Independence And Freedom: Observations From The Field

The author, celebrating his freedom to pursue extraordinary adventures,  at Cenote Suytun, Valladolid, Yucatán, Mexico on June 29, 2021.

“Unlike chess or checkers, or even cards, the game of dominoes makes no place for kings or queens, knaves or bishops. Dominoes don’t care about rank; it’s how and what one thinks.”
–M. Daniel Nickle

Last week I began my first trip away from my home in California, post-COVID-19 pandemic. It has really been exhilarating to enjoy the feelings of freedom and independence that have accompanied my travels, knowing that for the first time in more than 15 months I can trek around the world without the risk of either getting ill from COVID or of jeopardizing the lives of others by inadvertently acquiring and spreading the virus.

I recognize how lucky I am. None of the 600,000+ people who died from COVID in America were free to get on an airplane, as I did. Like George Floyd, those who number among America’s COVID casualties no longer have the freedom to even breathe.

When I say “post-COVID-19 pandemic,” I am of course talking about life from a personal perspective, and not a global one. I am not only lucky… I am privileged. I live in the United States, where everyone age 12+ who wishes to become fully COVID-19 vaccinated has now had an opportunity to become so, and where virtually all the deaths (99%+) still occurring from COVID-19 are of people who made a choice to put their own lives at risk and help spread the virus by not getting vaccinated. (In some locations in the US, those age 12-17 require parental approval to get vaccinated.)

Globally, of course, the situation is different. The pandemic rages on and access to a vaccine is not nearly as prevalent in most parts of the world as it is in the US. This year is only halfway done and more people have already been infected and killed around the world by COVID-19 in 2021 than in 2020.

Sunset over Grapevine Lake
Sunset over Grapevine Lake, taken by the author from his airplane window on June 23, 2021.

I immediately witnessed the repercussions of this disparity upon landing in the Yucatán in Mexico, where COVID infection rates are still relatively high. Everyone there is required to wear a mask in public and observe an evening curfew of 11:30 pm. And unlike in the US, where a sizable minority of the public chose to exacerbate the pandemic by disregarding COVID-related heath recommendations and regulations, in Mexico regulations seem to be universally followed by virtually everyone in the major population areas. You can’t walk into a restaurant without someone squirting hand sanitizer onto your hands and taking your temperature. But these were minor inconveniences… because I was vaccinated I felt truly free to undertake activities and adventures that I would never have dreamed of engaging in pre-vaccination.

The new COVID vaccines, delivered and tested in an astonishingly short time and through an immense investment, are a truly heroic scientific achievement of our age. I owe this freedom to the scientists, and the many other heroes who support them, who have lived their lives choosing to embrace education, develop technology, and build a better world,

But freedom from the consequences of a deadly virus is only one type of freedom. As America moves on from COVID, it remains in the midst of an internal war pitting democracy and political freedom against autocracy. I’m thrilled that I don’t feel compelled to fly my flag upside down this year, as I did back in 2018 (See my earlier column: Patriotism, Independence Day, and the American Flag). Yet I remain gravely concerned.

Government ethics expert Walter Shaub perceptively wrote on Twitter last week:

“If you’re alive today, you’re part of the generation that either saves democracy or witnesses the death of the republic. The future hasn’t been written.”

Walt is, of course, correct.

America is potentially just one election away from seeing its democracy become illiberal for the foreseeable future. The 2022 and 2024 elections pose critical risks. Those who favor autocracy are still broadly spreading the Big Lie; enacting laws aimed at curtailing our freedom to vote; working to disrupt our ability to conduct free and fair elections; and attempting to give themselves the right to unilaterally overturn election results that they don’t like.

But what is at stake is actually far broader than than what Walt describes. The forces that seek to destroy our democracy also seek to destroy our belief in science and empirical reality. They seek to create a world in which finding a real solution to a deadly pandemic will be far more difficult if not impossible.

The people who support alternate-realities and anti-democratic themes pretend to act under the guise of promoting freedom and free will. But what they really want to do is create privilege for themselves by taking away freedom from others while destroying all faith in truth, justice and reality.

Freedom is not the right to act in a manner that denies others of their ability to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It isn’t engaging in Typhoid Mary behavior paraded as false freedoms by choosing to not wear a mask when doing so puts the lives of others at unnecessary risk. It isn’t facilitating the continued spread of the pandemic by refusing to get vaccinated, and/or spreading anti-vax disinformation to discourage others from getting vaccinated.

Rather than an exercise of free will, such actions are nothing less than making a decision to help the virus kill more people. Acting in such in such a manner is an exercise in ignorance and/or stupidity combined with a flagrant disregard for the lives of others.

Some additional things that are not expressions of freedom or independence include: pretending that facts are not real; promoting falsehoods as truths; rewriting history or attempting to obliterate it or prevent people from learning it; behaving in a manner likely to kill or harm other people; supporting racism; being abusive; engaging in criminal conduct; and participating in sedition and insurrection to destroy a lawful democratic government.

Stupidity, ignorance, greed, malevolence, perniciousness and entitlement are all good descriptors for these things… but not freedom.

We don’t yet know how the dominoes will fall in this battle between democracy and autocracy. But there are a few observations that are already clear.

During the first eleven months of the pandemic, the consequences of our having elected alternate-reality, anti-science, and pro-autocracy individuals to lead our country were hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths and a crippled economy.

For the moment, America has reversed course. The jury is still out on whether it foretells a long term trend or a temporary respite.

Yet we can predict with confidence that what happened to America in 2020 only foreshadows the horrors the country’s citizens will face if those who seek to perish from this earth our government of the people, by the people, for the people are successful in their pursuits.

One thing that we can say with certainty is that if each of us remains silent, and if we fail to act with passion and determination to save our democracy, then America as we know it will not prevail.

Each of us has a role to play in helping to shape the outcome. We must each use our voices, and our freedoms, as long as we have them, to do everything in our power to prevent the success of those who seek to destroy all that is good and just and real.

July 4th is Independence Day. It is a good day to reflect upon the value of freedom and independence. I hope you find an opportunity to make the day a meaningful one, for yourself and for our America.

“As in life, when playing dominoes the points of light are what matter, not the surrounding blank. Look for the dots of goodness in the world and an impressive pattern of possibilities emerges. It is here the game is won.”
–M. Daniel Nickle

The third paragraph of this column was edited on July 5, 2021 to refine some of the information given about COVID-19 vaccinations. 

Cliff Kurtzman
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