Our culture has a wonderful way of taking controversial or partisan figures and weaving them into the broader story of America.
When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, for example, his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, purportedly said, “Now he belongs to the ages,” which was a way of saying that the battles Lincoln fought and the leadership he provided would stay with us and shape the nation going forward.
This kind of recognition is common when it comes to dead presidents, but it’s even more valuable when it comes to moral heroes. It’s appropriate that Republicans and Democrats alike celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. It’s a great and glorious thing that civil-rights activist Rosa Parks is talked about as an American hero, not solely as an African-American one.
That said, can we not be idiots about it?
“I call these people the modern-day Rosa Parks,” Stephen Moore, an economic adviser to President Trump, said several times last week, referring to the small crowds protesting government lockdown and quarantine orders. “They are protesting against injustice and a loss of liberties.”
Many have noted the bizarreness of a presidential adviser and avid Trump supporter — a man who sits on the president’s movable feast of a committee to reopen the economy — also serving as an organizer of protests against policies Trump himself has advocated.
But that contradiction merely reflects the president’s own inconsistent behavior. Trump acknowledges that masks are a good idea for all but then says he won’t wear one. He insists his power is absolute but then says governors are the ones who should “call the shots.” He issues guidelines for combating the pandemic but then lends support to protesters denouncing them and decrying the governors who are enforcing them. “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” “LIBERATE VIRGINIA!” the president has tweeted.
Apparently, the hunger for the sweet air of liberty is most desperately felt in swing states.
It’s notable that Trump has not actually abandoned his view that he has “total authority” to call the shots; he merely chooses not to exercise the untrammeled power the Constitution does not give him. (The calculation seems to be that the president can pocket the successes of state-led efforts while casting blame elsewhere for any resulting problems.)
If Trump actually believed these states were in need of liberation, he could do something about it. Places in need of liberation suffer from tyranny, and the president has a constitutional obligation to ensure that American citizens do not endure tyranny.
It was this obligation that justified President Eisenhower’s decision to dispatch the National Guard to safeguard the lives of African Americans trying to go to school in Arkansas. It was why the Justice Department under Lyndon Johnson intervened to protect the civil liberties of African-American citizens.
Which brings me back to Rosa Parks. The Jim Crow system she famously defied codified the notion that some Americans were fundamentally inferior to other Americans. The notion that some citizens don’t share the same constitutional rights as others is by definition tyrannical.
Nothing like that is happening here. I’m perfectly willing to concede that some governors have made mistakes. Banning Michiganders from purchasing gardening equipment and car seats for babies strikes me as heavy-handed.
But this Rosa Parks comparison is grotesque in its asininity. Unlike the quarantine protesters, Parks wasn’t fighting to regain temporarily suspended liberties, but liberties many Americans had never fully enjoyed. She was a nonviolent warrior in a struggle to guarantee the rights and dignity of all Americans. Her struggle was grounded in the idea that all Americans are born with the equal right to life and liberty.
The quarantines are grounded in a not-altogether-dissimilar understanding: that we all deserve protection from a virus that disproportionately strikes our most vulnerable citizens and is now the second-leading cause of death in America, quickly closing in on heart disease. And because of the nature of the crisis, it requires cooperation and sacrifices from everybody.
As a matter of law and morality, these intentions matter. If you could ask the Founding Fathers whether what we’re going through is tyranny, they would answer, collectively, “Are you high?” or whatever the Colonial-era equivalent was.
But we live in a time where inconveniences and hardships must be turned into acts of deliberate villainy by our political opponents or nefarious overlords. It takes a remarkable amount of cynicism to simultaneously impose hardships on American citizens and claim to be outraged by them. While we can marvel at that cynicism, we shouldn’t lose sight of the asininity — and villainy — also on display.
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