To paraphrase the Soviet dissident and human rights activist, Natan Sharansky, what it meant to be a loyal Soviet citizen was to say what you’re supposed to say, to read what you’re permitted to read, and to vote the way you’re supposed to vote, and to know it was all a lie.
That chilling sentiment contrasts sharply with what it means to be a citizen of the free world, be it in America, Europe, or our liberal democratic friends across the world. Sharansky’s line echoes the way in which the debate regarding Covid-19 and lockdowns has transpired primarily in the United States but certainly across the Western World. Just look at the way Oxford epidemiologist Sunetra Gupta has been treated for critiquing lockdowns.
The other day I was revisiting former President Trump’s Poland speech, which is widely regarded as one of his finest orations. As someone who hasn’t been the biggest fan of the former president and his bombastic and often reckless statements, that speech struck me as unexpectedly inspiring. I think what made it great was its existential nature. He spoke about how Poland, a nation that has been torn apart and carved into pieces by war and conquest, always found a way to keep coming back together. In the past hundred years alone, Poland was split in two by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union leading into World War II. Then, after the war, Poland became a Soviet satellite state and its people were once again subject to domination. Trump noted,
“[t]hrough four decades of communist rule, Poland and the other captive nations of Europe endured a brutal campaign to demolish freedom, your faith, your laws, your history, your identity — indeed the very essence of your culture and your humanity. Yet, through it all, you never lost that spirit. Your oppressors tried to break you, but Poland could not be broken.”
The Polish nation survived because of the sheer will of the Polish people to exist as a civilization. A civilization with a proud history and great figures like the astronomer Copernicus and the composer Chopin. Trump noted that the Polish will to endure was seen as an inspiration for the NATO alliance and the Western World more generally. He hoped that the free world would continue to have the will to defend itself, both militarily and ideologically. Although we certainly have our problems, Trump’s speech put our civilization in context to the alternatives: Nazi Germany, Communism, the illiberal, authoritarian regimes of modern-day Russia and China, as well as the repressive regime created under ISIS. When speaking about Western civilization and the free world more generally, he noted,
“[w]e write symphonies. We pursue innovation. We celebrate our ancient heroes, embrace our timeless traditions and customs, and always seek to explore and discover brand-new frontiers.
We reward brilliance. We strive for excellence, and cherish inspiring works of art that honor God. We treasure the rule of law and protect the right to free speech and free expression.”
These are some of the hallmarks of Western civilization, its allies, and the free society it fostered. Yes, we have our problems, and we should strive to correct them, but the core of what we have is worth defending. This is also what has been taken from us by lockdowns.
America as a Civilization
America, unlike Poland, is not an ethnostate, nor should nationality have anything to do with being an American. America, as the old saying goes, is an idea. Being an American is not about the color of your skin, the creed of your religion, or any other immutable characteristic. It’s about sharing a common commitment to the ideal of freedom, individual autonomy, and our institutions which further these aspirations. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch included the following excerpt of a speech in his book which was given to a group of immigrants who just became US citizens:
“It seems to me that one thing that’s so unusual about the oath you’ve taken and the country you’ve joined is the fact that we are a nation of immigrants. The United States does not have a shared common culture in the classic sense. We do not have many centuries of shared heritage that exist in, say, China or England. Instead, America is largely bound together by ideas. And the truth is, some of those ideas are hard and entail real challenges to us.”
Some of those difficult ideas include upholding a government, of, by, and for the people. A liberal democracy centered around self-government requires many virtues; personal responsibility is chief amongst them. Upholding core liberties like free speech and due process, which matter most not when it is easiest to do so, but when it is hard. We strive to treat each other with respect and to be tolerant of different views. As John Milton articulated in the 17th century, “Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” Finally, among many other values, we treasure and uphold the rule of law, not a single personality or the will of the mob. Such values were given to us by our intellectual forefathers such as Aristotle, Tocqueville, and Bastiat.
America as a civilization is not tied to an ethnic group but a shared experience in self-government and the maintenance of liberty. The moment those ideas are eschewed, so too is our civilization.
America and Lockdown
America under lockdown may be the most critical threat the nation has ever seen. It has long been known that America’s size and location combined with its military might leaves it almost impervious to conquest. Furthermore, if occupied by a foreign power, it is likely that much like Poland, the American people would fight to reclaim their country. But what happens when subjugation is imposed by our own leaders to the approval of many of our fellow citizens? That is a true threat. Stacy Rudin noted that the United States and much of the Western World copied China on virus control. AIER has noted time and time again how lockdowns are an unprecedented policy with no proof to be found in history for their efficacy. Yet intellectuals across the world continue to hint at their admiration for the authoritarian Chinese response and their distrust in the institutions of liberal democracy to keep us safe. Lord Sumption writes for the Telegraph when he notes that aside from all the business closures and personal damage lockdowns have caused, our institutions of democracy will be the biggest loss.
Two weeks to flatten the curve is now approaching a year under lockdown. Some politicians are pushing the usage of masks and social distancing policies well into the next year. What started out as an experiment in public health policy is now unraveling what it means to live in a free society. Trump noted in his Poland speech that
“The West became great not because of paperwork and regulations but because people were allowed to chase their dreams and pursue their destinies.
Americans, Poles, and the nations of Europe value individual freedom and sovereignty. We must work together to confront forces, whether they come from inside or out, from the South or the East, that threaten over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are. If left unchecked, these forces will undermine our courage, sap our spirit, and weaken our will to defend ourselves and our societies.”
Today, America and Europe find themselves under brutal lockdown measures that, in addition to not actually stopping the virus, have completely subdued our societies economically, socially, culturally, and spiritually. Although many people support lockdowns because they believe they will help control the virus, others genuinely see them as a means to fundamentally change American society out of spite for our individualistic values. Look no further than the common narrative that selfish Americans won’t wear their masks and that’s why the virus is spreading. Not only are masks ineffective at stopping Covid-19 in the way they are advertised, but the United States actually has some of the highest reported mask wearing rates in North America and Europe. An article published by Forbes warned against “doing your own research” when it comes to Covid-19 and parroted the tired “listen to the experts line.” Not only is this an attack on the very notion of the scientific method as well as an informed citizenry, but such a strategy would have clearly led us down the road to technocracy, and a misinformed one at that.
Such uninformed hysteria around Covid sounds less like a concern for stopping the virus and more of a cultural wedge against traditional American ideas of individual liberty. Sadly, it seems that many members of the public are either afraid or apathetic when it comes to preserving and reclaiming the free society that is our birthright.
Poland is a shining example of a raw desire to exist as a coherent civilization after being dismembered time and time again. Today that same question exists for America and the rest of the Western World more generally.
Do we have the will to continue to exist as a free and polite society, steeped in the ideas of liberty, reason, and justice? Or have we succumbed to a tragic case of civilizational fatigue where we are now disinterested in holding onto what we used to be? Without a serious commitment to reclaiming our freedom and prosperity, we put ourselves on the path towards becoming a washed-up, has-been civilization, weighed down by an authoritarian boot of our own design.