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So Long Ago That It Never Really Happened


As election season rolls on and the nation looks set for an election rematch between the mandate-ordering Joseph Biden and the lockdown-ordering Donald Trump, a sense of nostalgia for a lost and forgotten era has creeped into my thoughts. For my nostalgia’s sake at least, that was a long time ago, and it never really happened anyway.

On Mother’s Day, in 2021, after all the official mandates had ended, my family was kicked out of an ice cream shop for not wearing masks. We were living in an entirely different world.

I should have reached this conclusion sooner. I had already withdrawn my children from the public schools. I had already lost friends.

The question plagued me – Why?

I thought we were beyond an event like the pandemic response. People were mostly reasonable. We were educated. We had the technology and knowledge to accumulate data and spread it far and wide quickly. I was wrong, and so I read.

I read books like The Rape of the Mind, Ordinary Men, Life Unworthy of Life, Defying Hitler, It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway, The Guillotine & The Cross, The Revolt of the Masses, Testimony: The Memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich, and others; Just the usual, light, Sunday afternoon reading.

I understood the protagonist in Defying Hitler. He opposed the racial segregation and later murder of the Jews. He watched his society descend into the grips of madness and his friendships disintegrate over issues as serious as segregation and industrial slaughter. I watched a strange society spring to life and my friendships disintegrate over an issue as ridiculous as covering one’s face.

I was terrified by the implication that Ordinary Men would facilitate all sorts of madness just to conform to a group’s standards. I watched as schools were shut down, businesses were closed, and livelihoods and friendships were destroyed in conformity by our brothers, sisters, friends, and neighbors.

I learned how Life Unworthy of Life is ripe for extermination by completely rational actors pursing their delusions systematically. I learned that it could be considered good taste to deny organ transplants to the unvaccinated. In fact, it’s completely legal.

I was as exasperated as Shostakovich, as he watched the abject idiocy in the professional class around him conform to ridiculous behaviors to avoid the gulag, and still be sent anyway.

There were betrayals, torture, death, and then there was reform. Denunciations and executions were suddenly erased from memory, the prisoners were rehabilitated, and all of it was for naught. Captor and captive were citizens and neighbors again. After all, It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway – the book I shamelessly stole the title of this piece from.

My perspectives have vastly changed.

I realize, now, that totalitarianism is primarily a societywide delusion that enables despots to flourish with power. This is the opposite of my beliefs before. I used to think that it was the despots who used their power to create the totalitarian society.

The innate goodness and beauty in all people becomes hijacked by terrible ideas. Willing participants believing in the truth of the idea then create a burgeoning inhumanity masquerading as virtue, and they execute it systematically.

It is a simple fact I had never considered: a deluded person is perfectly capable of applying their delusion rationally. One-way grocery aisles, masked toddlers, and vaccine segregation are all rational applications of what most now see as the mistaken Covid ideology.

Rationalization allows participants to maintain the delusion even in the face of massive contradictory evidence. The personal investment is often enhanced by performance of often bizarre new rituals. The rituals work to reinforce the investment and lead to the expression of rage when challenged — rage even towards those closest to them.

The rituals and new virtues work hand-in-hand to create a powerful mix of emotion in the participants. It is difficult to understand, but a strange combination of both victimhood and heroism are stimulated. It is a compelling mix.

We can see this in a quote made by Maximilien Robespierre. In his last speech, both victim and hero, Robespierre makes several statements that find relevance today:

The enemies of the Republic call me tyrant!

I confess that I have sometimes feared that I should be sullied, in the eyes of posterity, by the impure neighborhood of unprincipled men…

Inscribe rather thereon these words: “Death is the commencement of immortality!” I leave to the oppressors of the people a terrible testament, which I proclaim with the independence befitting one whose career is so nearly ended…

These words are not far removed from sentiments expressed by our current crop of political leaders.

If we become unable to realize the extent of the damage and the inhumanity collectively celebrated, we will find ourselves in a situation where passivity and the impunity of our officials lead to the further degradation of the value attached to human life.

In stark contrast is the Enlightenment ideal of the reasoned individual, free to lead his own life for his own purposes. Life celebrated as a meaningful end in itself.

If we believe our lives are meaningful ends in themselves, we free ourselves to pursue mastery through self-improvement and by continuously refining our intuitions in service of ourselves and those around us. We free ourselves to seek beauty even in tragedy.

This concept used to be a central tenet of older philosophy. The two scenes below are from a modern retelling of it: It is seeking the perfect cherry blossom and finding it at the moment of death, when all is lost.

Above all, totalitarianism is a lie. It is a lie that we tell ourselves, and by doing so we discover:

A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anywhere around him, and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others…

Not respecting anyone, he ceases to love…

A man who lies to himself is often the first to take offense… [taking offense] gives him great pleasure, and thus he reaches the point of real hostility.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Lucky for us, the madness is behind us and, for now, only lives in our past. This election we look set to repeat may have also occurred in the midst of madness, but, it was, after all, a long time ago, and it never really happened anyway.

Today, as we do our best to navigate the hostility of the perpetually offended, we must find more time to listen to those who, like Dostoevsky’s Idiot, are still exclaiming, “Beauty will save the world.”

Republished from the author’s Substack

Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
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