Polemicisation and the Formation of Ideology

Apparently, UC Berkeley will now be imposing indefinite mask mandates during flu season on everyone who has not received a flu vaccine. It’s worth asking how we got to this point, where two weeks to crush the curve have become a permanent amorphous crusade against seasonal respiratory infections in general.

The question is related to another, much broader problem I like to puzzle over: Where, exactly, do political ideologies come from? How do they acquire their specific features? It would be good to know, because somewhere in the months following March 2020, an entire containment ideology emerged before our very eyes, complete with millions of committed adherents, well-defined leadership and thinkers, and a semi-stable list of core doctrines. At the very top of this list is the unshakeable belief that wearing a face mask is morally and hygienically laudable, even necessary if you wish to be a healthy and responsible human being. That sounds crazy, but it’s what these people believe, and the adherents of containment ideology will never stop masking and demanding mask mandates and making their children mask. It is for them a deep ideological commitment.

The distribution of containment ideology provides some clues as to what’s going on here. Highly politicised university campuses, particularly in the United States, are where the most extreme devotees are to be found. And the US in general has some of the most vocal containment ideologues in the world—people like Eric Feigl-Ding and Yaneer Bar-Yam. Somehow, places which have been subject to stricter and much more uniform restrictions, like Germany, have far fewer containment ideologues running around. It’s hard to imagine that any European country, even those which imposed some of the most strictly enforced mask mandates during the pandemic, would ever enact permanent rules like those envisioned by UC Berkeley administrators.

Another thing to notice, is that most of the key containment doctrines are patently worthless and have been demonstrated, again and again, to have little or no effect on the virus. Nothing else in the pandemicist arsenal has been as thoroughly discredited as masking. I very much doubt it’s an accident, that precisely this measure, among all the other garbage we’ve tried, should have acquired such a central place in the canon.

I once suggested thinking about ideologies as systems of belief that have come to prominence, not because they are right or beneficial or predictive, but because they grant their adherents specific institutional advantages. There are many ideas and proposals about what we should do or how we should think about cultural, political, or social matters. Those ideas that benefit enough people (or the right people) in enough places (or the right places) are fused into broader, coherent ideological systems that adherents can wield for specific advantage.

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