Monday, May 25, 2020

A Pandemic Memorial Day

Today is Memorial Day in the United States. 

For those of you who are reading this elsewhere, Memorial Day is part of that broad subset of public holidays set aside to honor those who served in the nation’s armed forces.  Most countries have such holidays, and why wouldn't they?  It’s a group that deserves to be honored.  The US actually has two such holidays that most people know about, each with a slightly different emphasis, as well as several smaller ones (“Armed Forces Day,” anyone?).  But the two big ones are Memorial Day and Veterans Day.

Veterans Day comes in November, and itself has two related but not altogether compatible emphases.  It’s in November because it started out as Armistice Day, commemorating the end of World War I, which officially ended at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – a fine bit of poetry that no doubt cost some poor soldier his life while the seconds ticked down.  The war ended with an Armistice, which was grimly appropriate for a muddled and seemingly pointless meat-grinder of a war.  The holiday became Veterans Day after World War II, an altogether more clear-cut and triumphant conflict from the American perspective.  Veterans Day honors those who go to war.  Armistice Day, however, honors those who return, an altogether quieter and more reflective holiday and one we should bring back.

Memorial Day honors those who go to war and don’t return – those who have sacrificed their lives to defend the rights, liberties and freedoms of the United States.  Yes, I know those rights, liberties and freedoms are qualified and circumscribed – much of American history can be read as a long and often backsliding effort to broaden their reach to excluded groups, and it is clear that this effort still has a long way to go – but the point remains.  Those rights, liberties and freedoms are ideals worth sacrificing for and those who do so deserve to be honored.

Which is why this Memorial Day is so disheartening.

Too many Americans today have lost sight of what rights, liberties and freedoms are.  They have reached the irresponsible and frankly juvenile conclusion that rights, liberties and freedoms mean they can do whatever they want, whenever they want to, regardless of the consequences to anyone else.

This is a toddler’s view of those things, and to be honest it’s embarrassing.  We should be better than that.

We are in the middle of the worst pandemic in a century and too many low-information people are out there screaming about their rights and their liberties and their freedoms as if they were absolutes that could never be infringed by any public safety measure – a doctrine alien to the Constitution and the law.  They insist that the mild inconvenience of wearing a mask or not having a pool party is somehow a grave threat to their freedom.

Here’s a hint.  It’s not.  And those who say otherwise are trivializing the sacrifices made by better people on their behalf.

The lockdowns and the quarantines are well within the scope of the Constitution and the law.  The Founding Fathers themselves put them in place during the yellow fever epidemics of the 1790s, after all, and they knew the Constitution far better than the average American today.  Wearing a mask is a temporary inconvenience, not an assault on liberty. 

This is, in fact, settled law. 

As explained by Supreme Court Justice John Harlan in Jacobson v Massachusetts (1905), “[T]he liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States to every person within its jurisdiction does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint. There are manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good. On any other basis organized society could not exist with safety to its members. … [I]n every well-ordered society charged with the duty of conserving the safety of its members the rights of the individual in respect of his liberty may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint, to be enforced by reasonable regulations, as the safety of the general public may demand.” 

Too many people in this country need to grow up and get over themselves.

On this Memorial Day, remember those who sacrificed for your rights, your liberties, and your freedoms, and honor their example, not with petulant displays of arrogance and disregard for your fellow Americans, but with respect for the nation as a whole.


LucyInDisguise said...

If I may, I’d like to take a moment and expand upon Justice Harlan’s statement quoted above.

I recently had a, uh, ‘lively’ discussion with a neighbor about speeding.

His argument: Nothing wrong with it if you don’t get caught. No harm, no foul.

My argument (very much abbreviated here): Recognizing that anarchy is not a very good plan, most civilized societies pass laws, regulations, and rules to restrain bad and undesirable behaviors. Your ‘right’ to behave in any way you desire ends at the moment your behavior infringes or endangers another member of the society.

There is, insofar as the decision to break any law, regulation or rule, no difference between speeding, knocking over convience stores for a little spare cash, or murder - only differences in degree and consequence. The harm to society remains the same: every little bit hurts.

I do not believe he understood the point I was trying to make. The very next morning he passed me doing more than 45 MPH in a 25 MPH zone. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ All I can do is make an effort.

I surmise that at some point in our not too distant history, we, as a society, made the unstated (unconscious?) decision to no longer teach this principle, nor enforce it to any degree; and because of that, we shall suffer the consequences until we make a conscious decision to rectify it.

I was born into and raised in a different era where these things were taught as being important. Sadly, it is entirely possible that those days are lost forevermore. And yet I remain …



David said...

While I agree with your larger point - there are a lot of people out there who seem to regard their rights as absolute and the concerns of the larger society as mere contrivances, a position which the Founding Fathers would have regarded as twisted, and civilized societies crumble under such weight - I am hesitant to say whether this is a new idea or not. FFS there were **gunfights** in San Francisco during the Spanish Flu epidemic between the police and people who felt that wearing a mask was beneath them.

I remain somewhat hopeful simply because the number of idiots is proportionately small, though this is tempered somewhat by the fact that the absolute number of idiots is fairly large and may well be enough to bring us all down. Time will tell.

Good luck with your neighbor. He sounds like a charmer. When confronted with that kind of driving I am always reminded of the scene in a Robin Williams movie (World According to Garp?) where he is faced with a similar driver and corrects the situation by remodeling the car with a crowbar.