Earlier this week I was having a conversation with someone on Milo’s rollicking Telegram chat, in which we were trying to figure out the name of a short story involving people living in underground cells, communicating only via the Internet. I had a feeling I had written about it before, but could not remember the name of the story.
Turns out it was E.M. Forster’s novella “The Machine Stops,” originally published in 1909, and I wrote about it in this catch-all post from the early days of The Age of The Virus (so early, in fact, I was not capitalizing the first “the” in that moniker, which I have texted so much, my last phone auto-predicted “The Age of The Virus”). I compared the story to Kipling’s “The Mother Hive”–a story that apparently is assigned regularly in India, because pageviews for it always seem to coincide with large numbers of site visitors from the subcontinent.
But I digress. The story sounded eerily like what our elites asked us to do during The Age of The Virus: stay home, get fat, consume mindless entertainment, and don’t socialize. Granted, some of us could go outside and plant gardens (I still got fat, though), but the messaging was not “become more self-sufficient so we can mitigate disaster” but “buy more stuff and don’t do anything fun.” It was depressing to me how many people embraced this line of reasoning, turning government-mandated sloth into some kind of perverted virtue.
I appreciated the break that The Age of The Virus afforded us, but it came with the severe curtailment of liberty—and Americans ate it up! Instead of people boldly throwing ravers and partying down, laughing at our elites, we instead retreated into our hovels, shuddering in the dark. When I did through a big Halloween bash, it was a massive success—because, I suppose, people had finally had it.
I guess that’s the silver lining. With that, here’s 3 April 2020’s “Phone it in Friday XI: Coronavirus Conundrum, Part IV: Liberty in the Age of The Virus” (perhaps the longest title of any blog post ever):
The Age of The Virus is unprecedented. Well, not entirely—major plagues and pandemics have swept the world before. What’s unprecedented this time is the wholesale closure of the most commerce, along with rigid governmental and social admonitions to “social distance” and “shelter-in-place.” Tin-pot municipal tyrants and State governors are engaged in a virtue-signalling race to see who can curtail liberties more rapidly and completely.
Pointing out this reality opens one to social scorn. It’s amusing—and a bit frightening—to see the earnestness with which some Americans cling to their new mantras, the articles of faith handed down from the CDC and various government apparatchiks. Even as our knowledge of The Virus seems to change daily, these public health acolytes cling to the every pronouncement from so-called “experts.”
Please don’t misunderstand me. Yes, we should be vigilant about washing our hands and avoiding the accidental infection of one another, especially the elderly.
What concerns me is how quickly so many of us have been willing to accept greater degrees of control over our lives in the name of combating an invisible threat. But now it feels like we’re living in the episode of Sliders called “Fever,” in which a totalitarian CDC cracks down on Los Angeles because, in that universe, penicillin was never discovered.
We’re not at Sliders levels—yet—but with that acquiescence has come an expansion of government power at nearly every level. I am not a libertarian, and I fully expect a robust federal response to a difficult international situation (remember, The Virus came from CHI-NA). But that doesn’t mean local, State, or even federal authorities can simply hand-wave away the Constitution.
The Framers surely knew disease and death in their time. When the Constitution was drafted in 1787, there was no capability for directing society with relative efficiency; even if there were, though, they would not have wanted to use it to suspend liberties. The Framers surely knew there would be plagues and sickness in the United States, yet they included no clause such as “in the event of widespread sickness, these Articles contained heretofore in are, and of right to be, suspended until such time as the Congress shall deem suitable for public safety and the common welfare.”
Yet we see officials at the lowest levels of government telling people not just to stay home, but threatening to shut down churches and other assemblies. Doesn’t that violate the First Amendment protections of freedom of religion and freedom of assembly? Again, the prudent approach is for churches to accommodate the health of their congregants with remote services or other workarounds, but shouldn’t they be allowed to hold traditional services if they so choose?
The critics and medical scolds by now are howling with rage. “What do these gossamer rights mean when we’re dead?” Is that all anyone cares about? What happened to Patrick Henry’s fiery cry of “Give me liberty, or give me death?” What’s worse: death from worshiping the Lord, or life in a soulless, gutless, freedom-less world?
I’m not alone in my assessment here. Bill Whittle ripped into New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio earlier this week, arguing that His Dishonor’s promise to shut down churches that continue to congregate would represent a high-handed assault on the First Amendment. Even Whittle’s colleague Scott Ott thought Whittle’s defense of the Constitution was a bit rich, basically arguing that the Constitution can take a break during this outbreak.
I’m perceiving similarly expedient arguments among others on the Right. It’s disgusting how many folks on our side are running like slavering dogs to lap up the crumbs of authoritarianism. Whittle in the video above makes the compelling point that the Constitution functionally means nothing if any government official at any level can simply ignore its protections. He also correctly points out that these rights are God-given, part of our very human nature. No government can legitimately deprive us of them.
Another one of the saner voices is RazörFist, who also sees a great deal of big government chicanery in this pandemic (warning, Razör’s videos often contain strong language):
Z Man has also expressed skepticism about The Virus—or, at least, our draconian responses to it—and has received his share of scorn and dismissal. But in his post Wednesday, “Fermi’s Paradox,” he made an interesting allusion to E.M. Forster’s novella “The Machine Stops,” originally published in 1909. That short story (which I highly recommend you read—it has the same chilling effect as Kipling’s “The Mother Hive”) details a world in which humanity exists in a state of mindless, perpetual comfort, its every need attended to by The Machine.
In the story, humans have become so accustomed to cloistering in their little cells that they abhor face-to-face interaction, instead communicating via blue discs across great distances. They are so dependent upon The Machine, they come to worship it (an interesting development, as their society has “advanced” beyond the “superstition” of religious belief—another subtle point from Forster). They only travel on rare occasions, and avoid it unless absolutely necessary.
Eventually, The Machine deteriorates, with disastrous results; I will likely write about the story in more detail next week. For our purposes, it sounds eerily like our current society: shelter-in-place, “Stay at Home” (as digital signs on the Interstate tell me, implicitly scolding me for being on the highway), watch Netflix, #AloneTogether, etc., etc.—we’re told to be comfortable and to crave safety and comfort above all else. They are the highest goods.
We’re through the looking glass here. I’ve been pessimistic that we’re even living under the Constitution anymore, especially after the intelligence agencies attempted to overthrow a sitting President. Vestiges and scraps of it still reign, but they seem to be the exception. And most Americans don’t seem to care, so long as they can watch TV, the WiFi is working, and there is pizza.
We’re no longer the Roman Republic, but we’re not the Roman Empire in the 5th century, either. We’re more like the Roman Empire in the 2nd or 3rd centuries: coasting along on the remnants of a functioning system, with a play-acting Congress shadowing the motions of republicanism.
I hope I’m wrong. Regardless, wash your hands.