Point/Counterpoint: The Country Is Holding Together/ Oh, No It Isn’t

Two excellent articles on May 12,  arguing almost exactly opposite cases, and both (to me) almost equally persuasive.

First, the Optimist: Greg Sargent in the Washington Post: “Trump is badly botching the virus. New polls show Americans know it:

Greg Sargent

In what should be seen as a rebuke of President Trump, Anthony S. Fauci will tell a Senate panel on Tuesday that reopening the country too quickly risks causing “multiple outbreaks” of coronavirus, resulting in “needless suffering and death.”

Majorities of the American people appear to agree with Trump’s most prominent coronavirus task force member. Indeed, two new polls strongly suggest Trump has lost the argument over how to respond to the virus right now on just about every level.

A new Post-Ipsos poll finds that 56 percent of Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, while only 43 percent approve. By contrast, 71 percent approve of their governor’s handling of the disease. . . .

But in Michigan, approval of the governor’s handling of the virus is 72 percent, while Trump’s is 39 percent. In Pennsylvania, those numbers are 72 percent and 45 percent, respectively.

Another finding from the poll confirms even more clearly how badly Trump has lost the argument: It finds that an astonishing 57 percent of Americans say Trump is not doing enough to ensure that people can return to work safely. By contrast, only 42 percent say he’s doing enough.

By contrast, 69 percent say their governors are doing enough to ensure that people can return to work safely. And 56 percent say their state governors are handling the pace of lifting restrictions “about right,” while only 16 percentsay they’re not lifting them quickly enough.

And 74 percent agree with the view that the United States should keep trying to slow the coronavirus even if it means keeping many businesses closed. Only 25 percent take the opposite view — Trump’s view.

A stunning indictment

Dr. Anthony Fauci

All of that is a stunning indictment of Trump’s failures: Large majorities grasp that he’s putting people in danger by urging a reopening on his timetable — which we all know is largely dictated by his reelection needs — and large majorities understand this is precisely because he failed to do enough to ensure it can be done safely.

Trump is dissembling furiously to try to make these accurate public perceptions disappear. He just claimed once again that coronavirus rates are “coming down in most parts of our Country,” which “wants to open and get going again.” . . .

Here again, as the above polling shows, a sizable majority of 57 percent do not believe Trump is doing enough to allow us to reopen safely.

Meanwhile, a new CNN poll also shows the public soundly condemning Trump’s performance: It finds that solid majorities believe the federal government is not doing enough about the shortage in testing (57 percent) and is not doing enough about the potential for a second wave of cases (58 percent).

It also finds that an abysmal 36 percent trust information from Trump about the coronavirus, that 52 percent say the worst has yet to come, and that only 42 percent approve of Trump’s handling of the disease, versus 55 percent who disapprove of it.

The rage of Trump partisans

One thing that has been remarkable is the sputtering rage of Trump’s propagandists as they witness large majorities refusing to prioritize Trump’s reelection needs — oops, sorry, I meant refusing to prioritize “getting the economy going” — over their own health and lives.

How to balance resuming normal economic life with the public health of the country is a complicated and difficult question, of course. But Trump’s partisans refuse to treat this topic with any nuance.

They are pushing utter nonsense, such as pretending those criticizing Trump for failing to scale up testing so we can reopen carefully are waging class war on oppressed workers who just want to resume livelihoods.

But the Post poll shows only 25 percent of Americans want to reopen faster. And never mind that in many cases, those bearing the brunt of the illness right now are working people — that is, people who have kept on working low-skilled but essential jobs.

It’s hard to overstate how comprehensively and thoroughly the American people are rejecting these arguments.

Convinced.? Well, not so fast: in the other corner isconservative Never-Trumper Charlie Sykes, proprietor of the heavyweight blog “The Bulwark,” who insists to the contrary, that the social contract is unraveling, the virus is increasingly out of control, and reaction to the lockdown is “making America Mean”:

1.  Making American Selfish

The images of a packed restaurant in Castle Rock, Colorado, shoppers in Arkansas, and crowded beaches in the midst of a spreading pandemic felt like a turning point, because, let’s be honest, they were.

The social contract is unraveling.

While most Americans continue to tell pollsters they are worried about re-opening the country, a substantial number have simply decided they are done with it. And by done with it, they mean done with it all: the social distancing, the wearing of masks, treating the pandemic as a BFD. We’re not talking about the protests or the politics here, but rather the jail-break-like decision by millions to defy the quarantines.

Charlie Sykes

As Reason magazine reports:

Visits to fast food restaurants and gas stations have already returned to their pre-coronavirus baselines in rural regions, Foursquare reported. While suburban and urban areas are still below normal, those areas have seen 15 percent growth since the end of March.

This is understandable, because the social, personal, and economic costs of the shutdown have been extraordinary; and nothing this inconvenient can last forever. People want to get on with their lives, and really, who can blame them?

But there’s another undercurrent:  We aren’t all in this anymore, are we?

As Dr. Anthony Fauci will warn the senate today, a premature return to normalcy “will not only result in needless suffering and death, but would actually set us back on our quest to return to normal.”

So when the president declares that Americans are “WARRIORS,” he redefines the word to mean a willingness to risk getting sick and to infect others. That chorus has been taken up by other “thought leaders” who conflate American Greatness with going to Arby’s; and who seem to have confused recklessness with courage, and freedom with me-firstism.

This is not how healthy societies respond to a crisis.

Imagine for a moment London during the Blitz, and thousands of residents simply decided to turn on the lights and open the shades because they were tired of the blackout. Imagine a nation in the grips of a plague where the public decided that only cucks took precautions… Oh wait.

The essential element in all of this is voluntary compliance. There are simply not enough cops, not enough bureaucrats, and not enough monitors for it to be otherwise.

But the problem now is not the lack of cops, it’s the erosion of a culture that calls us all to common purpose and sacrifice. In other words, a culture bound by a social contract that says we are in this together.

Conservatives used to understand this. Insisting on responsible self government is not the opposite of freedom, it is the essential predicate. Freedom-oriented conservatives used to argue that individuals and non-governmental institutions would act in their rational self interest and would do a better and more effective job than bureaucratic top down fiats.

But this requires responsible and credible moral leadership to reinforce responsible conduct.

Those norms (like simple good manners or even rules of gun safety) are enforced both formally and informally; by public exhortations to responsible conduct, but also by the informal values of peer groups that quietly urge us not to give into our dickiest impulses.These norms may have been codified in formal rules, but they were enforced because they were accepted, honored, and reinforced on a daily basis informally.  We can all remember some older individual or colleague who quietly cautioned us against  taking a rash action telling us that it was a bad idea or that it was not the way to do things.

Which brings us to the masks.

For most people wearing a mask is neither pleasant nor natural, nor is isolating oneself.

Peer pressure is crucial. If you walk into a room where everyone is wearing a mask, you are likely to comply; walk into a room where only a handful are wearing one, and you are more likely to keep it in your pocket.

So it is all the more important for social networks and trusted voices to more or less constantly reinforce the importance of such actions. People need to be persuaded, encouraged, and reminded by trusted voices that this is a good idea. When that social network turns against the sacrifices, the process falls apart, no matter what the law says.

But if you spend any time on social media, or have watched the president’s latest press conference, you know how this is going.

Obviously, this breakdown is going to have huge consequences, because the key to fighting the pandemic is not simply technical (testing and tracing) but also political and social. This is a useful thread. Stanford professor Keith Humphreys warns that countries that have successful testing programs not only have more deference to government, but also more of a sense of communal social responsibility. Testing programs, he notes, “depend on people being so compliant that they will stay home for 14 days because a health worker told them to. Meanwhile, in Detroit last week a grocery store security guard was shot in the head for asking someone to wear a mask.”

Health professionals, he writes, have not yet asked hard questions such as  “What do you do when millions of Americans refuse to take your tests?” and “What do you do when many of the people you order to isolate, or to close their business, angrily refuse?”

Here is his kicker: In a mobile nation like ours, “you can’t build a ‘no peeing’ section in the swimming pool.”

. . . Meanwhile, even as COVID-19 spreads through his own White House, Donald Trump will never wear a mask.

So, what do you think?  These writers must manifest divergent aspects of my personality. I agree with them both, if not simultaneously then within an hour. Two or three times.



6 thoughts on “Point/Counterpoint: The Country Is Holding Together/ Oh, No It Isn’t”

  1. The pandemic of selfishness in our culture varies only in its expression. Religions, even Quakers, have those especially revered for their selflessness in helping others. And then there are the rest of us. How many of us, who attest to valuing simplicity, have lives that reflect that value? How many of us give more than book-reading and petition-signing service in the name of community and equality?

    The observable fact is that we pay lip-service to our values. The selfishness of our actions makes us one with those who are (speaking of integrity) honest about their selfishness.

  2. So why can’t both narratives be true?

    For most of us, the social contract is growing stronger, not weaker. We are taking care of each other more than in several generations. Kindness and generosity are the rule, not the exception. We let our Light shine so that others may see and glorify G-d.

    But for a significant minority, the social contract really is unraveling. They have been seduced by the Dark Side, blindly following an incompetent leader because he hates the same groups they hate. They have bought into the libertarian dream, where each person is only responsible for themselves and now they must seize the opportunities that the weaker groups might squander. Their bright red MAGA hat is worn proudly as the Mark Of The Beast.

  3. Charlie Sykes op-ed, “Making America Selfish” is a commentary on a certain large faction of the American populace that wears selfishness as a badge of honor, a Mark of the Beast, as Ron B notes. However, selfishness is deeply ingrained in our culture, possibly in our souls, celebrated on Wall Street, and essential to corporate structures. So there’s not much new here. What is new is that we see white men toting guns in state capitols, and I think that is unsettling as a harbinger of civil war — a civil war between rural and urban, between whites and whites, even while it is fomented as a war against immigrants and minorities, who thus far have born the brunt of the actual violence. But it is a harbinger of greater violence likely to come. How do Friends respond? We center down, hunker down, we stay in touch and wait for inspiration. Thank you, Chuck, for putting us in touch with each other, once again.

  4. I’m as irate as you are about the issues addressed here. HOWEVER, I don’t think this discussion belongs on the Religious Society of Friends site. It concerns issues that have much broader, more devastating and life threatening effects than on our relatively small numbers of ‘peculiar people’.

  5. It is interesting that there is concern that discussion of these issues do not belong in a Friendly forum, such as this. That our relatively small number of ‘peculiar people’ are but a part of the whole being threatened and, if I am interpreting Friend Mickey correctly, need to be raised in broader forums than this.

    Many Friends, such as myself, do try to communicate with our greater communities, but that doesn’t negate my need to discuss this envisioning of alternative futures and of my own personal activist response with those who are on similar spiritual paths as my own.

    Friend Keith points out the possibility of civil war. I agree that appears somewhat likely at this point. When that happens, I will not be a party to violence, but will I be a bystander? What should my role be?

    Being prepared to take up my cross and follow Jesus is not something to be done lightly – I need to be Convinced of the path that I will take.

    And so I must need seek deep understanding the many options of how to possibly deflect the coming war and, if war does appear, how I will stand – like that single man before the tank in Tiananmen Square – in a way that is appropriate to the time and the situation.

    Ephesians 6:13(NIV) deeply speaks to me in this situation: “For this reason, take up the whole armor of God so that you may be able to take a stand whenever evil comes. And when you have done everything you could, you will be able to stand firm.”

  6. 1)I want to buy Dr. Fauci a beer.
    2) I suggest watching the movie “Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet” (Edward G. Robinson stars). Not exactly about pandemics but how a disease can be controlled if not conquered by the courage of one man.
    3) Our desire to protect ourselves and our neighbors by our example is very Quakerly. Continue to Do The Right Thing and encourage others to do the same.
    4) Polio, Tuberculosis, AIDS, Influenza, Diphtheria, Scarlet Fever, Cholera, Bubonic Plaque, Whooping Cough, Lyme, Muscular Dystrophy, Cancer, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, Malaria, Ebola, Dengue, Rocky Mountain Fever, Mumps, Measles, , , ,

    A Doctor friend did a study of the headstones and records of our local graveyard. The earlier graves included many with dates indicating death before age five. There was a distinctive drop in childhood deaths about 1920. He decided it was due to success in medical treatments eradicating the incidence of Diphtheria and Measles and better sanitation overall. Fifty years from now, what would such a study show ?

    5) First the scientists must be convinced. Then the politicians and businessmen have to be convinced. The general public will be the eventual beneficiaries, but the individual cost is always high.

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