Montana’s answer to COVID-19? It won’t be found in a politician.

September 23, 2021 4:24 am

Political cartoon by John Moore via the Daily Montanan.

Human behavior hasn’t changed in 2,500 years, apparently.

The Greek orator Demosthenes deals with a rich leader who has been accused of assault and believes himself above the law because of all his glorious achievements. Sounds familiar, right?

But in his treatise, “Against Meidias,” he argues that a man cannot be judged by his status or his accomplishments, but what he does when he obtains power. At the zenith of his oration, Demosthenes asks of Meidias:

Are you alone of living men privileged to be in your daily life so notoriously possessed of the demon of arrogance that even those who have no dealings with you are exasperated by your assurance, your tones and gestures, your parasites, your wealth and your insolence?”

A marble bust of ancient Greek philosopher Demosthenes housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

So today, in the midst of vacant state leadership, the ancient words take on a contemporary meaning.

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte continues an approach to COVID-19 and governing like it’s some kind of death cult, insisting that personal responsibility will somehow cure the menace of disease, despite every example to the contrary. Just Tuesday, Montana lost its 1900th person to COVID as we speed toward the 2,000 mark.

Gianforte’s hubris, or as Demosthenes said better, his “demon of arrogance,” has driven him to call out the National Guard to help the hospitals cope with the crushing tide of COVID-19 patients, most of whom self-stubbornly refused the best medical advice in the world. Last week, Gianforte did nothing while at least one hospital requested extra morgue trucks to deal with the overflow of dead bodies, a sentence so bizarre to type that it seems surreal.

On Twitter, the meme of Gianforte’s alleged “Montana Comeback” billboard was superimposed on the freezer truck, giving a morbid twist on the political slogan. I suppose if people can’t afford the rising property prices that have escalated during the pandemic, maybe they can at least afford their own grave plot.

But the majority of Montana is literally exasperated with watching our fellow residents die, all in the name of liberty and freedom, knowing full well that death is neither. And history, which will be the final judge of Gianforte’s legacy, cannot help but remember that the governor, who apparently offered so much business acumen and traded his own wealth for the satisfaction of becoming a leader, has literally done nothing intentionally while Montanans are dying. You can put whatever rhetorical cloak on it you wish, but it won’t change the graves in the ground. 

A meme of the “Montana Comeback Plan” — an initiative of Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte — superimposed on a truck outside a hospital that was incorrectly attributed as a mobile morgue. (Twitter image).

Wonks and political analysts justify Gianforte’s actions by saying he must pander to his base, the last refuge of his support, but that’s to misunderstand that those voters — the ideological pure — would not abandon him anyway. He had the chance to appeal to others, but failed.  The only thing that hangs in the balance is the welfare of the average Montanan who yearns to be free of the pandemic and has more to fear from a botox injection — a true poison — than a COVID-19 inoculation.

For those who insist that nothing is worth shuttering the economy again, that’s a defensible argument, but there must be a trade-off, and that means vaccination to ensure a transition back to the kind of life that seems both distant and quaint.

If we want economic freedom, it seems like there is a corollary and corresponding responsibility that should come with it. As the old saying goes, freedom isn’t free.

Forgive my cynicism, but it seems to me even something more sinister is at play here: A cold political calculus that is betting that Montana’s memory is short and elections are long, and right now it seems plausible to look at the make-up of the state leaders and the Democrats crushing defeat in 2020 and believe that Republicans cannot lose. 

Quite frankly, until a politician pays an Election Day price for their actions, the deaths, the pain and the indifference to burning-out medical professionals as well as a lot of extra electricity to run semi-sized coolers will be nothing more than the cost of doing the dirty business of politics.

At the end of his speech, Demosthenes implores his fellow citizens to take action because laws are nothing more than cold, lifeless words, about as much consolation as abstract terms like freedom and personal choice are to those gasping for air in the overflowing beds of Montana hospitals.

For their sake, and the fading hope of returning to a more stable, healthy society, Montanans must decide to demand a different course of action from Gianforte and the GOP leaders, or accept the reality that our great state has so little conviction or sense of community, that it cannot even take the most simple of steps, masking and vaccination, to return it to a sense of normalcy. 

I cannot help but wonder if this sense of shared sacrifice that helped us overcome a pandemic more than a century ago and tyranny in World War II would have had a different result with our leaders today, who may have said that death in both cases was merely the sincerest form of personal freedom, and indifference justifiable because, you know, liberty.

Demosthenes closes his remarkable oratory by appealing not to the law, but to the humans who live by it: “If one of you is wronged and cries aloud, will the laws run up and be at his side to assist him? No. They are only written texts and incapable of such action. Wherein then resides their power? In yourselves, if only you support them and make them all-powerful to help him who needs them.”

And God knows we need the help. 

Editor’s note: This column has been updated to reflect a correction in photo caption.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.