George Pyle: Give no support to a different kind of contagion

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) About 1,000 people protested the government mandated shutdown of businesses on the grounds of Salt Lake City Hall, Saturday. The protest was organized by Utah Business Revival aimed at Mayor Erin Mendenhall, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilsonand Governor Gary Herbert policies on COVID-19 and social distancing, April 18, 2020.

“An insurrection, whatever may be its immediate cause, eventually endangers all government. Regard to the public peace, if not to the rights of the Union, would engage the citizens to whom the contagion had not communicated itself to oppose the insurgents.”

— Alexander Hamilton, Federalist No. 28

The Federalist Papers was a collection of, ahem, newspaper commentaries published in 1787 and 1788 favoring adoption of the Constitution of the United States. The essays use the word “insurrection” (singular or plural) 24 times, all of them in a way that suggests it is a bad thing, something a proper government must suppress, and that the structure laid out in the Constitution was the best way to do that.

Yes, leaders of a nation that had been created by an insurrection were very serious about making sure that their new country wouldn’t fall victim to another one. About as ironic, perhaps, as all that verbiage about “all men are created equal” being uttered by people who owned all those slaves.

But these were the same guys who had, in the Declaration of Independence, gone out of their way to make it clear that, while they may have been revolutionaries, they were not anarchists.

Government, Mr. Jefferson had written, exists to secure the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. When it doesn’t, the people have the right to toss that government out and start over. As the leaders of the American Revolution were doing. But, Hamilton and his allies later argued, insurrections would be bad for life, liberty and happiness. They would be, in his word, a “contagion.”

Speaking of which.

Protests, marches and angry social media posts have been springing up across the country — including in Utah — in the last week or so. Some people are arguing that stay-at-home orders and decisions to close restaurants, stores, schools, sporting events, etc., are an unconstitutional violation of their rights.

They aren’t.

As Mr. Hamilton foresaw, most Americans are resistant to this pandemic. Polls show that a majority of Americans support the directives of various governors and mayors and aren’t buying the advice of President Lysol when it comes to staying healthy.

There is also reason to believe that the demonstrations against the decision that stay-at-home orders are the best — and, absent an effective treatment or vaccine, the only — way to break the back of the pandemic are anything but grassroots movements. That they are small, extremist efforts instigated by purveyors of right-wing disinformation.

Which makes sense.

The idea that individuals have no duty to inconvenience themselves for the greater good is very much in keeping with today’s right-wing thinking. The kind of thinking that installed the present embarrassment in the White House and causes a vocal, dangerous and, often, heavily armed, minority of us to believe that citizenship is for sissies.

It doesn’t help much when governments go overboard in tracking people’s movements or suggesting that we snitch on our non-distancing neighbors. It also smells just a little bit when police who have been known to charge into assemblies of people demonstrating against pollution or for the rights of the homeless ignore groups that, just by standing there, threaten whole communities with infection.

Getting away with these threatening acts can only boost the idea, the base of everything from the Bundy clan’s seizure of public lands to the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, that power belongs to those who have the most guns and the least scruples.

The true legacy of the American Revolution and the Constitutional Convention is that power properly belongs to those who demonstrate the highest ethical standards, who work for the common good rather than personal privilege.

Like the nurses, already exhausted by triple shifts of COVID-19 ICU duty, who have physically blocked the advance of anti-shutdown demonstrations in Colorado, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Because they see the carnage that will result if the protesters have their way.

The demonstrations that have carried the day and turned the course of American history are the ones that seek to expand rights — to racial minorities, women, LGBT — in ways that, once we stopped to think about it, diminished the legitimate rights of exactly nobody.

Protesting the lockdown orders promotes the desires of the few in a way that threatens the many. It is another move to preserve the perceived privilege that is the core of the modern right-wing, that armed, white, Christian males — especially those who flunked both history and biology in high school — belong at the top and everyone else must give way.

Such behavior is, quite literally, poison.

George Pyle

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, is old, fat and diabetic, and so has no plans to leave his homestead before Labor Day.


Twitter, @debatestate