Liberty or death? The coronavirus attacks the soul of America

Some Americans are fearful of government control and awash in conspiracy theories.

Liberty or death? The coronavirus attacks the soul of America

Protesters from a grassroots organization called REOPEN NC protests the coronavirus lockdown in Raleigh, North Carolina, on April 14, 2020.

Photo by LOGAN CYRUS/AFP via Getty Images
  • Many around the U.S. are protesting lockdown measures imposed to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
  • The choice between freedom and death was famously posed by Patrick Henry's speech in 1775.
  • "Give me liberty or give me death" was the motto that launched the American Revolution that still resonates today.

The idea of freedom is central in the founding philosophy of the United States. It's also the focus of many of the nation's most cherished speeches like the oration given by one of its founding fathers, the attorney Patrick Henry on March 20th, 1775, to the delegates of the Second Virginia Convention, which ended with the declaration "give me liberty or give me death!" in what was to become the war cry of the American Revolution.

The coronavirus pandemic that has stricken contemporary America makes the choice for some just as stark. The tension between freedom and the measures necessary to stop the spread of a deadly disease lays bare the basic conflict in the country's DNA. With the United States becoming by far the global epicenter of the disease, the virus directly assaults what it means to be free in this modern age, when the rights of one are confronted with the welfare of many.

The powerful choice posed by Henry propelled Virginia to contribute troops to the rebellion, fueling the Revolution. Choosing freedom has been paramount to the country's governance since. It is part of the cultural fabric of the society, with the notion of "freedom" celebrated in its mythology, books, movies and art, even if it has clearly become more nebulous over time.

Henry's speech was a list of grievances against the "tyrannical" power abuses of the British, likening the situation to slavery, and proclaiming the inevitability of war, which he called "the last arguments to which kings resort." The fear of losing control to a dictatorial government are key to the country's psyche and have certainly resurfaced due to the restrictions imposed upon the United States due to the coronavirus, sparking spreading paranoia that liberty is being lost.

A slew of right-wing politicians have been raising alarms about big government trampling on their rights by closing down churches, gun stores and preventing people from doing as they please. This harkens to the long-held conspiracy theory of the government wanting to use a national emergency to take over people's freedoms. Of course, the measures taken were intended to stop the spread of the pandemic, have been shown to work, and were advised by health professionals.

Nonetheless, the idea of overreaching government has been a concern for people like State Rep. Heather Scott from northern Idaho, who called the government's policy on stopping the virus "a way to chip away at the foundations of our Constitution to push a global, socialistic agenda while in the midst of a national emergency."

People take part in a protest for "Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine" at the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan on April 15, 2020.

Credit: JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images

Thousands of cars participated in an anti-quarantine rally in Michigan, protesting against the restrictions imposed by the governor. Elsewhere, some experts have warned about the use of police or National Guard to set up checkpoints in places like Texas and Florida as possibly unconstitutional and certainly not something you would ever see in America. Of special concern is impeding movement by license plates, singling people out by states of residence, rather than posing the same requirements for all people traveling from the same direction.

The virus has also produced the need to keep track of the people who've been infected, in order to slow the spread. This has led to concerns that the gathered data about the patient's health and location could violate people's privacy and, while useful now, could be used eventually as another tool of governmental control and surveillance.

More elaborate fears of this nature lead to veritable conspiracy theories, with people burning down 5G cellphone towers which they blame for causing the virus – a misinformation theory that is possibly spread by a foreign state, as has been recently reported.

Protesters from REOPEN NC protests the coronavirus lockdown in Raleigh, North Carolina, on April 14, 2020.

Credit: LOGAN CYRUS/AFP via Getty Images

Another such "government control" proposal, spread by none other than the provocateur and President Trump's adviser Roger Stone, maintains that Bill Gates created the coronavirus so he and his "globalist" friends can institute mandatory vaccinations and microchip people (to presumably then exercise some measure of ruling over their lives).

All such attitudes are certainly to be expected in a dreadfully divided country under the leadership of a President with a media aversion and his own definitions of what constitutes truthful facts. But for the United States, which has about a third of the global pandemic's infected (while being just 4% of its population), with a deathly rate that doubled in the past week, the conflict playing out in its psyche may be just a false dichotomy that can lead to an existential disaster.

You can read the full text of Patrick Henry's speech here.

Hear Orson Welles read "Give me liberty or give me death"

Iron Age discoveries uncovered outside London, including a ‘murder’ victim

A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.

Photo Credit: HS2
Culture & Religion
  • A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
  • The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
  • An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
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Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
  • This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
  • Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
  • The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
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