The pandemic has revealed and reexposed many fault lines in our societies. On the topic of government power, on lopsided risk assessments, on the religious awakening of secular society, on whether strangers are a source of inspiration and cooperation or a lethal threat, and on science and science communication.
Many things were broken before we doubled down with heavy government powers on what we may or may not do. The education system, at many levels; climate activists overdoing it, and climate deniers speaking untruths; the woke invasion and its obsession with race and gender; the nativist backlash and its obsession with race and culture; cosmopolitans and immigrants, nationalists and xenophobes. A heavy national debt, a bloated federal government, an activist central bank, health care costs running berserk, overdoses and deaths of despair. You get the picture: plenty of things to disagree about. What matters is that even before the pandemic, many of the disagreements about what we should do about these issues (if anything at all) took on quasi-religious status.
None of these were helped by taking away the things that most people cherish and live for, our freedoms to move about, or, you know, live our lives as we see fit. We’re paying for it dearly, and will for a long time to come.
By speaking up against the lockdowns, government overreach, mask mandates, and other topics that become both controversial and inflammatory, AIER made ourselves a target of a certain kind of outrage. All public outlets and individual journalists know the type much too well: Here’s an extract from a fan email we recently received, much too vulgar to print in its entirety,
All Republicans are seditious traitors to America and should be ostracized from polite society. […] I hope you all get the curb stomping and exile that you so desperately deserve. Our country would be better off. Eat s***.
Let’s call our foul-mouthed correspondent Mr. C. – for Combative Calamity, perhaps. I bring up Mr. C only for the surprising lessons about peaceful coexistence and a potential future that his email reveals.
In even our darkest hour, we may still find some light.
Solving Unsolvable Disputes
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche pronounced God dead in the late nineteenth century, a prediction the consequences of which we paid for with millions of lives in the twentieth. Replacing an impeccable God with an impeccable (nation)state has an unfortunate tendency to do that. Beginning in the 2010s, a coddled generation raised under the illusion they were to inherit the Earth in direct proportion to their snow-flakey uniqueness, the misplaced religious tendencies of over a century ago made a shocking comeback.
When justifying actions towards others on the basis of religious convictions, you place the Almighty himself on one side of the equality – or infinity, or eternal suffering, or more modern cosmic but equally unprovable injustices (climate change, patriarchy, privilege etc). Thus, it doesn’t much matter what values and morals, costs or benefits your opponents may advance on the other side – they are still going to pale in comparison to the infinity you’ve placed on the first side. This is how we get genocides, religious persecutions, tyranny, and other horrific acts of mankind: in pursuit of your single-minded goal, anything and anyone is disposable.
Fortunately, almost nothing is like that, not even religious teaching itself: Christianity teaches to forgive sinners, not pretending that nobody ever sins. Many past societies, even deeply religious such, were tolerant to outsiders and accepting towards other faiths. Science, properly understood, is most certainly not like that, advancing as it does step-by-step by harsh criticism, objective evidence, debate, and counter-arguments.
Mr. C.’s letter boils of anger – eloquent and deliberated anger. It’s not a letter written in the heat of the moment – though the content is terrible and disturbing, few writers get his imagery this right on the first try. What strikes me most is how patently displaced the anger is from its source: somewhere in his lockdown-deprived life he projected a massive enemy, identified it in something one of our many great authors wrote, and unleashed the full judgment of the Almighty himself.
I’m not a social or political historian of the twentieth century, but somehow I don’t believe political leanings were as all-encompassing then as they seem to be now. Friendships end over who sits in the White House; romances are culled if one’s partner is found to deviate from received wisdom; job applications are routinely scrapped if the applicant ever said or did anything now considered controversial; workplaces rebel over what one of their many clients may or may not have say elsewhere; even who makes a wedding cake is important enough a dispute to raise to the Supreme Court, in a cosmic battle over the ideas other people may have in their heads.
When people can no longer stand one another, the zeitgeist that Mr. C. has so profoundly captured (“seditious traitors,” “ostracized”), few options for reconciliation remain. There is no way to negotiate with Mr. C., to establish common ground, or reach a political consensus. There is no more voice, to put the issue in Albert Hirschman’s words, only exit. This I explored in my February piece that called for a century of liberty
“A foundational value at the core of the free society is not only free speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of movement; it is also property rights – which is an extension of the broader principle of leaving people alone. You do you, and I do me. My consumption choices, or the choices I do with regards to the people with whom I surround myself, are not yours to meddle with. The basic idea is ‘to each his own.’”
The most controversial and yet unobjectionable demand that liberty-minded people ever made was to leave others in peace. I can do my thing over here, you can do yours over there, and thus we don’t have to fight over every single thing. If I deeply hate what you believe, and you profoundly loathe what I stand for, isn’t the best thing for both of us – and everyone else in the vicinity – to have us both go our separate ways?
But for totalitarians and others who place the infinite values of the Almighty on one side of the societal struggle, allowing others to live their lives in peace is never an option. In this regard Mr. C. is only an extreme interpretation of what rests dormant in every government official, of every political office-holder: the control over other people’s lives.
Maybe, just maybe, it’s time for these United States to again become plural – the separate, independent entities they once were. Secession was an option that the Founding Fathers understood well, a feasible avenue to opt out from a tyrannical government that tried to shove certain ideas, rules and behavior down its subjects’ rebellious throats.
Instead of having the red-shirters and the blue-shirters (or climate activists and deniers, nationalists or open border-types, lockdowners and covidiots) having it out in every aspect of integrated life – in the office, at the supermarket, on the town square, in the football stadium, even over what they voluntarily read on the Internet, and what the woke employees of the tech firms allow others to see – perhaps we can just, you know, leave each other alone…?
If this makes me a “seditious traitor” too, Mr. C., I’ll wear the accusation as a badge of honor.