It didn’t take long. The willingness of Americans to social-distance and self-quarantine is beginning to fracture.
Last week, 3,000 anti-stay-at-home protesters stood shoulder to shoulder in Lansing, Michigan, to push back against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s draconian (in their view) lockdown of nearly every aspect of normal life in the Great Lake State.
One rule in particular represents the divide: canoes and kayaks are OK, but motorboats are verboten.
Conservatives see this as a left-wing climate change agenda masquerading as a public health initiative. “Why are two people in a canoe OK, but two people in a motorboat not?” The governor says because motor boats need boat ramps and marina services that paddle-powered vessels do not and that means more interactions and a greater risk of COVID-19 spread. The protesters answered Whitmer by chanting, “Lock her up!”
Great leaders persuade. They change minds. But not everyone is persuadable. One man’s facts are another man’s lies. This has never been truer than today, ironically, in the so-called “Information Age.” Talking heads, websites and social media posts bombard us 24/7 with contradictory or deliberately misleading “facts” designed to advance or repel agendas. It doesn’t help that the president’s daily briefings are part re-election campaign and part-WWE. This is a hell of a way to fight a pandemic.
The folks who bemoaned the loss of national unity after 9/11 are now likely to reject calls for unity of purpose in fighting the spread of COVID. Meanwhile, those who opposed the Patriot Act as a “police-state power-grab” now cheer Blue State governors like Gavin Newsom and Andrew Cuomo for imposing stricter lockdown orders than President Trump and Red State governors.
What is a leader to do when there is nobody left to persuade? History teaches us they punish, starting with the gloved-fist of fines and permit-pulling, and eventually, the abrogation of civil rights and even imprisonment.
It has happened before.
Abraham Lincoln famously/infamously suspended habeas corpus rights during the Civil War. During the Great Depression, FDR was given astonishing powers to inject government into nearly every aspect of our lives. After Pearl Harbor, Americans yielded unthinkable authority to our government, even surrendering the tires off our cars to win the war. We accepted these measures as necessary for our survival.
“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” said JFK in 1961. In 2020, we want our country to do everything for us; protect us from every economic bump in the road, from every twister and hurricane and every germ. If America has changed, it’s because we have changed.
Not everyone and not on every issue. But the division is deep and the coronavirus pandemic is making it deeper. While urban centers beg for help, rural America asks, why social distance when my nearest neighbor is a cow?
Now we’re hearing from a minority who believe government is leading us like sheep to the slaughter, conditioning Americans to abandon freedom under the pretext of a phony health “emergency.”
There’s nothing phony about COVID-19. When has the flu ever resulted in refrigerated trucks parked outside hospitals to store the dead? Have we ever seen cops, paramedics, nurses and even doctors die side by side with the people they fight to save? If today’s shutdowns represent a totalitarian coupe, it’s the strangest in history, with the nefarious agenda of saving as many lives as possible.
Still, our rights matter greatly and it’s worth considering what precedents are being set.
We can’t keep the country (and the rest of the world) shut down forever. On the other hand, reopening prematurely will almost certainly produce a second wave of death and prolong the misery. There is no good answer. We build statues to the general who rides to our rescue rather than the diplomat who prevents the war.
Don’t feel bad if you’re confused. The experts are confused. Viruses mutate. What we think is true in March may not be true in April. Who knows what the world will look like in May?
Witch-burning the World Health Organization and Dr. Anthony Fauci is not going to restore our 401(k)s. Spreading crackpot conspiracy theories that Bill Gates invented COVID-19 is beyond reckless, it’s dangerous. So is blaming Donald Trump for every death.
Scientists and historians still study the Spanish influenza pandemic from a century ago; they debate the causes and effects of the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793 and the Black Death of the 1300s. There will be plenty of time to pin the blame for COVID-19. First, we need to heal.
Doug McIntyre’s column appears Sundays. He can be reached at: Doug@DougMcIntyre.com.