America has, of course, had plenty of experience with refusals to obey government dictates and laws. Our 21st century controversies regarding vaccine mandates, gender politics, and teaching Critical Race Theory are part of a nearly 250 year long national dialogue whose tone has run the gamut from respectful to revolutionary.
President George Washington had to use troops to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion. Abolitionists aided runaway slaves, and a bloody Civil War had to be fought to eliminate the Original Sin of slavery. Battles over land, water, and natural resources have sometimes been bloody. Prohibition had become a national joke by the time it was repealed, and the War On Drugs destroyed many lives on the way to its own national surrender. To this day arguments over who can be an American are contentious. People dodge taxes, violate zoning regulations, and roll through stop signs every day. Law breaking goes hand in hand with the law itself, and even the most honest among us take an unauthorized shortcut now and then for our convenience.
Although dissent, disagreement, and a certain degree of dishonesty can be annoying, a free nation should never fear either free speech or free thought. A thriving country needs both its builders and its buccaneers, and each is an essential side of the same coin.
However, there is a completely different vibe when a nation’s leaders and elites insist on cultural, political, and moral conformity. The false promise of harmony offered by those of a totalitarian mindset leads inevitably to disaster after disaster because the entrenched systems that follow efforts to suppress thought and expression inevitably reward the cowardly and exclude the brave. Enforced consensus is the fast track to any country’s ruin—as world history has amply demonstrated.
However, there is a period before a final collapse when it is possible for a nation to pull back from the brink, and to ignore the symptoms of a possible national disintegration is to ignore a harsh reality that must be heeded, discussed, and resolved for the good of a country and its people.
Leaders and elites who are fearful of being contradicted and vengeful toward dissenters are happy with even the falsest accolades, and they demand respect and obedience when neither is justified. The problem with these self-congratulatory instincts are obvious every time we look at an old photograph of a bewhiskered and beribboned general who led his brave soldiers to their dooms by ignoring reasonable warnings of the disaster dead ahead. Autocrats and petty tyrants make more mistakes—and promote more angry opposition—than leaders who are willing to respect a broad range of opinions and ideas.
American democracy is supposed to be immune to the willful blindness that has doomed so many shortsighted world powers in the past—when, for example, is the last time anyone discussed the once-invincible Ottoman Empire?—but we are naive to believe we are safe from these mistakes. We need to open our eyes and pay attention to the bitter fruits of our own hubris, stupidity, and myopia.
The signs of decline are plain to see, and many average Americans have already lost all faith in the wisdom of our country’s government and legacy institutions—take a look. When people lose faith in their country’s leadership, discouragement over the direction of the nation becomes a virulent hatred of the policies of that government and those in charge—we’re there, America. In addition, citizens turn inward, becoming more and more preoccupied with finding ways to insulate themselves from the systemic failures they see all around—which perhaps helps to explain our moribund civic culture. Official corruption becomes both more open and more shameless, and the ever more blatant nature of the many scandals swirling through the halls of power on a daily basis are a screaming siren of alarm—one that mendacious leadership and elites simply ignore while lining their pockets without the least concern.
Worse yet, those in positions of authority, who are benefitting from the dishonesty baked into the dysfunctional status quo, isolate themselves and avoid taking any stand that might jeopardize their cozy positions or cause their dismissals. The consequent lack of forethought and honest discussion tends to lead to progressively dumber and more dangerous decisions.
As a result, failing states manage to combine the worst of all possible instincts by being both risk-adverse and reckless at the some time—a deadly and destructive combination. Nations that fall into this trap must reform or face the wrath of their people before a final, ugly, and violent collapse. Tyranny will last only as long as tyrants have cash to cushion their slow, miserable, and painful falls from power—and there is no guarantee that what follows will be any better.
The recent catastrophic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is a case study in how a nation’s leadership can be simultaneously weak and ignorant, and the paralyzed response of the Biden administration to the unfolding disaster—defined by a grim and delusional insistence that none of it is their fault—is emblematic of the last several years of governmentally-induced pain inflicted upon our nation and people. Did any General throw their stars on the table a threaten to resign when they saw the final plan for the ignominious retreat from Afghanistan? Obviously not. Did anyone in our State Department alert President Biden that his actions would create a terrorist state? No, they didn’t. Did any senior official in the White House—from the Vice-President on down—demand a private meeting with their Commander-in-Chief to express their concerns? No, no, and no.
It is said the victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan. However, in nations teetering toward catastrophe, almost the opposite is true: defeat, in fact, has a thousand cowardly and compliant fathers—and victory is sadly orphaned.
Look at America today. Everybody is just doing their jobs and asking no questions about the illogic and immortality that are the most salient features of our daily lives. The broad fear of speaking out, enforced by self-appointed thought police that operate with the impunity once enjoyed by the Soviet KGB and East German Stasi, results in a miserable groupthink that enables ever more expensive and egregious group mistakes. No one is willing to run the career risk of dissent, regardless of the matter at hand, so disaster after disaster is today crushing our country and our people. When you are tying the noose to a high rafter and preparing to put your head into it, a word of caution regarding the consequences is desperately necessary, but the voices of reason remain resolutely silent—as cowards often are.
Who can we expect to provide this much-needed reality check today? The truly frightening aspect of the intellectual stagnation across our governmental, educational, and cultural institutions today is that no one seems to have the guts to speak their minds because it is abundantly clear that the least intellectually adventurous are now considered the most promotable. Toe the line and advance; raise a legitimate concern and be culled from the dull and monolithic herd.
We are being ruled by diseased sheep that bleat in unison, stick together, and would not think of straying outside of their mutated norm. Careerists and bureaucrats are leading us all—with a minimum of fuss—to the slaughterhouse floor. We need leaders and not followers, but the leaders are now cancelled, deplatformed, and silenced to protect the interests of the herd. This is both un-American and unwise, but is is the destructive reality that we now are forced to live thanks to Social Justice Warriors, Big Tech censors, and craven government officials who find Constitutional liberties an annoyance.
It is time for us to cut a new path. If we do not, we will join other formerly invincible world powers whose declines were obvious to all but those who could have stopped it from happening. To fail to speak up and stand up at this moment in American history is to fail the democracy we claim to cherish.
Today is a test of whether we can be brave when cowardice is richly rewarded. We will have our collective citizenship grades very, very soon—and we can only hope that we will not fail our country and ourselves.