Feature 11.17.2022 5 minutes

America or Scientism?

Boy looking at doctor holding vaccine injection in center

We will have to pick one.

For the past few decades, most Americans were blissfully unaware that any kind of totalitarianism could plausibly take over the U.S. The example of the Soviet Union had long since become a distant memory, and the countries that made up the Axis of Evil were more the butt of jokes than serious cautionary tales. The totalitarianism of China occasionally entered public discourse, but people in the media always seemed to change the subject whenever it came up.

As a result, most Americans, even those in government, were largely unprepared for the massive damage to the American constitutional order that would be inflicted when COVID lockdowns were announced in March 2020. In a matter of days, governments with the help of corporate media mobilized the population to head off a deadly virus that would take out millions. Trillions of dollars were spent, guidelines from the WHO and CDC acquired the effective power of law in many places, speech was micromanaged, and whole populations were herded into masking, vaccination, and constant social distance.

Very little of it made sense, and much of it was outright cruelty, but the sad fact is that most Americans simply obeyed. In the first two months, genuine fear of infection motivated a lot of the compliance. Over the following two years, habit set in. The readiness with which so many accepted these changes revealed that scientism as a state theology had already insinuated itself into many people’s minds unawares.

As a matter of course, it was considered right and just to don the mask, get the new booster, avoid one’s neighbors, and vilify the skeptics (and especially the unvaccinated). Very few were happy about it, but anyone who actually said so was accused of being a selfish idiot, jeopardizing the health and safety of everyone in sight and beyond.

Indeed, as Aaron Kheriaty discusses in his new book The New Abnormal: The Rise of the Biosecurity State, this combination of coercive government exploitation and passive public cooperation resulted in a modern form of totalitarianism: a biosecurity state. Not only did most Americans accept what they were told to do; it rarely occurred to them that they could do otherwise.

Citing the philosopher Augusto Del Noce, Kheriaty explains that totalitarianism of this kind hinges on the treatment of reason: “Totalitarian ideologies deny that all human beings participate in a shared rationality. We therefore cannot really talk to one another: it is impossible to deliberate or debate civilly in a shared pursuit of truth.” That is why free speech, the essential right that enables American citizens to “participate in shared rationality,” must be eliminated or cast as something dangerous—unfettered discourse is portrayed as not worth the risk of “misinformation” (a misreporting of facts), “disinformation (the spread of deliberate falsehood), or “malinformation” (the malicious reporting of facts out of context).

Ironically, this suspension (or for some Leftists, permanent elimination) of free speech is done in the name of science. By the logic of the regime, free speech supposedly hinders the work of scientists, who evidently need silence and complete obedience to do their work of unlocking nature’s mysteries. Never mind that this whole notion contradicts the very foundations of science, which call for rigorous inquiry, multiple perspectives, and ongoing debate.

Like anything else that starts from a faulty premise (e.g., Marxism), this dogmatic belief in science, otherwise known as scientism, quickly falls apart upon application. It fails at solving the problems at hand, it compromises the authority of scientists and their work, and it sows division and strife in the community. While it’s difficult to say whether any of the interventions of biosecurity state actually saved any lives—most solutions were found despite Covid protocols, not because of them—it’s easy to see that it has damaged the credibility of the ruling class and further polarized Western society.

Nevertheless, even with all its failures and its intrinsically totalitarian character, scientism still predominates among the Left, particularly its leaders and intellectuals. Perhaps, this is because both groups stand to have what Kheriaty calls “a monopoly on knowledge and rationality.” And in a “knowledge economy,” such a monopoly amounts to financial and political supremacy.

However, it also spells the doom of the American democratic republic. Here is the heart of the matter: should scientism prevail in the U.S., the American constitutional order will have ceased to. Either one or the other order must operate; they are incompatible. For a picture of what biosecurity toalitarianism looks like as the operating system of a nation, one can simply look at China today: people have simply become accustomed to living like convicts in the vain hope of eradicating COVID. Echoing Peter Thiel’s assessment, writer Richard Hananiacompares China to an autistic child who is “afraid to look strangers in the eye and stays up all night playing with his train collection.” Who really doubts that this totalitarian-autistic model, whether justified in the name of COVID, or climate change, or some other nebulous Big Bad, is fundamentally distinct from and opposed to the form of government guaranteed by America’s founding documents?

In the latest election—despite the fact that some of Republicans’ fondest hopes were dashed—it’s encouraging that resentment over COVID extremism was a major motivating factor for many voters. Americans still recognize that their freedoms are threatened by the rising ideology and are at least capable of insisting upon their own rational agency and in setting their political destiny. If they do so insist, they can finally have a conversation about how to best address problems, reconcile conflicting perspectives, and allow everyone to have a voice. In other words, they have chance to actually save “our democracy”—or better yet, our republic.

For years now, Americans have been told to “Trust the Science.” After COVID, it’s clear that this injunction isn’t about trusting any kind of science so much as submitting to authority. Americans should recall the much wiser words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Trust thyself.” It was those souls who practiced real self-reliance that helped beat back COVID insanity. It will be those same individuals who will save the nation from the totalitarian scientism that COVID brought to light.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

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