The need for strength and refusal of misplaced tolerance

A few years ago, I was crossing Madison Avenue at 23rd Street in Manhattan and had the ‘Walk’ signal. A car made an illegal left turn from 23rd Street onto Madison, coming inches from people who had the right of way in the crosswalk, and the driver had the chutzpah to honk his horn at the pedestrians he was nearly running over. I gave his car a nice kick as he passed only a few feet away from me, and the car stopped a few yards away. I stopped to see if the driver wanted any more deserved kicks, and he drove away.

The gall of this driver, to honk his horn at those whose lives he was endangering with his blatant lawbreaking, comes to mind when we look at how a sizeable portion of the public is reacting to the global COVID-19 pandemic, especially here in New York City where the outbreak is the most intense worldwide.

New York must abide by these rules longer than elsewhere, because the infection rate here is so high and we are such a densely populated place. It is not easy staying six feet away from people, but a lot of people are not even trying.

I want the pandemic to be over but declaring victory too early can be deadly and lead to a terrible second wave that could do more damage than the first. Reopening New York is going to be difficult and we cannot jump the gun.

And here in Queens, of all places, the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the known universe, many of my neighbors have shown themselves to be severely lacking in basic common sense, feeling entitled to run roughshod over public health. My wife and I took our three young daughters for a walk to a park, this past week, hoping to bring them to a field where they could have some free time outside without violating basic social distancing standards. The park was closed, but people had hopped the fence to sit on picnic tables or play handball as if this were an ordinary spring day. There was even a couple riding bicycles on the sidewalk (that by itself is dangerous, dumb, and illegal) without masks on.

This was infuriating and discouraging. If people were acting this way in Queens, New York, where the problem is most acute, will we be able to contain this virus at all?

Wearing a mask in public not virtue signaling; it is basic common decency during an extraordinary time. Being asked to wear a mask in public and keep away from others is not akin to slavery or the Holocaust (yes, people are really making those comparisons) any more than upholding basic law and order is  modern day slavery or Nazism. If anyone questioned whether the American right could impotently cling to victimhood like the American left, COVID-19 erased all doubts.

My sister gave birth to a baby girl earlier this month. She went through labor wearing a mask. My father and stepmother have only visited their new granddaughter from a safe distance; they don’t know when they are going to get to hold her for the first time, it could easily be months from now. They do not like things being this way but protecting the health of others is not a tough choice for them. It shouldn’t be a tough choice for anyone.

Intelligence is not weakness; refusal to listen to informed experts is not rugged individualism. It’s not outrageous to be concerned about government power and to look skeptically at public panics, but the experts weighed in on this long ago and the danger is real. Do not follow these COVID-19 precautions out of an unthinking obedience to the government, but out of an obligation to your friends and neighbors.

Part of being all in this together means we adhere to basic community standards, and those include the supremacy of truth and obedience to the basic social contract. It means acting as if you are responsible for the well-being of a larger community, even if many in that community think their convenience is more important than their own lives or the lives of others. If you really want to defend freedom, you first must act like a responsible adult.

We are not lost when such people appear, we are lost if we acquiesce to them. Letting science deniers or “Covidiots” as they are being called, dictate the terms of our dealing with disease is like letting children run the schools.

In his novel Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein describes the breaking point when lawlessness and irresponsibility triggered groups of veterans to start taking the law into their own hands; their emergency measures eventually become the rule of law. If our hasty re-opening triggers a deadlier and more economically disastrous second wave, we will need to keep in mind this essential passage from Heinlein’s work: “Moral behavior is survival behavior above the individual level.”

It is time for the grown-ups to step in. There may not be a swift, satisfying kick we can deliver to the “Covidiots” dotting our landscape today like we can with a car that sails through a crosswalk against the light, but it is past time to stop tolerating the intolerable. Allowing the public health to be subverted by reckless fools is not freedom, it’s suicide.

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