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The following is a letter that I wrote to Don Boudreaux, in response to a recent article of his. If you do not read Mr. Boudreaux at CafeHayek, and if you do not read AIER daily, I strongly encourage you to do so. Both are indispensable sources of knowledge and insight, especially given our present intellectual climate.
Once again, Don, I thank you for being a reliable and consistent voice in support of liberty.
Once again, however, I must vehemently disagree with your position on the “passing of judgment” on other people’s silence. I am referring to your most recent article, “Why the Silence in the Face of Covid Tyranny,” which seeks to understand the lack of vocal outrage with respect to covid tyranny, and to your renewed commitment to understanding, rather than judgment when it comes to those who are silent.
While I am inclined to agree that the association with Trump is partly responsible, I think of that association as a sort of snowbank, through which the giant snowball, thundering downhill, passed in order to double in size. One of the best case-studies for conservatives/libertarians-turned-statists at the hands of covid, may be National Review. NR may also be one of the best examples in support of your theory, given their long-term stance on Trump.
It is also an example of the greater force at play, here, which is simple group-think. Something I noted early on about National Review was that it is based largely in New York and Washington DC. Covid hysteria really hit its stride when it began to appear to some people that New York City was destined to be the next Lombardo, Italy. Rural(ish) Washington State (where I live) was shut down in response to rising cases in New York … because once something begins to impact New York, it becomes personal for the media, and thus it takes on a wholly different tone. It seems that which started the snowball heading downhill. In essence, what happened was fear, which is driven by group-think, and which became responsible for an actual madness and loss of rational clear-thinking.
I’ve long said that Covid is like the test of war. I’m very much pro-gun; I carry a gun, I have a great many of them in my house, and I’m relatively proficient in their use (having grown up in Montana, this is not terribly unusual). But I will openly admit that I have zero idea how I would behave in an actual crisis. As an attorney who practices dependency law (and previously practiced criminal law), I’ve been exposed to a great many extremely tense situations, and I have been reassured by my ability to remain calm and attempt to de-escalate… but an active shooter? A person with a knife or a gun on me? I have no idea how I would react, and whether I would survive.
What I do know, however, is how my intellectual and personal commitment to liberty and conservatism would handle rising tyranny, because that actually has been tested over the past year. I know that I would stand up for what I believe is right, and that I would even do it in the courtroom, at the risk of alienating myself and potentially even at the risk of my job. I know that I would continue to look at the world around me in light of those things that I know to be true – in an actual crisis, I would maintain an understanding of the nature of markets, rather than having an emotional response to the lack of supply, or “price gouging.” Faced with a loss of income, I would maintain my understanding of the dangers of national debt and inflation, rather than asking the government for handouts. Faced with a virus that I do not understand (and this only describes a period of about a month between March and April of 2020), I would maintain a solid belief that there is no problem so big that the government cannot make worse. I would not view this as somehow the exception to the rule – the problem so important that suddenly our governments become competent, that individuals with power become focused solely on the interests and needs of others, and that incentives and temptations are somehow miraculously canceled by the sheer force of my own fear.
I have not lost any real friends, at least not that I know of. But I have lost an amazing amount of respect for the intellectual consistency of a great many people who I used to believe possessed some insight into matters of economics, politics, and law (to say nothing of medicine). I have lost an amazing amount of respect for my fellow citizens, and I have been hit upside the head with the reality that this country is maybe not what I thought it was. When the first European mask mandate was implemented, I said “that will never happen in the US. Tell us to wear masks, and we will tell you to go [REDACTED] yourself, and there will be absolutely no way to enforce it.” So when the mask mandate came, I picked up my pitchfork and began charging, yelling “FREEDOM” at the top of my lungs … only to look back and see nearly everyone, masked up… saying to me: “don’t be an [REDACTED].” And when I would point out the myriad evidence that these measures are arbitrary, senseless, and even harmful, I was met overwhelmingly with anger as opposed to argument.
I remain absolutely shocked by the same thing you complain of. I am not terribly surprised that CNN would put out some idiotic report, and that some of my neighbors who only watch CNN would believe it. I am, however, surprised by the lack of volume in opposition.
In college, I became fascinated with Russian history. Tyranny and fascism and communism fascinated me. I went to a tech school but crafted a “liberal studies” degree, largely out of Russian history and literature (among other things). More recently, I sat down to re-read “The Gulag Archipelago,” but I had to put it down in the middle of the third volume – right around March of last year, because it started to feel disturbingly too real and immediate. I felt like Solzhenitsyn himself – not in the sense that I was physically experiencing the same horrors, but in the sense of what I believe to be the overwhelming tone of all 3 of the Gulag volumes. Pardon the silly reference, but the attitude is that of the Will Farrell character in “Zoolander,” when he looks around at a crowd and says: “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!” In other words, it is the phenomenon of the emperor’s new clothes, with a disturbing twist. In that story, the child looks around at the crowd and is flabbergasted by the fact that the obvious is being denied by everyone. It is about the innocent honesty of a child who is not yet the victim of self-delusion, and the effects of peer pressure and individual insecurity on the adults around him. At the end, the awakened crowd laughs as the king completes his march in a vain attempt at maintaining his dignity. Our story is different. The crowd does not laugh, but responds with anger; not at the king, but at the person speaking truth, which points to something far more nefarious than
In Russia, it was far more nefarious. It was intentional. The power of the show trials, says Solzhenitsyn, lies in their absurdity. The trial is not intended to reveal facts. The only truth is the party, the only reality is the party. The purpose of the trial is to make this absolutely clear – it doesn’t matter what the facts are. It matters what the party says, and if the party says that you are guilty, then you are guilty.
This is a horror of tyranny that felt very real in the first part of the 20th century, and it is described in literature of the time – Koestler’s “Darkness at Noon,” or Kafka’s “The Trial,” or any number of others. It is why freedom of press and freedom of speech are so absolutely crucial for the maintenance of liberty – but like voting rights in Iran, these “freedoms” are only valuable if they are actually exercised.
What shocks me about covid is best embodied by what has become the single most tyrannical aspect of the past year: Masks. A dad at one of my sons’ baseball practices asked me the other day: “how many of these people do you think actually believe that masks work?” And I responded that it is actually pretty easy to see. Look around at all of these coaches and parents, I said. They are not wearing masks right now; but they all wore masks the first day of practice. They take them off when they see that other people are taking them off. They will wear them at games, because this is school-district property, and the school district requires that everyone wear masks, even outside, playing baseball.
The shocking thing about that is the fact that it is ridiculous. It is, in so many contexts, patently obvious. When you walk into a restaurant with a mask on, remove it to sit, then place it on again to go to the bathroom or leave … that is ridiculous. At my ski mountain, all year, the employees were directed to be extremely harsh about face coverings. “OVER THE NOSE!!” was shouted, and you risk having your pass yanked for failure to comply. At least when you’re standing in line… or when you go inside. It could be 40mph winds, outside, but you had better be wearing that thin piece of cloth all the way up over your nose. At 15 degrees outside, everyone looks like they are smoking cigarettes as their hot breath goes directly through the masks… but you had damned-well better wear it!
We are at that point with COVID in general, not simply with respect to the obvious nonsense involving masks. There is so much data out there, showing that lockdowns are worse than ineffective – that they do actual harm. There are scientific studies showing that masks either don’t work, or again, that they may even do harm, and there are no actual studies showing that they stop any sort of virus. There is real-world data showing the differences between states and countries with harsh restrictions and those with none. There is data revealing that testing is extremely flawed, that deaths are overcounted, that the fatality rate is far closer to the flu than to ebola (and for most age groups, lower than the flu). And for those who are still terrified, there are vaccines.
But the theater continues. In my courtroom – which is presently online via zoom – the judge last week stated that we would hopefully be allowed back in person this summer, with proper “safety protocols,” of course. Plexiglass barriers have been ordered, so that nobody will be sitting adjacent to anyone else, people will be forced to wear masks, etc… etc… and zoom will still be available for anyone who is not comfortable. There is talk about vaccine passports to “allow” basic freedoms that were never granted by our government in the first place. Masks and even covid tests required for travel. We still walk all over those stickers on the ground that say “stay safe, stay apart!” And there are signs everywhere that still say “mask up to open up!” I wondered aloud to my wife the other day whether all of these signs that say “maintain a safe distance of six feet” would now be replaced with ones that say “maintain a safe distance of three feet.” Nah… but the theater continues.
And when you are told by your good friend that it is unwise or unkind to call out fellow conservatives and libertarians for their failure to speak up … as he says; how can you know their reasons? How can you know what’s at stake for them? How can you know what pressure they might face? What if they simply disagree with your assessment of the facts?
Well, it gets back to Solzhenitsyn. He wandered around the Soviet Union eternally flabbergasted by the silence. He points out again and again and again that if “the party” had met with any resistance whatsoever, the whole thing would have fallen apart overnight. Solzhenitsyn also recognized that these people had their reasons. They wanted to protect their jobs and livelihoods. They wanted to protect their families. Prisoners in the Gulag knew that they were innocent, and they knew that it would be sorted out, eventually… but they also secretly believed that everyone else there was guilty. Some of them simply bought the party line. They hated their fellow prisoners because they were “wreckers;” even after having been tortured during interrogation, even knowing of their own innocence … they remained afraid, and they remained convinced by the propaganda.
My biggest fear is that what we’re experiencing right now is really not all that different from what happened in Russia, and has happened across the globe since the beginning of time. We are experiencing the onset of actual tyranny, wherein people must be protected from themselves and from each other, by placing their trust in the all-knowing state. Truth is what the party says it is. Anthony Fauci says that two masks are better than one, that potential mutations require us to stay fearful indefinitely – I read an article, though, saying that Anthony Fauci (somehow now a lawmaker) assures us that there will be no “vaccine passports!” – and you had better trust him, because he is the expert. No, we don’t operate on objective definitions, anymore. We don’t worry about the scientific method (and all the scientific journals are on board with this!). Forget about any of the doctors and epidemiologists who have presented contrary data, or studies, or viewpoints … they are not state-sanctioned experts. Truth is what the party says it is. Reality is what the party says it is.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn recognized and understood that all of his colleagues had their reasons for not speaking out. He recognized and understood that his countrymen had their reasons for not rising up. And he spent three large volumes in thousands of pages of The Gulag Archipelago, not just calling them out, but condemning them in the harshest terms possible, saying: “You are responsible for this. And you are responsible for ensuring that it never happens again.”Published in