The terrible response to the coronavirus pandemic seems like an aberration in American life and governance, and certainly it is a break with the past having essentially no precedent in American law or custom. But there is another way in which it is not an aberration at all, but rather is the sort of thing that should be expected based on the type of people we Americans are.
If there is any form of totalitarianism today’s Americans are likely to embrace it is this one. The various lockdowns are egalitarian and technocratic and cowardly. I am sorry to say, that this list of qualities fits today’s America as well as, or better than, “home of the free, land of the brave.”
The lockdowns and stay at home orders deviate from traditional quarantine so much so that we ought to say they are not quarantines at all. These orders are much more egalitarian than old fashioned quarantines. The primary difference is that a quarantine is a hard line drawn around particular people and places, while the lockdowns are a soft totalitarianism applied to everyone.
Previous generations of Americans might have quarantined New York City or other hotspots, in order to try and contain an outbreak. This was never done. It could be argued that it shouldn’t have been done, based on the mediocre deadliness of the disease.
A true quarantine of NYC might have done far more harm than good. But modern Americans have difficulty thinking along these lines. What we are good at is feeling picked on and crying “hey, that’s not faaaair!” Why should NYC suffer being cutoff from the rest of the world while people in Buffalo get to go about their business? It’s not fair, you see.
Our national imagination has substituted egalitarianism for justice. We think treating everyone the same is the very core of justice, but it isn’t. We think a failure to discriminate is the core of decency, when of course, it is the core of foolishness. “Discriminating” is a synonym for “showing good sense,” as previous generations knew, and “indiscriminate cruelty” is not a vice modified by a virtue.
So, if you’re crafting a totalitarianism for today’s America, make sure it tramples everyone’s rights indiscriminately, and the American people will lie supine before you. Oh, we’ll want to resist you. Some of us will have a nagging feeling that telling everyone to stay in their homes unless they receive express permission to leave might be a bit of an overreach. But, fair is fair, and after all, everyone has to stay home.
You must understand, if someone tried to tell the Jews (or, God forbid, the ethnic Chinese) to stay in their homes, we would have immediately identified that as oppressive. That would have matched the stories we tell ourselves about what bad guys do. Bad guys discriminate. Isn’t that why we fought World War Two, after all? (No, it isn’t.) But because we base right and wrong on who’s getting the treatment rather than what treatment they are getting, we are defenseless against an across the board usurpation of rights.
Another thing we are all in favor of in America is smart people being smart. Listen to the experts. There’s no slice of life, no matter how small that couldn’t be more efficient, more scientific. And the people who will tell us how to achieve this greater perfection are called experts. They have degrees and nice suits. They are the educated heirs of the Scientific Revolution.
The old conception of civil rights was based on a belief that it was less important to have perfect decisions being made than it was to have the God-ordained person making the decisions. That is, Mr. Smith should make decisions for the Smith house, and Mr. Johnson for the Johnson house. The primary question was always one of authority and responsibility not expertise.
But in America today, we pride ourselves on our pragmatism. We want something measurable and quantifiable. When an expert proposes to dictate to everyone else how to flush their toilets, or what light bulbs to use in their homes, if he can show that his plan saves an ounce of water or a watt of electricity then that’s considered a powerful argument. We don’t go in for that metaphysical stuff about right and wrong when there are beans to count.
We rely on our experts. If there is one thing an American education will give you, it’s the awareness that there are lots of facts out there and you’ve graduated without most of them. America believes in Science and America believes in expertise. The marvels of the modern world are a testament to what happens when you let smart people tell everyone else what to do.
It’s true, experts can do wonderful things. The fiction is when we tell ourselves that what generally holds them back is not their own ignorance, but a lack of dictatorial power. Remember when Jonas Salk cured polio by being made emperor of the known world? That could have been done centuries earlier if only the Catholic Church hadn’t insisted that the Earth was flat. (Note: It never, ever taught that. Seriously, look it up.)
America has long been serenaded by the siren song of unlimited competence. A few good storytellers, impressed with the godlike powers of science, have done a wonderful job preaching the gospel of scientific progress and the wonders of education. We don’t believe in God, but we believe in experts. And that’s why the dictator for today’s America is an expert with good credentials and a nice suit.
Finally, if you want to set up totalitarian government in America we’re going to expect more than a good suit. We expect promises. Big promises.
Nothing fits the bill here better than a promise to deliver us from the fear of death. In our wealth we have become comfortable, and relatively safe. From this privileged position we pretend that we are not just relatively safe, we are truly safe. Instead of facing the truth of our mortality, and being made wiser by it, we retreat to falsehood. We pretend that modern life is safe. We pretend that tomorrow is guaranteed. We pretend that death is preventable, rather than merely postponable.
The difference is not a trifle.
If we are all doomed to die, then the main thing is how we live until that day. There is no question of avoiding death, except through faith in Jesus Christ. The question then is how to live wisely, nobly, and with charity and justice as long as we draw breath.
There are two ways to be brave for a moment. One is to believe you will certainly die. The other to is believe you will never die. Only one of these turns to cowardice in the face of a pandemic that reveals your own mortality.
In summary, the aberration of our pandemic response has certain hallmarks of consistency with our current national character. If we ever live to see a sustained totalitarianism in this country, it will likely share many traits with how we’ve handled this pandemic. If we want to avoid that, we’ll have to become a different kind of people.