Tuesday, 21 April 2020

Restricting liberties

In parts of the USA, people are gathering in crowds with guns demanding an end to the lockdown, while the President encourages them in pursuit of his own re-election. Leaving aside the way in which the standard US response to most things seems to be ‘more guns’, it would be easier to understand the protests, to an extent at least, if they were because of the hardship that the lockdown is causing. One key difference which marks out the US is that it is a lot harsher on individuals who are unable to work than the UK, let alone the European mainstream. But that isn’t the protesters’ motivation – for them, this is about their inalienable right to ‘freedom’, including, apparently, the freedom to catch the virus. As one protester put it, “Even if the virus were 10 times as dangerous as it is, I still wouldn’t stay inside my home. I’d rather take the risk and be a free person”.
It raised a question in my mind, though: if they do get infected and die as a result of such gatherings, should the cause of death really be recorded as being COVID-19? Might not accidental suicide or even insanity be a better description? Or, given the way in which they’re being egged on by the man himself, maybe unlawful killing or even murder might be more appropriate? I’m not the first to suggest that charges of murder should be brought against politicians whose incompetence has increased the number of preventable deaths.
It isn’t really a matter for levity, of course, and the protesters have a point to the extent that actions being taken do indeed limit their ‘freedom’, although describing it as ‘house arrest for the healthy’ seems a bit extreme. There are those in the UK who feel the same way about the restrictions on freedom, although, fortunately, very few of them believe that the answer is more guns. Isn’t taking their own decisions about what level of risk to run at least a part of the reasoning of those who break restrictions? Putting it down to simple selfishness is a dismissive and judgemental response, which ignores and devalues alternative views.
There is always a balance when considering individual freedom; it can never be as absolute as the gun-toting protesters seem to be demanding. Extending an individual’s freedom in ways which potentially damage the lives or liberty of others crosses a line. That is, ultimately, why murder is considered a crime. Applying that principle – limiting the freedom of some to protect others – isn’t always straightforward, though; and it isn’t always obvious how one’s own behaviour might harm others. To use one recent example, if one person sunbathes in a park, it poses little risk to anyone else, but if thousands do so the risk increases rapidly. A decision which is risk-free to one individual who takes it becomes very risky if everyone else takes the same decision. The real issue isn’t the risk to those who decide to take it, even if they make that considered decision after carefully weighing up all the factors – it is the extent to which they have the right to pose a risk to others, including the health workers who would have to treat them.
I remain broadly supportive of the restrictions being imposed by governments, and that seems to be true for most people as things stand. I’m conscious, however, that there are valid concerns about the freedoms being lost – and deeply troubled about the way in which authoritarianism so readily takes root in people’s minds. Rational debate is not aided by governments – like that in the UK – which start from the assumption that weighing up arguments is too difficult for the plebs, who just need to be told what to do. Treating people like adults and explaining the choices is just one more area in which the UK could learn something from the German government. Democracy is about involvement and engagement, not just electing people to issue orders.


Pete said...

Individual freedoms versus individual and even collective responsibility is always a thorny question. Even more so in an individualistic society like the U.S.
You mention the protesters who have taken to the streets armed to the teeth. It should not escape notice that those crowds are all white. I can promise that the police response would be radically different if the protest was black men similarly armed. There was a time, beloved of the western movie makers, that everyone was free to walk around with a pistol strapped to their waste. After all, the constitution guarantees the right to own AND to bear arms. That was until the emancipation declaration. When ex slaves started walking around with guns, States began to rethink that "Right"
Unfortunately, right wing commentators like Rush Lumbaugh continue to tell audiences that the lockdown is unnecessary and is nothing more than the "Deep State" attempting to create the New World Order. It's more emotional than logical and in that sense inarguable.

Jonathan said...

No, Pete don't bring everything back to race. Race is used by Democrats a lot but it does not mean its fair to do so. Remember, the Confederate Army was happy to arm slaves by the end of the Civil War. What happened after that was that the Democrats in the South reacted and set up Jim Crow. But MLK basically converted the Southern Democrats and the US to a better way of thinking, which happened. KKK gone. Done deal for decades, unless you owe your position to polarising race. Just not correct that Trump is racist. There may be other things wrong with him but he's not racist, OK? In the US there is a genuine horror at and fear of the power, incompetence and corruption in Washington DC, in a vast and still lawless country. Which is why my wife and step-son, highly civilised people in North Carolina, a civilised place, value their guns. We don't need this in Wales. Welsh people need to realise that freedom is worth fighting for. We need to overturn taeogrwydd subservience which dates back to our conquest in 1282. Stand up in a Welsh way - like the Old Man of Pencader who used words to deal with a Tyrant, eloquent and brave and stood his ground when he felt he had to. Americans do remind us to value freedom. Do you value it Pete? Enough to use words in public against your rulers, like the Old Man? Careful, you might get mobbed on Twitter and 'cancelled'. Where do you draw your line, Pete?

John Dixon said...


I.m not going to intervene in a debate between you and Pete over US politics and history - both of you have much more direct and relevant knowledge and experience than I. But doesn't Pete's point that the police response to a protest by armed black people would be different from their response to a protest by armed white people have a certain ring of credibility to it?

Pete said...


I apologize for being so long in replying. Although I am in isolation I still am quite busy.
John's Portal is not the place for my CV but I feel obliged to point out that I have dual nationality, I am a Welsh speaking Welshman and a Spanish speaking American. For 25 years I worked for the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transport Authority. 15 years as a bus driver and 8 as a supervisor. As for speaking against my "Rulers" I recall many years ago when George Thomas MP was speaking in Neath, his words to me were "Young man, you must learn to disagree without being disagreeable." I am currently serving as the first Plaid Cymru Mayor of Pembrey and Burry Port.
On the subject of race: you cannot talk about American life without race being involved somewhere. My sons, educated in L.A. County told me that everyone is nice and friendly but when things go sideways, you are your skin. That is a fact of life, sad but true. A true but poignant statement was on television some years ago. Three young women had been kidnapped and held prisoner for three years. One of them was trying to escape and called out to a passing man for help. He called the police and the women were freed. His statement to the reporter was "When a pretty little white girl asks a black man for help, you know something bad is going down."
As for Wales, hopefully we can prevent our rulers doing to us what they did in America, where they replaced the class war with a race war. We must be prepared to fight for our freedom while accepting anyone, from wherever, who make Wales their home and their nation.

Mae'n ddrwg gen i John, Dwy'n siwr mae'n rhy hir.