Bartleby, the Covid Denier
In the classic Herman Melville story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” the eponymous Bartleby is hired by a Wall Street law firm to copy documents by hand. (Since being chained to a Xerox VersaLink B605/X USB & Network Ready Laser All-In-One Printer wasn’t possible in 1850).
Things were going well; Bartleby was significantly exceeding expectations. Until suddenly one day, he decided to stop scrivening.
“Why?” his boss asked Bartleby repeatedly. (This was before HR was invented to “smoothly effectuate the transition” of “valued team members” to “explore exciting future horizons” to “find the optimal fit” and “avoid costly complaints and settlements.”)
Bartleby repeatedly replied, “I prefer not to.” He also refused to leave, and even started living at the office 24–7 like a first-year associate until finally … well, you read the story.
Melville’s existential tale helps me understand why some Americans still don’t believe the Covid-19 danger: They simply prefer not to.
As the pandemic steadily shuts down life as we know it to contain the spread, illness, deaths and stress on our exhausted healthcare system and workers — with hope, cutting 1.2 million potential deaths to a mere 200,000 — I checked in with a longtime tennis buddy about how he and his wife were doing.
“I am working some from home and spending time cursing at the Fake News anchors,” he emailed back. “Over 28 thousand people have died from the flu this year so I don’t know why this is such a big deal.”
Yes, he’s a dyed-wool Republican. I don’t think he was being ironical.
But before you attack my friend as blindly ignorant, parroting Trump and right-wing news, or selfishly and dangerously spreading the virus with his denial, he’s smart, educated, accomplished and responsible in all aspects of life. As a seasoned civil engineer specializing in highway bridges, my friend certainly respects facts and data, and understands managing and mitigating risk to ensure safety and avoid tragedy.
Yet he scoffs at the coronavirus pandemic.
My friend is not alone in still believing the pandemic is hyped by the liberal mainstream media.
While Covid-19, like the rain, falls on everyone equally, from MAGAs to the Trump-deranged, respect for the virus somehow has fallen along partisan lines.
In mid-March, 84% of Democrats were concerned or very concerned, while only 58% of Republicans were, per the NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll then.
My friend and neighbor, Wall Street Journal and NBC News data journalist Dante Chinni, was attacked on social media by a Trump acolyte for his article noting the partisan difference.
As Chinni reported, 77% of confirmed Covid-19 cases were in counties that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Trump counties reported only 19% of the cases.
“Those are wide discrepancies and they go to the first-hand experience those populations have with the virus,” Chinni wrote. “People in those Trump counties are less likely to know someone from the community who is suffering from the virus compared to those in Clinton counties.”
In other words, like Show-Me Missourians, Trump voters are saying, if we don’t see it, then it’s not happening, whatever the lying mainstream media says. Like a Facebook friend posted in March, nobody she knew, or anybody they knew, had it or died.
Yet it’s too easy to be outraged by Covid-19 deniers.
Even though they’re like anti-vaxxers, reckless drivers, chain smokers, and others who imperil or cost fellow Americans by doing whatever they feel like, devil take the hindmost.
But bless our hearts, America’s always had an independent, rebellious, defiant, ornery, anti-regulation, Harley-without-helmet, “nobody’s gonna tell ME what to do” strain.
Even today, >50 years after federal seat-belt laws were adopted, “27 million Americans aren’t taking the simple, lifesaving step of buckling up,” NHTSA says. As Wired reported in 2016,“in 15 states where you can only get ticketed if you’re pulled over for something else, plus live-free-or-die New Hampshire, usage drops to 78.6 percent.”
America was founded on rebellion. We killed 750,000 fellow citizens in the Civil War over rebellion, and many Stars & Bars “flaggers” are still fighting “northern aggression.” Our popular music, from country, hard rock, glitter rock, garage rock, grunge, rap and punk from The Clash to Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell,” has always sneered at authority and rules.
Trump is both chicken and egg for his frustrated rebels, representing and fueling their resentments.
He’s the Rebel President. He won’t do what he’s told by “the best people” he appoints. He won’t listen to experts. He doesn’t care what our foreign allies think. He’ll say one thing this morning and the opposite this afternoon, knowing that only stupid nerds care about facts, and consistency — smart or foolish — is the hobgoblin of coastal urban liberal minds.
On Twitter, at his rallies and even in “war president” briefings about the Covid-19 pandemic, Trump will say whatever he wants, however he wants, and not give a rat’s if the smarty pants get their knickers in a twist.
To his people, Trump is Thomas Paine wrapped in Nathan Hale. He’s the Confederate generals whose statues are being taken down by triggered liberals. He’s James Dean/Jim Stark in “Rebel Without a Cause,” Marlon Brando/Terry Malloy in “On the Waterfront,” and Peter Finch/Howard Beale in “Network” screaming, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Throw in a little Travis Bickel/Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver,” and mix with your own favorite rebel heroes.
Bartleby’s preference to resist unfortunately was more tragic than heroic.
His strange rebellion eventually hurt him first and worst. I hope Covid deniers learn this lesson before it’s too late for them — and all of us.
Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer.