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Jay Ambrose: An autocratic, unprecedented route

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Jay Ambrose

We've never seen anything like it, have we — some state governments not just advising people on how to spend Thanksgiving with their families, but dictating how they do it or whether they do it at all? Here was totalitarianism unknown in American history, cops just maybe arresting you if there were too many people at the table, and it did not stop there.

Some states have also dictated how many people can go to church despite precautions being taken. And, yes, it is totally proper to give advice, to say lives could be at stake from COVID-19 if large numbers were gathering in close proximity, and, to go further, to say this isn't just about you but about the harm you can do to others through transmission. But here's the thing. If government travels an autocratic, unprecedented route with the pandemic, what's going to happen to liberty generally and with other matters, such as climate change?

Keep in mind that President-elect Joe Biden has called climate change an "existential threat," meaning human existence is at risk. But while they do say climate change is going to demand some tough adjustments, there are scientists who disagree while they point to cautious steps and innovative ideas in the wings. We need to skip such extreme solutions as replacing fossil fuels with renewable fuels and saying goodbye to industrialism.

Of course, Biden and others, while giving voice to extreme worries, tell us that we will have a revived economy. That is nonsense, especially if people don't get it that it would at least take nuclear energy to replace fossil fuels without tragic mishap. Actually, there is nothing the United States can do in and of itself to halt climate change. It is a global issue, and what do we do about China, say, if it refuses to budge? Given the belief that humanity is at stake, would war be an option?

The truth is that some supposed remedies could be a bigger threat than climate change, and look at what we are doing in the pandemic. The total shutdowns of industry can cost millions of jobs, destroy businesses in vast numbers and, yes, kill people. A crunched economy will mean less education, less health care, more poverty, more misery. And what about New York where it had been OK for large numbers to go to liquor stores and later drink up but not go to churches and pray? The Supreme Court came down on the side of religious liberty.

At any rate, at least some experts argue, 99% of people who contract the virus are in no danger of death, and those who are, the elderly and those with underlying conditions, can be addressed as a special class needing special help and protection as others rebuild our economy. Schools are safe if opened correctly, and the information on how to do it is readily available. Keeping children out of schools can be a disaster for them, a rip in their education that may never be totally repaired. Digital instruction is simply not available for everyone and nowhere close to the efficacy of person-to-person instruction.

Scientists debate some of this, but we have been a free society, although yes, in emergencies we expect the government to intervene more than usual. It does not follow that anything goes or that overreach will be successful. An American instinct is for people to decide certain matters for themselves. It is actually more than an instinct, but a conviction that we have our rights. I do not hereby offer my respect to people who are careless, but neither do I believe Thanksgiving celebration is a matter of law enforcement with no implications for the future.

Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service. Email


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