When I was little, we lived in an apartment cut out of grandma’s house. I understand before my time, it had been storage rooms of various kinds, but was converted to a shotgun apartment for my parents when they got married. Because my parents are crazy people, they then lived there for 14 or 15 years, until they could buy a home outright.
The house was already over a hundred years old when I was born, and electricity had been a late addition, though my parents had their own electrical board and meter.
Not that we used a ton of electricity. There was a light in the middle of the ceiling in the kitchen, one in the living room, and bedside lamps in the bedroom and in the hallway where my brother (or I. The other would sleep at Grandma’s that night) slept. And there was the radio mom listened to while working. But the board was such that plugging anything at all in made it go down. And when it went down, the normal procedure was to slip the coin that was the equivalent of a quarter into the place where the last one had melted.
It took me years to find out this was an extremely unsafe practice and why. I.e. since the coins don’t blow as fast as the fuses do, they could start a house fire. But frankly, if anyone in the family knew that, they didn’t care. Because having the coin in there meant if you accidentally turned on two lightbulbs and the radio, the whole thing wouldn’t go down.
Right now it’s entirely possible that we’re looking at just that situation globally, and that at the moment China is the coin in the electrical board, disguising the fact that things are very bad indeed.
Because I belong to a group of writers and futurists, we are, of course, all discussing what precisely the kung-flu — xi disease — means, and how bad the outbreak actually is.
The funny thing is that everyone agrees that the official numbers are nonsense, but what the real numbers are, nobody knows. And the difference is ludicrous, ranging from something like 1k to 13k.
As for percentage of infected, that’s even more nebulous, because no one is testing everyone.
So far it seems to be a wet petard outside China — which is good — as SARS was, as were other illnesses of the third world, such as Ebola. OTOH one of the things we don’t really know is how long ago the outbreak started. We also are a bit shaky on latency, as it seems possible that people are infected and infectious a long time without symptoms, (we know it’s some time, but not how much time.)
In fact, the truth is we know about as much about real facts on the ground as we know who really won the Democratic party Iowa caucus. Which is to say very close to nothing.
Even witness reports contradict each other, ranging from bodies piled int he street, to everything completely normal, except for an overabundance of facial masks. And of course, there are reasons to lie in both directions. Opponents of the regime might want to report more trouble than really exists, while those who are defending the regime might want to white wash the whole sorry mess.
Which brings us back to jamming coins in electrical boards, or removing batteries from fire alarms that are beeping because the battery is old — and yes, I know you’ve done that. I have too, when it’s the middle of the night and you don’t have another battery — and then leaving it like that: it reduces the number of alarms. It also, in the end, could cost you your life.
Totalitarian regimes, by definition, falsify information. Or silence it.
They present the outside a smooth, polished, best-case-scenario image. That’s the good side. The bad side is that what is actually going on inside is not known, either to the outside world, or to the inside.
Everyone who agitates for reductions or elimination of the First Amendment should ponder that. Sure, words can be hurty and cause much anguish. As someone who is actually quite confrontation averse, I know that. Also, frankly, like the beeping alarm in the middle of the night, which denotes not fire but a low battery, they can mean pretty much nothing. A lot of speech that goes to rumors and innuendo with absolutely no substance — but enough about CNN — is like that alarm, annoying you and keeping you out of bed for no good reason.
So, why not curb the ability to call people bad things? Or to tell lies? Why not pass a law against fake news? Why not simply say that news can only be reported by licensed journalists held to strict standards?
Because no one ever needed a First Amendment in order to tell you the baby is pretty and that the clothes the king is wearing are wonderful.
If you put any curtailments on the First, you’re giving tyrants and people who would like to be tyrants the ability to stop information they don’t like.
And trust me on this, having worked in industries dominated by the left, it’s like a mini totalitarian regime. You constantly watch what you say and even your facial expressions, because any sign of dissent will be punished. This means when people get up there and make blatantly political speeches you disagree with at a political banquet, you try to keep your face absolutely impassive.
Of course that means the idiot who got up there some years ago, and talked about how Howard Dean was our future president had no clue how many people he was offending. Now in science fiction and at the time, it didn’t mean much. It’s not like any of us were going to say anything. We couldn’t get around the gatekeepers and continue making a living.
OTOH when that regime is country-wide (and it is, in a lot of countries. Even Canada has restrictions on speech) there can be real world consequences. Say a law says your words can’t “cause panic” or “incite to harm.”
Like facebook’s famous “coordinating harm” interdiction which was used to prevent from typing the name Eric C*aramella, because apparently naming a fake whistleblower means we’re all going to show up at his house with clubs and broken bottles, (Ah, left, you project like an IMAX) that incitement to harm or causing panic can be used to, oh, say, prevent a doctor from revealing that there’s a pandemic running rampant. Or preventing people from knowing the magnitude of the disaster.
So…. what does it matter?
Ah, I’m glad you asked. You see, in the past we could tolerate totalitarian regimes where truth was unknown and unknowable.
Mostly because, frankly, though there was global commerce, it was erratic and performed on horse/camel/elephant back or by ship.
Nowadays you could go around the world in 3 or 4 days (depending on your flights and resources. But more importantly, merchandise and money does that.
The epidemic in China can affect our economy. It can also affect our medical resources, available to fight the epidemic (of all things, apparently most surgical masks are made in China. Which is a problem.) So even if it’s just confined to China for cultural or economic reasons? We’re still going to feel the impact, and in an election year that could be very no bueno.
But what if the “epidemic” started much earlier, or we’re being lied to about…. well…. most of it?
What if it comes here?
Well? What if it does? We have no way of knowing or judging how bad it could be or how bad it could become. (And you guys are prepared for a one-month quarantine at home, right? If not, why not? I mean, even if this is nothing, there’s always the possibility of future trouble.)
This is the problem of enmeshed world economies, the problem of globalism and open borders. It is not only that when trouble hits we have no real way to seal the border. It’s the problem that even a disease like SARS or EBOLA which will not propagate in the West, if it crosses a certain threshold, will have economic consequences for the west.
I’ve said before that if we want open borders, we can’t have a welfare state. And as long as we have a welfare state, we need tight control on who might come in to — potentially — be a charge on citizens.
In the same way, if you want a global economy, with complete free trade, you cannot have totalitarian states. Because if you do, you’re putting the entire world at risk. It is not a coincidence either that epidemics and any kind of illness tend to kill a lot more people in states where information doesn’t flow freely. A great part of curbing illness in any herd, including the human herd is forewarning and preparing. If you can’t trust anything our of a country you do business with, what confidence and you deposit in their performance?
In an ideal world — and trust me, I’d love this — we could have a free flow of people and business everywhere.
But I have some time ago realized that wishing every country were open to scrutiny and allowed speech of all sorts, it’s sort of like wishing every man were a gentlemen and none of them committed rape, or that every woman be honest and truthful. It’s a lovely idea, but one that will never happen, for is it not written, the bad apples shall always be with us?
In a world with bad apples, individuals and groups of individuals — all the way to nations — must protect themselves.
Which means, unfortunately, that not everyone can move around with perfect liberty, and that one cannot have commerce with countries that engage in totalitarian practices.
Because totalitarianism kills, sooner or later.
And we don’t want to go down with it.