To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle,’ George Orwell famously observed. He was talking not about everyday life but about politics, where it is ‘quite easy for the part to be greater than the whole or for two objects to be in the same place simultaneously’. The examples he gave in his 1946 essay included the paradox that ‘for years before the war, nearly all enlightened people were in favour of standing up to Germany: the majority of them were also against having enough armaments to make such a stand effective’.
Last week provided a near-perfect analogy. For years before the 2020 election, nearly all American conservatives were in favour of standing up to big tech: the majority of them were also against changing the laws and regulations enough to make such a stand effective. The difference is that, unlike the German threat, which was geographically remote, the threat from Silicon Valley was literally in front of our noses, day and night: on our mobile phones, our tablets and our laptops.
Writing in this magazine more than three years ago, I warned of a coming collision between Donald Trump and Silicon Valley. ‘Social media helped Donald Trump take the White House,’ I wrote. ‘Silicon Valley won’t let it happen again.’ The conclusion of my book The Square and the Tower was that the new online network platforms represented a new kind of power that posed a fundamental challenge to the traditional hierarchical power of the state.
By the network platforms, I mean Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Google and Apple, or FATGA for short — companies that have established a dominance over the public sphere not seen since the heyday of the pre-Reformation Catholic Church. FATGA had humble enough origins in garages and dorm rooms. As recently as 2008, not one of them could be found among the world’s largest companies by market capitalisation. Today, they occupy first, third, fourth and fifth places in the market cap league table, just above their Chinese counterparts, Tencent and Alibaba.
What happened was that the network platforms turned the originally decentralised worldwide web into an oligarchically organised and hierarchical public sphere from which they made money and to which they controlled access. That the original, superficially libertarian inclinations of these companies’ founders would rapidly crumble under political pressure from the left was also perfectly obvious, if one bothered to look a little beyond one’s proboscis.
Following the violent far-right rally at Charlottesville in August 2017, Matthew Prince, chief executive of the internet service provider Cloudflare, described how he had responded: ‘Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the internet.’ On the basis that ‘the people behind the [white supremacist magazine] Daily Stormer are assholes’, he denied their website access to the internet. ‘No one should have that power,’ he admitted. ‘We need to have a discussion around this with clear rules and clear frameworks. My whims and those of Jeff [Bezos] and Larry [Page] and … Mark [Zuckerberg] shouldn’t be what determines what should be online.’
But that discussion had barely begun in 2017. Indeed, many Republicans at that time still believed the notion that FATGA were champions of the free market that required only the lightest regulation. They know better now. After last year’s election Twitter attached health warnings to Trump’s tweets when he claimed that he had in fact beaten Joe Biden. Then, in the wake of the storming of the Capitol by a mob of Trump supporters, Twitter and Facebook began shutting down multiple accounts — including that of the President himself, now ‘permanently suspended’ from tweeting. When Trump loyalists declared their intention to move their conversations from Twitter to rival Parler — in effect, Twitter with minimal content moderation — Google and Apple deleted Parler from their app stores. Then Amazon kicked Parler off its ‘cloud’ service, effectively deleting it from the internet altogether. It was a stunning demonstration of power.
It is only a slight overstatement to say that, while the mob’s coup against Congress ignominiously failed, big tech’s coup against Trump triumphantly succeeded. It is not merely that Trump has been abruptly denied access to the channels he has used throughout his presidency to communicate with voters. It is the fact that he is being excluded from a domain the courts have for some time recognised as a public forum.
Various lawsuits over the years have conferred on big tech an unusual status: a public good, held in private hands. In 2018 the Southern District of New York ruled that the right to reply to Trump’s tweets is protected ‘under the “public forum” doctrines set forth by the Supreme Court’. So it was wrong for the President to ‘block’ people — i.e. stop them reading his tweets — because they were critical of him. Censoring Twitter users ‘because of their expressed political views’ represents ‘viewpoint discrimination [that] violates the First Amendment’.
In Packingham vs North Carolina (2017), Justice Anthony Kennedy likened internet platforms to ‘the modern public square’, arguing that it was therefore unconstitutional to prevent sex offenders from accessing, and expressing opinions on, social network platforms. ‘While in the past there may have been difficulty in identifying the most important places (in a spatial sense) for the exchange of views,’ Justice Kennedy wrote, ‘today the answer is clear. It is cyberspace —the “vast democratic forums of the internet” in general … and social media in particular.’
In other words, as President of the United States, Trump could not block Twitter users from seeing his tweets, but Twitter is apparently within its rights to delete the President’s account altogether. Sex offenders have a right of access to online social networks; but the President does not.
This is not to condone Trump’s increasingly deranged attempts to overturn November’s election result. Before last week’s riots, he egged on the mob; he later said he ‘loved’ them, despite what they had done. Nor is there any denying that a number of Trump’s most fervent supporters pose a threat of further violence. Considering the bombs and firearms some of them brought to Washington, the marvel is how few people lost their lives during the occupation of the Capitol.
Yet the correct response to that threat is not to delegate to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and their peers the power to remove from the public square anyone they deem to be sympathetic to insurrection or otherwise suspect. The correct response is for the FBI and the relevant police departments to pursue any would-be Trumpist terrorists, just as they have quite successfully pursued would-be Islamist terrorists over the past two decades.
The key to understanding what has happened lies in an obscure piece of legislation, almost a quarter of a century old, enacted after a New York court held online service provider Prodigy liable for a user’s defamatory posts. Congress then stepped in with the 1996 Telecommunications Act and in particular Section 230, which was written to encourage nascent firms to protect users and prevent illegal activity without incurring massive content management costs. It states:“
1. No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.
2. No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of … any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable.
In essence, Section 230 gives websites immunity from liability for what their users post if it is in any way harmful, but also entitles websites to take down with equal impunity any content that they don’t like the look of. The surely unintended result of this legislation, drafted for a fledgling internet, is that some of the biggest companies in the world enjoy a protection reminiscent of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Try to hold them responsible as publishers, and they will say they are platforms. Demand access to their platforms and they will insist that they are publishers.
This might have been a tolerable state of affairs if America’s network platforms had been subject to something like the old Fairness Doctrine, which required the big three terrestrial TV networks to give airtime to opposing views. But that was something the Republican party killed off in the 1980s, seeing the potential of allowing more slanted coverage on cable news. What goes around comes around. The network platforms long ago abandoned any pretence of being neutral. Even before Charlottesville, their senior executives and many of their employees had made it clear that they were appalled by Trump’s election victory (especially as both Facebook and Twitter had facilitated it). Increasingly, they interpreted the words ‘otherwise objectionable’ in Section 230 to mean ‘objectionable to liberals’.
Throughout the summer of last year, numerous supporters of Black Lives Matter used social media, as well as mainstream liberal media, to express their support for protests that in many places escalated into violence and destruction considerably worse than occurred in the Capitol last week. One looked in vain for health warnings, much less account suspensions, though Facebook says it has removed accounts that promote violence.
Compare, for example, the language Trump used in his 6 January speech and the language Kamala Harris used in support of BLM on Stephen Colbert’s show on 18 June. Neither explicitly condoned violence. Trump exhorted the crowd to march to the Capitol, but he told them to ‘peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard’. Harris condemned ‘looting and… acts of violence’, but said of the BLM protestors: ‘They’re not going to stop. They’re not. This is a movement. I’m telling you. They’re not going to stop, and everyone, beware. Because they’re not going to stop. They’re not going to stop before election day in November, and they are not going to stop after election day. And everyone should take note of that on both levels.’ What exactly was the significance of that ‘beware’?
Earlier, on 1 June, Harris had used Twitter to solicit donations to the Minnesota Freedom Fund, which posted bail for people charged with rioting in Minneapolis after the death of George Floyd. It would be easy to cite other examples. ‘Destroying property, which can be replaced, is not violence,’ Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times told CBS in early June, at a time when multiple cities were being swept by arson and vandalism. Her Twitter account is still going strong.
The double standard was equally apparent when the New York Post broke the story of Biden’s son Hunter’s dubious business dealings in China. Both Twitter and Facebook immediately prevented users from posting links to the article — something they had never done with stories damaging to Trump.
You don’t need to be a Trump supporter to find all this alarming. Conservatives of many different stripes — and indeed some bemused liberals — have experienced the new censorship for themselves, especially as the Covid-19 pandemic has emboldened tech companies to police content more overtly. In the UK, TalkRadio briefly vanished from YouTube for airing anti--lockdown views that violated the company’s ‘community guidelines’. A recording of Lionel Shriver reading one of her Spectator columns on the pandemic was taken down for similar reasons. Carl Heneghan and Tom Jefferson, two Oxford academics, fell foul of Facebook’s censors when they wrote for this magazine about a briefly controversial paper on the efficacy of masks in Denmark.
You might think that FATGA have finally gone too far with their fatwa against a sitting president of the United States. You might think a red line really has been crossed when both Alexei Navalny and Angela Merkel express disquiet at big tech’s overreach. But no. To an extent that is remarkable, American liberals have mostly welcomed (and in some cases encouraged) this surge of censorship — with the honourable exception of the American Civil Liberties Union.
True, during last year’s campaign the Biden team occasionally talked tough, especially about Facebook. However, it is increasingly clear that the most big tech has to fear from the Biden-Harris administration is protracted antitrust actions focused on their alleged undermining of competition which, if history is any guide, will likely end with whimpers rather than bangs. Either way, the issue of censorship will not be addressed by antitrust lawsuits.
It is tempting to complain that Democrats are hypocrites — that they would be screaming blue murder if the boot were on the other foot and it was Kamala Harris whose Twitter account had been cancelled. But if that were the case, how many Republicans would now be complaining? Not many. No, the correct conclusion to be drawn is that the Republicans had their chance to address the problem of over-mighty big tech and completely flunked it.
Only too late did they realise that Section 230 was Silicon Valley’s Achilles heel. Only too late did they begin drafting legislation to repeal or modify it. Only too late did Section 230 start to feature in Trump’s speeches. Even now it seems to me that very few Republicans really understand that, by itself, repealing 230 would not have sufficed. Without some kind of First Amendment for the internet, repeal would probably just have restricted free speech further.
As Orwell rightly observed, ‘we are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality.’
Those words sum up quite a lot that has gone on inside the Republican party over the past four years. There it was, right in front of their noses: Trump would lead the party to defeat. And he would behave in the most discreditable way when beaten. Those things were predictable. But what was also foreseeable was that FATGA — the ‘new governors’, as a 2018 Harvard Law Review article called them — would be the true victors of the 2020 election.
Give Proust a chance — as an audiobook. Photographer: THOMAS SAMSON/AFP via Getty Images
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was previously a professor of history at Harvard, New York University and Oxford. He is the founder and managing director of Greenmantle LLC, a New York-based advisory firm.
Maybe you stayed safe in the plague year. Most of us have. But did you stay sane? A growing body of research shows that the damage to our health caused by COVID-19 went far beyond the disease itself. In addition to multiple physiological conditions that have claimed lives because people eschewed medical care they would normally have sought, a great many of us have suffered psychologically — some from fear of infection, some from protracted incarceration with their nearest and dearest, many from the enforced isolation that does not come naturally to our species. Survey data from the United States, China and other countries point to a pandemic of depression, anxiety and stress.
I’ve had the good fortune to avoid both physical and mental illness in 2020. As a repressed misanthrope — who for many years was forced by circumstances to be much more gregarious than I really am — I have positively relished nine months in one place with a social circle confined to my wife, my two youngest children, and a handful of local friends. (I cannot speak for the other inhabitants of my bubble.)
As the year nears its end — and with the plot twist of a new and more contagious U.K. variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, as if to reconcile the Europeans to Brexit — I feel duty bound to share some tips for maintaining mental health. In honor of the process formulated in 1935 by Bill Wilson and Robert Holbrook Smith, the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, here are my twelve steps to staying sane (or at least getting no more insane) in a pandemic:
Step One: Drink tea, not booze. I began 2020 with my first ever trip to Taiwan, where I was cured of making tea like a Brit, i.e., chucking a teabag, boiling water and some milk in a mug. Sitting cross-legged in the Shi Yang Shan Fang tea house, which perches on the side of Yangming Mountain to the north of Taipei, on a night of torrential rain, I experienced my first gong fu tea ceremony. A young man conducted the ceremony, which involves multiple pots and cups, all made of delicate, unglazed clay. “Are you a tea master?” I asked him, somewhat crassly. “No,” he replied serenely. “I am the servant of the tea.”
Ever since that evening, I have served tea this way three times a day, beginning with Taiwanese gaoshan (high mountain) tea in the morning, followed by Wazuka Yuki Oolong Cha at lunchtime, and concluding with Japanese sencha (green tea) in the afternoon—all ordered from the wonderful Sazen Tea. More than anything else I have done this year, the tea ceremony has kept me sane in the solitude of my study.
Step Two: Read Walter Scott (ideally with your mother). I had been thoroughly put off the novels of Scott as a schoolboy by adults who dismissed him as boring and stuffy. They lied. By some strange telepathic process, my mother and I—separated by nearly five thousand miles— decided to set aside prejudice and simultaneously begin reading “Waverly” (1814), the glorious, gripping tale of an ingenuous young Englishman who gets mixed up in the Jacobite Rising of 1745. As we progressed, at the rate of roughly one novel every three weeks, we found Scott as gifted a writer as Dickens, but funnier and shrewder. There are unexpected anticipations of Wilkie Collins and R.L. Stevenson in his darker characters — for example, the magnificent madwoman Meg Merrilies in “Guy Mannering” (1815) who recurs as Madge Wildfire in “The Heart of Midlothian” (1818), or the diabolical, dastardly Rashleigh Osbaldistone in “Rob Roy” (1817).
Reading Scott in tandem provided my mother and me with a desperately needed topic of conversation other than the pandemic. Our weekly calls became literary seminars rather than lamentation sessions. By this route of printed pages, each of us was able to revisit our native Scotland in our imaginations and to understand, for the first time, how much that country used to be Scottland — for it was Scott, more than anyone, who made its emergence from Afghan-like misery into Enlightenment dynamism both intelligible and irresistible to the Victorians.
Step Three: Have Proust read to you. On at least four previous occasions, I have tried and failed to get through the first volume of À la recherche du temps perdu. The solution was to listen to “Swann’s Way,” in the C. K. Scott Moncrieff translation, read exquisitely for Audible by John Rowe. If you have ever struggled with the ineffably sensitive Marcel, as I once did, then this is the way. For me, the breakthrough came with Swann’s all-consuming infatuation with the unsuitable but enthralling Odette and his descent into green-eyed jealousy.
Step Four: Listen to Bruckner. This was also the perfect year to immerse yourself in the work of a composer you had previously failed to appreciate. I chose the self-effacing Austrian genius Anton Bruckner, whose Symphony No. 4 in E Flat Major, “Romantic,” provided exhilaration and exaltation — both in short supply in the world at large. Other plague-year discoveries have included Mendelssohn’s “Lieder ohne Worte,” Schubert’s exquisite Piano Sonata No. 18 in G Major, D. 894, and, as I wanted to hear music from the time of the Black Death, the plangent Messe de Nostre Dame of Guillaume de Machaut.
Step Five: Practice a musical instrument. Since I took up playing the double bass at the age of 18, I have learned two important life-lessons. First, ensemble playing is very good for the mind and the soul, though not necessarily for the liver. Second, being mediocre is fine — you really don’t need to strive for perfection in everything you do (just in one thing). The jazz band of which I have been the mediocre member since we played at Oxford back in the 1980s, A Night in Tunisia, has a tradition of performing together twice a year. The plague put a stop to that this year and our experiments with online collaboration risibly failed. (You cannot jam on Zoom.) The solution was to try to practice in new ways — not easy to sustain through the long days of internal exile, but the payoff will come when the band strikes up again next year. I may rise above mediocrity.
Step Six: Watch “Doctor Who” with your children or grandchildren. I more or less gave up watching television at around the same time I took up bass-playing. There is one exception to this rule: “Doctor Who,” without a doubt the greatest television series of them all, which predates me by a year, having begun in 1963. The revival of “The Doctor” in 2005 was the single best thing the BBC has ever done. With my son Thomas, who turns nine this week, I’ve been catching up with 15 years of the series’ exceptional science fiction — which magically combines time travel, terrifying aliens and British irony — though we still cannot decide who was the best Doctor: David Tennant or Matt Smith? Or was it actually Tom Baker?
Step Seven: Step. Do not fail to go for a walk every day, regardless of the weather. I write these words after an hour in a fully-fledged blizzard. A walk is infinitely preferable to any gym. If no one will come with you, take Proust.
Step Eight: Improve your curry making. If you haven’t been cooking this year, shame on you. I recommend applying some turmeric, cumin, red chile and coriander seeds to some of that leftover turkey.
Step Nine: Dress like an Oxford don, every weekday. Back in the spring, the beard, T-shirt and sweatpants combo was not conducive to the production of great thoughts. And yet I found it hard to take seriously the people who donned suits and ties to broadcast from their bedrooms. After months of slovenliness, I hit on the solution. I purchased a Fair Isle sleeveless sweater and dug out some maroon corduroy trousers, once part of the costume of an Oxford professor. This restored self-discipline and enabled me to finish writing a book. (I couldn’t quite bring myself to go full Tolkien by buying a pipe, but I was sorely tempted.)
Step Ten: Disable notifications on Twitter. It occurred to me with a flash of insight that I don’t in the least care what the people I don’t follow on Twitter think, otherwise I would follow them. “Would you let all these other people into your garden?” I asked my wife one day. “If not, why would you let them inside your head?” Goodbye, snark!
Step Eleven: Do not watch sports. Just don’t. To me, soccer and rugby without fans is about exciting a spectacle as two dozen men playing blind man’s buff. When we watch sport on television, we are imagining ourselves in the crowd, which is the real source of the adrenaline surge — not the flight of the ball from foot to goal. Without the ebb and flow of singing, cheering and booing, there’s just no thrill.
Step Twelve: OK, drink booze, too. But only after 6 p.m., otherwise you’ll end up like Agnes in Douglas Stuart’s “Shuggie Bain” (without a doubt the best book published this year). Tea’s all very well during the day, but I couldn’t have retained my sanity after dark without the following liquids: Bent Nail IPA, a delicious beer brewed by Red Lodge Ales; the Veneto winemaker Inama’s smooth yet peppery Carmenere Più; and Laphroaig, my favorite peat-infused Scotch, which they began making the same year Scott published “Guy Mannering.”
As I pointed out eight months ago, “all the great pandemics have come in waves.” This one has managed three in the United States and two in Europe, and we’re still at least four or five months away from herd immunity. So, while you await your vaccination this holiday season, don’t go nuts. My twelfth step would have appalled the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. But just as there are no atheists in a foxhole, there are precious few teetotalers in a pandemic.
Happy New Year!
It has been nearly 4½ years since I began writing this column, which works out at roughly 240,000 words altogether. As these will be my last words in these pages, it’s time to look back and take stock. If part of your job is to be a pundit then, as the Pennsylvania University political scientist Philip Tetlock argues in Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction, you need to keep score.
As Tetlock had a dig at me in that book — which was published in 2015, before I began writing for The Sunday Times — this is also a good opportunity to settle a score.
Tetlock was, of course, quite right about most public intellectuals (a term that always makes me think of public conveniences). They seldom hold themselves to account. Nor do they get fired if their predictions are consistently wrong, as long as they are entertaining enough to engage readers.
Since I set up an advisory firm nine years ago, though, my approach has been different — out of necessity, as fund managers differ from newspaper editors in their attitude to predictions. Not only do they notice when you’re wrong, because one or more financial indicators make that clear; they also let you know about it (with grim relish, usually). If you’re wrong too often, it’s goodbye.
So at the beginning of each year we at Greenmantle make predictions about the year ahead, and at the end of the year we see — and tell our clients — how we did. Each December we also rate every predictive statement we have made in the previous 12 months, either “true”, “false” or “not proven”. In recent years, we have also forced ourselves to attach probabilities to our predictions — not easy when so much lies in the realm of uncertainty rather than calculable risk. We have, in short, tried to be superforecasters. And with some success.
Now it’s time to apply the same retrospective scoring to this column. So as to meet my deadline, I’ve picked my first full year at The Sunday Times, which was the annus mirabilis — or horribilis, depending on your politics — beginning on November 1, 2015, the date of my first column.
Three minor themes are worth mentioning. I argued repeatedly that the twin problems of Islamic extremist networks and mass migration from the Muslim world were not likely to go away: “Think of Isis as the Facebook of Islamic extremism” (March 27, 2016). I also began warning, as early as May of that year, that the rise of Silicon Valley’s big tech companies was not an unmitigated boon: “What the state knows is just a fraction of what Facebook knows about you” (May 15). I also noted the dire implications for Labour of the antisemitism of Jeremy Corbyn and his circle (May 1).
But by far the biggest issues of my first year on this page — and subsequent years too — were Britain’s vote to leave the EU and the election of Donald Trump. How did I do?
On Brexit, I was wrong. From the outset, I was a remainer. “The idea that we can . . . separate ourselves from Europe is an illusion,” I wrote on February 21. “For the future of Europe without us would be one of escalating instability.” Impolitely, I called Brexiteers “Angloonies” and “happy morons”. When the remain side lost, I predicted a “stairway to hell”— or at least a recession (June 26). Wrong.
At the end of the year, on December 11, 2016, I made a confession. I had been motivated to back remain more because of “my personal friendship with [David] Cameron and George Osborne” than out of any deep allegiance to the EU. I regretted — and still regret — not urging Cameron to reject “the risible terms that the European leaders offered him back in February on EU migrants’ eligibility for benefits”. That was the moment he should have called their bluff by backing Brexit.
Yet the humiliation of Brexit gave me an advantage over American commentators on the 2016 presidential race. I had moments of doubt, admittedly. I compared Trump to unsuccessful Republican candidates Wendell Willkie (December 13, 2015) and Barry Goldwater (January 31, 2016). On April 3, 2016, I predicted the bursting of the Trump bubble in the Wisconsin primary. Ted Cruz won that, but it didn’t burst the bubble. Far more often, I went against the conventional wisdom that Trump was doomed to lose.
“Trump has the face that fits the ugly mood in America,” was my headline on November 1, 2015. “Trump has both the resources and the incentives to press on. In the current national mood of disaffection with professional politicians, he could seem an attractive alternative to Hillary Clinton . . . The point about Trump is that his appeal is overwhelmingly a matter of style over substance. It is not what he says that a great many white Americans like — it is the way that he says it.”
I was against Trump. I was a signatory of a “never Trump” letter. I repeatedly condemned his “open expressions of racial prejudice and xenophobia”, his isolationism (December 13, 2015) and his fishy bromance with Vladimir Putin (May 8 and October 16, 2016). I regretted that Mike Bloomberg chose not to run (October 23).
But I also saw clearly the strength of his appeal. “Trump is winning,” I wrote on February 28, 2016, “because no other candidate has a more convincing explanation of why so many Republican voters genuinely are worse off today than in 2000 . . . But no one can rule out Democratic defections to Trump when it comes to the crunch on November 8.” On March 6, I imagined Trump winning and running for an unconstitutional third term in 2024. “Trump can beat Hillary Clinton,” I wrote on May 8.
“Can Trump succeed where [Mitt] Romney failed?” I asked on July 21. “Yes . . . many young voters will fail to show up for Clinton. Meanwhile, the white lower class, especially the older cohorts, will turn out for Trump in droves, just as their English counterparts turned out for Brexit.”
The choice between Clinton and Trump was a choice between “snafu” and “fubar”, I wrote on September 18, “but wouldn’t you risk being fubar . . . if it was your only shot at avoiding four more years of snafu?”
“This rage against the global,” I wrote a week later, “is why Trump could win this election. It is why Brexit happened. It is why populists are gaining ground wherever free elections are held.”
I marked my first anniversary at this paper with a column that compared Trump to the Chicago Cubs, the outsiders who had just won the baseball World Series. “He can win,” I wrote, “if there is a differential in turnout between his supporters and [Clinton’s] in the battleground states comparable to the age and ethnicity-based differentials in the UK referendum” (November 6).
Now, dear reader, you are burning to know what I think will happen this November. Bad luck. You will have to seek my superforecast in another publication.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford, and managing director of Greenmantle
The word “genocide” — meaning the murder of a tribe or people — was coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish refugee from Nazism, whose family was all but obliterated in the Holocaust. The word “senicide” — meaning the deliberate murder of the elderly — is less well known, though of older provenance. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it was first used by the Victorian explorer Sir Henry Hamilton Johnston. “The ancient Sardi of Sardinia,” he wrote in 1889, “regarded it as a sacred . . . duty for the young to kill their old relations.”
Lemkin’s word caught on. Not only did the United Nations general assembly unanimously pass a resolution in 1946 condemning genocide; by 1948 it had also approved — again, nem con — a convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide.
Although America did not ratify that convention until 1985, use of the word grew exponentially from its first publication. (I hesitate to say that it went viral.) Enter “genocide” into Amazon’s search field and you will have more than 10,000 results to trawl through.
Not so “senicide”. There are just two books on that subject on Amazon’s site: The Customary Practice of Senicide. With Special Reference to India by Pyali Chatterjee, and Death Clock Ticking: Senicide, Ageism and Dementia Discrimination in Geriatric Medicine by Itu Taito. The latter has not yet been published. Oh, and there’s a perfectly ghastly song called Senicide by a Californian heavy metal band called Huntress.
There are a few older books that use the word, nearly all in connection with the alleged practices of ancient or obscure tribes (the Padaeans of India, the Votyaks of Russia, the early American Hopi, the Netsilik Inuit of Canada, South Africa’s San people and the Amazonian Bororos). But senicide is so rare a word that Microsoft Word’s spellcheck underlines it in red, itching to auto-correct it to “suicide”.
All that is about to change. If, as seems increasingly likely, a significant number of western countries are going to continue mismanaging the pandemic caused by the virus Sars-CoV-2 — the novel coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China, in December — then a very large number of old people are going to die before their time.
The statistics are unequivocal. In China, where the epidemic seems for the moment to be under control, the case fatality rate for those under 50 was 0.2%. For those over 60 it was 3.6%, for the over-70s 8% and for the over-80s 14.8%. In Italy — now the country worst affected by Covid-19, the disease the virus carries — the fatality rate for the over-70s thus far has been 11.8%, for the over-80s 18.8% and for the over-90s 21.6%.
It is, in one respect, a blessing Covid-19 seems to be “ageist”. Most pandemics are not so merciful towards children. In America, for example, the 1957-8 influenza pandemic killed the under-5s at an even higher rate than it killed the over-64s.
It is also true that there have never, in all of history, been so many old folk. Today more than a quarter of Japan’s population are aged 65 or older. In 1960, the share was just 5.6%. In the European Union, the share has doubled from 10% to 20%. The world as a whole has gone from 5% elderly to 9%.
And it is true, too, that doctors in an overwhelmed hospital with insufficient intensive care units are correct, from a utilitarian perspective, to give priority to the young over those nearing the end of their natural lives. I do not blame the Italian doctors who have been practising this form of triage.
Yet when this pandemic has run its course — when we have achieved “herd immunity” as a species and when vaccines and therapies have been devised — there will have been a lot more funerals for elderly Italians and, very probably, Americans and Britons than for Taiwanese or South Koreans.
And the reason for this discrepancy will not be bad luck. The reason will be that east Asian countries drew the right conclusions from the searing experiences of Sars in 2003, while most western countries drew the wrong conclusions from their relatively mild encounter with H1N1, commonly known as swine flu, in 2009.
That Covid-19 was both highly contagious (because it is easy to carry and transmit by asymptomatic individuals) and much more deadly than seasonal flu was already obvious as early as January 26, when I first wrote about the coming pandemic in this column. And yet numerous governments — including the American and the British ones — dithered for the better part of two months.
It was not only Donald Trump’s irresponsible nonchalance that did the damage. There were also failures by the very organisations that were supposed to prepare our countries for a threat such as this. In America there has been a scandalous insufficiency of testing kits, so that, as recently as last week, the country was still lagging behind Belarus and Russia in terms of tests per capita.
In the UK, policy was initially based on the notion that the country would be better off aiming for early herd immunity than trying to suppress the spread of the new disease — until epidemiologists such as my near namesake Neil Ferguson (whom we must all wish a swift recovery, as he developed Covid-19-like symptoms last week) pointed out the likely disastrous consequences.
Because of these blunders, America and the UK have moved far too slowly to adopt the combination of mass testing, enforced social distancing and contact tracing that has successfully contained the virus’s spread in east Asian countries. There is a reason the death toll in South Korea is just over 100, while in Italy it is almost 5,000
How many people will die in the end? We do not know. In America, if Italian conditions are replicated in New York and California, we could see between half a million and million deaths by the end of this year. I have seen estimates as high as 1.7 million, even 2.2 million. The other Ferguson’s worst-case scenario for Britain was 510,000 deaths. But the key point is that most of the victims will be old. And most of the deaths could have been avoided with better preparation and earlier action.
The 19th-century Russian historian Nikolai Karamzin defined senicide as “the right of children to murder parents overburdened by senium [old age] and illnesses, onerous to the family and useless to fellow citizens”. The explorers Knud Rasmussen and Gontran de Poncins reported that senicide was still practised by the Netsilik of King William Island as recently as the 1930s.
But senicide will never be tolerated in the 2020s, least of all in modern, developed democracies. Those whose sins of omission and commission lead to nationwide senicides will, like the perpetrators of genocides in the 20th century, be judged harshly, not only by history, but also by voters — and quite possibly by judges too.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford