• Alex Benoit

Moral Abdication

Stupidity is a state, morality is a decision. Calling them stupid lets them off the hook. They are making a deliberate decision to not care.

Suzanne Firstenberg's "In America how could this happen..." exhibit on the National Mall (Evy Mages/Washingtonian).

The loss is incalculable. It is travesty, repeating every 60 seconds. It is a mother, a father, a son, a holy spirit, a hope, a life, dying, every damn minute. We are eight months into this pandemic, or, for a much better index—280,000 humans into this pandemic. That February festered cut we’ve forgotten, she is back. Shredding not through New Rochelle, but the entirety of the new world.

The economic and social barrage this 70-nanometer killer has inflicted is horrendous. But frankly, none of that matters. To even equate economic and social strife with livelihood highlights a moral abdication which began before Wuhan. Can you not see that livelihood is a prerequisite?

I love the expression “preaching to the choir,” to lecture those that already agree. It is, for me, the single most encapsulating idiom of this year. It is perhaps what I am doing right now. In performative activism which fails to reverberate beyond the walls of virtual societies, and certainly in our attempts to beckon substantive public health measures, our voices are shriveling up shortly after we sing. Those that should be listening are not. And unfortunately, enrollment in the choir has reached an all-time low, in this country, in this year. But I think I’ve come to understand.

It isn’t as though the preacher isn’t crying for action—he is. And the choir is crying back. And even more remarkably, those that need to be listening, can hear the crying too. From beyond the confines, they know what ought to be done. They hear it in a plea, drenched with the pain of 450,000 screams. Suffocating.

And yet, they fail to join in song. They just don't want to.

In this country, for the better half of this year, the noise of COVID-19 has been irrefutable. I am utterly convinced that not one individual has escaped the messaging of public health campaigns.

And if this assumption holds true, the question shifts from “why don’t people understand” to “why don’t people care.”

I have heard officials and academics call those that do not adhere to health guidelines stupid. But I disagree, for two reasons. The first: stupidity is a state, morality is a decision. Calling them stupid lets them off the hook. They are making a deliberate decision. A decision to not care.

A decision to wager the most daunting of hands. At the end of this pandemic, those beyond the choir will have no way of knowing whether they directly or indirectly killed someone. That isn’t a fatalist warning. It is the reality of sporadic testing and asymptomatic spread.

There is something else that I failed to mention. There are those who believe they are in the choir. Do not be fooled, they are not. They transiently sing along and, when they tire from the choir, exit the back door just to get a drink with a few non-choir friends. Their gambling chips tussle in their robes. I hope your martini was delicious.

Secondly, and more remarkably, they are not all “stupid.” I suppose amusement tastes the same to an Ivy League student and a high school dropout. For both, I can list ample examples of methodical negligence. So perhaps this pandemic is a great unifier after all (except for the negligible 280,000 dead). The ignorant and the intelligent are dining together, the bright hum of “Everything Now” by Arcade Fire serenading their delusional evening.

Thousands gather in Tuscaloosa, Alabama following the National Championship victory (James Benedetto/Reuters).

What is this decision I call morality? Since Billy Graham, morality has meant faith. But before Billy there was Babylon, and thousands of years of moral definitions. They can get quite elaborate, but the following, from the 323rd line of the Kural, a 300 BCE Tamil poetry book, I find the most elegant:

“The greatest virtue of all is non-killing; truthfulness cometh only next.”

Shit, did anyone care to ask Valluvar what comes third? We are certainly long past the first two. Those are literally the two things we have not done as a country this year. With such simple guidelines, you’d think morality could be sold on the market. But it seems as though morality was lost in translation, and when she docked at Plymouth Sound, her whole meaning was mangled. Etched into the rock, America’s Kural:

“The greatest virtue of all is self; yep, that’s about it.”

It wasn’t long before America’s moral liqueur was found. We did not stash it far. It was the Frenchman Tocqueville who slapped the warning label on our poison: “Individualism, at first, only saps the virtues of public life; but in the long run it attacks and destroys all others and is at length absorbed in downright selfishness.” We nodded, drank, peeled off the label, drank, and became downright selfish. American individualism was birthed from Protestant work ethic, fed from the breast of capitalism, and reared in the gold-dripped castle of America First. We are exceptional we swear, tell us, chant it, remind us, please, we’re one of a kind, honestly. Honestly. I am certain that in the virus chatrooms—no not Parler—COVID-19 is at once jealous and thankful. The delightful virus of American selfishness is much more widespread, as of now. COVID-19 ought to be taking notes.

But on the other hand, the rind of American selfishness is exactly what COVID-19 is feeding on.

Thank you, COVD-19 texts, before posting a black square.

The selfish gamblers are their own preacher and choir. The more they do, the less they worry. The less they worry, the more they do. And the music is so tempting. It calls for dance, it calls for ceremony—not funerals, but jubilation. Funerals will come later. The choir will sing then. Close your eyes, and you see nothing. It’s just you.

You and your moral abdication.

Cover: Saul Martinez/NYT


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