"Real Patriots Serve and Sacrifice"
[The dispatch below came pouring out of me this morning, for sharing with readers of my Facebook page. On reflection I decided it would be good to post on my blog as well. Happy reading!]
Hello Facebook Friends:
Those of you who haven't unfriended me and dismissed me as a crank and a malcontent know that I've been using my virtual living room -- i.e., my Facebook page -- to work out my ambivalent feelings about the response to the pandemic. The past nine months have sometimes summoned my inner libertarian while, at the same time, my almost 19 years as a cystic fibrosis dad make me keenly aware of the pandemic's threat and the need for collective action and communitarian resolve.
Most of you also know that my life straddles New Hampshire and Vermont. Although I'm a resident of the Granite State, most of my loved ones are based in Vermont and thus I spend a considerable amount of time west of the Connecticut River (but almost always in sight of New Hampshire, rest assured).
Given all of that, I find myself quite blown away by the contrasting responses of Governor Sununu and Governor Scott to the recent and alarming uptick in COVID-19 infections. Like me, Governor Sununu seems to be hearing the voice of his inner libertarian in his earnest struggle to do the right thing. It looks like he's banking on this latest wave cresting soon. And, of course, he knows the cavalry (i.e., the highly effective vaccines, one of them to be manufactured in New Hampshire) are on their way in the very near future. So, he has resisted imposing additional restrictions in the Granite State.
By contrast, Governor Scott has ruined my family's Thanksgiving and boy did that annoy me. He did that be proclaiming the other day that social gatherings must be limited to members of one's immediate household. In some respects, that seems like a remarkable incursion on the intimate lives of everyone who lives in or visits Vermont -- more aggressive, in its way, than telling people they can't go to restaurants or stores.
I respect both governors and their judgment about the pandemic, so my original beef with Governor Scott's order was that he didn't explain or justify it very persuasively. Did he ever fix that yesterday!
You really ought to read the transcript of his remarks. Lots of people were apparently bewildered about Scott reaching into people's homes and family lives, right before Thanksgiving, when he didn't take any actions to restrict restaurants, gyms, or even schools. Scott pointed out that he's acting on data -- imagine that! -- showing that household transmission via social gatherings (as opposed to kids at school or people in restaurants), along with people visiting clubs and bars (which he also newly restricted) account for 71 percent of infections since the beginning of October.
But it wasn't Scott's reliance on data that really impressed me. Rather, it was the way this Republican righteously invoked his moral authority as a leader in a democracy.
"In the environment we’re in," said the Vermont Governor, "we’ve got to prioritize 'need' over 'want.' In my view, in-person education, protecting our healthcare system and keeping people working (as long as we can do it safely) are things we need. Parties and cookouts, hanging out with people just to socialize, may be fun, but these things are 'wants' not 'needs' and they put a lot of people at risk."
I'm really surprised that a statement like that, coming from a prominent Republican at this horrible juncture in the history of the United States, has not received more attention around the country. Even more so as to this statement, addressed to people Scott described as "skeptics:"
"I understand that if you want to ignore the science or choose not to believe it for one reason or another, there’s not much we can do to stop you. But I want to be clear: The number of people in hospitals is growing because some care more about what they want to do rather than what they need to do to help protect others, keep kids in school, keep people working and prevent the healthcare system from being overwhelmed to the point where care is being delivered in makeshift hospitals. It’s a fact that the consequences of an overwhelmed healthcare system will have a far greater impact on our economy and our well-being than all the prevention and mitigation measures in place across the country.
"So, again, the skeptics are right. They can do what they want. But please don’t call it patriotic or pretend it’s about freedom. Because real patriots serve and sacrifice for all, whether they agree with them or not."
By "them," of course, Scott refers to the restrictions he and other governors around the country have imposed. I found Scott's characterization of "real" patriotism in pandemic times to one of the most remarkable things I have ever heard a politician say. After all, he's calling for obedience, which can be understood as an insult to those who resisted slavery or Nazi Germany.
At the same time, I heard an echo of my favorite aphorism, coined by Judge Learned Hand in 1944 (which was another time that required national resolve and sacrifice). Judge Hand said that the "spirit of liberty," which I take to mean the spirit that ought to guide everything we do in an open and democratic society, "is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right." In that spirit, Governor Scott is saying: Do as I have asked you to do. I don't really have the means to enforce my directive; the Vermont State Police are not going to come crashing into your dining room next Thursday and dump your marshmallow-encrusted sweet potato casserole on your head. Do it anyway, even if you don't agree with it. Consider that maybe I have more access to detailed and reliable information, plus expert advice, than you do. I'm not calling for blind obedience; I'm just asking for the deference and respect that I have earned via my response since this miserable situation began. Yes, I am ruining your Thanksgiving, and I know you are likely to be upset about that. But consider that the certainty you feel in your emotional response might be leading you astray. Be humble in the face of the most overwhelming crisis most of us have ever experienced."
So . . . Thanksgiving will return next year.
[Here's a picture from last year's Thanksgiving in Vermont, featuring kids from Vermont, New Hampshire, Illinois, Montana, and elsewhere.]