The outcome of Tuesday’s presidential election will reveal whether the feminized, therapeutic culture of the university has become the dominant force in the American psyche.
During the last eight months of coronavirus panic, a remarkable number of Americans have deliberately — one might even say, ecstatically — embraced fear over fact. They have shut their ears to the data, available since March, showing how demographically circumscribed the lethal threat from coronavirus infection is: concentrated among the very elderly and those with multiple and serious preexisting health conditions.
A remarkable number of Americans have voluntarily cowered in their homes despite the lack of a scientific basis for doing so. When they finally ventured outside, they did so wearing masks, despite the absence of any chance of infection in outdoor settings. They have without protest traded a vibrant economy made up of hard-working small businessmen for the narcotic of government transfer payments and debt-ridden stimulus spending.
And now former Vice President Joe Biden promises to double down on all of the above. A vote for Biden is a vote for spirit-crushing safetyism over such traditional American virtues as optimism, risk-taking and entrepreneurial drive. Biden is itching to shutter more of the economy. He has embraced the idea of a national outdoor mask requirement, which would turn every American citizen into a walking billboard of fear and reinforce the message that threat is everywhere. He will claim to be guided by ‘metrics’ for reopening or shutting enterprises down, metrics that are pulled out of thin air. He will pretend that he has no option but to ‘follow the science’ in mandating further shutdowns. The science, however, argues for reopening. And a leader should base decisions on a range of considerations, rather than being dictated to by one particular group of ‘experts’.
Biden may well govern from a bunker, to model the fanatical risk aversion that will become the national norm.
And in doing these things, Biden will be channeling the spirit of the American university. It is the American university that tells students, preposterously, that they are at risk even of their lives from circumambient racism and sexism, and that they need a vast anti-discrimination bureaucracy to survive. It tells them that speech challenging campus orthodoxies is a form of violence that can rightly be suppressed. It showers them with therapeutic safe spaces, complete with massage, mindfulness sessions, aromatherapy, essential oils and the inevitable therapy dogs. It derides rationality as a tool of white male supremacy. It promotes itself as the only route to a productive meaningful life, disparaging hands-on labor and the mastery of machines.
President Donald Trump, for all his vast personality flaws, is the antidote to this suffocating safetyism ethic. The key moment of his political career was not the overhyped ride down the escalator but rather his emergence on a White House balcony after returning from the hospital for coronavirus infection. He removed his mask and uttered words that were once the hallmark of leadership: we will persevere, we cannot be cowed by fear, we must move forward. And in the most stunning indication of the sea change in America culture, the Democratic and media establishments reacted to this message with howls of rage and contempt.
Banner headlines blared across the country: ‘Trump was minimizing risk!’ He was failing to promote an ethic of fear. It had now, astonishingly, become a failure of leadership to encourage the manly virtues of perseverance and stoicism. The progressive elites have either forgotten or have dismissed as archaic FDR’s stirring injunction against fear; its echo, so relevant today, should shame them, but they are smug in their safetyism.
To be sure, not all Americans have opted for fear.
The Red State-Blue State ideological division has been strikingly reaffirmed in the novel setting of pandemic policy. The geographical contours of groundless outdoor mask wearing track the preexisting political map. But even Red State populations have been relatively docile in the face of arbitrary government overreach; the protests against further lockdowns that have broken out across the European continent have no counterpart here.
The vote on Tuesday will show how great the encroachment of academic safetyism into American self-reliance has been. If Biden wins, the healthy young males in Manhattan apartment buildings will become the national symbol of an emasculated manliness: voluntarily terrified, refusing to allow fellow residents onto the elevator with them for a 10-second ride to the lobby, despite the fact that both they and their fellow residents are masked, and despite the fact that it takes 15 minutes of close contact with an infected person to incur a risk of contagion.
If Biden wins, the country will have chosen to be crippled by the media’s constant hyping of the coronavirus case count. It will continue ignoring the facts that deaths are not rising and that the infection fatality rate is dropping. More infections with fewer deaths is a condition to be wished for, since it will accelerate the necessary development of herd immunity. But safetyism grasps for reasons to worry.
If Biden wins on Tuesday, socioeconomic and racial disparities will widen, despite the Democrats’ self-identification as the party of equality and concern for minorities. Far too many schools will remain closed, even though children are not at risk and do not transmit the virus. No matter. The children of the elite will continue learning to read and write. The children of poor and minority single mothers, however, will fall further behind in their academic and social skills. These growing gaps will in turn be invoked to increase racial quotas in education and employment and to tear down remaining meritocratic standards. Rising deaths of despair will be met with an expanded therapeutic state, when the corrective that is needed is simply the ability to work in a thriving private economy.
To date, the Democrats have pulled off a stunning sleight of hand: they blame Donald Trump for the moribund economy, caused by the very lockdowns that they championed and that Trump all too sporadically opposed.
But if Biden wins on Tuesday, what will be locked down is an entire ethos of submission, passivity and scolding righteousness.
Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of The Diversity Delusion: How Race and Gender Pandering Corrupt the University and Undermine Our Culture.