Calling on the Academic Left to do What’s Right

For example, confront the rise of authoritarianism during the COVID-19 pandemic instead of suppressing heterodox views!
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At long last, an article I was involved in conceiving and drafting more than two years ago, was published this week: “The academic left, human geography, and the rise of authoritarianism during the COVID-19 pandemic”. Those without access to the journal can find the full text prior to copy-editing and typesetting via our first author’s home department here. That version is called the “author manuscript” and includes all changes made during peer review (and there were many!). Note that it is not a pre-print, it is more than fully reviewed as you will find out soon. However, formal citations should use the publisher’s paginated version, which you can request from the authors if you don’t have institutional access. 

The three of us — Dr. Dragos Simandan from Brock University’s Department of Geography and Tourism, and Dr. Valentina Capurri and myself from Toronto Metropolitan (formerly Ryerson) University’s Department of Geography and Environmental Studies — have been worrying about the authoritarian nature of the disproportionate, one-size-fits-all pandemic response in Canada and elsewhere, and the lack of concerns expressed by habitually critical, progressive academics like ourselves. 

Publications and commentaries by epidemiologist-statistician John Ioannidis, health scientists Jay Bhattacharya and Sunetra Gupta, and philosophers Giorgio Agamben and Carlo Caduff were among the scholarly readings that inspired us to take a closer look at our own discipline. By mid-December 2020, we had drafted a 2,500-word paper (including some 50 references) titled “Confronting the rise of authoritarianism during the COVID-19 pandemic should be a priority for critical geographers and social scientists“ under Dragos’ lead. The now-published version is about 13,500 words long (including some 235 references) and is titled “The academic left, human geography, and the rise of authoritarianism during the COVID-19 pandemic”. 

The introduction of the published article reports on concurrent research into the crisis done within human geography, but notes … 

…that a far too small portion of it focuses on the primary issue of concern to us: the prospect of a permanent “state of emergency” or new authoritarian paradigm of biosecurity, and the failure of human geographers and the Academic Left, more generally, to confront it in a systematic, principled manner. 

In the section on “biosecurity and the politics of fear”, we review Giorgio Agamben’s concerns about a fear-based, excessive pandemic response that threatens democratic principles and could usher in new totalitarian controls of society — a concern also seen in the work of Hannah Arendt and Carlo Caduff, among others. Agamben had been a darling of progressive academics, so it was perplexing to see that his early skepticism regarding COVID-19 generated vile responses from other scholars. 

The third section on “dissent in public discourse“ attempts to explain the difficulty with taking a stance against the dominant narratives. We argue for the need for peer-reviewed publication, while acknowledging the challenges posed by the “scientific consensus” about COVID as perceived among many academics, the media, and society as a whole. I will add here that between the first draft and the published article, many more scholars put their fingers on the sweeping mismanagement of the pandemic, as evidenced by our much-extended reference list. However, this research, even if published against pushback from the gatekeepers, has not generally found its way through the media into the public conscience nor the political and public health decision-making spheres. 

Section 4 of the paper asks: “how did we end up here?” For answers, we refer to disproportionate and sensationalist media reporting, social media feedback loops, “groupthink” among decision-makers, manufactured consent, and other social and psychological mechanisms leading to calls for more, rather than less, authoritarian measures. We deplore the abandonment of freedom and individual autonomy as shared values by the Left. The politicization of many aspects of the COVID response resulted in further defensiveness within camps and a “fear of guilt by association” with the “wrong side”. 

In the conclusions, we outline four areas for future research and debate. The first and closest to my expertise and interest is the return to “systematic cost-benefit analysis in the governance of the pandemic” (and future emergency situations!). 

Second, critical phenomenologists, sociologists, psychologists, philosophers, and geographers need to carry out research documenting the relationship between values, moral(izing) rhetoric, and the emergence of dangerous forms of technologically-enhanced tribalism and dehumanization during the pandemic. 

Here, we also refer to the abhorrent practice of governments “encouraging reporting and/or shaming of the noncompliant in the name of the greater good.” 

With reference to the early phase of the pandemic, we then ask “To what extent, and for how long, is it acceptable to invoke uncertainty as justification for authoritarian rule?” and question the proper use of the “precautionary principle”. 

Lastly, we return to our own discipline by suggesting that geographic differences in both, the course of the pandemic and the local and linguistic environment of leftist academics should be investigated for patterns explaining the lost commitment to the “centrality of human rights and civil liberties to making the world a better place.” 

In some ways, our writing was prescient of the fate of the manuscript. After an editorial rejection received from a first peer-reviewed journal within 24 hours in December 2020 and another rejection after the holidays, we submitted a 4,000-word “intervention” to an international journal for critical geographies in mid-January 2021. Within three months, we received a “revise and re-submit” decision along with extensive and constructive recommendations from three named reviewers, one supportive, one critically-undecided, and one opposed. Within two weeks, under Dragos’ exceptional leadership, we resubmitted a much longer 8,000-word manuscript including many additions requested by the reviewers and the assigned editor. In the accompanying summary of changes, we reclassified the resubmission as a “paper” instead of the shorter “intervention” format. 

Some three months later, we received the coveted “minor revisions” decision from the editor, along with another set of detailed comments from the same three reviewers, two of whom were now supportive while one remained somewhat reserved. We completed and submitted the revised, 11,000-word manuscript within five days. The “accept” decision was received within 10 days, and we were advised that editing was now completed and the paper sent to production. At this point, and given that the journal is fully open-access, we posted the paper online and it was indexed in Google Scholar, where it started to accumulate citations. 

Six weeks passed in Fall 2021 until we found out that the journal was waiting on a copy-edited version from us rather than working on the production of the paper, as we had been led to believe. We responded with a thoroughly copy-edited piece within a couple of weeks and were told in December, upon another inquiry, that the article would be included in the February 2022 issue of the journal. But when the time came, it wasn’t there. In March, upon a new inquiry from our end, the managing editor was roped into the discussion and explained that they hadn’t read or scheduled the paper for publication yet due to other pieces in the queue and several planned special issues. The same person then emailed us on April 8, 2022, with subject “Unsuitable Submission” and a message including the following: 

We have reached a decision regarding your submission to […], “Confronting the rise of authoritarianism during the COVID-19 pandemic should be a priority for critical geographers and social scientists”. I have reviewed your submission. I read this piece as an intervention, which your […] editor, […], read similarly. However, we do not publish interventions over 5,000 words, and your piece now stands at 11,000 words; also of note, our maximum research paper length. 

The maximum research paper length is 9,000 words but remember that we were required to make further additions to our 8,000-word manuscript during the journal’s own peer review process. Our appeal to the journal’s editor-in-chief argued that the resubmission was clearly marked as a research paper rather than an intervention, and two of the three reviewers confirmed that they had assessed the resubmission as such. A whopping four weeks later, the editor-in-chief had spoken to the managing editor and the journal’s “collective” and confirmed the rejection without addressing our substantial concern. 

While this journal included an “invitation” to resubmit a shortened version for a new review process as an intervention, we did not want to risk further delays and a possible rejection, and instead submitted the full paper to a new journal. There it was more or less firmly rejected by three anonymous reviewers, who were thorough but seemed embedded in exactly the mainstream narratives that we were trying to break open. 

By August 5, 2022, we had submitted to another human geography journal, which rejected the manuscript one week later, albeit with a friendly suggestion to submit a shorter, “more punchy” version to yet another journal. However, we decided to preserve the integrity of the now 12,000-word epos and submit to Geografiska Annaler B: Human Geography. Within two months, we received a “major revisions” decision based on two anonymous reviews — one neutral with numerous suggestions for revisions, the other extremely supportive with only one primary concern that had come up before, i.e. clarifying our definition of the “Academic Left”. 

Dragos once again led the charge on this round of revisions, which brought the total length back above the 13,000-word mark and clarified some key points of our argument. This version was accepted pending a few additional changes on December 19, 2022, with final approval received from the editor-in-chief on January 11, 2023. It took Geografiska Annaler all of 48 hours to prepare the proofs, and less than ten days to publish the online version of the article. Of note, this journal is long-established and highly regarded, with a significantly higher impact factor than the journal that canceled us. 

Although not the worst that I have heard of, the experience trying to publish our anti-authoritarian argument was grueling. The level of disinterest and outright canceling was disappointing to say the least. It was also surprising, given that the manuscript did not broach the most controversial aspect of the pandemic response, which I personally, though not speaking for my co-authors, view in the same light as the rest of our critique: vaccination passports and mandates. 

“The Science” gone astray is now in and of itself starting to become a topic of introspection among academics. I am proud to say that I led a small group of critical scholars in penning a June 2021 op-ed titled “It’s time to follow the scientific method — and re-evaluate Canada’s COVID approach”, in which we already highlighted many of the growing issues in the scientific process and its misunderstanding by the media and decision-makers that arose during the pandemic: 

Science continuously questions previous findings, explores new approaches, and validates or refutes them with evidence. As scientists and scholars, we categorically reject the notion that “the science is settled”. Science never settles.

What we know about COVID-19 has changed over the last 15 months. […] Yet, why are the implications of the updated science on mask mandates and social distancing not being discussed? 

[…] Why are dissenting doctors silenced by their professional organizations and the media, instead of being listened to and cross-examined?

It is extremely dangerous to suppress diverging analyses and censor opposing views, as has been happening with respect to COVID-19 in mainstream and social media, in the public sphere and at the workplace, and even in our universities and parliaments.

Around the same time, Dr. John Ioannidis, one of the most prominent victims of personal attacks and censorship during COVID-era science, wrote “How the Pandemic Is Changing the Norms of Science”, albeit still from a position not far from the mainstream. In the meantime, Ioannidis and moderately critical MD Vinay Prasad also put their finger on “Constructive and obsessive criticism in science” and a group of Israeli researchers investigated “Censorship and Suppression of Covid-19 Heterodoxy: Tactics and Counter-Tactics”. Their thorough analysis is based on interviews with 13 “highly accomplished doctors and research scientists from different countries who have been targets of suppression and/or censorship following their publications and statements in relation to COVID-19 that challenge official views.”

While I have recently suggested to #DefundTheScience with reference to some of the most outrageously misguided recent studies, resetting and refunding science might be the better way. Although I don’t think that taxpayers can receive refunds for dollars already invested in poor science and concomitant public health propaganda, we could aim to reorganize funding to support more critical research going forward. This includes calling on academics, who sit on editorial boards and grant selection committees, and on the broader political Left to do what’s right: confront rampant authoritarianism and, even more importantly, don’t become authoritarian gatekeepers yourselves!

This article was first published on the author’s own site. It has been reprinted with permission.