In George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel “1984,” protagonist Winston wonders whether he is the only person who retains a real memory and doubts the narrative of The Party. He has no way to find out whether everyone else truly believes the government-revised version of history, or simply acts like they do; discussing such matters is verboten, punishable by vaporization: deletion from history. Fortunately we are not quite at that point in the United States — no one has yet been vaporized.
However, we seem to be imprisoned by the force of social disapproval just as surely as Winston was imprisoned by the threat of instant death. Millions of lockdown opponents won’t make their position known even to their closest family and friends; taking a position publicly is unthinkable — they would lose social standing, clients, and possibly even their jobs. Thanks to this dynamic, the pro-lockdown crowd enjoys the appearance of majority consensus, and everyone gets…more lockdown.
If we all spoke freely, the result would be different. We are allowing social dynamics to control us by dictating which opinions are “acceptable.” This creates two distinctly misguided groups: one made up of people who hold secret views and behave inauthentically in order to please others, harboring secret resentment; the second believing it is larger and more powerful than it actually is. This false reality is not good for anyone. Believing you have legitimate support when you have only silenced dissent with intimidation is a great way to drive yourself off of a cliff.
Opinions must be freely expressed and properly dealt with to ensure good decisions are made. What this demands of us is the courage to speak even when our views are unpopular; to listen even when we would rather not hear; and to stop reflexively disregarding people who disagree with us as inherently defective. This country is built on free competition and debate, on checks and balances, on diversity of background, experience, and viewpoint. It is through resolving conflicts that we achieve justice and find equilibrium. Pretending we have no disagreements so we can avoid confrontation is a cowardly relinquishment of freedom without a fight. It betrays the American spirit.
In 1978, Gulag survivor Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn gave a speech, “The World Split Apart,” in which he predicted an impending crisis in the Western world due to its excess of comfort and prosperity.
“The Western world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately . . . Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite. Should one point out that from ancient times declining courage has been considered the beginning of the end? Even biology knows that habitual, extreme safety and well-being are not advantageous for a living organism. Today, well-being in the life of Western society has begun to reveal its pernicious mask . . . The next war (which does not have to be an atomic one and I do not believe it will) may well bury Western civilization forever.”
Democracy lives or dies based on the characters of the people that comprise it. In centuries past, those who fought to build this country learned lessons about the value of freedom the hard way and passed down their wisdom: “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” We didn’t heed the warning. We just willingly sacrificed the Constitutional rights they fought for in order to hide from a virus with a 997 out of 1000 survival rate.
Many who were disquieted by the widespread elevation of fear into virtue never said a word due to concern over “looking bad,” hoping someone else would step up to fight against the absurd new moral construct calling good, hardworking people murderers if they won’t sacrifice their entire lives and livelihoods for an indefinite period. It is hard not to see ourselves in Solzhenitsyn’s observation: “A fact which cannot be disputed is the weakening of human beings in the West while in the East they are becoming firmer and stronger…We [in the East] have been through a spiritual training [producing] stronger, deeper, and more interesting characters than those generally produced by standardized Western well-being.”
We got away with our lack of character-building challenges for quite awhile, but when “disaster” struck it laid us bare. We met the enemy, and he is us. We can’t deny our puny, pathetic fear of suffering and dying — or, worse, our fear of a lack of control over dying. We are used to having control. We are never forced to face our vulnerability because prosperity protects us. But now, that prosperity has become its own character-development exercise. We will have to learn the hard way, just like our ancestors, that freedom places demands on us. That any “land of the free” must also be a “home of the brave.”
Freedom is saying what needs to be said.
We really must insist on a society where multiple opinions, including political opinions, are allowed and respected. The alternative is tyranny. In elite communities, social acceptance is ever more conditioned on perfect agreement with the “liberal” political view, even when the “liberal” party betrays liberalism by imposing endless, abusive restrictions on liberty. It helps none of us to participate in this facade of unified agreement. It focuses our energy on social climbing and amassing power over improving society. “We all agree, so our opponents must be stupid and bad people! Let’s GET them!” Winning and warring becomes the focus; hatred the order of the day — all because of the absence of an openly-stated alternative view.
This has gotten so bad that currently, installing “the right” yard sign is sufficient to prove you are a good person. If your neighbor were brave enough to install an opposing sign, it would mean he’s a bad person — the two of you would stop speaking. You might tell your friends you live next door to a Neo-Nazi, and you’d tsk-tsk together. His sign might be stolen or vandalized—and you’d secretly be happy that your views are “winning,” never worrying that in this atmosphere, destruction of his property could be coming next. (Your property will be safe, after all.)
While your yard sign is supposed to mean you are a good and kind person — “Hate Has No Home Here” — your team is the one destructing property and stifling alternative views, and you won’t even accept your neighbor in your life unless he agrees you can never be wrong. When the election happens and your neighbor’s politician carries the day, you become convinced that “his team” must have cheated. We can imagine the rest.
This one-opinion-allowed atmosphere is not freedom. It is fascism, as defined by Madeleine Albright: “A fascist is someone who claims to speak for a whole nation or group, is utterly unconcerned with the rights of others, and is willing to use [any] means necessary to achieve [his or her] goals.” This is an attempted erasure of individuality; an insistence on conformity which would be alarming to classical liberalist John Stuart Mill, who famously wrote: “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” Mill’s is a principle to build a society on. We are doing the opposite today.
The only way to counter our current suppression dynamic is for each of us to get out there and say what needs to be said, to whoever needs to hear it, no matter how much wannabe fascists may hate you for busting up their facade of superiority. The alternative is to become their prisoner: “Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner.” The choice is yours: betray yourself, or betray the person trying to dominate you. Choosing the former is is a symptom of the weakening of character referenced by Solzhenitsyn; the latter is a sign of strength and fighting spirit. If you don’t agree with lockdown, you should shout it from the rooftops — and never back down. If you don’t step up, you may soon find yourself living in an authoritarian state, and when that occurs, you can only blame yourself. You voluntarily traded in your freedom for a little temporary safety. You wanted “to be liked,” so you gave away your most precious asset: liberty.
“From this instant on, vow to stop disappointing yourself. Separate yourself from the mob. Decide to be extraordinary and do what you need to do — now.” ~ Epictetus
Freedom is giving up grasping for control.
Many people think of freedom as the ability to do “what you want,” whatever feels good in the moment, and the ability to conform other people to their desires. However, this external focus makes you a slave to your most immediate desires and aversions — you are controlled by your own frustration and fury when something you dislike comes to pass. True freedom comes not from controlling outcomes but from accepting them; from understanding our own limitations.
Lockdown advocates accept nothing: they firmly believe they can dominate this virus, even though it took 200 years to eradicate smallpox, and influenza is still not controlled even with drugs and a vaccine. They are such slaves to the illusion of control that they have descended back into darkness, forsaking the science of herd immunity in favor of miracle cures (lockdown, masks) and faith healers (politicians). The lockdown masterminds knew just how to exploit this ingrained trait: they knew we would behave like Skinner’s superstitious pigeons.
“A pigeon is … put into a cage. A food hopper may be swung into place … so that the pigeon can eat from it … If a clock is [set] to present the hopper at regular intervals with no reference whatsoever to the bird’s behavior, operant conditioning usually takes place. The bird tends to learn whatever response it is making when the hopper appears. The experiment might be said to demonstrate a sort of superstition. The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behavior and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking.”
The pigeon believes it can control automatic food delivery; we believe we can control infectious disease epicurves. There is no difference. We are attributing agency to natural events — an evolutionary mechanism ripe for exploitation, particularly once we are scared. The truth is that every epidemic in history has followed the same path, the path to herd immunity, and we cannot change that endpoint for this epidemic or any other. When we delude ourselves otherwise, we give over our well-being to politician “saviors,” who give us authoritarianism.
We are begging for tyranny and a police state, all because we cannot accept our lack of control over viruses and billions of other people. Prior generations took this lack of control for granted. They never conceded to lockdown, but we did without even a debate. Having never been genuinely challenged, and accustomed to exercising choices and controlling outcomes, we believed we could first stop death, and then magically return to our free and ordered lives as soon as we wished it. Instead, we lost both our safety and our liberty.
“By accepting life’s limits and inevitabilities and working with them rather than fighting them, we become free. If, on the other hand, we succumb to our passing desires for things that aren’t in our control, freedom is lost.” ~ Epictetus
Freedom is the ability to accept imperfection.
Lockdown could end today if all world leaders could be as honest as Norway’s and still retain hope of re-election: “I probably took many of the decisions out of fear. Worst-case scenarios became controlling.” Unfortunately, the media jumps on every suggestion of imperfection in the public figures it dislikes as confirmation they are irredeemable. “Top epidemiologist admits he got Sweden’s COVID19 strategy wrong!,” screamed the headlines when Anders Tegnell said he would be happy to learn about strategies used effectively by other countries to keep COVID19 out of nursing homes. Tegnell immediately clarified the media’s perversion of his statement, but the damage had been done: to this day, lockdown advocates gleefully declare “Sweden already admitted it made a mistake!” This is belied by Sweden’s failure to change course in the intervening months, but they do not notice: having concluded Tegnell is a “mistake-maker,” they pat themselves on the back, dismiss him, and move on.
They are fundamentally misguided. As Epictetus said, “The impulse to blame something or someone is foolishness, there is nothing to be gained in blaming, whether it be others or oneself.” A willingness to admit to imperfection in self and others is a sign of strength, not weakness. Socrates knew that he was intelligent because “I know that I know nothing.” People willing to acknowledge inherent human vulnerability take more risks, and earn more rewards — ala Tegnell, whose nation has lower per-capita mortality in 2020 than it did in 2015, orders of magnitude lower than heavily locked-down areas like New Jersey and Michigan.
While he has not yet been recognized for his heroic integrity, Tegnell already won: you can’t hide from facts. His decisions have already been vindicated, and his example proves the benefits of exercising essential freedom. He wasn’t held back by a fear of “looking bad” and needing to be perfect, which led to a good result for everyone — the greatest good for the greatest number. We should free all of our leaders to behave this way by ceasing to blame them for natural disease outcomes, and thereby free ourselves from interminable lockdowns.