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Me and we: Individual rights, common good and coronavirus

11 Comments
By TED ANTHONY
A couple salute the United States Air Force Thunderbirds who fly over downtown Los Angeles to honor frontline COVID-19 responders at Griffith Park in Los Angeles. Photo: AP

We, the people. But individual rights. The common good. But don’t tread on me. Form a more perfect union and promote the general welfare. But secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

From the moment the American republic was born right up until today, this has been its hallmark: Me and we — different flavors of freedom that compete but overlap — living together, but often at odds.

The history of the United States and the colonies that formed it has been a 413-year balancing act across an assortment of topics, priorities, passions and ambitions. Now, in the coronavirus era, that tug of war — is it about individuals, or the communities to which they belong? — is showing itself in fresh, high-stakes ways.

On May 15, protesters massed at the foot of the Pennsylvania Capitol steps — most of them maskless — for the second time in a month to decry Gov Tom Wolf and demand he “reopen” the state faster. It is one of many states where a vocal minority has criticized virus-related shutdowns for trampling individual rights.

“He who is brave is free,” read a sign carried by one Pennsylvania protester. “Selfish and proud,” said another, referring to the governor's statement that politicians advocating immediate reopening were “selfish.” “My body my choice,” said a sign at a rally in Texas, coopting an abortion-rights slogan to oppose mandatory mask rules.

“The pandemic is presenting this classic individual liberty-common good equation. And the ethos of different parts of the country about this is very, very different. And it’s pulling the country in all these different directions,” says Colin Woodard, author of “American Character: A History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Liberty and the Common Good.”

Though polls show a majority of Americans still support some level of shutdown, the cries to reopen have grown in the past few weeks as job losses continue to mount. In Pennsylvania and across the country, the demonstrators' chorus has generally been: Don’t tell me how to live my life when I need to get out of my house and preserve my livelihood.

“They’re being told to stay home, wait it out. And that’s a really weird democratic message to get. And the only way to do it is to say, 'I trust the government,’” says Elspeth Wilson, an assistant professor of government at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania.

While the catalyst is an unprecedented pandemic, the collision of individual rights and the common good is as old as the republic itself: Where does one American’s right to move around in public without a mask end, and another American’s right to not be infected with a potentially fatal virus begin?

“This is economic paralysis by analysis for some people. And they’re afraid," says Steven Benko, an ethicist at Meredith College in North Carolina. "They feel devalued.”

Americans have long romanticized those who reject the system and take matters into their own hands — the outlaw, the cowboy, the rebel. Many American leaders have wrestled to reconcile that with “common good” principles that are generally needed to govern.

“ Reagan did that better than anyone. He was the cowboy selling the shared American vision. That’s quite a contradiction,” Benko says.

Ronald Reagan’s crowning metaphor — the United States as the “city upon a hill” — was borrowed from the Puritans, whose traditions shaped the American ethos, including the compact that created the New World’s first English government. But Puritanism also asserted that hard work, a form of moral righteousness, heralded success and salvation.

Over time, and with other ingredients added as more groups came to American shores, a vague sense of shame became attached to the inability to be an individualist: If you couldn’t get along on your own, in the eyes of some, you were less of an American.

But is that kind of “rugged individualism,” as it came to be known, applicable in a 21st-century virus scenario where everything from food shopping to health care to package delivery requires a web of intricate, precise networks that form a common good?

Overlaid on this debate, too, is what some call an ignored truth: Individualism tends to favor groups that are in power, economically or socially. In short, doing what one wants is a lot easier when you have the means (health care, money, privilege) to deal with the impact it causes.

That’s particularly relevant when the direct impact of one’s individualism — in the form of virus-laden droplets — can ripple out to others.

“We fail to recognize how interdependent we really are,” says Lenette Azzi-Lessing, a clinical professor of social work at Boston University who studies economic disparity.

“The pandemic and dealing with it successfully does require cooperation. It also requires shared sacrifice. And that’s a very bitter pill for many Americans to swallow,” she says. “The pandemic is revealing that our fates are intertwined, that the person in front of us in line on the grocery store, if he or she doesn’t have access to good health care, that that’s going to have an effect on our health.”

U.S. history has sometimes revealed that in times of upheaval — the Great Depression, World War II, even the founding of the nation itself — common good becomes a dominant American gene for a time. Will that happen here? Or is the fragmentation of politics and economics and social media too powerful to allow that?

“The status quo is individualism. And then when we get to these crisis periods, it changes,” says Anthony DiMaggio, a political scientist at Lehigh University who is researching groups that advocate reopening. ”All these rules go out the window and people are willing to jettison all these ways of looking at the world.”

So is it, as Ayn Rand once told an interviewer, that “each man must live as an end in himself, and follow his own rational self-interest?” Or is it more like Woody Guthrie, paraphrasing Tom Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath”: “Everybody might be just one big soul — well, it looks that way to me.”

More likely, in a nation stitched together by a high-wire act of political compromise, it's somewhere in between — a new path that Americans must chart so they can continue their four-century experiment through unprecedented times. Yet again.

© Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

©2020 GPlusMedia Inc.


11 Comments
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The same people who argue for mandatory masks for the greater good also argued that Muslim women had to uncover their faces in public ... "for the greater good".

It seems that some people just get off on telling others how to live.

-3 ( +3 / -6 )

And there is also talk of mandatory vaccination.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=432fsM-p48M

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

On May 15, protesters massed at the foot of the Pennsylvania Capitol steps — most of them maskless — for the second time in a month to decry Gov Tom Wolf and demand he “reopen” the state faster. It is one of many states where a vocal minority has criticized virus-related shutdowns for trampling individual rights.

What about the right of the citizenry and general public to live healthily and in peace? These 'protesters' are carrying assault rifles, Nazi flags + Confederate flags. They are intimidating minorities and storming the Michigan statehouse and screaming about their 'rights'? What about public safety rights? These 'protesters' are endangering themselves and those whom they encounter elsewhere. Some of them bring their children to these 'rallies'. That's child endangerment! These 'protesters' are racist gun-toting terrorist scumbags, seething with racial hatred and advocating violence. Our Constitution guarantees the right for peaceful assembly and this is NOT peaceful!

America, along with the rest of the world needs to ride the virus storm out - and these terrorists are only making it WORSE for everyone, slowing the recovery. And Trump encourages this with his tweets and he's grinning.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

These 'protesters' are carrying assault rifles, Nazi flags + Confederate flags.

I think they were accusing the authorities of acting like Nazis, rather than in support of the Nazis...

Governments always have an excuse for taking away freedoms, I'm glad some people aren't falling for it. It's unfortunate that so many are so willing to give them up.

-5 ( +0 / -5 )

Governments always have an excuse for taking away freedoms, I'm glad some people aren't falling for it. It's unfortunate that so many are so willing to give them up.

Bollox... The rights of the majority of people not to be infected or die from a virus MUST outweigh your rights as an individual. Think about other people for a change.

4 ( +5 / -1 )

In the U.S., the federal government has always had the power to enforce quarantines any way it sees fit. This is not opinion, but law.

Those powers supersede all other rights for the duration of the quarantine.

Every person's rights end when their actions harm the greater population and always have.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Bollox... The rights of the majority of people not to be infected or die from a virus MUST outweigh your rights as an individual. Think about other people for a change.

Bollox... The rights of the majority of people not to get runover or die MUST outweigh your rights to drive your car. Think about other people for a change...

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

So stupid...

We have laws and requirements for driving. It isn't a right to drive, it is a privilege. If you kill someone with your driving there are repercussions from fines all the way up to prison time. Lets not forget how much it will cost you to defend yourself against the charges brought.

In that vein, you're arguing that if you infect someone with corona, then there should be consequences faced.

Fines, court costs, lawyers fees. possible imprisonment?

If you wanna swing that way, then I'm entirely on your side and agree that driving a car should equate to passing on the virus. It should come with responsibilities to your fellow man, and consequences.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

... but you are allowed to drive, even though you might end up killing someone.

With Covid19, they don't want to take any risks.

In that vein, you're arguing that if you infect someone with corona, then there should be consequences faced.

If someone is negligent (e.g., confirmed infected person spitting on elevator buttons), there certainly should be consequences.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I'm all for giving up cars myself. I already don't drive, and they are not doing anything good for our planet.

Going back to the old 'normal' is ridiculous. If covid has exposed anything, it's that.

The good thing about this all is that people are realizing just how much they consume, and how much of that consumption is in excess.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

The good thing about this all is that people are realizing just how much they consume, and how much of that consumption is in excess.

I see your point and this has taught me what I really need and don't need, but all the needless panic buying would suggest otherwise for most people.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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