There are many ironies and contradictions in the various government reactions to the Wuhan virus, some quite yummy, like the municipalities that had banned plastic bags that are now forced to ban the re-usable kind, and demand the use of the plastic once again. Some day, when this is all over, we can sit around and laugh about it all.
This development, however, is not funny: a frightening number of governors, mayors and police officers have demonstrated how much of our democracy is currently entrusted to nascent totalitarians. I know, I know: to protect the public in a unique crisis, extraordinary measures must be taken, and because so many in our democracy don’t really possess the intelligence and sense of social responsibility that the Founders, in their idealistic fervor, decided to pretend they had (much less the common sense of the average meerkat), sometimes those measures must be accompanied by the force of law. However, because it is a democracy and one that begins with wariness of governments infringing on personal liberties, and will end with our governments being supported when they decided those liberties can be ignored on a whim and a hunch, the recent gusto with which elected officials and their police forces have felt justified in crushing those liberties are warnings that responsible citizens must not let go unpunished. I wrote about one example here, regarding Vermont’s governor’s move to stop the big box stores from selling items Maple Syrup big Brother considers “non-essential.” There are more.
Ethics Alarms already covered the father taken away in handcuffs for playing T-ball on on otherwise empty field with his wife and 6-year-old child, but the Philadephia police pulling people off buses for not wearing masks, or the aspiring fascist officer who tried to chase down single jogger on an empty beach initially escaped my attention. There are so many examples, you see.
Occasionally the courts have stepped in, though not nearly occasionally enough, (I think I’ll inject my “Where is the ACLU?” line now.) Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer—Guess what party?—issued an order last week prohibiting churches from gathering for Easter services even if congregants remained in their cars for a “drive-in” service.
“We’re saying no church worshiping,” the mayor decreed. Before Easter, however, U.S. District Judge Justin Walker rebuked the mayor, and granted a local Louisville church, On Fire Christian Center, a temporary restraining order allowing the church and presumably others to hold modified Easter gatherings.
“On Holy Thursday, an American mayor criminalized the communal celebration of Easter. That sentence is one that this Court never expected to see outside the pages of a dystopian novel, or perhaps the pages of The Onion,” Walker wrote. “But two days ago, citing the need for social distancing during the current pandemic, Louisville’s Mayor Greg Fischer ordered Christians not to attend Sunday services, even if they remained in their cars to worship — and even though it’s Easter. The Mayor’s decision is stunning. And it is, ‘beyond all reason,’ unconstitutional.”
Well, of course it was. The question would be too easy for a 5th grade civics test, so why didn’t the mayor’s ethics alarms, never mind his First Amendment alarms, ring before he made such an offensive decision? What about his aides? What about law enforcement, none of whom appears to have cautioned him, “Sir, we can’t ticket people who stay in their cars”?
Think about why.
I should also mention that Walker is one of those horrible conservative judges that President Trump appointed and Kentucky’s own Mitch McConnell has fast-tracked to the bench. We have been told that these judges are part of the plot to take away Americans’ rights. More irony.
Nevertheless, two churches in Greenville, Mississippi were holding drive-in services for Holy Week when police showed up and ordered churchgoers to leave or face a $500 fine. The city’s mayor, Erick Simmons, defended the ban by arguing that people might get out of their cars to use the bathroom. Yes, he really did. Also banning drive-in worship services were the 10-county area in south central Georgia (south and east of Macon), and Riverside County in southern California, though that one allowed an exception for Easter weekend–which makes no sense whatsoever. Democratic Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak issued a stay-at-home order on the Wednesday of Holy Week that specifically banned drive-in services.
Then we have Michigan governor Gretchen Witmer, who has been prominently mentioned as a possible running mate for Joe Biden.
As part of her ongoing impression of the revolutionary leader in Wood Allen’s “Bananas,” who declares upon seizing the presidency that the language of the small South American country is officially Swedish, Whitmer has decreed what items are and are not “essential” and what stores can and cannot sell as part of her totalitarian order issued last week.
Among the banned products are fruit and vegetable plants and seeds. Lottery tickets, on the other hand, are still permitted, because addicting citizens to gambling for the benefit of the state is essential. Paint, flooring, garden centers and furniture are also considered non-essential, so you can’t buy them either in Michigan. Nor can you buy car seats for children. Why? Because the Governor says so, that’s why!
Governor Whitmer also banned Michiganders from traveling “between residences” if they own a cottage or a summer home. For some reason, the ban only applies to Michigan residents, so an out-of-stater with a cottage could presumably still visit. The ban also still allows travel between states, so if a Michigander has a cottage in Wisconsin he can travel there without being arrested or fined by state police.
The officials who show their true colors in this crisis—and I’m not the only one taking down names—have signaled that they can’t be trusted, and neither can their enablers and apologists. As David Harsanyi wrote today, “[A]uthoritarianism isn’t defined as ‘strict obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom except when there is a pandemic.’ Your declarative sentences and forceful feelings do not transform the meaning of either authoritarianism or freedom. Though if we dump our principles every time there’s a crisis, they might as well.”