As senator and former presidential candidate John Kerry put it a few years back in a speech in Germany: “In America you have a right to be stupid – if you want to be.”
But, of course, just because people have a right to say stupid things doesn’t mean that caring and thinking people shouldn’t speak out forcefully in reply.
In recent weeks, for example, North Carolina Lt. Gov. Dan Forest was quickly forced to retreat with his tail between his legs after voicing an embarrassingly uninformed attack on Gov. Roy Cooper’s fully appropriate (and maybe even overdue) decision to close restaurants and bars and ban large public gatherings.
And then there were the cockamamie claims made in some circles that North Carolina was somehow especially well-prepared for the pandemic because of conservative budget and tax policies – policies that slashed public health spending by 28% over the last decade, left hundreds of thousands of working people without health insurance, placed numerous rural hospitals on life support, and relegated the state’s flagship university healthcare system to begging for medical supplies.
And so it is that responsible North Carolinians should push back once again this week in response to the latest nonsense emanating from conservative critics regarding the recent pandemic safety actions taken by elected leaders, including Gov. Cooper.
The nonsense in question is exemplified in a meandering column that a local conservative commentator posted online yesterday, in which he directed barbs at Gov. Cooper and public health officials for not immediately presenting a plan detailing precisely how long the state’s “shelter in place” directive would remain in effect and publicly acknowledging that economic imperatives will require it to be abandoned in the relatively near future.
According to the commentator, Americans “can’t” and “won’t” shelter in place for months because of the “grave economic and social consequences” such a scenario would produce and won’t long abide leaders who offer “platitudes” in support of such directives. The commentator even sets up a straw man argument that he attributed to unidentified public officials (and, by implication, “progressives”) who are supposedly basing “shelter in place” directives on the premise that “if even a single person’s life is saved, it will be worth it.”
The basic implied message of the column (which also features a tortured and bizarre attempt to analogize to murders committed by undocumented immigrants): We’re all going to have to suck it up very soon and accept the fact that lots of people are going to die in order for the economy to get back on its feet.
This is, in effect, the same line that President Trump and other sadly uninformed and panicky voices (e.g. the Lt. Governor of Texas) have advanced in recent weeks with silly talk of full churches on Easter Sunday and older Americans sacrificing their lives for the good of the economy – a line that even Trump was forced to abandon over the weekend.
Let’s hope fervently that Trump’s retreat serves as a signal to his ideological allies that’s it’s time to pipe down with these kinds of missives. For while it’s both a) understandable that people are impatient, frustrated and frightened in the current unprecedented situation and, b) good for everyone to remain eternally vigilant in standing up for civil liberties during times of crisis, the fact remains that science must be our chief guide in escaping the current emergency.
To prevent truly calamitous losses of life, we must pull together and summon the patience and creativity to ride this out and allow our leaders (like Gov. Cooper) the leeway to adapt as circumstances dictate.
Moreover, as economist Josh Bivens argued persuasively last Friday in a column entitled “With smart policy, a temporary collapse in GDP doesn’t have to cause great human suffering,” the conservative “economic cure” of ending social distancing as soon as possible has the real potential to do even greater and longer-lasting economic damage. Having tens of millions of sick workers, he notes, isn’t a recipe for real economic recovery.
A much better approach, Bivens notes, is to rely upon (and greatly strengthen) the social safety net (i.e. wealth transfers and temporary debt-financed income supports) to keep consumer demand at reasonable levels for the next few months. With such an approach, he counsels, a very quick economic “bounceback” is quite possible once the worst of the pandemic subsides.
The bottom line: It will be a dreadfully tough slog, but Americans can and must be disciplined, hang together and resist the Right’s seductive but misguided siren song.
Our lives and collective well-being depend on it.