Showing Your Papers

A few days ago, I took a student for lunch and enjoyed my first experience of being asked to present my proof of vaccination as a condition for being granted the privilege of eating soup in a restaurant. I took the opportunity to explain to my student, with whom I happened to be reading Brave New World that day, the special emotional significance, in Western societies, of the phrase, “Show me your papers.”

The situation, which will be replicated frequently from now on, as Korea institutes its next phase in the global authoritarian implosion that we are all supposed to euphemize as “public health measures,” is as emotionally complex from the freedom-loving individual’s perspective as it is psychologically ingenious from that of the tyrant. For under this new soft despotic regime, the person demanding my papers (literally paper in my case, since I do not own a smartphone, and therefore cannot simply flash a sexy QR code, as though abject submission were no different from using a digital discount coupon) will rarely be a police officer or government agent. It will be a waiter or waitress, or just as often, in the kinds of restaurants and cafes I favor, the owner of the place. Hence, I will know that this person has no desire to demand my papers, but is doing so under force of government edict, in order not to lose his or her job or business license. For this reason, I show my papers without anger or hesitation, because I know the person in front of me is not my enemy or oppressor, but merely a fellow slave obeying the commands of our mutual controllers. (The grandmother running the restaurant I visited for breakfast last week, ranting furiously to us about the inanity of these rules she was being forced to impose on her customers, put me in mind of the kind of underground kinship of strangers typical of the totalitarian societies of the past.)

Compliance, therefore, is now assured by the very absence of the police state apparatchiks, who no longer have to appear at all, since the digital records, employer mandates, and, in Korea, the self-tracking phone calls one must make to enter any public establishment, have displaced the need for the physical involvement of state officers. To put this another way, thanks to the combination of technology, bureaucracy, and indoctrinated fear, the government is now so pervasive as a social intermediary throughout every aspect of life, in every venue large and small, that our new style of police state essentially runs itself, which is much tidier and more civilized than the rougher, outdated methods that they still sometimes defer to in China and North Korea. 

Throughout the pandemic, or rather throughout the never-ending waves of lockdowns and social distancing rules — the pandemic itself is a viral outbreak, not to be confused with the authoritarianism outbreak that is thriving parasitically on the pandemic — I have been consciously trying to spend a little more money than usual at local small businesses, particularly restaurants and cafes. The owners of these small businesses are losing their shirts, and sometimes, it seems, also their will to live. The middle-aged café proprietress who can no longer afford to hire student workers, and therefore sits all day in her nice little shop alone, looking thinner and more forlorn each day, and appearing almost maniacally happy to see a customer, deserves my business, because she plays good music, remembers her regulars, and is watching her livelihood and hope drain away. The old couples who run so many of the traditional restaurants in Korea, trying to maintain enough income to make up for the retirement pension they do not have, did not ask to be protected from human contact by the state; on the contrary, the stability of their “golden years” depends entirely on getting families to come through those doors. Increased government support payments are no substitute at all for the pride of self-determination that has been stolen from them in the name of a supposed “public health emergency” that has been converted into “the new normal.” (Progressive pop quiz: If a supposed emergency becomes the normal or default condition of social life for two years, can it still be labeled an emergency? Answer: Yes, as long as that label is the easiest way to justify unlimited “emergency powers.”)

How quickly things change in an optical global emergency. On October 15th, 2021, The Washington Post published a story about the new workplace vaccine pass policy in Italy, which would effectively make working for a living impossible without proof of vaccination or a currently valid test result. The Post described the policy, accurately enough, as “new territory for a Western democracy,” and explained how it was “dramatically reshaping society even as the morning shift began.” The article quoted a vaccinated factory worker calling the situation “something surreal,” while an unvaccinated road maintenance worker, who presumably would do his entire job outdoors but was barred from work that day, described the policy as “a social experiment.” And so it was. Just as Italy was the first country to institute largescale and open-ended lockdowns, thus forsaking any pretense of maintaining the basic rights of freedom of movement and association long thought to be essential to anything resembling a liberal society, so now the Italians were being subjected to yet another “democratic” first, the universal denial of a most basic right of civilized self-preservation — the freedom to seek employment in order to earn a living — in the name of public safety. 

Italy’s policy, which is now being strengthened and deepened (if that is possible), is not simply a restriction on engaging in certain targeted public activities without vaccination, or a private assertion of personal preference by certain business proprietors, but is rather a state-imposed restriction on living as a self-reliant human being, unless one is willing to comply with the state’s specific medical treatment demands. In other words, compliance with arbitrary government mandates is now the price of simply being permitted to feed oneself in Italy. And the rest of the advanced democratic world is gradually falling in line with this sort of overt tyranny as we speak, which is to say that the “surreal social experiment” mentality continues to become the accepted norm worldwide. It has been less than three months since Italy’s policy was being described by a major progressive media outlet as new territory and a reshaping of our conception of modern democracy, as though the current pandemic of the vaccinated (which is what this now is, primarily and self-evidently) were cataclysmic enough to warrant a complete abandonment of the pillars of modern political philosophy — as though any pandemic in history, some of which were measurably far worse than this one, were cataclysmic enough to warrant such a blunt and precipitous surrender of the foundations of civilized political community. Today, all the momentum, throughout the world, is in the direction of such comprehensive social marginalization, ostracism, and exclusion for millions of people who wish simply to be allowed to make their own medical choices, i.e., to assert ownership over their own bodies, governance over their own lives. And in the direction of the universal elimination of personal privacy. In the direction of the complete obsolescence of the concepts of free and unmolested association and movement. In the direction of absolute state control over so-called private property, with respect to its use and disposal for social purposes. In the direction, to summarize, of everything we would casually have identified, prior to 2020, as obvious indications of tyrannical government. Tyranny itself, then, is the “social experiment” in which we are all participants, in the sense that lab rats may be called participants.

These new powers will not be rescinded. They may be scaled back in practical terms, but in the decently ordered community, the salient question is never which powers of government are being implemented today, but which powers are available to be implemented. Over the past two years, and increasingly so each week it seems, democratic governments the world over have been granting themselves a theoretically infinite set of options, to be applied in practice as the presiding leaders of the moment see fit — which is to say they have chosen to lay waste to all limits imposed by precedent, founding law, and common sense. You may wish to continue using the word “democracy,” if it makes you feel better. It does not make me feel better, not because it is the wrong word, but because I have long known what a true democracy is. We are all seeing democracy’s fullest, most inhuman promise played out on the widest possible stage right now.

A glint of marginal rationality.– This feels like spitting into the wind, but a court in Seoul has just ordered the suspension of the Korean government’s enforcement of its universal vaccine pass law in the case of essential educational services, particularly referring to private “cram schools” which students attend to improve their scores on mandatory national tests, which tests in turn greatly affect young people’s university and employment potential. 

Again, citing the Constitution, the court said that all citizens, as equal before law, should not be discriminated against across all aspects of daily life. By mandating people to present a proof of vaccination or a negative test result to access places that can be deemed essential, the policy “unfairly discriminates against people who have not been completely vaccinated.”

The court said that the vaccine pass policy indirectly forces a personal choice — of whether or not to get vaccinated against COVID-19 — and therefore denies people the right to self-determination.

People’s autonomy and right to self-determination over their own body “should be respected and cannot be disregarded,” the court said. 

That sounds far too much like common sense and respect for the individual and for republican precepts to be allowed to stand in the current climate. The government will certainly appeal this decision to a higher court, and almost as certainly get the result it wants, by hook or by crook. Authoritarianism has little time to waste on peccadilloes like the rule of law and individual self-determination. Expect an aggressive propaganda campaign against the private institutes, and in favor of the necessity of universal compliance in the name of saving lives. (As to quality of life, well, we just aren’t supposed to talk about such things anymore.)

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