“We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.” The first line of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is pregnant with the novella’s whole plot, wherein a military dictatorship turns fertile women into sex slaves. When authoritarian control descends in fiction, it often does so like this, through narrative retrospect. From the vantage point of the future, the past’s mundane trifles become newly absorbing. Atwood’s gymnasium is meaningful because sleeping there is a sign that something has gone terribly wrong.
Today, as COVID-19 tears across the globe, signs of authoritarian control are making the jump from fiction to reality. In China, which already operates a massive and very real security state, facial recognition, phone data, and helmet-mounted thermal cameras have helped authorities control the outbreak. These efforts are so widespread, they have already been propagandized, in promotional videos wherein drones disperse groups of people playing newly dangerous sidewalk games of mah-jongg. But even democratic states are taking extremely invasive measures to control the virus. All of Italy is on lockdown: no school, university, theater, cinema, nightlife, sports, funerals, or weddings. When Italian police see people on the streets, they send them home. French citizens, also under lockdown, now need to carry a signed travel pass when leaving home. “We are at war,” French President Emmanuel Macron said of the measure.
The United States is next in line. San Francisco and Santa Cruz, California, are on lockdown. New York City might follow suit by the time you read this. New York State, along with New Jersey, Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky, and others, has closed restaurants by decree of law. In Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser forced one resistant restaurant group to comply with a similar order. In Washington State, where the U.S. outbreak is among the worst, entertainment and recreation facilities have been shut down. Likewise New York’s Broadway theaters. More retail and service businesses fall to the exigencies of the pandemic every day. Ordinary life is suspended, indefinitely.
The spread of the coronavirus is likely to get worse before it gets better, and more extreme restrictions like the ones already seen in Europe and Asia might be coming to America. Israel has started tracking the cellphones of infected people, and the U.S. government reportedly wants to do likewise. Already, we can feel this dark prospect creeping into daily life. On Tuesday, during a drive to a (responsibly social-distanced) family hike, our friendly minivan passed a menacing black Suburban parked on the side of the road, the blue lights of its official authority flashing. What would have been a surprising oddity a mere week ago now seems like an ominous forecast: Soon, perhaps, papers might be requested, temperatures might be taken, passage might be prohibited.
How would we respond?
Americans are a unique people, our spirit cut from a different cloth than that of other nations. The “frontier myth,” as the historian Frederick Jackson Turner called it in 1893, connects the taming of our nation’s extensive wild lands (much of them taken by force) with the country’s democratic nationalism. For Turner, American pioneers mined the endless open expanses of the North American continent with rugged individualism, a drive that proved particularly compatible with industrial and then late capitalism. It molded real jobs into symbolic idols: the cowboy, the rancher, the prospector, the oilman. Free to roam our wide continent, those figures transformed resilience and self-actualization (underwritten by raw materials stolen from the common interest) into the mettle of American tenacity.
Eventually, foppish men hawking ideas rather than wares would lay the same claim to the American individualist spirit: the adman as noble as the oilman, the programmer no different from the prospector. Even the most democratically liberal of average American citizens still sees things as things of theirs, and actions as choices of their own. Nobody’s going to tell them how to spend their hard-earned money, where to drive their big car, or what poor choices to make with their mortal body. Let freedom ring.
Against this backdrop, it might seem that Americans would strongly resist the extreme measures that China, South Korea, Israel, Italy, France, and other nations have imposed under the coronavirus’s boot. Americans have never much been troubled when their personal choices infringe upon or even harm the well-being of their fellow citizens. Just think about the absolutist positions taken toward gun ownership. It’s entirely possible to imagine Americans of all stripes—men and women, young and old, coastal and landlocked—spurning any forthcoming governmental health proclamations in order to fetch a fried-chicken sandwich or a CBD kombucha, to travel to a long-planned golf tournament or incant a “Namaste” over rosé at an essential yoga-wine experience.
As it happens, there is a drive no less American that might balance out our obsession with freedom, for better or for worse. Americans have never been enculturated to statist submission like the Chinese, or to a broadly communitarian culture like the Europeans. But secretly, we are addicted to one shameful alternative: bureaucracy.
Despite the cowboys and the oilmen and the entrepreneurs and all the rest, the frontier myth is still a myth, not a reality. Americans might dream that they can claw their way to the top by sheer strength and devoted self-reliance. But in reality, most people don’t become prospectors, whether of gold or of bitcoin. They become procurement specialist level IIs at regional carpeting distributors, or assistant managers at themed bar-and-grilles. No disgrace in that, by the way. All of us still strive for individual greatness. We do our best to be good fathers or aunts. We sublimate the disappointment of managerial food-service careers into 72-month-financed Ford F-250 pickups.
Those choices in turn become collars, yoking us to the reality, no matter how gilded, of the daily grind. There, a new and counterintuitive freedom is born: that of having choices imposed on you: a new human-resources IT system, selected by the power-hungry corporate CIO, that now requires hours of webinar training during the very same week your kids got sent home from school due to a global pandemic. Or a new hire, incompetent for the work, brought on board via the nepotism of the franchise owner. Or a demand from the senior manager above you, a mere manager, to produce a PowerPoint of accomplishments or best practices, for which she will take credit at the directors meeting. Hard as it is to admit right now, this is the “normal life” to which we dream of returning once the coronavirus subsides.
That life is maddening, but it comes with certain comforts, including structure and certainty. Just do the work, and you will be praised—or at least not punished. You can go home at the end of the day and kick back some cold ones. You can work on your boat over the weekend. You can hold your young children close, praising whatever god you worship that the coronavirus appears to spare them. Americans want to think that they will set out on their own and wrest gold from the earth with their bare fingers, but really they just want to tap those digits on the desk until quitting time. This bureaucratic docility is the domesticated, shadow side of American frontiersmanship. It will steer us further toward compliance than we might have believed possible.
Pretending that this truth doesn’t apply to you is easy. But look into your own memory, and you will find it over and over again, no matter how rugged you think you are. I’ll show you my belly first: Many years ago, before smartphones, I made a cellphone game about airport security. My team modeled the 138 most trafficked U.S. airports, using Government Accountability Office data to drive the relative competence of simulated TSA agents in each airport. In 2003, the average airport failed to detect almost a quarter of the contraband carried by undercover agents. The game was supposed to allow players to try to get knives or guns past (virtual) security to see how well their favorite airport performed. You could even play it while in line at that airport.
It was the mid-aughts, and 9/11 was still fresh in law enforcement’s memory. Some of the information on TSA performance had been classified, supposedly to protect national security. One day, I got a call from two federal agents about the game. They sounded like such extreme stereotypes of feds, speaking in accents and cadences that felt scripted for Hollywood, that I thought I was being punked. Playing the artist-journalist-rogue, I laughed them off at first, cowboy-style. “Call my lawyer,” I scoffed. (I didn’t have a lawyer.)
But the conversation rapidly became quite serious, and I realized they weren’t backing down. I thought about the rest of my life—my kids, my house, my frontier-aspirant dreams not yet realized. Reader, I am not proud to admit that I put my tail between my legs quickly. All they really wanted was for me to change the marketing to make clear that I wasn’t using any classified material—or if I was, to tell them how I’d come into its possession. That suddenly seemed like a very reasonable demand. By the end of the call—it was just a phone call!—I was addressing them both as “sir.” I caved.
I am not proud of this portrait of myself, or of this portrait of America. I am not proud of its frontiersman fantasy or its apparatchik reality. Both seem odious—caricatures of virtue contorted to the buffoonish extremes of careless independence on the one hand and spineless capitulation on the other. But if I had to wager on how the tides will turn for that huge, unexceptional middle that forms our 300-million-strong ranks, I’d bet on acquiescence. People will stay home to protect their children and their grandparents. They’ll turn back at the end of the street if questioned on their way to the tavern. They will be more afraid than they will be bold. Maybe that flaw, the more modest of America’s bad traditions, will break our spirit. Or perhaps it will be the sin that saves us.