In this time of pandemic, it seems curiously appropriate to re-open a blog that began with books set during the Black Death. When the Lt. Governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, in pushing to relax guidelines about social distancing and reopen business, remarked that “There are more important things than living,” it got me thinking.
Many people were infuriated by this statement, because it implies that it’s okay if more people die as long as the economy goes on. But the statement itself hit me rather strangely because I’m a novelist. I write commercial fiction about vast conflicts, impending doom, and moral crisis, often involving larger-than-life characters. In many of the situations I write about, my task as a novelist is to convince the reader that there are, in fact, things worth dying for, and that the cause the hero fights for is one of them–the goal is so important that the hero is willing to risk their life to achieve it.
Right now, the people protesting in front of state houses across the country view themselves as this kind of hero. They are protesting restrictions in support of their freedom, a value they perceive as being more important than living. They proclaim themselves willing to take this risk in order to preserve the abstract value of freedom (I am setting aside people who simply don’t believe that the pandemic is even a problem. I’m not sure that level of ignorance is worthy of response.) For these freedom-loving Americans, restrictions on their freedom to assemble, to move around the countryside, to purchase guns, to state their claims, to preserve their livelihoods and support their families is more important than the potential risk to their lives. One recent protest sign stated, “I respect your right to quarantine, you should respect my right not to.”
These people likely identify with heroes like William Wallace, represented here by Mel Gibson, in the “Braveheart” film, who notoriously proclaimed, “You can take our lives, but you can never take our freedom.” This hero was a freedom-fighter from the early 14th century who stood up to the Man at the time, the forces of the English King Edward I. Today’s protestors similarly display their war colors, and I could see them adopting this same battle cry as they face the state governments who are imposing lockdowns and limitations. Like Wallace, they are willing to charge into battle and face the notorious English longbows, in the form of approbation and sometimes fines, to take a stand for freedom.
But this is the thing about heroes, in literature as well as in history. The choice they make to privilege an abstract value as more important than life itself is a choice they make for themselves. They are willing to risk THEIR OWN LIFE in support of that goal. Those who follow them are making that same choice, for themselves. The same is true of our armed forces, police officers, and others who willingly place themselves in harm’s way for a greater cause. Most people, if pressed, could name something they are willing to die for: their child, their spouse, an abstract value they truly hold dear.
People who refuse to follow social distancing guidelines, wear masks or respect business closure rules are making this choice not only for themselves, but for everyone they meet. They are risking their own lives, yes, in support of freedom. But they are also risking the lives of their families, children, spouses, parents, care-givers, health care workers, grocery store employees, delivery drivers, and all other essential personnel, and employees who really have no choice but to be present and working. All of us who need groceries, health care, and other essential services, must sometimes enter the public sphere–hopefully while observing all the advised precautions, and also expressing our support and gratitude for the people who serve us during those occasions. Unlike soldiers, grocery store workers did not sign up to place their lives at risk, nor are they getting combat pay for doing so.
Right now, we don’t know everything there is to know about this virus. Epidemiologists suspect that somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of people are asymptomatic carriers (studies so far range from 17% from testing on a cruise ship, to 50% from a lab in Iceland): They are spreading the virus around without even knowing it because they feel perfectly fine, have no fever or other sign of sickness.
That means many of those folks who think they don’t have it already do, and the people pointing out that they don’t have an outbreak in their area, probably do or will have one shortly. Many people who have had the virus are recovering. Low testing rates and that high percentage of asymptomatic carriers mean that the actual survival rate is probably much higher than we currently think–and also that the disease is spreading much further and faster than we are aware. Thousands of people are still getting gravely ill, suffering permanent damage, and dying. Some of them are older or have underlying conditions. Some of them didn’t know they had underlying conditions until they caught the virus–and some of them were perfectly healthy younger adults, until they had a stroke and died as a result of a virus they didn’t know they were carrying.
Imagine that prototypical fictional or historical hero, like William Wallace, proclaiming himself standing up for freedom and striding out to face the enemy–but instead of attacking him, this invisible enemy, the virus, follows him everywhere he goes. The enemy attacks his employees or co-workers. The enemy attacks his family. The enemy attacks the friends he’s been longing to see. The enemy attacks his server and fellow patrons at the restaurant he was excited to visit. The enemy attacks his co-religionists at the service he’s eager to attend. This person who believes himself a hero, a freedom-fighter, is targeting dozens, hundreds, thousands of innocent people for possible sickness, suffering, and even death.
A hero stands up for what they believe in, and is willing to risk their own life for that value. A hero seeks to minimize the risks to innocent people. Someone who deliberately exposes themselves to a threat which they then pass along to so many others is no hero.
Are there things more important than living? Yes, but what those things are are is a decision that each person needs to make. A protester has the right to a wide variety of freedoms, most of which can be expressed and experienced without violating the guidelines, if perhaps in a different form. A protester has no right to demand that their freedom take precedence over the lives of everyone around them. Those who fight against guidelines that are protecting thousands, or millions of innocent people, are no heroes.