Over the weekend, The Washington Post published a chilling description of the first day of reopened business at a mall in an upscale suburb of Atlanta, Georgia. Bored rich people wandered the aisles of Anthropologie and Crate & Barrel, pawing at the wares, some with no masks or hand sanitizer in sight. One woman getting a manicure said, “I went to the antique mall yesterday on Highway 9 and it was just like—it was like freedom. We have to get out.” Everyone who is lucky enough not to have to work is chafing at being stuck at home, but one has to laugh at the idea that American Freedom is visiting the antique mall on Highway 9. Then again, maybe she’s right: Maybe that is American Freedom.
The right to visit whatever business you please is not one enshrined in the Constitution. There is no constitutional right to go to Arby’s. But from the start, lockdown protesters claimed their constitutional rights were being trampled by the stay-at-home orders. Protest signs in Southern California read: “Pandemics does [sic] NOT cancel our Constitutional rights!! Freedom over fear,” and “No Liberty, No Life, Reopen California.” My colleague Matt Ford is not the only one suggesting tweaks to America’s foundational documents, it seems: The angry bourgeoisie of the “reopen America” movement has invented an entirely new category of civil rights.
On Monday, in New Jersey, a protester at a gym that opened despite the shutdown order held a sign that said, “The constitution is essential,” and another held a sign that said, “Right to work/Right to worship/Right to free speech/Right to be free.” A protester in Washington said: “I lost my job as a bartender and now I live on way less income, and I’m upset that my constitutional rights are being trampled all over.” Advocates of a federal job guarantee will be thrilled to hear that there is a constitutional right to a job.
This line of criticism might make a little more sense if the issue in question was the federal government enforcing a broad order to physically keep residents inside their homes. But there are no patrols of soldiers forcing citizens to remain indoors, certainly not among the white and wealthy. Take Newport Beach, California, for example: The city said on April 3 that it would not enforce Governor Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order, saying the governor “expects Californians to do the right thing” and “self-regulate.” Californians can still go to the grocery store, the pharmacy, the laundromat. They can still shop online. They can still go for walks. They can even go to Arby’s—drive-thru, at least.
But the people who took their AR-15s to Subway, citing their “God-given freedoms as Americans,” are not talking about their actual constitutional rights. They are talking about their unique understanding of the mythical promise of this nation, which is a place where a man can drive a big-ass truck, drink a 64 oz Slurpee, and go to the air-conditioned mall to purchase Stuff. Because this is America, and if that’s what America is, that’s what the Constitution must necessarily be protecting. Children are educated in our schools that the Constitution defends the American “way of life.” It’s not that surprising if the end result is that people think this is actually true. In this case, they rage at being prevented from living their normal lives—going to Bed Bath & Beyond, drinking margaritas at Chili’s with friends, golfing—because they consider the conduct of their normal lives to be inseparable from the purpose of America. The right of essential workers not to die of the coronavirus does not seem to enter the equation.
The fact remains that even if a mandatory quarantine were harshly enforced by the government, all the available evidence suggests that the white people who feel threatened enough by government overreach to parade around state capitols with guns are not the ones who would be at risk of violence from the police. New York City data revealed earlier this month that 35 of the 40 people arrested for social distancing violations were black, four were Hispanic, and only one was white. White dudes who own big pickup trucks and live in Newport Beach have rarely been at risk of overaggressive policing.
This is simply the conservative mentality: a constant state of perceived victimhood. The notion that oppressed groups enjoy being persecuted, because it lets them complain about victimization, becomes a weird sort of envy. This leads the would-be wretches to invent forms of oppression, like having to buy two iced teas instead of getting a free refill, so they get to have a turn at complaining. They may genuinely not realize that actually oppressed groups are not having fun when they object to their situation. The conservative-fear-industrial complex runs on conjuring ever-changing enemies of liberty, each browner and more Marxist than the last, because it makes them feel alive.
Hence the outrage directed at Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for noting that we will need to consume less beef if we want to prevent apocalyptic climate change, which was in turn reminiscent of the anger at Michelle Obama for proposing that children should be given healthy food at school instead of pizza and white bread. How dare you, government bureaucrat, suggest that I shouldn’t kill myself with a diet of only red meat and Mr. Pibb? Never mind the millions for whom a diet of processed food and soda is all that’s affordable or available; the real oppression is you criticizing the choices I use to define myself, which, for some reason, now include eating burgers. For anyone, particularly nonwhite women, to suggest otherwise is essentially the new Gestapo.
There is no logical connection between your constitutional rights and shopping at businesses you like. But it makes the desire for normality, which we all crave, much more defensible if you frame it as being a martyr for American liberty in the vein of Thomas Jefferson, and not a sad admission that the America of sterile malls, connected by vast freeways and staffed by the underpaid masses, is what you would actually die for.