When freedom rings hollow
The renowned Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl (1905-1997) argued that freedom is not the “last word” in values and the ordering of human societies. Frankl stated freedom is only half the truth; the other half is responsibility. The just society will balance freedom and duty, liberty and responsibility. Without a commitment to responsibility, Frankl notes, freedom can easily degenerate into arbitrary and unreasoned behavior.
The COVID-19 pandemic is the latest instance of many Americans exercising constitutional “freedoms” while taking no responsibility for the consequences of their actions. For example, in early May when cases of COVID-19 were increasing dramatically, a New Jersey gym opened (carried live on “Fox & Friends”) in defiance of state shutdown orders. The gym owner stated, “We’re ready for whatever consequences come our way.” No mention of the consequences of the opening (and his responsibility) for other people — individuals who could be infected with COVID-19 by gym patrons who contracted the disease while working out.
In Texas, religious-based private schools are exempt from COVID-19 regulations — requiring masks, for example — as these rules are considered an unconstitutional assault on religious freedom. So much for government and religious (being “my brother’s keeper”) responsibility to the larger community. Praise the Lord and pass the Clorox.
Across the country, especially in conservative “red states,” many people refuse to wear face masks in public. A Florida man captured the essence of this resistance, stating, “Making individual decisions is the American way.” What he failed to consider are the consequences of these decisions and the responsibility of those who make them.
What about a decision to down a six-pack of beer then drive 100 miles an hour through a school zone? Certainly (hopefully) all but a handful of people would agree that “making individual decisions” does not include the “right” to engage in reckless, life-threatening behavior. And that’s exactly what refusing to wear a mask in public can be — life threatening. Dr. Jonathan Reiner, professor of medicine at George Washington University, stated that “Going out in public without a mask is like drunk driving. If you don’t get hurt, you might kill someone else.”
The lack of concern for the welfare of others during this pandemic is especially evident among Americans in their late teens to mid 30s who have gathered on beaches, in bars and parties without social distancing and wearing masks. When asked why they ignore these simple but effective health safety measures, the typical response is, “I’m not going to catch COVID-19, and if I do, I’m healthy enough to survive.” The realization that, if infected, they could pass the deadly disease to others appears beyond their reasoning capacity. Another explanation is more troubling. That is, young people simply don’t give a damn if they infect others; it’s not their problem. Freedom good — responsibility bad.
The “It’s my right to choose,” devoid-of-responsibility position is widespread, starting with a president who refused to wear a face mask in public until mid July (and stated adamantly in March that he took no responsibility for the spread of the virus), governors who gambled (and lost big-time) reopening their states for business, prematurely triggering a dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases, and law enforcement officers who refuse to enforce quarantine and mask-wearing directives.
The Marshall Project (an online journalism organization focusing on issues related to criminal justice in the United States) reported that at least 60 sheriffs in more than a dozen states have refused to enforce COVID-19 related directives. Regarding a face-mask order by Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee, a sheriff told a crowd, “Don’t be a sheep.” His meaning was clear: Wearing the mask is a personal decision, and you are not responsible for the consequences of that decision.
This position makes a (further) mockery of the “We’re all in this together” sentiment. It’s also highly insulting — and potentially life threatening — to everyone in the health system who will have to care for those needlessly infected by the “It’s not my responsibility” crowd.
The supreme emphasis on freedom and neglect of responsibility is all but hard-wired into the institutions and norms that define our society. Currently, 28 countries have compulsory military service, and four of those require women to serve. Because the United States is not one of them, when it comes to fighting and dying for “freedom,” the “responsibility” falls predominantly on the lower classes. According to one estimate, during the Vietnam War this country’s military forces were comprised overwhelmingly of poor (25%), working class (55%), and middle-class (20%) men and women. Very few troops (especially in combat units) came from the upper classes.
The United States also lacks compulsory non-military service. Former Marine Corps Commandant Charles Krulak recently proposed a “mandatory, two-year, paid national service program.” Krulak suggests this non-military program — administered by the states — “might include assistance for the homeless and military veterans, mentoring students in poorly performing schools, regional forces to improve responses to natural disasters …” This perspective is grounded in the belief that every citizen has a duty/responsibility to make this country better for all Americans.
The most egregious and damaging aspect of an “all freedom, no responsibility” ethos and practice is the creation of a post-World War II American economy with one of the most unequal distributions of income and wealth in the industrial world. Corporate America has outsourced well-paying jobs for decades while paying it employees in this country minimal salaries and slashing benefits.
As the likes of Jeff Bezos (the richest man in the world, with a net worth of $172 billion) and Bill Gates grow ever more wealthy, Forbes Magazine reports that 57 million American workers (36% of the labor force) are part of the gig economy — temporary and freelance contract workers rather than full-time employees. It’s hardly surprising that low-wage gig workers who can’t work from home have an especially high risk of contracting COVID-19.
No one doubts that individuals such as Bezos and Gates are highly intelligent and the enormous success they have realized is, in large measure, a product of their hard work and business acumen. What is overlooked, however, are the opportunities (freedoms) this country provides that allowed their talents to be fully expressed and turned into enormous wealth. But what now of responsibility (especially during this pandemic) on the part of the approximately 640 billionaires in this country? According to an analysis of Forbes data by Americans for Tax Fairness, the net worth of Americas billionaires increased from just under $3 trillion to just over $3.5 trillion between March 18 and June 17 of this year.
This intense desire for freedom (although not for slaves, Natives Americans and, to a lesser extent, women) was the driving force that created this nation. It would be a tragic irony if the over-indulgence of freedom at the expense of responsibility will one day destroy the country.
In 1946, Frankl recommended “the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.” The construction of the statue and adherence to its message are long overdue.
George J. Bryjak lives in Bloomingdale and is retired after 24 years of teaching sociology at the University of San Diego.
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