Protests, arrests, death, pandemic, lockdowns, these are the themes of our days. Not a pretty picture during one of the most beautiful Springs I can remember. To be honest, the mayhem hasn’t affected me much yet —emphasis on yet, but then, I’m protected.
In a recent NYTimes op-ed, Bret Stevens referenced a 2016 piece by Peggy Noonan (a conservative pundit) in which she broke our society down into two parts—The Protected, and the Unprotected. “The protected make public policy,” she wrote. “The unprotected live in it. The unprotected are starting to push back, powerfully.”
Reading Stevens, this breakdown immediately made sense to me, and the COVID-19 crisis brings the distinction into focus even better. Remote (or protected) people are able to work from home (remotely) and have continued to earn from their work, they are mostly educated, have adequate health insurance, earn a living wage or more, and have networks with others like themselves. They are comfortable Democrats, comfortable Republicans and comfortable independents like me. And make no mistake, we have the option to prioritize our fear of the virus over our struggles with everyday life. The stress that has tested all Americans because of stay-at-home restrictions is an undesirable option we can endure without the conflict experienced by those who are unprotected and exposed and struggling.
When I was at a building supply store the other day, I ran into a friend who works landscaping, tree surgery and construction. I believe he is a Trump supporter and know him to be a good, caring, thinking person. I greeted him from the appropriate distance and said something nonpolitical like “What a mess these days, huh?” His short response spoke volumes to my understanding of the difference between us. “Yes” he said, “and I’m really worried about the suicides.” He was expressing the hopelessness and depression of the people in his network, the ones who are remote from us and we cannot hear, the unprotected. For me this man is a symbol of the arrogance that tells me those who don’t take the virus seriously are science deniers or worse. Maybe others face challenges I just can’t imagine so my lack of understanding keeps me unequal and separate.
Fast forward to the protests, all the protests, Americans on the streets outraged over the brutal murder of George Floyd and the protests over the oppression experienced by the exposed as a result of the lock down. If one strikes you as more legitimate than the other be careful. We can be blinded by belief in our own self-righteousness. They are two expressions of institutional injustice in our social system, but both stem from corruption and a lack of competent leadership in our government.
Our leader’s response to the protests point out how the protected monopoly reacts to those who protest its privileges. “People are being arrested for what — peaceful protesting and being at the wrong place at the wrong time? Getting caught breaking a window?” asked Geert Dhondt, associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “The larger crimes, and the larger harm to society, goes unpunished.” More than 7,700 protesters were arrested (as of June 2, 2020), according to the site OccupyArrests.com; only one US banker was sentenced to prison for their role in the (2008) financial crisis, which led to 10 million families losing their homes.
If you are reading this piece you are probably a part of the protected class and you have options others lack. This condition comes with responsibility. It’s hard to understand how the wealthiest among us are so much more interested in growing their wealth than in creating a just and stable society where they can enjoy the fruits of their efforts. We assume that success is at least partly the result of intelligence. Even if self-interest was the primary criteria, it would seem an easy choice for people who claim to be smart. We must extend a significant portion of the protection we enjoy to those who lack it or face the consequences. It might even involve sacrifices (e.g. taxes).
We are heading toward a time of unprecedented instability. The chaos of recent protests is just a taste of the changes that will materialize if we keep our heads in the sand and refuse to support action for social justice. Populism is unpredictable like the weather. The storm that is developing will blow away our hopes for peace and the dreams of our children if those of us with choices don’t choose fairness and stability over disparity and dictatorship.
Peter Taillie writes from Greensboro.