In 2020, Americans must decide whether their country is worthy of praise or contempt.
“Screw Your Freedom”
That feeling when our politicians terminate our form of government.
These words wouldn’t have had the same effect if they were said by anybody else, but coming from Arnold Schwarzenegger, the bodybuilding Terminator-turned-California-Governor, delivered in his trademark German accent, they were absurdly apposite. It can be difficult to discern the outlines of tyranny when it is couched in the language of Constitutional norms and the structures of democratic federalism, and exercised by slick folks who look and talk like Gavin Newsom or Joe Biden. The Bidens and Newsoms are, after all, just issuing well-intended “mandates” backed, after all, by “the science.” Arnold’s visceral expression—all too reminiscent, to me at least, of his Nazi officer father—should be a wake-up call to all of us frogs contentedly boiling in our pots: Get out now, while we still can.
I was talking with my 5-year old daughter the other day about our practice of regularly attending Catholic Mass. She asked why we couldn’t just watch it on TV, as we had for a few months last year. I answered that it was different and preferable to attend Mass in person, and that we had only watched it on TV for a period of time during the pandemic as a precaution against spreading COVID-19. “What would happen if we went to church, Daddy? Would we get in trouble?”
Yes, actually, we would have gotten in trouble for trying to attend Mass during the lockdown. How did I not notice how ridiculous that sounded before, and how willingly I complied with this unconstitutional order? In the U.S.A., the land of freedom and bastion of religious liberty, we were homebound on the Lord’s Day because of a government order. Of course, I realize that there were reasons provided for this extraordinary exercise of governmental power. Perhaps they were good reasons, and they certainly seemed so at the time to us. But has there ever been an exercise of tyrannical power in human history without the provision of reasons that were apparently good to many people?
Regardless of the solidity of the reasons provided, it is clear that we have entered a new and acute phase of a long-running political development in the U.S. toward increasing executive power. The Presidential Office, via the CDC and other executive agencies, along with numerous state governors and local officials, have essentially served the role of Roman Dictator or Soviet Politburo since Spring 2020, using emergency powers and the authority of expertise to cow other American political officials and citizens into compliance. We don’t even take care to speak of “executive orders” anymore; news reports increasingly refer to “mandates,” “proclamations,” or just plain “orders,” as if these were the normal products of the American governmental system. Any day now we may start hearing about “edicts.” It doesn’t matter to anyone where the “order” comes from or whence it derives its legitimacy. The “order” has come down, and it must be followed. We’ve all been wondering what “the new normal” would look like. Now we know.
Setting aside all of the debates about masking vs. anti-masking or vaxxers vs. anti-vaxxers, we should all be clear about one thing: the COVID-Era “new normal” is not just about medical mitigation, it is about a new form of political governance. Going forward, we and our children should not expect to be able to exercise freedom in civil society and in the political system the way we have before. This is, quite simply, being presented as the price for successfully combatting the virus. If we want health and safety, it no longer makes sense to want freedom. Hence Arnold’s ringing words.
People are noticing this in other parts of the world as well. I was recently speaking to a friend from Eastern Europe who told me that the post-Communist context there has influenced resistance to COVID-related mandates. Whether or not they are right, many people in Eastern European countries think they see something similar in this COVID Era to what they saw under the old Communist dictatorships. In the instance of Communist rule, many intelligent and well-meaning people thought that the temporary sacrifice of freedom was necessary for the achievement of genuine democracy and justice for all, as promised by political ideals.
But the “new normal” is really just a return to the “old normal” in politics. Government by mandate, proclamation, edict, fiat, diktat, or order has been the norm throughout human history. It is effective and efficient, it gets the job done, it’s clean and quick, and it involves minimal discomfort or responsibility for citizens—or, rather, subjects. Domination and coercion by the elite, the wealthy, and the powerful has been the lot of most human beings around the world for almost all of human history. It’s just dressed in a lab coat or suit and tie instead of a king’s robe or a military uniform.
From the long view, political freedom has been an unusual experiment in the history of humanity. The Founders knew this, calling the American experiment in self-government a “novus ordo seclorum”—a new order for the ages. Abraham Lincoln knew this, expressing the precarity of freedom clearly in the closing words of his Gettysburg Address. Freedom is never a normal, inertial state for human societies. It needs to be fostered, continually developed, and incessantly fought for in the face of perennial enemies. It is never comfortable and it is never easy.
We in the U.S. have grown tired of political freedom, and we seem on the brink of capitulating once and for all. Safety and orthodoxy are just so much more stable and satisfying than the hard ground of self-reliance, independent thought, and individual responsibility. We should, though, think of our children and future generations. And we should also think of the millions around the world who still look to the U.S. as a star of hope in the long night of tyranny that has defined most of human history.
The good news is that the roots of human freedom extend much deeper than political power can ever hope to eradicate, in our very nature as human beings. The frost of tyranny can only ever touch the leaves and stems that occasionally burst forth in verdant triumph. A new spring of freedom will return, but never on its own. It will take significant effort and sacrifice on our part. And the first step is looking around and seeing where we truly are.