Of all the social changes the pandemic has wrought already, and which will further take hold as the pandemic drags on, one of the most far-reaching may be our notions of rebellion and dissent. The generations now growing up under quarantine, social distancing, masking and vaccination regimes are the first in many decades for whom following orders is seen as an honorable rather than shameful observance – how can they conceive that it was ever any different?
After the World War against fascism, and throughout the Cold War against communism, the western values of freedom were often idealized in the independence of the individual citizen against the monolithic force of the state. Characters from classic novels (Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Yossarian in Catch-22), films (Miles Bennell in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the eponymous misfit of Cool Hand Luke), and television (Number Six in The Prisoner, Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H) were portrayed as heroic resisters of lockstep officialdom in bureaucracy, the military, and the community. Rock music and its offshoots promoted a parallel defiance, at least against parents, teachers, police, and war pigs. Real-life rebels Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, and millions of anonymous folks made civil disobedience central to their campaigns for civil rights, feminism, and other forms of social justice. The freedom fighter is an icon of politics and popular culture.
The problem is that, having glamorized nonconformity for a long time, it is very difficult to suddenly reverse our attitudes for a new era. Constant instructions to “do your part” by staying home, wearing face coverings, lining up for tests or shots, and even walking the right way down the grocery aisles, like everyone else – they’re a bit much coming from the same sources which, for some sixty years up to 2020, were usually telling us to “Question Authority,” to “Dare to Be Different,” to “Think Outside the Box,” that we should display “No Logo,” and “Fight the Power.” Just like that, we now have to respect the rules and stay six feet apart, because that’s what the politicians and the experts say? Baby Boomers, who pride themselves on a history of dropping out, draft dodging, standing up to the Man, and not trusting anyone over thirty, are especially unconvincing when they scold the rest of us to get with the program, do their civic duty, and fit in with the great, silent, socially distanced majority. Somewhere, Richard Nixon is smiling and stocking up on hand sanitizer.
What is perhaps more startling than the actual pandemic itself – the illnesses and the deaths – has been this sudden willingness on the part of millions to follow orders, and to publicly announce their doing so. Never in our time have so many been so eager to be so obedient. I’m not one to see Nazi-like acquiescence in every mass movement for or against anything; lots of people can have a shared belief or take a united action and still be independent. But there is something creepy in the openness with which people are now proclaiming their personal health data, and in the shamelessness with which institutions are now asking for it. Has anyone paused to consider how strange it is that the post-9/11 concerns about security trumping privacy, about the “phantoms of lost liberty” infamously dismissed by US Attorney-General John Ashcroft, have been scarcely raised twenty years later? Who’s complaining about Big Brother and the surveillance state now?
Of course, a global health emergency is very different from an unpopular war, unjust laws, or the soul-crushing dreariness of our entire plastic-suburban society. Even before COVID-19, you might fancy yourself a nonconformist by refusing inoculations for your kids, by driving over the speed limit, or for that matter by not washing your hands after you used the bathroom, but you’d in fact be merely a menace to public safety. Nonconformity is neither inherently good nor inherently bad. Yet it’s hard to really blame those people who today resist government orders to stay in their bubbles, cover their mouths, get their boosters, and show their status on their phones – not necessarily because they’re right to do so, but because they’re only doing what they were commonly encouraged all across their lives, pre-pandemic. If it’ll make any difference, I’m willing to put up with the unprecedented restrictions imposed on us to combat a dangerous virus. But don’t expect me, or millions of others, to forget all that we’ve been taught about the nobility of bucking the system and the moral distinction of standing apart from the crowd. I am not a number. I am a free man.