Vacc to School

Although it seems like schools just let out for the Summer, we’re more than halfway through the break. I’ll be starting orientation activities in four weeks – and I really don’t want to have to put that mask back on, let alone deal with any attempted re-institution of all those social distancing rules and online (or even “hybrid”) schooling protocols.

And there’s really no reason I – and at least the vast majority of other teachers and students – should. Even with the new variants, the vaccines seem to be pretty good.

In point of fact, my best estimate is that at the school where I teach the measures would already be completely unnecessary: vaccines were made available very early on to staff, students last year were on the whole eager to take their turn, and the school population is overall quite healthy – but if concerns about the coronavirus persist, I’m also quite sure the school administration will take steps – whether to provide a sense of security and solidarity, or merely to fend off any potential legal quibbling, I couldn’t quite say.

But the fact is that those conditions which justify avoiding further abnormal precautions at my school don’t quite apply yet a lot of places, and returning to normal isn’t going to make a whole lot of sense unless we all take steps to get back to normal. And the obvious step is to get your COVID vaccine if you haven’t yet. There are plenty of ways to find out where: here’s one that allows you to look anywhere in the US.

Here’s a quick summary. I don’t really have single sources for these: it’s a matter of stayng informed and following a bunch of reporting. If you’re really curious I can dig up some of the recent stories.

  • Take this thing seriously. We’ve seen in Italy, in weeks-long “spikes” especially in metropolitan areas, and now horrifically in India what can happen when this virus goes uncontrolled, especially in a high population-density area. And schools are pretty high-density during the day.
  • There are very minor health risks – most seem to be related to heart conditions – but if you know that might be at risk you probably already have a doctor who can confirm one way or another.
  • There are some moral concerns about how vaccines are developed – most commonly whether particular research uses (or builds on) cells procured by abortion – but even Roman Catholic moralists I’ve read (who tend to be the most cautious) have largely approved at least the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.
  • With a large enough population, we’ve seen the vaccines aren’t perfect: but they clearly lower risk of infection, reduce the severity of illness if infection happens, and significantly reduces risk of further transmission. Yes, even with the variants.

I don’t even have a great idea who reads this thing any more, but I want to get this out there. A year and a half of these restrictions is enough when there’s no reason it should need to keep going: we’ve got the resources to stop it, but everybody has to take a part.

In Praise of Good Order

The following reflections are prompted by my recent vacation. I admittedly do not travel to new place a great deal: one of the results of living a good distance from family and older friends – to say nothing of the disruptive effects of our now-decling pandemic – is that time I have to travel typically is spent in visiting with those family and friends.

What struck me particularly in the past couple weeks is the fact that family does not sprawl. I don’t mean this geographically: my family is, for various reason, scattered now across the country and beyond. Although maybe I do mean it – I’ve never known or lost track of a number of extended family members I’ve never been able to meet easily. But family, practically, will mean those family members one does live and interact with: as distance of space or relation grows, a new family nucleus establishes itself – known parents, grandparents, and so on, interlocking with other families but not quite the same. Or, tragically, a person can find himself cut off from family – from interaction – by his own will or theirs.

But I noticed something odd, which I will represent with the symbol of each-his-own-car. Each family member is also a bundle of individual interests and – here is my question – these interests are today regularly (given sufficient wealth) unconstrained – if one can maintain a vehicle, one can go where one wants and do as one pleases. Religion, hobbies, purchases, leisure, fitness.

I don’t know that this is a bad thing – but the other odd thing is that to find these we scatter to the four winds and only later wind up back to the family center, the home. Life oriented on a home is good. But I find myself and see others reluctant to abide this natural if involuntary orientation to a shared center in the two other spheres of religion and civil society.

In the first case, the American church of course features its denominations, and it strikes me that even the Roman Catholic organization’s parishes are hardly held to definitively.

In the second, I have been struck by the number of people who resent jury duty; the lack of enthusiasm – I admit fault here myself – for open meetings of local government (to say nothing of the difficulty in finding such information, which seems not to be widely resented); the number of people who expect officials to fix everything for them; and a corresponding number (I’m more prone to this temptation) who don’t expect them to get anything done at all. As somebody pointed out to me recently, you tend to get what you expect, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that when it comes to any given problem it can seem that half the politicians don’t want to change a thing and the other half think micromanagement of behavior is the only solution.

The odd thing about these involuntary connections is that they indicate duties which need to be voluntarily assumed to be maintained. Even family can become virtual strangers through distance or abandonment; the other relationships seem even more vulnerable to neglect.

I don’t propose to explain the origin of our dissociation: it’s hard to tell the symptoms from the causes, and too tempting to blame modern phenomena. In broad strokes it’s easy to say something like: “Americans get hung up on “freedom” and don’t want to interfere, but family life tells us somebody has to watch the kids”. I have my theories, ranging from the Christian declaration that the fear of Lord is a necessary guidance to half-learned principles of good urban design to the thought that perhaps prioritized the concentrated over the distributed is not always wise.

But all I really want to do here is note the necessity of these natural but involuntary – as far as the facts of their existence and relation to individuals – structures and encourage you to participate in yours. We are, I think, very good at building order and community in what might be called “communities of interest” – a shared passion, skill, or hobby – but I suspect us at times of trying to replace the more important responsibilities to the common good of disparate peoples with attention to the easier-to-manage organization of the like-minded.

Government and Personal Responsibilities

In his Gettysburg address, Abraham Lincoln called for a renewed commitment to “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. He offered this, on Northern ground as the Civil War raged on, as a goal of and justification for the Federal government’s prosecution of that war. Even those who find injustice in Northern actions during the Civil War would hardly disagree with the words: the actions, they must say, belie the words, and show they were no true belief.

“Government of the people”: that a community must have authority of some kind, to resolve disputes justly and oversee projects of general effect, is agreed virtually universally. The most strident monarchist or fascist is content so far: only the anarchist disagrees. The difficulties come in the remaining phrases.

“Government by the people”: it was not a new idea to suggest that community should be able to govern itself. In an American context, however, Lincoln could hardly mean anything by this phrase but the exposition of a more contentious idea: democracy, or the ideal of a people governing their own actions, and on larger matters coming together to debate, or personally select representatives to decide, what must be done.

Of particular note is the generality of Lincoln’s noun, “the people”. The implication is all people. It is hard to argue that the Federal government, in refusing the secession of the Confederate States, had any great moral goals: the practical question was Union or dissolution. To what extent the Constitutional intent of a “more perfect Union” can be set against the Declaration’s principle that “one people” can unilaterally “dissolve the political bands” they find themselves in is beyond my ability to decipher, or the scope of my current argument. That the Southern states largely seceded for fear their practice of slavery was endangered is a statement equally hard to refute: as a result, the actual result of emancipation is often seen as the actual Federal cause.

In his first inaugural address, Lincoln had attempted to set aside slavery as a minor issue, focusing on the Constitutional legalities as he interpreted them: in the second, he very nearly states the received wisdom of today, that it was “about” slavery, leaving only the caveat “somehow”. But in the meantime, he had issued the Emancipation Proclamation – affecting only the South, to be precise – and offered this speech at Gettysburg. Taking Lincoln’s transition as a guide to public opinion suggests that as the war went on, the North came to view it more and more as a crusade for abolition, while the South, with slavery not much in favor in most of the world, had to depend on their legal arguments to justify their actions, as Confederate sympathizers generally do today, and so set aside the question whether their culture as such justified secession and war to preserve.

That culture, at any rate, was set against this statement of Lincoln’s that all people were included in government properly conducted by “the” people. The principle implied is, stated negatively, that democratic or representative government is not preserved where some class or caste of those governed is shut out from participation in the government.

Admitting the principle, some implications follow which many might find curious. Children are generally prevented in all societies from participating in government by reason of immaturity: government, then, ought as much as possible not interfere with children. The ignorant might reasonably not be permitted to have a say in a decision – but if so, ignorance (at least of facts) can be cured in most cases, and the ignorant ought to be instructed. These “ignorant” are likely to be of two sorts – the younger generations, of course, but also the immigrants. Anyone held in violation of community standards ought not be forbidden future participation – unless his crime were such an offense that he would be removed completely, by death or (theoretically, though not exactly practiced in modern times) exile. Imprisonment is not enough: the prison is maintained by the community.

The idea sketched here is that the extent a community is defined not by the number of those who govern but by the number of the governed. With Roman citizenship, and the immigrant or resident alien, finding the privileges attractive, might have purchased such status for a considerable sum. An American, ideally, is a citizen primarily by virtue of being governed by the American government, with only such limitations as are found absolutely necessary for the controlling of human weakness and folly.

“Government for” this sort of people becomes a monumentally demanding task of restraint. There is first of all the assumption that these persons are on the whole capable of self-government: of controlling their own impulses, and constructing their own lives, so that it is demanded of the government not to interfere too much in any particular of life. (It might, inversely, be argued that a community in which the members are evidently not capable of such self-control will not be capable of self-government either, and history only serves to reinforce this idea with the added corollary that such a people will shortly no longer be self-governed.)

Secondly, it must be emphasized that government of this sort is to be conducted for the good of the entire populace. Laws which create castes or classes to be judged differently ought to be shunned. Remedial efforts ought to be absolute, not comparative. Any distinctions in difficulty or degree of duties must be limited in scope and based purely on objective resources or ability. These conditions must, most especially, be observed by the officers of the government – and so also the people must demand of themselves that they judge candidates for these offices strictly by such qualities.

It remains to be said that the government of a community is not the whole of a community. The Marxist dictum, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” is in fact a sound statement of the goals of any community: but it is the fascist, statist, and even socialist mistake to assume that all effort be organized, and all goods be distributed, by the government of that community.

The difficulty is on the one hand one of logistics. Complete control demands complete information, which takes time. Any awarding of goods or services which cannot be done quickly will take additional persons to complete, which will prevent them from contributing what they might otherwise have done to the best of their abilities: the statist falls victim to proof by contradiction. This leaves aside completely the effect of inevitable disasters – natural, if not man-made – on a minutely planned course of action.

It is also a failure to properly account for communities within community. A nation is a large community: a family, the smallest possible. To the extent a smaller community has balanced ability and need, interference of the larger community government is an act of imbalance. The reverse is true, though one small community relative to a larger has less effect: take away a small contribution and it must be made up somewhere or the balance lost.

That balance is today widely felt to have been lost. The government officially established by the American community is not considered exactly trustworthy: individual officials, for the most part, even less so. We have been trained to look for a consensus to govern ourselves, and that much remains, at least: the result is that cases which ought to be for the government are now tried in the court of public opinion (and not infrequently, government, appealed to as force, is brought in where private opinions ought to be allowed to prevail on private matters).

As regards the government, the solution is simple in theory, though hard in fact to accomplish. The officers of the government must in fact govern in the agreed manner, which in America means by law and not by whim. Harder still is the communal duty: the American people must demand their government govern: that the officers act responsibly and that those institutions without consent be publicly validated or disbanded. Government is to act promptly where required: this condition suggests either that a great many laws ought to be repealed, or the processes of prosecuting cases simplified, or more officers employed in the government to be able to act quickly.

The more radical task comes in the re-conception of private spaces. Government is employed to resolve those disputes between people which must be resolved; the people are axiomatically (whether or not they are in fact) responsible to manage their own conduct; but there exists a space where individuals and small communities actually interact on their own.

The main principle stated above was that in the community envisioned communal responsibilities exist simply by belonging to the community. The secondary fact stated was that the communal force called government cannot effect all requirements of the larger community that exist between the family and the government. Persons included in the larger community do not all belong to the same small ones: they may in life move between smaller ones.

The government – the management of the large community – ought not therefore to impose the standards of any small community, but only such standards as are universal to the large one. If any standard supposed to be imposed needs for tranquility to have significant exemptions granted, it ought not be made law. Any government will make the decision not to enforce behavior which some, even a majority, of its officers would consider moral.

It is vital to understand this principle, because an overwhelming inclination today is to remove the private space: to impose the standards of a preferred small community on the large one. This is sometimes done explicitly, by laws demanding or forbidding behaviors positively. At other times this is attempted implicitly, by attempts to de-legitimize existence of persons as members of the larger community: now due not only to the class or caste mentioned previously, but at other times by virtue of their opinions.

There is in America a law by which religious exercise is protected from legal interference. This is sometimes treated today as granting the “significant exemptions” mentioned previously, but this is a misunderstanding of the principle even when it describes the practice. Religion, by definition, claims to have authority beyond the natural world. It is therefore easy to claim that a religious authority transcends the constraints outlined above.

If transcendent, then it claims the right to impose on the larger community the principles of the smaller: which is, if the smaller communities disagree with each other, a crisis. The American First Amendment, then, is not a creation of exception, but a statement of the principle as applied to the area where it was known a great temptation was found: the design was, by stating this application specifically, to protect the government from the smaller communities and the smaller communities from each other. If the government attempts to impose a law which the First Amendment would seem to demand an exception to (in the modern understanding), what ought to be concluded is that the law is a bad law.

And so for other laws and other small communities. What takes shape if this idea is followed out is diametrically opposed to the current tide of laws which extend government further and further through private spaces, but with exemptions within exemptions which render actual estimates of their application guesswork at best. If in fact a larger community extends to govern more and more smaller ones – what is called pluralism – it is more necessary to remove laws than create additional ones, because the remaining consensus covers fewer matters. It is the duty of the people as a whole not to repress in private spaces by government power behaviors unless they are prepared to remove that number of misbehavers from the larger community outright. It is also the duty of those in each smaller community to faithfully adhere to the standards of the whole. Lack of either promptly imperils both.