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Ron DeSantis doesn't understand how civil liberties should work. That's dangerous.

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 4/23/2022 Carli Pierson, USA TODAY

In the face of historic inflation, stomach-churning political polarization, and with the federal government waging a battle to keep minimum requirements like public masking on federal transport in place – enterprising politicians have been quick to notice the chaos.

At a news conference Thursday for what was supposed to be a fishing event, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took the opportunity to sneak in some fear-mongering about civil liberties and quarantines alongside the pressing issue of red snapper season: “You know with me in this chair, your freedoms are protected.” 

A very American problem

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That's exactly what I am afraid of: the assertion of civil liberties at any cost. It's civil liberties gone wild. The opportunism and extreme individualism aren't new or unique to my favorite Floridian, however. It's a very American problem these days.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis © Michael Snyder/The Northwest Florida Daily News Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

The federal government is getting ready to appeal a judge's ruling overturning the mask mandate, which reeks of extremist individualism, after it secured the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's support for masking

Perhaps the most ridiculous part of the masking and civil liberties issue is that the science behind it isn't even in question. Doctors have always understood how respiratory viruses work. The issue is us and our insistence on the total enjoyment of our civil liberties at any price, as if that were part of the fundamental fabric of this nation.

I wanted to understand what was going on, so I called my favorite, living, philosopher. 

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'We live in some kind of hell'

Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek is a superstar thinker and a prolific author who makes everyone mad: from the far left to the far right and everything in between. He wrote his most recent book, "Heaven in Disorder," during the height of the pandemic in 2021, and it touches on civil liberties and extreme individualism.

In one relevant passage, he says, "We live in some kind of hell, caught in a permanent tension and depression, the pandemic having destroyed the daily life we were used to. ... The pandemic must be treated together with global warming, erupting class antagonisms, patriarchy and misogyny, and the many other ongoing crises that resonate with it, and with each other, in a complex interplay."

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He's absolutely right: We are living in hell, and hell is much more complicated than a simple mask debate. It's not about public health, math textbooks or Disney: Those are just headlines. The subtext is red vs. blue at all costs (and everything those positions stand for). In a word, anarchy.

I asked Zizek about what he calls a "post-modern" obsession with extreme individualism and civil liberties in the context of the nonmaskers and the anti-vaxxers. He said, "This type of individualism in the U.S. wasn't there all the time. It exploded at a certain point with this new wave of populist rebellions. It worries me very much. Let's take a simple example: I am free to walk to a store to buy something I want. But to enjoy my liberties there are so many rules that I and others strive to obey. We are not aware enough of how much of our actual liberties are sustained by the space of customs, not only explicit legal rules but unwritten customs."

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Dr. Slavoj Zizek meets with USA TODAY's Editorial Board member Carli Pierson to talk about U.S. politics, among other things. © Carli Pierson Dr. Slavoj Zizek meets with USA TODAY's Editorial Board member Carli Pierson to talk about U.S. politics, among other things.

In his books and his conversations with me, Zizek explains that this idea that we can do whatever we want, to the detriment of our fellow citizens, is not freedom at all: It's anarchy and it's dangerous. There's nothing new about the idea that small sacrifices must be made to protect one another: That's how nations survive and thrive.

What's new is this radical idea that any inconvenience is unfair or unjust. It is an idea that is fundamentally un-American, regardless of what DeSantis and his cronies say. 

As we attempt to wade through the mess our politicians have made, and in the face of the CDC reminder that masking is still necessary on federal public transport, we come to an important conclusion. The science isn't the problem. We are with our insistence on me, myself and I – our individualism taken to new heights of toxicity. 

DeSantis wants his version of civil liberties at any cost: That's anarchy disguised as libertarianism. It will take reasonable-minded people across the political spectrum to fight him. 

Carli Pierson is an attorney, former professor of human rights, writer and member of USA TODAY's Editorial Board. You can follow her on Twitter: @CarliPiersonEsq

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@usatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ron DeSantis doesn't understand how civil liberties should work. That's dangerous.

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