The Right to be Free? Or the Right to be Safe?

Twice when I’ve gone to the grocery store, there is someone in front of me in line–a man–who refuses to wear his mask until he enters the store. I live in a region of the country that is a hotbed of Covid-19, and in my county now, the curve is still rising slightly and not yet flattened. My county requires by law that people wear a mask when they are anywhere in public, with the exception of when they are walking outdoors if there is adequate social distancing. I cannot comprehend why these individuals refuse to do that, even when I politely remind them that it is the law, and why Trader Joe’s takes a cavalier attitude to enforcing it outside. Even inside the store, I have seen women wearing a mask covering only their mouths, not their noses. Needless to say, it makes me livid.

The American ethos is all about freedom, a misguided notion of freedom at all costs. Conservatives and lawless right wing renegades react violently to any discussion of regulation of social behavior. Most of them probably have no idea that in most other parts of the world, people are more highly regulated and in the industrialized West, they are no less free than we are. These foolish, emotion-driven people jump to conclusions with their black-and-white thinking, assuming America will become a Stalinist regime if anyone does anything to curb their liberty. Just look at some of the incidents in the past couple of months: protesters storming the Capitol in Lansing, Michigan and other capitals, kids flocking to Florida beaches for spring break, people flaunting authority and holding parties.

But how about the right to be safe? Why do we never discuss this in America? I would argue that it is due to two things: the lack of a collective mentality/extreme individualism, and because less “aggressive” human rights or more “feminine” and well-being values are not supported in our country. Consider the following:

-During our Covid-19 pandemic/crisis, many governments have not taken strict enough measures for fear of retaliation by their constituents. Yes, there are economic concerns which are very grave. But the longer term dangers to our economy will be a pandemic that continues and/or surges. Also, many politicians have no scientific knowledge whatsoever or are poorly informed. Granted, a number of restrictions could indeed slowly be lifted if people were very diligent and responsible, good about obeying the laws. But I would even go so far as to argue that even during shelter in place, many people have not observed the rules. This kind of arrogant, short-sighted flaunting of the laws can be seen on both right and the left. Some of the educated wealthy people on the left law think does not apply to them, that they are educated and they know better. This is sheer arrogance and entitlement and a disservice to society as a whole.
-Our lack of gun control. Go ahead, cite the Second Amendment about the right to bear arms. Cite the fact that there is violence and we need to defend ourselves, our families, our spouses, our children. Tell me that you are a responsible gun owner, and that you only use your guns for hunting, in which case I would accept your argument as legitimate, though I personally condemn hunting as an animal-loving vegetarian.
But look at the statistics about gun violence in America, And consider the fact that we actually have MORE GUNS THAN PEOPLE in America. Our gun ownership far surpasses that of any other country, including countries that are three times larger than us: India and China. Why should I be concerned for my life just because you are an individual who lives in foolish fear and feels the need to bear arms? How do I know that, if I honk at you when you cut me off on the freeway, you aren’t going to shoot me? Why should I and millions of other educators and students have to read a plaque on the wall of our institutions that give us instructions on what to do if there is an active shooter, along with taking shelter for tornadoes? How many more innocent lives–many of them children–need to be taken by an angry, mentally unstable individual who has gotten a hold of assault weapons? As long as we have the NRA, and our shamelessly unethical politicians who are supported by them, we have no hope for gun control. and our daily lives continue to be potentially harmful instead of safe. And the recent protests have shown how a particular group of people has sadly borne the brunt of gun violence.
-Our lack of universal healthcare. Will we become North Korea if we provide some sort of government-sponsored healthcare for everyone? Does anyone enjoy paying thousands of dollars for procedures that are sometimes inflated due to high malpractice insurance? Or like being in debt for years? Or perhaps you prefer not seeing a doctor, though you are suffering from a serious ailment, and perhaps would rather die? As long as we have this mentality in America (that makes us the laughingstock of the industrialized world) that we need to have the freedom to choose who provides us healthcare, or whether or not we even must have healthcare, no one can live in safe health and freedom from worry about the exorbitant costs. and this impacts people of low socioeconomic status even harder.
-Our disparate educational system. I find it extremely perverse that the quality of a Public school is contingent upon on the wealth of the neighborhood. The fact that people can even vote on whether or not to give money to schools is beyond my comprehension. I understand their criticisms, that school boards may mismanage or mis-spend funds. that it is the efficacy of the funding, not the amount. These are important points, and I don’t deny that there is systemic mismanagement. But to leave education in the hands of people who have no consensus as to what is important, who hold a very Republican perspective on education that claims that other social institutions are more important is completely foolish. And it costs more us in the end.
Children have a right to quality, safe school environments where they are educated, fed properly, and assessed fairly. Teachers have a right to strong resources, supportive administrations and governments, and a classroom free from violence and misbehavior. The burden on our educators is too overwhelming–they must play the role of teacher, social worker, babysitter, psychologist, behavioral expert, parental figure, and more.

Our society favors individualism and freedom to a degree that is near-pathological. Look at countries where there is a high degree of social welfare and government assistance and regulation such as Iceland, Germany, France, South Korea, New Zealand. Even our culturally-similar neighbor, Canada. In none of those countries would you say people lack freedom, that they don’t have the right to protest, that they don’t have free speech, religion–any basic human rights we expect in the developed world. And they all have prosperous economies. We have got to put an end to our fear-based mentality in our culture that says, “If I can’t have everything be 100% free and how I want it, then we are all trapped in a totalitarian regime.” And then we must create social policies and laws with common sense. People overseas often regard Americans as “the teenagers of the world,” people who can’t bear to have any rules and will act out if any are imposed. And just like a parent might tell a teenager, I would conclude by saying, “Let’s leave a good impression of ourselves on other people and learn how to behave properly.”

Black Lives Don’t Matter Enough

There was supposed to be a different post today, but I feel compelled to write on recent events. I do not in any way consider myself an authority on the current situation; I can only bring an awareness to what I see and perceive as a writer.

Like so many of you, I feel absolutely horrified and saddened beyond belief with the killing of George Floyd. We don’t need *yet another* incident of police brutality. Imagine, for those of us who are not black, if we hear a rattle at the door and suspect a thief, we call the police, feeling safe and trusting enough to do so. Imagine if you are a black person, especially a man, and you did the same thing–you might get arrested for being in your own home, or even killed.

Look at the intersection of trust and race. I belong to a minority group that is considered the “most successful” group in the United States: we have CEOs, Pulitzer Prize winners, Ivy League professors, and a handful of nationally-known entertainers–not to mention your garden variety of doctors, scientists, and IT professionals! Though I have indeed experienced racism and discrimination (in one case so badly that I had to leave a graduate program, but then eventually so did three other white students in my cohort), I can generally trust that the institutions in American society are going to work to help me. While people may have trouble pronouncing my name, my name and my type of American accent are likely not going to prevent me from being able to rent an apartment. If I go up to a police officer and say that I saw an abandoned, full backpack or suitcase next to a building, they will take me seriously and investigate it.

But imagine if this is not the case. Imagine you cannot trust the institutions in your society to support you. Imagine that there are people who still hold subtle prejudices against your ethnic group, or, more innocently, who may be a bit dismissive of your concerns. Sure, they might not use the N-word, nor would they condone the KKK or white supremacist protesters holding a noose. Yet they might say that “you’re complaining too much,” or “all lives matter.” But just because someone is tired of hearing something, or finds certain things repetitive does not mean the problem is over. Just because you as an individual have absolutely no discrimination against black people and treat them as equals–which is an admirable and necessary thing–does not mean that discrimination against black people does not exist. Just because individuals do not discriminate does not mean that institutions do not.

I do empathize and understand where these people are coming from. I also agree that they often see too much violence and a need for more personal responsibility in the communities they criticize. I do not, personally, agree with the horrifying violence that has been going on in response. Violence only escalates negative situations and accomplishes very little other than destruction. I read a Detroit Free Press article about protests in Detroit that turned violent, and many of the violent individuals were actually white protesters from the suburbs. These are not helpful allies.

From a Buddhist point of view, one could say that the policemen who commit these horrific acts of violence against black people are not at peace with themselves. They lack empathy, they have serious issues with anger, and they have likely not been exposed to positive figures in the black community. They are often repeatedly thrown in situations where their own lives feel threatened, and the people who are threatening them are of an entirely different race and cultural background they are not comfortable with. They overreact to situations which require law enforcement, but not violence (George Floyd was using a counterfeit $20 bill, which was indeed an illegal act, but minor). I am aware that there have been programs with mindfulness training on police forces, but when the fire of anger is stoked, when there are biochemical forces at work, when racist feelings are hardwired into the reptilian brain, and lethal weapons are involved, this seems like a recipe for disaster.

We hear so frequently about black criminals, and yet we laud people like Julian Assange (who is no honorable freedom fighter but really an asocial criminal mastermind), law-dismissing Mark Zuckerberg (always in glossy magazine articles entitled something like “Thirty Billionaires Under 30”), and asshole-in-chief Jeff Bezos who doesn’t pay his corporate taxes. Why aren’t these people equally condemned? Why is white-collar so soft and under the radar? Why is being a sociopath in a suit or a hoodie acceptable?

We need to teach people, from the time they are very young, about differences. We need to expose children to others of all backgrounds. This is a huge challenge in the United States where we have such demographic variety and enormous distances. We need to hold our media accountable to the images and stories they feature, especially when it relates to certain ethnic groups. We need to socialize men–and women–so that they learn how to deal with anger in constructive ways (domestic violence cuts across all classes and backgrounds). Gun control is an urgent necessity, though the majority of us are powerless next to the gun lobby. We also need to study philosophy and understand why we have laws, study sociology and understand why and how we need to regulate human behavior.

Most of all, we really need to encourage everyone to develop empathy, to see beyond our own little narrow selves, and to really listen to what other people have to say, even when it’s uncomfortable.