At the febrile height of the French Revolution — the political event that created the modern world — the General Council of the Paris Commune issued a kind of passport for citizens who could demonstrate that they were politically reliable — the certificat de civisme. Proof of civic virtue and political reliability was absolutely vital. Without a certificate, a citizen was “civilly dead.” They had no rights, they could not find legitimate employment, and they were subject to arrest. As the Reign of Terror accelerated, civil death could easily become literal death under the falling blade of the guillotine.
The Law of Suspects made not having a certificat de civisme a crime.
Decree that orders the arrest of Suspect People.
Of 17 September 1793.
The National Convention, having heard the report of its legislative committee on the method of bringing into effect its decree of last 12 August, decrees the following:
Art. I. Immediately after publication of this decree, all suspect people who are to be found on the territory of the Republic, and who are still in freedom, will be put under arrest.
II. Considered as suspect people are:
1º Those who, either by their conduct, or their relations, or by their words or writings, have shown themselves to be partisans of tyranny or of federalism, and enemies of freedom;
2º Those who cannot justify, in the manner prescribed by the decree of last 21 March, their means of existence and the acquittal of their civic duties;
3º Those to whom have been denied certificates of good citizenship;
4º Public officials who have been suspended or discharged from their functions by the National Convention or its commissioners and have not been reinstated, notably those who have been or ought to be discharged under the law of last 14 August;
5º Those former nobles, with their husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, son or daughters, brothers or sisters, and agents of émigrés, who have not consistently demonstrated their commitment to the Revolution;
6º Those who have emigrated during the interval between 1 July 1789 and the publication of the law of 8 April 1792, even if they have returned to France within the time prescribed by that law, or earlier.
I have in my wallet a certificate that says I’ve been vaccinated twice and boostered once against COVID-19. As a medical record, I have no problem with that. As a certificate of good citizenship, I really hate the thing. I’m glad to be vaxxed — I think it’s the smart play: it’s pretty clear that being vaxxed up helps prevent serious illness, and choosing to vaccinate has expanded my freedom, not constricted it. I feel like I’ve done what I can to protect myself and my family, and to boost the return of things that I value (live music in particular). It wasn’t a hard choice — the operative word being choice.
In our own febrile cultural climate, damned if that card doesn’t feel like a certificat de civisme, and its a feeling I don’t like much.
I’m in favor of vaccination, and encourage my friends and loved ones to get it done. I am opposed to vaccine mandates and passports, and the notion of creating categories of citizenship around vaccination status makes my skin crawl. I know for a fact that there are people in my orbit who would very much like to see the unvaccinated rendered civilly dead. Some have enough schadenfreude in their makeup that they might well take satisfaction in seeing the unvaxxed “get their comeuppance” from the Rona.
We are walking a very dangerous road. Compulsory “virtue” cannot be virtue at all — and it tills the soil and plants the seeds of repression and terror. As a friend noted, when this this kind of “social credit” precedent is established, what comes next? Compulsory trade-in of your older, less environmentally-friendly car? And what from there?
We must remember that the social contract that underpins modern civilization granted government a monopoly on violence, and all compulsory requirements it makes are backed by the threat of violence. As time has marched on, we have allowed its writ to run very wide.
The public health crisis of COVID-19 was and is real — but it is not paranoia to fear the grip of those who would exploit it in the classic political power grab, expressed in the determination to “never let a crisis go to waste.” And the current cultural moment is infected with something more than a viral pathogen. Make no mistake, “cancel culture” and “de-platforming” those the General Council finds odious is an effort to inflict civil death.
Historian Jeremy Popkin asserts that:
“The principles of the French Revolution remain the only possible basis for a just society.”
That may be true. Who could seriously argue against the ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité? And yet, the great lesson of that very same Revolution is that attempting to create a just society by force unleashes destruction — and injustice — on an unprecedented scale.
C.S. Lewis had it right:
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”