In an NBC report on the factors behind North Dakota’s and South Dakota’s declining coronavirus rates (primarily, a critical mass of people seeing friends and neighbors and grannies die and hospitals maxed out and realizing denial and inaction were no longer viable), South Dakota’s Secretary of Health Kim Malsam-Rysdon burbles out the usual bluff about how South Dakota “empowered” people to make their own decisions about pandemic safety.
I don’t feel terribly empowered when I’m acting in response to an exploding crisis not simply left unchecked but made worse by my government’s actions. I feel more empowered when my government uses the authority I have given it to provide early and consistent public support for measures to prevent the crisis from exploding.
The administration Secretary Malsam-Rysdon serves has “empowered” only irresponsible decisions. Consider Governor Kristi Noem’s repeated use of Legislative pages for propaganda photos from the Governor’s mansion:
In each of these photos, the Governor assembles teenagers on her staircase for a photo. In each photo, one brave student wears a mask, against the example of the Governor, her spouse, and everyone else in the frame. The Governor broadcasts each photo, setting the example she prefers for the entire state: gather together with people in close quarters, don’t socially distance, and don’t wear masks. Go about your affairs as if there is no pandemic and no risk to yourself or the people you meet or the people they care about.
Empowerment involves helping people make hard choices. Instead, the Governor spreads photos that show the mask wearer as the odd person out, the sole practitioner of health precautions that everyone else finds unnecessary. These photos disempower folks who would choose to take precautions by portraying them as a minority among an overwhelmingly large, smiling, and carefree majority.
Governor Noem does not want to empower us South Dakotans with information to make our own choices. She wants us to affirm and follow her choices. And she’ll use teens and propagandized peer pressure to secure that following.