April 3, 2020

One of the great ironies of our present day is that the best way to embody public virtue is by committing to the discipline of privacy. That’s another way of saying how important “social distance” is. It’s also a hint at why it seems to be so hard here in the United States. We do not have a good track record when it comes to acting virtuously on behalf of the public good.

I see it in small ways and in big ways. Groups of people walking too closely to one another on paths in the woods. School kids who are yucking it up with one another in close contact as if nothing has changed in terms of keeping apart. Families out shopping together in grocery stores instead of one person buying for all of them. The ease with which some men out for golf still stand next to each other on the tee, or share golf carts together – which raises the issue of why courses are open at all.

Here’s another one, aired on a daily basis: Presidential news briefings where senior staffers (and, presumably, knowledgeable experts in epidemiology) are lined up shoulder-to-shoulder in a protean display of male bonding as if to demonstrate their invulnerability. It tends to weaken the message some of them are trying to convey. One comes away with the conviction that it’s actually part of the subliminal iconography – to convey that the administration is not fully committed to halting the pandemic because it really doesn’t believe there is a serious problem.

Beyond the imagery of presumed invulnerability there’s the widespread notion that asking people to stay home and keep their distance, keep away from crowds and direct contact with others is a major sacrifice, or somehow evidence of wimpyness and giving in to irrational fears.

To say the least, we are not getting good role model behavior from some of our political leaders. Earlier this week, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee imposed partial restrictions on business activity and travel, but withheld a full shelter-in-place decree because he said he was concerned about preserving “personal freedoms.” As if a society at all were even possible without some self-discipline and understanding of what it means to live with other people. That’s the whole point of risk-reduction measures like speed limits. Or laws.

Much of this, sadly, is to be expected from a country that has the lowest voter turnout of any industrial democracy – 56 percent of the voting-age eligible population in 2016. We also, not coincidentally, have the least developed system of national health care of all industrial democracies. When it comes to ensuring personal security, we rely upon privatized health insurance more than any country and on more guns per capita than any of our democratic cohorts. Small wonder that gun shops have been deemed “essential services” in state after state and we see long lines outside these stores as Americans prepare to for some last-ditch defense should things really turn desperate in the coming months.

None of which bodes well for the sensible measures required to ride out the coming storm. Something like 90 percent compliance would go a long way towards flattening the curve; compliance at 60 or 70 percent will have very little effect and keep us on a steady course to an overloaded hospital system and a death toll far exceeding all of the combined wars the U.S. has ever fought. There’s no way to estimate what our compliance rate is with social distancing. But it’s certainly not three-quarters effective. Besides, a dam that’s only 75-percent effective does not do a lot of good.

It’s obviously harder for some populations to adhere to the necessary norms because of unsteady, ill-paying employment and lack of adequate health care coverage. It takes the ability to stockpile food, for example and to rely upon delivery services rather than recurring trips to the grocery. That presumes a measure of cash reverses to be able to buy in bulk. It also presumes enough space at home for storing provisions, keeping kids occupied. Access to the internet is notoriously limited by virtue of economic class, for example. Without that there is no on-line learning. There’s a built-in class bias to being able to handle stay-at-home.

All the more reason that a measure of self-discipline be imparted and internalized. That requires appropriate modeling from our leaders. It also requires a larger public commitment to the ethos of public virtue over atomistic freedom. And beyond making moral demands, it also requires the availability of a basic net of social support services. Without that we are in serious trouble. That’s the complexity of the demands we face.

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This article has 6 comments

  1. Steve Rosow Reply

    I think you are clearly right about the decline of civil society. A number of somewhat tragic elements of liberal political culture are being played out. One is regarding the current politics of responsibility. The spectacle of corporations that over the last decade squandered huge profits buying back shares, increasing executive salaries, chasing short term share-price increases now scrambling for stimulus payments expresses, it seems to me, a longer term trend of neoliberalism in which private “individuals” are deemed fully responsible for their fate while tax and investment policies register the escape of those who can from accepting any responsibility for their actions. Trump manifests this larger culture in his refusal to accept any responsibility for his actions, among other things of course (so much for any Weberian sense of political responsibility). This contradictory culture of responsibility in contemporary politics seems to me worthy of some investigation. On the one hand, it has politicized some of my students. On the other, it produces precarity and now desperation among much of the working class. For the wealthy it has turned civic virtue into philanthropy (and for some a sense of guilt at their privilege — some at least call for higher taxes for the excessively wealthy). Clearly this needs more thought.

  2. Michele Marie Reply

    Being the greatest country in the world
    imposes persuasion from its leaders

    Upon which their very fate depends

    Being aware and giving priority to civility , protection and care

    International harmony

    Is absent in the USA

    We are faced with much stronger than any of us

    Respect of one another
    Ought to be the main preoccupation of each country in the world

    Thank you very much Bradley Klein

    For your impactful article

  3. Brad Klein Reply

    AS you well know, Scot, the need and depth lf these practices are anchored in civil society, which at one time was reasonably well developed, and since at least the late 1960s has been steadily eroded systematically as part of a reversal in what is supposed to be the norma son a democratic society. That’s largely a function of business expansion, tax policy and a stream of court decisions hampering participation.

  4. Scott Nelson Reply

    You’re correct, Brad: America certainly doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to citizens acting virtuously on behalf of the public good. One question is why.

    Another question presents itself: can practices of public spiritedness become the staple of everyday life after this period of self-isolation, a spiritedness that was often on display in the 1960s. Admirable displays of civic virtue don’t need to be limited to marching for just causes. They can also find root (and voice) in small measures taken (such as self-education, or writing to our elected representatives) to ensure that the country moves forward on a number of critical fronts: income, education and health care services inequality, basic livelihood precarity, not to mention ecological devastation. All in the name of the public interest.

  5. Stacey Reply

    The make up on the mask would be so hard to remove. Perhaps he’s avoiding the whole thing. just to be a decent guy. (yes, this is a very bad joke.)

  6. Jane Reply

    When Trump announces that we should all wear masks but he won’t because he has to meet dignitaries and dictators, that proves your point.

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