Two years ago this week, the United States shut down. Churches, schools and businesses went dark. Weddings, funerals, and birthdays went silent. City streets stood empty, with an eeriness closer resembling occupied Paris than the bustling hubs they’d been just days before.
Two years later, as the last of the mask mandates for school children falter and crack, it’s tempting to believe our nightmare is finally over. Just as the disease is going to haunt us a long while, however, so too will the effects of how we tried to fight it.
Americans’ relationships with our politicians, bureaucrats, schools, media, police, and churches are fundamentally altered. Indeed, the entire West’s relationships with these major segments of society are forever remade. As we look out on the wreckage of two years of Covid policies, as well as our spiking fuel prices, rocketing inflation, a contested election, a Chinese Olympics, and a land war in Europe, it’s increasingly clear that, far from standing at the end of a dark era, our civilization teeters unsteadily at the very beginning of one.
It’s hard to notice at first. The modern West has become so accustomed to a slow, steady decline — the kind Merle Haggard sang about, and Ronald Reagan ran against — that complaining about it has become cliché; like the angry old man waving his cane.
More than that, it’s very tempting to view the past two years as separate from our other major problems. But just as Black Tuesday began an era marked by the Depression, the Dust Bowl, the New Deal, the Second World War, and a fundamental reshaping of the American life, so too will the Lockdowns mark the start of a ride we can’t get off.
The Damage Is Done
Even in states that have long since shrugged off the bureaucrats’ Covid demands, trust is broken. The people had believed in March 2020 that if they did their parts, all would soon be well. As President Calvin Coolidge famously said, “The chief ideal of the American people is idealism… [and] the chief business of the American people is business.”
Neither Americans’ idealism nor our industry were rewarded, however. From March 2020 on, ours was rule not by people, but by bureaucratic diktat.
Our politicians betrayed us: flying abroad, getting haircuts, going maskless, holding parties, and dining out while also closing schools, forbidding gatherings, banning amenities, and demonizing all who resisted — or even questioned — their orders.
Our corporate media betrayed us: propping up liars and fools, tearing down all who spoke against their champions, and spreading fear and hatred of dissent as far and wide as their words would carry.
Our teachers betrayed us: using Covid to gain a grab bag of vacation time, control over parents, wage hikes, and other unrelated perks, all while punishing school children with years of masks, separation — and the educational and developmental retardation those rules cost.
Even our much-vaunted hospital workers betrayed us: keeping dying husbands from their dying wives, grown children from their elderly parents, brothers from their sisters, and babies from their mothers — all to ensure “Covid safety.”
As hard as it seems, much of this might be good. Not that our politicians, media, teachers, and health care are broken — as the most important essay of 2021 laid bare — but that Americans now recognize just how broken they all are.
Other betrayals, however, are fresher. While corruption among our most powerful religious leaders is older than the Bible itself, when our government declared religion a disposable pastime, many of our religious leaders publicly obeyed. When they bowed before the bureaucrats, a trust was broken, and America was left with one more central civil institution weakened when we needed it strengthened.
The family — the political unit as old as the body politic itself — also suffered greatly. While American political fights have frayed blood relations since Benjamin Franklin fought his loyalist son, the past two years have seen so marked an increase in familial destruction that few of us are left untouched.
This past Christmas, for example, people across the country told their relatives they would not be welcome if they hadn’t taken the vaccine. You probably know more people this hurt than you realize; many of them, sad and embarrassed, hid it, claiming they simply couldn’t make the trip this year.
Then there are the grandparents across the country who have never seen their grandchildren. In the past month alone, I’ve met two different couples seeing theirs for the first time ever — provided they quarantined for two weeks first, and then took a test.
The kind of fear and intolerance it takes to bar your mother from your children extends to broader society, too. Cops, hospital workers, and many others have lost their jobs over refusals to take the shot, while corporate media and its viewers loudly cheered for even harsher penalties. Confronting and reporting on businesses and people who break Covid restrictions is actively encouraged by both government and media.
Our inability to dissent from the latest Covid decree penetrates our society so deeply, liberal comedy show “Saturday Night Live” is now openly mocking how closely American liberals have had to monitor even their private conversations with friends.
We’re now so comfortable with the concept of censoring “disinformation,” it’s extended well beyond Covid. These days, it’s not surprising to see the hosts of a daytime TV show for women casually call for the investigation (and possible imprisonment) of journalists and politicians who express opposition to something they support — in this case, an American war in Ukraine.
This sort of thing has become actually monotonous: Censorship, investigation, and even arrest are offered daily as solutions to problems as mundane as political or medical disagreements. Has the phrase “We’re all in this together” ever rung so hollow?
The Start Of Our Troubles
As in past eras of marked trouble, struggle, and decline, not all our problems are plainly linked; but they coalesce in their effects.
We find ourselves more divided than we’ve been in 150 years, and so less able to handle what comes our way. Many of our civil institutions — long sick — now seem terminally ill. Distrust and enmity run high, and why shouldn’t they?
The result of these divisions: As we plunge into the next series of crises — rapid inflation, destabilized fuel prices, the real prospect of world war in Europe — we have fewer tools to handle them, less willingness to try, and more suspicion of our fellow Americans than any time in over a century.
Taking it all in, we know that we’re weaker than when we began 2020. Taking it all in, we know that far from returning to normalcy, we’re entering a period of deadly turmoil, with enemies foreign and domestic intent on taking advantage of our divisions, our distrust, and our dangerously unsteady economic situation.
We’ve been challenged before, even in modern times. The Sept. 11 attacks rocked us like we hadn’t seen since Pearl Harbor, yet we soldiered on. What’s finally missing, however, is that general feeling of confidence.
We no longer share an understanding that no matter the monsters we’d face — and we face many, here and abroad — that everything would be OK; that the American Way will go on.
“Overriding everything else,” Walter Lord wrote in his 1955 book on the sinking of the HMS Titanic, “the [disaster] also marked the end of a general feeling of confidence.”
“Until then men felt they had found the answer to a steady, orderly, civilized life. For 100 years the Western world had been at peace. For 100 years technology had steadily improved. For 100 years the benefits of peace and industry seemed to be filtering satisfactorily through society.”
“In retrospect,” he continued, “there may seem less grounds for confidence, but at the time most articulate people felt life was all right. The Titanic woke them up. Never again would they be quite so sure of themselves.”
Within two years of the sinking, the First World War began. By its end, its hubris, violence, and indifference to personal suffering destroyed a generation — and cut our civilization so deeply, the damage inflicted is still seen written on our world today.
The men who, in relative peacetime, placed supreme confidence in their steel ship against the great blue sea might only chuckle at the hubris of their successors, who had supreme confidence they could master a disease they didn’t know.
We in the West, though, can be confident of one thing only: These past two years have cut us deeply, and will haunt us for many more to come.
What’s not yet written is whether we overcome. That will be up to us, and God.
Pray for America.