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Govern yourself this Thanksgiving

Boston Red Cross volunteers assemble gauze influenza masks for use at hard-hit Camp Devens in Massachusetts during the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918. Photo courtesy of U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Growing up is seldom easy. 

When you’re little, you usually trust your parents. You trust they know how the world works and they know what they’re talking about. You trust they’re working in your best interest, even if you don’t fully understand every rule they hold you to. Why should you stop and look both ways before crossing the street? Why must you throw away any unwrapped Halloween treats? Why aren’t you allowed to play video games all day? You might not know the answers to these questions, but they seem to know so much — and besides, you get in trouble if you break the rules anyway, so what are you going to do? 

Then you get older. You become a teenager. You learn your parents are human beings — flawed, frequently hypocritical, often wrong human beings. Depending on how flawed they are, you might even decide you’ll be a better person if you simply assume they’re always wrong. Do they come home drunk and belligerent at night? Then perhaps you’re better off if you just never drink. Or are they teetotalers who claim Satan will remove your pants if even a single drop of demon whiskey touches your lips? Well, honestly, who even needs pants at a time like this?

Then you become an adult. 

Once you’re an adult, people start holding you accountable for your own actions. You might be able to point to an authority figure — a parent, a boss, a superior officer, the law, religion, whomever — and either announce you were following orders or reflexively breaking them. Depending on who you’re modeling yourself after (or against), it might even work out reasonably well for you in most situations. However, when the consequences of your actions arrive, they don’t arrive to your parents, your boss, your superior officer, your laws, or your religion — they arrive to you. 

When your choices reflect well upon you, you and you alone are the one who enjoys the credit. When your choices reflect poorly upon you, you and you alone are the one who suffers the blame. 

Politicians are not our parents. However, politicians, like parents, are authority figures. Like all authority figures, including parents, they enjoy authority because the institutions of our society grant them authority. Also, like all authority figures, including parents, they are hypocrites — they say we should do one thing and then go and do another. Worst of all for everyone, this hypocrisy is both inevitable and unavoidable. 

It’s impossible to be an authority figure without becoming a hypocrite. 

The reason for this is the reason we talk about the distinction between the letter and the spirit of rules. Rules describe preferred behavior in much the same way a map describes geography. Unfortunately, to paraphrase Alfred Korzybski, a notable early 20th century philosopher, the map is not the territory, the word is not the thing, and the rule is not the behavior. 

A map, strictly followed without accounting for reality, can lead you into disaster. Even before Google Maps inadvertently encouraged travelers to take poorly maintained roads during local snowstorms, it wasn’t unheard of for incredulous travelers to learn the hard way that not all roads in Nevada are plowed during winter. 

Similarly, a rule, strictly followed without accounting for reality, can also lead you into disaster. Should you stop and look both ways before crossing the street? What if you’re being chased by someone or something who wishes to do you harm? Must you throw away any unwrapped Halloween treats? What if you’re in a broken down car and that’s the only food you have? Should you not be allowed to play video games all day? What if you’re harboring a communicable disease, like chicken pox or influenza?

Trouble is, it’s absolutely impossible to write a rule which covers every possibility. That means, sooner or later, we each find ourselves in situations where we are required to either break the letter of a rule or break its spirit — in other words, we jeopardize the goals the rule is supposed to help us reach. Either way, we will have to engage in an act of unavoidable hypocrisy. The only question is whether we’ll prove to be hypocritical against the rule or against the goals we justified the rule’s existence with.

Normally, this isn’t a huge catastrophe — it’s downright routine for most adults, in fact — unless others are looking for you, as an authority figure, to lead by example. 

***

Politicians, as discussed, are authority figures. Whether they should be or not — whether anyone should be or not, for that matter — is a separate topic of discussion; for now, it suffices they are and are legally empowered to be so. Given that, and given authority inevitably creates hypocrisy, should we do what politicians tell us to do or should we do what they show us to do? 

With COVID-19 infection and hospitalization rates reaching new highs, this is potentially a life-or-death question. Renown, Washoe County’s largest hospital, converted a parking garage into a COVID-19 care facility in April; now they actually have to use it. The Dakotas, meanwhile, are providing a sneak preview of what an out-of-control COVID-19 outbreak looks like in a rural setting. It’s bleak. In Minot, a North Dakota city about as large as Carson City was in the 1990s, a funeral home which normally services thirty deaths per month is now struggling to keep up with at least thirty deaths per week.

So what are our politicians — our authority figures, for better or worse — telling us to do?

Washoe County School District is thinking about closing in-person schooling; Clark County, meanwhile, has tabled its plan to transition back to in-person learning. Washoe County Health District Officer Kevin Dick is, like many in his position, asking everyone to stay home for Thanksgiving. Mask-wearing requirements, already on the books in Nevada, will undoubtedly become more stringent since “Stay at Home 2.0” clearly isn’t working. In many states, curfews, which ostensibly target risky nocturnal behaviors, are becoming increasingly popular — whether they actually do anything to reduce COVID-19 infections or not, however, is a different story. Given the steadily increasing infection rates seen statewide, even Nevada’s normally irascible rural counties have largely resigned themselves to new restrictions, whatever they might turn out to be.

As for what politicians are doing themselves, well, like I said, authority creates hypocrisy.

Political authority is, at its core, based on relationships — relationships with fellow politicians, with influential individuals, and even with the occasional constituent. If you have positive relationships with those you work with and know how to further nurture them, you’re more likely to effectively exercise whatever political authority you might have. A big part of nurturing relationships, however, is developing them in the first place, and that is virtually impossible to do over virtual conference software. 

Which is probably why this and this seemed like good ideas at the time.

Then there’s the issue of what happens when a politician, or any authority figure, needs to meet two diametrically opposed goals simultaneously. As I’ve written about before, Gov. Sisolak remains stuck between a rock (the need to encourage Nevadans to avoid activities which spread COVID-19 infection) and a hard place (the need to demonstrate Nevada’s businesses can “safely” serve customers). This was highlighted nicely by a restaurant proudly posting a picture of him eating inside said restaurant right after he announced “Stay at Home 2.0” — and right before he announced he tested positive for COVID-19

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So what are we supposed to do, then? Do we follow the rules, whatever they happen to be at any given moment, or do we follow their examples, flawed as they clearly are? 

The answer is we stop following. We lead ourselves like the grownups we actually are. 

This doesn’t mean, to be clear, that we rip our masks off and sneeze in every restaurant in town. It also doesn’t mean we host the largest Thanksgiving celebrations we can to stick a finger in the eye of “The Man.” Rebelling against authority still legitimizes authority. If you define your rules as the opposite of the rules someone sets against you, you’re still empowering them to set your rules.

What it means instead is we look around, acknowledge reality to the best of our abilities, and react accordingly. To become ungovernable, we must take responsibility for governing ourselves and refusing to cede that responsibility to anyone or anything. 

Looking around, COVID-19 is killing more Americans per day than World War II and the Civil War ever did combined. Looking around, every prediction about when herd immunity might kick in has been wrong. That’s not to say there haven’t been some overly pessimistic predictions as well, but it’s pretty clear by this point that, qualitatively if not necessarily quantitatively, the more pessimistic predictions have been closer to correct than more optimistic ones. If herd immunity was going to save us, we wouldn’t have sick people receiving treatment in hospital parking garages and funeral home workers wouldn’t be putting in twelve hour shifts.

Fortunately, vaccines are on the horizon. We just need to live long enough to take them. But how can we do that? 

If we were talking about a sexually transmitted disease, the only surefire way to avoid one is abstinence — don’t engage in activities which put you at risk of catching one. The same holds true for airborne diseases like COVID-19. In much the same way that, if you avoid sexual activity with someone, you won’t catch a sexually transmitted disease, if you don’t share air with people, you won’t catch whatever diseases they’re exhaling. As the German government recently put it, all you have to do is nothing.

Much like sexual abstinence, however (and for many of the same reasons), abstaining from other people’s air is frequently some combination of impossible or intolerable. We all have loved ones we want or need to spend time with. Many of us have to work in public-facing jobs with nearby coworkers and customers. Abstinence might work in theory, but in practice we’re going to need to rely upon more mature methods of risk assessment and mitigation. 

Once again, thinking about sexually transmitted diseases helps. Condoms don’t prevent all unwanted pregnancies nor do they fully prevent sexually transmitted diseases, but they prevent a lot of both at low cost. Masks operate similarly. They’re not perfect and they’re not enough, but they’re better than nothing. Some masks, of course, are better than others, and technique matters — if you want them to do any good for you, much less others, please cover your nose as well as your mouth. 

Additionally, just as there are some activities which are obviously high risk in the context of sexually transmitted diseases — say, a group event during which most participants refuse to wear protection — there are activities which are demonstrably riskier in the context of COVID-19. Chances are, if you knew the odds were high that one in ten people in your planned event might have a lethal sexually transmitted disease, you’d probably forego being sexually intimate in that group setting. Applying the same logic to large family gatherings this Thanksgiving should similarly encourage you to avoid sharing air with groups of people as well, especially if you know some family members are going to be irresponsible. 

***

COVID-19 loves small, enclosed spaces the same way sexually transmitted diseases love… well, small, enclosed spaces. Acknowledging this doesn’t mean you must abstain from sharing small, enclosed spaces with your loved ones (though, if you’re in a position to do so, you’re gently encouraged to). It does mean, however, it’s well north of foolish to share small, enclosed spaces with all of your loved ones simultaneously, especially if you and your loved ones refuse to wear protection. 

With that in mind, stay home this Thanksgiving. Wear a mask. Not because I’m encouraging you to and not because some politicians are telling you to — but because it’s the right thing to do. 

David Colborne has been active in the Libertarian Party for two decades. During that time, he has blogged intermittently on his personal blog, as well as the Libertarian Party of Nevada blog, and ran for office twice as a Libertarian candidate. He serves on the Executive Committee for both his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is the father of two sons and an IT professional. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at [email protected]

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