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Killing parents in bad faith
How historians will remember this pandemic
Ever since I heard a certain story last spring, I have been turning over in my mind what it means to kill your parents in bad faith.
An employee at a medical facility was describing what it was like to work under covid conditions. The staff was masked, and the residents were supposed to be masked. Guests were supposed to be masked as well, and to keep a distance between themselves and the people they visited. Some visitors ignored those rules, going unmasked around the barrier and then having long conversations with their parents. In more than one case, the aged parent, visited chiefly or only by family, caught covid and died. And in more than one case, the younger relatives insisted that the diagnosis was wrong, because there was no such thing as covid, because it was all a hoax, and so on. They screamed at the staff members who had tried to persuade them to take care.
When liberals hear that people think that covid is a hoax, their reflex is to invoke irrationality: How can they be so stupid? How can they not believe in science? When we go down that well-worn path, we are congratulating ourselves on being more intelligent than other people. And we err; we miss the essence of what is going on. When we ascribe the lethal behavior of others to stupidity, we are giving them a pass on their motives.
Perhaps the people who do not wear masks and do not keep a distance know what they are doing. Perhaps, at a certain level, they do understand the risk of death they spread. A young or a middle-aged adult is indeed very much less likely to die of covid than an elderly parent. If we set morality aside, the actions of an unmasked young or middle-aged person who visits an elderly parent make perfect sense. Killing the parent can mean inheriting the wealth. It can also remove the cost of caring for seniors, one that Americans (unlike people in other rich democracies) have to bear almost entirely by themselves. To a certain way of thinking, one that seems widespread in this country, acting to gain wealth or cut costs is the essence of rationality.
To be sure, few people would speak like this about what they were doing. And it is for precisely this reason, I suspect, that we get all the fuss and bother about covid not really existing, or covid not really being dangerous, etc. If you can convince others that you think that covid is not real or not dangerous, then they will not think that you deliberately tried to kill your parents. They might believe that, in your ignorance, you recklessly endangered the lives of your loved ones; but it will not occur to them that you were aiming for parricide.
A performance of stupidity is like an alibi. It also becomes a rationalization for those whose actions have led to the deaths of their parents. Generally people make a lot of fuss and bother about something not primarily because they are trying to convince others, but because they are trying to convince themselves. And it is hard not to notice that the people who claim to disbelieve the science of covid are the ones making an awful lot of fuss and bother. But if all of this is in bad faith, as I suspect it is, it just makes matters worse.
If we give people credit for intelligence, our regional and partisan politics around covid would also make more sense. There can be no doubt that Republican governors and legislators in the southeast (and elsewhere) who slow walk vaccination campaigns or try to prevent mask mandates know exactly what they are doing. Again, liberals react to such behavior by shaking their heads and wondering aloud how these politicians can be so backward. But since Republican politicians are smart enough to control all of the state legislatures in the southeast, not to mention the majority of statehouses around the country, explaining their behavior through stupidity just doesn't work. The more plausible explanation is that they understand the wish of their constituents to recast conservatism as survival of the fittest.
Again, it would be unthinkable to make elder cleansing an explicit policy, and so the people who enact deadly measures talk instead about freedom. This is a terrible argument, for any number of reasons. I might be free to incubate a virus in my lungs, but I am not free to pass it on to your lungs. I might be free to endanger my life, but I am not free to endanger yours. The measures enacted in Texas to ban mask mandates amount to the state telling businesses and schools what they cannot do. That is the opposite of what freedom is supposed to mean for conservatives.
The histrionics about freedom are just another alibi. They give people who are not Republicans something to debate, and courts something to consider, and so on. It allows Americans to think that Republican politicians actually care about some value, rather than being consciously engaged in a policy of generational harvesting.
The median net worth of people under 35 is about a twentieth of the median net worth of people over 75. The median net worth of people 35-44 is about one third of the median net worth of people over 75. So a grandchild or a child who brings about the death of an older person can expect an improvement in lifestyle. Adults under 44 are far less likely to die of covid than people over 75. So if the younger generations roll the dice, they win. Politicians who understand them transform their preferences into policy.
The concentration of wealth among the aged is, in some considerable part, a consequence of Republican policies that have slowed social mobility. People under forty-four have lived their lives in the America Reagan and his successors (Republican and Democratic) made, with stagnating wages, weakened unions, a crumbling welfare state, and limited hope for social advancement. American social mobility is weakest in the southeast, which is where covid has been at its worst, and where Republican politicians have worked hard to spread it.
Rather than offering a restoration of the American Dream, Donald Trump turned the attention of his supporters to the past, the time when America was great. He embodied a story of how wealth was to be gained not thanks to hard work, good values, and functional institutions, but thanks to what parents did in the past. A mask just gets in the way of the silver spoon. And now his supporters, logically, are extracting the wealth of their own parents.
We can hope that we are approaching the end of this epidemic. I suspect that historians, looking back, will be impressed neither by the fuss and bother about the reality of covid made by citizens, nor by the arguments about freedom made by politicians. I suspect that they will be impressed by the behavior, individual and collective, that leads to the transfer of wealth. I expect that the elder cleansing and the generational harvesting will be easier to see in retrospect.
For now, there is a lesson to learn. Patriotism is solidarity. We could have a different sort of wealth transfer, one organized by taxes on the wealthy that would allow opportunity for everyone and civilized care for the elderly. Instead we are getting a form of wealth transfer, at least in certain states controlled by Republicans, that is organized by death. The old saying goes that death and taxes are inevitable. It might be added that if you try to avoid taxes, killing becomes inevitable.