Our Fair County and Our Place in It
We live on the outskirts of our city, a liberal enclave in a righteously conservative county, so we routinely interact with folks on both ends of the spectrum. I’ve found that the tone of those interactions has a surprisingly sharp demarcation line, generally coinciding with our city limits. This became apparent last week when we visited a landscape nursery five miles north of town to buy some roses and water plants.
This trip was the most unpleasant experience I have had since adopting my coronavirus outing protocol. Although the nursery had posted signs and created physical-distancing corridors, the place still felt crowded and there were long lines at check-out. Half of the customers were not wearing masks — taking a cue maybe from the non-masked attendant in charge of making sure cars did not park too closely! — and those who were non-masked showed little interest (some arrogantly so) in distancing themselves from us.
The next day, we drove to our nearby Lowe’s — down the road from that nursery — to get some potting soil. While there seemed to be a greater number of mask-wearers there, the young women at the checkout areas were not among them. Lowe’s must have decided that plexiglas panels installed at the registers would suffice as pandemic-response theater.
My spouse drove our car up to the front of the store so I wouldn’t have to push the cart out to the parking lot. As I was loading the bags into our car (my mask still in place), a female non-masked customer, who had checked out just after me, passed by and remarked to her partner, “You would think it was malaria!”
What I wanted to say to her was, “Hello! Malaria is spread by mosquitoes. And malaria has a cure. And stop watching Fox News.” But what I did say to her was nothing.
• • • • • •
The chart below provides the latest tally of reported COVID-19 cases in our county, along with a trend line of new cases per day:
The shaded area on this graph represents the period when anti-lockdown protests began to spread virally across the U.S. The first signs of the “rash” popped up in Columbus, Ohio on April 9 and April 13. The outbreak expanded to Michigan on April 15, infecting some 3,000 predominantly-white (based on video coverage) protesters. Two days later, Trump expressed support for the feverish protesters. Coincidentally, or maybe not, our local rate of COVID-19 cases re-accelerated at the same time, even though our lockdown rules and our rate of testing did not change.
Local compliance with mask-wearing guidelines seems to be higher in the city, from what I observe. The garden store that we visited today, for example, which is just within the city limits, had near-total compliance — but again with the notable exception of its employees.
• • • • • •
I have lost the last vestige of my handed-down faith that my fellow American gives a damn about me just because we both walk the same patch of continental crust. This may have been a once-useful illusion for (white people of) my parents’ generation, but it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. (It never did, says Person-of-Color, Of-Minority-Faith or Lack-Thereof.)
We form alliances with our neighbors — if our neighbors have enough in common with us. Alliances can be useful: you help me and I help you, if and when circumstances demand; and both parties keep a mental ledger of the gifts and receipts so that neither of us carries a long-term obligation to the other. This is the classic Libertarian-American paradigm, neatly expressed by a former director of the Foundation for Economic Education:
It’s not complicated: you accept help when necessary but don’t make a habit of it. My own mother, who comes from the stock and heritage that celebrated self-reliance, used to say to me, very simply: “never be beholden.” If you owe others, you have given up that most precious thing, your independence, which means giving up some of your freedom.
First, note that the author of this statement is a white man (94% of libertarians are white) so you can guess what “stock and heritage” he sees as the self-reliant kind. As well as the kind of neighbors he chooses to have and those he would rather not have, or help, at the risk of cramping his freedom.
Libertarians will counter, of course they want to help people in need. But any casual dip into the pool of libertarian thought reveals that their overarching concern is the primacy of their own individualism. Take the NPD principle. (NPD stands for no positive duties, i.e., people have no positive moral duties to help others in need.) One libertarian professor, after declaring NPD false, could not help but walk it back in his next paragraph: “We do have a moral obligation to help others in certain emergency situations where we are able to provide aid at relatively little risk or cost.” How very nice of them! Remind me not to embark on anything that relies on a libertarian (or a not-so-neighborly neighbor).
It’s an old joke, but I do wonder how many libertarian firefighters there are. They would have to be called second-responders since it would take them a second to decide whether it was in their best interest to respond.
• • • • • •
What Made You Who You Are?
On that note, I ask your indulgence to let me share a way of presenting data called a ternary diagram. It is intended to show the relative contributions of three factors to a whole.
In this case (click to zoom), I offer a diagram of the factors people might mention when asked, “What made you who you are?” I have grouped the possible responses into categories named circumstance, self-initiative and god and family. One may choose any proportion of the three, but the total of the responses must add up to 100%.
Allow me to walk you through the diagram. Note the self-initiative axis that runs from the left to the lower-right corner. The more intense the yellow color, the more a person cited self-initiative as the basis for who she is. Similarly, the god and family axis runs from the bottom to the top of the triangle. The darker the pink color, the more god and family were said to play a part. Lastly, the circumstance axis runs from the right to the bottom-left. Those who think their situations were shaped mostly by the vagaries of life would gravitate to the blue corner.
One who believes herself to be a product of all three factors in equal measure would plot her point in the center of the triangle. Where would you put yours?
I took the liberty of plotting some sample points. A solid libertarian might place himself at the yellow dot (far right): 90% self-initiative, 10% god-family. A stereotypical heartlander might favor the red dot: 60% self-initiative, 35% god-family, 5% circumstance. A strict evangelical would likely pick the violet dot near the top, whereas someone like me would choose the blue dot at bottom-left. Indeed, I believe that who I am is 85% (at a minimum) determined by the circumstances of my birth and culture. Raise me in 1950’s Somalia and I would not be talking about ternary diagrams today. Assuming I was alive today.
Why is this important? I think how people answer the “What Made You Who You Are” question for themselves is probably a good indicator of how they view others and the extent of their empathy. I maintain that there is a strong correlation between self-reliant and self-absorbed. In fact, one might label the blue, red and yellow dots in my ternary diagram with the terms empathetic, judgmental and coolly indifferent respectively, but that would be a little unfair. Besides, it would make my diagram more cluttered.
• • • • • •
In his article “Self-Reliance and Empathy: The Enemies of Poverty — And of the Poor” (Political Psychology, September, 2001), Robert E. Lane concluded:
The belief that people are authors of their own fates, while usually untrue, is good for individuals, markets and democracy. [But] the priority given to self-interest over group interest has gone beyond the point where it is economically beneficial, and has now reached a threshold where societies … suffer socially more than they gain economically.
Our social penalty is being exacted now. Those who refuse to wear masks in public places during a still-growing pandemic (and no, it isn’t malaria!) are sending an unmistakable f-you message to the rest of society: If you get the virus then you probably deserved it, and I don’t owe you anything anyway.
Should we call such people libertarians? I don’t think so — libertarian sounds too genteel. I would call them everyday ordinary selfish persons (EOSPs). In fact, here is a list of some of the differences between libertarians and EOSPs:
1. Libertarians often wear bow ties.
2. Libertarians know there are more than two Amendments to the Constitution.
3. Libertarians have nothing against you personally, it’s just the principle of it.
4. Did I mention bow ties?
5. Sorry, can’t think of anything else.
There are far more EOSPs in the U.S. than there are libertarians. (Maybe because bow ties are so hard to tie.) There are tens of millions of EOSPs, in fact, enough to elect a president who thinks like they do. That is, mostly about themselves.
It will be interesting, in a sad way, to see how the U.S. public responds when a vaccine is finally available. I don’t expect overwhelming compliance, unless vaccination is made a condition of employment and therefore a matter of self-interest to the EOSPs.
• • • • • •
The War Between The States (as our 1950s Western Pennsylvania schoolbooks called it) was only proximately about slavery. By this I mean, the U.S. civil war could have had another pretext, because what the Confederacy was ultimately defending was its economic interests. Its leaders, such as President Jefferson Davis, would dress it up with words like honor, heritage and independence to make their cause sound noble…
The war… must go on … unless you acknowledge our right to self-government. We are not fighting for slavery. We are fighting for Independence, and that, or extermination, we WILL have.
But like all wars, it was about money, power, and the real or perceived threats to those.
The Confederacy was founded and then sustained by self-interest, greed, racism and fear. Clearly, this set of isms never died, kept alive by the likes of (and devoted followers of) Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, Rush Limbaugh and now Donald Trump. It is beyond ironic that our first African-American president would be succeeded in office by our second Confederate president.
Trump uses the pandemic to call himself a “wartime president” but the only war he leads is the uncivil war he agitates among us, between the selfish and society. In this sad conflict, the EOSPs are winning. The union is in peril.
Our best defense in this war is our offense — kindness and consideration. Shall it prevail?