November 4, 2014

Ebola and the liberal mind

I work and live among conservatives. Broadly speaking, I am a conservative, though personally I try to avoid labels. It is obvious to me, in speaking to conservative coworkers and friends, that they often find the liberal mind incomprehensible. They watch some snippet from a White House press conference, or see some liberal talking head on a news show – and they simply can’t believe what they are hearing. Having spent more than half of my life on the left, I am less confused – though sometimes no less amazed. Let me see if I can throw a little light upon the darkness of their response to the ebola crisis for my new brethren.

Conservatives and liberals see the ebola epidemic very differently. Most conservatives believe that the first duty of government is to protect its citizens from external threats, so either an executive order or an act of congress should stop airline flights from the afflicted areas of west Africa immediately. Or, alternatively, people whose flights originated in west Africa should be quarantined for the incubation period of the disease – about three weeks. Liberals, on the other hand, are generally opposed to stopping the flights and some are even nervous about the idea of passenger quarantine. Considering that we are talking about an extremely lethal disease that has never reached pandemic levels before, against which we have no immunity and no available vaccine or treatment, their position seems reckless – to say the least. I believe it is reckless, but it is not random, and it is not inconsistent with major aspects of the liberal worldview.

The first thing one needs to understand is that the liberal worldview is an internationalist one. Where a conservative loves his or her country, the leftist tends to consider national self-interest a dirty, backward idea. We are all just people in one big potentially happy global village, as the liberal sees it. If a liberal is committed to the idea that patriotism and borders are backward notions we need to discard, then the person dying in Liberia has as much right to access American healthcare as any US citizen. The idea of citizenship itself is rather suspect for the liberal mind. To be a citizen of the United States is to be granted special rights and privileges. To the liberal, special rights and privileges are things that should be apportioned to minorities to redress the injustices of history, but should not be granted on the basis of mere citizenship. Their ideal is a sort of global equality of all persons under an enlightened leadership of experts with appropriate credentials. To spare the US its share of a plague seems unfair to a liberal, at least at this stage – when none of his neighbors have actually died from the disease.

A second reason liberals tend to oppose a stoppage of travel or a quarantine is that both measures, in this case, would burden non-whites almost exclusively. True racism is a pretty ugly thing, but the bar required to raise a charge of racism these days is basically to make any non-white person feel bad. At this moment of our history, making a non-white person feel bad is the worst thing that a government could conceivably do. It preempts discussion. It cannot be submitted to any sort of benefit-risk analysis. Functionally, we have reached the point where risking the lives of 300 million Americans (including the 80 million non-whites) is more acceptable to many than inconveniencing a few thousand west African travelers. We aren’t talking about genocide here, or even about something as harsh as Japanese internment in WW2. We are talking about a 3-week quarantine for a few thousand people. But, for the left, it runs against a core belief. It’s just unthinkable.

The problem of the left has never been a shortage of high and noble aspirations. Their problem has usually been one of measuring their ideals against the realities of the world. If it sounds nice – it is nice. Unfortunately, when principle preempts reality, the path to their utopian vision detours headlong into the abyss. With ebola, we have the starkest of all possible examples. It is stunning to watch White House and CDC spokesmen tell us not to worry – ebola will never come here. And then when it arrived – don’t worry, it will never spread. And now, as we have more cases – brace yourselves, we are going to have to consider our strategy. They do not seem to grasp that the disease will not be diverted by getting the messaging just right.

In the end, conservatives have a notion of what the world they would like to hold on to looks like. That notion involves, among other things, keeping a set of national borders around a fairly varied group of people who share enough common values to be called “citizens”. At an even more basic level, it involves themselves and their children remaining alive. Liberals, on the other hand, are wedded to the idea that change will almost always make things better. They believe that the prosperity and relative safety they have enjoyed is a condition of nature – not a hard-won product of vigilance and difficult decisions. They cannot really conceive of a threat that cannot be placated with a nice apology or suppressed with a new law.

1 comment:

  1. Team Red wishes to protect the motherland against a foreign threat by tightening the border.

    Team Blue wishes to protect the feelings (and, incidentally, the freedoms) of foreigners and travelers by maintaining the status quo.

    Which team is asking "What does the evidence show about the risk of harm?" and "How effectively would proposed methods reduce risk?"

    The fact that dying of a horrible disease is more serious than having one's feelings hurt does not make either team right.