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Dr. Aaron Kheriaty: Why Totalitarianism Doesn’t Require Gulags or Concentration Camps

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[FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW] What is the difference between totalitarianism and dictatorship? What is an unjust law, and how do you identify it? What makes some people more prone to being manipulated than others? And what is the antidote to tyranny?
We speak with Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, author of “The New Abnormal: The Rise of the Biomedical Security State,” a former psychiatry professor at the University of California Irvine, and the former director of the medical ethics program at UCI Health. Now, he is a fellow and director of the Program in Bioethics and American Democracy at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Dr. Kheriaty is also one of the plaintiffs in the landmark Missouri v. Biden free speech case.


Jan Jekielek: Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, it's such a pleasure to have you back on American Thought Leaders.
Dr. Aaron Kheriaty: It's always great to be with you, Jan.
Mr. Jekielek: Earlier today, you said the totalitarian systems of the 20th century always begin by monopolizing what counts as rationality and what counts as knowledge. First of all, please explain that and let's use it as a jumping point.
Dr. Kheriaty: When people hear the word totalitarian, they often think of secret police, men in jackboots, concentration camps, gulags, or mass surveillance. All those features are important, but the real starting point and the core of a totalitarian system is an ideology that monopolizes what counts as rationality and what counts as knowledge. What counts as a legitimate question to ask?
If you raise your hand and ask an inconvenient question, the Marxist ideologue or the Nazi ideologue or the fascist ideologue doesn't say, "Hey, Jan, let's sit down and debate this question. You present your evidence and I'll present mine and we'll try to learn from one another." They simply say, "You're questioning the ideology because you're infected with bourgeois consciousness."
The Nazi will say, "You're just infected with Jew consciousness. You're protecting your own class-based interest. You're protecting your own interest to advance your aims, and therefore you're not worth talking to. You're not part of the enlightened elites that understand the direction of history, and that understand where things need to go. I'm not going to debate you, I'm just going to exclude you from public conversation."
That's where the concentration camps, the gulags, and the secret police come in to enforce the ideology. Today, in Western countries, which we don't tend to think of as totalitarian, I'm very concerned about the direction that we're moving in, because if you look at new phenomena and new trends like government-sponsored censorship, they mirror that starting point of totalitarian systems.
They put forward a particular ideology or particular public policy proposal and say, "Citizens are not allowed to question this. Citizens are not allowed to present evidence that might call this public policy into question. In fact, if they do so, we're going to label them as dangerous. On social media, we're going to algorithmically exclude them from the realm of public conversation. We're going to limit their reach. We're going to limit the ability of other people to hear their ideas."
This is where totalitarian systems always begin. In fact, this is where totalitarian systems always end up. Once the ideology is sufficiently adopted by enough members of the population, once people get used to the idea that they are not allowed to ask questions, they just internalize those prohibitions. At the end point of that process, you don't even need concentration camps, secret police, or mass surveillance anymore.
Every citizen becomes a member of the Gestapo or the KGB. Every citizen starts silencing their fellow citizens if they raise any inconvenient questions that might challenge the ideology. According to Hannah Arendt, who studied the totalitarian systems of the 20th century, this becomes the worst form of imprisonment.
She draws a distinction between dictatorships that rule through external force and by instilling fear in the population. The citizen thinks, “I'm not going to say the wrong thing because I don't want to get punished by the regime. I'm not going to challenge the dictatorial ruler and his ideas because he might then come down on me or do something to harm me or harm my family.”
A totalitarian regime uses external force initially to try to funnel people into the ideology, but eventually, the totalitarian system no longer needs to use external force because people have internalized the ideology. In a dictatorship, at least you still have the interior freedom, even if your exterior freedom is constrained.
You still have the interior freedom to think your own thoughts, to have your own opinions, and to have your own judgements. You might voice them only very carefully, and you might not voice them at all, but you can still think about them on your own. But in a perfectly enacted totalitarian system, you don't even have that, because the ideology has become so internalized that the questions no longer occur to you. The dissenting thoughts no longer occur to you. You're in a prison with invisible bars without even realizing that you're in prison. Your interior freedom has also been subsumed into that totalitarian system.
Mr. Jekielek: We both have become aware of these parallel tracks, but people are not all the same. There are some people that are incredibly suggestible. In fact, they are so suggestible that if it seems like the societal consensus, the next day they might change their mind. There's another group of people that is somehow immune. We know a lot of these people are just wondering, "What the heck is going on?"
Then there's a middle group. In an interview from the 1960s, Aldous Huxley talks about a quarter of the population being easy to hypnotize. There is another quarter which is immune. With everybody else, it just depends on the situation. I've also seen this in Lobachevsky's work, where he talks about how he saw the totalitarian system coming into Jagiellonian University where he was studying psychology. He watched a similar dynamic.
There are people that are freedom-oriented or just reality-oriented. I don't know. A freedom-oriented person might say, "No, I'm not going to accept this thing that I'm supposed to believe." I would expect those people will continue to exist. Of course, in these totalitarian states, they're marginalized or even killed. If you agree with me, please account for this.
Dr. Kheriaty: Yes, I do. This does seem to be a recurrent phenomenon where 30 percent of people are highly hypnotizable and prone to mass formation. Those that are going along with whatever the authorities are saying or whatever the general consensus appears to be are going to have a diminished ability or diminished interest in questioning that consensus.
A smaller proportion of the population, maybe 15 percent, are the people who are less prone to think, "I have to affiliate with the group. I have to go along with the consensus.” They are capable of standing against that tide and that social pressure and really having independent ideas. It doesn't mean that all of their ideas are good. Their ideas may be wrongheaded as well. However, by some combination of temperament and experience, they're not prone to move in that direction.
The rest of the folks in the middle, whatever the remainder would be, can go one way or the other depending on their situation and interests. Just putting on my psychiatrist hat for a moment, this probably has something to do with innate temperamental traits that make some people have a stronger felt need for group affiliation, which all of us have. No human being can exist in perfect isolation.
John Donne said, "No man is an island sufficient unto himself." Solitary confinement is one of the worst punishments we can inflict on human beings because human beings are social animals. Our bodies and our brains do not function well in isolation from other human beings. We're built to be in relationships. But you could have variation within the population with the need for strong affiliation.
You can have some people that feel like, "I can maintain my relationships. I can maintain my place in the social realm without having to agree with other people, without having to hold the same opinions. I can stand against some degree of social pressure that others might find intolerable."
With that 15 percent of dissidents in societies who move in authoritarian or totalitarian directions, it's hard for me to identify one particular personality type or one particular type of life experience. You can't identify them based on political affiliation.
That group cuts across the typical Left-Right distinctions that we see in American political life. What makes up that group of people that is different from the rest? It's really interesting how the dissidents came to their dissenting opinions. After talking to many of them over the last three years, some of them have experiences coming from a prior totalitarian regime. They know what it was like to live under Soviet communism, one of the Eastern Bloc states, or Cuba under Castro. They say, "I look around now and I can see many of the things that I was fleeing from."
You can hear that from people coming to the United States from China these days. There is a convergence between the way in which ideologies are functioning in China with the Chinese Communist Party controlling the flow of information and how people think, with trends that are now developing in Western nations, including the United States. Sometimes it's the life experience of seeing the way that these things can go really, really bad, and lead to seriously harmful directions for society.
Other people come at this forged with other life experiences that made them willing to stand up to other kinds of challenges. They decided, "No, I'm not going to go along with this thing. I'm not going to compromise my integrity or pretend to believe something that I have serious doubts about." We need to try to figure out what makes those people tick so that we can cultivate more of that in our system of education, which we're clearly not doing now.
Mr. Jekielek: Another trend that I've noticed is that people that have strong faith aren't as impacted. Maybe that could help people who are in the middle group to be inoculated in some way.
Dr. Kheriaty: Yes, I agree with you. Very often, it's people of faith that are willing to stand against a regime and question it. Human life is extremely complicated, and no one individual human being is able to figure out everything in terms of how to live and what is true and what is not true. We like to think of ourselves as hardheaded and empirically-minded when testing ideas. But the fact is, most of what we hold to be true is based on faith.
By faith, I don't necessarily mean faith and divine revelation, but faith in what other people have told us. I have not actually gone to outer space and definitively seen that the world is round, but apparently some people have. I have no reason to believe that they may be deceiving me about the fact that the earth is round.
When you go through any of the subjects you learned in school and most of the science you learned in school, you didn't run those experiments yourself to confirm those findings. You're taking it on the authority of people who are supposed to be experts and who are supposed to know. Most of what we know operates in that fashion, because we're social animals and we're not capable of wrapping our heads around all the complexities of life. People intuitively understand that people want an authority that they can trust.
Americans tend to think of themselves as anti-authoritarian and willing to be independent-minded and to challenge consensus. But even rugged American individualists still want a news source or source of information that they can trust. They still want to believe that public officials who have responsibility for this or that aspect of our lives more or less know what they're doing and are doing a decent job. Otherwise, what's the alternative to that? The alternative to that is pretty terrifying—you can't trust anyone, and nobody knows what the heck is going on.
If I don't have faith in something transcendent, then the highest authority is going to be some form of human authority. The highest entity, institution, or individual that I trust is going to be whoever society puts forward as the ruling or the governing class. Whereas if I have faith in a transcendent god, or if I have faith in a transcendent moral order that goes beyond my particular society, my particular culture, or my particular moment in history, that allows me to challenge a human authority that also has something above them that they also need to be responsive to. That allows me to understand that there can be such a thing as an unjust law. Martin Luther King Jr.'s, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” articulates the idea of civil disobedience.
He said, "There are some situations in which citizens are morally permitted and may even be morally compelled to disobey a law that has been enacted by a governing authority." Then the question is what is the criteria for doing that? How do I know if a particular law is just or unjust?” The legal ideology of legal positivism says, "The law is whatever the ruling authority says it is, and you can't really challenge it. The law is just the law because it's declared and there's no higher authority that it answers to.”
The older tradition of the classical philosophy of Martin Luther King draws on the ideas of Thomas Aquinas who said, "There is a higher law. There is a higher authority that human law has to be responsive to."
There is an idea of justice that is knowable, and that is inscribed on the human heart. This comes from the natural law tradition and philosophy that human laws are either in accord with or they're in violation of the natural law. If they're in violation of the natural law or the higher moral law, then they're not legitimate. “A law that is not in accord with the natural law is no law at all,” would be the formulation from Thomas Aquinas. That is the basis for being able to challenge what otherwise we would take to be the highest authority, which is whatever the government enacts. They are going to punish me if I don't follow it. It's the be-all and end-all of what's right, good, okay, and just.
This older classical traditional philosophy says this is true, and you should generally obey traffic laws and criminal laws. But in some circumstances, there are situations in which a law that is passed by a duly elected legislative body may be something that you're actually permitted or maybe even required to disobey.
If you have faith in something that transcends your particular historical moment, for most people, that's going to be God. But it could also be a Platonic idea of justice. There were ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle who came to many of these same conclusions without faith in divine revelation or a faith that would be analogous to Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.
But for most people, that's going to be faith in a transcendent God that allows them to question and to hold up an ideal that is higher even than my own life or my own physical wellbeing, and something that I would be willing to even die for. The highest form of witness to something like that, to a higher truth that should not be violated, are people who are willing to give their lives for that, the people who are martyrs for the sake of the truth.
There are dissidents like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who said, "Rather than violate my conscience, rather than violate what I hold to be true or what I know to be true, rather than lie publicly or take an oath that I don't actually believe in, I'm willing to sacrifice everything, including my life."
There is a film, “A Hidden Life,” which came out a few years ago about a young Austrian man named Franz Jagerstatter. After Germany's takeover during World War II, like all young men in Austria, he was conscripted into the German army, and he was actually willing to fight for the German army. But he was unwilling to take an oath of fidelity to Adolf Hitler, which all the members of the Army were required to do. He said, "No, I'm not going to take that oath because I don't believe it, and because I don't want to pledge fidelity to that man or to his ideology."
As the film depicts, he's met with increasing pressure, including pressure from the people around him. His wife supported him and he had two young daughters. But the local mayor, his friends, and even some of the local religious leaders were telling him, "Look, you can believe whatever you want, but just sign the oath. Just do this to save your own skin because you have to take care of your family. You have your whole life ahead of you."
The other thing they told him was, "If you dissent and if you're imprisoned or worse for refusing to sign this oath to Adolf Hitler, nobody's going to know about it, because you're nobody. You're an ordinary farmer. You're going to be forgotten by history. Nobody is going to care. It's not going to have any effect on the dynamics of world history or on this war or on anything else. It will just be a useless gesture that will not make any difference."
There's a very powerful scene in the film where he's in prison and he's being beaten by one of the prison guards. He's crumpled down on the floor after being bludgeoned and beaten. His face is bloodied and his eye is swollen. He's looking up at his tormentor, and the prison guard says, "If you just sign this piece of paper, then you can be free."
My favorite line in the whole film is when Franz looks up at his tormentor in prison after being beaten senseless and says, "But I'm already free. I'm already free because you cannot coerce me to violate my conscience. I have this interior freedom that even this totalitarian regime cannot take away from me."
He ends up dying. He ends up being executed by Hitler in the end. He ends up giving his life for the sake of that. He's probably thinking that his friends were right, "Nobody is ever going to know about me. They're not going to make a film about me one day." Yet, he was willing, for the sake of his own integrity, to stand against that regime when everyone else was going along with the flow.
Mr. Jekielek: In a sane society, these are the people that we valorize.
Dr. Kheriaty: That's right. People today can look back and recognize that was heroic, but dissidents of the current day that are standing against an increasingly authoritarian regime, they very often don't recognize them, or they actually vilify them. It's very ironic.
Mr. Jekielek: You mention that he had to pledge an oath. These days, what you need to do to get into a particular university or get a particular job involves signing a cookie cutter, boilerplate statement that, in effect, functions as a loyalty oath. Have you thought about that at all?
Dr. Kheriaty: Yes, this is really important. There is a strong argument that in these kinds of circumstances, it doesn't matter what you say. You can believe whatever you want, interiorly. This is just an exterior formality that doesn't really matter. The problem with that argument is, going back to where we started, if totalitarian regimes are grounded in a lie and then defended by prohibiting anyone from questioning that lie, then people have to live in an unreality that everyone knows is unreal, and that everyone knows is not true.
Everyone knows it's not just or good, but nobody can say it. That's precisely what sustains that harmful, oppressive regime—the willingness to go along with the lie. Solzhenitsyn, the great Soviet dissident, has a short essay. For those who don't want to wade through the thousand pages of The Gulag Archipelago, it’s a short essay. It's called, “Live Not by Lies.” Rod Dreher wrote a book of the same title a few years ago.
Solzhenitsyn asks, “What can ordinary people do in a situation like Soviet communism?” Then he says, “You may not be able to vocally protest and resist the regime, but at the very least, what you can do is refuse to publicly lie." It doesn't mean you have to always tell the truth. There is prudence, there is trying to navigate, and there's a duty to try to not throw your life away arbitrarily when it's not going to do any good. But you have to draw the line where no one can force you to publicly say something that you don't actually believe.
Vaclav Havel, the great Czech dissident who later became president of the Czech Republic after the fall of communism, wrote another very powerful essay called, “The Power of the Powerless.” In this essay, he talks about a grocer who runs his little corner store, selling his food and selling his goods. At one point, even though he's not necessarily forced to, there is social pressure around him to go along with the communist regime and to fly the flag.
The analogy today would be that everyone during the month of June has to put up the rainbow flag as part of their endorsement of the LGBT ideology. A lot of corporations and individuals will go along with this, whether they actually fully endorse this particular movement or this particular ideology or not.
But in his day, it was communist ideology. This grocer puts up a little sign that says, "Workers of the world unite." That may sound innocuous, but it was a Marxist slogan from the Communist Manifesto. In the course of the essay, Havel describes the effect of that little act of compliance from someone who didn't actually believe that slogan or the ideology behind it at all, the effect that it has on his soul and the effect that it has on the wider society when everyone starts behaving in that way.
The reason it's important not to lie publicly, to live not by lies, doesn't mean speaking the truth in all circumstances all of the time or saying every single thought that pops into your head in every public or social circumstance. But at the very least, it means not saying something that you know to be false. A society that becomes characterized by that is a society where people end up in that interior prison that I described earlier.
It is the interior prison that Franz Jagerstatter saved himself from. He's there in prison and all of his external freedoms have been taken from him. Even his freedom to exist in his body without being subjected to pain has been taken from him. He's being tortured, but he maintains that interior freedom. He's able to look up at the prison guard and say, "I don't need to sign anything. I don't need to tell a lie publicly. I don't need to make this oath because I'm already free."
Mr. Jekielek: Someone sent me a recent interview that The Telegraph did with Jordan Peterson. It starts playing and I hear his familiar voice. He says that the totalitarian system is ruled by the lie, which was an absolutely fascinating and apt formulation. I had just never heard that, but this is the exact question. Who actually rules a totalitarian state? Is it Stalin, or whoever? No. I've spoken with a number of solidarity dissidents. During the 1980s, there was a very short time period that was spurred on to some extent by the murder of Popieluszko, the well-known Polish priest who gave his life.
In a scenario similar to what you’re describing here, the Solidarity Trade Union grew massively in the span of a month or two. It was some kind of tipping point, and suddenly a third to a half of the population wasn't ready to go with the party line anymore, and they joined the Solidarity Trade Union. At that point, it was over. Sure, the Soviet Union could have come in with the tanks, but for the ruling class at the time it was all over. We're now looking back at history through the events of the present day and wondering how this is all going to play out.
Dr. Kheriaty: That's exactly right. The totalitarian regime is ruled by the lie. Stalin's going to die. He's going to be replaced by Khrushchev, and yet the regime soldiers on under the lie of the ideology. If that's the case, if totalitarian society is ruled by the lie and sustained by the lie, then the only thing that can ultimately bring it down is the truth.
This is one of the reasons why, when the Polish bishop, Karol Jozef Wojtyla, was elected Pope John Paul II in 1978, the KGB was terrified. The Soviet regime was very concerned because they knew that, at some point, he was going to return to Poland. Napoleon once made the snarky remark, "How many troops does the Pope have?" Of course, the answer is zero.
This is not a man who has temporal power. This is not a man who has an invading army that could overthrow any particular regime. He was going to return to Poland, which he did shortly after his election. He was going to stand up and he was going to speak. Given who he was and given his position, he was a person in a position to simply speak the truth.
He came back to Poland for his first visit, and that was the seed for the beginning of the solidarity movement. The first thing he said to the Polish people was, "Be not afraid. You're afraid to speak the truth because of this regime, and the first thing that you need to do is to overcome your fear." Then he told religious truths that were obviously from the Catholic faith.
It was very influential in Poland, and historically, Poland is a very strong Catholic nation. Obviously, he was talking about Christ, and he was talking about the gospel and divine revelation. But he was also speaking about some basic human truths about what it means to be a human person, to be rational, to be free, to be oriented toward love, and to be fulfilled by being in communion with other people.
These are basic human truths that certainly many non-Catholics can understand and accept as well, even if they don't embrace divine revelation or the Christian faith. He spent a lot of time talking about what it means to be a human being, and what it means to live in society without getting political. He never directly criticized the regime, but everyone knew exactly what he was doing, and there was widespread panic in Moscow.
That's one example. There were other examples of heroic individuals in Poland and elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc standing up and being willing to speak the truth. In a sense, that avalanche can start with one person. You mentioned someone who had been martyred. Martyrdom is the highest witness to the truth. It is someone who believes something so strongly that they're willing to make the ultimate sacrifice rather than deny it.
Mr. Jekielek: Pope John Paul II was known for his integrity, and there's general agreement around Popieluszko, as well. There have been a lot of attempts to dirty up people who are known for their integrity, perhaps because they have this ability to push things in a different direction as they hold their moral ground.
Dr. Kheriaty: Yes, that's right. The regime that is based on lies is always going to want to tar and feather and undermine anyone who's willing to tell the truth. You can find something on everyone. Nobody's perfect. Even a great man like we've been talking about, or a great woman of tremendous integrity, is going to have flaws. If you have a regime based on lies, they have no scruples about simply making things up and propagandizing and telling straight-up lies about a person to smear them and tarnish them.
This is very characteristic of totalitarian societies. They don't want martyrs on the other side that inspire movements or embolden people. Cowardice is contagious, but courage is also contagious. They will do everything that they can to silence that person or to tarnish that person's reputation.
Mr. Jekielek: Initially, you had no intention of becoming a lightning rod. You were at University of California, Irvine, and in charge of the medical ethics department. You lost your job because you took a stand. I encourage others to look back at some of our earlier interviews and learn about your story. Today, you're in the midst of everything again. You’re one of the private plaintiffs in the Missouri v. Biden lawsuit. Where are things at with this lawsuit?
Dr. Kheriaty: Government-sponsored censorship and even censorship by large, extraordinarily powerful private entities like social media companies, even if they're doing it on their own and not at the government's bidding, both of those things are actually happening now. The issue of censorship is so vital. First Amendment and free speech rights are so vital right now because of where we are at.
We're at a hinge point, Jan, in the sense that there are two paths that we may go down. It's not yet been determined or decided which direction that this country and other western nations are going to move in. One direction would be in a direction that is totalitarian in spirit, in the sense that we would end up being ruled by technocrats and by so-called experts. Most of them are unelected and are working for public, private, or quasi-private entities that are publicly funded.
Mr. Jekielek: Public-private partnership is now the favorite term.
Dr. Kheriaty: They could be called corporatists. The melding of state and corporate powers is corporatism, or another word for that literally is fascism. That was Benito Mussolini's definition of fascism, the merging of state and corporate power. We are moving in that direction where, basically an elite group of supposedly enlightened, agnostic elites decides what direction history is moving in and where things need to be going. That's a society that most Americans don't want to live in.
We have already moved in that direction, certainly in the last four years, but even in the last 20 years, beginning with the War on Terror and the Patriot Act. They built on the threat of terrorism, and then the threat of danger to public health and safety. These things have been used as a fulcrum, as a kind of lever to increase the powers of surveillance and control by means of digital technologies, by means of financial instruments, and by increasing centralized power and control over people's lives.
With censorship, you get to the point where you build a system that is capable of sustaining lies, that is capable of sustaining ideologies and obstructing anything that would question that ideology by not allowing certain ideas, by not allowing certain questions, and by not allowing evidence that might contradict this regime to ever emerge into public consciousness.
If that is done with a sufficient level of intensity and that system is perfected, it really becomes impossible for people to find sources of information and to track down dissenting opinions or ideas. It becomes virtually impossible for those ideas to spread when most of the communication is happening online.
In this major ruling from the Fifth Circuit Court, which was reviewing the injunction that the district court had placed against the government, the court was telling the government, "You have to stop pressuring social media companies through coercion or even through what the law calls significant encouragement." That also violates the Constitution. The court said "You have to stop coercing or even significantly encouraging social media companies to censor content that is protected by the First Amendment."
The government appealed that decision to the Fifth Circuit Appellate Court, and the three judge panel in the Fifth Circuit upheld that injunction against the government. They ruled that the White House, the Surgeon General, the CDC, and the FBI were clearly in violation of First Amendment rights when they pressured social media companies. Even before the case goes to trial, even at this very early stage of discovery, plaintiffs have already presented enough evidence that those four agencies and likely more that were named as defendants were engaging in unconstitutional behavior, violating the highest law of the land, and the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, and that they needed to stop.
I trust that eventually this case will end up at the Supreme Court in terms of the final ruling, if not the injunction, and eventually we'll have a landmark-setting case at the Supreme Court, which will hopefully set a precedent that will push back on government overreach and government attempts to operate an Orwellian ministry of truth.
Mr. Jekielek: You're a private plaintiff in this Missouri v. Biden case. What does that mean to you personally?
Dr. Kheriaty: It means a lot to me, because I was personally censored for information that turned out to be true, and I have now been vindicated. The information is widely accepted and endorsed by the CDC and other mainstream public health agencies.
Mr. Jekielek: Which information is that, by the way?
Dr. Kheriaty: I was censored on things related to natural immunity for Covid. I was censored on concerns about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, which have turned out to be quite legitimate and supported by plenty of research. I was censored for my ethical opinions on vaccine mandates.
The first time I was censored was a conversation I had with an independent journalist who actually got fired by her employer after having that interview. That profoundly affected her life, and she was fired. The interview was taken down off YouTube. What's interesting about that interview is that I was not discussing any safety or efficacy issues related to the vaccines. I was just discussing ethical issues related to vaccine mandates. It was just an ethical analysis.
Mr. Jekielek: Which, by the way, is your expertise, and this is what you teach.
Dr. Kheriaty: Yes. At the time, I was the director of the medical ethics program at the University of California, Irvine. I was on the Orange County Healthcare Agency's Vaccine Task Force. I had the expertise to speak on the issue of the ethics of mandates. They were not just censoring scientific information or information claiming to argue different scientific viewpoints, they were censoring philosophical arguments about ethics and about public policy.
This is important to me as a confirmation that not only were the social media companies doing this to me, but they were actually doing this to me at the direct behest and under the directives of the federal government, who were clearly violating my constitutional rights. But it means even more to me because we recently petitioned the court to convert this to a class action lawsuit, which means the five of us private plaintiffs are now not just representing ourselves who are censored. We're representing all Americans who were censored under this regime.
I'm very happy about that. I'm very proud to be a stand-in for anyone who doesn't have a public voice, who doesn't have a microphone, and who is not being interviewed by journalists like you to represent their interests. These are the people that felt powerless in the face of the censorship leviathan. These are the people who were hammered.
Censorship affected their small business, censorship affected their ability to share information, and censorship affected their ability to share their political opinions. It's those folks that need a voice out there. I'm very happy that the five of us private plaintiffs are able to represent all Americans who are affected by this censorship leviathan.
Mr. Jekielek: It's fitting that in your role of running this medical ethics program at UC Irvine, you felt compelled to act on those ethics that you taught, and ultimately get fired by not following the vaccine mandates that were imposed on you. Now, you are in a position where you have a platform to once again teach ethics through not just theory but action.
Dr. Kheriaty: Yes. God's providence is very mysterious, and so it's humbling to be here having this conversation with you. It's humbling to be part of a case that probably will go down as a landmark free speech case in United States history. I'm glad our case is bringing attention to these issues. I want to also thank the Twitter Files journalists, my friend Andrew Lowenthal, Matt Taibbi, Michael Shellenberger, Paul Thacker, and others who have done great work on the journalistic end to draw attention to what Shellenberger calls the censorship-industrial complex.
This is going to take journalists, and it's going to take legal action. It's going to take people talking around the water cooler and sharing this information with their friends and colleagues to fight this battle, not just in the courts but also in the court of public opinion. Both of those are equally important right now if we're going to start dismantling this censorship regime.
We have a large segment of people in Western nations who are now questioning things that they never questioned before, after their experience of what happened during Covid, which is a good thing. Some people are emerging from that fog and saying, "Wait a minute. I never used to question what came out of the CDC and never questioned the integrity of our public health agencies or the integrity of other federal agencies. But now, I'm wondering if there's some corruption going on there. I'm wondering if what I've been told about the science is actually trustworthy."
That's a good thing. I don't know what percentage of the population, but a significant segment of people have been chastened by the disaster of our Covid response. It's now time for those people to recognize that the problems that we saw for the last three years go well beyond Covid.
In the Missouri v. Biden case, the private plaintiffs were initially focused on Covid censorship because that's what we were censored on; Covid-related content or content challenging the government's preferred pandemic policies. But what we've uncovered on discovery in that case is that there are many more federal agencies involved in this censorship machinery than we initially thought. Initially, we were focused on public health agencies like the CDC or the NIH and the White House and the Surgeon General, but now there's at least a dozen federal agencies that have been named as defendants in this suit.
They range from the FBI to the Department of Homeland Security. Even the Treasury Department and the Census Bureau were involved in censorship. The range of issues where the government was censoring the speech of Americans online goes far beyond just dissidents challenging Covid policies. Basically, it could be almost any contentious political issue in American public life, from foreign policy issues like our withdrawal from Afghanistan to the Ukraine War to monetary policy.
You might have been censored by the government about gender ideology or abortion. These are highly contentious issues of great public importance in American life, and the government was engaged in putting its thumb on the scale and controlling what could and could not be said online. Americans need to realize that this has been happening, wake up to it, and recognize that, "Sorting through a complex sea of information is a difficult problem, but this can't possibly be the right solution to that problem."
Mr. Jekielek: We are currently seeing the beginning of a messaging campaign similar to the beginning of Covid, talking about the need to have a mask mandate. Some institutions have started doing that again. What are you seeing right now?
Dr. Kheriaty: There are certainly rumblings now. There are trial balloons going up to see if the powers can reassert another level of control over micromanaging human behavior, from masks to vaccine mandates to some of the other things that we saw during the pandemic. Now, there is less public willingness now to go along with those things. There's a lot of people who are at least saying, “I’ll see what I will do.” Others are saying, "I complied with that in the past, and I regret having complied with that. I'm not going to do it again in the future."
Mr. Jekielek: A number of institutions have actually put in the mask mandate, and a few days later dropped it.
Dr. Kheriaty: They withdrew it. The solution to this now has to be behavioral. It's not enough to say that you're not going to comply. You actually have to not comply. You have to walk into the public space, and when you're told to wear a mask, just simply and flatly refuse, like the old lunch counter sit-in of the civil rights movement. You can say, "No, I'm not going to move. You could send in the police here to arrest me if you want, but you're going to have to use force to either make me put this thing on my face or remove me from this place where I belong just like everyone else."
Mr. Jekielek: It seems like such a small gesture. Again, this is what we've been talking about during this interview. It's all about the small gesture.
Dr. Kheriaty: Yes, that's right. It’s refusing to move to the back of the bus, and refusing to leave the lunch counter. Anyone who participated in that movement knew that one gesture alone was not going to accomplish anything, and that one gesture alone could easily be crushed by the powers that be. But they had enough trust in their fellow members of society and the others in this developing movement to think, "No, I'm not going to be the only one. I'm not going to be standing alone." The one small gesture of just this one ordinary individual does in fact matter.
People need to develop that confidence today and that trust in each other. In fact, what ordinary Americans do matters very much. If a sufficient number, and it doesn't have to be a majority, just a sufficiently strong minority simply refuses to comply, these kinds of authoritarian measures will actually disappear almost immediately.
There is insufficient force to crush everyone in the resistance. If it's just one or another dissident here and there, they can take them out. They can fire them. They can silence them. They can censor them. But if it becomes 5, 6, 7, 9, or 10 percent of the population, then it’s game over.
Mr. Jekielek: Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, it's such a pleasure to have you on the show.
Dr. Kheriaty: Thank you, Jan.
Mr. Jekielek: Thank you all for joining Dr. Aaron Kheriaty and me on this episode of American Thought Leaders. I'm your host, Jan Jekielek.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.