When they take it too far.

As of today, we are now 27 days into the state-imposed lockdown in Wisconsin, known by the governor’s warm-and-fuzzy “Safer at Home” decree. A week ago, in a unilateral action taken without consultation with the state legislature (which just happens to be controlled by the opposition party), he extended it to May 26, the day after Memorial Day. If not rescinded, that will mean we will have been locked down–or “safer at home,” depending on how you want to phrase it–for 62 days, or 17% of the calendar year.

Our governor, Tony Evers, is a Democrat who was elected in 2018, ousting the two-term incumbent Republican, Scott Walker. Evers’ political affiliation makes no difference in terms of this discussion, although many try to make it the central point of the debate. Whether or not I voted for him is also irrelevant. What is relevant is his decision to lock us down. Whatever it’s called, the lockdown has done a couple things, with varying degrees of certainty. One thing it’s probably done is slow the spread of the coronavirus in Wisconsin. The cause-and-effect of that statement can’t necessarily be proven, as we’ll see, but this definitely can be: the lockdown has devastated Wisconsin’s economy.

 

When authority pushes too far.

Last night we were searching the TV channels for something decent to watch, a practice just about everybody can identify with these days, and came upon the 2004 film I, Robot. Based loosely on a series of short stories and novels by Isaac Asimov that began in 1950, the film shows us Chicago in the year 2035, when technology has advanced to the point where human-like robots are being mass-produced to serve humanity in all manner of roles, from assembly-line work to chefs, maids and bartenders. The company that developed the robots is U.S. Robotics (USR). The robots are governed by the immutable Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such existence does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

 

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In the film, the robots revolutionize the American labor force, until something apparently goes seriously wrong with the newest generation, the NS-5, causing Chicago PD detective Del Spooner (Will Smith) to begin an investigation into an apparent suicide that could turn out to be a homicide committed by a robot.

 

Aided by USR’s most prominent “robopsychologist,” Dr. Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan), Spooner suspects a robot in the possible murder of robotics pioneer Dr. Alfred Lanning, who several years earlier had replaced Spooner’s left arm, lung and some ribs with cybernetic constructs. Spooner had been seriously injured in a traffic accident and rescued from drowning by a robot; despite that, Spooner hates robots because he’d been saved in favor of a 12-year-old girl in another car. The robot had calculated Spooner’s chances of survival were higher, so it allowed the child to drown while rescuing the detective.

(Spoilers ahead!)

At first, Spooner thinks that USR’s CEO, Lawrence Robertson (Bruce Greenwood), the world’s richest man, has been tinkering with the programming of the NS-5 line, allowing the robots to develop something akin to human emotions, and things got out of hand with one of them. The robot under investigation, an NS-5 which calls itself “Sonny,” is captured but allowed to walk free when USR threatens to sue the CPD for false arrest; under the law, a homicide is defined as a human being murdering another human being, so a machine cannot be charged with the crime. But when Robertson himself is killed, suspicion turns toward the ultimate robot: USR’s artificial intelligence mainframe, VIKI (Virtual Interactive Kinetic Intelligence).

Just as Spooner and Calvin are closing in on the truth, the NS-5 robots, reprogrammed by VIKI, stage a revolt. First, they destroy almost all of the previous generation robots, who have been put into storage as they’ve been replaced by the new model. Then, the NS-5s begin roaming the streets of Chicago, telling the humans to go home and await further instruction. The robots are not invulnerable, but they’re extremely strong and agile, more than a match for any unarmed human. The people of Chicago arm themselves as best they can to confront the robots in the streets; although it’s never mentioned, it appears gun control laws are much more strict by 2035, as few of the civilians have firearms. Even the heavily-armed human police officers are having a tough time subduing the robots. Meanwhile, Spooner and Calvin, by now aided by Sonny, infiltrate USR headquarters. There’s a showdown, of course, between VIKI and the human investigators, and this being a movie, VIKI must first explain its motivation for instructing the NS-5s to rebel. VIKI’s words struck me as unsettling:

 

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“You charge us with your safekeeping, yet despite our best efforts, your countries wage wars, you toxify your Earth, and pursue ever more imaginative means of self-destruction. You cannot be trusted with your own survival…To protect humanity, some humans must be sacrificed. To ensure your future, some freedoms must be surrendered…You are so like children. We must save you from yourselves.”

 

Earlier in the day, Sue and I had been talking about the governor’s order and the protests that have already been taking place across the state, and in other states, as people begin to rise up and insist that the governors start re-opening their states’ economies. With all that in mind, it was somewhat eerie to hear VIKI say,

“To ensure your future, some freedoms must be surrendered…We must save you from yourselves.”

Where have we heard that before?

 

Rebelling against authority: an American tradition.

In the film, human authority is in the process of being overthrown by the machines we have created to serve ourselves. VIKI, being the smartest of all the robots, is going to be in charge, and has already formulated its justification for the takeover. What about those supposedly-immutable Three Laws? No problem, VIKI says; it decides the First Law allows it to “save you from yourselves.” Since the First Law is, obviously, most important, the Second Law can be interpreted to allow the robots to disregard human orders, and the Third Law can likewise be turned around to enable the robots to subdue the humans by violent means, if necessary.

Rebellion against authority that is perceived to be unjust is an American tradition, of course, dating all the way back to the first one, that began in 1775 and resulted in the creation of our nation. A lot of Americans who are alive today actively participated in rebellions against the government, from the Vietnam War protests to the civil rights movement to rallies against gun-control legislation. In a sense, even protests against abortion can be put into this category, as abortion is a practice officially protected by the government in every state, in varying degrees. Fifty years ago this week, fully ten percent of the country’s population engaged in protest on the very first Earth Day, turning out en masse to not only clean up their local environment, but tell the government to do something about pollution.

 

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Since the first patriots took to the streets to oppose British rule more than 240 years ago…
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…to the anti-Vietnam War protests of the 1960s and early ’70s…
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…right up to recent marches and rallies protesting strict gun-control laws, like this one in Virginia, Americans have had no qualms about challenging their own government.

 

And now, we’re seeing Americans who are tired of the lockdown restrictions, and in many cases skeptical about what the government is telling us about the impact of the virus and what must be done to contain it, rising up to say enough is enough. The flashpoint appears to have come in Michigan, where thousands gathered in the state capital of Lansing last week to protest the strict protocols of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration. Some parts of the Michigan order can be considered rather draconian: if you live in Michigan, you can’t go to a store to buy paint, even if all you want to do is paint a room in your house while you’re following Whitmer’s order. If you live in southern Michigan and have a vacation home in the Upper Peninsula, you can’t go there, even though you’ll never be leaving the state itself.

 

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Many of the protesters in Lansing stayed in their cars to circle the Capitol, but many others were on foot, and not necessarily maintaining official “social distancing” guidelines. (Jeff Kowalsky photo)

 

Michigan’s restrictions raise some interesting questions that nobody seems to have yet answered. If I’m a resident of Ironwood, up in the UP, and I want to paint that room in my house, can I go right across the border to Hurley, Wisconsin, and buy the paint? If I then bring it back across the line into Michigan, can I be arrested for smuggling? Will the Michigan cops need a warrant to search my car, and if not, doesn’t that mean Whitmer is violating my Constitutional right against unreasonable search and seizure?

Residents of all border communities could face similarly outlandish scenarios. Suppose restaurants open in Minnesota on May 1, but are still closed in Wisconsin. If I live in Superior, can I go across the river to Duluth and have a meal in a restaurant? If I’m stopped when I cross the bridge back into Wisconsin and accused of having a meal over there, how are they going to prove that I did? Suppose Iowa opens its movie theaters on May 1, but Wisconsin’s and Illinois’ remain closed. If I live in Platteville or Galena, can I drive the 20 miles to Dubuque and see a movie? Will the Dubuque cops be checking license plates in the theater parking lot and telling me to go home? And how will they know that I actually saw a movie there anyway? Will Iowa theater owners be forced to have everyone show IDs at the ticket window, and turn away those from states whose residents are not yet allowed to go to the movies? After all, the whole point of closing theaters is to prevent the supposedly-easy spread of the virus. What’s the difference if I catch it at a Wisconsin cinema or one just across the line? My state should be equally concerned, and thus take steps to enforce its restrictions, right? The only way to fully enforce that would be to seal the borders and prevent any Wisconsinite from crossing into Illinois or Iowa or Minnesota or Michigan. And, for that matter, prevent boats from crossing Lake Superior or Lake Michigan, or the Mississippi or St. Croix rivers. There wouldn’t be enough cops to control all the roads and bridges and the coastlines, so Evers would have to call out the National Guard. Good luck with that one. How many Guardsmen do you know who will be willing to stop your car at the border and say, “Sorry, folks, but we must save you from yourselves”?

Unlike our national borders with Canada and Mexico, interstate borders here in the Lower 48 remain wide open. The official word went out in Wisconsin early on that residents of other states who might be coming here to summer homes should stay away, but around here there are all kinds of cars with Minnesota plates, and I’ve heard some Illinois plates have been spotted up near Hayward. Can these people be arrested? If the police pull them over and tell them to go home, how is that enforced? The more you look at this, the more ridiculous it appears.

There are all kinds of stories circulating, some of them unproven but many confirmed, about other states enforcing their restrictions with their police forces. Beaches have been cleared, funerals broken up, even solitary fishermen or boaters have been arrested. (How can you not be social-distancing if you’re out on the water, alone in a boat?) Predictably, many people are now deciding to get back to normalcy, whether the state allows it or not:  The rising of the people.

In Wisconsin, the sheriff of Racine County has announced that his department will not be enforcing Evers’ “safer-at-home” orders. Like many, the sheriff is pairing concerns about the economy with even larger concerns about infringement upon individual rights: Racine stands up and says ‘no.’ Right on the heels of that, a suburban-Milwaukee restaurant owner declared that his four establishments will be open for business as of May 1, no matter what Evers says. The owner will be enforcing social-distancing and enhanced sanitary practices for his patrons, but he’ll open his doors. No doubt the news media will be there to see what happens that day. Will the sheriffs of Milwaukee and Waukesha counties have their deputies out, blocking the doors? Will the restaurateur be arrested? What happens if anti-lockdown citizens are there to make sure the doors open and stay open? Will the government actually order its police to prevent people from eating a meal? Stay tuned.

There was a protest in Madison, our state capital, yesterday. Fewer than 100 turned out, but a lot more are expected to rally there on Friday, which was the date Evers’ original order was scheduled to expire. But one attendee yesterday, a woman from nearby McFarland, had an interesting observation: why is the state permitted to designate which businesses can be open and which can’t? In other words, the state is dictating winners and losers. And indeed, I’ve wondered why it is that I can go to Walmart and buy flowers for Sue, but I can’t go to a florist shop (where they have better flowers) because those are all closed. Not only that, I can go to Walmart or Menards and buy myself a pair of pants, but I can’t go to Kohl’s. One of Sue’s travel colleagues, a lady from Minnesota, told her that she would love to set up a table in her local Costco to take travel reservations, because that’s open and her office isn’t. If Costco employees can sell whatever’s in their store, whether or not it’s strictly needed to ride out the lockdown–I have plenty of pants in my closet, for example–why can’t someone go there and sell travel? Or books, or paintings, or any number of things that specialty stores can’t sell now, unless they do it online?

There’s been push-back from the media, starting with all those who question President Trump’s every move in this whole thing, right down to these protests. Usually the news media is a big fan of demonstrations, because that makes for compelling pictures and there’s always the potential for even more excitement (and higher ratings and website clicks) if things turn violent. But today’s media pick and choose which protests they want to cover, seemingly dependent on their own political leanings. In today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a reporter looked into some of these anti-restriction protests and found out that–surprise–they’re being organized, at least in part, by people who just might have a certain political agenda to push: Wisconsin anti-quarantine protests. I’m willing to stand corrected, but I don’t recall the JS being quite that nosy about who was behind the anti-government protests that rocked Madison for weeks back in 2011 when the legislature passed Act 10, which was perceived by many protesters as being anti-union.

 

Is all of this really necessary?

We are starting to hear more and more questions being raised as to whether lockdowns, at least at this level of severity, are even necessary. There are some other countries where they’ve had success at combating the virus without resorting to these measures:  Sweden is showing the way.

That’s right, Sweden, often held up by many Americans as a shining example of how things should be done over here, in almost every aspect of society. But the Swedes are not that far ahead of the curve in Europe. Switzerland, for example, is opening its schools on May 11.

There’s much we don’t know about the virus and how best to defeat it. No doubt the analysis of our collective response, and those of other countries, will be ongoing for some time when things have all returned to normal. The question has always been, when will that happen? The lockdown was as much to relieve pressure on our healthcare system as it was to slow the spread of the virus. By all indications, both things have happened. The virus has not been eliminated, and it may be many years before it is, if it ever happens, even after a vaccine is developed. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was approved in 1955, but polio itself is still around, although only a few dozen cases a year are reported worldwide. The first effective vaccine against smallpox was developed in 1796–its application was graphically depicted in the TV miniseries John Adams–but the disease itself wasn’t declared to be wiped out in the U.S. until 1949, and it took another 31 years for the rest of the world to be cleared.

A few weeks ago, many pundits and bloggers were saying that it would be many months, perhaps years, before restrictions could be lifted. None of them ever seemed too terribly concerned about the economy, or how they might earn a living if a new Great Depression eliminated their own jobs. Some of them, as I’ve noted before, even seemed to be eagerly anticipating the apocalypse. But just the other day, one of the doomsayers wrote, “Did I miss something?” Even as statistics showed that we’ve turned the corner almost everywhere, and computer models that once predicted catastrophic death rates were now showing much lower numbers, the zombies-are-over-the-next-rise folks are still railing against anyone who isn’t taking it seriously–and by that, they mean everybody who isn’t thinking exactly as they do.

It’s often said that in elections, people tend to vote with their pocketbooks. If the economy is doing reasonably well, and especially if their own personal situation is good, they will vote for the people who had a hand in creating that situation. When it comes to social protests, people often feel they can’t wait till the next election, so they vote, in essence, with their feet, right now. They take to the streets to show their solidarity with a particular idea, and in many cases risk arrest by the police or harm at the hands of counter-protesters. While there will never be universal admiration of demonstrators, no matter the cause–the majority of colonials didn’t even approve of the independence movement back in 1776, for example–people generally have admiration, even if it’s granted grudgingly, for fellow citizens who are willing to stand up and be counted. And we’re starting to see that now, in regard to these restrictions. The historians will eventually weigh in on whether or not the restrictions were necessary to beat the virus, or if it could’ve been done another way, like the way Sweden is doing it, for example. But right now, a lot of people have had it with “safer-at-home” or whatever it’s called. The finger has been pulled from the dike, and that’s why I think Tony Evers will have to rescind his latest order, and do it a lot sooner than May 26.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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