License Unlimited: Governmental Power in the Days of Pandemic


Scenes from the Rally to Reopen New Hampshire, 04/18/2020

The pandemic had discredited, shattered, and exposed many of our patriotic myths, though perhaps none of them are as salacious as the claim that the American government fears its citizens, and that this enduring “fear of the people” has stayed the hand of many a would-be tyrant or despot. When we promote this self-aggrandizing superstition, we seek to persuade ourselves of our supremacy—a supremacy earned, paradoxically enough, through our subservient relationship to the state—and simultaneously to reassure ourselves of our government’s impotence—an impotence developed, as you can probably imagine, through the state’s dominion over us. Fortunately, the incoherence of this creed has been irreversibly exposed in the time of the coronavirus, as the American people have submitted to their government’s repressive measures—unfathomable to those who have long believed in the “fear of the people”, but hardly unprecedented for this unfree nation.

According to the government, that amorphous institution of unlimited control, it reluctantly and humbly adopted these measures in order to protect its citizens from an uncommonly lethal disease. The American people have accepted this explanation, remarkably reminiscent of the justification for the revocation of civil liberties after 9/11, with nary a timid question or critique: six weeks into the pandemic, and there is still no popular discourse challenging the government’s motivation in sentencing three hundred million people to house arrest. The only controversy surrounds the need for, or efficacy of, such a massive lockdown: “Is this necessary? Is it working?” The official debate must adhere to the intellectual template approved by the government, the template stating that the government has always had the best intention, even if its actions were ill-advised.


You probably don’t need to be reminded that this is the same framework with which every foreign policy debate is introduced: we are told that the American government intended to do the right and honorable thing when it annihilated another nation (for imperialist violence is our foreign policy), but mistakes were made and the wrong, undesired outcome was achieved. Faith in our government remains paramount precisely because it attenuates and suffocates our intellect. Why else would we hear President Trump’s most bloodthirsty critics demand that his government continue to revoke the people’s freedom of movement? Conversely, why are those who are demanding an end to these restrictions sporting pro-Trump, pro-Republican Party merchandise at rallies in New Hampshire and elsewhere? It is because these groups cannot operate outside the structural limitations of state propaganda: in their mind, the government must provide the solution.


While criticism of the repressive measures—“the lockdown” being a minimalist euphemism—are allowed a public platform, their words must be packaged with praise for Trump. It is a telling sign of the times, and a surefire proof of the establishment’s unlimited reach, that the President of the United States, one of the most powerful men in the world, has become a countercultural icon, and his supporters characterized as lawless rebels. More to the point, his supporters have adopted these labels with pride, fancying themselves the freedom fighters of the twenty-first century when their energy is expended in defense of the figurehead of government. Will they someday understand the irony of their fight to empower the same “deep state” they deride? Probably not, for their faith in the honorable intentions of their preferred governmental operatives is indistinct from the patriotic faith of Americans generally.

While the American people, conservative or liberal, tell themselves that they are raging against the machine, the machine itself is learning about their docile behavior. When the government decided to combat the coronavirus by revoking many of our basic rights, the American people stood silent. There has been very little active resistance, even though the penalties for civil disobedience remain very mild; imagine how compliant and submissive we will be if the government decides to charge us with felonies with going outside. Our cooperation with this ludicrous process, our speedy and unconditional surrender, is very reassuring to the federal government: it confirms that the “fear of the people” pervasive in our collective subconscious is nothing more than a masturbatory fantasy. There is nothing to fear because the people won’t fight back, maybe because they know they can’t. The government’s so-called reaction to the coronavirus, and our own lack of a counter-reaction, form a fascinating social experiment, and the conclusion is simple: the American government can do anything it likes without any risk of retaliation.


Could it be that the American people cannot conceive of retaliation, or of justification to retaliate? Could it be that this lack of intellectual material is a greater impediment to action than any lack of weaponry? We limit ourselves to frivolous questions about whether the government should do all it has done, leaving the question of whether the government should have the power to do all it has done unconsidered. We have been conditioned and tamed to assume that the government does and should possess such a license, and the only question is when and if the government ought to use it. Alas, we never stop to recognize that, if the government has this license (as it clearly does), then our opinion on “when” and “why” is utterly irrelevant. The debates over this “when” and why”, centered on partisan patronage of one of the two major political parties, are irrelevant, too: hence why our government continues to permit us the right to hold them, and why we can expect them to continue long after the pandemic has ended.


One thought on “License Unlimited: Governmental Power in the Days of Pandemic”

  1. Very well said. This business has been a test, of whether or not one has become entirely ovine. And with exactly two exceptions, everyone I know has failed it.


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