The abdication of reason, conscience and responsibility

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We’ve seen this before, and it doesn’t end well.

The world has seen an astonishing cataclysmic event unfold and there are many who simply cannot, or will not, grasp what has happened. The scale of the evil that has been inflicted on mankind across the globe but especially in the West is breathtaking, dare I say heart-stopping. Here’s a excerpt from an essay written by someone else, a while back:

In an era when metaphysical and existential certainties are in a state of crisis, when people are being uprooted and alienated and are losing their sense of what this world means, this ideology inevitably has a certain hypnotic charm. To wandering humankind it offers an immediately available home: all one has to do is accept it, and suddenly everything becomes clear once more, life takes on new meaning, and all mysteries, unanswered questions, anxiety, and loneliness vanish. Of course, one pays dearly for this low-rent home: the price is abdication of one’s own reason, conscience, and responsibility, for an essential aspect of this ideology is the consignment of reason and conscience to a higher authority. The principle involved here is that the center of power is identical with the center of truth.

The quote above has many disturbing echoes today. Here are just a few:

The center of truth? – try Jacinda Ardern – who recently vowed that ‘we will continue to be your single source of truth.’

Feeling uprooted? – people locked in housing towers, people locked out of their home state while on holiday, locked down in your own home and 5 km radius, under a curfew that nobody claimed to have asked for, indigenous Australians removed from outback settlements and quarantined in camps. I’d call that uprooted, wouldn’t you?

Feeling alienated? – I’m pretty sure the unvaxxed who were banned from participating in society, vilified in the media and sacked from their jobs would feel alienated.

Losing a sense of what the world means? – try businesses forcibly closed, medical treatment denied, no singing or dancing, smiles muzzled with masks, grandchildren unable to be cuddled, coerced to take a medical treatment. You bet we don’t know what the world means anymore.

What is this ‘higher authority’ that people have submitted to? It is the newspapers, the six-o’clock news, the talk-back radio, the official propaganda of the ABC.

Who wrote this prescient essay? What was the context in which it was written? What is ‘this ideology’ which promises new meaning and the banishment of loneliness?

There’s good news and bad news on that front, I’m afraid.

The essay is The Power of the Powerless, by Vaclav Havel. It was written in 1978, in Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia. The ideology in question is totalitarianism – more accurately what Havel terms ‘post-totalitarianism’; essentially, where the dictatorial power has shifted from the traditional strong-man dictator to reside instead in the system itself. It’s a masterful analysis of the conditions under which the Communists were able to control and immiserate so many people for so long.

After a further 11 years of communist rule, after the wall came down, according to Wikipedia, Czechoslovaks peacefully deposed their socialist government on 17 November 1989 in the Velvet Revolution. On 1 January 1993, Czechoslovakia peacefully split into the two sovereign states of the Czech Republic and Slovakia as the result of national tensions of the Slovaks.

So the good news is that in a decade or two, or three, or four, we might be able to shake off the forces of oppression and suppression.

The bad news should be obvious. We’re in for a rough ride. While people still trust their governments, the threat of future abominations like lockdowns, coercion and worse is not just real, but probable.

A recurring vignette in Havel’s essay is the example of a greengrocer who places a slogan in his shop window.

The manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!” Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment’s thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?

Does that ring any bells? Remember how quickly we saw those “staying apart keeps us together” signs appear everywhere? All those stickers on the floor telling us where to stand? The stupid perspex screens at the supermarket checkout? Did anybody really believe that nonsense? How was it that people so willingly accepted them?

Havel again:

Obviously the greengrocer is indifferent to the semantic content of the slogan on exhibit: he does not put the slogan in his window from any personal desire to acquaint the public with the ideal it expresses. This, of course, does not mean that his action has no motive or significance at all, or that the slogan communicates nothing to anyone. The slogan is really a sign, and as such it contains a subliminal but very definite message. Verbally, it might be expressed this way: “I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.”

So people put those signs up, and put up with those signs, because they just wanted to be left alone. Exactly what we saw with Covid. Havel pinpoints the truth a few lines later:

Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan: “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient” he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth.

People were afraid – media campaigns and government ads amplified that fear. And so they stumbled into the embrace of the totalitarian ideology, that allowed them to let go of their reason, their conscience and the responsibility and let the government handle it. Let the government tell them when they could leave their house, what they could buy, where they could go. Let the government tell them that a cloth mask was pointless, then mandatory. There was no limit to what people let the government determine on their behalf: how many at a wedding, whether you could drink standing up, whether you could visit your lover; literally nothing was off-limits. Crucially, they let the government suppress their conscience and any objection to cruelty, giving a green light to vilifying the dissidents who didn’t want to submit to a coerced injection. Some went further, joining in the persecution of those guilty of nothing but prudence.

The more you joined in, the more you could bury the pangs of conscience – put a syringe emoji in your twitter handle, or boast with three if you’re triple-dosed. The social media equivalent of drinking yourself into a stupor like someone who’s lost their shirt (and their dignity) at the racetrack.

Totalitarianism is here; we watched it arrive, we were gobsmacked, and then we bought into it. Relativist arguments like “it’s nowhere near as bad as in Iran/North Korea/China” don’t make it untrue. There is nothing to stop Victoria’s Premier Dan Andrews from declaring a pandemic tomorrow and locking us in our homes again. And there’s no reason to assume that it wouldn’t get worse.

But there’s more. Not only has the general population been captured, whether willingly, or kicking and screaming, or somewhere in between; our civil and private institutions have been subsumed by it too. Medical regulator AHPRA now has the force of law behind them to dictate what doctors can say to their patients. Ramesh Thakur has written recently about this. The Victorian State Emergency Service allows only vaccinated volunteers to rescue victims of the worst floods in 50 years currently playing out in Victoria. Furthermore, when one considers how quickly those signs and messaging were rolled out, there exists an infrastructure of manipulation that can be activated at the drop of a hat.

I came across Havel’s essay when reading Rod Dreher’s “The Benedict Option”. Dreher’s thesis is that given that the institutions on which we had come to rely no longer effectively support individuals in living their lives as they see fit, (especially Christians), then new institutions are needed, and that these should be build from the ground up, in small local communities, to support the real aims of living a meaningful life.

Havel’s point of view is similar:

The essential aims of life are present naturally in every person. In everyone there is some longing for humanity’s rightful dignity, for moral integrity, for free expression of being and a sense of transcendence over the world of existence. Yet, at the same time, each person is capable, to a greater or lesser degree, of coming to terms with living within the lie. Each person somehow succumbs to a profane trivialization of his inherent humanity, and to utilitarianism.

But it’s not easy to break away from failed institutions or to set up new ones. What does it look like when you break away from the lies?

Let us now imagine that one day something in our greengrocer snaps and he stops putting up the slogans merely to ingratiate himself. He stops voting in elections he knows are a farce. He begins to say what he really thinks at political meetings. And he even finds the strength in himself to express solidarity with those whom his conscience commands him to support. In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game. He discovers once more his suppressed identity and dignity. He gives his freedom a concrete significance. His revolt is an attempt to live within the truth.

The bill is not long in coming. He will be relieved of his post as manager of the shop and transferred to the warehouse. His pay will be reduced. His hopes for a holiday in Bulgaria will evaporate. His children’s access to higher education will be threatened. His superiors will harass him and his fellow workers will wonder about him.

Where have we seen that? Politicians who deviated from the official line were mercilessly hounded out of office. Craig Kelly is a case in point. Doctors who raised concerns about the vaccines prosecuted and prevented from practicing. Ask Dr Mark Hobart. And it’s not just about Covid, either. Christianity can land you in hot water, too, just ask Andrew Thorburn (although given the state of Essendon Football Club he may later see his sacking after 24 hours as CEO as a blessing in disguise.). Climate change can do it too – just ask Peter Ridd what happens when you criticise Great Barrier Reef research. The list of egg-shell topics is long, growing and shrinking without rhyme or reason: gay marriage, welcome to country ceremonies, transgender questions – keep up with the right opinions or you’ll regret it.

The greengrocer has not committed a simple, individual offense, isolated in its own uniqueness, but something incomparably more serious. By breaking the rules of the game, he has disrupted the game as such.

In the totalitarian system, this action cannot be allowed to go unpunished. In that sense:

It seems that the primary breeding ground for what might, in the widest possible sense of the word, be understood as an opposition in the post-totalitarian system is living within the truth.

Where to from here? Once we accept that we are living in a totalitarian system, the way forward becomes depressingly clear. Either give up and drink the kool-aid, find some way to get through the day without thinking too hard, or at all; or live within the truth and break the game open.

There’s a lot more in Havel’s essay. Do yourself a favour and read it.

This article is a republication of an article originally published here on Richard’s Substack.

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  • Richard Kelly

    Richard Kelly is a retired business analyst, married with three adult children, one dog, devastated by the way his home city of Melbourne was laid waste. Convinced justice will be served, one day.

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