Saturday, May 9, 2020


My sixth grade Sunday school teacher had a favorite word. It was "choice."

When I was in college, I heard that she had left the church in a dispute with the pastor. Lots of other people had done that, too. I remember feeling disappointed in her, though years later I wonder whether perhaps she did make the right choice. I wasn't around for that particular pastor war so I don't know where I would have fallen, or if I would even be seeing the issue the same way now. I only know she made a choice.

Last week's news cycle centered around the choices we are or aren't making. It is time, some say, to re-open the economy. In some cases, that means workers are required to go back to work, whether or not they feel safe doing it. There will be no unemployment check. They will, you might say, not really have a choice.

Mamon is once again taking human sacrifices.

In the noisy market of arguments and counter-arguments, there are also the "peacemakers." Be kind, one of them says, to everyone, regardless of their choices. If someone wants to rush out and get their nails done right away, let them do it. If you want to stay home, that's fine too.

To me, those are the worst kind of arguments. Someone who claims to be neutral, above the fray, and a diplomat, actually chooses a side and then says, "why can't we all just get along?" I've seen it a million times. And since we'd all like to be kind and civil once in a while, it does kind of suck us in. Why not be kind to everyone? Diversity is good, right? I always feel better when I affirm everybody else rather than feel threatened by them.

But when it comes to a disease that will keep spreading indiscriminately, and killing as long as it can find hosts, some of us choosing to let it continue is not going to be much help to any of us, including those who chose to stay home. And we'll have to keep staying home longer.

The exaltation of individual choice has been around in our society for a long time. The arguments for it, however, usually don't need to be made unless I'm defending something that someone else finds a problem. If I want to defend my right to do something destructive to myself, like smoking or not wearing a seat belt, I'll argue that I can take a risk if I want to and that nothing bad is going to happen to you.

But it isn't true. Back when smoking was allowed in restaurants, those of us with asthma, who sat in the "no smoking" section, got to breathe in plenty of smoke that drifted over the useless partitions. It was like sitting in a crowded movie theater and being told that if the guy next to us wanted to hold a loud conversation during the movie, that was his choice, and if you want to be quiet and listen to the movie, that's cool too, just do it and don't complain about the other guy. Just everybody do their thing and get along. And good luck hearing the movie.

The individuals making their individual choices also don't consider that maybe we don't want all of our relatives who smoke to die of lung cancer (true for me, except for the one uncle who almost died and then recovered) or have somebody's guts splattered all over the road because they exercised their divine right not to use restraint. At the least that's going to make me late for work and cause everyone's insurance to go up a little. But I can still remember a radio talk show host from a couple of decades ago getting really exorcised about it. Nanny state government, he roared. Trying to take away our individual choice!

Generally, it's the right of the individual to make bad choices that has to be defended. And if history is any guide, this fall, like the autumn of 1918, six months into that ancient pandemic, could see the deaths of millions and be much worse than what we've seen so far. And why do I have the feeling that the people who are now screaming about being allowed to take their own risks (assuming that it isn't going to kill grandma) are not going to be so sanguine when the consequences start rolling in? Getting what you asked for can sometimes be a real problem.

Scientists are also realists. They had built into their computer models that only half of us would take their warnings seriously. So it was a bit of a surprise that the death toll wasn't considerably higher this spring. But we've already lost 75,000 people or more in the U.S., and this virus is just getting started. It is time for a different argument. One they don't have to try to sell.

The White House now admits that in June we will probably lose a 9/11's worth of Americans every single day. And they want business as usual anyhow. And their reason is this: we are going to make you do it. You can't stop us. People will die. Too bad.

Millions of human beings don't get to make individual choices and never have, their lives wasted by the exploitation and greed of others. As a society we sometimes seem to be overcoming some of that tendency, but it is slow, it is uneven, and it is ugly. In my time I am fortunate to have escaped being in the mist of a destructive domestic war, being forced to fight and perhaps die in such a war, or being enslaved or incarcerated. I am one of the truly lucky ones in the larger picture. You probably are, too.

I suppose I should feel lucky that this is a pandemic and not a war. It will involve lots of death but at least leave the spectacular property damage. Human beings feel the need to kill each other in large numbers every so often. I've never been able to figure out why but it keeps happening. But hey, if you don't like being in a war zone, just don't shoot anybody!

And keep your head down.

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