The coronavirus’ hubris crisis
In one of the final dialogues of “Antigone,” the third play in Sophocles’ epic Oedipus Cycle, the blind fortune teller Tiresias has some choice advice for his king, Creon of Thebes. As Creon is deciding his niece Antigone’s fate after she illegally buried her brother Polynices, he struggles to balance the urge to appear strong before his people — who had recently emerged from two long, bloody conflicts — and to understand that Antigone’s crime was committed out of love and religious duty rather than seditious defiance. Creon, choosing the former, imprisons Antigone in a stone crypt despite her romantic infatuation with his son.
Seeing the deep dilemma Creon faces and knowing that the gods disapprove of his decision, Tiresias tells his king, “All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride.”
Here, according to both prophet and playwright, it is not the mistake itself that dooms one to failure and humiliation; rather, one is doomed by the refusal to see the error in one’s ways, the inability to engage in any degree of meaningful introspection and the desire to appear strong above all else, no matter the cost.
While “Antigone” was written in 441 BCE, its message is applicable to certain aspects of the modern American political landscape. When President Trump tested positive for COVID-19, a virus whose potency, deadliness and existence he has doubted for months, some rightfully thought that he might begin to understand it, if not take it seriously. Suffering allegedly severe and debilitating symptoms despite getting the best care and treatment in the world in his subsequent hospitalization, one might think that the president could finally understand the pandemic and why, for most people, it presents a terrifying uncertainty. There was even a brief glimmer of hope, as he appeared in a video during his stay in Walter Reed Medical Center, stating that he “learned a lot about COVID” and that he “understood” it. It seemed as if an intimate, near-death experience with the virus humbled the president, and that in the weeks leading up to the election, he would at least begin to exhibit the humility expected of any leader who has failed so completely.
However, within a day of his hospitalization, the president, while almost certainly still contagious, took a car ride around the hospital to wave to his supporters, endangering the lives of several Secret Service personnel in the process. His reasoning for doing so, as well as for leaving the hospital three days after his initial diagnosis, was that he wanted to “be out front” and appear strong before his supporters, stating secretly that people who stay in hospitals while sick are weak. On Oct. 6, President Trump tweeted that COVID-19 was “less deadly than the flu,” despite knowing public awareness of his real views on the matter, broadcast back in February.
The sheer irresponsibility and arrogance associated with such actions reveals a deeply flawed and fatal mindset that I have observed not only with the president, but also within many political figures across the country: the notion that any semblance of humility, empathy or an admittance of personal wrongdoing is an abject weakness, and that any acknowledgment of professional malfeasance is defeat. One does not simply ignore their own wrongdoings, but, to some extent, acknowledges their existence and thinks that it is the equivalent of political suicide or an utter annhiliation of character to admit to them.
Similar to President Trump, governors such as Florida's Ronald DeSantis have had contradictory and counterintuitive responses to growing numbers of COVID-19 cases in their respective states. DeSantis has refused to sign and outright blocked mask mandates, reopened locations of mass-gathering such as bars and stadiums with little to no restrictions despite still seeing thousands of new cases a day and declared their state “open for business.” In particular, Governor DeSantis has shunned the advice of scientists and infectious disease experts and instead has relied on his wife and chief of staff for wisdom concerning his pandemic policies, mocking those who disagreed with them. One individual who drew Governor DeSantis' ire was New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Although New York was the epicenter of the pandemic early on, Governor Cuomo launched one of the country’s most effective containments of the virus, quickly making the state’s positive test rate one of the lowest in the country relative to population. The difference between the two governors is that Cuomo was capable of recognizing the fact that if he did not act quickly and present New Yorkers with an uncomfortable reality, there would be a far greater number of COVID-19 cases and related deaths. To Cuomo, the only victory came when New York’s daily positive test rate was at 0.8%, while Florida’s was at 16.5% at the time of DeSantis’ comments. As of press time, Governor DeSantis is continuing to revoke capacity restrictions on bars, gyms and restaurants, while his state is still seeing 3,000 new cases a day. To Governor DeSantis, pausing the reopening and engaging healthcare personnel and experts the way New York did amounts to weakness, an admittance of mistake-making that could shatter what evidently is his fragile ego and veneer of control. This pride is criminal.
As election day inches closer and closer, we should recall Tiresias’ wise words and use them to engage in the self-reflection and hubris-repelling behavior that President Trump, Governor DeSantis and King Creon could not, repairing the evils plaguing this great nation in the process.