COVID19, that ersatz apocalypse, has never come anywhere close to killing the two million Americans we were solemnly assured might succumb to it a few months ago. But, judging from the state of things on this year’s Independence Day, I’m afraid its propagandists in government and mass media may have actually done worse than that: they may have succeeded in killing America itself.
True, you’d never have guessed that from watching the display of fireworks that festooned my urban horizon after dark on the Fourth of July – American’s annual orgy of self-congratulation intended to commemorate the colonies’ declaration of independence from Great Britain in 1776. I suppose you can always count on the American public to explode things with relish – it’s just a pity they haven’t taken a similar pleasure in exploding the deceptions of their ruling class.
Watching those futile bursts of sound and color (produced by a population that has effectively been living under dictatorship since early March), I found myself wishing for a genuine eruption, like the one that poured out of Frederick Douglass in 1852 as that former slave lambasted the hypocrisy of celebrating the Declaration of Independence’s pronouncement “all men are created equal” in a land that tolerated – in fact, demanded – the subjugation of a huge proportion of its inhabitants:
I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! […] America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future […] I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery – the great sin and shame of America!”
Today, I sit in an apartment building in which I am not permitted to walk without a muzzle on my face, in a city full of churches and synagogues where people are still forbidden to worship normally (it is Big Brother, not God, to whom we must turn in the Coming of Corona), in a state where the performing arts are banned, where holding hands in public can get you fined, where thousands of retail businesses may operate only under absurd restrictions – and where all these confinements issue from the arbitrary will of a governor who has unilaterally declared himself above the legislature, the courts and the Constitution.
Today, in short, every citizen of New Jersey lives under the rule of a police state. And it’s no better for the inhabitants of thirty or more other states in what we used to call “the land of the free,” where tens of millions of new unemployment applications and the mushrooming of what experts call “diseases of despair” attest to the brutal victory of the lockdown maniacs over the Bill of Rights.
And what’s the reaction? From the mainstream news media – silence. From America’s public intellectuals – silence. From politicians who once boasted of mumbling a few words in criticism of the Patriot Act or of the Republican Party for its policy of “voter suppression” – silence.
Where are today’s Frederick Douglasses to lament the wholesale destruction of democracy? Who mourns for a United States of America that in less than four months has tossed aside whatever remained of the Bill of Rights with no more ceremony than if it were peeling a potato?
One hardly knows whether to laugh or to cry when reviewing the contrast between what does and doesn’t appear in what we charitably call our “news” media. In the last few days, I have repeatedly read dire warnings about the possible consequences of combining fireworks with hand sanitizer, it being assumed (I guess) that no self-respecting American would dream of venturing outside to set off a Roman candle without washing his hands in antiseptic solution at least once every ten minutes. Such is the power of brainwashing.
Then there’s the piece dated July 2 in the grand old National Geographic, explaining yet again (this time on the basis of a hastily-constructed “model”) that COVID19 is at least 50 to 100 times as lethal as a typical flu. The premises underlying the new “model” look suspiciously flimsy to me, but since I’m not a scientist I’ll set that question aside in favor of one that must be obvious to anyone who can nudge the needle on an EEG.
It’s simply this: if COVID19 is “at least” fifty times as deadly as the seasonal flu; and if the official statistics of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention routinely attribute more than 30,000 annual deaths in the U.S. to seasonal flu (which they do); then doesn’t it follow that COVID19 would have to be responsible for at least one and half million deaths in this country, by the article’s own reckoning? Yet we all know the lockdown-lovers themselves aren’t predicting a death toll even remotely that high. In a word, this claim (like so many others) is nothing more than fear-mongering propaganda; the purveyors can’t possibly believe their own hype.
Meanwhile, I searched mainstream media in vain for comment about things more eventful than tips on hand sanitizers or yet another carnival barker talking up the Terrors of the Corona.
We’ve known for some time now that “service sector jobs” – that is, jobs held overwhelmingly by the working poor – have been “decimated as a result of the coronavirus shutdowns.” And we know that millions of Americans who rent their dwellings will likely face eviction soon because of the soaring levels of poverty that have resulted from our masters’ touching concern for our health. Yet I could find no expressions of worry about these facts from any of the media’s professional pundits as they prepared to watch Fourth of July fireworks from the comfort of their living rooms.
Nor was there one single news item about an event I found to be of some political significance, particularly at a time our nation memorializes a revolt against arbitrary British rule. I refer to the diktat issued by the governor of my state on July 2, by which – for the fourth time in as many months – he unilaterally extended New Jersey’s “state of emergency,” thus granting himself quasi-dictatorial powers to keep the citizenry under lock and key.
I have pointed out in previous articles that the dissolution of democracy undertaken several months ago in forty separate states (including mine) was grounded in a law designed for catastrophic incidents of biological terrorism – something not even remotely approximated by the coronavirus – and that even if these declarations of emergency were valid (a dubious proposition at best), the imposition of mass quarantines that placed most of the population under virtual house arrest were likely illegal and probably amounted to violations of the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of “due process of law.”
Compounding all this with a fourth unilateral extension of his one-man rule, Governor Murphy went to the breath-bereaving extreme of eschewing the separation of powers altogether. His explanation of the continuing “emergency” that justified shredding New Jersey law and the U.S. Constitution has to be read to be believed, so I am forced to quote more of it than weak stomachs may be able to bear at one sitting:
[D]ue to the significant emergency measures the State has taken in response to COVID-19, there has now been a decrease in the rate of reported new cases of COVID-19 in New Jersey, in the total number of individuals being admitted to hospitals for COVID-19, and in the rate of reproduction for COVID-19 infections in New Jersey… [G]iven the progress the State has made based on these emergency measures…I announced [a month ago] a multi-stage New Jersey’s Road Back Plan (the “Plan”) for the methodical and strategic reopening of businesses and activities…[and] in line with the Plan, the State has been able to relax a number of restrictions…
[However,] the renewal of the declaration of the ongoing Public Health Emergency is necessary to allow the State to continue with the Plan to allow for the methodical and strategic reopening of the State… [T]he renewal of the declaration of the ongoing Public Health Emergency is also necessary to ensure that the State can swiftly respond to take all appropriate actions should the rate of reported new cases of COVID-19 in New Jersey, number of individuals being admitted to hospitals for COVID-19, or rate of reproduction for COVID-19 infections in New Jersey increase once more, as we are now seeing in numerous states across the country.
Got that? New cases of COVID-19 are decreasing, as are hospitalizations. (The death rate is so low that the governor doesn’t even bother to mention it.) In fact, even under Murphy’s Law – the only law we’ve had in New Jersey for four months – excuses for confining the citizenry are wearing so thin that the governor has already begun to ease (though not to eliminate) lockdown restrictions.
So what’s the emergency? I need to keep my quasi-dictatorial powers, says the governor, in order to decide exactly how and when I will give you some of your rights back (my “Plan”), and how and when I will surrender my own quasi-dictatorial powers. In other words: the emergency is the threatened return of democracy itself! Until Murphy has everything he wants, better forget those silly ideas about popular government.
Oh, and the facts don’t matter either, since if New Jersey were a different state its facts might be different too, and since the facts don’t matter the situation can be anything the governor wants it to be, and therefore…but you get the drift.
Now, one might have thought such a naked assault on representative government – signed less than 48 hours before Independence Day – would elicit some comment from the pundit class, especially in connection with the annual shindig in which we celebrate our ancestors’ rejection of “taxation without representation.”
But guess again. As far as I can tell, the news media didn’t even consider the story worth reporting, let alone lamenting.
So much for Independence Day, 2020. Land of the captive, home of the cowed. And not a peep from our public intellectuals.
You can see why I could not join in the day’s celebrations with a clear conscience. Like Frederick Douglass, I wanted to howl that “the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July!” And, like him, I longed to hear other Americans echo my mourning for the “humanity which is outraged,” the “liberty which is fettered,” the Constitution that is “disregarded and trampled upon.” I still do.
Is this too harsh? I would welcome a refutation of my assessment, but I am not optimistic that defenders of the lockdowns can identify a redeeming virtue I’ve missed. Meanwhile – since anyone who repudiates the web of lies spun around COVID19 must immediately face a whole army of straw men – let me preemptively knock down at least a few of them.
All this was necessary to avert a medical emergency. Sorry: that argument hasn’t a leg to stand on. It has been a long time since anyone could claim, with a straight face, that COVID19 resembles a bioterror attack putting tens of millions of lives in jeopardy, or that normal democratic processes are incapable of responding to the health problems posed by one more influenza-like virus.
Bear in mind that not a single lockdown order has a viable legal basis apart from the special provisions of the Emergency Health Powers Act (which exists in somewhat different versions in all fifty states), since no such measure was ever passed by a legislature or approved by a court. But even the EHPA requires the existence of a genuine emergency to justify depositing all the power of the state government into a single pair of hands.
Governor Murphy himself admitted a month ago the steadily declining number of COVID19 cases and COVID19-related hospitalizations in New Jersey, thus effectively writing himself straight into the status of usurper rather than governor. Even if you take all of Murphy’s pronouncements at face value, no amount of good intentions can atone for an illegal assumption of power.
And supposing you can believe, after four months of COVID19’s lackluster performance as the modern incarnation of The Blob, that our national situation represents such an emergency that we can only respond by cowering under our beds and submitting to dictatorial rule, you should still object to the governors’ flagrant disregard for the terms of the very statutes they’ve been invoking.
New Jersey’s version of the EHPA requires – even in emergencies – a court order for every quarantine, plus official notice that persons under quarantine have the right to seek a court’s intervention after being confined. Murphy has never even paid lip service to those provisions of the law.
Consider the implications of that fact. If someone ordered you at gunpoint to stay at home for several months, except for certain limited trips to places he approved and on conditions he dictated, he’d be guilty of kidnapping and subject to prosecution for a felony. Is similar violence any less outrageous when committed, illegally, by a state’s chief executive?
What they’ve done was better than nothing. Rubbish. One can only assess the policy by weighing the public cost against the public gain, and any marginal benefit accruing from the artificial prolongation of the COVID19 outbreak will almost certainly be overwhelmed by the misery – and death – that will result from the ensuing financial chaos. By that standard alone, any such eupeptic rationalization is untenable.
But apart from that, the argument rests on a fallacy. It was never a question of either doing nothing or doing what the democracy-destroyers imposed on us. There were always alternatives. Our ruling class could have acted within the law; it could have engaged the public honestly, not with propaganda and scare tactics; it could have focused on protecting the most vulnerable populations while allowing the virus to spread where it would do little harm, thus hastening its departure as populations developed antibodies to resist the infection.
These alternatives, and others like them, were offered early on by reputable professionals – but they were shouted down with slanders by all the Right Thinkers, who then lectured the public that we were being lied to, confined and impoverished for our own good. I only wish more of us had fought back.
The new “surge” in coronavirus cases proves that there was something to the lockdown policy, after all. Characteristically, the Right Thinkers are asserting their most egregiously disingenuous argument with the greatest vehemence. It’s really hard to know which is more breathtaking – the number of lies they’re prepared to tell, or their apparent certainty that we won’t notice.
At first, they led us to believe that if we submitted meekly to mass house arrest, the disease would go away and we could soon return to our normal lives. The disease didn’t go away, so we were served up a second rationale. That was the “flatten the curve” paradigm, according to which it was better for the outbreak to develop slowly in order to ensure that our health care system (which had been weakened for decades by deliberate underfunding, but that’s another fact we aren’t supposed to notice) could cope more efficiently with serious cases.
But if the outbreak was to be slowed, it was also to be prolonged: the two things are logically inseparable. In other words, the lockdown policy always assumed that once restrictions were eased, the outbreak would continue, though it would likely spread somewhat less rapidly than before. That renewed spread cannot, therefore, be considered a problem and certainly is not a surprise.
On the contrary, it is part and parcel of the policy imposed on us by our rulers, and it can only be treated as dangerous if the renewed spread is so rapid that our hospitals cannot keep pace with it. That appears unlikely; I do not see states frantically building temporary facilities, recruiting health care aides or begging charitable organizations to send volunteers into the hospitals. So I remain unimpressed by all the hype about a dreaded “second wave.”
Besides, if the governors and their minions are truly unprepared for this part of the process, after so much time and knowing all the key facts from the beginning, they have only themselves to blame.
It cannot be stressed often enough that the outbreak of a highly infectious respiratory virus ends only when a certain level of immunity is achieved in the general population.
That’s not to say that we are helpless during such an outbreak. We can try to divert the infection away from the most vulnerable while it runs its course – something our rulers refused to do. We can offer early testing and treatment to those who need it – something lockdown policies implicitly discouraged. We can seek out the most effective treatments for those in the greatest distress – a simple imperative to which American responses have been notoriously uneven.
But the idea that the disease will just go away if we all obey Big Brother is a fantasy. And the longer we believe the fantasy, the longer we’ll be fleeced of our rights. That’s a dangerous pattern indeed. If we tolerate our captivity long enough, our rulers will throw away the key.
Where does this leave us? Cynics may say I’m singing my dirge over American democracy too late. Some have dated the end of the Republic from the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Glenn Greenwald (With Liberty and Justice for Some) and Matt Taibbi (The Divide) have both argued that even the aspiration toward equality under the law has been under assault at least since the beginning of the present century.
One might go back still farther, blaming the elevation of the rights of corporations over those of human beings (a judicial process launched over a hundred years ago) for the ultimate death of democracy in the United States.
But it is one thing to watch the nation move, inch by inch, closer to the brink of a precipice; it is quite another to witness it careening over the edge. We’ve played fast and loose with notions of equality and popular government for a long time. Never before, at least in my lifetime, have we allowed our rulers to openly suspend democracy and to repudiate the Bill of Rights.
Worse, we have listened quietly – some of us eagerly – as media pundits denounced aggrieved people for protesting the denial of their basic liberties, assuring us that anything but abject obedience to the arbitrary, lawless edicts of the State was an act of social irresponsibility. We have even tolerated overt censorship on social media, possibly the one form of general communication with some remaining democratic possibilities.
And so I mourn.
Will the next Independence Day be as bad as this one, a mix of hypocritical patriotism and indefensible submission? I hope not, believing as I still do in the abiding value of democratic institutions. And for the few words of encouragement I know, I turn again to Frederick Douglass, who noted toward the end of his 1852 Independence Day oration:
Long established customs of hurtful character could formerly fence themselves in, and do their evil work with social impunity. Knowledge was then confined and enjoyed by the privileged few, and the multitude walked on in mental darkness. But a change has now come over the affairs of mankind. Walled cities and empires have become unfashionable. The arm of commerce has borne away the gates of the strong city. Intelligence is penetrating the darkest corners of the globe….
What was true in Douglass’ time is even truer today. Knowledge cannot easily be stifled. Walls cannot fence in an informed and enlivened public. If we allow our rulers to scare us into enslavement over the phony fear of a moderately serious flu virus, we may not really deserve to be free in the first place.
But cowardice is not inevitable; it has to be chosen. I pray we make the right choices in the coming year.