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The Mask and the Face
A covid card at Christmas
McGill University is still one of the saner and more reasonable universities in the land, with many devoted and hard-working students, professors, and administrators, including those with whom I am here disagreeing on matters of enormous public import.
For that reason, and out of professional respect, I will not identify my interlocutor, who is fulfilling a duty to the university. It was, after all, I who raised the issue. Or rather, it was I who decided before term began that I must inform the administration, at each appearance of new demands that I believe unjust or unfit for purpose, both of my dissent and, where necessary, my refusal to cooperate.
In my own memo (the longer one) the second-person pronoun is often used as a plural or collective pronoun, not as a strictly singular or personal one; though of course each of us, as an individual, must examine our own conscience and weigh our true duties and responsibilities, in a hierarchy that culminates in our duty to God.
My letter, I fear, is a tad intemperate. But the very real damage being done by the present policies (regarding which the university is not entirely hostage to the government) to so many people in our community, to the fundamental laws of our country, and to the whole fabric of our society, is so great as to require a firm stance and a public rebuke. I regret that this is the case, and I regret that it takes the form of a dispute in which my own actions figure. This is not about me, as it is not about any one administrator. It is about all of us.
16 December, 2021
My previous note was rather cryptic. For greater certainty, I will not mask and I will not apply for an ‘exemption’. My reasons are as follows:
1. Omicron is not a proven threat. It is perfectly ordinary for viruses to mutate, and they generally diminish in severity as they do so.
2. Masking studies show no benefit in the situations in which I work at McGill. I refuse to set a bad example for my students by wearing one anyway.
3. Masks interfere with communication between instructors and students by obscuring voices and facial expressions; they impede learning.
4. Masks, worn habitually, are injurious to psychological and physical health. I will not submit myself or help submit others to these effects.
5. Masks are bad for the environment. What is more, there is no disposal or recycling system to handle them.
6. The legal foundation for the government’s orders in council, where they infringe on constitutional rights, is not established and is being tested in the courts.
7. Mask mandates are politically motivated, not medically indicated, and are being used to convey a false sense of peril in support of an unjustifiable claim to extraordinary powers.
8. I have both a conscientious and a religious objection to mask-wearing under such circumstances. The latter is based on my disciplinary work in theology.
[deputized reply, 18 December 2021]
Dear Professor Farrow,
In response to your email below, let me first make it clear that masks are indeed an important safety measure during the current pandemic. Although I would tend to think that this is a widely accepted fact, let me point you for instance to the attached recent letter by Dre. Mylène Drouin, director of Public Health for Montreal, underlying the necessity of mask wearing in the context of higher education.
Irrespective of your personal conviction as to whether masks are useful in the current context, mask wearing is a university health and safety directive; as such, it is your responsibility to follow this directive, as outlined in the University’s Internal Responsibility System, in order to ensure your safety and that of other members of your community. I also want to stress that the University’s mask wearing directives do not provide for exemptions for conscientious or religious reasons.
I have separately heard a report of your not wearing a mask consistently in the Birks Building. Let me clearly remind you that the university expects you to wear a procedural mask at all times within our buildings, as per current directives.
20 December 2021
Thank you for responding on behalf of the provost, and for passing on the congratulatory letter to our students from the city's director of Public Health. As you know, in any McGill communication I receive, I don’t read past the point where it begins offering me unsolicited medical advice, which is beyond the university’s competence and which I have made clear I regard as a form of harassment. But this letter, being from an external bureaucrat, I read through with some interest. I was struck by this line: La vaccination demeure le geste civique le plus efficace pour préserver nos acquis de cet automne.
“Vaccination remains the most effective civic gesture to preserve our achievements this autumn.” What remarkable transparency and simplicity! Vaccination—or, more accurately, an experimental injection with lipid nanoparticles of uncertain and possibly toxic effect on bodily tissues, used as a delivery system for genetic instructions designed to reprogram certain cells so as to cause them to produce an unknown quantity of a spike-protein pathogen with equally uncertain, but certainly dangerous, effects on the immune system and on other crucial systems, circulatory, nervous, reproductive, etc.—has, mirabile dictu, become le geste civique.
Then again, what else could it become? For plainly it has not become a means of prevention of the spread of a coronavirus, even allowing (as I do not) that preventing spread is a rational and achievable goal. The latest iteration of the virus appears, if anything, to prefer the vaccinated. Isn't that convenient? Omicron is highly transmissible but not very severe, so according to the new definition of a "pandemic," onwards and upwards with pandemic measures! Perhaps the achievement of which Dre. Drouin speaks, then, is merely that of putting the first two needles in every arm, as a prelude to the many more that are to come? With your help, she's certainly done well with that.
Yet here we are: masked, isolated, feastless and party-less, sent back online to begin winter term, because this response to COVID has proved the abject failure that honest scientists warned from the outset it would be. The Great Reset—sorry, the dangerous pandemic—rolls on, with no end in sight. One of your administrative colleagues at a nearby university told some of her professorial charges, who had expressed concern about the psychological and pedagogical well-being of their students, to expect three or four more years of this. I hope there will be some annual variation in the congratulatory note, particularly as the needle count rises and morale drops still more precipitously.
COVID vaccination was always primarily a civic gesture, of course, for it was never medically justified or justifiable for the majority of people, especially young people like our students. That this gesture has been elicited from the latter by manipulation, censorship, bullying and in some sectors coercion, not only of adults but now even of young children, requires one to ask what sort of gesture it really is and what kind of civic life it points toward. So does the fact that, together with associated policies such as lockdowns and denials of early treatment, it has plainly done far more harm than good.
You do know, I trust, that in far too many cases the harm was permanent or fatal. That (as FOIA requests have confirmed) is something that was known to Pfizer from early days, and to the regulatory agencies by, at the latest, three months into the rollout. It has become still more evident since then, despite the studied ignorance of those in charge of Public Health. Even for people capable of benefiting from the injections, who are mainly among the elderly, they pose a serious risk. This was acknowledged in a rare moment of honesty last week, when it was announced in Quebec that booster shots for those over seventy who have had COVID are no longer recommended, given the number and severity of adverse events being witnessed in places now difficult to ignore—the LTC facilities, which are currently under scrutiny for grave abuses, involving other and deadlier injections, that took place when the pandemic began.
Not surprisingly, many reasonable people have concluded that the whole vaccination campaign was designed and marketed to make a few people, including certain prominent donors to this university, even wealthier than they were before, and still more powerful. The ways in which they are powerful or mean to become powerful are increasingly obvious to anyone paying attention. We needn't go into that here. But the campaign in question depends on prolonging the so-called pandemic by stoking fears of a relatively harmless variant and what it might do the healthcare system. Had we been behaving rationally, or were we even now to behave rationally, it would be no threat at all to the healthcare system. Indeed, the only threat to the healthcare system so far has been the government's pandemic policies, which have produced dysfunctional work environments and delayed screenings for early treatment. The emerging threat is the impending consequence of all that, combined with the dysfunctional immune systems of increasing numbers of the vaccinated.
The effort to prolong the pandemic and, just so, to provide an excuse for prolonging emergency powers—powers that have been and are being used unconstitutionally, as the Hon. Brian Peckford insists—brings us to the matter at hand in our correspondence; that is, to that other geste civique that is masking.
You say that you “would tend to think that [the effectiveness of mask wearing] is a widely accepted fact.” I say in reply that, if you’re only tending to think, and to think only that many people accept it as fact, you shouldn’t be making or enforcing rules that require us all to treat it as fact. And you certainly shouldn't be going above and beyond what the government requires of you, as I have observed before.
But here’s a fact for you, one I suspect you know: Scientific studies spanning decades, to say nothing of the evidence with which we are now confronted, make clear that masking is ineffective. It is ineffective because it does not prevent transmission through aerosols, which is the chief mode of transmission. On the other hand, it has all the deleterious effects I have indicated. As with vaccination, however, we are not apprised of such concerns or contraindications. We do not discuss or even admit the harmful side-effects. Perhaps that is because a practice that achieves nothing positive does not have side-effects. The side-effects simply are the effects.
The university that hired me twenty-four years ago, or at least this is my impression, used to care rather more about facts and evidence-based reasoning. It was not a mere echo-chamber for outside agents and influencers, whether from government or industry or their bastard offspring known as Global Private-Public Partnership. Nor did it bring these influencers inside, give them chairs and directorships, or put them in conflict of interest positions, with the same enthusiasm it does now.
The university that hired me also respected freedom of conscience and religion and other fundamental rights, despite having had a rather spotty track record. Once upon a time, it even helped give birth to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It respected academic freedom, and the academic integrity for which that freedom exists. In other words, the university that hired me still had something like the soul of a university.
Evidently that soul was fading fast. Like many students and colleagues, I am very disturbed by what I see happening at McGill and other universities today, which are prostituting themselves to their economic and political masters at the expense of their proper and professed vocation, their principles and constitutions, their collegial culture. The whole academic house, on which has been erected a massive bureaucratic third storey, threatens to collapse in a perfect storm of corruption, incompetence, and cowardice. One sign of that is rapid-onset EDI disease, which some prefer to call DIE. Another is complete capitulation to the official COVID narrative, which in the name of "science" is scientifically absurd.
But now to my own actions, for which you have written to reprove me. I regret to say, comrade, that the report you have received is inaccurate. It is not the case that I don't "consistently" wear a mask, any more than it is the case that I don't consistently show a passport. I don't do either of those things at all. Out of respect for the university's responsibility to the government, and my responsibility to the university, I keep myself to my classroom or my office, and generally refrain from inhabiting common spaces haunted by the masked. I have checked even the latest mesures en viguer and have found nothing in them that further affects me at work—though I see that new measures are being added, even as I write, that threaten to make "at work" moot.
As for your general memo of 14 December, which adds internal guidelines such as, "if you are eating and pause to have a conversation, put on your mask," I must in all honesty tell you that I regard such behaviour as absolutely mad. Fortunately, I've never seen anyone do it, and I'd be very surprised to find you doing it. (Such is my lot, however, under this repressive regime, that I'd be surprised to find you at all, not even at the Faculty Club, from which you have barred me while refusing to answer my questions about the legal basis for your actions. When you are sipping your beers after a committee meeting, in conversation with your friends, do you don your mask between drinks?) In any case, I do not promise to meet demands, internal or external, for which there is no sure support in law or in my contract with the university, or to which I cannot in good conscience conform.
You point me to the University Health & Safety Committee document of 2015. Fair enough, though if this matter escalates a great many other documents will also prove relevant, some of which the university might be less keen to reference. The first thing to say about this document, however, is that it was not designed for the situation we are discussing, just as the emergency provisions in the Public Health Act were not designed for the perpetual pandemic that has been engineered so successfully and do not justify the ongoing abuses of authority to which we are all being subjected.
The second thing to say is that it contains a clause requiring “correcting or reporting forthwith ... any observed hazards or lapses in the functioning of the Health & Safety System.” Though this is directed, with the rest of the document, chiefly to laboratories and the like, I have been fulfilling the obligation as best I can in my own sphere, through my published work and in the internal memos I have been sending the administration. (See, for example, the message to the principal of 24 September 2021, with the header “Re: McGill’s commitment to the health and safety of our community.”) Most of these messages, however, have met with silence; none with a promise to address the issue.
The third thing to say is that I would not, even were you offering it, seek an exemption on the grounds mentioned. In my masking memo, I was merely informing you of what I am doing and why I am doing it. I wasn't asking permission. Just as I don't concede the authority to impose masks and passports on an arbitrary basis, I don't concede the competence to judge claims of conscience or religion. Nor do I believe that either the government or the university can operate with impunity outside the frame of reference provided by the Charter and other fundamental laws of the land. Not yet, at any rate. Not ever, I still dare hope.
Finally, I wish to observe that the key stipulation at 1.b.iii applies equally to everyone. One must indeed refrain “from activities which may jeopardize the health and safety of others.” But this brings us to the real question. Who exactly is jeopardizing whom?
I contend that it is the university—not altogether on its own initiative, of course, but under government and industry pressure, and not without support from MAUT, spiked as it is with beneficiaries of COVID-related grants—which is jeopardizing our health, both biologically and psychologically.
In short, I reverse the charge. I am jeopardizing no one; present policies are jeopardizing almost everyone. That twofold claim I am prepared to back with solid evidence, not merely with the technique your committee seems to prefer: endless repetition, or what I believe Dr Evans would call "flooding the zone." There, I freely admit, I cannot compete. There are not enough hoses at my disposal. But in public disputation I can compete, and I am confident that, with all the salient facts and arguments on display, impartial adjudication, if it can still be found, would decide the matter in my favour.
Be that as it may, my actions are consistent with what I have argued in my essays, commentaries, letters, and interviews, all of which are on the public record, as you will see if you explore the links beneath my signature. I will not act otherwise, for I could only do so at the expense of both academic and personal integrity, and the ability to stand before my students as a man of my word.
I still believe that it is the vocation of the university to enable open, free, and honest pursuit of knowledge and understanding. I believe in the liberty to undertake that pursuit without politically or economically or ideologically motivated interference and reprisals, a liberty that was recently reaffirmed by the Independent Scientific and Technical Commission on the Recognition of Academic Freedom in the University Environment. I don't know how far McGill remains committed to such things, though I still know colleagues and students who are passionately committed. I will not betray the latter by changing my behaviour to conform to policies that contradict science in the name of science. I will not speak against the mask through the mask, or against vaccine passports by first presenting one.
The refusal to permit faces to be out in the open, where they can be read and appreciated, or indeed to permit particular people to be out in the open, is closely allied with the refusal to place data and arguments out in the open. No one can now deny that these dehumanizing categories, "vaccinated and unvaccinated," or for that matter "masked and unmasked," are utterly meaningless in terms of the totally futile goal of preventing the spread of a coronavirus. That in the university, of all places, this is not being acknowledged, is the silent tolling of the mourner's bell.
A last word: For the sake of the committee's high and holy vocation "to ensure your safety and that of other members of your community," you presume to dismiss my stance as merely "a personal conviction" of no relevance to policy making. That is at once patronising and obtuse. The dispute is about what makes for my safety and that of others, though that is by no means all that it is about. It is also and at the same time a political, economic, and religious dispute, for Public Health these days seems to be about everything but public health; which is to say, it has become (sometimes quite literally, as the Australians and Austrians know) a club with which to beat everyone into line and force them down a road not of their own choosing, toward a destination they little understand.
My stance, to be sure, is one of conviction. But convictio derives from convincere. Observation, consultation, research, and argumentation have led to considered judgments, shared judgments, judgments of far-reaching importance. Do not dismiss them without engagement on the grounds that they are somehow private, while yours are somehow public. That is nothing but a ploy, a power game.
We are approaching Christmas, which for two thousand years has been a public celebration, all the world over, of the appearance of the face, the face of God. (Witness the panel on the right, from Grünewald's famous Isenheim altarpiece, which I commend to your contemplation.) I don't know about you or Dre. Drouin, but the premier at least seems to understand that, and to find it problematic, for he has taken thought as to how Christmas might now be reconceived as a display of masks and passports. I am aware that this task is one with which even Cardinal Lacroix appears willing to assist. I, for my part, am not. Better just to dispense with Christmas, if it is to become a feature of our great masquerade in honour of the idol of Public Health.
So, as a geste civique of my own, I append for your edification, not a religious testament, but a rather irreligious one on the political nature of masking. I obtained it from our library, into which you have forbidden me to go. It is not authored by a health bureaucrat but by a renowned philosopher, one who quickly saw through the lies at the root of what he elsewhere calls "medicine as religion." I hope that will be sufficiently public for you, as this letter will be.
Douglas Bryce Farrow
School of Religious Studies, McGill University
The Face and the Mask
8 October 2020
Giorgio Agamben, Where are we now? The Epidemic as Politics (Rowan & Littlefield 2021, 86f.)
[...] what is called the countenance, which can exist in no animate being besides the human being, indicates character. —cicero, de legibus, 1.27
All living beings are in a state of openness—they show themselves and communicate with one another—but only human beings have a face. Only for a human being is one’s own appearance and communication to others a fundamental experience; only human beings make their faces the site of their own truth.
What the face exposes and reveals is not something that can be put into words, not something that can be formulated in a signifying proposition. It is in their faces that humans unwillingly drop their guard; it is in the face—and before any words are spoken—that they express and reveal themselves. And what the face expresses is not only an individual’s emotional state but, first and foremost, their openness, their exposure, and their communication to others.
This is why the face is the site of politics. If there are no animal politics, it is only because animals, who are always and already in openness, do not take issue with their exposure—they simply dwell in it without worrying about it. This is why they are not interested in mirrors or in the image as such. Men, on the contrary, want to recognise themselves and to be recognised; they want to grasp their own image, they seek their truth in it. In this way they transform their openness into a world, into the field of incessant political dialectics.
If individuals only had to communicate information, this thing or that thing, there would never be proper politics, but only an exchange of messages. But since they must first communicate their openness—in other words, a pure communicability—the face is the very condition of politics, the site on which everything that individuals say and communicate is founded. The face is, in this sense, the true city of men, the fundamental political element. It is by looking at their faces that individuals recognise themselves and develop a passion for one another; it is how they perceive affinity and diversity, distance and proximity.
A country that decides to renounce its face, to cover with masks the faces of its citizens everywhere is, then, a country that has purged itself of any political dimension. Inhabiting this empty space, which is at every moment subjected to a control which knows no limits, individuals now live in isolation from one another. They have lost the immediate and sensible foundation of their community, and they can only exchange messages directed towards a name that no longer possesses a face. A faceless name.