Pandemic Is Shining a Light on the American Character

In his history of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides wrote that war is “a rough master that brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes.” The same can be said for the current coronavirus emergency. It has revealed both the best and worst in the character of Americans.

On the one hand, it has demonstrated the fortitude of the health-care personnel who have manned the front lines against the virus, as well as the commitment of those who have maintained America’s supply chain. On the other, it has revealed three negative features of American life.

The first is the predisposition of too many political leaders to tyrannical behavior. Theirs is real tyranny: the imposition of a one-size-fits-all, arbitrary, sweeping, draconian approach to the virus, which has caused massive — and mounting —collateral damage. It is the imposition of regulations that violate the Constitution itself by many governors and mayors.

Those who have revealed their inner tyrant include New York mayor Bill DeBlasio, California Gov. Gavin Newsom, and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The essence of the will to tyranny was best summarized by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who said in response to unauthorized gatherings in her city, that to “save lives … we will shut you down, we will cite you, and if we need to, we will arrest you and we will take you to jail.”

Of course, we are assured that those who issue these edicts do so for our own good. But as C.S. Lewis wrote in “God in the Dock: Essays on Theology”: “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth.”

The second negative feature revealed by the current emergency is what author Roger Simon has called “moral narcissism,” the tendency of many Americans to denigrate those who disagree with the draconian measures that have been deemed necessary to combat the virus. Moral narcissism goes beyond old-fashioned “virtue signaling.” The latter is a way to demonstrate one’s own moral superiority; the former requires one to shame those who don’t agree.

Thus, those who call attention to the very real economic and psychological costs of these draconian measure “have blood on their hands,” willing to let people die in order to get go back to work. According to the moral narcissist, the fact that such benighted souls are willing to trade lives for money makes it clear that they are selfish and stupid.

The third negative feature — and perhaps the most troubling — is that this moral narcissism pits Americans against each other in a very dangerous way by inviting them to inform on their fellow citizens if they are not following the “rules.” Indeed, some states and cities have set up “tip” lines to allow informants to anonymously rat out their neighbors. Do we really want to set out on the path to becoming a surveillance state? Watch “The Lives of Others” if you really believe that this is a good idea.

The coronavirus crisis is real, but the effects on public health are just part of the problem. The long-term health of the economy matters as well. Political actors should be looking at the opportunity costs, trade-offs and risks associated with various courses of action. But that’s not the way of the tyrannical government official, the moral narcissist, or the anonymous informer. They know they are right, and that is all that matters.

This article originally appeared in The Providence Journal.

About Mackubin Owens

Mackubin Thomas Owens is a retired Marine, professor, and editor who lives in Newport, RI.

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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