Rules for Thee but Not for Me

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer depart together after a news conference about their coronavirus relief negotiations with the Trump administration on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., August 7, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

On the menu today: Nancy Pelosi goes to a shut-down hair salon, mask-free, demonstrating that we never had a chance at uniform obedience to coronavirus restrictions, because so many leaders believed they were exempt; as well as assessing “Sister Souljah” moments, real and imagined.

Americans Won’t Follow the Rules Because Their Leaders Won’t Follow the Rules

The validity and value of a rule should not be determined by who is enforcing it or whether the enforcers of the rule follow that rule themselves. If the rule is a good idea, someone else choosing to break that rule doesn’t make the idea behind the rule any less bad.

But the news yesterday that House speaker Nancy Pelosi had her personal hairstylist reopen an officially shuttered salon for a wash and blow-out — and then enjoyed the treatment without a mask — will probably convince a lot of Americans that a lot of good rules for preventing the spread of the coronavirus are optional nonsense. Salons in San Francisco have been closed since March and were only notified they could reopen on September 1 for outdoor hairstyling services only.

Pelosi’s stylist rents a chair from the salon; the stylist texted the salon’s owner, Erica Kious, the night before. Kious took the video of Pelosi’s visit to Fox News, and justifiably fumed, “It was a slap in the face that she went in, you know, that she feels that she can just go and get her stuff done while no one else can go in, and I can’t work.”

A statement from Pelosi’s office stated, “she didn’t think she did anything wrong by getting her hair done indoors on Monday.” As many observed last night, most legal systems do not recognize ignorance of the law as a valid excuse, and it’s particularly implausible coming from a speaker of the House who has required masks in the House chamber and hallways of the U.S. Capitol House office buildings. Did Pelosi think salons could be open for one customer at a time? Did she think that masks were no longer needed?

I don’t know if it’s dangerous to go into a salon in San Francisco right now. The city reported 563 cases in the past seven days; like many parts of the country, the city and surrounding area appear to be seeing a slow, steady decline in cases. That study of a hair salon in Springfield found that two infected hair stylists interacted with 139 clients while everyone wore face masks, and no symptomatic secondary cases were reported and all test results of clients were negative. If Pelosi had kept her mask on the whole time, she could have at least argued she followed CDC guidelines.

A reminder: Pelosi turned 80 in March.

From this news, many Californians will probably conclude restrictions on stylists working indoors aren’t needed anymore. Here in Virginia, salons and barbershops have been open for several months with precautions that appear to be working — everyone wears masks; you hold the mask in place when the barber or stylist is cutting the sides of your face where the straps would usually go. The front desk has Plexiglas, everyone attempts to social distance.

But Pelosi doesn’t have that excuse. Her experience in the salon can be put alongside Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot similarly getting a visit from a stylist during quarantine, and having specifically declared, “getting your roots done is not essential”; Virginia governor Ralph Northam mingling with crowds without a mask on Virginia Beach shortly before announcing a mask rule with criminal penalties; New Jersey governor Phil Murphy breaking his own executive order barring large gatherings; Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker’s family taking trips to Florida and Wisconsin while the state had stay-at-home orders and bans on “nonessential travel” in place; Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer’s husband asking a marina owner for special treatment; New Mexico governor Lujan Grisham asking a jewelry store employee to reopen a closed store to have some jewelry delivered; New York City mayor Bill de Blasio visiting his gym as the rest of the city shut down; Beaumont mayor Becky Ames visiting a nail salon that was supposed to be closed during lockdown; the mayor of Alton, Ill., ordering a crackdown on open bars and learning that his wife was at one of them . . . and I’m sure there are other examples of lawmakers and their families breaking their own rules and restrictions during this pandemic. You can throw in other cases of not-quite-rule-breaking, such as bad judgment on the part of Senator Rand Paul, who decided to keep working at the U.S. Capitol while he was waiting for results from his coronavirus test.

(And this isn’t even getting into the CNN prime-time anchors and ABC News anchors who broke quarantines as well.)

Back on June 19 I wrote, “the fact that Democrats are hypocrites does not alter any of the facts around the virus.” Making this argument is starting to feel Sisyphean. Quite a few of America’s lawmakers enacted rules that they or their families were not willing to live under and obey themselves.

It would be better for the country if Donald Trump and Mike Pence wore masks in their public appearances or touring facilities. But when an 80-year-old woman who is third in line to the presidency doesn’t feel a need to wear a mask during a hair treatment . . . may other people will conclude that the risk to themselves is minimal as well.

If you want to get annoyed at the guy at the supermarket or gym who’s not wearing a mask, fine. He’s wrong. He and you would be safer if he would wear a mask. But he’s come to the conclusion that the rules are all “security theater” and nonsense, and he has far too many elected officials who gave him evidence to reach that conclusion.

Thinking back to Babylon Bee’s satirical headline “Celebrities Spell Out ‘We’re All In This Together’ With Their Yachts” . . . I finally understand the old New York Times “fake but accurate” standard.

How Much Credit Should Politicians Get for Vague Platitudes?

A good point from my colleague Dan McLaughlin:

The reason why Bill Clinton’s famous “Sister Souljah moment” was effective politics was that he called out someone by name and didn’t bury it in vague platitudes about how both sides do bad things. Biden, by contrast, is giving cover to those on his side who are still minimizing the violence or pretending that it is a false-flag campaign of right-wing conspirators (or, as Adam Schiff would have you believe, Russians). If Biden’s gambit works, it will be because the media won’t try to pin him down on it because they’re afraid of what the notoriously gaffe-prone Biden will say, or because they don’t want to force him on things he doesn’t want to say.

I’m struck by how often the “Sister Souljah moment” is misremembered — often deliberately, I suspect. In some circles, the term is now associated with a carefully calculated maneuver, and often associated with cynical strategic positioning. For those who have forgotten, this is what the hip-hop artist and political activist actually said:

Question: Even the people themselves who were perpetrating that violence, did they think that was wise? Was that a wise reasoned action?

Souljah: Yeah, it was wise. I mean, if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people? . . . . White people, this government and that mayor were well aware of the fact that black people were dying every day in Los Angeles under gang violence. So if you’re a gang member and you would normally be killing somebody, why not kill a white person? Do you think that somebody thinks that white people are better, are above and beyond dying, when they would kill their own kind?

— Quoted in David Mills (16 June 1992) “In Her Own Disputed Words; Transcript of Interview That Spawned Souljah’s Story”, The Washington Post

Keep in mind, all Bill Clinton had to say was that having a special week where blacks kill whites is morally wrong. That’s it! That’s not the Gettysburg Address! That’s not turning the other cheek from the Sermon on the Mount! All Clinton had to say was racially motivated mass murder is wrong. And somehow this was seen as a bold and controversial move in some circles! The New Republic still insists that the original remarks were “decontextualized and misinterpreted.”

Of course Donald Trump should have a Sister Souljah moment with every extremist, lunatic, self-appointed gun-toting vigilante, maniac, frothing-at-the-mouth racist out there who thinks the president is on his side, as Jamelle Bouie recommends. This election season doesn’t need any more pipe bombs from nut cases who are convinced they’re “helping” their cause. (I suspect Bouie wrote that because he knows Trump will never do it.)

ADDENDUM: I’m not a big fan of distance or online learning. My sons have done okay with it, and technical glitches have thankfully been minimal. But it’s just so far from the full experience of schooling that kids want and need. Across the country, some kids are going back into the classrooms, while others are stuck in front of their computers. But in all of those online-only districts, thousands upon thousands of teachers are doing their best, trying to make the distance learning experience as complete as possible — sometimes with interruptions from barking dogs. These kinds of adverse circumstances often bring out the best in people, particularly teachers. So, as the 2020-2021 school year gets underway . . . thank you, teachers, for doing all you can in circumstances that are extremely far from what anyone wanted.