People take advantage of minimal traffic on East Capitol Street as the coronavirus outbreak continues in Washington, D.C., April 6, 2020. (Leah Millis/Reuters)Thank God for the Bill of Rights.
In this current crisis, the longest if not the first complete shutdown in U.S. history, the freedoms of American democracy are being tested in ways we scarcely ever imagined. Out of nowhere little Napoleonic governors arise to enact decrees prohibiting gardening or strolling on an empty beach — decrees that seem to have little purpose other than to reflect that they can do so. Snitches volunteer to out felonious social deviants who are seen cooking in the backyard with a neighbor. A little horned-devil virus seems to be trying to do what those Russkies never could.
Experts with all sorts of Ph.D.s, M.D.s, and J.D.s after their names lecture from authority about what we must right now do — or else! — on the principle that they have a scientific or technocratic prerogative to impress critics of their modeling or their demand that we shut down a $22-trillion economy for “18 months,” if need be.
A supposedly disinterested media — found by media watchdogs to be 93 percent negative in its presidential reportage before the virus crisis — envision their coverage of the Trump demon as an endless zero-sum game in which any morsel of good news for him is instantly bad for them.
In short, if American democracy were to fail to sustain itself under myriad pressures, then this would be the moment. For some, the Sixties can at last be made manifest — especially given that its aging children just impeached an American president on articles nowhere found in the Constitution, after weaponizing the FBI, CIA, and DOJ in an attempt to abort a presidential campaign and then presidency.
How fortunate, then, that in this current crisis, when one questions the logic of using a misleading denominator to ascertain viral lethality, and thus the logic of basing existential public policies on resulting case-to-fatality rates that admittedly cannot be true, one can (at least for now) keep raising skepticism without being sent to a Chinese-like reeducation camp.
We are witnessing the fading moments of Baby Boomer–generation authority. As it vaporizes, it still cannot fundamentally change America with sermons that we “will never go back to normal,” a synonym for “we don’t like lots of things in that bothersome Constitution.” America is currently engaged in a free-fall of angry, unfettered discussion about everything from the wearing of masks to the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine. Tempers rise; false knowledge replicates. Smack-down arguments from authority grow shrill. And, thank God, it all remains legal. Out of the mess, the acrimony can lead to light rather than endless heat.
Warn an American that he poses a public threat by illegally and solitarily launching his tiny boat on a nearby empty pond to fish, and he’s likely to do just that — and thereby reveal the absurdity of the functionary who issued such a tyrannical order.
Tell a pastor he can’t preach from his car to other car-bound parishioner and, by God, he will do just that — and will be praised by most for his measured civil disobedience.
Let criminals out of jail, and what’s a paranoid American city-dweller to do? Obviously head down to the gun store and get in a line for something that shoots something, now for the first time in his life bitching in extremis that gun laws he once found wonderful are far stricter than they should be.
Today in the midst of a national lockdown, one can read that the nation’s commander in chief, Donald Trump, is a narcissistic buffoon whose recklessness will doom us all. Or, with more effort, scouring the Internet for non-left-wing perspectives, one can read that he’s playing three-dimensional chess and that the media, Joe Biden, the Chinese, and the virus are no match for his cunning. Agree either way, and you may be pilloried online and smeared with a volume of cowardly emails and letters to your employer, but you won’t end up like a Chinese whistleblower.
Traipse down Main Street, with 20 in tow, and you may well be arrested for violating viral lockdowns, but you won’t be marooned in jail without bail — at least yet.
If an unhinged governor in Washington or Michigan or a Virginia functionary decides that you’re a big mouth and an insurrectionist, he cannot invent a new law that says it is a felony to speak ill, or reduce the majesty, of lawmakers.
Donald Trump was trashed for musing that as chief executive he could order states to open up if he wished, and then hours later trashed even more when he suggested that the decision was really up to the governors. If he was not trolling the media, it may be that his advisers not only quoted the Constitution to him but that he saw fit to leave the politically lose/lose decision to lesser, would-be-king officials.
No matter, the courts will decide whether it is legal for a president to overrule a governor’s order, at least as it affects federal property and interstate commerce. Can Trump open Yosemite National Park amid Governor Gavin Newsom’s lockdown, but not California’s Big Sur State Park? Who, after all, “owns” Wall Street? Is it a physical or a cyber space? Does the mayor of New York City or the governor of New York State control the building and what goes on inside, or does Bud Jones in Bakersfield, whose retirement years hinge on a 401(k), have a say?
No one quite knows the limits of Washington, D.C., or the parameters of federalism. The schizophrenic Left now tends to favor the neo-Confederate idea of federal nullification when it’s a matter of sanctuary cities or abortion laws or opposing anything Trump is for. But at least there is tension there, and that uncertainty itself can limit the power of both a president and a governor. And that’s not always a bad thing when the mentality of the mob takes over.
Authoritarians and petty fascists, eager to issue endless edicts, molt their exoskeletons, as if under their chrysalis suits they were always caudillos, waiting to be reborn with sunglasses and epaulettes. But a free and empowered people, even in times of mortal danger, long nursed on a Bill of Rights, is hard to subjugate or shut up, even after over a month spent locked up in their homes. Thank God, we have a Constitution quite different from those of European nations, which are themselves far superior to other alternatives.
Does the First Amendment in some sense explain why, when you walk into the supermarket, you see crazy shoppers wearing over their face everything from weird motorcycle-helmet visors and dinner napkins to bandanas, embroidered doilies, silk scarves, used N-95 masks, hospital wraps worn lengthways, and (in the case of one well-meaning nut) a mask worn under the nose? In China, crowds all appear as if they are equipped by “CCP Approved Mask Model #1” of identical shape and color.
In a reductionist sense, this crisis could have been avoided if the Chinese had a Jeffersonian and Madisonian Bill of Rights, and a population protected by it. Nations of the European Union would have done better to one another in this crisis if they’d had a little humility and settled for a confederation of like, but still disparate, democracies and the idiosyncrasies that accompany them — rather than constructing an impossible utopian nightmarish edifice like something out of the old silent movie Metropolis, run by a litany of finger-shaking wannabe shrill Elizabeth Warrens. How odd that in the EU’s lose/lose paradox, when individual nations do well or poorly in addressing the epidemic, the EU will be blamed for their respective disobedient successes or failures.
In these strange times, American individualism and the Bill of Rights that birthed it are still proving, for a while longer, too strong for the natural forces of fascism masquerading as “we had to destroy freedom to save it.”
Or, as Nate (Jon Voight) shrugged in the film Heat: “It’s a free country, brother.”