In Connecticut, The New "Permanent Emergency" Surveillance Regime Suffers A Temporary Blow

Hilariously, in the run-up to my arrival at Connecticut College on Monday afternoon, I received a flurry of messages from supportive students notifying me that College Administrators had activated their own little version of DEFCON mode — so desperate as they evidently were to prevent me from getting onto the campus. Gates that were normally open had been blockaded; guards were conducting scrupulous ID checks at all entry points. Sounds very serious!

So then it was doubly hilarious that all I had to do was follow the advice of students and walk right on in, through a pedestrian pathway they had recommended. What ensued was an exciting session. I was eventually able to deliver some remarks, the primary purpose of which was to journalistically inform the “campus community” that dozens of their fellow classmates had been in contact with me over the preceding few days to express their grievances about the College’s Australia-style lockdown policy. At the time, this was likely the most extreme “lockdown” underway anywhere in the US. But on account of the alarmingly pervasive snitch culture at that campus, these students said they felt unable to register their criticisms in public, lest they face social repercussions or even formal disciplinary sanction.

After being inundated with messages from incredibly flustered students, and at the urging of many, I decided I’d take a trip to go speak on their behalf. Here’s just a few examples of the dozens of messages I received:

Another student wrote: “I am sending you this because I am dissatisfied with the College’s approach to COVID, and I would like to tell you many students will be there tomorrow supporting you… Please do not mention my name as there could be strict disciplinary actions taken against me.”

Another student who had just been permitted to emerge from mandatory isolation housing wrote: “Please do not use my name I am terrified of being kicked out… I’ve been out for a little over a week and I’m still not mentally well, especially not after we went into ‘Alert Level Orange’ right after I got out and hadn’t gotten to see everyone I haven’t seen in months.”

Yet another added: “I truly thank you for being our voice especially cause most of us are too scared to say something!!”

All this strengthened my resolve to deliver the remarks on Monday afternoon. Once I was able to do so, over and over again I explained that I would ordinarily have no particular interest in the minutiae of administrative policy at a small liberal arts college in southeastern Connecticut, which in all honesty I’d only been peripherally aware even existed prior to last week.

But there was clearly something deeply warped happening at this College; dozens and dozens of students were coming out of the woodworks to tell me they were being stifled from raising objections to the Dean confining them to their rooms, micromanaging their social interactions, and subjecting them to pointlessly invasive surveillance. Even though they are 99% vaccinated. So, puncturing that climate of weird, petty repression was one thing I could journalistically do for them.

I also deemed it important to bring attention to the demonstrable reality that Connecticut College, notwithstanding its relative obscurity, will serve as a test case for what happens when institutions zealously commit themselves to enforcing COVID protocols through intrusive, privacy-violating interventions — long past the time that there is any defensible basis for this — by invoking the rhetoric of “Permanent Emergency.” Because if you value civil liberties and freedom of thought, the absolute last thing you should be willing to tolerate is a “Permanent Emergency.”

Here is a video recording of my visit that someone uploaded to YouTube, including my (polite) expulsion from the main area of campus by security personnel, followed by the trek to an outer sidewalk nearby, where I was permitted to speak and engage with the students. That recording seems to be a little over an hour, though I spoke for around two, so a good portion of it is missing. Every other person appeared to be recording or live-streaming, so I’m sure the rest is floating around somewhere.

Even the local town newspaper was apparently on hand, later publishing an article that describes me ominously as a “controversial writer.” Oh, heaven forfend! What a scandal to occasionally provoke “controversy” as a journalist. I guess I should consider transitioning to doing pliable PR under the guise of journalism, which is what most people ostensibly in the profession do.

I also really appreciate that so many online critics are fascinated, sometimes to the point of semi-perverted obsession, with various aspects of my personal appearance. It’s true that after I was ordered to vacate the main campus area by security forces, and had to traipse over to an exterior sidewalk where students would mercifully be allowed to hear me speak, my shirt became partially untucked. I know, such a catastrophe. Ultimately though, I’d much rather be slightly rumpled and correct — and all the while accomplishing the goal I set out to achieve — than be a polished, immaculately well-manicured, herd-minded conformist like the CNN apparatchiks and others who’ve weighed in on Twitter with their predictable scorn against me.

I’ll just note that there used to be a time when the popular image of journalists was that they were kind of rumply and unkempt, as their sense of high fashion would commonly get subordinated to pursuit of on-deadline leads and so forth — or in my case, pursuit of a last-minute invitation I had received from Connecticut College students to speak. At least I remembered to take a blazer!

I’m not claiming to represent any kind of idealized vision of the old-fashioned, ink-stained, incorruptible journalist — but it’s interesting that once the craft became over-professionalized and populated almost exclusively by cultural elites from prestigious universities, the wardrobe expectations shifted to mirror whatever they wear at the Wesleyan commencement ceremony. That said, next time I’m invited to address civil liberties issues at a locked-down campus and find myself intercepted by the Administration’s security henchmen, I’ll devote extra special care to the whereabouts of my shirt.

On a slightly more important note, the visit was very well-received and appreciated by the students who had asked me to come, some of whom I met in person and some of whom messaged me afterwards. And none of whom, by the way, I’m ever going to name without their express permission. Because as I would find out in vivid detail, they spoke to me on the condition of anonymity for good reason. Here are a few (non-exhaustive) examples of post-visit messages:

Their adamant insistence on anonymity became all the more understandable given the outsized influence of an aggressively vocal faction of pro-lockdown and pro-Administration students, many of whom were present Monday, and some of whom attempted to pelt me with eggs. (Both missed. One was fired from what seemed to be a moving vehicle, and another was hurled at point-blank range. The young lady who botched her throw from just a few feet away probably should’ve practiced her aim a bit more — better luck next time, darling.)

The presence of students who disagreed, or didn’t like me, or whatever, was absolutely fine! I didn’t go there thinking I’d be received with universal adoration. Rather, it was the opposite: the very purpose of my going was because I’d been reliably informed that students with a contrary view felt themselves unable to publicly express their grievances due to the social or disciplinary penalties they’d undoubtedly face — thanks to the overabundance of snitchers and surveillers around them. And I actually tried to engage the disagreers as much as possible. Debate is good. One student critic asked me to follow him on social media afterwards, and also requested my phone number, which I gave. Another asked for a selfie, which I also gave, although I question the wisdom of that particular request.

And then — wouldn’t you know it — within a few hours of my visit the benevolent Dean, master of insufferably obnoxious emails, announced that they would be eliminating the lockdown. He claimed to have just spoken to Anthony Fauci, which would be a nice little pretext to make it seem like I of course had no role in hastening the decision. Naturally, I have no way of proving the precise impetus for the sudden reversal, but I guess all are free to draw their own inferences. Either way, the students were liberated!

The elation is temporary, however. Twice-weekly “surveillance testing” still persists at Connecticut College. This weekend students will presumably be back to normal socializing, thus increasing the likelihood that positive asymptomatic test results will be recorded. So there’s a strong chance they could find themselves in another lockdown-type situation very soon.

The real culprit here is not students doing normal things like socializing with friends, but administrators — through a combination of paranoia and zealotry — imposing these totally superfluous “surveillance testing” regimes that have ceased to have any utility whatsoever at this phase in the COVID chronicle. Especially among a population of universally vaccinated young adults. It makes no sense, and if you want to get cynical about it, you’d almost think these administrators creepily relish the opportunity to snoop in students’ private lives.

Not long after departing Monday, I began to receive boatloads of new messages from students at other colleges and universities about their own mind-bending predicaments. (Please keep sending them!) Brown University just announced a brand new quasi-lockdown whereby students are forbidden from socializing with more than five other people, and are also prohibited from patronizing bars and restaurants. In-person student activities like clubs, etc. have also been outlawed, and doing what’s minimally necessary to meet new friends is strongly discouraged. I also got word that Georgetown University is banning students from removing their masks in class even to take a sip of water, while also promoting its snitch hotline for students to report on one another for violations.

Just like at Connecticut College, the student populations at Brown and Georgetown are almost universally vaccinated, after they had been mandated to do so. The premise of vaccination, we were all told at one point, was that it would enable the resumption of normal life. Clearly, that’s not happening at some of the country’s most influential institutions. Soon the students who populate those institutions will be running corporations, nonprofits, the media, and getting elected to office. That’s why all of this has major societal consequences, beyond the specific situation of this or that college. Are we going to submit to the blinkered mentality of “Permanent Emergency” in dealing with what is now most assuredly an endemic disease? Or is it time to say, “enough is enough”?

One last thing. To all the scoffers on Twitter and YouTube and wherever else: have at it. Every single time, my validation will come from ordinary people, like the students who asked me to visit this college — not snark-infested pundits and harebrained social media freaks. I will take pride in delivering for them to the best of my ability. I will care about them, not you. Every single time.