About Freedom and, um, Responsibility

Just a few weeks ago I was hoping to cross Montezuma Street near Willis, so I punched the pedestrian “beg button” (with my elbow) and waited.

Eventually the light changed and the running white guy lit up as my go-ahead. I stepped off the curb briskly, only to be startled by angry honking. I looked around to see a huge SUV barely a foot away from me, the driver honking and yelling that she had the green light. I paused. Isn’t it a given that the pedestrian has the right of way? I thought I might point this out to her, but considered how she had a three-ton death machine aimed at me and I had only my sneakers.

I might have let the incident slide — just another cranky driver having a bad day — except a similar event occurred barely a week later. Crossing Gurley at Marina, another SUV floored it when the light changed. A truck driver, sitting at the light, laid on his horn in alarm. I had to jump out of the way. The driver never slowed down. What do we really value in our society? Do we understand cause and effect? Do we appreciate the responsibility each of us holds?

I’m talking about a new-found “freedom” from personal protection measures. We’ve had little time to study the new coronavirus, so we don’t yet know much about it — except that it is highly contagious and potentially deadly, especially to the vulnerable. We have only guesswork for treatment, and inadequate testing. The one thing we do know is that social distancing, a good face mask and frequent hand-washing or gloves at least slow down transmission. So maybe this is a sensible path to follow?

But no. The whole idea, backed by real science, has been sucked down into the surreal politics of our time. Lockdown was extreme, and havoc to the economy, but it seems to have achieved its desired effect: to prevent a tsunami. We’d all like to see the economy — and society — get back to functioning. And we can probably do that, with a bit of caution and an understanding that these circumstances are unprecedented. Like most aspects of life, we can’t go backward. What worked before may not work now.

This includes arguments about “freedom.” That word has been so abused in recent years, in the echo chambers of media, that it has become an incitement to violence. It has reduced freedom to the tantrum of a two-year-old thwarted from putting a screwdriver into an electrical outlet. There’s rarely any accompanying discussion of responsibility to the common good, to the community that makes freedom a practical reality.

Funny thing is, we compromise our freedom all the time. We understand when fires are banned in the forest during high-risk alerts, and know that those who ignore it are jerks. Hunting and fishing seasons are defined so that wildlife can replenish. If a restaurant is closed for unsanitary conditions, customers are grateful, even if the owner feels put upon. And if the light is green, most of us understand that we have to share the road.

It’s tiresome to be asked about similarities between the Covid-19 and AIDS pandemics, but there are some valid points to be made about human behavior. Freedom was a big issue then, too. Little more than a decade after Stonewall, some gay men felt it was a ploy to limit their hard-won sexual freedom, and denounced precautions. Likely thousands died because of that conclusion. There was plenty of denial, too, as we constructed elaborate delusions about why we wouldn’t be infected. Many learned the hard way. And of course, talk was rife with bizarre conspiracy theories. “Did you know the Pope put the virus into a case of poppers and shipped it to Fire Island?”

With AIDS it took more than three years before a reliable test was available. That’s a long time to live with the idea that you could be a carrier, but not knowing for sure. The only sensible response for gay men was to assume that every gay man carried the virus — even as those who hated us used the same assumption to punish or corral us. We took on that responsibility willingly, even at the cost of our sexual freedom. We took precautions, for ourselves and for each other. That alone slowed contagion and saved lives.

As it happened, I was in New York in March, just as Covid-19 exploded. One day I could visit my 93-year-old mother in her nursing-home room; a few days later I could only see her through thick glass. In her 80-bed facility there have been more than 30 infections among the residents. Almost half died. I watched the city close down. Healthy friends died.

The only thing more horrifying for me now is the complacency I see, here at home in Prescott. It could easily happen here, too. The numbers still rise, but I hear a lot of denial, not even the pretense of precautions. I hear parroted talk of freedom, but little about responsibility.

Don’t want to wear a face mask in crowds? I keep thinking about Ben Franklin’s words, after signing the Declaration of Independence: “We must all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

Ed Mickens is former managing editor of 5enses.

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