Recently, while attending a memorial gathering in Arlington, Virginia, a man I had never met and who offered not one word of introduction, came right up to my face, pointed to my mask and told me, “You need to take that off.”
I am one of millions of immunocompromised people in this country. This man’s very public but personal confrontation was new to me. Afterwards, I thought about so many people in this country who can’t speak up for themselves and have been subjected to so much worse.
Consider young school-aged children for whom a face covering is a lifesaver, for example, insulin-dependent children with type 1 diabetes and kids in the middle of chemotherapy for any number of cancers. Add teachers and staff whose medical situations put them at higher risk of developing serious Covid and risking hospitalization and death. And still, mask opponents preach about “freedom.” Freedom for whom and at what significant cost to medically vulnerable people and their loved ones?
Local health officials are in the crossfire. Initially, there were instances of harassment that kept escalating, forcing scientists to walk away from jobs that had been their life’s work. Time has not brought a return to civility and listening to experts. A group that had been universally respected is now vilified. Scary crowds show up on people’s lawns and in their driveways. Governors in numerous states push for legislation to tie the hands of public health officials to do their jobs, discourage vaccines for healthy children, and spout conspiracy theories.
Who will be our future scientists, teachers, and medical professionals? And what will be the long-term effects for a society that used to be a beacon of hope for the world?
Our legislative branch has been affected as well. The same day I attended the memorial gathering for my friend, I watched hours of a confirmation hearing for a nominated Supreme Court justice, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.
Senators opted for political theater — loud voices, arm-waving, shouting. They accused the judge of being soft on crime, wanted to know how she felt about killing newborn babies, and accused her of leniency with sentences for child pornographers. After days of Judge Jackson’s testimony, the American Bar Association (ABA) reported on its extensive analysis of her judicial record, her judicial temperament, and her personal and professional reputation. The ABA gave the judge its highest possible rating, but many senators who had grilled her did not show up to hear the report.
What has happened to this country? Political discourse has gone by the wayside. Public health officials and educators are characterized as government puppets. The need for somebody like me to protect myself from getting sick is not honored. Truth is not recognized or valued.
Legislators with fancy degrees speak about our government in derogatory terms. I majored in political science; my first job was on Capitol Hill, and I spent my professional life as a public servant. I am saddened by what I see and hear. We the people of the United States are the government. That fact should bind us together, not rip us apart.
Government’s purpose is to make sure everybody gets a chance at a good life and nobody is left behind. Ukraine has shown us how fragile democratic governments can be and how fragile life is when good goes up against the wishes of an authoritarian leader across the border. What Americans need to grapple with is the risk we take by not standing up to authoritarians in our midst.
Our country has real issues to deal with, not made-up issues to keep voters permanently riled up and angry. We need to speak up while we still have the chance, face head on this country’s real challenges, and expose bad actors whose actions threaten the very survival of this great nation.
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