It is sometimes said that tyranny is when the people fear their government; liberty is when the government fears the people.
The pandemic has made this real. Government officials locking down cities and towns, deeming some parts of society essential and others unnecessary. Ordering even sole proprietors to keep their doors closed, shutter their businesses and watch their long-built livelihoods crumble. Telling churches to seal off the tabernacle and the pews. Arresting some who attend non-sanctioned gathering outside a funeral in Brooklyn and at a drive thru service in Mississippi.
This is tyranny.
Yelling “Science!” doesn’t change this. Especially when time has shown the experts to be inexpert – don’t wear masks, wear masks; stay inside, go outside; the virus spreads/doesn’t spread/might spread from surfaces; summer heat won’t/will/might stop the spread of the virus.
How the directives are offered doesn’t change it either. Whether the mayor wears a sweater and pleasant smile or sneers from behind his microphone makes no difference. One hides his contempt for his plebes perhaps better than the other but the message is the same: the resulting job loss and destitution will be for our own good. Tyrants don’t deliver information and allow free people to decide, they decide for them. And the threat of force is implicitly – and sometimes explicitly – present.
The pandemic also gave us a glimpse of liberty. Several weeks in, protective-mask-wearing citizens began assembling on the steps of statehouses. Social media posts were written. Questions started to be asked. Business owners courageously pressed elected leaders for answers. For a few short weeks, we received a re-education on the basics – or maybe the “essentials” – of federalism. Yes, the first amendment. But the ninth and tenth, too: the secret sauce resides not in centralized power but with the people.
And in April and May, those people began saying – okay, we get it – we have a pandemic here. It’s serious stuff and it’s not an easy time. But our government is treating adults like children. While its role should be to safeguard rights and ensure individuals have information to make informed decisions, it should leave free citizens to freely decide how best to take care of themselves and their families. Some of us will choose to stay home. Others won’t. Mindful of the need to safeguard their property and those with whom they rely on to do business, businesses themselves will determine how best to keep their employees and customers safe. Some will close. Some temporarily, some longer. Some will learn what works by observing market competitors before proceeding. Customers will do the same, determining which places deserve patronage and which don’t. But the result would be to revitalize the economic freedom to choose and right to refuse which make our free marketplace function.
But government mandates telling a family-run jewelry store or the ma and pa clock repair shop to turn the lights out indefinitely? Federal directives on social distancing?
Perhaps Senator Barrasso from Wyoming had the best response: people in his state have been social distancing for 130 years.
At some point, elected officials from New Jersey to Michigan will face free citizens at the ballot box. But the more immediate fear among politicians is that their edicts will be ignored and their impotency publicly revealed. That is what ensures liberty.
It’s called a republic. It’s nice to see and the reminder – amidst an otherwise depressing crisis – has been a shot-in-the-arm.
But if the pandemic has reminded us what it looks like when people fear government and when government fears people, the past two weeks have demonstrated what it is when people fear people.
It is chaos. And chaos is what is playing out on the nighttime streets of our nation’s cities. From the storefronts of downtown Manhattan to the sidewalks of St. Louis to Olympic Park in Atlanta. Sheer and utter chaos.
As Catholics, we ask ourselves how to process such mayhem.
We’re reminded that the cardinal virtue of prudence requires us to discern what it is and what it is not.
We start there: burning down buildings, torching cars, and desecrating churches is not protesting. It’s not assembling. It’s rioting. Plain and simple.
The virtue of fortitude requires us to stand firm and say what must be said, even when – perhaps especially when – elite institutions from academe to Wall Street vilify those who dissent from the politically correct view.
Here it is: no matter what the supposed motivation for this rioting – it is never right. Never.
And make no mistake: it is most definitely not justice.
In fact, looting stores – whether it’s the independently-run pawn shop or the high-end Neiman Marcus – is the definition of intemperance. I want it, I deserve it, I’m going to take it. That is the stuff we teach our children never to do. It cannot somehow in any way be judged different or acceptable because the party doing it feels aggrieved.
That is incoherence.
Acknowledging this should be simple. Sadly, for the intelligentsia, it is apparently not.
The following is also a simple pronouncement: the murder of George Floyd is an abomination. Snuffing out the life of an unarmed man not in any way resisting arrest is what jack-booted thugs in third world countries do. It is not what American law enforcement officers do. It is a horrific affront to human dignity, an outrage and a crime. And it should be prosecuted as such. We grieve with his family and pray for his soul.
Is there any disagreement about this? I know of none.
So why is there confusion over the looting? Our universities, media and big businesses have rightly expressed horror over George Floyd’s murder but not the brutal aftermath.
Mayhem during which rioters shot and killed David Dorn, a 77-year old husband, father and grandfather. And David Patrick Underwood, a 53-year old guard standing post outside a federal courthouse. And Chris Beatty, a 38-year old former football player and business owner. Not to mention the dozens of other officers and bystanders at whom mobs hurled bricks or mowed down with speeding vehicles. Why are our elite institutions so morally confused about rioting? Why are they unwilling or unable to disavow it?
Big companies like Intel, Citigroup, Twitter, Nike, WarnerMedia, Nordstrom, Ben & Jerry’s, YouTube, TikTok, Netflix, Amazon, Twitch, Paramount, Starz and Hulu are publicly embracing Black Lives Matter. And these companies are not alone. The New York Times suggests that such action is another chapter in the push for “corporate social responsibility” and the job finding platform Handshake is urging other companies to follow suit. Some are answering the call with large donations – Cisco has pledged $5 million to Black Lives Matter and its affiliates. Others like Airbnb and DropBox are donating $500,000 to the cause.
So what is Black Lives Matter’s platform? At the end of May, the organization began a nationwide initiative to “defund the police.” It declares on its website that it aims to “disrupt the Western prescribed nuclear family structure.”
Robert P. George, the prolific Catholic scholar and writer on issues pertaining to the family and civic life, argues that “the two greatest institutions ever devised for lifting people out of poverty and enabling them to live in dignity are the market economy and the institution of marriage.” He adds, “these institutions will stand together or they will fall together. Contemporary statist ideologues have contempt for both of these institutions, and they fully understand the connection between them. We who believe in the market and in the family should see the connection no less clearly.”
If Intel, Citigroup, Twitter, Nike, WarnerMedia, Nordstrom, Ben & Jerry’s, YouTube, TikTok, Netflix, Amazon, Twitch, Paramount, Starz, Hulu, Cisco, Airbnb, DropBox have decided they are “all in” on the dismantling of the nuclear family and defunding the police and the inevitable implosion of civil society both will bring, I suppose we can take them at their word.
But Americans – both Catholics committed to our church’s social teaching and non-Catholics supportive of its tenets – should be encouraged to ask some questions of those universities, media moguls and Wall Street bigwigs who have made statements.
To those organizations: we know you are against the murder of George Floyd – no human being can be for it. But in a nation where we hold the individual who commits the murder responsible for that murder, you have decided to charge society – and, therefore all citizens collectively – with “systemic racism.” Accordingly, you owe us clarity: amidst the burning buildings, broken glass, smoldering storefronts, savage looting, pillaging, wreckage, carnage and chaos, two questions: what exactly is your claim against us? And is destroying society what you are now for?
Remember: it’s called a republic. But Benjamin Franklin aptly added, “If you can keep it.”
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