Martyn Brown: Dr. Henry’s curious nod to Pericles—a timely call to arms that shouldn’t forget Plato’s dialectic method
(Warning: this extensive essay is much longer than articles usually posted on media websites. It is not intended as a column, as such.)
It was at the 49:26 mark of her November 23 COVID briefing that Dr. Bonnie Henry curiously quoted the great Athenian leader, statesman, and general, Pericles, in once again exhorting us all to rally as directed to combat the killer virus.
“I think of what Pericles said to the Athenians in, I think it was 230 BC [sic], when they were dealing with the plague: ‘We need to put aside our private sorrows and concentrate on securing our common safety.’ And that is where we are right now.”
Hmm. What of that plague of which I know precisely nothing? I wondered. And what exactly did he say?
Why was Dr. Henry so intent on using that quote, as seemed obvious from her repeated glances down to the podium, in citing those ascribed words from antiquity?
I thought, what a weirdly intriguing reference for her to select in calling on us all to rise to higher collective purpose, further to her sweeping new orders issued only a few days prior.
She even seemed to chuckle a little, perhaps in anticipation of how referencing Pericles would be received and noted or not in media reports and in social media echo chambers.
What made it extra humorous for me was that just prior to that announcement, coincidently, I had been pondering Plato, of all people. More about that in a bit.
In searching the Internet about that Pericles quote, a couple of noteworthy references popped up.
One was this July 24, 2020 article in Healthy Debate.
Another was this June 23, 2020 Ideas piece from CBC Radio, “the second part in a two-part series on Thucydides’ lessons for the 21st century.”
Both were extremely interesting, as cautionary interpretations of how the Plague of Athens might be relevant today, in these Trumpian times.
COVID-19 has certainly made us more collectively vulnerable to the unconscionable actions of those selfishly driven by fear, greed, racism, anger, intolerance, and other forms of societal contempt, in their own perceived individual interest.
Perhaps that was what B.C.'s Good Doctor was trying to indirectly warn against, further to her signature “be calm, be kind, and stay safe” mantra.
Health Minister Adrian Dix also picked up on that theme in his November 25 briefing.
He smartly stressed that it is important not to confuse what amounts to individual inconvenience with “injustice”. Least of all, in railing against and refusing to abide by the rules and guidance that Dr. Henry and the Horgan government have advanced in our collective interest.
Whatever personal short-term sacrifices those directives might demand of us as individuals, they are hardly in the realm of the true injustice that COVID-19 has exacted on the 384 British Columbians and their families who have already died.
Friday’s (November 27) update was once again staggering record: another 11 deaths and 911 more individuals diagnosed with COVID-19 in the last 24 hours, for a total of 30,884 British Columbians who have been afflicted by the virus. Including 8,472 active cases, some 301 of whom are currently hospitalized, with 69 people now in intensive care.
There’s no “justice” at all in that, as Dix so passionately articulated in dressing down those who conflate that principle with their own relatively minor vexations.
Plato and the Greek philosophers sure had much to say about that concept as well, which in our time has been too easily allowed to be falsely appropriated by those who least embody that principle.
Back to Pericles: I speculated that maybe one of those articles that caught my eye was the source of Dr. Henry’s inspiration.
Then again, she likely years ago studied Athens’ ancient epidemic and Pericles’ leadership, as part of her academic training.
Like Aristotle’s famous acorn, “B.C.’s Bonnie” was apparently destined by nature to become a globally renowned epidemiologist, who to our great pride is now one of the world’s all-time most authoritative experts on “plagues” and how to manage them.
The one that hit Athens during the second year (430 BC) of the Peloponnesian War killed an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 people. About a quarter of the city’s population, according to Wikipedia.
It also cost Pericles his life, and returned twice more, in 429 BC and in the winter of 427/426 BC before it finally faded away, as Athenians torturously acquired their “herd immunity”.
Wiki advises that some “30 pathogens have been suggested as having caused the plague”. Its source and nature remain largely a mystery to this day.
But it sure made me think: imagine if COVID-19 had been so brutal as to kill a quarter of our population anywhere.
In our backyard alone, that would be equivalent to about 650,000 people in Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley, or 1.25 million British Columbians, or 9.5 million Canadians. All dead.
Now, imagine facing a killer virus of that virulence while also being attacked by a human enemy in a physical war we were also badly losing.
Imagine if our entire population was so threatened as the Athenians, seemingly destined to be either eventually slaughtered or enslaved, to the extent that anyone even survived that deadly plague.
It puts our current health crisis in perspective.
As bad as things are, and as horrible as COVID-19 surely is, I wonder if Henry isn’t also subtlety hinting that we are still comparatively lucky, in historic terms.
A thought worth bearing in mind as we head into the holiday season, understandably deflated and depressed by the human and economic toll that this global pandemic is imposing on our citizenry, as it wreaks its harm throughout the world.
The understated official global count now stands at 60 million infected, including nearly 1.5 million reported deaths attributable to COVID-19.
Yet, with all the vaccines now nearly shelf-ready and soon to be dispersed—unlike for Pericles’ Athenians—hope for prevention is already now on the horizon. After less than a year.
In that sense, hope is a strategy, insofar as it should afford new resolve to fight back with all our might.
To be “100 per cent all-in”, as Dix likes to say.
Be thankful that we live at this moment in time in history, Henry’s ancient reference also implicitly urges, supported as we are by the miracles of science and technology.
And equally, by democratically elected governments that are doing so much with our borrowed tax dollars to lessen COVID’s crippling burdens. We are indeed Athens’ fortunate sons and daughters.
Could we all do better? Absolutely, and we must.
Have mistakes been made? Demonstrably.
So, by all means, let’s challenge ourselves and each other to do more to correct and avoid them in the days and months ahead.
Do the experts know everything? Clearly, not.
But that hardly means we should not trust them to act in our interests, including intervening as warranted to save us from our own stupidity.
Honest to god, is it too much to ask for us to all do our small part in the interim, as we all eagerly await the vaccines that we now hope will be safe and 95 percent effective?
Is it really such a hardship to do what we know we can to keep COVID-19 are far as practicable at bay, to minimize its carnage?
Of course not.
So, spare us the whining about the so-called breaches of our “civil liberties”.
Whether it be wearing face masks, curtailing our socializing, temporarily suspending some types of physical activities, shutting down the riskiest parts of our economy, or forgoing some of all we’ve come to associate with the “festive season”, however we celebrate it.
Kudos, I say, to Solicitor General Mike Farnworth for so forcefully condemning the Covidiots who flaunt the law. Especially those who continue to resist the province’s new mandatory mask order, despite a $230 penalty for abuse.
“They do not have the right to endanger other people’s health,” Farnworth said. “It’s time for this small minority to shut up, grow up, and mask up.”
His words may not be exactly “kind”, as the Good Doctor would have it, but they are clear as a bell.
Thank you, Mike. More of that tone and clarity, please.
I only wish that he and Dr. Henry had taken that stance many months ago; or for that matter, might yet come to accept the wisdom in extending that logic to keeping students and teachers safer, by making masks mandatory in classrooms.
But I digress.
Sourcing the Pericles quote drove me to read as close as history provides us with an authoritative account, as written by Thucydides, who was also afflicted by the Athens plague, yet fortunately survived.
I consulted two sources for his historic tome.
One was Thucydides: The War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians (Cambridge University Press, 2013), edited and translated by Jeremy Mynot, which is mostly accessible through Google books.
The other was the fully downloadable book, Thucydides: The Peloponnesian War (Hackett Publishing, 1998), as translated by Steven Lattimore.
I heartily recommend reading the relevant passages.
In each translation, Thucydides’ account of the Plague of Athens and of Pericles’ classic speech can be found near the start of Book 2, beginning at the second year of the war.
His vivid description of that plague’s symptoms and human suffering was bone-chilling and eerily familiar. Especially in Mynot’s more colloquial translation, starting at page 118, which mirrors word-for-word the specific Pericles quote that Dr. Henry related.
Lattimore’s translation of that quote didn’t quite have the same ring to it, as in its version, Pericles exhorted his fellow Athenians to “cease from private sorrow and take up the salvation of the community."
But the implied meaning one derives from reading all of Pericles’ speech as recounted by Thucydides was the same.
In a nutshell, he urged this: in the face of our common enemies, on two fronts, never stop fighting, don’t be so stupid as to surrender, and never put your individual private interests ahead of our civic duty to protect and preserve what is most valuable in the long run.
Namely, that which makes Athenians historically special, as true citizens of a glorious democracy that as Pericles rightly predicted, still shines for all it built and achieved in common purpose.
A timely and appropriate message, indeed, Dr. Henry.
Although it’s interesting she chose Pericles as her source for inspiration in the present context, given how beloved she is and how widely maligned he had become by the time he summoned his detractors to effectively chastise them all with his famous “final” speech.
The Athenians dumped and fined him for his transgressions shortly thereafter. And then they promptly re-elected him to once again lead them all as their top general, until he himself succumbed to the virus maybe a year or two later.
Which reminds us that it’s always so much easier to criticize and condemn those who have so admirably proven themselves to hold their esteemed offices for good reason. Those of Dr. Henry’s ilk are surely among the rare leaders who have shown themselves to be more than worthy of our trust.
Anyway, Mynot’s translation of Thucydides’ recounting of Pericles’ speech also had this wonderful nugget:
“In your distress at your domestic misfortunes, you are sacrificing our common security, and you are not only blaming me for advocating war but are also blaming yourselves for supporting that decision. I am the object of your anger, but I think I am as good as any man at knowing what has to be done and communicating it. I also love my city and am above corruption.”
Now, of course, Pericles was mostly speaking about how his fellow citizens were turning on him for the unfathomable human and material losses of war that the Athens plague so severely compounded.
Now that Horgan’s unwanted snap election is over, Henry only has one war to deal with: the killer virus. Which was not at all of her making and has inadvertently served to make her a B.C. folk hero and a dearly regarded legend in her own time.
Still, I wonder, does she in some way identify with Pericles—the warrior-leader—perhaps feeling in some way as an unfairly berated general in this unavoidable war against COVID-19, pilloried in social media by those who blame her for doing too little to save their butts and bacon?
She might well, in light of the many barbs and abuses she has endured, even death threats.
And yet, most of us would probably look at her and say she is the first face that comes to mind when looking at the countless hearts posted in windows.
Funny how such great leaders can be at once tough as nails and also so sensitive to fair criticism when their detractors point their fingers for losing ground to an advancing enemy that seems unstoppable.
To make matters worse, Dr. Henry never signed on to become a politician, much as she has become immersed in the political world that has surely also affected her strategies and tactics, not always for the best.
She might remember that Pericles also famously said, “Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.”
A truism that I expect we see newly realized as the new legislative session begins on December 7.
Thanks to the B.C. Liberal party’s embarrassing shellacking at John Horgan’s opportunistic hand, newly selected interim Opposition Leader Shirley Bond will be newly motivated to hold his government more effectively accountable for its COVID failings.
I dare say, there won’t be quite the same degree of ésprit de corps that both opposition parties so selflessly extended, before Horgan betrayed them with his snap mid-pandemic election.
As the public grows more impatient with the costs, risks and human impacts caused by COVID-19, and more frustrated by the sacrifices that fighting that scourge entails, Dr. Henry can’t help but be caught up in the political crossfire with increasing levels of discomfort.
She should be the first to invite more fairly executed political debate.
For as Pericles also said in that same speech, “The man who can conceive a policy but cannot expound it might as well never had the ideas…”
In this instance, silence is no more a virtue than acquiescence in the face of unwarranted stubborn resistance.
Particularly, in regards to legitimate concerns about transparency, data collection and sharing, testing and reporting, and more effective means for fighting COVID that others have advanced and/or actively embraced in government.
No doubt, there’s been lots of consultation with key “stakeholders”, behind closed doors, but little to no real debate and contrasting sharing of views in public.
Let’s have a full and honest debate about why municipalities and we all have been denied so much more detailed information on the spread of COVID-19 as it effects our specific communities, institutions, businesses, and demographic subsets.
Why aren’t we doing more, in contrast to so many other jurisdictions, to track and report on COVID’s impact: on racialized groups, on income classes, and on those doubly afflicted by the scourges of homelessness, poverty, and opioid and other drug addictions?
Why must rely on the outstanding efforts of citizen initiatives like the B.C. School COVID tracker to keep fully abreast of how the virus is really impacting students, teachers and support workers in B.C.’s schools? It’s outrageous and absurd.
Let’s have a frank and serious two-way discussion on the efficacy and wisdom of mandatory masks in classrooms.
Let’s not shy away from an informed discussion about the need for, practicality of, and capacity to deliver rapid testing and how existing policies are fulfilling the government’s “duty of care” responsibilities. Especially in better protecting seniors and health-care workers in long term care and assisted-living facilities.
Let’s directly debate those and other recommendations made by B.C. Seniors Advocate, which have largely been reduced to so much lip service.
Let’s challenge ourselves to ascertain whose conclusions and advice are most prudent in regards to the federal government’s COVID Alert app, which Bonnie Henry has rejected as inappropriate for British Columbians and that Prime Minister Trudeau implores all Canadians to download.
Let’s actively engage in a gracious two-way dialogue about the apparent double standards that have been seemingly applied on an arbitrary basis in differently regulating similar forms of human conduct, in arguably comparable venues. Largely out of political and economic concerns.
Let’s have a fulsome, informed debate on more formally and firmly extending travel restrictions, including as Island Health’s chief medical officer has called for to Vancouver Island, with mandatory 14-day isolation periods for nonessential travelers.
Let’s test the wisdom of not following the lead of Maritime provinces, P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador especially, to restrict risky, unwelcome interprovincial travel. Or for that matter, Nova Scotia’s example in closing off the Canso Causeway to help reduce the spread of COVID to Cape Breton.
All of those issues are mostly being discussed in a vaccum, sterilized of meaningful policy exchange and only advanced by media coverage of brave advocates and through social media commentary.
Which brings me to Plato.
When it comes to COVID, the dialectic method has had its tongue cut out.
At least, it has in the sense that I mean it, whereby higher truths are realized through a process of reasoned public debate and informed argumentation.
Where flaws and false conclusions are identified and resolved through mutually respectful discourse that is inherently oppositional and often political.
Not through critical political rhetoric aimed at simply “proving” who’s right and who’s wrong; but through genuine questioning and answering that honours the wisdom of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and their much later successors.
From those ancient Greek philosophers to Hegel, Marx, and Engels, they all taught us the value of challenging conventional “wisdom” as something of a scientific enterprise in its own right.
Indeed, as Dr. Henry well knows, this was how those same Greek philosophers first postulated and led their successors to prove that the world was, in fact, round, when the “experts” of the day mostly deemed it to be flat.
In a sense, too rigid faith in established “science” sometimes creates its own flat earthers, to the extent it tunes out other hypotheses afforded no chance to prove their merit.
Black is only white to the blind, whether due to either lack of capacity for vision and sight, or to too much bad light.
“Truth” and “smart choices” are no single expert’s prerogative, however wise he or she may be: the fallacies they too often reflect with ill-advised surety beg now more than ever to be challenged and outed.
That has been one of the most important learning experiences from COVID.
Science is an ass when reduced to unquestioned acceptance of its “available” evidence.
Many very smart people suspected and even warned that this virus was transmitted asymptomatically while the experts assured us it wasn’t, according to the available evidence.
Many people postulated that it might be an aerosolised virus, even as we were being advised to the contrary, based on “science” and the “available best evidence”.
Even now, in so many respects, we are failing to act on the precautionary principle, which in its simplest form states: "When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically."
Should we accept that as a consequence of our collective “emergency state” failure to demand greater accountability through substantive probing and unflinching debate, however uncomfortable that might be for the “powers that be”?
No. Absolutely not. And yet we seem to do just that.
Many of us lowly laypersons argued for Canada and B.C. to actively adopt aggressive international travel restrictions that were initially rejected by the World Health Organization and by its devoted Canadian experts and politicians.
Even to this day, many of those belatedly adopted measures are being inconsistently and sometimes unfairly applied, to our collective detriment.
Many people maintained that nonmedical cloth masks work—not only to protect others from us, but also to protect ourselves from the virus. Yet, Dr. Henry was much slower than even most of her peers in finally accepting the obvious, as it was increasingly adopted by her counterparts in other jurisdictions.
I submit, that long-demanded mandatory “extra level of protection” was only acceded to as a result of untenable political pressure on the NDP government, and not because of any serious effort on her part to listen and discuss that measure that she rejected out of supreme confidence in her own authority.
Many of us contend that there should be tougher enforcement of orders across the board with greater accountability and much higher penalties for abuse, rather than the passive approaches embraced to date. Let’s have that debate that has been mostly swept under the carpet.
Rambling on about that and all those issues through social media is like talking to a wall, for all the good it typically does in obliging the experts to listen and act accordingly.
It’s unnecessarily frustrating, if also grounded in our overwhelming deference to our leaders’ often political judgments about what is prudent under the circumstances, relying on their necessarily limited knowledge.
In the absence of such dialogue, we are left with only questions and answers that too often only reinforce public skepticism.
Is it any wonder some individuals continue to resist mandatory mask wearing as a pseudo-scientific imposition, when they were told for so long in the face of so much evidence to the contrary that masks were variously unnecessary, dangerous, useless, unduly prescriptive, and even racially and socioeconomically unfair?
I certainly don’t mean that as a slight against Dr. Henry or Dr. Teresa Tam.
Both of them have done yeoman’s service for which we should all be eternally grateful, whatever mistakes they have made along the way in helping us all come to grips with this unprecedented learning curve.
Yet, I would argue—in our collective desire to be ever supportive, duly trusting, and smartly respectful of their demonstrable expertise and impossibly difficult leadership positions—we have not tested even their false or flawed propositions forcefully enough with counter-logic and informed thought.
It’s great that Dr. Henry and Adrian Dix are so willing to go on-air, with live virtual “town halls” that provide them a forum for their messages, as they also provide us with valuable information and answers to common questions, however useful or not.
But with respect, that is no substitute for meaningful dialogue aimed at testing the truth or the validity of propositions, policies, and decisions that are being asserted from on high for our own good, almost as if from infallible oracles.
Nothing demonstrates that better than the media’s regular COVID briefings, both in Victoria and in Ottawa.
They are not dialectical in nature, nor are they even journalistically responsible in either form or content.
They are controlled political question and answer sessions, devoid of hard scrutiny, literally phoned-in by so many too milquetoast journalists who consider themselves lucky to be acknowledged for a single question and follow-up, whatever answers are offered.
Very few, like Vaughn Palmer, dare to even politely ask politically vexing questions that at the same time betray those journalists’ own discomfort with those policy decisions and actions, or lack of either, that beg to be extensively debated and resolved.
There is no serious journalistic probing, akin to what would typically be the case in news conferences and scrums involving political decision-makers.
Dr. Henry’s polite answers are almost always met with polite “thanks” and no one ever fundamentally challenges the content of her responses are even asks follow-up questions that would logically flow from them.
It’s understandable, perhaps, given how our ongoing crisis and continually extended state of emergency has been equated to a wartime effort that holds pointed criticism or reasoned refutation as near treasonous. By which, we sometimes even tend to confuse true patriotism with dangerously ignorant jingoism.
Sure, we can all applaud the likes of Global in seeking out answers for common questions from B.C.’s health officials. But that, too, is a one-way process that, at best, only partially illuminates.
It is no substitute for reasoned discourse of the sort I’m talking about.
Fact is, the media has been largely compromised by its hallmark deference to Canada’s top health officials, whose “evidence-based” expertise and shifting advice has been mostly abjectly accepted, and whose inherently political decisions have also been dutifully reinforced as scientific dogma rendered beyond responsible disputation.
There is little accountability for exposing and defending the experts’ often conflicting “scientific” interpretations of the virus’s ever evolving evidentiary nature.
Asserted “best practices” are simply accepted as such, too often, until they are shown to be inadequate, as had been alleged or postulated by lesser mortals.
We are told, “this makes sense,” or “that won’t work,” or “this isn’t necessary,” or “that will not happen”—until the opposite proves its point. Too often, only after months of denial, delay or patronizing “listening” that goes materially unheeded.
The upshot of that “wartime footing” where the general’s word is the final word is this: it actually serves to inevitably politicize COVID management insofar as the only way to affect publicly demanded policy changes is to exert political pressure.
When people get frustrated, they have no serious recourse to have their views heard in the absence of fair media “grillings”.
That breeds bad behaviour, as we’ve seen with the mandatory mask resistance, and encourages political activism as the only practicable way to get the health decision-makers to listen and respond accordingly.
Online surveys are better than nothing, and we’ve had at least one concerted process in that regard. But they are not iterative.
Those surveys can be—and are—easily manipulated both in the questions and in the summaries of responses, to essentially justify and “prove” public support for predetermined actions. For many people, they feel more like a sales job than anything.
Dr. Henry’s “be calm, be kind and stay safe” mantra has served us all well. No doubt at all about that.
But I would argue, her unassailable maxim has also unwittingly served to suppress political accountability for the many debatable, dubious, and faulty choices made in the name of public health that we have been urged to embrace with deferential diligence.
Its unintended, unspoken subtext is to trust everything, criticize nothing, and stay safe in only gingerly questioning anything.
Don’t worry your pretty little ill-informed heads, the corollary rule of calm, nice and safe silently reassure: our “science”, “best available evidence”, and expertise is manifestly unassailable and self-evidently accountable.
Consequently, in part, we are now enduring an arguably worse COVID crisis for the lack of well-intentioned push-back in challenging the wisdom of so many decisions made on our behalf, rather than fighting the virus with full fury.
After all that has transpired in B.C. and across Canada over the last 10 months, perhaps we have been a little too calm, too kind, and too safe in challenging both the scientific rationale and evidentiary basis for some of those decisions that are often inherently political in nature.
Indeed, the genesis of this article was a lengthy rebuttal I had intended to post in response to Dr. Henry’s recent op-ed defending and reframing her ongoing resistance to making masks mandatory in all public indoor spaces.
Much of that critique became redundant after she flip-flopped two days later and happily bowed to the increasing political pressure for B.C. to implement the mandatory mask policy.
Still, Dr. Henry’s timely and welcome reference to Pericles offers much food for thought and introspection.
It should not only lead us forward with greater historical awareness and confidence in commonly combatting our current killer “plague”, but in also redoubling our search for wisdom and truth with more fulsome civic debate.
That starts with having the courage to speak up and stand up to be counted; and better yet, through more active efforts on Dr. Henry’s and all governments’ part to invite alternative perspectives, evidence, and theories about what is and is not demanded in every facet of managing this health crisis, such as that’s politically and medically possible.
My appeal here is certainly not to breed distrust of Dr. Henry or any of her peers, who are all doing so much to see us safely through this global epidemic.
It is, rather, to urge them to trust a little more in the wisdom, necessity, and healing power of informed honest dialogue and debate, in hopefully improving their decision-making on our collective behalf.
We might also reflect on the relevance of this world-view, for better and worse, that Pericles also supposedly articulated in that same speech to his summoned assembly:
“Any fool who strikes lucky can boast, even a coward; but pride of disdain belongs to the man who has the good judgement to believe that he is better than his opponents—which is the case with us. When luck is not a factor on either side it is intelligence, derived from this sense of superiority, that fortifies one’s courage, placing its trust less in hope, whose force depends on desperation, than in a judgement based on facts, which offers more reliable foresight.”
I doubt Dr. Henry would ever echo that harsh sentiment, though it hits closer home than she might suppose to the logic of a world rendered completely helpless and beholden to their health experts in weathering this calamity with minimal loss of life and negative lasting societal consequence.
What Pericles should have also taught us, as this virus continues to demonstrate, is this: elitism in any democracy carries with it its own dangers of arrogance.
What the Greek philosophers should have taught us is this: hard, informed dialogue has a way of testing the propositions that are too often revealed in hindsight as so much well-intended weak science, couched in flawed opinion.
Contrary to Pericles, I say, let us all put our trust in great hope, properly strengthened in desperation of defeating the COVID curse, and duly enhanced by fearless uncomfortable discussion informed by irrefutable facts.
Such is our common indicated enterprise, holding fast to our time-honoured bastions of democracy and weilding every available tool for productive civic dialogue and earnest expression.
Thank you, Dr. Henry, for leading me to learn and think a little more in enthusiastically embracing your quoted appeal.
Albeit, with a concomitant yearning for us all to also more actively embrace the philosophers’ ever transformative dialectic methods.