by William Deatherage, Executive Director
The opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of Clarifying Catholicism. We welcome and invite all discourse in the comments below, and would be excited to feature a counter-point article.
“I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” These are the nine most terrifying words in the English language, according to former President Ronald Reagan. A couple of months ago, I wrote an article about prudence, or right evaluation of action, and how fear is the antithesis of this virtue, referencing the COVID-19 virus as my case-study. Back in March, businesses had just started shutting down; today they are struggling to open back up. Today’s article is meant to evaluate how the largely fear-driven response to this crisis has led to the prospects of long-term damage in our society and how the suppression of critical thought blinds us from exploring alternative solutions. Furthermore, it explores potential nightmare scenarios that are made increasingly possible (even if unlikely) by a society that is driven by fear, rather than prudence.
On October 26, 2001, a month after the horrific 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush signed the Patriot Act into law after it received sweeping support in both the House and the Senate. This bill gave the government the unprecedented authority of suspending several rights of citizens if they were suspected of plotting terrorist activities. It was worded strongly enough to assure the American public that it would keep them safe, yet vaguely enough for future administrations to justify rather shady behavior, including the unwarranted detention of immigrants, unconstitutional search and seizure of homes and businesses, and surveillance. Since its passage, the Patriot Act has been challenged both legally and culturally, as many Americans continue to ask themselves how they possibly could have supported something so controversial. The answer is simple: fear.
Is it unjust for a government to suspend rights of potential criminals and terrorists? Not necessarily. In fact, the suspension of rights for those who threaten our society is required. However, what I do find more alarming is the fear-factor that drove the public to quickly endorse a rather vague piece of legislation. Additionally, the rise of government surveillance was largely conducted in total secret. By the time Edward Snowden and Wikileaks shed light on these matters, it was too late, and after the adjustment to “normalcy” of government surveillance have ethical discussions arisen. The fact remains that Americans 1) acted quite hastily in passing a law out of fear of terrorists and 2) were not made aware of the government activities that were justified by such legislation.
At the same time, we saw a rise in airport security. And while the public may have thought they were safer because of these uncomfortable and disruptive measures, studies have shown that such practices have not made much of an impact. But people feel safe, so such measures are kept in place. Regardless of the reality, regardless of the data, fear prevails. As a result, the surveillance state and uncomfortable transit are just two byproducts of 9/11’s “New Normal.”
Going back a bit further, we hit the Great Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced welfare programs and an “alphabet soup” of government agencies that would help steer the nation back to prosperity. The plan worked! Within a decade, the United States was on track to becoming a global economic powerhouse (also thanks to increased production during World War II). The idea of a welfare state was the very antithesis to everything the United States stood for, yet almost every single “crisis program” and government agency has lingered around to this day. Like surveillance, this is not to say that welfare is unacceptable, but it reflects yet another time when controversial ideas that were meant to solve a crisis gradually emerged beyond the crisis as a “New Normal.”
Today, we are faced with a new “New Normal,” and in fifty years, many of us might remember 2020 as a turning point for our nation’s history. Let us think of the term: “New Normal.” When COVID-19 began rapidly spreading, the mantras were “flatten the curve” and “slow the spread.” The goal was simply to reduce the rate of new cases so that hospitals would not be overwhelmed. Once this was accomplished, though, the goal shifted to maintaining our “New Normal” until a vaccine could be found. This, of course, could take years or might never even materialize.
What is this “New Normal?” The economy remains largely shut down, more stimulus packages are being generated, churches and schools are closed, and yet Planned Parenthood facilities and marijuana shops are open. Making matters worse, Fortune 500 reports that a considerable number of those unemployed are no longer looking for work, and Five-Thirty-Eight says that many Americans are making more from unemployment benefits than they were at their jobs. In the meantime, any dissenters against such a strategy are quickly silenced in the name of “public safety,” while the mainstream news media’s ratings have gone up through the roof.
This has not been touted as temporary. Instead, this is advertised as the “New Normal.” Language is a powerful tool, and it can easily be used to manipulate or even condition people. The fact that these measures are being associated with any form of “normalcy” seems rather eerie. If anything, we should consider this the “New Abnormal” and strive to return to the “Old Normal” in our sacrifices. But this is not what is on the minds of certain politicians, who operate by a simple phrase: “Never waste a good crisis.” This has frequently been associated with the ability to pass controversial legislation, such as the Patriot Act, that would ordinarily have never been considered under “Normal” circumstances.
The solution? Change what “Normal” is. This “normative paradigm shift” (credit to Kuhn) is accomplished through fear. For example, despite charts here and here, which show vast improvements of COVID across the country, the media continues to find the bleakest data and anecdotal evidence to present. If on one day, deaths are up, deaths are featured. If on another day, one state’s rates are up, even if all other states are doing well, this one state will make headlines. When a scientist prophesizes the second coming of the virus, despite a total lack of evidence from our European friends (so far, at least), panic ensues. The most crowded planes are displayed, giving the illusion that all flights are packed when most of them are empty. Finally, when incredibly rare side-effects of this illness, which are indeed worthy of attention but are not statistically significant, are spotted, they are weaponized to instill more fear in us. Notice how the media rarely deals in percentages. A couple hundred, and even a few thousand people naturally sound enormous to us. But if it is revealed that such numbers constitute meager percentages of our population, they cease to be so scary. The light of reason will always shed light on the illusions of deceit that haunt us in the dark. Such intense manipulation of statistics and data is used to, as philosopher Noam Chomsky would say, “manufacture consent.”
Is this strategy working? According to recent surveys, Americans seem okay with this “New Normal,” as a vast majority of them would prefer to stay safe at home than return to work. This paints a rather bleak picture for American culture. It seems to suggest that even if we restore “Old Normalcy” now, that fear-based tactics can bring an entire society to its knees. And while it is certainly unwise to conclude that something sinister must be at play, it is fairly evident that leaders can and will manipulate not only means but ends. The fact that so many politicians invoke “never waste a good crisis” so obviously supports this theory. To make matters worse, while smoke shops and Planned Parenthood facilities remain open, churches and academic institutions remain closed and, according to several governors, should remain closed until a vaccine is found. Churches and academia are two bastions of critical thought. The utter demise of the Church and academia (especially private schools) would greatly benefit many leaders who seek to monopolize morality and ethics. Of course, anyone who even bothers to challenge the narrative is either censored or deemed a crazy conspiracy theorist. The silencing of websites, social media accounts, and even experts will only stifle discussion and send a clear message, one that the institutional Church is guilty of sending in the past, to the scientific community: If your science does not agree with our way of life, it is not welcome here.
I would like to propose a thought experiment. Now, what I will describe is purely speculative, and it represents what I consider the worst-case scenario (aside from the virus mutating to spread even quicker with a higher death rate). That said, I do think that in times when we entrust our leaders with special powers, it is important to be aware of how such power can be abused. Having recently completed a class on “Utopias and Dystopias,” I figured I could try my hand at writing one myself. So, let us embark on a thought experiment of the worst-case “New Normal.”
“The year is 2025, and there is still no vaccine in sight. Churches are still not allowed to congregate, and almost every Catholic college has had to shut down or merge with online schools. A vast majority of students are taught by the government. Depression and suicide rates have stabilized by now, thanks to government programs that have replaced private-sector jobs. People are back to work, though from the safety of their homes. Congregations exceeding a certain size are banned, which means protests have been outlawed. The copious government spending through stimulus packages has led to a soaring debt that is being paid to China, who has greatly benefited from the manufacturing of protective equipment. The U.S. economy has steadily declined for several years, plunging the entire world into an economic stagnation. Children are conditioned to accepting this way of life as their new normal, and anyone who speaks out against it is silenced and even jailed for “threatening public safety.” In fact, by now, the precedent that words and ideas can “threaten public safety” has been applied to moral issues. “Hate speech” is illegal. To cope with the lack of social interaction, drug and alcohol abuse has increased exponentially. Americans have finally realized that the battle against the media is not worth fighting, and trust in the media has soared. Birth rates have also slowed down, and Planned Parenthood visits have reached all-time highs. “We will find a cure!” pervades political discussion, yet there is no talk of a return to the “Old Normal.””
Now, this scenario is intentionally hyperbolic. What are the odds of this actually happening? Quite slim, I would say. The point is not that I think this will happen, rather it is that I think it could happen. Hindsight is 20/20, and it certainly will be for 2020. When the world asked itself “How did we get here?” after World War II, I can assure you that its very next question was “How can we prevent this from happening again?” The beauty of the worst-case scenario dystopia is that it guides us towards ruling out imprudent decisions.
Did our political leaders intentionally set us up for this? Not necessarily. All too often, when we fail to empathize with others, we become obsessed with our own narrow perspectives and are blind to what is really going on around us. I will readily admit that everything I have said in this article could be totally incorrect. I am not God. I do not know. But to dodge these pressing questions, to avoid the hypotheticals that critical thought demands, is a denial of our own human dignity. Hannah Arendt once wrote of a “Banality of Evil” that is present when we act out of sheer obedience or complicity to authority. This revolutionary approach to morality emphasizes our duty to stand up for what is right, regardless of circumstance. “I was simply following orders” no longer suffices for justifying action. Nor does “I was thinking about my family.” It is far easier said than done, but our individual health and that of our families are not the end of our actions. That end is God, or if you are an atheist, perhaps that end is duty or goodness, or beauty, none of which are determined by us. Our culture, however, has deluded us into thinking of “good and evil” as “pain and pleasure” (credit to Hume). We are no longer encouraged to think critically or challenge the status quo. When we do, we are met with censorship, harassment, and even sometimes violence.
Here is a fact: there are powerful people in this country who are enemies of the Church. This is nothing new, though. The Church has always had enemies who have sought to annihilate it. Even throughout Christendom, the level of tension between political and Church leaders illustrates a key fact about politics: many politicians do not care for religion. In fact, when they are not trying to eliminate religion, they will often use it for their own personal motives. This is not because these politicians are Machiavellian, rather they are opportunistic. Our culture celebrates opportunity. We must take all opportunities. After all, it was Nietzsche who declared that the only thing that matters is to assert our will over all opportunities. This is not what the Church says. Not every event represents an opportunity we must take, and our fate is not in our hands. Fear drives us to fumble for a control that we never have and never will have.
In the past, “public health” has been used to justify abortion, the worst genocide in the history of the world. Today, it is being used to promote censorship, socialism, and secularism on a mass scale. Do we need to sacrifice freedoms and liberties to protect the vulnerable? Certainly. Do we need to trust and obey our leaders? Of course. But do such sacrifices and trust deserve to be unchecked, unmonitored, and unopposed at all times? Absolutely not. Mindless compliance with authority denies our own human dignity. The inauthentic life of blind compliance (even to Catholicism) denies the freedom God gave us to know and love His essence.
At the same time, to assume the worst and jump at shadows is quite unproductive. The worst-case scenario I proposed is indeed a worst-case scenario. However, human governments (the institutional Church included) have used rather twisted reasoning in the past to justify costly and imprudent decisions. On that fateful day that we meet our Maker, “I was just doing what everyone else was doing” may not save us, though it’s quite apparent that our culture doesn’t care much for our souls. The materialism that arose from the so-called “Enlightenment” has convinced us that the only life worth living is here on Earth, when this is so apparently false. Those who are richest and most powerful will inevitably strive to preserve what they have accumulated here, and the easiest way to accomplish this is by restricting our capacities to think for ourselves. They make us afraid. They become the “Good Shepherd.” They become God. Little do they know that even the mightiest statues come crumbling down with a good enough earthquake. In the end, God will prevail, but until then, will we?
Edited by John Tuttle