This past weekend, attendees at a conference at Saint Vincent College learned that on Truth Social, Donald Trump’s social media alternative to Twitter (which banned him in January 2020), users compose “truths” instead of “tweets.” Last month, technical glitches caused the new platform to acknowledge that it was “currently experiencing slow distribution of truths.” That and its corollary, the swift proliferation of falsehoods, describe much of public life in the era of Covid. The nine conference speakers, assembled by Brad Watson, director of Saint Vincent’s Center for Political and Economic Thought, addressed the atmosphere of crisis and panic that has driven the policies of government and private organizations and transformed educational and cultural institutions since March 2020. The conference, titled “Politics, Policy, and Panic: Governing in a Time of Crisis,” assessed how these developments have damaged constitutional government, the rule of law, and the well-being of the American people. Yet its existence induced an ironic moral panic in Saint Vincent’s administration, which has now issued a groveling letter of apology for the alleged sins of one of the speakers and forbidden Watson to post videos of any of the lectures.
Governing elites and institutional and corporate leaders are generally vociferous supporters of social justice. Yet speaker after speaker showed how these groups have cruelly abandoned broad swathes of vulnerable Americans—including children, the working class, black Americans, and the urban poor—in implementing scientifically uninformed, politically partisan, and self-serving policies.
The first talks focused on the ruinous effects of governmental responses to Covid. Scott Atlas, who in 2020 served on the White House Coronavirus Task Force, presented data detailing the devastating and entirely foreseeable costs of lockdowns, which contravened long-established best practices for handling pandemics. Lockdowns produced serious learning loss; increased child abuse, substance abuse, and psychiatric illness; extensive unemployment for low-wage earners; missed cancer treatments and undetected illnesses; and exploding obesity. Some Saint Vincent faculty members who did not attend Atlas’s talk objected to his inclusion in the conference.
Jeffrey Tucker, founder of the Brownstone Institute, noted that the lowest social strata have always borne the greatest burdens of pathogenic disease. Following the New York Times’s advice to its readers—stay safe and have your groceries delivered—the “laptop class” used the working class to develop herd immunity. Tucker, who said that he has “never worried more about inequality in the United States,” maintained that this was a fundamental violation of the social contract. Jeffrey Anderson, president of the American Main Street Initiative, stated that mask and vaccination mandates are prerogatives of legislatures. Anderson argued that, in unilaterally imposing such mandates, Trump, Joe Biden, and most state governors torpedoed what James Madison called the “double security . . . to the rights of the people” afforded by the Constitution: the separation of powers and the separation of federal and state governments.
Other speakers tackled the political and psychological effects of digital technology and information manipulation. Allison Stanger, a professor of politics and economics at Middlebury College, spoke on “Who Elected Big Tech?” Stanger, who is writing a book on that subject, addressed the challenges that tech giants pose to democracy, human values, and national governments. She has defended the free and open exchange of ideas at significant personal cost. In 2017, Antifa thugs gave her a concussion when she stepped between them and the conservative political scientist Charles Murray.
Political scientist Wilfred Reilly of Kentucky State University explored how statistical ignorance, bias, or chicanery contribute to a culture of fear and promote harmful media myths. Surveys have historically found that the United States is one of the least racist countries in the world. But, Reilly observed, when questions of the form “Would you work with/date/befriend a black/Asian/etc.?” were replaced with questions about perceptions of racism, the U.S. ranking fell precipitously. In a widely reported 2022 survey of the least racist countries, the U.S. ranks 69 out of 78; China, infamous for persecuting its Uyghurs, ranks 66.
Hillsdale College professor of government David Azerrad’s talk “Only Black Lives Matter: Racial Hysteria in Contemporary America” brought out aggrieved students who recorded his lecture. Azerrad reflected on how the special arrangements extended to black Americans, including lower academic standards and de facto immunity in many cities from prosecution for low-level felonies, profoundly disserves both them and their fellow citizens. His frankness, precision, and patience in dealing with strongly worded objections and emotionally charged audience questions modeled a combination of intelligence, courage, and commitment to teaching and learning rarely found in academia.
Keith Whittaker, the founder of Wise Counsel Research, used the topic of financial panic to explore the nature of panic in general, a continuum of manic-depressive madness in which idol-worship is followed by scapegoating. Johnny Burtka, President and CEO of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, derived seven crucial lessons for students from the “Mirror of Princes” tradition inaugurated by Xenophon and Han Fei and developed by Cicero, Aquinas, Machiavelli, and Erasmus, among others. My own talk, “The Organization of Hatreds and the Crisis of Logos in America,” surveyed the collapse of essential American institutions, especially educational ones. I argued that the real crisis of our time is one of political speech and agency, replaced by large-scale governmental or institutional action undertaken by elites acting in the name of, but without the advice and consent of, those they claim to serve and represent.
That argument was later vindicated. On April 10, a letter of apology to the campus community for Azerrad’s talk was put out over the signature of the Dean of the School of Business, Economics, and Government. An informed source tells me that he is a good man, and that the letter, which states that Azerrad’s “point of view . . . may be interpreted as a form of invidious discrimination which inherently degrades the sanctity of human life” and promises that “we will never endorse the message of anyone who deprecates the struggle of those who have been victimized by bigotry,” is not his writing. Because the College has forbidden Watson to post the videos to YouTube, few will be able to judge for themselves the accuracy of the letter’s characterization of Azerrad’s talk.
I said in my lecture that Americans face a bleak future if we cannot restore the habits of mind and character in which individual freedom and political liberty are grounded. The shameful actions of Saint Vincent’s administration show how much work needs to be done if we hope to do so.