I shouldn’t have to make this point in this, our post-Auschwitzean age, but just a quick PSA, FYI: age-based genocide (or even malice or discrimination) is immoral. And PS, a pandemic is not the time to be wishing death on the elderly. Call me crazy, but there’s no good time to be wishing death on anyone. And yet I’ve seen more than one instance, on Facebook and elsewhere, of people’s expressing genocidal or near-genocidal sentiments about the elderly. Genocidal sentiments aside, there’s been no shortage of ageist malice for “Boomers,” or “old people.” Paraphrase of a rant I saw in the comments section of a local newspaper:
The Boomers raised our rents, gouged us on tuition, saddled us with debts, dragged us into unwanted wars, pay us crap wages, and vote the wrong way: so good riddance to them; may they all drop dead.
Substitute “Jews” for “boomers” or “the disabled” in rants of this sort, and you have the logic of the Final Solution-by-viral-proxy.
No, I’m not exaggerating:
Ben Heslop was, until recently, a Facebook friend of mine, not that I know him all that well (and not that I want to). He made abundantly clear in the conversation that followed this post that he wasn’t joking. No, he’s entirely serious: he thinks the elderly are, on the whole, politically right-wing; given that, it’s legitimate to wish death on them en masse via the coronavirus. I don’t know whether the factual assumption he makes here is true or false (i.e., that the elderly are on the whole right-wing), but the further inference is a repulsive non-sequitur, one that merits being called out in public. A person who wishes death on millions of people can hardly complain if his reputation suffers as a result.
I generally don’t unfriend people on Facebook or single them out on my blog over purely ideological disputes, no matter how extreme. That includes people who have views at odds with mine on military and medical issues, as well as on issues of law enforcement and the like. I’ll talk to hawks and doves, advocates of M4A and advocates of MSAs, cops and anarchists, anti-abortionists and pro-choicers, vegans and meat-eaters or animal experimenters, climate activists and climate change skeptics, etc. People sometimes hold views on these subjects that I regard as perversely wrong-headed or even delusional, and in some cases, that strike me as likely to cost innocent lives and freedom. But I also grant that I may be wrong about what I take to be true. And even if I’m right, it doesn’t follow that my interlocutors are culpably wrong. Even if they’re culpably wrong, it need not follow that our disagreements are reason enough to cut ties with them, or to cancel, boycott, or dox them.
Not that I’m against cutting ties, canceling, boycotting, and doxxing when need be. One eventually has to draw the line somewhere. I draw the line at anyone’s calling for the deaths of or wishing death on the presumptively innocent for aims that are gratuitously disproportionate to any conceivable offense on their part (whether true or false), obviously indiscriminate in effect, and/or proposed (or engaged in!) in a way that takes pleasure at the prospect of innocent death. People who use a pandemic as the occasion to call for their version of the Final Solution deserve to be called out and have their reputational faces ground in the dirt until they sincerely recant.
An article by Tomas Pueyo about coronavirus is making the rounds online. Here’s the crux of it:
The coronavirus is coming to you.
It’s coming at an exponential speed: gradually, and then suddenly.
It’s a matter of days. Maybe a week or two.
When it does, your healthcare system will be overwhelmed.
Your fellow citizens will be treated in the hallways.
Exhausted healthcare workers will break down. Some will die.
They will have to decide which patient gets the oxygen and which one dies.
The only way to prevent this is social distancing today. Not tomorrow. Today.
That means keeping as many people home as possible, starting now.
I’ve italicized the seventh and eighth sentences because they have a certain personal poignancy. Within days, my brother and sister-in-law,* both physicians in north Jersey, will be on the front lines of this war. As I sit at home in comfort, teaching online classes, they’ll be driving themselves into exhaustion and risking contagion (and in principle, death), to save the lives of strangers.** They won’t be saving progressive or conservative lives, or Republican or Democratic lives, or libertarian or socialist lives, or Millennial or Boomer lives. They’ll be saving human lives, without asking after the sectarian designations or demographic descriptions of their patients. I’d like to think that they won’t have to make the kinds of age-based decisions that the Italians are now contemplating–the stuff of nightmare scenarios out of bioethics textbooks.*** But they might. The difference between them and the Ben Heslops of the world is that triage would in their case be a very last resort taken in the worst throes of crisis, not a grotesque source of celebration for the elderly lives lost to it.
We can’t expect medical laypersons literally to save lives, except in the indirect sense of trying our best not to spread the coronavirus. But we can expect them to acknowledge the moral value of others’ lives at any age (or level of physical or mental ability), and to respect them accordingly. People unwilling to take that perspective on others–people who go out of their way to express contempt for the elderly or disabled–are neo-Nazis, whatever they call themselves, and whatever “progressive” sounds they seem to emit.**** We have to combat the coronavirus, true–but part of combating the coronavirus is combating them. Without indulging in the luxuries of malice and rancor, we systematically have to push these newly-emboldened neo-Nazis of our cultural milieu to the margins of social existence. We have to flatten the curve they represent in our political life, and create the social distance from them that justice demands. I don’t know if that will save lives, but it’s the only way to preserve a culture in which life is worth living.
Thanks to Alison Bowles and Michael Young for conversation that helped in thinking this through. Thanks especially to Alison to sensitizing me to the frequency with which ageism gets a free pass in common discourse. (Thanks also to Alasdair MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals for doing the same thing.) Hat-tip to Susan Gordon for some of the links.
*And at least indirectly, any number of friends. And a cousin. And another friend. And another. Apologies to all the people I’m forgetting, or couldn’t find online. And thanks to people offline who have recounted stories about the work that their friends and family members in health care are doing to prepare for combat. When I get the chance, my hope is to write up some profiles of health care professionals, somewhat on the model of Chris Sciabarra’s famous 9/11 series at Notablog.
**Already two (American) emergency room physicians are in critical condition, one of them in Paterson, New Jersey. One doctor is in his 40s, the other in his 70s.
***Thought-experiment: what ethical judgment do we render on one of these people if (or when?) their actions result in the mass death of the elderly? Should we then stigmatize or stereotype their whole generation, and wish a plague upon it?
****I don’t happen to call myself a “progressive,” but I don’t take Heslop to be typical of progressives, and don’t take myself to be making a comment about the left, or progressivism.