Is “the health and wellbeing of our hospital system” a paramount value?
Is illness the fault of unmasked people?
At the November 24 meeting of the Trustees of the Ottawa-Carleton School Board, the motion to institute a mask mandate in schools failed on a tie (6-6).
The November 24 meeting was a continuation of a November 22 meeting held in the presence of an audience that was disrupted by shouting. I described my experience of quietly observing the disruption of the meeting in a previous post on this Substack.
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In the November 24 meeting, there were many words of moral decency and common sense spoken by trustees who voted against the mask mandate. Given my concerns about the controlling direction in which our society may be going, I was especially encouraged by the younger generation. Student trustees Tabarak Al-Delaimi and Antong Hou (whose vote does not count, so the vote with them would have been 8 against, 6 in favor) both argued in a well-reasoned and articulate manner about the divisive potential of the proposed mandate. Al-Delaimi starts to speak around 2:49 in the following video of the meeting, and Hou around 2:55:46.
A tie of 6-6, though officially a fail for the mask mandate, is a precarious outcome that symbolizes how divided our society has become.
The disruption to the November 22 meeting was a powerful and disturbing experience to watch. Even though I agree with the content of some of the things that were shouted out, I felt uncomfortable with shouting as a mode of behavior, and in particular with the shouts that were personally targeted toward Dr. Nili Kaplan-Myrth.
I agree with much of the criticism that has been directed toward Kaplan-Myrth. In the video within the following article, Kaplan-Myrth says that she “grew up in a dysfunctional, violent family.” But, as the student trustees correctly analyzed, the proposed mandate, if passed, would have run the risk of turning the students, teachers and staff in Ottawa’s schools into a dysfunctional community:
I also discussed in a previous Substack the fact that Kaplan-Myrth and I likely share a concern with antisemitism and inter-generational Holocaust trauma, but that in my view one of the most important lessons from totalitarianism is to be careful about excessive control and overreach of power. It should also be remembered that blaming the Jews for being spreaders of germs played a prominent role in Nazi propaganda.
The disruption of the meeting and the shouts that personally targeted Kaplan-Myrth was disconcerting and reinforced my concerns. Hearing any name being angrily shouted is disturbing, but the name Nili carries special subjective connotation to me because while in Ottawa it is a rare name, among the Jewish population in Israel, where I grew up, it is quite a common name. I can easily imagine a fictional person by the name of Nili Kaplan being my kindly elementary school teacher or friendly librarian or a neighbour. As such, the name Nili has heartwarming connotations to me.
In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the young and idealistic Juliet, eager to look past the fact that Romeo carries the last name of a rival family, dismisses the importance of name as a merely external signifier: “What's in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet.” In other words, it is the essence of a person, the metaphorical “scent” that they exude toward their fellow human beings, rather than superficial characteristics such as their name or origin, that should matter to us. Perhaps this was what Martin Luther King meant when he spoke about the hope of being judged by the content of our characters instead of by the color of our skin.
In an ideal world, I should not care which name is being shouted at, as targeting any person in this way is a morally problematic strategy. But in the real world, words and names can have subjective connotations, and it was an especially unpleasant experience to see a person in Ottawa being reviled who has the same name as a fictional person who, in my childhood, might have dropped by for coffee and cake in the afternoon at my parents’ home.
Kaplan-Myrth does seem to have some characteristics and abilities that intuitively make me feel respect—determination, energy, bold courage, dedication to a cause, ability to stand her ground and believe in what she is doing. But if she did drop by for coffee and cake and was open to discussing life through what literature can teach us, these are some of the points that I would have liked to discuss with her:
· Lessons from fiction about the dangers of overreaching (literature, going back to antiquity, is full of examples of characters with noble characteristics who experience problematic outcomes due to over-reaching). I believe the lessons about the limitations of human knowledge and power that our literary tradition has to offer are important for health professionals to study.
· Lessons from fiction about the increasing importance of the concept of liberty throughout history.
· How the “dangerous powers of the e-personality” (to quote a term used by Elias Aboujaoude) and the “thrill-seeking” nature of online activity can result in a communication style that harbours antagonism and that is excessively polarizing. Is it partly the love of the electronic limelight that makes it difficult for some medical authorities to move beyond COVID measures?
· Our shared concern with antisemitism and with the inter-generational memory of the Holocaust. I believe that Jewish people who have the energy, determination, skill and luck to achieve positions of power in the public sphere have a special responsibility to not overreach, as overreaching by a Jewish person provides fuel for the false antisemitic thesis that Jews have an agenda to control the world. This is not the same as blaming the victim; it is about heightened awareness about not providing material for false and destructive narratives.
In “My Life as a Muslim in the West’s ‘Grey Zone,’” Laila Lalami invites her readers to put themselves in the position of the vast majority of Muslims who object to terrorism: “Imagine if, after every mass shooting in a school or a movie theatre in The United States, young white men in this country were told that they had to publicly denounce gun violence. The reason this is not the case is that we presume each young white man to be solely responsible for his actions, whereas Muslims are held collectively responsible. To be Muslim in the West is to be constantly on trial” (p. 790 in The Broadview Anthology of Expository Prose).
If antisemitic ideas are allowed to thrive, then the problem of every Jew being “constantly on trial” for false antisemitic stereotypes will also be enabled. Every human being is responsible for not overreaching in a manner that might harm others, but when a Jewish person overreaches in a manner that might harm and antagonize others, their actions have the added unfortunate consequence of providing fodder for Jew hate.
Starting at 3:14:35 in the recording below, Kaplan-Myrth characterizes the request for a mask mandate as simple, necessary and temporary. She also characterizes the willingness to ignore the plea of hospitals for people to mask as not “freedom” but “recklessness.” However, overreaching while in a position of power is also reckless, and I believe that a Jewish person in a position of power who overreaches and acts in an excessively controlling manner is showing recklessness toward the Jewish people by behaving in a manner that can then be used in antisemitic narratives that falsely accuse Jews as a group of seeking disproportionate control. Masks are not the only reality that needs to be spoken about in an empirical way; Jew hate is also an empirical reality. Sadly, Jew hate is a moral ailment that has infected or is at risk of infecting many people in either overt or latent forms. I recently read on social media (I think it might have been in the context of Pfizer and money) that you cannot put cream in front of a cat and tell the cat to not lick it. Jewish people should not stand reckless or powerless in the face of Jew hate. We do have a responsibility to not feed the beast, and Jewish people who pursue an overly controlling course of action have to be mindful of the twisted ways in which their behavior may be used by Jew-hating agendas.
As a reminder of how close to home in Ottawa Jew hate under the mask of “criticism of Israel” is, here is an email I recently sent to Ottawa Centre MPP Joel Harden, following his apology for using antisemitic stereotypes in an interview:
Dear Mr. Harden,
I feel bullied by your antisemitic comments and doubt the sincerity of your apology. I feel intimidated by the fact that a person who holds your views and emotions about Israel is in a position of power.
I hope that you will stop doing harm and learn that exaggerated and distorting criticism of Israel is the latest metamorphosis of Jew hate.
People who have developed an obsessive "interest" in criticism of Israel have done so because open antisemitism is no longer acceptable in polite society. When open antisemitism was allowed, my grandfather's neighbours in Poland told him, "dirty Jew, go to Palestine," and the Nazis actively encouraged Jewish immigration to Palestine before they turned to systematic mass murder in WW2. What a convenient way to "package" Jews in one place so that people like you can continue to direct Jew hate toward them! Israel is a wonderful country that, like any other country, is not perfect. In its origin, it was not only a response to antisemitism but was also an "accommodation" for antisemitic "neighbours" who seemed quite eager to see the Jews go to Palestine.
And by the way, the Palestinians are the secondary victims of people like you who spread lies about Israel because these lies sometimes help to inspire some of them to take destructive action that is directly against their best interests of living in peaceful co-existence with Israel.
Good luck in your learning journey!
Gefen Bar-On Santor
Back to Kaplan-Myrth:
I feel compassion and a certain measure of emotional protectiveness toward Nili Kaplan-Myrth because I believe that her “chutzpa” and exceptional persistence and determination (albeit for a cause that I consider to be misguided) have landed her in a situation in which she has become the target for a great deal of heated criticism (and in some cases likely unacceptable hate). Her tragic flaw is one that she might share with some characters throughout the history of literature: she seems to have abilities that can enable her to do a great deal of good in certain contexts, but she tries to control what cannot be controlled. The revealed preference of the population is clear: the majority of people are not supportive of mask mandates but view masking as an individual choice—a choice that most people are not prepared to freely make. This includes the students who would be forced to wear masks and their parents. Many doctors and experts have understood and accepted that zeitgeist of needing to move beyond masks, but Kaplan-Myrth has continued to push for mask mandates in the name of compassion, which in effect has led her to assert superiority and hubris over the public, lording over us with authoritative absolutes. As such, Kaplan-Myrth may be both the author of her predicament and also to some extent a scapegoat for criticism that should be more equally shared among many other authority figures, most of whom may be more skilled than she in avoiding being the targets of slings and arrows.
Kaplan-Myrth has a direct and blunt communication style that makes it quite clear to critical listeners that she may be oversimplifying complex issues and that she may not have sufficient respect for people who have the right to disagree with her. Even though I strongly disagree with Kaplan-Myrth, I respect her willingness to come out and directly state what she wants so that we can defend ourselves against that agenda. However, there are many other advocates for masking and vaccine mandates who differ in Kaplan-Myrth only in their style of communication, not in the essence of their message and in their ways of thinking. It is generally a good idea, when one encounters a blunt speaker, to also look around that person (and above that person on the societal hierarchy), as the most problematic policies may be advanced using a more covert and sophisticated rhetorical style.
And while on the subject of our shared responsibility, a comment made by trustee Justine Bell provides material for reflection about the future directions of our society. Starting at 2:29 of the video below, Bell says the following (this is a rough transcript):
“I would like to say a few things. First of all, I’ve heard from some that we should be focusing on education and that we shouldn’t be focusing our attention on health issues. Unfortunately, I don’t see it as black and white, and I believe that we need to ensure that we have the well-being and the health of students at the forefront of what we do as a Board. I have also heard from many constituents that they think it’s very unfortunate that we spend our time continually debating this, and I believe it is unfortunate, and I think that we need the type of leadership that we want to see step forward to ensure students and children are safe and can actually go to school and that our schools don’t have to close down and that our classrooms don’t have to close down, and we don’t have shortages of teachers because they are getting sick because there are many, many, many children unmasked because that is the reality we are seeing today. Therefore I would like for us to consider, I am not putting forward a motion right now, but I want us to very clear for parents, for students, for staff, for our community members, when we need to require masking. And therefore, I am hopeful that our senior staff in their consultations with the Ottawa Public Health authorities, with our community partners such as CHEO, will work really hard to make the type of parameters that we would to like to see public. So when would we put in a mask requirement, what are the things that we need to see happen in our community? A really great indicator could be and should be the health and well-being of our hospital systems. It could be that there be strongly recommended, and if we can make that public, then parents and students and teachers and educators and our staff will know why we’re doing this, when we’re doing it and when we are going to remove it. And so that’s what I want to say today, and also I want to say thank you to Trustee Kaplan-Myrth for all of her work behind the scenes to ensure that students stay in school, to ensure that our community is as healthy as possible, and I want to thank everyone who is written to me, and I will get back to you and to my fellow Trustees for caring so much about students and our education system and for engaging in this debate. Thank you very much.”
In response, the following questions should be asked:
· “I believe that we need to ensure that we have the well being and the health of students at the forefront of what we do as a Board.”
We all want children and all people to be healthy, but is the spread of airborne viruses that have been circulating around for decades or more possible to control? Is there not a measure of hubris in trying to control the spread of airborne viruses beyond staying at home when sick and washing hands? And do we have the right to ask if there has been an increase in deaths (compared to previous years over the last few decades) due to the viruses that are currently circulating? In other words, is the crisis primarily the fact that the hospitals are busy, or is it the case that people are at a fundamentally higher risk for severe outcomes and death compared to previous years over the last few decades? What exactly is the nature of the emergency being describes as a moral imperative?
· “I think that we need the type of leadership that we want to see step forward to ensure students and children are safe and can actually go to school and that our schools don’t have to close down and that our classrooms don’t have to close down, and we don’t have shortages of teachers because they are getting sick because there are many, many, many children unmasked [bolding is mine] because that is the reality we are seeing today.”
The word because requires very careful consideration. When it comes to airborne viruses, saying, “I am sick because of you” is a slippery slope that has, depending on how far one goes, the potential to unleash the worst in human nature. I fully respect the right of people to wear or not wear a mask, but saying that those who do not wear a mask are responsible for my catching an airborne virus is dangerous and can be a tool in the hands of bullies. And what if a child cannot wear a mask for medical or developmental reasons? Will this child still be perceived as a spreader of germs, even as they are accommodated?
· “I am hopeful that our senior staff in their consultations with the Ottawa Public Health authorities, with our community partners such as CHEO, will work really hard to make the type of parameters that we would to like to see public. So when would we put in a mask requirement, what are the things that we need to see happen in our community? A really great indicator could be and should be the health and well being of our hospital systems [bolding is mine]. It could be that there be strongly recommended, and if we can make that public, then parents and students and teachers and educators and our staff will know why we’re doing this, when we’re doing it and when we are going to remove it.”
If efficiently implemented, the proposed system could essentially come down to hospitals being societal rule makers—no public debate encouraged. What happened to the rights of patients and to the ethical principle that medical professionals make recommendations that we have the right to think critically about—not dictate the terms by which we are allowed to live our lives? And is the way in which the healthcare system is managed responsible as well for the health and wellbeing of our hospital systems—or will the focus forever remain on us and our behavior and metaphorical sins?
· “I want to say thank you to Trustee Kaplan-Myrth for all of her work behind the scenes to ensure that students stay in school, to ensure that our community is as healthy as possible,”
Kaplan-Myrth’s advocacy has been for mask mandates. By thanking Kaplan-Myrth, are we asked to implicitly accept that masks will keep children at school? Even many of those who, unlike Bell, spoke against mask mandates at the meeting were not willing to take the issue of the effectiveness of masks head on. What if tomorrow everyone wore masks and the number of sick children did not significantly change? Will those who strongly support a mask mandate then wish for a small percentage of the population to not mask so that we have someone to blame?
Has the reality of catching airborne viruses without being blamed or without blaming someone emerged as a right and an obligation that needs to be defined?
I fully support the right of people to wear or not wear a mask, but those who believe that mask mandates are the key to better health would do well to spend some time analyzing the rhetorical strategies that are being deployed to try to make this opinion an enforceable mandate.
Source for rose image: https://www.pexels.com/photo/yellow-rose-133472/
Source for cake image: https://www.pexels.com/photo/top-view-of-coffee-and-cake-on-a-table-in-a-cafe-11289775/
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Prior to 2020 I’m not sure how many people I killed whilst NEVER wearing a mask. The whole idea is preposterous and insane.