We volunteered to serve in the biggest medical experiment in human history. We accepted the biggest peacetime suspension of civil liberties in American history. And we agreed not to ask difficult questions about the origins of the virus.
Now it’s time we recovered our freedom — and exercised the responsibility that sustains it.
The Omicron variant isn’t the end of the world. It looks more like the beginning of the end. The case numbers are rising even faster than the rate of inflation, but the ICUs aren’t overflowing and the death rate remains low. Covid-19 seems to be becoming endemic, like all the other bugs we might catch in a normal winter. If you’re elderly or obese, or if you have another co-morbidity, then you have a way to go yet. But if you’re not, then it’s time to boldly go into the new reality.
We are crossing the Omicron Rubicon. The president, having ridden Covid outrage into office, has now washed his hands and left Covid policy to the states. Or, rather, half the states, because the red states never got onboard with his dubious mandates anyway. And now the Supreme Court has dismissed his mandatory vaccination order too.
Even the other two branches of government, the CNN and the CDC, have finally got it right. After all the CDC’s faux-scientific injunctions to “follow the science,” its director Rochelle Walensky has reduced its recommendations to the Covid-positive to “You should probably not visit grandma.”
It’s time for the teachers’ union to send their members back to work. It’s time to stop the mask theater in bars and restaurants and schools and planes. If you feel you should wear a mask, or if you don’t feel comfortable eating indoors — and I’ll admit, I’m not yet comfortable with it — then take responsibility for your own risk. Wear a mask if you feel you need to. Avoid the situations you don’t feel safe in. Pull the kids from school if you think it best. But take responsibility for yourself.
We are returning to reality, not normality. In a state of emergency that seems to have outlived the crisis, we surrendered all kinds of responsibilities to the federal government. In an hour of need that has gone on for two years, we outsourced our physical wellbeing to Big Pharma and Amazon. Jeff Bezos has gone into space, but those of us on the ground aren’t over the Moon.
The worst aspects of our natures — dependency, passivity, scapegoating, the pleasures of denouncing neighbors — have become civic virtues. The president of the United States, a man even pettier than his predecessor, led the way in the scapegoating of the unvaccinated. The mayor of New York City took a knee for Black Lives Matter, then imposed vaccine mandates for state employees that overwhelmingly affected the lives of black and Hispanic workers.
When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC, he broke the law that banned a general from leading an army into Italy. As all readers of Suetonius and Asterix know, as his legionaries crossed the shallow river, Caesar may or may not have said “Alea jacta est: “The die is cast.”
That symbolic transgression marked the end of the Roman republic and the beginning of the civil wars that led to Caesar becoming dictator for life. During the Covid-19 emergency, governments in liberal societies all over the world transgressed law and custom. Like Caesar in 49 BC, they did it in the name of the public good. Like Caesar in 49 BC, they weren’t entirely wrong.
Perhaps we have yet to reach dry land on the far bank of the Omicron Rubicon — but it looks pretty certain that we are well across and into the shallows. We now face a challenge that the Romans faced. As Caesar’s subsequent career suggests, and as the history of government shows, it is easier to erode freedoms than to restore them. Partly because governments are in the business of power, they cling to whatever they can accrue. But partly because the erosion of freedom is not just legal but psychological — an inner subjection to a government that has repeatedly demonstrated its inability to judge wisely and govern sensibly.
The die may be cast, but our lucky number may yet come up. The skeins of fellow-feeling that bind together a society have been shredded. We need to rebuild them and restore the center of political gravity to where it belongs by law. If we fail, and if we allow temporary measures and attitudes to become permanent reflexes in law and custom, then we face a hard future in which freedom will seem an artifact from before the flood.