I realize the faddish thing to say these days is that we live in the worst, most broken and backward country in the world and maybe in the history of civilization. It’s utter nonsense.
I have a few basic litmus tests in my own life: Can I wear a tank top in public? Can I walk down the street holding the hand of my partner, a (beautiful) woman, in many places in America without getting a second glance? Can I wear a Jewish star without fear?
I do not take those things for granted. I know very well that in many other places, the answers would be different, and my life wouldn’t be possible at all.
America is imperfect. (Does it even need to be said?) There is bigotry toward Blacks and gays and Jews and immigrants; there is intense polarization; political violence is becoming more regular; elected representatives believe conspiracy theories. All true here as in many other countries being torn apart by the dislocations of the 21st century.
But there is no gulag in America. There are no laws permitting honor killings. There is no formal social credit system of the kind that exists right now in China.
By any measure, we have achieved incredible progress and enjoy extraordinary freedoms. And yet people aren’t acting that way. They are acting, increasingly, like subjects in a totalitarian country.
These people write to me daily. They admit to regularly censoring themselves at work and with friends; succumbing to social pressure to tweet the right hashtag; to parroting slogans they do not believe to protect their livelihoods, like the greengrocer in Václav Havel’s famous essay “The Power of the Powerless.”
These people aren’t crazy. They are scared for good reason.
How much does it cost me to log on to Twitter and accuse you, right now, of an -ism? America is fast developing its own informal social credit system, as the writer Rod Dreher has noted, in which people with the wrong politics or online persona are banned from social media sites and online financial networks.
When everything is recorded for eternity, when making mistakes and taking risks are transformed into capital offenses, when things that were common sense until two seconds ago become unsayable, people make the understandable decision to simply shut up.
Do not nod along when you hear the following: That Abraham Lincoln’s name on a public school or his likeness on a statue is white supremacy. (It is not; he is a hero.) That separating people into racial affinity groups is progressive. (It is a form of segregation.) That looting has no victims (untrue) and that small-business owners can cope anyway because they have insurance (nonsense). That any disparity of outcome is evidence of systemic oppression (false). That America is evil. (It is the last hope on Earth.)
This list could go on for a thousand pages. These may have become conventional wisdom in certain circles, but they are lies.
Yet too many good people are sacrificing the common good, and therefore their long-term security, for the sake of short-term comfort.
It’s time to stand up and fight back. That means you. Social conservatives. Never-Trump Republicans, and anti-anti-Trump Republicans, too. Lukewarm liberals and libertarians. Progressives who have a little curiosity still left. Exhausted parents who want nothing to do with politics. Joe Rogan stans. Reddit revolutionaries and the hedgies getting crushed. Facebookers and email chainers and Etsy-shop owners and Boomers who still use AOL accounts. Start with the following 10 principles:
1. Remind yourself, right now, of the following truth: You are free.
It’s true that we live in an upside-down time in which pressing the “like” button on the wrong thing can bring untold consequences. But giving in to those who seek to confine you only hurts you in the long run. Your loss of self is the most significant thing that could be taken away from you. Don’t give it up for anything.
2. Be honest.
Do not say anything about yourself or others that you know is false. Absolutely refuse to let your mind be colonized. The first crazy thing someone asks you to believe or to profess, refuse. If you can, do so out loud. There is a good chance it will inspire others to speak up, too.
3. Stick to your principles.
If you are a decent person, you know mob justice is never just. So never join a mob. Ever.
Even if you agree with the mob. If you are a decent person, you know betraying friends is wrong. So if a friend or a colleague does something you disagree with, write them a private note. Don’t be a snitch. Any mob that comes for them will come for you.
4. Set an example for your kids and your community.
That means being courageous. I understand that it’s hard. Really hard. But in other times and places, including in our own nation, people have made far greater sacrifices. (Think of those “honored dead” who “gave the last full measure of devotion.”) If enough people make the leap, we will achieve something like herd immunity. Jump.
5. If you don’t like it, leave it.
A class in college, a job, anything. Get out and do your own thing. I fully understand the impulse to want to change things from within. And by all means: Try as hard as you can. But if the leopard is currently eating the face of the person at the cubicle next to yours, I promise it’s not going to refrain from eating yours if you post the black square on Instagram.
6. Become more self-reliant.
If you can learn to use a power drill, do it. If you’ve always wanted an outdoor solar hot tub, make one. Learn to poach an egg or shoot a gun. Most importantly: Get it in your head that platforms are not neutral. If you don’t believe me, look at Parler and look at Robinhood. To the extent that you can build your life to be self-reliant and not 100 percent reliant on the Web, it’s a good thing. It will make you feel competent and powerful. Which you are.
7. Worship God more than Yale.
In other words, do not lose sight of what is essential. Professional prestige is not essential. Being popular is not essential. Getting your child into an elite preschool is not essential. Doing the right thing is essential. Telling the truth is essential. Protecting your kids is essential.
8. Make like-minded friends.
Then stand up for them. Two good tests: Are they willing to tell the truth even if it hurts their own side? And do they think that humor should never be a casualty, no matter how bleak the circumstances? These people are increasingly rare. When you find them, hold on tight.
9. Trust your own eyes and ears.
Rely on firsthand information from people you trust rather than on media spin. When you hear someone making generalizations about a group of people, imagine they are talking about you and react accordingly. If people insist on spouting back headlines and talking points, make them prove it, in their own words.
10. Use your capital to build original, interesting and generative things right now. This minute.
Every day I hear from those with means with children at private schools who are being brainwashed; people who run companies where they are scared of their own employees; people who donate to their alma mater even though it betrays their principles. Enough.
You have the ability to build new things. If you don’t have the financial capital, you have the social or political capital. Or the ability to sweat.
The work of our lifetimes is the Great Build. Let’s go.