I went over my Twitter encounter yesterday, so I won’t re-hash it here. But some of the bad analogies to my initial post got me thinking about what constitutes normal, healthy rule following, e.g., obeying traffic laws, and what starts to move toward dangerous compliance. I think there are two criteria: (1) The rule has to be baseless, i.e., no longer in place for any good reason; and (2) People are complying with it enthusiastically, to the point of policing others who are non-compliant.
One of my Twitter followers came up with a good example of a rule we all follow that’s mostly baseless — at least the specific and tedious requirements of it — but that doesn’t strike many as dangerous.
Leaving aside the debatable point of whether mask wearing every time you walk outdoors is a lesser imposition than renewing one’s license way too often, Kris is correct that renewals between age 25 and 60 are baseless, we do it anyway, and it doesn’t seem to be a major civil liberties concern. But where outdoor mask wearing — assuming you agree it’s not preventing the spread of COVID — differs from license renewal is no one renews his license enthusiastically. No one posts photos of his license renewal on Twitter, polices non-renewing people for driving without it or even talks about the topic at all.
But if you argue masking outdoors in unnecessary, your fellow citizens will accuse you of killing people — that’s serious enthusiasm for the rule! Where else might we expect to find enthusiasm for arbitrary rules? I’ve never been to North Korea, but I’d bet we’d see some pretty public displays of enthusiasm for whatever arbitrary edict their Dear Leader issues. Wherever there is great fear and suspicion of others, the need to signal is more pronounced — lest you be suspected. You could be the diseased one, after all, infecting and killing everyone with your vile act of exhaling in the open air.
If totalitarianism brings about a state of enthusiastic compliance to baseless rules, and I see people behaving — not only about masking, but in what ideas one can express — the way I would expect from totalitarian subjects, my radar goes off.
I’ll end this with a quote from: They Thought They Were Free, The Germans, 1933-1945, by Milton Mayer:
To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it—please try to believe me—unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’ that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these ‘little measures’ that no ‘patriotic German’ could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head…
In the university community, in your own community, you speak privately to your colleagues, some of whom certainly feel as you do; but what do they say? They say, ‘It’s not so bad’ or ‘You’re seeing things’ or ‘You’re an alarmist.’ And you are an alarmist. You are saying that this must lead to this, and you can’t prove it. These are the beginnings, yes; but how do you know for sure when you don’t know the end, and how do you know, or even surmise, the end?..
And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying ‘Jewish swine,’ collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose. The world you live in—your nation, your people—is not the world you were born in at all. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays. But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed. Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed…
We are obviously not there yet, and hopefully this is mostly paranoia, but never in my lifetime have I been told when I can leave the house, where I can travel in my own city or country, who and how many people I can visit and whether I am free to breathe the fresh outdoor air while walking in my home city. (I was actually scolded by a Portuguese woman the other day for not wearing my mask even though the only time I was ever near her was when she came up to scold me.) And never have I seen people so afraid to voice their views about anything remotely controversial — I got many DMs yesterday thanking me for pushing back and regretting that they couldn’t speak out publicly for fear of their jobs.
As I said, my radar is going off.