Is Resistance to Social Distancing the Breakdown of the Social Contract or Just Another Cultural Distinction?

I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, in the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. Actually, not quite in the epicenter. That distinction, if you can call it that, belongs to the borough to the north where my daughter lives: The Bronx. Antibody tests conducted by New York State and New York City reveal that a whopping 28% of Bronx subjects have tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies. Manhattanites had the lowest infection rate in the five boroughs, at 17%.

There are complex reasons for this disparity, but the primary one is that my neighborhood, represented by Congressman Jerry Nadler, is much more wealthy than my daughter’s, represented by Congresswoman AOC. The difference is that the vast majority of my neighbors have been able to shelter in place, to work from home, to avail themselves of Amazon, FreshDirect and assorted other conveniences.

By contrast, the porter in my building lives just blocks from my daughter. After he has spent his day repeatedly disinfecting all of the elevator buttons, doorknobs and laundry machines here, he rides the subway home to join his multigenerational extended family, several others of whom also commute to jobs considered essential. His exposure to risk is exponentially higher than mine. In that sense, we experience a different kind of social distance, the chasm of class, of economic inequality.

Moises and I, both of us masked and he wearing gloves, chat most mornings as he wipes down the lobby. He’s careful not to pet my dog Dev, who adores him and cannot understand why his buddy can’t play with him like he used to. We’ve both found it hard to understand how people in other parts of the country refuse to wear masks, refuse to stay home, some even marching around toting automatic weapons. Both his neighbors and mine observe the rules about wearing face coverings and maintaining social distance in public.

Even this weekend when the weather was balmy, the vast majority of people in my neighborhood were masked and sensitive to the need for caution. We were so happy to finally have a touch of spring weather after a cold and wet April and six weeks of isolation! We are so happy to finally be able to sleep through the night without being awakened repeatedly by the scream of sirens carrying yet more victims to ICUs! We are flattening the curve, which makes all of the sacrifice feel worth it.

Every night at 7pm we hoot and holler and bang on pots and ring cowbells in honor not just of medical professionals but of guys like Moises who are risking themselves to take care of us, to deliver food, to keep the streets clean. Sometimes one of the professional musicians in our midst delivers an aria or a piano concerto or a Broadway tune as a grand finale. More applause, more hooting and hollering.

By keeping this ritual going we are saying, “We are still here even if we can’t see each other! We are a community! We are doing our part!” We are living out the social contract by wearing masks, keeping our social distance and trusting that our government has our backs, that things will get better. We are New York tough: smart; disciplined; united; loving, as Governor Cuomo says at the end of each day’s briefing.

This country was founded on the principles of this social contract. The English philosophers Thomas Hobbes in the Leviathan (1651) and John Locke in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Two Treatises of Government (1690) articulated the moral, ideological and practical foundations of what would become the United States. Our founding fathers incorporated their ideas first into the Declaration of Independence and then the U.S. Constitution. 

Hobbes insisted that the role of the government was to provide safety for its citizens, who in turn must give up a degree of personal sovereignty and property in the form of taxes in exchange for this protection. This is the essence of the social contract. Give and take. 

Locke went a step further. The social contract was to be executed through representative government with separation of powers and checks and balances, not the divine right of kings. Citizens were obligated to follow the rule of law, to self-regulate, to sacrifice some personal gain for the benefit of the whole, to be their better selves. Most radically, Locke believed that if  the government failed to protect the people’s life, liberty and property, the people were entitled to revolt. 

In today’s circumstances, whose life, liberty and property are being denied protection? Who has the right of revolt? This is the question that has been floating around in my brain for days.

An Evan Osnos piece in this week’s New Yorker entitled “How Greenwich Connecticut Republicans Learned to Love Trump” is a depressing account of the one percent’s retreat from belief in a social contract that binds all citizens equally. As the ideas of two generations of libertarian and positivist thinkers ranging from Ayn Rand to William Buckley to Robert Mercer took hold, the older ideology of noblesse oblige epitomized by the scions of the Poppy Bush family faded into obscurity.

In today’s world these “Gold Coast” billionaires practice a special kind of social distancing, building ever larger and gaudier estates, gated sanctuaries protected by what neighboring towns call “Greenwich walls,” medieval in purpose and scale. We’ve all grown tired of the isolation of the rich and famous behind their ever higher barriers, on their yachts, at their vacation villas or mountain hideaways. They have chosen to have little contact with the rest of us, including those who provide them with essential services, their wealth divorced from any obligation to society.

It’s a distressing reality that to some Americans refusing to wear a mask to protect others from potential harm has become a cultural marker. Refusing to keep one’s social distance when shopping for groceries, exercising or walking the dog, is now a tribal signal. No Administration officials are ever seen wearing masks. Social distance is for the little people, those who can’t get tested regularly like the bigwigs. It’s not a surprise, but it is still chilling that “regular” Americans who support this administration are demanding the right to haircuts, beach outings or a return to “normal,” because social distancing is all a hoax, “it’s just the flu, after all.”

We New Yorkers see a darker message in all of this: an alliance between the rich and powerful who want the economy to provide them with further gains whatever the health risk to the rest of us and working or middle class conservatives who now blame their economic fragility on us, as if it is our own fault that we live in the epicenter of this pandemic. Bail out New York! Whatever for!!

We see people in both of these cultural/class subgroups who have no idea what our lived experience has been, especially those of us who reside in the Bronx or Queens and who are already disadvantaged, but none the less considered “essential.”

We see white privilege when angry crowds verbally harass police or storm legislative bodies toting machine guns when we know that our black and brown neighbors would be arrested at best and dead at worst in such circumstances.

My neighbors and I have been willing to give up part of our personal sovereignty because our state and local governments, while certainly not perfect, have demonstrated their commitment to protecting our lives and our pursuit of happiness. Our leaders have felt our pain, acknowledged our sacrifice, vowed to try to make us whole. We want to believe them. As for the federal government, the government of the Greenwich Republicans and the Trump supporters in the rest of the country, they are rejecting the notion that they share our burden, eschewing responsibility for keeping us safe.

Perhaps those who feel no obligation to honor the social contract by wearing masks and social distancing need to brush up on their Locke. They are not the only ones who deserve life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. What would happen if we chose to social distance from them, to assert our own right to reject a federal government that has failed us? I hate to think about that possibility.

I still hope that this crisis will surmount rather than exaggerate our social, cultural and economic distance. I will do my part to keep the social contract in tact rather than in tatters. I will continue to bang on my pot and yell out my window in my daily act of solidarity with my neighbors, my city, my state. And I will vote in November come hell or high water to install a government that lives up to its part of the social contract — insuring my life, liberty and pursuit of happiness —  as I live up to mine by following the rule of law and trying to be my best self.

12 thoughts on “Is Resistance to Social Distancing the Breakdown of the Social Contract or Just Another Cultural Distinction?”

  1. Your right to total freedom ends at my nose. You don’t have the right to breath sickness and death in my direction. That said I can understand why people in rural America are ready to come out. Hard to related when all the danger seems very far away… doesn’t make it right, but I can see how they feel that way.

    All this 1-percent reminds me of the fall of the Roman Republic. Soon it will be private armies and dictatorship/emperors won through military conquest and/or birthright… Greenwich Walls meet Hadrian’s Wall.

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    1. Such a good analogy to the Roman Republic! I think you can take the qualifier out of the second sentence — it’s now, not soon as we learn each day.

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  2. Excellent essay. While I have the means to stay home and live in a rural area with few risks, I still have to do my own grocery shopping. I started wearing a mask before many did. Still now, some people refuse and I see them as very selfish. Sometimes I wonder if U.S.A. Stands for Unabashedly Selfish A—holes. Well, a certain sector, anyway. Lots of very fine people in this country, too.

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    1. I think we Americans have become very complacent — either mired in the gloom that things will never get better because everything is corrupt or privileged enough to assume that tomorrow will be even better than today with little effort on our part. Both are toxic to the kind of community spirit we need right now.

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  3. Showing the cracks for what they are- although as Leonard Cohen wrote, the cracks” are where the light gets in.” Let there be a powerful light. Thanks for writing this.

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  4. Cuomo said it well today. The underlying unspoken question being lived out across all the early openings and flouting of masks is “what is a human life worth.” He said a life is “priceless.” It’s a disgrace that the racist and xenophobic strains in our country are okay to let others die.

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  5. We went into quarantine when we were clocking one thousand cases per day. And look, we shot up to over a million cases. Now we’re coming out of quarantine with 20,000 cases per day. Things are going to get ugly. I understand the need to reopen the economy, but why can’t we do it wearing masks? And why do guns need to be involved every time republicans gather. Early on, I hoped this shared experience would bring our nation closer. I see now how stupid that idea was. Like always, it’s a partisan war. Now we kill store employees because they tell us to put on a mask and follow the law. America gets what it deserves. And we’re about to get quite a lot.

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    1. Even though NYC has been the epicenter of this horror, I am glad to be here because I believe that the reopening will be more likely to be a reimagining. I expect to be wearing a mask for the foreseeable future. I do not expect to see much selfishness, even after things begin to resume, because everyone here knows someone who has been impacted and we just don’t want to go through that again if it can be helped. We may have a round two, but it will be very different from round one.

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  6. I think bad news sells newspapers and television time. Good surveys have indicated a huge majority on both sides of the cultural divide support physical distancing, etc. The sky is not falling. Some people drive 99 miles an hour and always have. Some people knowingly cut you off on the highway endangering even the very young. Some people climb Everest without oxygen at the higher altitudes despite having families to support. The good news is, this too shall pass and our medical/reaearch abilities far exceed those 102 years ago with the Spanish flu. Hope is on the horizon.

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