Omicron and the Burden of Freedom
We have Omicron to thank for reminding us that we must make choices for ourselves, regardless of health and political issues.
As we wait for the latest wave of Covid to peak and recede, I recall two comments from liberal-minded acquaintances of mine. The first was something along the lines of, “Trump and DeSantis both have blood on their hands, and Florida basically invoked Darwinism — survival of the fittest — as its Covid strategy.” The second: “Ok, man so got covid but at least he probably got it from work not anything [reckless] like going to the mall.”
These comments reflect what I have previously termed a secular-humanist worldview. From this perspective, maintaining health — safetyism, as RR Reno, TAC editor Sohrab Ahmari, and others have defined it — is the axis around which life revolves, at least for those of us privileged enough to fall into the category to belong to the departed workers. (I’ve never heard a Liberal denounce grocers or warehouse workers for rolling dice to bring them essential goods and services. The right to self-preservation seems only semi-universal.) My thoughts are with these comments during Covid-19 Infection records are being shattered despite increased vaccinations across the country, and me and my family are pinging through the conflicting guidelines: cloth masks or KN-95? isolate, semi-isolate or go out even more in the hope that we will catch Covid and harvest antibodies from a relatively weakened strain?
Capitalized, the view that there are worthy and unworthy activities and behaviors, legal and illegal ways of catching Covid, bestows an unlikely gift for elucidating the machinations and inner logic of progressivism: that top-down planning leads to secular Salvation. For secular humanists, salvation is synonymous with preserving life for and for as long as is desired by the willing individual.
The problem – the spanner in the wheels of progress – ultimately lies in human nature: at a certain point, planning, no matter how well intentioned, falls through and human action – that is, freedom – comes into play. Stalin and Mao could plan for the existence of collective farming, but not the productivity or work ethic of their conscripted workforce. Progressive planning tries to offer the carrot instead of the socialist stick – safety and security instead of the threat of violence. We will protect you. We will protect you. We plan for you.
Omicron immediately represents a unique turning point in the pandemic and the limits of managerial know-how — and therefore of progressivism itself. President Biden’s major reversal when he declared “there is no federal solution” and “this will be resolved at the state level.” , in relation to Covid, belies a fundamental political truth, but more importantly a truth in human nature. Decisions, like ideas, have consequences, and decisions are ultimately made at the individual level. And inevitable.
Call it the inescapable burden of freedom. President Trump and Gov. DeSantis were slandered two years ago for arguing that states and individuals should assess their own Covid risk. Two years later, while I’m writing from the liberal-progressive bastion of Los Angeles, lockdown fatigue has set in here too; Even here, I know liberals who admit they now fear regulatory hyperbole more than Covid itself.
“I’m just worried that they will close the schools again,” another progressive colleague told me. “How do I work then? What do I do with my child?” My colleague’s newfound libertarian inclination, who prefers to assess risk for herself rather than have it dictated to her, reflects an axiom of human existence. As it turns out, individual election could be set in motion by government orders, but only for a limited time.
Yes, we now have vaccines; Yes, we now have a larger arsenal of therapeutics. But as Omicron challenges the previously held wisdom about living a halfway normal life while meaningfully preventing exposure to the disease, we’re all faced with a choice that the experts have largely been able to make for us, and one that we’ve largely been delusional thinking about that we as individuals could put off indefinitely. This choice – to lockdown or not, to go back into extensive self-isolation or not – brings with it a set of questions that progressivism is ill-equipped to answer: What makes life worth living? Aside from self-preservation, what metrics should we use to measure the meaning and purpose of life?
Is catching Covid at work more worthy than catching it at the gym or the mall or a movie theater? Work is more important than leisure or exercise? And what if Covid is caught in a mosque, mass or in the synagogue? Does religious community make less sense than work? If you catch Covid at dinner among close friends, is your case more honorable than in the anonymity of a nightclub or bar? Is the risk worthier among established friendships than in the environment where new ones might be forged?
Fortunately or not, in free Western societies – and for them to remain free – these decisions, these hierarchies of life’s basic commodities can only be made by individuals. Experts can only put off the blessing, and otherwise the burden of freedom, for so long. We have Omicron to thank for showing us that regardless of the goodwill of health and political leaders, we ultimately have to make decisions for ourselves. Therein lies both the risk and the reward of life.
Kurt Hofer is a native Californian with a Ph.D. in Spanish literature. He teaches high school history at an independent school in the Los Angeles area. His writings can also be found at the European conservative, where he is a contributing editor.