Quite a few lessons abound from this pandemic. The one I believe is most overlooked is how easy it is to erode our personal freedoms. Since the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, our awareness of the consequences stemming from the attack seems to be waning. The aftereffects of the attacks resulted in the erosion of our public freedoms. This erosion is referred to by Professor Orlando Patterson as a reinvigoration by political conservatives of privatized freedom where public freedoms ie free speech, privacy, etc., are compromised by wiretapping and surveillance, and attacks on habeas corpus where extra-judicial detentions interfere with due process while private freedoms, i.e. shopping, what we wear, who we love, etc., are left untouched. Patterson defines public freedoms or liberties as freedoms going beyond interpersonal relations, that “guarantee equal access to the nation’s public powers, laws, patrimony, and all other rights and obligations of citizenship…”
The pandemic presents a different narrative. Covid poses a threat to private and public freedoms. On the private side I am seeing threats to freedom of speech where common folk or medical experts find themselves hesitant to express their misgivings about how the virus is spread, the efficacy of vaccines, and whether the virus has actually caused 200,000 deaths in the U.S. Interpersonal relations have taken on a different look. People now have to consider whether friends can come over for dinner, sex, or both. There is only so much lovemaking you can do via Zoom (I think).
The impact on public freedoms is just as apparent. When I took my son to college last month to start his freshman year, we had to let the state of New York know where we would be and how long we were staying during our visit. He was forced to quarantine; I had to inform New York about where I was staying and that I would be out of the state in 24 hours. My access to New York’s rights-of-way, if you will, were being severely regulated. The issue of wearing masks has been so politicized that the presidential candidate camps of Donald Trump and Joe Biden have had a brief tug-of-war over the issue of a national mask wearing mandate. Such a mandate would create an assault on both private and public freedoms.
While we hope the pandemic will be over soon, uncertainty about a second spike in virus and disease contraction or deaths, or concerns about the virus morphing into a deadlier and more virulent strain could result in a new approach to or a new excuse for governance. An approach that restricts both private and public freedoms under the guise of keeping the public safe from an invisible enemy could reduce the philosophical gap between liberals and conservatives. Closing this gap could result in making the two major parties, Democratic and Republican look increasingly less distinguishable.
Linking the two types of freedom under a single regulatory umbrella would require more underlying work on America’s culture. America is racially polarized and the country would have to see itself as one people deserving of universal protection before its political ideologies fuse in the face of a common invisible enemy. I see an emerging “one-people” narrative in this regard. For example, the media promotes mask wearing as an obligation that one citizen has to protect other citizens. The Black Lives Matter movement has as its core message that whites must recognize existential rights of blacks and contribute to the inclusion of blacks into America’s economic structure. America’s leftist political elites want to see America move to being more beige than black or white. So prevalent is this move that even the term, “black people” is being pushed aside by the term “people of color.”
A beige or “Mulatto Agenda” may sound appealing to political or social elites on both sides of the racial spectrum. America is already “browning” with ethnic minorities set to be, as a group, a larger percentage of America’s population. Also, interracial marriages may add to the beige-ing of America as racial taboos continue to disappear and lineage becomes less important.
There is the problem of capital allocation in the United States, however. Descendants of Western Europeans will still control the majority of capital and wealth in the United States and political factionalism may realign along the resulting capital fault lines. And as long as liberals and conservatives place different weights on public and private freedoms, the implementation of a narrative that pushes America toward a one-party nation-state will face difficulties.