The Morning Jolt

Culture

Amidst the Pandemic, Our Fellow Citizens Are Self-Medicating with Self-Righteousness

People wait in a socially-distanced line outside of a Trader Joe’s grocery store following Mayor Muriel Bowser’s declaration of a state of emergency due to the coronavirus outbreak in Washington, D.C., April 14, 2020. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

On the menu today: some people need to get rid of their superiority complex; Dan McLaughlin writing on Gregg Jeffries; a new paper saying the virus didn’t spread from a patient in Washington State; and two astronauts are set to blast off today.

Our Worldwide Need for Empathy 

I can get as annoyed as the next guy by those allegedly encouraging video of celebrities declaring, “We’re all in this together,” allowing us glimpses of their just-opulent-enough Hollywood homes behind them.

But compared to almost every other problem in our society, the coronavirus really is universal. We may not all be at equal risk of succumbing to the virus, but we all have some risk of catching it. Some of us will get through infection with minimal effects, some will endure great pain and difficulty fighting it off. This virus attacks the body in variety of ways, and doctors still don’t completely understand how it assaults our systems. Even if you manage to completely elude the virus, the sweeping economic effects of the quarantines and shutdowns are likely to touch your life in some fashion. Some of our current arguments revolve around whether some segments of the population are scared. Fear is a way of knowing you care about something and don’t want to lose it. We don’t want to lose our lives, we don’t want to lose our loved ones, we don’t want to lose our jobs, and we don’t want to lose our businesses or life’s savings. Fear is rational — which is not to say we should allow fear to be paralyzing.

This should be a unifying moment. No matter whom you can’t abide in American society, they’re feeling the same fear, anxiety, and uncertainty that you do. We can be angry at criminals for their crimes and simultaneously feel the need to save them from unintended and preventable deaths in their prisons. Members of the opposing political party have elderly parents and grandparents in nursing homes, too. People who voted for the other guy can get laid off or lose their businesses, too. Urbanites can feel like they’re going stir-crazy in tiny apartments, and that the streets of their cities are awash in danger. Rural citizens might feel safer — or maybe not, if they’re working in a meat-packing plant. People who have never needed to use a food bank before are waiting in line for hours for a couple bags of groceries.

Communities you might not hear about or think about often are getting hit hard. The Navajo Nation’s per-capita rate of infection was, at one point, higher than 48 of the 50 states. The Hasidic Jewish community in the New York area was hit hard and early. The River Park Towers in the Bronx are getting nicknamed “the death towers” with a reported 100 cases. Filipino-Americans make up a little over one percent of the overall population but are 4 percent of the nurses in the U.S., with the resultant high risk of infection in hospitals. In Rhode Island, Latinos, mostly working-class, are 16 percent of the population but make up 45 percent of the confirmed cases. In Michigan, blacks make up 15 percent of the overall population but 40 percent of the cases.

There’s arguably never been a greater need for empathy in America, or the world.

And yet some Americans, largely magnified by the ubiquitous cameras of social media and the national media’s endless hunger for stories about conflict, are embracing this moment as the greatest opportunity to judge others and whip up and direct public scorn. As I fumed a bit on the recent taping of The Editors podcast, one of the ways people are seeking reassurance in this extraordinary stressful time is to seek out evidence that they are one of the good people — practicing the right steps to protect themselves and their loved ones — and that anyone who is doing something different is one of the bad people. If we cannot feel good, then we can at least feel superior.

Staten Island grocery store shoppers swarm and berate a woman for not wearing a mask. (Graeme Wood observes, “If you are conducting your shaming in the frozen-food aisle, you’re already too late.”) Some of us have never heard of the Lake of the Ozarks before, but plenty of people enjoyed deriding the people who gathered there in large numbers in swimming pools. That failed political candidate wants to hand out body bags to people on the beach in Florida. California hairstylists, operating in the professional haircutting underground, insist they’re doing what they do because they need to make a living.

You probably heard about that woman in Central Park, who after arguing with a black bird watcher about keeping her dog on a leash, called the police and made it sound as if he was attacking her. Robert A. George observes that New York City mayor Bill de Blasio “encouraged residents to narc on their neighbors over social distancing violations. Given the larger health crisis (and its disproportionate impact on New York), that’s somewhat understandable. Unfortunately, it emboldens people to take the wise 9/11-era advisement of ‘If you see something, say something’ and weaponize it into ‘if you see anything, report anything.’”

This virus has no human face. We cannot punch it, kick it, or shoot it. The closest thing to a human perpetrator of this pandemic, the Chinese government, is probably the second-most powerful institution on earth and is not easily confronted. Hence some of us seek out a more convenient target, and also a more meaningful comparison to our virtue. If I tell you that you are wiser, more careful, more responsible, and more caring than Xi Jinping and the rest of the authoritarians in Beijing, you’re probably going to give an unenthusiastic, “Uh . . . thanks.” Being a better person than a Chinese autocrat is not a high bar to clear. All you have to do to qualify is not put a million people or so in concentration camps.

No, we want to feel better about ourselves compared to other Americans, and probably in particular compared to our other peers. If someone who has nothing in common with us makes a wrong choice — say, the native tribes in the Amazon don’t consistently practice social distancing — we can’t feel that superior. But if Dick and Jane down the street are having houseguests over and everyone is within six feet of each other, then we can feel superior.

Back when I wrote Voting to Kill, pollster David Winston mentioned an anecdote about a focus group of suburban moms discussing 9/11 that always stuck with me:

One woman described that she had just dropped her child off [at school] and was driving away when the radio is describing what is happening. And at first she’s wondering whether she should turn around, but the message on the radio seems to be that everything’s okay, and she decides not to pick up her child from school [early]. Well, another mother sitting near her [in the focus group] turns around with this intense velocity and said, “I picked my kids up.” It was an icy exchange, almost as if saying, “I was a good parent.” They’re discussing this three years later and the emotion is as if it was yesterday. What that told me was that level of emotion and recall was still very much there.

We judge others in part to reassure ourselves that our choices were and are the right ones.

Psychologists are pretty unified on this: Public shaming rarely works in these circumstances. Those who are engaged in the allegedly shameful behavior don’t have enough faith in the judgment of strangers. If a friend or relative says, “You shouldn’t do that,” they might give it a little more consideration; there is a preestablished relationship and sense of trust. They are somewhat less likely to believe that this isn’t smug virtue-shaming, and that the recommendation to wear a mask or stay further apart is coming from a place of genuine care.

No one should be surprised that “arguments” such as, “Is it okay to say that there is a special place in hell for rule breakers that prolong the effects of this virus, thereby depriving all of us a more expeditious return to normalcy?” are unpersuasive.

I wonder if in other circumstances, that speaker would ordinarily denounce the judgmental Christian Right and lament the ways America is turning into a theocracy.

ADDENDA: Dan McLaughlin, a.k.a. Baseball Crank, writes about former New York Met Gregg Jeffries. Man, there was a summer where finding his rookie card in a pack of baseball cards was like discovering a lost treasure chest.

A new research paper contends that the first reported coronavirus infection case in Washington was not the primary cause of the spread of the virus in the United States, or even in the state of Washington. “It suggests the person who ignited the first chain of sustained transmission in the United States probably returned to the country in mid-February, a month later.”

NASA astronauts are now into ride-sharing; around 4:33 p.m. Eastern time, two astronauts are scheduled to blast off from the SpaceX craft Falcon 9 from Launch Complex 39A — the same place Saturn V launched humanity to the moon and from where the first and final Space Shuttle missions lifted off. The world could certainly use some hope and wonder right about now.

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