June 5, 2020

MEGAN MCARDLE: Thanks to the protests, social distancing is over.

In a few weeks, one of two things will have happened. Either covid-19 cases will abruptly reverse their decline in some of America’s largest cities, and we will know that they were seeded by the days of rage we are living through . . . or they won’t. Either way, social distancing is over.

In the happy scenario, the protests will have performed an enormous public service, even beyond agitating for justice. They are basically running a natural experiment that scientists could never have ethically undertaken: Do massive outside gatherings — including singing, chanting, screaming and coughing — spread covid-19, or not? Along with evidence from the Memorial Day weekend parties at Missouri’s Lake of the Ozarks, they may well demonstrate, once and for all, that the risk of spreading covid-19 outdoors is negligible. At which point, throw open the bar patios and backyard barbecues! Bring on the beach-blanket bingo! Move church pews into the parking lot and sing away!

Unfortunately, it’s also grimly plausible that in a few weeks we’ll see new outbreaks that will soon surge out of control, taking many American lives. Because we’ll never be able to lock down our cities again; once you’ve let the cat out of the bag, kitty won’t allow himself to be stuffed back in. . . .

First, as was pointed out when red states were protesting, you may have every right to risk your own death, but with infectious disease, protesters also risk killing other people, who might not have volunteered to die for your cause. Which brings us to the second caveat: In a diverse and highly pluralistic society, authorities don’t get to declare some causes worthy and others worthless. . . .

It may seem obvious to you that ending police brutality rises to a level of importance that, say, church services don’t. But the impossibility of rank-ordering competing ideas about what is “most important” is the reason liberal democracy had to be invented. If you were a religious believer, you might rank church higher; if you were about to lose your house unless your business reopened, you might put nail salons high up on the list.

As individuals, we can make those distinctions. But our authorities may not except on broadly neutral terms. Some public officials seem to imagine that if they can distinguish between selling food and offering Communion, they must also have the authority to make even finer distinctions: allowing people to exercise their First Amendment right to protest police brutality, while circumscribing their First Amendment right to worship in public. Legally, I doubt it, but I’m quite positive that courts won’t let governments distinguish between assembling to protest police brutality and assembling to protest public health policy.

One can, of course, argue that there’s a moral difference. But moral distinctions have no force outside the community that makes them. However satisfying it feels to call one sort of protest “suicidal,” “reckless” and “mind-bogglingly selfish,” while describing the other as a noble and necessary fight against injustice, this will not restrain the disdained. Indeed, the perceived hypocrisy will deafen them to anything said after that.

Yep. The public health experts had one shot, and they blew it. If deaths do result, they should be specifically blamed — and named — as grandma-killers. If deaths don’t result, they should be specifically blamed — and named — as business-killers. And they can’t hide behind neutral science because they abandoned neutral science for politics and preening within their own social circles

Which is a sub-case of why so many of our institutions, from the New York Times to NYC government to higher education and even sports, are failing: The people running them care more about mugging for their peers than about the welfare of the institutions they are entrusted. That’s a species of corruption, and a highly destructive one.

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