When you run a small New England town, as I have for the last year or so, you find yourself doing things you didn’t imagine when you took the job of First Selectman: directing traffic while a local road is paved (as highway supervisor); signing death warrants for trees (as tree warden) and deeds for burial plots (as cemetery sexton). And, as of June 2020, enforcing the Sector Rules, the various regulations promulgated by the state to guide the reopening of the economy.
There are not very many businesses in Scotland, CT (pop. 1,680): a sawmill, a car repair garage, a chainsaw shop, a couple of trucking operations, and, in the old general store, Scotland Spirits, sellers of wine, beer, and liquor, along with a few local crafts and food items. It’s run by Barbara, a stocky and strong-headed woman who was not happy when I told her that she was supposed to put up Plexiglass barriers and make her customers and employees wear masks. I suggested that it would be in her best interests, and those of the community, to follow the rules, that even though we had yet to record our first case in town and no one seemed to know anyone who was sick, our good luck was sure to run out at some point. And I alerted her to the online survey that she could fill out so the state would provide her with a badge to hang in her window certifying the store’s compliance in order to reassure wary customers.
“I don’t need a badge. I have a badge. And a gun,” she said. “Which I always carry.” I think that by “badge,” she meant gun permit, the signing of which is another of my duties. But I was distracted from that question by what she said next. “He’s taking this thing way too far,” she said, meaning the governor. “It’s like Germany in 1942.”
Scotland, like many rural towns, is full of the salt-of-the-earth, Limbaugh-loving, nanny-state-hating white folks who sent Donald Trump to the White House (518-310 was the 2016 score), but even so the comparison surprised me. Not that I hadn’t had Germany in mind over the last four years, but more the 1933 version, when Auschwitz was just a twinkle in Karl Bischoff’s eye and Nazi intentions to rid the country of undesirables still on the DL. But I take Godwin’s Law as admonitory, warning us to resist the metonymic pull of Holocaust lest the word lose its horror by standing in for argument about any dispute. Plus, I never thought of someone like Barb as the target of those early stirrings, let alone of what came later. If anyone was going to be getting herded into boxcars, it wasn’t going to be a sturdy, blond-headed, white Christian woman.
Call me weak, but I wasn’t going to give Barb a history lesson, or (as I confess I considered) suggest she ring up my father, whose family were wiped out in Hungary, to get the skinny on Germany in 1942. I just hung up. She never implemented the rules, and I did not enforce them—another weakness on my part. But while one of my titles is Chief of Police, that’s not a role I’m interested in, not even in the Andy Griffith sense, and not even when it comes to stopping a pandemic. It’s one thing I share with my fellow Scotlanders: the belief that people, left to figure things out for themselves, will come to the right conclusion.
A few hundred thousand dead people thrown into the volcano seems like a reasonable price to pay to keep the hot lava of penury at bay.
Or not. As that master of political philosophy, former senator from North Dakota Heidi Heitkamp, said recently, “People in this country don’t like being told what to do.” They also don’t like being judged, she continued, and the maskless feel judged by the masked—especially, one presumes, when the masked take them to task for their wanton disregard of reason, science, and the wellbeing of their neighbors. Which is the fly Covid injects into the libertarian ointment; sometimes we have to suffer inconvenience in order to take care of one another. After all, a rising virus can sink every ship.
Still, people in town have begun to wear masks, even into Barb’s store. And almost everyone wore them to the firehouse to vote the other day. They endorsed our Orange Julius Caesar (although by only a 131-vote margin this time), and they weren’t alone. Seventy-one million of my farther flung compatriots did the same, at which point it occurred to me that Barb was right about Germany in 1942. Not about masks being like yellow stars, or about a governor’s orders being like fascist edicts, but about the ability of a government to count on the support of a populace whose darkest wishes it proposes to make come true.
For who among us does not wish that Dr. Fauci is wrong and Dr. Atlas right? That if we just let Covid rip its way through the population and get it over with, the losses will be inconsiderable? Which is just another way of asking who among us is not in thrall to the economy, to its insatiable need for more labor, more production, more consumption? A few hundred thousand dead people thrown into the volcano seems like a reasonable price to pay to keep the hot lava of penury at bay. Especially when you consider who the sacrificed are: old people, sick people, poor people, people of color, people who work at Walmart, people who cannot get whisked by helicopter to the presidential suite at Walter Reed and given every treatment known to mankind—in short, the people upon whom Economy does not smile, and who evidently deserve their fate as surely as the unfortunate among the Calvinists who settled my town deserved theirs.
I don’t think Barb wants these people dead, just as I doubt your average German shopkeeper in 1942 wanted the Jews dead. She may not even know the demographics of Covid. On the other hand, every day that we walk around in masks is another day on which we let someone—or, more accurately, something: facts—tell us what to do, and that what we have to do is to protect each other from ourselves. Ridding the country of the evidence that the guiding principle of our social order—you do you and I do me—is unworkable, and that capital doesn’t give a rat’s ass about any of us, that it is—unmistakably in the case of the pandemic—a death march: the temptation is obvious. More proof, as if we needed it, that it is easier to imagine the end of the world, especially the end of other people’s worlds, than the end of capitalism.
And, unlike the Germans, no one has to actually do anything to cleanse the economy of those who reveal its flaws. No one has to force anyone into a train or turn on the gas or shovel out the bodies. Nor to think of themselves as moral actors at all by considering who will benefit: not the Barbs of the world, who, if she does get sick, will not have the advantages of a president or a corporado or the plutocrats seeking shelter on private islands or any of the others blessed extravagantly by the free market.
Like the rest of us, she will have to settle for just plain freedom, or at least the conviction that we are free so long as no one is telling us what to do. But we don’t have to be told. We already know. We don’t need no stinking boxcars, just the fealty that leaves us—or at least seventy-one million of us—free to tend our business while the herd is culled.