The New New Normal

Crossing the rather grim Grenzübergangsstelle on my first visit to communist East Germany, two things struck me with uncommon force: the gun-emplacement towers every few kilometers along the Hanover-Berlin autobahn, and the comportment of East German drivers. The towers were certainly intimidating, constantly reminding us that we were at permanent risk and convincing us never to drive eccentrically or conspicuously.

But I found the conduct and “positioning” of drivers in their Trabants and Wartburgs even more disconcerting. I noticed that many of these drivers did not adopt the 10-2 grip on the wheel, and almost none practiced the more casual and relaxed one-handed style. Instead, they tended to place their wrists on the top of the steering wheel and let their hands hang limply behind it, like laundry on the line. An inveterate list-maker and note-taker, I began keeping count and found that of the 100 cars I tallied, 32 drivers exhibited this slack or droopy posture, as if they were somehow resigned, enervated and spiritless.

This was, for me, a kind of Joycean epiphany of what life in a socialist or communist regime must entail—it was all in the wrist. As Jan Morris wrote in Fifty Years of Europe, recounting her visit to East Germany,

“Travelling from west to east was like entering a drab and disturbing dream, peopled by all the ogres of totalitarianism, a half-lit world of shabby resentments, where anything could be done to you, I used to feel, without anybody ever hearing of it, and your every step was dogged by watchful eyes and mechanisms.”

Years later, after the wall came down and I was traveling as Canadian representative for the Department of External Affairs in various European countries, I was tasked to lecture in the East German city of Jena, the home of the world-famous Friedrich Schiller University where during the 18th century some of Germany’s greatest thinkers -- philosophers like Georg W.F Hegel, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Schelling and Friedrich Schiller, and romantic poets like Novalis, the Schlegel brothers, Ludwick Tieck and Goethe himself taught and gathered.

Seated before me in the university lecture hall was an assembly of dour, unsmiling people whom I suspected had either been officially urged or paid to attend. I spoke about the history of the provincial separation movement in a Canadian context, going back to Louis Riel, proceeding to the secession sentiment in modern times (Quebec, Newfoundland) and foreseeing the eventual unrest in Alberta. My audience listened politely, but it was clear they were not interested in Canada. They were nursing their own grievances.

As I learned in the Q&A, they were bitter over the sudden wind of freedom which deprived them of their state-provided employment, regulated comforts and Big Brother protection from the scourge of competition. They had their daily knockwurst, Radesburger pilsener, opera and the theater of Bertolt Brecht (who, as it happened, stored his considerable earnings in West German banks). Everyone was resentful. Now they had to be self-reliant and put their talents and energy on the line instead of being guaranteed employment by the state, even if they drove two-stroke Trabants (years in the delivery), breathed in thick pollution, suffered shortages of consumer goods, were constantly policed and knew people who had been shot at the wall trying to escape. Freedom was not worth the candle; security was all that mattered.

Since the COVID lockdowns took effect, I have begun to feel as if I am back in the misnomered German Democratic Republic. Our political authorities have mandated mask wearing, restricted travel out of the city, forbidden attendance except “by invitation” at Remembrance Day ceremonies, and levied fines for the crime of disobedience. In some Canadian cities like Quebec and Regina, detention centers have been set up. As if this were not bad enough, the general populace seems to have enthusiastically embraced the dictatorial decrees handed down by our councils and governments. I cannot step out unmasked from my condo without confronting neighbors glaring reprovingly at me. Out on the street, hordes of masked zombie-like creatures stare menacingly for my refusing to run about wearing these utterly useless appendages and breathing my own hypoxia-inducing CO2. Everywhere I see solitary masked drivers fearing infection from some stray particle slipping through the climate control.

Indeed, I look around me now and feel I'm surrounded by a vast population of former East Germans. The Great Reset is on the way and people are being indoctrinated into supine acceptance of top-down managerial policing by a political and financial elite, a condition in which, chipped and monitored, we willingly trade our freedom for a hypothetical and, in fact, spurious security. What we are observing is a massing of a timorous, fearful people, but a people equally vindictive and self-righteous, eager to submit to authority, abrogate their Charter-given civil rights, and respond to those who resist the propaganda with mob-like shaming, fury, threat and a proclivity to inform on their neighbors at authoritarian request. A lot of people are showing what they are made of, and it isn’t pretty. I now have a real sense of what it must have been like living in the Soviet bloc.

Thankfully, there remains a cohort of people who have seen through the lockdown deception that is collapsing the economy, destroying people’s lives and livelihoods, preventing thousands upon thousands from obtaining treatment for acute medical conditions, and leading to an unconscionable number of “excess deaths.” It is a cohort that represents a remnant hope. One sees them in action in Toronto, where a restaurateur who defied the lockdown orders was arrested, his establishment padlocked and the street closed to traffic, but who was defended for a time by protestors blocking the entrance to police. As Rex Murphy sardonically writes in the National Post, alluding to the size of the police presence on horseback and on foot to apprehend one small business owner struggling to survive, “Smaller forces have invaded Belgium.” Meanwhile, 400 yards down the road, Costco is doing a roaring business with nary a cop in sight.

There are sporadic demonstrations in Toronto and elsewhere in the country against hypocritical and despotic authorities. One thinks, too, of the inspiring confrontation at Buffalo’s Orchard Park Gym in which state deputies were turned out of the building by lockdown defiers. “I’d rather enjoy a risky freedom than a safe servitude,” says the former Marine who owns the facility. It is people like these who might make a difference, but the odds are overwhelmingly against them. The majority will do as they are told, fines, arrests and submissive conventionalism serving as gun-emplacements.

I am reminded of drivers who let their wrists and hands hang inertly over the steering wheel, never exceeding the speed limit, rarely veering into a passing lane, never deviating from the rules and proscriptions laid down for them by a supervening authority and content to do its bidding. Terrorist attacks, no-go zones and long lines at airports were formerly dubbed the “new normal.” The new new normal consists of COVID ordinances, masks, lockdowns, blatant political tyranny and timid public compliance. I find neither knockwurst, pilsener, opera nor theater consoling.

Photo credit: SN&R CC BY SA 4.0