’Till Tireless Propaganda Tames’: C.S. Lewis’ Prescient Warning

A lawsuit by 118 firefighters, police officers, and other city employees against the City of Raleigh’s vaccination mandate against them prompted this reaction by the editors of the declining local newspaper, the News & Observer:

In Raleigh, the police holdouts say their refusal is about freedom. In its letter to the city, the [City of Raleigh Freedom to Choose coalition] said that its members are not opposed to vaccines, but they oppose “top-down mandates, coercion, and control. Fundamentally, CRFC is for freedom and for respect of the individual.” 

No, officers refusing to get vaccinated is not about freedom. It’s about shirking their duty.

The city’s first responders, who never shirked their duty even during the early days of Covid while the editors and the rest of the laptop set stayed smug at home, clearly understand freedom to be for the individual in opposition to state coercion. The editors’ redirection, meanwhile, is a tacit acknowledgment that freedom is desirable. They are compelled to repackage freedom as something unseemly so they can then recast state coercion as freedom.

The Raleigh ruckus is merely a fresh example in statists’ long war to redefine freedom, but one that has been waged with greater intensity nationwide amid all the Covid-excused mandates, from lockdowns to mask orders to now, vaccination mandates. Your freedom to open your “nonessential” business or work your “nonessential” job —very much essential to you and your family — was reframed as asserting your “freedom to infect.” An individual’s choice not to adopt a government dress code, meaning the freedom to choose where and whether to don a face mask, was really declaring a “freedom to kill Grandma.” Same with the vaccination mandates and whatever future orders are yet dreamed up.

I have the freedom to kill you with my COVID” is how Pres. Joe Biden characterized these concerns in an Oct. 21 appearance on CNN.

Such denigration and acidic vituperation of freedom — what Americans have normally referred to and understood as freedom — reminds me of an obscure C.S. Lewis poem, “The Prudent Jailer.” The poem originated not in political allegory, but as a critique of unimaginative literary criticism. Notwithstanding, the Jailer is a diabolical figure, and his prudence is this: he imprisons with words, not walls.

Only six stanzas long, the poem opens with prisoners suffering from nostalgia and escape fantasies:

Always the old nostalgia? Yes.

We still remember times before

We had learned to wear the prison dress

Or steel rings rubbed our ankles sore.

Escapists? Yes. Looking at bars

And chains, we think of files; and then

Of black nights without moon or stars

And luck befriending hunted men.

Meanwhile, they languish in envy of “free travelers:”

Still when we hear the trains at night

We envy the free travelers, whirled

In how few moments past the sight

Of the blind wall that bounds our world.

That stanza draws to mind the famous opening of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues:”

I hear the train a-comin’,

It’s rolling round the bend,

And I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when.

I’m stuck in Folsom Prison, and time keeps draggin’ on,

But that train keeps a-rollin’ on down to San Antone.

Cash’s train passes a real, tangible prison, and he sings the blues of a murderer who admits “I know I had it coming, I know I can’t be free.” Lewis’ prisoners, however, are bound by a “blind wall.” What does that mean? The next stanza offers clues:

Our Jailer (well may he) prefers

Our thoughts should keep a narrower range.

‘The proper study of prisoners

is prison’, he tells us. Is it strange?

The Jailer has them imprisoned by their own thoughts, while he keeps them focused ever on the presumption of a prison. He doesn’t want them thinking of anything else.

In the early days of Covid, governors and media all suddenly started promoting a “new normal.” (April 15, 2020, seemed like a declared “new normal” day, with several governors suddenly making “new normal” pronouncements.) In this “new normal,” we were told, people would no longer enjoy life as they once did. They were keeping us focused on normalizing what we thought were temporary emergency measures.

Few seemed willing to call the euphemism for what it was: advocacy of the abnormal, including an especially abnormal expansion of government power against the individual. This new abnormal needed an abnormal notion of freedom, which the reliable proponents of state coercion in media, academe, and entertainment have been happy to provide.

The mandates offered them a prudent substitute. “The masks are freedom,” Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine told PBS NewsHour Aug. 7, 2020. “Social distancing gives us freedom, and these [Covid-19] tests give us freedom.”

New York Times contributor Michael Tomasky did a very Times-ian thing on Oct. 17, 2020, by simultaneously deriding freedom as “manifest silliness” and something incessantly talked about “wholly on the right” but that nevertheless must be harnessed by “the broad left in America.” To what end? To play “some philosophical offense, especially on [the] issue [of] wearing masks. … Say this: Freedom means the freedom not to get infected by the idiot who refuses to mask up.”

Now we’re being told that “vaccines mean freedom,” in the words of a July 30, 2021, column in The Atlantic. Judging by the examples provided, this conception of freedom is being able to attend a baseball game, go to church, hold a job, or get an education. “Vaccines offer us the freedom to participate, the freedom to circulate back in the world, the freedom to be human again.”

In contrast with this new definition of “freedom,” The Atlantic erected several strawman caricatures of freedom: “absolute, anarchic freedom,” “irresponsible freedom,” “the freedom to not wear a mask with the assurance that they’ll be well taken care of at a hospital if they do get sick [and] access to social media and the connection to American culture that comes with it,” “all the rights, privileges, and benefits of human community without any sense of obligation to be responsible participants in that community,” and “freedom without repercussions.”

Statists peddling mandates as freedom would give the subservient a day pass “to be human again,” call it “freedom,” and denigrate actual freedom should anyone remember the normal normal. Lewis foresaw this:

And if old freedom in our glance

Betrays itself, he calls it names

‘Dope’-‘Wishful thinking’-or ‘Romance’,

Till tireless propaganda tames.

Our Jailer well knows the weakness of our “blind wall:” remembering we are free. He must therefore constantly defame our “old freedom” with “tireless propaganda.” Can enough of us defy being tamed by this relentless onslaught? If so, how?

The answer is in Lewis’ final stanza:

All but the strong whose hearts they break,

All but the few whose faith is whole.

Some walls cannot a prison make

Half so secure as rigmarole.

Stay strong. Keep the faith. In the words of New York City police officers, firefighters, and others currently protesting Mayor Bill de Blasio’s vaccine mandate, Hold the line.”

We cannot let statists’ rigmarole twist our understanding of freedom into something more like a “day pass” reward from the State for “good behavior.” Never forget that in the American system, it’s the government that holds a restricted day pass from the governed. Our government’s power is granted by us, for us, which is why government is limited and constitutionally forbidden from taking our individual, God-given rights. Hold the line and remember.

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