Dear Action Line: What gives regarding the disregard some folks feel about wearing masks to reduce COVID-19 transmission in their communities? Is it really a fear of losing some constitutionally guaranteed right? I understand and appreciate freedom of speech, religion, etc., but when did freedom of selfish jerkiness become a cherished American right? And by the way, WWJD? What would James Madison, the “father” of the Constitution, do? – COVID scholar
Dear Scholar: Before calling it “The Bill of Rights,” James Madison had an alternate title: “The Freedom of Selfish Jerkiness. Why No One Can Ever Tell Americans Anything About Anything, Because They are God’s Chosen People. And You are Not. So There.”
Cooler heads prevailed, but Madison was pretty frustrated at the time and getting a bit punchy. First, he wrote the guts of the Constitution, but people started complaining.
“Fine,” he said in a fit of pique, and wrote the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights. “You bunch of knuckleheads happy now?”
Of course, Americans being Americans, the answer was a resounding, “No. Don’t tell me what my rights are. I know what my rights are.” Then the Founding Fathers starting chanting, “U-S-A! U-S-A!”
Madison was dealing with this pushback because there was an implicit “freedom of selfish jerkiness” mentality among Americans that had been long established as a cherished American right; pretty much since Day 1, when the colonists landed in Jamestown, planted some flags and started sticking survey markers everywhere.
The Native Americans watching the action said, “Well. Shoot. This can’t be good. ... Bunch of selfish jerks.”
“Yeah, sorry about that!” said the colonists. “Can’t talk right now. Got a country to build!”
Not much has changed since colonial times, except Americans got a little jerkier after expanding through the West, and a bit cockier after dropping the atom bomb.
Eventually, we became frustrated after realizing we can’t continue to run around the world acting selfish, jerky and cocky because, dang it, everyone else wanted to do the same thing.
Now stupid COVID-19 is trying to tell us we what we can and cannot do. In classic American chutzpah, the response had been for half of the country to deny science and facts, and the other half to support policies that will put everyone out of work and then starve to death. In the middle are elected officials trying their best to make heads or tails of the situation.
This is nothing new. Madison was alive during the 1793 yellow fever epidemic and as an elected official would sympathize with your frustration. He would understand the confused and sometimes contradictory responses among various governmental entities when it comes to slowing the spread of a viral disease.
He would empathize with people who believe there is a collective responsibility to not spread disease willy nilly, so they wear a mask and socially distance. He would also understand the frustrations of people who instead put a premium on individual actions, and believe the responsible thing is for people who are sick to simply stay home, thank you very much.
Both sides have some merit, but in the end, Madison would say the best solution to managing COVID-19 is ultimately found in government and policies set through representative democracy. If for no other reasons than to protect us from the baser impulses.
“If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51. Years later he would write that although this necessity may be a misfortune given our tendencies, “the problem to be solved is, not what form of government is perfect, but which of the forms is least imperfect.”
As flawed as those efforts may be, governmental policies, enacted within reason, are ultimately what keep the republic together, Madison would say.
Despite our penchant for being selfish, or jerks.
Email questions to email@example.com or mail them to Action Line, The Durango Herald, 1275 Main Ave., Durango, CO 81301. Action Line believes everyone should wear a mask to help slow the spread of COVID-19, but make a really big deal about it and whine a lot while doing so.