January 9, 2021 Reading Time: 8 minutes

Over ten months, I have watched with incredulity as the liberal-left has unquestioningly and unequivocally embraced policies, ostensibly to manage the coronavirus pandemic, that are not only illiberal but authoritarian. With each passing day, those on the left-liberal side of the political spectrum display greater acceptance of increasingly oppressive measures.  Maybe I should have been prepared. 

With more and more frequency during the past years, I have found myself departing from my cohorts’ consensus during various discussions arising from current events, particularly insofar as they pertained to civil liberties issues. More disturbing than the substantive disagreement was the utter lack of regard for difference of opinion among many of my peers. 

Nevertheless, I did not anticipate that the left would soon abandon all pretense of concern for liberal values, which are widely understood to consist of tolerance, open-mindedness, and protection of individual rights and dignity (As a preliminary matter, I am using the term “liberal-left” broadly, to describe: individuals who so identify, the Democratic Party and politicians, and center-left news outlets such as the New York Times, New Yorker, Washington Post, MSNBC, and CNN. I am aware that there is diversity of opinion, but believe it is fair to characterize the overarching left-liberal view as one that accepts the efficacy and morality of lockdowns, masks, and forced human separation).

At this point, those of us unfortunate enough to live in blue and purple states, as well as in many other parts of the world, have been deprived of our basic liberties for nearly a year. We cannot freely associate with other people, operate our businesses, send our children to school, or travel to many places without having to isolate for two weeks, which often translates into visiting loved ones becoming a practical impossibility. College students are imprisoned in dorm rooms for weeks because they or someone they interacted with tested positive for the virus (I will leave the topic of the unreliability of these tests for another day). They are expelled, harshly punished, and shamed for attending parties and socializing in groups. It is no surprise that, condemned for engaging in the most natural activities for those their age, suicidal ideation, depression, and drug usage have skyrocketed in this demographic. Children are forbidden from playing with one another or forced to do so while muzzled. 

These oppressive policies, which at face value constitute grotesque violations of civil rights and liberties, are enacted and enforced primarily by Democratic politicians, not least among them the governors of New York, Michigan and California: Andrew Cuomo, Gretchen Whitmer and Gavin Newsom, respectively. For the most part, these pandemic management strategies are lauded by their constituents and center-left publications alike. To the extent they are criticized from the left, it is usually for failing to enact the measures sooner or enforcing them more stringently. 

Particularly chilling is a piece published in the New York Times on January 4, 2021, “In a Topsy-Turvy Pandemic World, China Offers Its Version of Freedom,” by Li Yuan. Notably, this article appeared not in the opinion pages, where arguably it could defensively be printed, but in the news section, and accordingly can be deemed representative of the Times’s views. It is worth pointing out that the Times’s influence cannot be overstated: it is the journalistic arm of the Democratic establishment and informs the consciousness and values of the urban professional class. One can be fairly certain that the beliefs of most doctors, teachers, lawyers, and professors will reflect the ideas propagated in the paper.

The premise of Ms. Yuan’s piece is that the post-enlightenment values that until recently were considered non-negotiable in most Western democracies– freedom of speech, freedom to worship, freedom of assembly – are dispensable. 

That is because, according to Ms. Yuan, China has triumphed over the virus, needless to say by trampling on these very rights, and in doing so allowed for a different set: the freedom to live a normal life (“the West may find it has to work harder to sell its vision of freedom after China has made its model seem so attractive”). 

Who is to say which rights are more important? the article queries.

Ms. Yuan next speculates that “[t]he global crisis could plant doubts about other types of freedom” as “[n]early half of voting Americans supported a president who ignored science and failed to take basic precautions to protect their country. Some Americans assert that it is their individual right to ignore health experts’ recommendations to wear masks, putting themselves and others at increasing risk of infection.”

These are an astonishing set of assertions: they appear to call into question the importance of democracy itself, and more vaguely the rights of Americans to make their own decisions about their health and to question and dissent from government mandates. Perhaps I am naïve, but I was under the impression that in a free society, people are at liberty to evaluate the evidence for any proposition — especially one as personal as whether or not to wear a face-covering – to assess the risk, and to act accordingly. 

It is deeply troubling that neither Ms. Yuan nor the New York Times appear to recognize the danger in allowing “experts” to dictate our every move (never mind the faulty premise underlying this, as the science supporting mask usage as a means of curbing coronavirus spread is at best incredibly shoddy). More disturbing, evidently the rights of the individual are no longer sacrosanct; rather, they may be subverted for the betterment of society.   People should not be forced to choose between leading a normal life (i.e. socializing, attending school, earning a living, going to restaurants, and experiencing the arts) and possessing fundamental civil liberties.  Both are absolute, immutable features of a liberal democracy.

Conveniently, the article fails to mention that China’s willingness to sacrifice the individual in furtherance of the communal good has led to the creation of concentration camps for Uighur Muslims, that include practices such as torture and forced sterilization. Amnesty International’s China 2019 page opens by observing that: “[t]he human rights situation continued to be marked by a systematic crackdown on dissent.  The justice system remained plagued by unfair trials and torture and other ill-treatment in detention. China still classified information on its extensive use of the death penalty as a state secret.” 

Likewise, Human Rights Watch’s [HRW] webpage states that:

 China’s government sees human rights as an existential threat. Its reaction could pose an existential threat to the rights of people worldwide. At home, the Chinese Communist Party [CCP], worried that permitted political freedom would jeopardize its grasp on power, has constructed an Orwellian high-tech surveillance state and a sophisticated internet censorship system to monitor and suppress public criticism. Abroad, it uses its growing economic clout to silence critics and to carry out the most intense attack on the global system for enforcing human rights since that system began to emerge in the mid-20th century.

If China eradicated the virus — and there is widespread agreement that the CCP’s coronavirus data cannot be trusted — it did so using the same tactics that are violative of human rights discussed above by HRW and Amnesty International (incidentally, the Times itself recognized that a mere ten months ago). That the Times and Ms. Yuan apparently consider it appropriate to gloss over that reality is nothing short of astounding. 

On the other hand, Ms. Yuan’s article is simply a more express admission than many of the paper’s more subtle suggestions that liberal values are overrated and ought to be abandoned in favor of virus suppression policies that do not bother with such annoyances as human rights. A recent Op-ed argues that doctors who question the efficacy of masks and social distancing should have their licenses revoked. Another heavily insinuates that speech deemed a danger to the Republic should be illegal. Ms. Yuan’s article also bears striking resemblance to various recent, albeit slightly more nuanced, pieces in, for instance, the Economist and the New Yorker, implying that perhaps we should look to China and adopt its virus management strategy.

Many in the scientific and medical community have similarly expressed admiration for China’s approach. At a September press conference, Mike Ryan, the executive director of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Programme, offered his “congratulations” to the Chinese for bringing the virus under control. Gregory Poland, director of the Vaccine Research Group at the Mayo Clinic, observed that China’s success could be attributed, in part, to a compliant population and a government that “can put bigger constraints on individual freedoms than would be considered acceptable in most Western countries.”

Apparently, some members of the New York legislature agree that the CCP’s model should be emulated. Lawmakers in the state are contemplating a bill that would permit the State to forcibly detain individuals who might be carrying an infectious disease. It is not difficult to imagine a near-future in which people like me, who refuse to abide by inhumane, nonsensical, and never-ending dictates, end up behind bars as potential pathogen carriers.

Likewise, in a fashion that would make leaders of the CCP proud, critics of lockdown and mask policies are silenced by the media and educational institutions. For example, a tenured professor at New York University is currently under investigation after a student reported him and petitioned for him to be fired because he suggested — in a course on media propaganda, no less! — that students read studies finding that masks do not provide protection from the coronavirus, in addition to those reaching the opposite conclusion. 

Not only have the scientists who wrote the Great Barrington Declaration, which rejects the lockdown approach to coronavirus management, been personally and professionally persecuted, but they have faced significant efforts to silence them, leading one writer to observe that “their critics want them removed from the public sphere. This has all the characteristics of a modern high-tech witch-hunt.” Keep in mind that these are three of the world’s preeminent epidemiologists, from Oxford, Harvard, and Stanford Universities. There are countless stories of scientists and others who have been censored on social media platforms for departing from the prevailing wisdom on the seriousness of the coronavirus or appropriate and effective methods for managing it.

A free, liberal society fosters open discussion and debate. It does not silence and punish those who offer opinions that depart from the consensus, however inconvenient those ideas may be to the people in control. It does not use state power to lock people in their homes for the crime of existing in a world along with pathogens. Nor does it prevent them from seeing family and friends, educating their children, and earning a living. It certainly does not contemplate imprisoning people in detention camps because they could carry a pathogen.

Maybe I was naïve to be so startled by Topsy-Turvy Pandemic World, and its thesis that we should remake our conception of freedom in the image of China’s. In retrospect, it was the natural next step in the creeping authoritarianism that I witnessed for about a decade and has crescendoed in the last year. It is as close to an express concession as I have seen thus far that the liberal-left has entirely abandoned the tenets of liberalism.  

Even Neil Ferguson, whose wildly inaccurate Imperial model spurred lockdowns in the West, was surprised that the public acquiesced to China-style virus suppression measures. In a recent interview, he observed that “people’s sense of what is possible…changed quite dramatically between January and March.” At first, scientists in the U.K. presumed that “locking entire communities down and not permitting them to leave their homes…would not be an available option in a liberal Western democracy…and then Italy did it. And we realized we could.” 

That the liberal-left appears untroubled by the grotesque violations of civil rights and liberties we have witnessed over the past ten months tells us all we need to know. Human rights are negotiable under this new ideology. I am not certain what this political theory should be called – perhaps left-wing authoritarianism – but it bears no resemblance to liberalism whatsoever. To the extent we have not gone quite as far as China in violating human rights in the quest to suppress the virus, the consensus on the liberal-left is plain: we have not gone far enough.

One of the particular features of tyrannical regimes is that most people remain unaware of their true nature until they have solidified their grip on power. It is far easier to acquire and maintain control over a population that at least initially believes the governing force is benevolent. 

Pick up a history book if you believe that in the near future the pandemic will be declared over and normal life will resume. Even well-intentioned individuals have difficulty surrendering power once they have had a taste. Nothing about the actions of leaders such as Governors Cuomo, Whitmer and Newsom, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, ought to lead people to believe that life will ever be the same unless we refuse to accept this erosion of our civil rights and liberties. 

Each day, I hope that my friends on the liberal-left will wake up and see what is happening before their eyes, before it is too late.

Acknowledgement: I would like to thank my colleague Kiley Holliday, who assisted me in researching and writing this piece.

Jenin Younes

Jenin Younes

Jenin Younes is a graduate of Cornell University and New York University School of Law.

Jenin currently works as a civil liberties attorney in Washington DC.

She enjoys running, restaurants, and reading in her free time.

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