The COVID-19 pandemic and the destructive mitigation responses to it have certainly placed a heavy existential weight on democratic citizens. The social, political, and economic chaos of the past two years is profoundly disorienting. In the midst of such an unprecedented response, we are right to wonder about the very endurance of our modern liberal democratic regimes.
In Philosophy of Democratic Government, the French Catholic political philosopher Yves Simon (1903-61) argued why modern democracies have an inherent feature of political instability. For Simon,
preserving principles is more difficult in democracy than in any other regime as a result of liberalism, which implies that the principles of society and what its end is are not above deliberation and must be thrown into the universal competition of opinions. This is the jeopardizing of the principles without which social life no longer has an end or form.
The current crisis is not the result of the pandemic. Rather, the general Western response to the pandemic has exacerbated certain social and political conditions present prior to the arrival of the virus. The pandemic merely escalated an already existing form of disintegration. While there are many features of this present crisis, one that is most acutely felt and witnessed is a cultural condition including towards thoughtlessness.
With every passing week, this condition only becomes more visible. In particular, the Western response to the pandemic entailed a systematic attack to hide various aspects of the truth. This suppression comes primarily, although not exclusively, through a coordinated attack upon any counter-narrative which might argue the virus is not as worrisome as once originally held. The jargon of “scientific consensus” has now become a “useless” and empty tool employed to demonize those who question the apocalyptic narratives surrounding the virus. Nuance is forbidden, and any attempt to make clear distinctions and arguments necessitates public shaming and disrepute. The various social media monopolies have only continued to accelerate efforts to take down content that is deemed “undemocratic.”
Deeply troubled by such coordinated manipulation by the federal government, public health bureaucrats, tech companies, and big corporations, many have turned to defending freedom of speech and thought. The most significant threat to the West, according to this line of argument, is that our speech is being censored. Once this happens, totalitarianism is on the horizon.
And while there is certainly something deeply true in this claim, the argument often overlooks a more insidious reality. The attempt to label such certain forms of speech or thought as undemocratic, or misinformation, is not fundamentally about free speech. What we are witnessing is the direct annihilation of truth. With great precision, the late political philosopher Fr. James V. Schall, in The Mind that is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays, reveals the social and political trajectory of such a logic:
…if the polity “makes” truth because nothing higher than it exists, we lose our capacity, by right, to oppose any structure of the city except on the basis of another, more powerful will. Thus, nothing can, strictly speaking, be “wrong” with any polity as such, since its origin lies exclusively in will and political will dependent on no order outside itself… In this way, transcendence, of whatever form, has disappeared into politics.
In Schall’s judgment, there is an intrinsic connection between the abolition of truth and the eclipse of transcendence. Once truth is put asunder, the void it leaves will be substituted by the gradual, yet real, totalizing power of politics. At a fundamental level, such a paradigm shift means that human praxis becomes supreme. Contemplative and speculative thought become increasingly difficult. More than this, such thought seems unintelligible. Calling to mind Michael Hanby’s astute observation, the manifestation of such a condition is perhaps best described in the following manner: democratic citizens have become very good at doing things which we are almost entirely incapable of thinking through.
Examples abound, so lets refer to something proximate and controversial, namely, the current COVID-19 vaccinations. Regardless of one’s political commitments or vaccination philosophy, a common argument states that we should get a vaccine because the good of others (i.e., health) is at stake. In other words, since we are communal beings, and must will the good of others, it is therefore necessary to get vaccinated. A further element of this logic could even go so far as to say that the height of charity, of loving others as yourself, could not have a higher exemplar than “the vaccinated”.
While this argument has convincing power, its fallacy stems not from the fact that it is wrong. Rather, the argument is empty. The most telling lacuna in this position is the failure to provide an actual account of what the vaccines are. What we are permitted to care about is vaccine safety and efficacy. However, such concerns are secondary to the more fundamental question regarding their nature or essence. It is once this questioned is properly answered that one can then, in prudence, judge whether or not a vaccine is good, and thus worth taking.
Such inklings towards thoughtlessness ought to disturb us. We must, nonetheless, not let ourselves miss something else going on beneath the surface of our increasingly despotic regime. Perhaps it is right to say that we are witnessing at some level a robust and uniquely democratic push against what Francis Fukuyama called the “end of history” dialectic. There appears to be signs of philosophic life, wherein liberal democracy and politics can come to be seen as lacking the capacity for exhausting the totality of human flourishing. There is real vitality when citizens have the opportunity, along the political and philosophic resources, to wonder about their paradigms of truth.
The quantity of signs showing this philosophic vitality needs continued attention. There is, for instance, this group of critical care doctors who are prescribing an early treatment physiologic-based protocol called MATH for anyone who tests positive for COVID-19. There is also the work done by epidemiologist John Ioannidis; his meta-research demonstrated the overwhelming falsity of much so-called “evidence-based science” published in medical and scientific journals. Ioannidis has been at the forefront of calling into question the reliability of our COVID-19 data, and the prudence surrounding the supposed effectiveness of various Non-Pharmaceutical Inteventions. Additionally, former New York Times journalist Alex Berenson, author of the best-selling Pandemia: How Coronavirus Hysteria Took Over Our Government, Rights, and Lives, has done a deep dive in pushing back against the predominant narratives surrounding the infection and fatality rates of COVID-19, as well as the many questions and problems surrounding vaccines. A myriad of other names and associations could be offered here that are as scientific as they are philosophic.
In classical political philosophy, the so-called democratic proclivity entails a bent towards those standards of justice disconnected from both truth and moderation. As the theologico-political thinker Leo Strauss argues, this is why Plato and Aristotle were hesitant to portray democracy as the best regime, since democratic citizens seemed to have a stable opposition to philosophy. In Strauss’ understanding, the perennial battle within democracy is that of continually attempting to create truth, only allowing certain pre-approved thoughts, feelings, or worldviews. Such a condition is one in which tyranny is less authoritarian in a strict sense, but which nevertheless looms on the horizon. In this light, the stark contrast between democracy and philosophy is made manifest.
However, again, democratic citizens are pushing back. We are political animals, but we are also made to know the truth. Politics as a power grab is revealing itself for what it really is, namely, an attempt to transform our lives based upon no other standard than the individual or collective will. Perhaps we are witnessing, among democratic citizens, a reinvigorating pursuit of what is true. As a culture, we must see the present signs of a turn towards the philosophic for what it actually is, of what is unfolding before us.
We might simply described this as the hunt for truth. We should all be hopeful this is so. For the goal of philosophy is to grasp those eternal truths that cannot be subsumed under the direction or power of the city. If we can see the presence of philosophy as a principled bulwark against totalitarianism, then the possibility of thought is still alive in the democratic age.
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