Catholic Values Column: Incrementalism

Jared Johnson
Catholic Values Columnist

I’m not sure yet if this semester’s travels, as they wind down towards finals week, will bring me to Prague. I’ll say that it’s not at the top of my list. Everyone seems to lose their minds over the mere mention of the city, but I honestly can’t figure out why.

There are a few things that might incline me to make a trip there though. One of them is a set of stairs. I can’t find them or what they’re called on Google, but I’m told that somewhere in the city, they’re there.

Like many Eastern European nations, the Czech Republic’s plight did not end with the defeat of the Nazis. Matters only worsened under the communist regimes in the Cold War; from 1948 to 1989, Czechoslovakia suffered an autocratic one-party regime, until the nonviolent Velvet Revolution and subsequent legal changes finally brought about an end to communist rule, and the Czechs and the Slovaks divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

While the West moved on fairly quickly into a progressive new world, the East still rebuilds and still remembers.

This memorial, whatever it’s called and wherever it is, apparently begins as a set of stairs, each step a fraction higher than the previous — baby steps. As they ascend, the distance between each step grows and grows, eventually becoming normal, walkable stairs. But they keep on rising, each stair becoming taller and taller, a person’s height and more, until finally they’re insurmountable — no longer a step, but a wall.

This is the charted course of all tyranny, from the eyes of those that watched it rise and fall over the span of decades.

Like all such monuments, these stairs serve a dual purpose. Not only do they memorialize the past, they are meant to make present the possible futures that must be avoided.

Up until recently, the West has been free, and especially in America we have a strong sense of our freedoms. Only something drastic could cause us to question them in preference to anything else.

The past almost two years have asked that question, and society answers: the perception of safety. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown, America has moved from a place of aggressive love of liberty — sometimes a good thing, often a bad, given that we no longer remember what liberty is supposed to mean — to deep divisions over the matter. However, one side of the division holds the weight of an immense governmental apparatus that it is all of a sudden using to raise those dangerous questions against freedom.

Well, is it actually “all of a sudden”? Or is it rather those tiny steps up? Quietly over the decades we have seen many definitions “evolve” — rights, marriage, family — and for various reasons have allowed it to slide, often because to resist puts us in an awkward position.

“Awkward” eventually becomes “unpopular,” which becomes “de-platformed,” which becomes “persecuted” — for example, the cancel culture of today.

Little steps get authoritarians just ever so much higher in their ambitions, not enough to incite serious opposition, because some will always say “what’s the big deal? It’s not that bad.” These changes or restrictions, be they the redefinition of marriage or mask mandates, are tolerable even if disagreeable, right?

The left-leaning authoritarians in the West have been consolidating power for a long time now, taking little steps, though they make use of Republicans as well as Democrats to do so. “Power” doesn’t mean governmental authority alone; the Nazis and the communists and all the dictators back to Caesar were smarter than that. Those aforementioned little steps have given them the ability to weaponize cultural pressures, societal obligations and pop culture.

The crisis since March 2020 gives this side the ability to flex all their power at once, not just for a moment, but in a drastic, sustained effort. You can bandy about conspiracy theories all you like; I believe that, whether COVID or the vaccines or masks are real or not, it’s all a trial run: thus far, the peoples of the West have allowed their values to erode under a steady stream.

How will they respond to a flood? A flood of pressure, coercion, fearmongering, virtue signaling, employing all of the methods they have assembled over the past few decades to do so. They want to see what will get them to a higher step. And if they succeed here, what’s next?

Now is the time to kick up a stink, when the powerful are still testing the waters — when they can still be flung down the stairs. This comes at the cost of appearing to many as extreme now, but only because would-be authoritarians seem so moderate. Once tyranny has grown to full, terrible strength and becomes a wall, it costs far, far more in blood, sweat and tears.