Protests and Coronavirus: Yet Another Case of False Equivalence

by Neil H. Buchanan

Given that the coronavirus pandemic has in no way ended -- indeed, cases are rising in many U.S. states, even during the time when they should be falling -- some people are understandably worried that the ongoing mass protests against racist police violence have possibly contributed to the spread of the virus.  I have the advantage of being able to cross the street when the rare pedestrian comes into view during my sanity-preserving walks, but I still want to return to something like normal.  I am concerned any time I see lack of social distancing.

That does not, however, in any way mean that protests against public health measures by right-wing groups carrying assault weapons are the same as protests by millions of citizens calling for racial justice.  Yet that equivalence is now being promoted by conservatives as an indirect way of criticizing progressive protesters.  When I first saw a column making this slippery argument a few days ago in The Washington Post by op-ed columnist Megan McArdle, I was annoyed but not surprised, considering the source.

McArdle's business model amounts to trivializing important issues, so it was hardly a shock to see her claiming that "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" (emphasis in original).

If one thinks about it, this is actually a pretty clever move.  One need not say anything about the content of the protests, meaning that a conservative does not have to defend systemic racism.  Instead, she merely says that different people have different priorities, and because moral differences are a matter of mere opinion, it is bad bad bad to try to suggest that one kind of protest is more defensible than another.

This is nonsense, but unlike McArdle's usual work, this one actually requires a bit of unpacking.  Again, however, I would not have thought it worth the time to do so until yesterday, when Post columnist Max Boot echoed the false equivalence even more bluntly.  This is now worth thinking about.

Boot is a NeverTrump conservative, which means that on policy grounds he and I would probably have had virtually no overlap whatsoever until about four years ago, when it turned out that our shared assumptions about constitutional democracy came under attack from Donald Trump and his Republican enablers.  Most NeverTrumpers end up reverting to their true colors, such as Jennifer Rubin's venomous attacks on Bernie Sanders (even as she has been absolutely great about other things), but Boot has stood out for being focused on the dangers to the nation of the Trump cult.

Even so, Boot wrote today:
"The president is planning to restart MAGA rallies this month, and the Republicans are moving their convention out of Charlotte because the Democratic governor of North Carolina resisted their demands for a mass gathering without masks or social distancing. This is outrageously irresponsible, but Trump critics who endorsed the Black Lives Matter demonstrations have little to say."
I am a Trump critic, and I endorse the BLM demonstrations.  And in fact, I have a lot to say.

As a starting point, there are the guns.  The right-wing militia groups who showed up at statehouses were very deliberately trying to intimidate and threaten people, especially including elected officials.  No matter the local or state laws or how one reads the Second Amendment, there is a difference between protesting peacefully and engaging in violence-threatening gatherings that -- thankfully -- never quite delivered on the violence.  "We just like to protest while armed" is a description, not an argument.

Whatever else I might have thought about the AstroTurf protests against the Affordable Care Act during the Obama years -- which included mobs of people yelling racist slurs at civil rights leaders and spitting at members of Congress -- those people were not in general showing up with military-style weapons and talking about the necessity of armed insurrection.

McArdle describes these right-wing protesters as "assembling to protest public health policy," which is a nice way to whitewash what was actually happening.  Their protest of public health policy amounted to saying that we cannot have a public health policy at all, because they are free to do whatever they want, no matter the consequences to anyone else.  The "but it's killing the economy" dodge is an especially poor excuse when the health of the economy is directly tied to public health policy, i.e., getting the virus under control.

The right-wing "liberate" protesters were saying that the government has no right to force them to do something in the interests of public health.  Their protests were, if successful, going to worsen public health and cause countless avoidable deaths, even as the economy staggered along while millions of people understandably continued to stay at home even when not required to do so by law.

By contrast, the BLM protests have been trying to address an issue other than public health -- or at least, a public health issue that is driven by systemic racism and not by a viral pandemic.  If such protests have had the unintended effect of expanding the spread of the virus, that means that people were given a choice between two bad options, and they (mostly wearing masks) made the decision that one scourge was worse than the other scourge.

Could someone frame the right-wing protests that way?  Sure, I guess they could say that the protesters felt so aggrieved that they had to mass at statehouses to wake up an unresponsive government.  But "I didn't get my way" is not always the same thing as "The government isn't listening to my voice."  Do BLM protesters have reason to think -- after decades and centuries of seeing black and brown citizens murdered and brutalized by their government -- that mass action was necessary?  Do white grievance protesters have similar reason to think that their government will not act in their interests to re-open the economy as soon as epidemiologists suggest that it is safe?  The idea that these are equivalent concerns is absurd.

Readers will note here that I am not addressing the question of what a court would say if any level of government tried to ban some protests and not others.  That is an interesting and important question, but it is not the question that McArdle and Boot actually raise (even though McArdle, who has no legal training, raises that as a side issue).

The issue here is those moral distinctions that McArdle waves away with a quick, "Oh, morality is in the eye of the beholder," while Boot says that anyone who supports the BLM protests has no standing on which to argue against any other kind of protest.  Moral relativism cannot be allowed to carry the day here.

The public at large by wide margins disapproved of the anti-lockdown protests, which is hardly surprising given that they were a contrivance of fringe groups.  By contrast, a public that had been skeptical of the term "black lives matter" and that has reflexively backed the police even in previous cases of extreme injustice has mostly woken up and now overwhelmingly supports the anti-racism protests.  People are allowed to make moral distinctions, and the American people have found it rather easy to distinguish between these two types of protests.

Does this mean that there is an implicit rule that social distancing is a good idea except when it isn't?  Of course, but that is hardly a surprise.  If there were an alien attack that would wipe out humanity unless people hid in close quarters for a month during a pandemic, then social distancing would be a good idea that had to be set aside.  That is how rules and exceptions work.  The point is that exceptions need to be justified, and not expanded endlessly on the basis of moral relativism until there is no rule at all.

It is always true that people can claim that their favored cause is more important than any other.  But we make these distinctions all the time, and indeed the very notion of civil disobedience is based on the assumption that we must make such distinctions.  "Well, this is what's important to me" gives you certain rights, but it does not give you carte blanche to say that your priorities are all that matter.

I wish it had been possible for the anti-racism protests to be done with more social distancing.  That it was not possible does not mean that people like me suddenly have to say that any excuse not to social distance is as good as any other.