Here we go again! For 40 years, Republicans have hammered us with Ronald Reagan’s mantra, “Government is not the solution; government is the problem,” and it has finally stuck, at least with certain political leaders, notably, Gov. Kemp of Georgia and Gov. DeSantis of Florida. They refuse to use the power of the state to require citizens to use face coverings in public.
But these same two governors willingly use the power of the state to require public schools to open, apparently following Vice President Pence’s admonition, “We don’t want CDC guidelines to prevent schools from opening.”
Translation: “We don’t want the science behind public health best practices to prevent school openings.” To those governors, when science is associated with government, government wins. But wait. Government is the problem, remember. Solution: government must be small. Translation: weak.
President Trump, for all his projections of strength (tall, speaks loudly, uses big gestures and direct eye contact), has refused to take a strong hand in dealing with the coronavirus. Rather, he has delegated that work to the states, and so we have a patchwork of approaches to this deadly disease. States are opening up and closing down at different rates; states are competing with each other and with the federal government to buy masks and PPE.
The fatal flaw in this approach is that it assumes states have walls around them, that people do not travel from state to state. In response, in order to protect its citizens, New York state is now requiring travelers from high-infection states (e.g., Florida) to self-quarantine upon entering New York.
Such actions, while necessary, hardly encourage the kind of collaboration that is necessary to deal with a pandemic that is killing over 1,000 American citizens daily. The patchwork of state strategies gets us competition, not cooperation.
So, the current administration has a big government and small government problem: big sometime, small sometime, seemingly at random or at the President’s whim. And that’s causing problems for all of us. Many are dying.
But the administration also has a neighbor problem. To be fair, the administration merely reflects a larger, culture-wide problem. In recent decades we have become more tribal. Our “neighborhoods” have grown smaller and more virtual. Positions on many public issues have hardened and are nurtured within small groups of like-minded people.
And the President himself often acts like a tribal leader (“I have the most loyal people ... I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay? It’s like incredible.”)
The President’s “neighbors” are his base, but hardly anyone else. Like the President, too many of us are trapped in our small neighborhoods.
Many years ago, an itinerant teacher in an obscure corner of the world told a profound story known widely as “The Good Samaritan.” After quoting to his listeners Leviticus 19:18b, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” someone asked him, “And who is my neighbor?” His answer surprised them all. “My neighbor” turned out to be “the other.”
Samaritans did not like Jews any more than Jews liked Samaritans, but it was the Samaritan in the story who turned aside to aid the Jew in the ditch, the victim of a mugging. To each, the other was the feared “other.”
The Jew, the “muggee,” let the hated Samaritan help him, and the Samaritan showed compassion on the otherwise hated Jew.
So, who, in this pandemic, are my neighbors? If we take seriously that story told by Jesus of Nazareth, my neighbors may be the people down the street whom I don’t even know; they may be the clerks at CVS; or they may be the cashiers in the drive-thru at Cane’s or McDonald’s. Neighbors may be both close and unlikely.
I believe this is a time for both: strong government action and caring for one’s neighbors. So, I wear a mask when I’m out. I don’t want to risk passing the virus to my neighbors, but if you’re not really into that neighbor thing, you may need the nudge of a government mandate.
Either way, the science says we slow the spread of the virus, and that will save hospital rooms, medical staff, PPE and maybe the lives of our neighbors.
Dick Conville is a longtime resident of Hattiesburg and a retired college professor.