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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: Symbolic gestures, opening days

by Philip Martin | April 4, 2021 at 8:50 a.m.

For the second straight Easter, there's no Gin and Ham party to go to.

Lots of people have had more important things canceled because of and during this pandemic that we might finally be getting out from under soon. TV shows, careers and lives all eventually get canceled; continuity is the exception, not the rule. Maybe next Easter we can gather with our gin and ham friends, but even in normal years there's always some attrition. The world eventually wears you down and rubs you out.

But Easter promises rebirth and regeneration, and allows us to consider the possibility of eternal life via the example of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Easter is about life restored and the world remade. We suffer the winter of Lent and arrive here, on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox, proximate to spring and Opening Day when, author Thomas Boswell reminds us, time begins.

This year that feels truer than it has in other years, though a fourth wave of covid-19 infections is likely going to break over us. Which means the Texas Rangers probably shouldn't allow a full capacity crowd in the stadium at their home opener Monday.

Though the Texas governor has said the state is 100 percent open, the Rangers know this is unwise; they say they're going to start restricting crowds and trying to enforce social distancing in the games following the opener.

So why are they doing it? They say they can do it safely and responsibly, whatever that means. They're going to encourage fans to wear masks. And baseball has a big advantage over basketball and hockey in that it's played outdoors, where the open air reduces the chances of transmission.

But no doubt part of the opening day stunt has to do with bragging rights: The Rangers want to be the first team in any major sport since the pandemic began to re-open their stadium to a full-capacity crowd. They want to make a symbolic gesture, to raise a middle finger at the spectre of the coronavirus, which will not mess with their unconquerable Texas souls.

Bless their hearts.

We are not opposed to symbolic gestures in general. Sometimes all you can do is signal your displeasure or defiance. You can wear an armband or change your Facebook profile for a day to register your solidarity with some cause or celebrity. Sometimes these small actions can influence public opinion or raise awareness. When human actors are involved, things get complicated. Hearts can be moved. Shame is a powerful weapon. Even an appeal to reason can occasionally work.

But a virus doesn't care about your feelings, or how brave and unbowed you are before it. It just does what it does, and will thrive if you prepare the way for it.

To a large extent, our behavior has shaped the pandemic's reach; our obstinacy has been tragic. In a way, our response was miraculous--in a little over 14 months we went from reluctantly acknowledging the existence of a deadly new disease to the point where almost everyone in Arkansas who wants one can get a vaccination against that disease. It looks like by the time the second anniversary of the discovery of this coronavirus rolls around, we'll have pretty much beaten it.

That's impressive.

Except, despite the obvious triumph of our science, there are plenty of people willing to deny it. There are plenty of people here and elsewhere who, for reasons that seem to have a lot to do with signaling their impatience with rationality, don't want to get a shot or wear a mask or refrain from hugging strangers in sports bars.

Some of that is born of pure-D ignorance (take the ol' boy who wrote the newspaper to say that he didn't need no vaccination because he wasn't sick) and some of that is due to a cynical campaign of disinformation designed to monetize the fears and loathings of those who follow "politics" like the right-thinking do the box scores. But some of it is comes from a place deep in every human heart that insists on its own exceptionalism.

That's as dangerous a notion as there is. You can think you are special all you want. No virus cares about that.

Yet most of us still kindle that little flame. We think there's something that exempts us from the normal rules. Some of us think this means we won't get sick.

A year or so ago, I wrote that I felt this way. That while I was determined to wear a mask and to follow all the best practices recommended by the real epidemiologists (as opposed to the honorable experts braying for attention over at the Capitol), I didn't expect to contract the virus. While I intellectually understood this was an irrational belief, that didn't make it any less real. You could say I had faith I wouldn't contract the virus.

Having made it through the year without contracting the virus, I could take this as evidence that the small still voice inside me was telling me that I was somehow blessed with an especially virus- resistant constitution or something. But it's more likely that I avoided catching the virus because I altered my behavior and was just plain lucky.

I didn't do anything stupid like attend an event in a crowded stadium.

And sure, I could have been unlucky. Lots of people who masked up and used hand sanitizer and had their groceries delivered got covid anyway. You can't make the world 100 percent safe for everybody. All of us have to assume some risks.

And sometimes we even have to be stupid, because it just feels good to let your emotions flood a certain compartmentalized zone. And as we progress as a species, we figure out all kinds of beautiful ways we can be stupid in relative safety. That's why we have horror movies and power ballads. Those of us who love sports do so because we can invest everything in contests that aren't very important.

But we are complex and sensitive, and it's not always easy to keep track of what is and isn't important. People quit their friends and blackball their families over sports and politics.

It's important that Gin and Ham gets back on track next year.

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