George Pyle: Selfishness is not the same as liberty

(J. David Ake | AP photo) Traffic streaks past the U. S. National Archive headquarters building early in the morning, Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017.

“I have always found it quaint, and rather touching, that there is a movement in the U.S. that thinks Americans are not yet selfish enough.”

Christopher Hitchens

A troop of college students I was once part of, many years ago, visited The National Archives for a few hours of introduction on how to use its vast trove of information. Proud that the federal stash included more than musty old books and papers, our guide brought us to a small theater to show us some of the historic films stored there.

A good historian, she was eager to use the resources at hand to demonstrate how the view of events can change over time. So, without much comment offered, she showed us two brief newsreels, one made not long before the American entry into World War II, the other made at the peak of the war.

The first film was an explanation of how horrible it would be to live in a hypothetical totalitarian society. The depicted nation was obviously meant to be Nazi Germany, though the film never used that name and made up different flags and insignia. Among the examples of how rotten life would be in such a society were the twin horrors of the rationing of food, gasoline and other necessities and the use of conscription to raise an army.

The second film, which looked very much like the first, was a call to patriotism in time of war. Among the examples of things that good citizens should be happy to put up with in the name of freedom were the rationing of food, gas and other necessities and the use of conscription to raise our Army.

The definition of what is an acceptable sacrifice of personal liberty to promote the common good changes to fit the circumstances of the moment.

Or, as old Obi-Wan said, “Many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”

Of course, when one’s own point of view depends on denying truth, we can be lost indeed.

Today we are faced with a threat of a viral pandemic that, if not properly addressed by governments and citizens alike, has every capability of killing millions of us. There is every reason to hope that we would be able to break the back of this threat if we would heed the advice of experts and give up some of our creature comforts for awhile.

Sadly, the idea of individuals making any kind of sacrifice for the public good has come, in some circles, to be known as tyranny. We have a concept of liberty based on acting selfishly and being quite willing for the old, the sick and the poor to lay down their lives so heavily armed fat white men can order a foot-long without the intolerable indignity of wearing a mask.

If they were real patriots, willing to sacrifice their own well-being for others, that would be great. But their behavior only threatens both themselves and others.

George Washington would throw up.

Thomas Paine would see through these sunshine soldiers in a moment.

Benjamin Franklin, noted scientist and founder of the nation’s first real hospital, would be appalled to see his famous quote about not giving up liberty to gain security used against pandemic lockdowns, distancing and other preventive measures.

The founders pledged to one another, and to us, “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.” These bozos won’t even pledge to go without a haircut.

It doesn’t help that the occupant of the Awful Office thinks it unmanly to wear a mask. It doesn’t help that mistrust for experts and for those in official responsibility has been undermined, deliberately, by the president and, perhaps accidentally, by Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes in his deployment, without legislative approval or oversight, of a statewide surveillance network that nobody asked for.

The leaders who would bring us to safety owe us honesty, transparency and the admission that neither they nor the experts they rely on are infallible. And we should take their advice, not because they rule us, but because we are, supposedly, smart enough to rule ourselves.

George Pyle

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, isn’t coming out of his hiding place until Halloween. You’re welcome.


Twitter, @debatestate