Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Briefing Room, Tuesday, March 24, 2020, in Washington, as Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, listens. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
The strength of free peoples resides in the local community. Local institutions are to liberty what primary schools are to science: they put it within the people’s reach; they teach people to appreciate [liberty’s] peaceful enjoyment and accustom them to make use of it.
- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835)
The Wuhan virus presented a rare opportunity for progressives in America to accelerate a century-long project: turn Americans into rootless, autonomous, isolated units with the state as their only shared point of reference.
The virus was the perfect storm. It granted progressives a pretext to disperse local communities and institutions–such as churches and schools–and force citizens to rely on state-sanctioned technocrats to tell them how and when to go about every aspect of their lives. The philosophical imperative of ‘safetyism’–a growing force for years–served as the pretext to suspend traditional civil liberties and govern by centralized decree.
Nominally ‘free’ persons languished by themselves at home, glued to news reports from the mainstream media and press conferences from politicians and stripped of any right to gather and discuss local disagreement with the atomization of their collective life. Every lonely eye was turned from nearby duties and relationships to distant centers of power, whether state capitals or Washington, DC:
“Will that fossilized, self-admitted liar Dr. Fauci dwelling in the DC swamp say it’s safe for me to go out in Portland for a meal today …?”
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The myth of the autonomous, loosely connected, yet fulfilled American has been solidifying for decades, courtesy of progressive liberalism and their allies in Hollywood. Long before Fauci & Friends instructed us to keep away from other human beings, the Lone American was already holding the world at pole’s length and wearing a protective ‘mask’ of sorts. If anything, the CDC decrees came as a welcome excuse to formalize isolation. The Lone American’s ideal happened to be that fed to him by popular anti-culture: living a single and exciting life in a city apartment, using acquaintances for sex and companionship when required, but otherwise content alone at home with a cat, a TV, and a rip-roaring internet connection.
The Lone American treats families and communities of origin as icky throwbacks, to be endured bi-annually on holidays but otherwise stored back in Iowa. Social distance is what “freedom” has come to mean: self-created person-units who select their own gender, pronouns, factitious community, “family of choice”, hair color, “lifestyle”, and private spiritualism–all free from the “oppression” of traditional religion, community, family, or other local and grounding forces. No messy commitments, no lifelong entanglements, no allegiance to any place.
Rarely are these successful, urbane mega-individualists portrayed hanging themselves from their tasteful penthouse chandeliers upon losing the battle with loneliness, meaninglessness, and anomie. Only in academic statistics do we hear of skyrocketing suicide, depression, and anxiety all around us–those quiet pathologies squeezing out from the cracks and threatening to upend the myth. The ancient Greek and Judaic wisdom that man is a social animal not meant to be alone reasserts itself in spite of progressives’ best efforts.
Exemplifying the transformation that has unfolded from the rooted to the rootless is ‘social media’, that great contradiction in terms. Americans have traded thick congregations and communities for loose and fungible ‘networks’ of pseudo-friends and family easy to drop or ignore. It’s tempting to see cause-and-effect in this transformation, but that would be a mistake. Social media did not cause the fragmenting of American culture; rather, it is one attractive tool among many for the Lone American building his new mode of existence–an arm’s-length consumer of society, rather than a creator and participant of society.
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Progressive liberals hate community. They throw the word around all the time, but what they really mean by it is ‘engineered social system.’ Real community–thick, in-person commitments emerging spontaneously over time out of shared interdependence and values–imposes responsibilities and restricts choice. In the place of authentic community, progressives have substituted shallow intercourse with seemingly lots of choice–“choose from 5 72 genders!”–but moderated by a central authority. Think of the way social media allows you to build a public persona from drop-down menus curated by some perpetual adolescent in Silicon Valley, who excises any ‘online community’, persona, or speech that runs afoul of the tech industry’s fussy code of homogeneity.
The goal of progressive liberalism is a population of actors leading hermetically sealed private lives, even when at work or other physical proximity to one another. They are getting their wish. Children today do not want to be doctors, firefighters, teachers, builders, or other beacons of in-person community service. When polled, they want to be ‘YouTube stars’ or ‘influencers’–professional narcissists who get paid for taking photos or videos of themselves to post on the internet.
The United States is witnessing a shift that has repeated itself everywhere the idea of ‘progress’ has been enforced on a nation: the shift from ‘social man’ to ‘socialized man.’ Government control of the means of production–the dictionary definition of ‘socialism’–demands homogenization of the populace and of the culture to achieve its goals. Robust families, communities, and local diversity must be dissolved by force and replaced with standardization, with centralized procedures. The populace must be brought to understand that their freedom of choice–in consumables, sexual gratification, employment privileges, etc.–depends on the central government’s power to bulldoze traditional ways of living to make way for the Great Oneness.
The result well may be national socialism. If that phrase rings familiar, it’s because the Nazi Party was officially called the National Socialist German Worker’s Party. The United States today stands much closer to national socialism than it does to a communist brand of totalitarianism.
Progressives denigrate family, community, religion, and patriotism as illusions, as mere constructs to be eradicated by reason and ‘social science’ (which isn’t science at all) on the way to a ‘correct’ society with an overweening state. But even granting for a moment progressives’ central premise, who is to say illusions are always unhealthy for a people? As the poet and philosopher Giacomo Leopardi wrote in the 1830s:
Illusions are natural, inherent to the system of the world. When they are removed completely or almost completely, man is denatured, and every denatured people is barbarous … And reason, by making us naturally inclined to pursue our own advantage, and removing the illusions that bind us to one another, dissolves society absolutely and turns people to savagery.
One could be forgiven for thinking Leopardi was writing about present-day America: a denatured populace pursuing their own separate advantage and lapsing at some times and places now into savagery.
That same Tocqueville quoted at the beginning also wrote: “Feelings and ideas are renewed, the heart enlarged, and the understanding developed only by the reciprocal action of men upon one another.” Civilized community exercised day after day quells the barbarism in the human animal.
The United States is losing that “reciprocal action,” replacing it with one-way state action on socially isolated individuals. Americans’ favorite phrase has changed from “We should …” to “The government should ….” While convenient at times, this disconnected way of life must surely come back to haunt us, and soon.