Tag Archives: ” masks

An Inflection Point

I just watched one of those “viral” videos of people protesting–almost rioting–against a mandate that they wear a mask. If I were being kind, I would say that their complaints were uninformed. More accurately, their commentaries ranged from stupid to selfish to deranged. 

If protesting the wearing of masks to prevent transmission of a virus was the only symptom of American irrational behavior these days, that would be concerning enough, but these people are also, clearly, Trump voters. And for the past four years, I have struggled to understand the psychology of people who can look at this aggressively ignorant President with his pathetic make-up, listen to his inarticulate word-salads, read his childish and ungrammatical tweets, and think “Yes! That’s someone who should represent my country abroad, and control the nuclear codes.”

The United States is at an inflection point. Where we go from here will depend upon how we respond to the pandemic, to climate change, and to unacceptable levels of economic inequality, among other challenges–and whether those responses improve our society or further debase it will depend upon whether we decisively eject Trump, his appalling administration and his GOP enablers. 

That, in turn, will depend upon the number of voters who think wearing a mask deprives them of “freedom” and believe the ludicrous buffoon in the White House is doing a great job.

Political science research has convincingly tied Trump support to racism, and that relationship has become quite clear–but when you think about it, the persistence of so much virulent racism despite some 50 years in which society has (slowly) changed, and during which Black and White Americans have increasingly come to know each other as individuals is a puzzle of its own.

Why are these people so angry and hateful? Why does the loss of unearned social dominance enrage them? What do they fear?

It’s true that bigotry increases in tough economic times, but many of these people are financially comfortable. It’s also true that these attitudes are more prevalent among the  uneducated, but I know a lot of people who never went to college who are “salt of the earth” and I have also encountered plenty of racists with advanced degrees. 

One of Paul Krugman’s email letters (I don’t have a link) suggested to me that the answer may lie in an inability to live with ambiguity. Krugman was discussing Trump’s dismissal of science in general and climate change in particular, and noted that epidemiology, climatology and  economics all require the modeling of complex systems in which no prediction ends up being exactly right. Certainty eludes us.

Science and technology have created a world of constant change and multiple shades of gray.

The scientific method rests on consistent efforts to falsify prior results. Political ideologies and economic theories inform legislation that in practice often generates unintended consequences and sends us back to the drawing board. Religious diversity challenges fundamentalism. Technology continually upends everything from transportation to communication. All of these influences combine to open new intellectual vistas and cast doubt on the old– and that process inevitably changes the culture.

As I tell my students, the two phrases I hope they use more often after leaving my class are “it depends” and “it’s more complicated than that.”

A significant percentage of humans evidently cannot deal with an environment characterized by ambiguity and change, with a lack of “bright lines” and universally-accepted certainties–and as a result, they reject the possibility that people who look, love or worship differently from themselves have as much claim to humanity and respect as they do. 

In November, I guess we’ll find out how numerous they are.

 

 

 

The Pandemic And The Constitution

Several faculty at the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, where I teach, collaborated on a special summer school course investigating the challenges posed by the pandemic to our particular fields–criminal justice, disaster preparedness, non-profit organizations…and in my case, civil liberties.

Here’s an abbreviated (but still pretty long) version of my lecture.

The Coronavirus pandemic has raised a number of issues that are new or even unprecedented. One is a fundamental governance issue: what is the proper balance between government’s obligation to protect and the individual’s right to autonomy, or self-governance?

The rights guaranteed to individuals under the U.S. Constitution are civil liberties; they are guarantees against governmental infringement of our fundamental, human rights. Civil rights, on the other hand, are statutory rights against discriminatory behavior by private entities. The question we’re going to explore in this class is limited to civil liberties—specifically, how much additional latitude the Constitution gives government to limit individual rights in order to discharge its duty to protect our health and lives—civil liberties in the time of a pandemic.

There are a multitude of issues raised by government’s efforts to keep us safe and control the pandemic.

·      One of the most visible—and contentious—issues involves federalism. Federalism, as you know, is the structure whereby government jurisdiction, or authority, is divided between federal, state and local units of government. What is the role of the federal government in a pandemic? What powers and decisions are reserved to the states? In previous situations involving threatened pandemics, there was much more co-ordination, and most of the questions we now face didn’t arise. This time, however, there has been a great deal of public confusion over where various responsibilities lie; the President has asserted his authority to over-rule governors on several matters, but he has also disclaimed responsibility for tasks that he says are state responsibilities. Several of those statements are inconsistent with the Constitution, which vests primary responsibility with the states. As you consider America’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the very uneven experiences of the states, you might also consider where America should place primary responsibility for pandemic response.

·      Another issue that has been debated is: What are the limits of civil disobedience and the First Amendment right to assembly during a pandemic? This issue arises in several ways: some citizens have protested state orders requiring masks and social distancing (and some of those protestors have been armed, which is disquieting). Those protests pale, however, before the hundreds of thousands of citizens who have participated in the widespread Black Lives Matter demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd. The states did not move to curtail those demonstrations on the basis of the threat to public health, and the data we now have suggests that those protests were not, in fact, a triggering event. The lack of spread has been attributed to the fact that protestors were outdoors, and a significant percentage of them wore masks.

·      Requirements to wear masks have generated especially nasty confrontations, with people comparing the requirements to “communism” and “attacks on the Second Amendment.” My own reaction to these assertions is based less on the Constitution—which I think pretty clearly allows such measures –and more on logic, or more properly, the lack thereof. The government can and does require you to wear a seat-belt; ordinances require that we refrain from smoking in public places. For that matter, government requires us to wear clothing—at least enough to cover our genitals—in public. It is illogical to obey these and other common mandates and yet claim that wearing a mask in order to abate a pandemic is somehow a new and offensive invasion of personal liberty. I will say that what I find offensive is the unwillingness of these people to wear a mask intended to prevent them from infecting others. They are either unbelievably selfish, or perhaps they believe, with the President, that the pandemic is a “hoax.”

·      So much for masks. What about the shutdowns, the “stay-in-place” orders? Here, the law seems pretty clear; ever since a 1905 case—Jacobsin v. Massachusetts—the Supreme Court has upheld the right of government to impose quarantines and require vaccinations. Government does have to demonstrate the reasonableness of those measures, but assuming it meets that burden, requirements for quarantines and vaccinations are clearly allowed.

·      What about interstate travel, which the Supreme Court has long held to be a fundamental right? We’ve seen some governors restricting people from entering their states from so-called “hot spots.” I am unaware of cases testing those restrictions.

·      Using cellphones for “contact tracing” has been met with considerable alarm from privacy advocates and organizations concerned with the level of government surveillance. That’s another area of legal ambiguity.

·      The right to vote is a critically-important constitutional right, and cases have already challenged restrictions on the availability of absentee ballots. (A related issue is the evident inability of many states to handle increased voting by mail—situations that may deprive people of their constitutional rights by reason of inadequate capacity to perform, rather than by intent.)

·      Several states have used pandemic restrictions to justify denying women’s constitutionally-protected reproductive rights, spawning litigation about the degree to which those restrictions can be imposed.

·      Both the right of Assembly and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment have been cited by religious organizations—primarily churches—that have objected to limitations on public gatherings. (Medical scientists tell us that singing in a confined space is particularly dangerous.)

·      Then there are incarcerated persons, and would-be immigrants who are being detained at particular risk. At what point do the conditions of confinement rise to the level of “cruel and unusual punishment”?

·      A fascinating case that has been filed raises an increasingly important First Amendment Free Speech/Free Press issue: can sources of disinformation be held liable? The case is Washington League for Increased Transparency and Ethics v. Fox News. The plaintiff alleges that Fox News violated the state’s Consumer Protection Act and acted in bad faith, both by disseminating false information about the novel coronavirus through its television news broadcasts and by minimizing the danger posed by the virus as COVID-19 began to explode into a pandemic.

The Executive Director of the non-profit was quoted as saying that they aren’t trying to chill free speech, but that they believe the public was endangered by false and deceptive communications in the stream of commerce. She emphasized that there are a lot of people who listen to Fox News, and that Fox is not taking the recommendations of public-health officials seriously. She has asserted that “This lawsuit is about making sure the public gets the message this is not a hoax.”

I think it is highly unlikely that the Washington League will prevail, but the lawsuit raises some profound questions about the nature of speech that might be considered the mirror-image of “falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater.” In this case, Fox is accused of shouting “There’s no fire; stay in your seats” when, in fact, there is a fire.

For a more scholarly exposition of these and other civil liberties issues, click here.

 

 

A Picture’s Worth A Thousand Words…

Sometimes, visuals convey more information than text. As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.

As our mentally-ill President pretends he knows what he’s talking about and brags about what a “great” job his administration has done, and as too many states are fudging the numbers of dead and dying so that they can open much too quickly, a reality check is in order.

These pictures are from EndCoronavirus.com.They show the progress of various countries in combatting the pandemic. Spoiler alert: America is far–far--from being number one.

These countries do best:

 

A second, nearly equal number of countries, was shown at the link as “almost there.”

The third set was “Countries that need to take action”–i.e., countries doing the worst:

Picture this the next time Trump declares that we’re doing more testing than any other country–we aren’t, not even close–or that we’re ready to “re-open.” Better still, if you happen to come across Trump’s tweet about his proposed new motto–“Transition to Greatness”–click on this URL of the same name for the real story.

If his perverse refusal to listen to experts or learn only threatened the morons who insist that their “liberty” entitles them to ignore your safety, I might be inclined to say “let them go for it!” Unfortunately, they are endangering the rest of us.

As a friend pointed out recently, their “liberty” doesn’t allow them to drive 100 miles per hour on city streets, or to dispense with wearing clothing in public, either. Until they understand the legitimate limits of individual liberty, the “land of the free” won’t be free of the Coronavirus.