Columnist Joe Gannon: ‘I obey, but I do not comply’

Published: 11/12/2021 3:00:01 PM

A few weeks ago, I met some old high school friends down the Cape, and it put me in mind of the old story about the King of Spain: disturbed by the tales of friars as to the brutal exploitation of “his” indigenous people of South America, he issued an edict ordering his conquistador subjects to abolish slavery.

These lords had no intention of giving up their lucrative trade in slaves, gold and land. So, to keep their heads, they fashioned this response to the king: Obedezco, pero no cumplo. I obey, but I do not comply.

And thus, they kept their heads and their slaves, but surrendered their souls and their honor.

Back on the Cape, due to a snafu on timing, when I arrived two of our group were well into their cups. One old friend, but ideological opposite, greeted me with “I hate everything and am opposed to everything!”

As the evening wore on, and so did the scotches, it was clear my old pal (a very important friend from high school days, who once presented me with three books he’d read in college while I was in the army. Those three books change my life and led me to the person writing this. It was one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received) had something on his mind.

We don’t argue politics when together, only as Facebook warriors. We talked about our sons — mine just graduated, his about to marry — when he suddenly blurted out: “I don’t get it. I wore a mask, I social-distanced and now I got the vaccine ...”

It was the way his voice trailed off that caught my attention. For a moment I thought he was gonna bring it on home and finish that sentence with “ ... so why did I make such a big deal about COVID?!”

But he didn’t. Didn’t say it and so perhaps did not finally make the connection.

And the connection was this — after a score years attached to the slow-drip IV of right-wing news and propaganda, my friend had come to accept that government, science, the academy and the media are the “four pillars of deceit.” That is the basic “ideology” behind Fox, Tucker Carlson et al. It is the core of everything they have preached, and the converted have absorbed it like saline through a drip.

Then COVID-19 came along, and his (their) entire world view was stress-tested in the best (worst?) possible way. Science had warned for years that this was our fate, and was dead right on COVID. Government had an emergency plan to deal with it, but the then government tossed the playbook and winged it: to disastrous ends. The media — always biased but never fake — reported the facts of what was happening accurately, if always breathlessly. And the academy had lots to offer society in terms of what needed to be done to meet the crisis: changes in unemployment benefits; workplace safety; wages and benefits and the clear example that while we were all in the same storm, we were not all in the same boat.

Check. Check. Check. And Check.

The four pillars of my friend’s entire world view had been proved wrong, and he was experiencing cognitive dissonance: his philosophical view was being clearly contradicted by what he was experiencing happening around him.

But he couldn’t push himself that smidge further, to connect the dots of his own self-delusion.

We’re getting a lot of that lately, I think. The demographic most suspectable to Foxification is, like my friend, the over 60 crowd. And yet, despite region or politics, that is the most highly vaccinated group as well. So, when personal safety clashes with ideology, safety wins.

Not with everyone, of course. The steady drumbeat of deathbed pleas from those who denied COVID until just before it killed them rolls on like an endless funeral dirge, falling on the deaf ears of those who will be next.

Around the same time as the Cape, a family member I am close to underwent a similar experience. She works giving vaccine shots but had refused to get one herself. Over the summer she relented — in order to visit grandchildren. She got the vaccine and visited them. “Why did I wait?” she asked me. But really, she asked herself.

One is a middle-class professional, graduate of an elite university; the other a working-class high-school grad getting by at a national chain. Neither of them was sure why they made such a fuss over COVID, why they threw so much shade on the crisis, while keeping their elderly and compromised family members safe and following, with no end of complaining, the safety measures needed to defeat a pandemic.

For me the answer is: they obeyed but they did not comply. Or in better American: during the greatest emergency of their lives, they did as they were told, but they did not pitch in.

And now they don’t want to admit to shirking their duty as adults, parents and citizens. So, they gleefully post “My husband got vaccinated!” while lamenting their continuing “loss of freedom” under President Biden.

What’s going on? We all need to tell ourselves the stories of our lives, to have a narrative to live by. Unfortunately, with the rise of totalitarian social media our narratives today all have to be vaingloriously heroic. So, your refusal to pitch in during a crisis must be marked as a heroic stand against tyranny.

Otherwise, you’re just a mutt having a middle-school meltdown. And who wants to be that?

Joe Gannon, teacher and author lives in Easthampton.

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