The Vaughn Fallacy

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I enjoy internet memes. They elicit a momentary chuckle or eye-roll (depending on the subject and/or point-of-view). That’s usually where it ends; I don’t have a lot of time to dwell on silly things like that. But every once in awhile, there comes a meme that is so absurd that I can’t abide it.

The memes in question are connected to the current COVID-19 pandemic. It compares the words and actions, when it comes to COVID-19, of President Donald Trump and other (mostly conservative) politicians to those of Larry Vaughn, the feckless mayor of Amity Island (played by Murray Hamilton) from Steven Spielberg’s 1975 masterpiece, Jaws.

As you may recall, Mayor Vaughn was adamant about opening the beaches of Amity, which were the economic lifeblood of the community, for the busy summer season – even though there was a very real threat of a great white shark attacking and killing beachgoers. The comparison to Trump et al comes from their supposed callousness and enthusiasm for reopening the economy “prematurely” at the expense of thousands of people succumbing to the virus.

While it may make for a momentary, emotional comparison without a lot of thought, as both a big movie fan and a big fan of common sense, this comparison doesn’t tread water (pun intended).

A few key points to consider:

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A finite, curable threat: Unlike a virus, the shark was an animal with a relatively narrow reach. More importantly, the shark problem was instantly curable by killing the shark (sequels notwithstanding).

By all accounts from most experts, it looks like this virus will be with us for a very long time. A vaccine is projected to be available by the end of the year (at the earliest), but that doesn’t mean the virus will be eradicated. In fact, we may never completely rid ourselves of it and COVID-19 may become, as internet commentator Bill Whittle put it, “a new way to die.”

At some point, we’re going to have to leave lockdown and live with the virus out in the world. More people will become infected and some will unfortunately die – just like how some people die from the flu, heart disease, cancer, and other ways each year. It’s just part of life in a fallen world. We can find ways to mitigate it and find a cure, but keeping everyone in a lockdown indefinitely is not a viable option. It only postpones the inevitable and it cannot continue forever.

An equal-opportunity threat: The shark was a definite threat to everyone in the water – old, young, and in between. It wasn’t discriminatory in its appetites.

By contrast, this virus is largely killing the old, infirm, and immunocompromised. In fact, a huge percentage, sometimes a majority, of the COVID-19 fatalities in many states and localities have been taking place at nursing homes and other senior care facilities. But the young and healthy are not as affected by this outbreak and should be permitted to re-engage in commerce (with reasonable precautions). Those who are part of the groups most impacted should continue to stay home. But younger, healthier people should be given the green light to go back to work.

The danger was limited to Amity: From what was seen in the film, the shark was limiting its attacks to Amity Island. People in other local communities weren’t threatened. Florida didn’t close its beaches because Amity was dealing with shark attacks.

Different states and localities have been affected by this virus in varying degrees. Not every state is New York, and not every city is New York City. Therefore, certain states and localities are perfectly within their right to reopen (with precautions), which is what some governors and mayors are wisely doing. They don’t have to wait for New York to reach zero cases before opening up.

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Vaughn didn’t listen to his experts: Mayor Vaughn ignored the pleas from Police Chief Brody and Dr. Hooper twice before the beaches were closed – each time causing more death. It was only when he was confronted with the horror and given no other choice that he closed the beaches.

Despite what’s being presented in the media, President Trump is listening to his experts and has issued the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) accordingly. If he didn’t listen to experts like Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, then he wouldn’t have recommended the lockdowns in the first place and wouldn’t have closed off travel to China when he did (even though the media was calling him a racist because of it).

Vaughn’s deliberate duplicitousness: Mayor Vaughn ordered the opening of the beaches despite being told that the shark caught and killed previously by local fisherman could not have been the killer shark. In other words, Vaughn knew for a fact that the threat still existed and chose to lie about it, sending a signal to visitors that it was all good to get back in the water.

President Trump and his advisors have been giving regular briefings to the American people on the situation (where he/they are constantly bombarded by inane, hostile, leading, insipid questions), along with information and guidelines from the CDC, to curb the COVID-19 threat. They have not hidden the ball and been very upfront with the fact that the virus is still a very real threat and should be taken seriously. But, the president also advocates for a balance with another real fact that people are suffering from the economic hardships in catastrophic ways.

With that in mind…

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People have freedom and agency: The tourists of Amity Island were not told of the danger, or if they were, they were reassured that it had been taken care of. Mayor Vaughn even told members of the news media that the shark had been caught and killed. It’s not fair to fault the swimmers for going into the water when they weren’t given the full accounting of the danger.

In contrast, the public has been given plenty of information about the threat of COVID-19 from federal, state, and local officials. While the news media has been ginning up panic about the virus, the CDC has issued common-sense recommendations about how to make the virus less of a threat, like social distancing, personal hygiene, and disinfecting protocols. All of these precautions are reasonable and most people/businesses are voluntarily instituting them.

It is the responsibility of the individual to assess the risks involved, given all the information disseminated. That’s what free adult people do. Waiting for authority to say when it is safe (which can never be guaranteed, no matter who is saying it) is what children do. Living life has always been a risky endeavor – even driving a car to and from work every day gives one an increased chance of death. People make risk assessments for themselves and their families all the time. This one should be no different.

Amity’s citizens weren’t confined to their homes: The threat of the shark attacks did not empower the local government to force Amity’s population indoors or suspend regular business and commerce. The only part of the economy effected by the shark was the tourist industry, which is arguably a sizable part. But the citizens could still move freely in the community.

Contrast that with what’s going on currently with this virus. An argument could be made for the lockdown during the first few weeks of this outbreak. Because it was a novel coronavirus, there was very little hard data available about COVID-19 and its pattern of spread. We adopted this lockdown with a noble goal: to “flatten the curve” of infection so that our hospitals would not be overwhelmed.

Now that more data has been collected, communities and states are cautiously opening up. The medical system is ready for more cases, so much so that many hospitals are laying off personnel due to lack of patients. But some cities and state are movie the goalpost and still stubbornly holding on to their lockdown orders – keeping their constituents at home with no real goal in sight, which is a recipe for resistance.

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Vaughn wasn’t flexing his power: While his actions were definitely cowardly and extremely cynnical, Mayor Vaughn wasn’t looking to use emergency powers to dictate arbitrary new protocols and ways of life to the citizens of Amity.

Meanwhile, this COVID crisis has certainly brought out the worst impulses in a few politicians across the nation (most of them being liberal Democrats). From Chicago’s Mayor Lori Lightfoot to Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, and Governor Gavin Newsom of my own state of California, these “leaders” have shown what petty tyrants they have the potential of becoming. They institute arbitrary rules about what is “essential” commerce – sometimes going so far as to dictate what specifically can and can’t be sold in a store. And some cannot even be bothered to follow their own draconian rules.

This, I believe, is the most egregious part of this entire crisis. Under the guise of an emergency, opportunistic politicians like the ones mentioned above are treating the rights of the individual enumerated and enshrined in the United States Consitution as mere suggestions, not the God-given essence of our humanity that the founders declared. And let’s not forget about politicians and pundits centered in Washington, D.C. who have used this crisis as an opportunity to enact parts of their agendas to remake the nation and its economy into something decidedly un-American. It’s disgusting.

It shows me that politicians should never, ever be trusted with this much power again.

Mayor Vaughn wasn’t completely wrong: This may be the most controversial point on this list, but Mayor Vaughn was right to be fearful of an economic downturn caused by the shark. The problem was the way he went about dealing with it. Vaughn should have sent Qunit out immediately to hunt the shark and closed the beaches until there was confirmation that the shark was killed. Instead, he took the coward’s way out.

The media, politicians, and intelligensia seem to forget that the economy isn’t some inhuman blob that can be manipulated on a whim. The reality is that the economy is made up of real people – tens of millions of Americans whose lives have been forcibly upended by these lockdowns. This wasn’t a slump that was part of a natural economic cycle; it was a deliberate economic stoppage. This factor is just as important and worthy of discussion as the efforts to preserve life for a variety of reasons.

These lockdowns had a noble goal starting out, and we should celebrate what has been accomplished as far as “flattening the curve” goes. But it is getting ridiculous out there now and the livelihoods of millions of people could be wiped out if the economy isn’t allowed to come back up soon. And the government doesn’t have enough money (real money) to take care of everyone for an extended period of time. As I stated earlier, people at some point will have to go back to work living in a reality with this virus.

I applaud those governors, mayors, county supervisors, and the like – both Republican and Democrat – who are reopening their economies. Most of them are doing so in a responsible manner and with the needs of their citizens in mind.

This is not to downplay the loss of life that has tragically happened due to this virus. It is sad whenever someone dies under circumstances like these. But we must also remember that there are trade-offs in every public policy decision made. This is not a new concept. And on a human level, this current course of action may become worse than the actual virus we are fighting – especially because milestones are constantly changing and politicians, for whatever reason, are reticent to give up their newfound power.

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It really frustrates me that the media, pop culture, and even many of my friends and acquaintances continue to characterize lockdown protestors as “selfish,” caring only about money and “profit” (which has always been a no-no word in certain circles of thought), and other slanders. It is especially frustrating that they engage in nut-picking and selectively seek out the minority of bozos in the crowd to characterize everyone in a bad light.

People just want to go back to work. They don’t want to live off the government dole for months; they want to provide for their families with dignity. And they want to do it responsibly. Some have worked their entire lives to build small businesses and don’t want to see them collapse before their eyes. I feel genuine sympathy for people like the stylist in Texas and the barber in Michigan who just want to work and feed their families.

It also saddens me that many of my fellow Americans would so easily give up their freedom for a nebulous sense of security, especially with something as pernicious as a virus. The government cannot guarantee medical safety, and as Benjamin Franklin famously said, “Those than can give up essential liberty to gain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” It goes back to people’s ideas of what government’s job should be, but that is a discussion for another time.

There are frustrations on both sides of the issue, but we need to tolerate and respect each other’s freedom and choices when it comes to navigating this crisis on an individual level. If someone wants to remain in lockdown after the economy has opened up, that needs to be respected and accommodated – especially if they are in a high-risk group. And if someone else wants to go out and work, that needs to be respected as well. We can’t live in a world where we snitch on one another because we’re not wearing a mask or exactly six feet away from one another. We have to meet each other where we are if we’re going to get through this.

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I would really like to salute President Trump for his handling of the entire situation. He took a little longer that I would have liked to get fully on board, but he has since shown some incredible leadership. The federal government hasn’t expanded in response to this crisis and the president has deferred instead to state authorities to do what they see fit for their own citizens and pledged additional support if needed. That is the way the system is supposed to work.

It’s amazing and head-scratching that the same crowd who continually characterize President Trump as a despot-in-the-making akin to Adolf Hitler are lamenting that he isn’t taking more control of the situation on a national level. This was a perfect opportunity for Trump to flex his supposed despotic muscles and he didn’t. But the press will never give him credit for that.

I have no allusions to the fact that Presidnet Trump is an imperfect human being. He’s rude, prone to exaggeration, tweets nonsense sometimes, and has a litany of other flaws. But I’m not looking to him for salvation or moral example. I have a Savior who has interceded on my behalf who does both. The president has shown a lot of character in his handling of this crisis and should be commended for it – character that I doubt his predecessor or his 2016 election opponent could have mustered to resist such an opportunity to seize more power.

It’s also head-scratching that memers are comparing New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to Amity Police Chief Martin Brody. Governor Cuomo issued an order that nursing home patients with COVID-19 be sent back to their facilities, which caused a tremendous spike in COVID deaths in these places – an order Cuomo eventually rescinded just a few days ago. If Cuomo is Chief Brody in this anaolgy, he definitely wasn’t keeping the beaches safe and, in fact, was instructing slower swimmers to jump in the water. And yet, Cuomo is lauded by the media as a hero while Trump is vilified.

My wife and I pray for the president, his team of experts, as well as the rest of the nation’s leaders for wisdom, character, and guidance when they are needed most. I also pray continually for the safety and health of my fellow citizens, as well as the medical personnel who are working hard to save lives every day. May God bless them all.

Memes are fun, but they sure can be frustrating sometimes – especially when they create false choices and analogies. Comparing President Trump to Larry Vaughn is especially troubling, as it insinuates that the president and other people that want to restart the economy and go back to work do not care about the human toll the virus is taking when nothing could be further from the truth. No sane person wants anyone to die. But we also can’t hide from death forever, either.

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2 thoughts on “The Vaughn Fallacy

    • Context is key for old quotes like that (2006). The full quote indicates that he was being a little facious with his comments. The other part of the quote is:

      “Okay, in that instance, he (Vaughn) was actually wrong. But in principle, we need more politicians like the mayor. We are often the only obstacle against all the nonsense which is really a massive conspiracy against the taxpayer.”

      Great looking blog, by the way!

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