Our Dangerous Civic Dualism
“The growing influence of the doctrine on my way of thinking came up against the resistance of my whole nature,” writes Nobel laureate Czeslaw Miłosz in The Captive Mind, of his experience in post-war Stalinist Poland of bureaucratically driven tyranny. That also well describes the feeling many Americans have—Miłosz describes it as something originating in the stomach—when confronted with the ever-growing list of irrational behaviors demanded of us by the progressivist pandemic regime.
Like the Eastern Bloc, our culture is one in which our public behavior bears increasingly little resemblance to what we know to actually be the case. Such a dualistic, dissociative identity disorder is not a recipe for civic health.
In countless scenarios acted out every day, Americans are expected to engage in various performative gestures that we know are incoherent—if not absurd—and yet, for the sake of conformity and a very real concern that we will be professionally or personally penalized, we assent to them. In the process, our real self becomes disconnected from our public self, and we slowly become cynical and disillusioned. When citizens no longer believe laws, rules, and cultural norms are coherent or ordered to their good, they lose faith in their society and its governing institutions.
Perhaps the most salient example of play-acting is America’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has resulted in what comedian Jim Breuer describes as an endless game of “Simon Says.” As Breuer explains: “Simon Says: ‘Put your mask on when you go into a restaurant.’ Simon Says: ‘Sit down and take it off.’” If we get up to use the restroom, the mask must go back on; as long as we are periodically sipping our beer or water, the mask can stay off. At our jobs, our cafeterias are filled with maskless coworkers talking, laughing, eating, spreading their germs all over the place, but we are mandated to keep ours on as we walk past them. We know this doesn’t make any sense, but we play along anyway, often out of a sense of exhaustion or fear of retribution.
But it’s not just pandemic-related health directives. The technocratic regime commands us to respect the ever-expanding list of preferred pronouns and gender identities of our fellow citizens or risk accusations of “gendered violence” or “deadnaming”—crimes that until recently no one even knew existed. Our employers urge us to affirm and celebrate coworkers who spend company time organizing events and writing corporate emails declaring their sexual preferences and lifestyles, while we silently wonder how these people’s fetishes have anything to do with, well, work. And though it remains illegal for an employer to make decisions about job assignments and promotions based on race, recruiters and managers are explicitly or implicitly coerced to diversify their offices and ensure the “right people” are promoted for the sake of diversity and inclusion.
There are two likely reactions to a public order that citizens perceive as arbitrary, disjointed, and favorable to certain classes or identities. The first is apathy, which results in a decline in civic participation based on our distrust of the system stemming from a feeling of disempowerment. Perceiving the public order as complicated play-acting, we mentally and civically check out, understanding our participation in performative gestures not as good or even true, but simply the means by which we preserve ourselves and our families. The atomizing tendencies of our digital age are also exacerbated, as we present a version of ourselves to the world that doesn’t actually correlate with reality. The public square in turn becomes a forum not for the practice of virtue, but ever-more elaborate dances to deceive our fellow citizens.
The second is an antagonism that becomes more aggressive as we experience (and resent) the pressure to conform. As the tension rises, the likelihood of confrontation and even violence escalates. We’ve seen plenty of this with the drama over masks and social distancing. Even when people make an honest mistake and forget to wear one, they are greeted by tattling, censure, and punishment. My wife recently neglected to wear a mask when she dropped our eldest daughter off for her dance class. Another mother became hysterical, weeping and claiming that it was because of people like my wife that her friend had died of Covid-19.
Obviously, neither apathy nor antagonism are conducive to civic health and the common good. We like to think the various things expected of us on a daily basis have some alignment with rationality and predictability that are ordered to our welfare. We know that driving the speed limit, paying our bills, and filing our taxes does not necessarily mean we won’t still suffer some injustice at the hands of the state. But we know that the likelihood of such things happening are far lower, because we understand that speed limits, bills, and taxes make societies function, and that the state thus has an incentive for avoiding being erratic in its enforcement of them.
But when the state and other dominant cultural institutions act capriciously and vindictively—whether in regards to mask mandates, gender identities, or how to understand racial identity—it strains our credulity that public life makes any sense. Simon says social distance! Simon says gather in protest! Simon says get your booster shot or you’re a monster who is refusing to stop the spread! Simon says pay your woke tax or risk cancellation!
“There is an internal longing for harmony and happiness that lies deeper than ordinary fear or the desire to escape misery or physical destruction,” writes Miłosz. That desire is perhaps America’s best chance of overcoming the madness of this cultural and political regime. We have been tempted to go along with the risible dictums of our technocratic taskmasters for our own well-being and sanity. But how long would you put up with a game whose rules kept changing—and which seemed obviously stacked in certain players’ favor—before you declare “enough!”?
All of us want to avoid misery and physical harm. Nevertheless, we are willing to endure those things when our lives, and the life of our nation, make sense and are ordered to some higher, noble purpose. Can that be said for all of the pandemic health mandates or the complex codes of gender, sexual, and racial identitarianism impressed upon us and our children? How many more times will we perform obeisance to what Simon says before we, individually and collectively, cry “enough”? The future of our nation’s civic health depends on the answer.
Casey Chalk writes about religion and culture issues for The American Conservative and is a contributing editor for the New Oxford Review. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia, and a masters in theology from Christendom College.