Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The Adults Who Cry "Wolf!"

From what I'm seeing, a lot of people think of coronavirus as a mean mom that they can sneak past and nothing bad will happen to them. I understand that 3-year-olds can't grasp that running out into a busy street will hurt them; I have more trouble understanding why 23- and 33-year-olds (and older) think that shutdown orders and social distancing are just intended to keep them from having any fun.  If they can creep past Mom and she doesn't know, they can go play pool or have a beer or play Old Maid with their friends and no one will be the wiser: no harm, no foul.

If they were only going to hurt themselves, it would be somewhat different, but they are going to bring the virus home to their families and friends.  What will they do then?  Will they scrunch up their faces, squeeze out some tears, and whimper "I'm sorry..."?  Probably.  But even if no one overtly blames them, they'll have to live with their responsibility, however much they try to deny it.  Which they will.  Knowing that your careless behavior hurt or killed someone you love is terribly painful, and people will do almost anything to avoid pain.

When the crisis reached the Midwest couple of weeks ago, a man posted to his local Facebook group about how deeply unpleasant it was to have to stay at home.  I gather he's forty-something.  He and his wife both have health problems that compromise their immune systems, so they are more vulnerable than most.  They also have a twelve-year-old son, a "social butterfly" as the father called him, who's used to spending lots of time with his friends, sleepovers, and so on: what, the father lamented, can they tell him?  It was "like solitary confinement," he said.

That was the tipping point for me.  As diplomatically as I could, I pointed out that their situation is not like solitary confinement at all.  For one thing, they are not alone: they have each other for company.  They are not shut up alone in a small windowless cell, perhaps naked, with no social contact except for the guards who bring their shitty meals and take away the slop bucket.  They can be, and evidently are, in constant communication with friends and relatives through social media. They can look out the windows, even open them for a taste of fresh air when the weather permits.  As for their son, I sympathize with him too, but he's old enough to understand what is going on, and he can also communicate with his friends with social media.  It's hard, even traumatic, but not as traumatic as drowning slowly as your lungs fill up with fluid; or watching your immunocompromised parents die slowly because you brought the virus home.

I didn't go into as much detail as this when I replied to his complaint, but I think I got the point across, and rather to my surprise the man recognized it and admitted it.  From some of his later posts, I gather he and his wife have found some relief.  If you're in a small town, as they are and I am, you can go outside even if your health is shaky, as long as you maintain social distance; which is easy to do in a small town.  I noticed that when my own small town announced that although the playgrounds in the city park are now closed and off-limits, it was said explicitly that people are encouraged to use the rest of the park for exercise and fresh air as long as they maintain social distance.  (Which, of course, they don't always do.  This weekend in the park I passed a teenaged heterosexual couple walking together holding hands.  They weren't talking, they were both facing forward, but they weren't six feet apart.  I've seen other little groups, usually all women, walking too near each other; and groups of young males chatting together, too near each other, in the Kroger parking lot. What part of "six feet apart" is so hard to understand?)  I suspect that a lot of people manage not to hear the permission to go outside for exercise, so they can feel sorry for themselves under the brute heel of Big Gummint.

A friend from my IU days now has a cooking blog, and she recently mentioned on Facebook that she gets complaints from people that her dang recipes were wrong because they followed the instructions perfectly but it didn't turn out right.  When she asks them what happened, because she cares about getting the recipes right, it always turns out that they made major changes along the way that affected the outcome.  As I joked, I substituted cement for flour and the cake did not come out light and fluffy like you promised!

One reason, I think, is that whether at the family or the governmental level, we encounter a mixture of rules and prohibitions, in which some are valid and others are either the products of superstition or of a desire for power and control.  Children usually figure out early on that their parents sometimes lie about consequences.  (If you cross your eyes they will stick that way.)  Eventually they learn that the benign leaders and enforcers who they were told only care for their safety are often bullies and thugs.  When authority figures lie, they sabotage themselves: they can no longer demand obedience, let alone trust, because they've undermined it themselves.  Children and adults learn to put on a show of obedience, only taking care not to get caught.  The temptation, very widespread all across the political spectrum, is to conclude They're all crooks and liars.  That's as stupid as continuing to believe that Mom and Dad and Father Mike and Miss Brooks at school are all selfless saints.  But judging is difficult, even scary when you're up against real danger.  You can run carelessly across the street many times without trouble, and if you have a close call the adrenaline rush is exciting, but eventually you or your little sister who follows you will run out of luck.

Because of this, I understand why people confuse real risk with bogus prohibitions they can flout with consequences no more serious than being grounded for a little while.  On the surface there's no obvious difference between them.  The buck stops with you: you have to decide, but it's not only your welfare that's at stake.  But there's another reason, I think.  It has been brought home very forcefully over the past few decades that we can't rely on our governments to tell us the truth or do their jobs.  Often, declared skepticism about this pandemic is obviously self-deceiving bullshit, because Trump fans do believe what he says.  When they bluster that They're All Liars, they don't mean "all," they mean everybody except Trump and far-right media.  It's going to be harder to maintain that exception as Trump changes his line from week to week - not long ago it was all Fake News, now it isn't but there's new Fake News.  With people on all sides denouncing each other as liars, what can you do?  Add in conflicting stories about what is happening and the immense scale of the disaster as the numbers of sick and dead zoom upward, and fatalism takes over.

Which brings to mind some smokers I've known, who bitch about the nanny state trying to protect them from themselves. I once told one such person: Okay, have it your way, I don't give a damn about you. I just don't want to breathe in your smoke, I don't want kids to breathe in your smoke, I don't want old people with bad lungs to breathe in your smoke; I don't want other people to have to clean up the ashes and butts you scatter. Your freedom ends at my bronchia and lungs.

He was not pleased, and angrily upbraided me for not caring whether he lived or died. "Anti-smoker hatred" was the term he hurled at me.  So what happened to the bold individualist who stood alone, oppressed by the smothering nanny state? I have no idea.  Even more: he seemed suddenly to have conceded that smoking was harmful to his health, and while he must be free to carbonize his lungs, others should at least feel sorry for him.  Or something.

I myself, while I believe that COVID-19 is a real and terrible danger, have no faith that my government is competent to help us, even if Trump and his cronies cared about anything but lining their own pockets and the Democratic leadership cared about anything but maintaining their own tenuous privileges and offices.  So I'm doing what I can to protect my own health and the health of people around me, keeping in touch with people I care about, speaking out where I can, and hoping that, just through dumb luck, things don't collapse altogether.  But this isn't The Andromeda Strain, and happy endings aren't guaranteed.