There’s nothing like a catastrophe to show us what it is that we worship.
The past few weeks have further proven that many Americans believe they can buy safety—witness the shocking stripping of basic goods from grocery stores at a level far beyond what people actually need. And in just the past few days, as Congress has wrangled out a stimulus package ostensibly designed to support struggling businesses and individuals, it has become abundantly clear what the real gods of our nation are: on the Left, identity politics, and on the Right, unbridled economic growth.
As early as the beginning of March, it was clear that something would need to be done to help small businesses and hourly workers get through the coming days. A case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the United States in mid-January. The first example of community spread was confirmed at the end of February. By March 4, there were cases in multiple states and governors had begun canceling large events as a precaution. Based on the shutdowns in Wuhan, Italy, and South Korea, it did not take a genius to figure out that American society would have to follow suit to some degree or another. One by one, states announced shutdowns, mandated the closure of restaurants and coffee shops, and issued emergency stay-at-home orders.
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Now here we are at the end of March. The unemployment numbers are staggering; more than 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment in just one week in March. For scale, in El Paso County, Colorado, 700 people filed for unemployment on the Monday that the governor announced the closure of all restaurants, bars, and coffee shops in the state. On Wednesday, that number shot up to over ten thousand. Small businesses, the heartbeat of the American economy, are dying—and the millions of Americans who work for them are running out of time.
In the midst of this, Congress has spent the last two weeks debating countless versions of pork-loaded “relief bills” and dithering about various partisan talking points. At one point, it seemed like the sparring sides had finally reached an agreement, but Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi chose that moment to waylay the process by submitting her own COVID-19 relief package “wish list,” which included items like a $35 million allocation to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and $100 million in funding for NASA. These antics delayed the passage of the relief bill by over a week, harming small business owners and out-of-work Americans.
The impetus behind Pelosi’s bill was, quite simply, the Democratic obsession with identity politics. Pelosi’s bill, allegedly a “relief” bill, clocked in at over 1,400 pages long. Rather than crafting a straightforward plan to help struggling businesses, protect workers, and extend federal resources to hospitals and medical workers, the bill tied immediate relief efforts to partisan wish-list items that each deserve their own debate.
For example, the bill mandated that all companies that receive COVID-19 aid would have to meet diversity and inclusion standards for five years. These companies would have to file diversity reports enumerating the race and sex of their executives and boards of directors, as well as demonstrating that they earmarked a certain amount of money for “diversity initiatives.” It would have also included abortion providers (including Planned Parenthood) among those who would receive taxpayer-funded bailouts.
Pelosi’s bill designated $300 million for the government to hire people to design and implement COVID-19 preparation and response—a very reasonable allocation, except that the bill required that these people be hired on the basis of race and disability, not strictly expertise. The bill also included other irrelevant items: a requirement for all states to have early voting and same-day voter registration, new regulations regarding carbon emissions, etc.
None of these things is essential to helping our country navigate the immediate massive economic and social disruption caused by COVID-19—and Pelosi knows it. But she and her fellow Democrats could not resist the opportunity to posture on a national stage, even if it meant delaying much-needed assistance for everyday Americans.
Republicans are, of course, far from blameless in their own right. Their bill includes an arguably excessive proportion of corporate assistance in comparison with small business and individual help. But the truly shameful moment for Republicans came in mid-March, when it suddenly became clear just how much lockdowns and stay-at-home orders were going to hurt the economy. At this point, so-called conservatives suddenly started revealing themselves as utilitarians. On March 13, conservative writer Heather MacDonald wrote these chilling words in The New Criterion:
The coronavirus… is targeted in its lethality, overwhelmingly striking the elderly or the already severely sick. As of Monday, approximately 89 percent of Italy’s coronavirus deaths had been over the age of seventy, according to The Wall Street Journal. Sad to say, those victims were already nearing the end of their lifespans. They might have soon died from another illness… Comparing the relative value of lives makes for grisly calculus, but one is forced to ask: are we missing the forest for the trees? If the measures we undertake to protect a vulnerable few end up exposing them, along with the rest of society, to even more damaging risks—was it worth the cost?
The truly conservative and the only possible Catholic answer to this question is, Yes. But there is an attitude pervading the American Right that because COVID-19 attacks the elderly more severely than the young and strong, we somehow don’t need to be as worried about it. More importantly, we do not need to make the strenuous economic sacrifices we might make if the situation were different.
Whenever we begin weighing the relative value of certain lives—in this case, the elderly—against others (the young), we are on dangerous ground. But what makes this even more dangerous is that the “value” here is being calculated in economic terms. Young people are more productive members of society, which (according to this calculus) makes them more valuable. It also means that they may not have a moral or social obligation to make economic sacrifices for the sake of the elderly, a less “valuable” population.
Just as with the issues Pelosi slipped into her bill, there are legitimate questions being raised about how America will grapple with the undeniably massive economic cost of responding aggressively to COVID-19. Many on the Right are asking those questions out of concern for workers and businesses. But that does not excuse the false calculus that weighs one life against another in terms of economic productivity and asks us as a society to choose.
No man—and no nation—can serve two masters. What COVID-19 has shown us is that the two masters struggling for dominance of our society are both corrupting. They both have the ability to distract us from what is truly valuable: doing everything we can as individuals and communities to preserve human life and flourishing. Identity politics has so swayed the Democratic Party that its leaders were willing to stymie efforts to help Americans with a purely symbolic partisan gesture. And an obsession with economic growth has led conservatives into the deadly swamp of utilitarianism, where lives are weighed against each other in terms of productivity and social usefulness.
The reality is that every American should be prepared to sacrifice for the good of his fellow citizens in the coming days. This is not a time for us to parade slogans like “diversity” and “identity politics,” or for us to hoard goods and economic opportunities to bolster a false sense of security. It is a time for us to find creative ways to extend charity and dignity to others, and to recognize that each and every one of us, as bearers of God’s image, is infinitely valuable.
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