Paternalism

The coronavirus has the world in a dither — like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis (as Tom Lehrer might say). Despite the fact that a very low percentage of those who contract the virus actually die, steps are being taken that must give us pause.

Italy has banned all spectators from all sporting events during the month of March. There’s even talk about cancelling all sporting events. Around the world, and increasingly in this country as well, events are being cancelled right and left. Additionally, we read that the ASEAN Conference, Google News Initiative, Geneva International Auto Show, various concerts in Asia and elsewhere, and the Mobile World Congress, among many others, have been cancelled despite the fact that many of these events bring a great deal of money to the region and are immensely popular. Some companies in the United States are prohibiting their employees from air travel — even for personal vacations!

And so it goes. Big Brother is taking care of us. The assumption appears to be that we are not able to decide for ourselves whether we can take a chance to be with other people in the face of a growing pandemic. But isn’t that our decision? On what grounds can we defend the determination by various agencies to keep us indoors and away from others who might pass the virus along?

Most of the expert opinion I have read suggests that if we take precautions we can avoid contracting the virus. But apparently we are not trusted to take those steps so we are being told how to behave. This is what is called “paternalism.” Daddy is taking care of us because we are too stupid to take care of ourselves.

There are other instances of paternalism, of course, such as laws enforcing the use of infant car carriers and, my personal favorite, the law requiring helmets for motorcycle riders. Laws are generally made to protect us from others who might harm us, but in the case of helmet laws one hears the claim that when a person is thrown from a motorcycle he or she may incur health costs that will eventually be passed along to us all — as will the increased insurance rates. But this argument is weak and we simply look the other way as someone with Big Hands puts our child in a car seat or a helmet on us before we take off on our motorcycle.

What’s the problem here? It is, among other things, an attempt on the part of those in power to tell others how they must behave: it is a diminishing of our freedom. And while we love to kick and scream about our freedom, we seem perfectly content to have various agencies tell us what is good for us. I do wonder if it comes down the the fact that we really would prefer not to take the responsibility that freedom involves.

There seem to be a great many forces in this culture that deprive each of us of our autonomy. Many of the laws we obey are not only well-meaning but also necessary. There are the things we do that might harm others and which ought therefore to be prohibited. But when our behavior affects no one but ourselves — such as wearing a helmet when riding a motorcycle or attending a sporting event — those restrictions seem to me to be well-meaning but unacceptable. We must presume not that folks are too stupid to take care of themselves; we must presume that folks can take care of themselves. And if they can’t so much the worse for them.

Paternalism is one of the many hidden forces that operate upon each of us and are based on the faulty premise that we cannot take care of ourselves. We should be much more upset about those restrictions than we are. And this is not an angry young radical speaking. This is an aged somewhat moderate but occasionally outraged retired person who is simply astounded by what is going on around him.

I do not mean to belittle the seriousness of the coronavirus. It is something we need to take seriously. But it is also something that we really ought to be able to handle with expert advice and not by needless restrictions on our behavior based on the assumption that we are even more stupid than we are in fact.

Nervous Times

The satirist Tom Lehrer once said he felt like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis. We are all learning that feeling as the news keeps getting worse and more and more slugs rise to the top of the mud that Donald Trump has stirred up with his hate and fear-mongering. He seems fit only to lead a mob, certainly not to lead this country. There can be no doubt that (a) the slugs were there all the time and (b) Trump’s rhetoric has given them the courage to speak and act their bigotry openly. These are, after all, the forgotten ones, the ones who find themselves among the discarded of society, the bottom-feeders, unsuccessful and frustrated by a system they blame for their own shortcomings. They see this man as the one who can deliver them from their despair and bring them a brighter day. He gives them license to voice their opinions openly and act out their hatred.  After all, if a “successful business man” says those things, they must be true. He has somehow managed to give bigots the conviction that their way of hating is perfectly acceptable.

There are so many problems with this scenario one hardly knows where to begin. But the extent of this phenomenon must be addressed. It’s easy to say, as I have in the past, that much of it is the fault of a flawed educational system. But that’s only a part off the problem and it doesn’t appear that it will be fixed in the near future — especially since those who can fix it are products of that very system and they see no problem.

The same remains the case with gun control, which is another part of the problem — a large part. There are so many guns out there in the hands of nervous nutters that even if a law were passed today prohibiting the purchase of automatic weapons there would remain a monumental problem, one that law enforcement is probably unable to deal with effectively. And, given that many of those in law enforcement are clearly fearful (and with good reason), one cannot ask those men and women to solve our problems.

Those who might take steps to gain some control of a system that is clearly out of control, the Congress, is paid by monied interests not to think (and they do that very well) and to simply pause in their daily activities from time to time to say a silent prayer for those who have been brutally killed in the name of hatred and bigotry.  They fiddle while Rome burns. But it would take strong laws preventing the sale of all automatic weapons together with a recall of such weapons already sold, coupled with enforcement of those laws by the National Guard, to begin to make inroads against the rising tide of hatred and fear.

I tend to be pessimistic when it comes to the motivation of most of my fellow humans, but I like to think I am being realistic when I say that a solution is possible only if the Congress is radically altered in its make-up and the leaders are courageous enough to take on such powerful entities as the N.R.A. Until that happens, until some sort of leadership and courage are shown at the Federal level, the situation will remain the same or even get worse. There are growing numbers of fearful people who are frustrated by their lack of power and the unwillingness of those in power to take any steps to improve their collective lot and these people are armed and will continue to act in haste and wreak havoc. If cool heads don’t prevail, we may well become an armed camp in which might makes right.

We need to remind ourselves that the appendix can be removed when it is inflamed and the pestilence that pervades this country at the present time can also be rooted out. But it will take decisive and courageous action on the part of those with the power to effect change. Until such people are elected to Congress we can simply expect more of the same. And the appendix may well rupture.