Shell-shocked is a good way to describe the mood in the U.S. for a good part of the Spring of 2020. Most of us never thought it could happen here. I certainly did not, even though I’ve been writing about pandemic lockdown plans for 15 years. I knew the plans were on the shelf, which is egregious, but I always thought something would stop it from happening. The courts. Public opinion. Bill of Rights. Tradition. The core rowdiness of American culture. Political squeamishness. The availability of information.
Something would prevent it. So I believed. So most of us believed.
Still it happened, all in a matter of days, March 12-16, 2020, and boom; it was over! We were locked down. Schools shut. Bars and restaurants closed. No international visitors. Theaters shuttered. Conferences forcibly ended. Sports stopped. We were told to stay home and watch movies…for two weeks to flatten the curve. Then two weeks stretched to five months. How lucky for those who lived in the states that resisted the pressure and stayed open, but even for them, they couldn’t visit relatives in other states due to quarantine restrictions and so on.
Lockdowns ended American life as we knew it just five months ago, for a virus that 99.4-6% of those who contract it shake off, for which the median age of death is 78-80 with comorbidities, for which there is not a single verified case of reinfection on the planet, for which international successes in managing this relied on herd immunity and openness.
Still the politicians who had become dictators couldn’t admit such astonishing failure so they kept the restrictions in place as a way of covering up what they had done.
That shock of Spring has now turned to a Summer of wickedness, with everyone pointing fingers at everyone else for the sorry state of life. Patience has run out and a national viciousness has taken its place. It is evident not only online but in person where strangers scream at each other for behaving in ways in which they disapprove.
What many states are calling “open” today would have been called “closed” six months ago. Sports are rare. Theaters aren’t open. In some places, you still can’t go to gyms or eat inside. Mask mandates are everywhere, and mask enforcers too. People are ratting out their neighbors, sending drones to ferret out house parties, and lashing out at each other in public places.
In a mere five months, lockdowners have manufactured a new form of social structure in which everyone is expected to treat everyone else as a deadly contagion. Even more preposterously, people have come to believe that if you come closer than six feet of another person, a disease spontaneously appears and spreads.
America has become an extremely ugly place. This is what lockdowns did.
All of this has occurred in the midst of the greatest political divide in many generations. Oddly, you almost predict a person’s politics based on their attitude toward the virus, as if sitting political figures are responsible for creating or controlling pathogens that have been part of the human experience since we first walked and talked. The politicization of this disease has been a terrible noise that has distracted from the wise disease management that characterized the American way for more than a century.
But the American people support this, right? I’m not so sure. It’s true that the TV and online media are blaring panic all day every day. If that’s where you get your information, it surely must feel like a plague. There is also the problem that people feel tremendously powerless right now. They have been locked down, silenced, humiliated, brutalized. The few attempts to get out and protest the lockdowns were greeted with jeers and derision by mainstream media. But it turned out that this was because they were protesting the wrong thing. When the protests against police brutality and racism swept the country, the media wholly approved. Yes, it all felt like gaslighting.
Where precisely does American opinion stand on lockdowns today? The polls one cannot trust: people know exactly what they are supposed to say to pollsters during a police-state lockdown. It’s usually a good guess that one-third of Americans take a position that is more-or-less consistent with human liberty – it’s not a fixed group and it shifts depending on the issue – so that’s probably a good guess now.
The incredible frenzy of the lying media has confused vast numbers. A poll revealed that many Americans think that 9% of us have died from C-19 whereas it is really 0.04%. So yes, we have a propaganda problem, starting with the New York Times, which just today demanded “more aggressive shutdowns than have been carried out in the past. The United States has not had a true national lockdown, shuttering only about half the country, compared with 90 percent in other countries with more successful outbreak control.”
None of which is true. This is pure ideological propaganda. The people who are saying true things seem to be only the 1% vs. the barrage of nonsense coming from media culture today.
We see almost no discussion in the mainstream press of the empirical evidence at home and abroad that the lockdowns make no sense from a medical and economic perspective. Medical experts for many decades have warned against disturbing social functioning in the event of disease. Preserving freedom has always been the policy priority: 1949-52, 1957-58, 1968-69, and 2005. The American revolution itself took place in the midst of a smallpox outbreak. Liberalism arose during centuries of pandemics.
And yet here we are.
This country needs a serious anti-lockdown movement, one that is not just political but cultural and intellectual, one that is deeply educated on history, philosophy, law, economics, and all sciences, and can rally around traditional American civic postulates concerning individual freedom and the limits of governments, and also around universal principles of human rights. If liberty means anything, it means that we are not locked down. It means, moreover, that lockdowns are unconscionable.
What should this movement – which need not be formally organized – study, believe, and teach?
Because property rights are the first violated in lockdown, the movement needs to embrace and champion the right of private ownership and control: of businesses, homes, and ourselves. The liberal tradition has long affirmed this principle, and it is nothing but appalling that the lockdowns took place as if private property doesn’t exist. Suddenly everything and everyone belonged to the state, and it would be the state to declare what is or is not essential, or even what is elective vs. nonelective for your medical care.
It should embrace the freedom to choose our associations, since that is what came under attack next: we couldn’t gather in groups, hold conferences, go to the movies, do anything not “socially distant” (I’m so sick of that phrase, wth dubious origins, that I could barely type it), or even go to another state to visit friends and relatives.
This movement needs to celebrate and defend religious freedom, since, incredibly, most houses of worship were forcibly closed by government. The modern idea of freedom came about in the late Middle Ages when exhaustion from religious wars gradually gave rise to the idea of tolerance. Religious toleration was the first great freedom that came to be codified in law. It’s stunning that it was so flagrantly violated this year.
It must come to terms with free enterprise and the innovation that comes with it. How much wealth and creativity has been lost in the lockdowns? It’s unfathomable. The biggest victims have been small and medium-sized businesses, whereas the large tech firms have thrived. To start and manage a commercial enterprise is a human right, the realization of which was the great achievement of modern life, as it spread prosperity throughout the world and lifted up the world’s people from the state of nature and to levels of the entrenched hierarchies of old.
Part of this liberal ideal is free trade, which has come under fire from both the left and right. Don’t forget that Donald Trump kicked off this dictatorial frenzy with his sudden and shocking bans of travel from China and Europe, which resulted in a frenzied and frantic mass crowding of airports in the days following. He did it with a stroke of a pen, overriding all his advisors. He still brags about it.
How much did his extreme reaction here inspire governors to do the same? Of course his actions reflect his persistent isolationism on not only trade but immigration too. Even now, Trump is refusing to allow foreign workers into the U.S. (except for emergency cases) because he incorrectly believes this will help the American job market. It’s an outrage: free enterprise entitles the employment of anyone from anywhere. This is a policy that is good for everyone.
So long as we are talking about freedom fundamentals, let’s talk about masks. They have become exactly what the New England Journal of Medicine called them: a talisman. They are symbols of social commitment and political loyalty. A free society rallies around individual choice, so if masks make a person feel safe, or if it makes them feel they are keeping others safe from their breath, fine. But when people attack others for resisting wearing them, and are apparently upset at the seeming appearance of rebellion from rules, this is imposition and intolerance – perhaps understandable given the times, but still illiberal.
Laws requiring face coverings in public would never have been tolerated even six months ago. And yet here we are, not only with laws but a growing number of recruits within the public to enforce them with appalling rudeness. It’s hardly the first time in history. American sumptuary laws in Colonial times mandated that people not dress in fancy clothes for reasons of piety and social conformism. Part of the capitalist revolution included the freedom to dress as one wants and the mass availability of fashion for everyone. The mandatory mask movement and its shock troops among the public is but a revival of puritanism.
The lockdowns crushed the economic prospects of millions, and government attempted to make up for that with wild spending of other people’s money and an unprecedented use of the printing press, as if government can somehow paper over the destruction it caused. Therefore, the anti-lockdown movement needs a commitment to fiscal sanity and sound money. We now know that a government with the capacity to create unlimited amounts of paper money cannot be constrained. This needs to be fixed.
As for health, the topic or excuse that unleashed the lockdowns in the first place, we surely should learn from this experience that politics and medicine need to be separated with a high wall. We have medical professionals who are traditionally in charge of mitigating disease, and they do so in line with their own professional associations and best judgement. Politics should never override the doctor/patient relationship, nor presume to know what is better for us than our own physicians.
On the matter of education, governors all over the country cruelly locked down all the schools, though there is near-zero threat to kids from the virus and there is no verified case of a child passing C-19 to an adult. Perhaps a small silver lining is that we have learned more about how parents can exercise more control over education than they have previously had. The anti-lockdown movement needs to embrace a multiplicity of educational alternatives including the possibility of full privatization so that education can again be part of the free enterprise matrix.
It’s true that anti-lockdown carries a negative connotation. Is there a better word to convey the positive dimension? My preference: liberalism. Progressives have abandoned it. It is also correct from a historical and international perspective. Liberalism and modernity are inextricably linked in history, says Benjamin Constant. A liberalism of the future needs to be prepared to understand, advocate, and fight for freedom in a non-lockdown world. No exceptions.
Which takes us to the final point. Whether this movement is working in the realms of academia, culture, journalism, or politics, there is an absolute urgency that it exercise unrelenting moral courage and integrity. Ferociously. It should be uncompromising on crucial points. It must be willing to speak even when it is unfashionable to do so, even when the media is screaming the opposite, even when the Twitter mob floods your notifications, even when you are shamed for thinking for yourself.
This time around, as you have surely noticed, even the voices of good people with good ideas fell silent in fear. This fear must be banished. The blowback against this despotism will come but it is not enough. We need character, integrity, courage, and truth, and this perhaps matters more than ideology and knowledge. Knowledge without the willingness and courage to speak is useless, because (as E.C. Harwood taught us) for integrity there is no substitute.
In the end, the case for unlocking society is a spiritual matter. What is your life worth and how do you want to live it? How important are the hard-won freedoms you exercise daily? What of the lives and liberties of others? These are everything. Freedom has never prevailed without passionate and courageous voices to defend it. We have the tools now, many more than before. They can throttle us but can’t finally shut us down. The notion that we would fail to speak for fear of the Twitter mob is absurd.
This movement, whether it is called anti-lockdown or just plain liberalism, must reject the wickedness and compulsion of this current moment in American life. It needs to counter the brutalism of lockdowns. It needs to speak and act with humane understanding and high regard for social functioning under freedom, and the hope for the future that comes with it. The enemies of freedom and human rights have revealed themselves for the world to see. Let there be justice. The well-being of us all is at stake.