The Brave New World of Coronavirus Safetyism

We have entered the seventh month of coronavirus panic, with large parts of America still partly or wholly shut down. What began as a 15-day expedient designed to “flatten the curve,” has gradually become the norm in American life. The goalposts have continued to shift. First, the focus was on hospital overcrowding; then it moved to overall deaths; then it moved to number of positive cases; now it seems to be shifting to the availability of a vaccine. The real endgame appears to be the November election.

Pandemics have been with us since the beginning of recorded history. While this one has been serious -- in terms of deaths per million, its about on par with the 1957-8 Asian flu pandemic -- fortunately, it has been orders of magnitude less virulent than the 1918 Spanish flu.

Some day, however, the pandemic will be behind us. When we look back, how will our unprecedented response to this virus be remembered? Will it be remembered as an authoritarian and financial nightmare, something to learn from and to never again be repeated? Or will it be viewed as the model response and a template for the future?

Dr. Anthony Fauci has left little doubt which side he’s on. Writing recently in Cell Press, Fauci and colleague David M. Morena wrote:

“The COVID-19 pandemic is yet another reminder, added to the rapidly growing archive of historical reminders, that in a human-dominated world, in which our human activities represent aggressive, damaging, and unbalanced interactions with nature, we will increasingly provoke new disease emergences. We remain at risk for the foreseeable future. COVID-19 is among the most vivid wake-up calls in over a century. It should force us to begin to think in earnest and collectively about living in more thoughtful and creative harmony with nature, even as we plan for nature’s inevitable, and always unexpected, surprises.”

“Living in greater harmony with nature will require changes in human behavior as well as other radical changes that may take decades to achieve,” said Fauci. “[W]e will need to prioritize changes in those human behaviors that constitute risks for the emergence of infectious diseases.”

As journalist Jordan Schachtel noted, Fauci seems to believe that we are living in a “permanent pandemic era,” which is the fault of human progress, and one that requires immense action to combat. Simply put, Schachtel said, “they are now blatantly attempting to leverage the pandemic to permanently change the way we live.”

While Fauci is vague on the specifics, the changes would clearly be in the direction of what has been called “safetyism,” the ethos of extreme risk aversion that started on college campuses and has made its way into the wider society. In the age of COVID, it has been characterized by the eagerness to relinquish personal liberty to credentialed technocrats who are empowered to instruct us on minute aspects of our personal lives -- all in service of creating a risk-free society.

Many have seen parallels in this creeping authoritarianism to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. And indeed, there are some: the obsessive mask conformity, the endless and often contradictory edicts by state governors and mayors, and the tiresome mantras celebrating obedience (e.g., “Alone together”).

But a closer analogy to our current predicament can be found in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Huxley’s novel, published in 1932, 17 years before Orwell’s, envisions a dystopia that is sated but soulless, where the people’s every earthly need is met, but at the cost of their liberty and humanity.

Huxley thought his vision more plausible than Orwell’s boot-in-the-face scenario. The world's rulers, Huxley predicted, will discover that conditioning and medication “are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.”

As Mustapha Mond, the World Controller in Brave New World states, “There isn’t any need for a civilized man to bear anything that’s seriously unpleasant.” The Brave New World of safetyism reimagines all of society as a vast Safe Space, endeavoring to eliminate pain and suffering through the imposition of therapeutic totalitarianism. Meanwhile, the ruling class, in the words of writer Michael Anton, “has built a well-honed apparatus to inculcate docility in the people” including cheap, puerile mass entertainment, ubiquitous smartphones and social media, video games, porn, and drugs.

As Fauci’s paper suggests, the mindset is endlessly adaptable. Today it is the COVID pandemic, tomorrow it might be “climate change.” Indeed, attempts have been made to link the two.

The idea of a riskless utopia is pure fantasy, of course, but the power that will accrete to the ruling class is very real.

Benjamin Franklin once said that “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” 

Let us hope that we do not put Franklin’s famous little aphorism to the test.

You can follow Nicholas J. Kaster on Twitter.

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