I’ve been reading Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and her follow-up The Testaments (now of course, a four-part series on Hulu), largely to understand both the conditions and the thinking that need to occur for a totalitarian government to take hold of a liberal democracy.
The most interesting thing about the Handmaid’s far-right Old Testament-thumping Sons of Jacob, who stage a coup, assassinate the entire US government, and transform most of America into Gilead, Attwood’s imagined puritanical country, is that they are infused with a moral imperative to ‘protect’ America, essentially to save it from what it has become.
They want to deliver us from our moral degeneracy, from a dangerously plummeting birth rate, from the detritus of modern society: toxic chemicals, nuclear fall-out, toxic waste.
You could even argue that their system of creating a hierarchy of enslaved women was carried out, bizarrely enough, ostensibly to ‘protect’ women – from the lascivious dangers of men and even more, to the Sons’ collective mind, from the polluting dangers of ideas.
So the bottom line is that the justifying principle behind their entire fascistic structure was, to their minds, the perfectly laudable desire to keep the population safe.
And that’s true of virtually all fascist organizations. Create a bogey man and then impose the restrictive structures, all in the name of protecting the population.
Hitler rose to power on this promise, to restore the greatness of Germany, to save it from poverty and what he fervently believed was the cause of its downfall: Jews, Catholics, homosexuals and other ‘deviants.’
It could never happen here, you say.
And it’s true – all-out coup d’etats that kill democracy in a stroke are pretty rare these days. In 1973, you had Augusto Pinochet’s coup in Chile, where the takeover (purportedly aided by the US) was overt: tanks parade the streets, the presidential palace is bombed and burnt, President Salvador Allende dies, the constitution is suspended, any dissenters eliminated.
Boom, job done.
Today, the process is much more insidious: a democracy dies a leisurely death, carried out by elected officials, all in the name of our best interests, some imagined democratic ideal. We still vote, our constitution and democratic structures remain intact, but one by one, the freedoms we have taken for granted subtly disappear.
It could never happen here.
Just ponder what most Western governments are doing in the name of keeping us ‘safe’ from our current bogey man: Covid.
I live here in the UK, so I can be most specific about examples here. But it is happening everywhere in the West, including America.
Most Western countries carried out lockdowns, shutting businesses for months, causing economic calamity and prohibiting free movement of people. The UK has only been fully opened five of the last 16 months.
During the first wave of Covid, the UK Parliament voted in a Coronavirus Act, and then relied on other legislation (the Civil Contingencies Act 2004), giving the current UK government powers usually reserved for time of war: the right to create regulations without Parliamentary debate or assent and without complying with statutory duties that it would normally have to comply with and enabling it to take actions that it would not normally be allowed to take, such as restricting or prohibiting events or gatherings and closing businesses, schools and universities.
The UK government has a free rein, essentially, to do what it likes in the name of Covid.
In the UK, Ofcom, short for the Office of Communications, is a government-approved regulatory and competition authority for the broadcasting, telecommunications and postal industries.
Ofcom’s job is to ensure that the Broadcasting Code is upheld, so that, for instance, content inappropriate for children should not be broadcast between certain hours. It is not supposed to censor content that does not agree with government policy.
Nevertheless, when Covid struck, Ofcom sent an advisory to all broadcasting stations about Covid, informing all broadcasters of the ‘significant potential harm that can be caused by material relating to the Coronavirus,’ including health claims related to the virus which may be harmful; medical advice which may be harmful; or ‘accuracy or material misleadingness in programs in relation to the virus or public policy regarding it.’
It goes on: ‘Ofcom will consider any breach arising from harmful Coronavirus-related programming to be potentially serious and will consider taking appropriate regulatory action, which could include the imposition of a statutory sanction.’
This means that a government agency is determining what is true and what is not true about what that same government is saying about Covid and threatening to apply sanctions to any broadcaster not toeing the party line.
For the public, Ofcom has taken upon itself to offer a separate page on its website for the public where it focuses on ‘debunking common misconceptions or harmful claims about the coronavirus’ so that we can all ‘share’ information responsibly.
President Joe Biden has prevailed upon social media companies to determine what is true and what is fake news about Covid and police it accordingly. Alphabet Inc.’s Google has now announced that its YouTube video service henceforth label health videos with information on how authoritative the source is. Twitter promises to ‘take enforcement action on content that violates our Covid-19 misleading information policy.’
Sounds like a good thing to do, right? Get rid of fake news? However, in every instance, the US government is essentially determining what is true or fake news and strong-arming Big Tech to eliminate any dissenting content that dissents from the government program on Covid.
Many governments have begun to enforce vaccine passports for travel or even for free movement to restaurants, bars/pubs, theaters and large events. New York, that bastion of liberalism, is trialing vaccine passports.
As the Spectator wrote: ‘Once an electronic ID is established as part of everyday life, there will be no getting rid of it. These products will be pushed relentlessly, obliging us to prove our health (perhaps flu jab) status, creditworthiness, our lack (or otherwise) of criminal convictions and many things besides.”
I am NOT arguing that Covid isn’t a nasty and dangerous virus and the vulnerable should not be protected. I am not anti-vaxx. What I’m arguing is that, ostensibly in the name of keeping people safe, we are demolishing every last pillar of liberal democracy.
As Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, professors of government at Harvard University, wrote in their book How Democracies Die, “This is how elected autocrats subvert democracy – packing and ‘weaponizing’ the courts and other neutral agencies, buying off the media and the private sector (or bullying them into silence) and rewriting the rules of politics to tilt the playing field against opponents. The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy – gradually, subtly, and even legally – to kill it.”
It could never happen here.
To an alarming degree, it already has.
I am not afraid of Covid. I am afraid of what, in the name of Covid, we are doing to ourselves.
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