steampunk heart

How did a free people become so relaxed about losing their liberty?

Before this bizarre chapter comes to a definitive end and life really does return to genuine (not “new”) normal, it is very important that we make a solemn promise to ourselves and the generations to follow.

There must be a full and proper examination of what just happened.

In the euphoric relief that will follow on the great unlocking, it will be tempting to dismiss the unprecedented transformation of our social and political condition as a bad dream – a transitory venture into what would, only moments before, have been regarded as unthinkable by a free people. We will need rigorous discussion, innumerable historical studies, and limitless debate about the reasons not only for what was done by governments and legal authorities but for the popular acceptance of those measures and the public attitudes that they engendered. If we fail to do this, we will lose what might be the best insight we could ever have had into the nature of liberty.

There are broadly speaking two major interpretations of the events of the past year – the extraordinary powers seized by democratic governments and the reaction to those powers by national populations.

The more optimistic (and flattering) is that there was a joint assumption of moral responsibility on both sides.

Governments and their agencies saw it as their absolute duty to prevent loss of life at whatever cost and they took whatever drastic steps were required to do that.

Then their electorates, in a quite remarkable demonstration of altruism and social conscientiousness cooperated with those steps.

This was, in effect, a willing renunciation not only of civil liberties as guaranteed by constitutional democracy, but of the most fundamental aspects of common humanity: a supreme act of heroic sacrifice for the sake of the greater good. It could be seen as the fruition of the great democratic revolutions which placed so much emphasis on the conscience of the individual as a member of society. That would be the good news.

Then there is the other possible analysis. Populations that have lived under democratic governance for centuries – whose everyday existence has assumed personal freedom to be an indispensable condition of life – were prepared to ditch their birthright overnight in the face of an alarming health threat. Even people who are not devout libertarians should have been provoked into asking the awful questions: just how deep does the commitment to freedom go? Do even the most intimate and instinctive bonds of family relations and physical affection become dispensable if enough fear can be generated?

There are plenty of lessons from the terrible ideological wars of the twentieth century to demonstrate the power of induced fear – and the awful lengths to which ordinary people can be led by the propagation of it. Did something like that happen here?

Of course, you might say, this was the very opposite: people were not being propelled into committing wicked acts by the orchestration of fear. They were behaving unselfishly and honourably, helping to protect others at all costs.

Their decisions may or may not have been justified but they were made with the best of intentions. But even accepting that this is true, wasn’t it shocking (or at least surprising) how little resistance or doubt there was about it: how few people actually paused long enough to question the wisdom of shutting down most normal societal relations for an indefinite period, before submitting to the orders?

Even if these measures were as good and essential as they were presented as being, they were startling in their severity – much more severe in their effect on private life than were wartime restrictions which never forbade embracing loved ones – and yet very few people seemed to be startled.

Isn’t that odd? Is it conceivable that the overriding impulse was not public-spirited generosity but self-preserving anxiety?

That the modern obsessions with health and safety easily overwhelmed the principles on which our political system is supposed to be based?

It is interesting to note here that the chief arguments used against lockdown have been on health grounds (the risk of other diseases, physical and mental, being ignored) rather than on moral ones (is it wrong to prevent children from hugging their grandparents?).

Perhaps the greatest irony in all this is that it occurred in the post-Cold War West which was, until very recently, busily congratulating itself on its bloodless victory over the totalitarian system of the East. The triumph of freedom over those forms of tyranny which specialised in the control and surveillance of day-to-day existence and social intercourse was supposed to be the seminal lesson of our times.

Given a choice, it seemed, people simply walked out from under the Soviet police state and brought about its collapse without a shot being fired. Such was the power of the natural human longing for liberty.

Now here we were in the West consenting to a simulacrum of the surveillance and control that we had supposedly vanquished which was arguably more intrusive and limiting than anything the Stasi had contemplated.

In the original plan, the post-Cold War discourse was going to be a fairly leisurely business. We would luxuriate in arguments about free market economics and social democratic values, on whether governments should aim for equality of opportunity or equality of outcome.

Then suddenly the questions became, should families be allowed to gather together, and, is it legal to have a sexual relationship with someone outside your own household? There must be very few (perhaps not any) tyrannies in modern history which have dictated such intimate things – at least not that survived long enough to be recorded. That, of course, might be part of the answer. These measures were always presented as temporary. Maybe all those generations of democracy have produced sufficient trust in government for populations to believe their assurances.

But there is a darker possibility. The conceit of enlightenment and its sacred values of individual freedom which modern democracies now believe can never be vanquished, which even saw off the communist dictatorships, can collapse into compliant terror – without a shot being fired.

Source: Janet Daley – The Telegraph