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Pondering Death, Depravity and Decadent Pursuit of Power as Public Policy

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Soundings

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The cover of the April 20, 2020 issue of The New Yorker depicts a deeply fatigued health care worker in green scrubs, paper coffee cup in hand, lost in thought, sitting in a nearly deserted commuter rail station.[1] The image is a fitting tribute to the thousands of such workers now doing all they can to assist their fellow citizens afflicted with COVID-19. When considered against the reality that millions are sheltering in their homes as our physicians, nurse practitioners, nurses and other health and essential workers battle a killer, events in our country’s politics are almost too improbable to believe. Consider the following recent turns:

  • The death toll in the United States from COVID-19 has topped 50,000 as I write, or as many deaths in just three months as the country experienced during the long-lived Vietnam War, and that number looks set only to rise. The United States has now lost more individuals to this virus than any other nation in the world.[2]
  • Nonetheless, President Donald Trump has persisted in resisting doing all possible to ensure effective widespread testing and tracing of incidents of the virus, despite its terrible human toll. Meanwhile, ventilators and masks are in too short supply at our nation’s health care centers and the Trump administration has only watched as state governments and hospitals competed to attain them at often exorbitant prices, rather than vigorously using the national government to assist in ensuring that the need is met.[3]
  • Trump has likewise continued daily to embrace and press ignorant fantasies concerning possible treatments for the virus, including, most recently, this dangerous contention about injecting disinfectants to kill the virus:

And then I see the disinfectant where it knocks it out in a minute. One minute. And is there a way we can do something like that, by injection inside or almost a cleaning? … Because, you see, it gets on the lungs, and it does a tremendous number on the lungs. So, it'd be interesting to check that. So that you're going to have to use medical doctors, but it sounds — it sounds interesting to me.[4]

Incredibly, he has also suggested using heat and light to kill the virus. Neither has any effect on the pathogen.[5]

  • Meanwhile, the President’s reelection campaign and conservative groups have helped to orchestrate small public demonstrations in selected state capitals demanding that governors reopen businesses immediately, despite the obvious dangers to the lives of Americans associated with that course. More, Trump, the President of the United States, backed these groups in three states by not merely expressing his enthusiasm for their claim that they had a right to make themselves and others sick and possibly die to support commerce, but also going further to tweet in favor of insurrections: “Liberate Minnesota,” followed immediately by “Liberate Michigan!” and then “Liberate Virginia, and Save your Great 2nd Amendment. It is Under Siege.”[6] While this was clearly inflammatory and without any evidentiary basis, it was also unconstitutional. The President of the United States urged American citizens to rebel against duly elected authorities working to assist the citizens of their states during a pandemic. Indeed, many governors of both parties across the nation have emerged as the true leaders in this crisis, doing all they can to protect and assist their populations.[7]
  • Trump is not alone in seeking to use the crisis to increase fears and partisan and ideological tensions and worse. Republican and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently argued that rather than work to have the federal government borrow money at what are currently negative interest rates, to support states as they deal with what will be difficult shortfalls in their budgets resulting from business shutdowns, states should declare bankruptcy. But states cannot do so, a fact of which McConnell was likely aware when he spoke. The Republican leader also contended that any such assistance constituted “blue state handouts,” a ludicrous claim.[8] Still, McConnell stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Trump in this effort to twist a health and economic crisis into a partisan claim in the hope, apparently, that GOP faithful would imagine that imposing suffering on millions, including themselves, constituted a reasonable course if it could be construed as inflicting injury on supporters of the “other” party.[9]
  • In addition, Republican Party leaders have made it clear in recent days that they intend to argue as a central plank of their fall campaign that China should be blamed for the current pandemic. That position is in keeping with Trump’s embrace of xenophobia, but for which, like his stands on immigrants and refugees more generally, there is no evidence.[10]  One can contend that China has not been open about its handling of COVID-19 without embracing that nation as a scapegoat for the Trump administration’s cruelly incompetent domestic handling of the crisis. GOP leaders apparently are hoping that calling on fear and hatred of others will allow their party to escape blame with voters for their ineptitude and failure.
  • Finally, Trump and several of his Republican allies, including Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, have contended recently that reopening the economy amidst broad uncertainty about who is infected and where, is an individual right and one that is more important than the potential loss of lives in their respective states. Indeed, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp has begun reopening businesses against the counsel of medical experts and that of mayors of his state’s major cities. The risk to those he was nominally elected to serve is very high. The Lieutenant Governor of Texas, meanwhile, has suggested,

No one reached out to me and said, as a senior citizen, ‘Are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’ And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in … I just think there’s lots of grandparents out there in this country like me — I have six grandchildren — that what we all care about and what we love more than anything are those children. I want to live smart and see through this. But I don’t want the whole country to be sacrificed and that’s what I see.[11]

A month after these comments, Patrick doubled down this past week, arguing:

‘There are more important things than living, and that’s saving this country for my children and grandchildren and saving this country for all of us,’ he said Monday. ‘I don’t want to die,’ he added. ‘Nobody wants to die, but man we gotta take some risks and get back in the game and get this country back up and running.’ The Texas official stood by his March remarks and said the country ‘should not have been locked down.’ ‘I’m thankful that we are now beginning to open up Texas and other states because it’s long overdue,’ Patrick said.[12]

Patrick’s statements, particularly, place in sharp relief the position of Trump and other leading Republicans concerning the pandemic. While no leader of either major U.S. party I can identify favors imposing unemployment on millions in perpetuity, as recent GOP demonstrators have suggested, the national government has resources and power to assist our country’s citizens through this health crisis without arguing for the sacrifice of their health or potential death. And yet, these state GOP leaders and Trump and McConnell have adopted that position and sought to justify it in terms of business incomes and expediency. Put plainly, this contention may be summarized as: Millions should be exposed to potential illness and many allowed to die so that others may enjoy “stuff” and/or profit in the short term from its consumption.

Let me be clear. This position is both immoral and unjust. Rebecca Goldstein, a philosopher writing in the Wall Street Journal recently, briefly reviewed how three ancient and modern philosophers—Aristotle, Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill—would consider the proposition that the lives of some should be risked or sacrificed for the hypothesized benefit of an amorphous many. She concluded her essay by arguing that not one of these great moral philosophers would support Trump or his acolytes’ positions, despite the fact that each celebrated individual freedom in different ways. Here is Goldstein’s summary of Kant and Mills’ positions:

To grasp what he (Kant) had in mind we must understand that Kant, like Mill, sees the exercise of freedom as fundamental to human dignity. To use someone as a mere means is to involve them in a scheme of action to which they could not in principle consent. By usurping their freedom, you are diminishing their humanity. This may apply to the societal dilemma of prioritizing the economy, with its diffuse benefits to many at a cost to the first pioneers who return to work. … Though both [Kant and Mills] maintain that the individual’s right to choose is crucial to human dignity, both also hold that morality demands that we temper this individualism with a recognition of the common good.[13]

To put the matter succinctly in philosophic terms, the argument that the states should open immediately for business and be willing to risk the health and well-being of even select individuals, let alone groups, to do so is morally bankrupt even when weighed against the claim that it invokes in favor of individual freedom. It is also depraved. My Oxford Dictionary defines depraved as to “pervert the meaning of or intention of.”[14] McConnell has deliberately misrepresented the meaning of his proposed actions by seeking to rally adherents on grounds of the pursuit of partisan advantage and power. To the extent he succeeds, he will thereby harm those same individuals and their communities by ensuring they do not receive the support and services that their states might otherwise be able to afford them. By any measure, such a contention is calculatingly depraved.

In sum, the call of Trump, Kemp, Patrick and others for reopening businesses without benefit of adequate medical basis to do so, and the willingness to risk the lives of many Americans that stance signals, is without moral foundation. Individual rights do not extend to imposing the risk of illness and death on others. And finally, refusing to use all tools and political power available to assist Americans through this crisis while seeking to persuade citizens that that choice is the result of an “other’s” action is both corrupt and morally indefensible.

The United States population is now being asked to accept a public policy that legitimizes needless citizen deaths and also contends that morally contemptible proposals and actions can be justified on purely partisan grounds. These are shameful and anti-democratic claims. Accepting a freedom to die so others may profit when the means are at hand to press another course is no choice at all. No American leader should ask it and no U.S. resident should support it.

Notes

[1] Smith, Owen, “After the Shift,” The New Yorker, cover. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/04/20; Accessed April 21, 2020.

[2] BBC News, “Coronavirus: US Death Toll Passes 50,000 in World’s Deadliest Outbreak,” April 24, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52415579; Accessed April 24, 2020.

[3] Depillis, Lydia and Lisa Song. “In Desperation, New York State Pays Up to 15 Times the Normal Prices for Medical Equipment,” April 2, 2020, https://www.propublica.org/article/in-desperation-new-york-state-pays-up-to-15-times-the-normal-price-for-medical-equipment; Accessed April 23, 2020. 

[4] The Associated Press. “No, Don’t Inject Disinfectant: Outcry over Trump’s Musing,” The New York Times, April 24, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2020/04/24/us/politics/ap-us-virus-outbreak-trump-therapies.html; Accessed April 23, 2020. 

[5] The Associated Press. “No, Don’t Inject Disinfectant.”

[6] Donald J. Trump @real Donald Trump, April 17, 2020, “Liberate, Minnesota, Liberate Michigan, Liberate Virginia, and Save Your Great 2nd Amendment. It is Under Siege,” https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1251169987110330372; Accessed April 23, 2020. 

[7] Strauss, Daniel and Manvi Singh, “US Governors and Coronavirus: Who has Responded Best and Worst,” The Guardian, April 17, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/apr/17/us-governors-coronavirus-best-worst-andrew-cuomo; Accessed April 20, 2020. 

[8] Krugman, Paul, “McConnell to Every State; Drop Dead,” The New York Times, April 23, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/23/opinion/mcconnell-coronavirus-states.html; Accessed April 23, 2020.

[9] Mayer, Jane. “Enabler-in-Chief,” The New Yorker, April 20, 2020, pp. 54-67.

[10] Martin, Jonathan and Maggie Haberman, “A Key G.O.P. Strategy: Blame China. But Trump Goes off Message,” The New York Times, April 19, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/18/us/politics/trump-china-virus.html; Accessed April 19, 2020.

[11] Judd, Alan and Greg Blustein, “Kemp Reopens some Businesses, Despite Warnings COVID-19 Still a Threat,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, April 20, 2020, https://www.ajc.com/news/kemp-reopens-some-businesses-despite-warnings/BtoA8zxYcGACOCZP0HB1HL/; Accessed April 23, 2020; Stieb, Matt, “Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick: ‘Lots of Grandparents Willing to Die to Save Economy for Grandchildren,” New York Magazine, March 23, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/dan-patrick-seniors-are-willing-to-die-to-save-economy.html; Accessed April 23, 2020.

[12] Coleman, Justine, “Texas Lt. Governor on Reopening State: ‘There are More Important Things than Living,” The Hill, April 21, 2020, https://thehill.com/homenews/state-watch/493879-texas-lt-governor-on-reopening-state-there-are-more-important-things; Accessed April 24, 2020. 

[13] Goldstein, Rebecca, “What Would Aristotle Do in a Pandemic,” The Wall Street Journal, April 16, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/what-would-aristotle-do-in-a-pandemic-11587048934; Accessed April 21, 2020.

[14] Brown, Lesley, Ed., The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, “Deprave,” 1993, p. 638.

Publication Date

April 27, 2020

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