk he was taking.”

Or, indeed, there is what happened in real life to Vasily Grossman, author of Life and Fate. As Robert Chandler describes in the introduction to his English translation of Grossman’s masterpiece, the Soviet secret police confiscated Grossman’s manuscript and ordered him never to speak of the incident. Grossman did not comply; he had already taken measures to ensure the novel’s survival and eventual publication, some twenty years after his untimely death from cancer. He had given copies to two friends of his who did not know each other and who had no connection to the Russian literary scene.

Grossman’s bravery in the face of authoritarian intimidation, much like that of Li Wenliang, caused his truth to go viral. Incidentally—and without ruining the plot for interested readers—Life and Fate features a false confession that could be made indistinguishable from Li Wenliang’s ordeal simply by changing the characters’ names. The vectors of their respective viral truths may have differed dramatically, but the force of humanity driving their spread was identical. It transcends nationality, culture, politics, place, and time. It is viscerally human. It is good.

Li is at least as great a hero as Grossman. Make no mistake: He is a martyr. A hero for all humankind. It is probably fairer to compare Li to one of Grossman’s characters than to Grossman himself—or to one of Solzhenitsyn’s. Li is Shtrum; he is Nerzhin. But this is perhaps also to lose sight of an essentially human element: Li was real. May he never be forgotten, and may he rest in peace.

I give the last word to the beautiful additional introduction that the English novelist Linda Grant wrote for the same Vintage Classics 2011 edition of Life and Fate:

The novel should be as famous as Doctor Zhivago or The Gulag Archipelago. It will become so when it finds a critical mass of readers who understand that all that matters is the individual and the furious joy of being alive, to live as human beings and to die as human beings, not the mouthpieces of unreality..

Allen Farrington lives in Edinburgh. He writes at QuilletteAreo, and Medium. You can follow him on Twitter @allenf32.

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