Wicked Whitmer vs. the Enchanted Land of Self-Government

More than once, I’ve heard professors at Hillsdale College remark that the most dangerous words you can say to the government are “leave me alone.” Governor Gretchen Whitmer seems hellbent on proving the truth of this maxim.

Hillsdale, a small liberal arts school in the rural Michigan town from which it borrows its name, has a long history of standing alone. It is one of only a few institutions of higher education in the United States that refuses to take federal or state money—including money in the form of government-backed student loans. Hillsdale eschews federal dollars to avoid the regulatory strings that come along with them, like diversity reporting requirements. The difference is made up through private donations. 

And Hillsdale has a proud history of bravely defending freedom. During the Civil War, no college in the west saw a higher percentage of students enlist in the Union Army. This past Saturday that tradition of courage continued as Hillsdale College distinguished itself yet again as the only Michigan college or university to have an in-person graduation since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

The move to hold in-person commencement ceremonies came over the objections of Whitmer and Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, who released a statement calling the proceedings illegal, a violation of the governor’s executive order forbidding gatherings of more than 100 people. 

Despite the administration’s objections on grounds of public health, Hillsdale’s commencement was perhaps one of the safest and healthiest places to be during a pandemic, short of an isolation tank. The school consulted four epidemiologists to devise a plan of action. They installed advanced filtration systems in buildings. They held the ceremony on the football field, spacing out chairs and putting stickers on the bleachers so that grads and guests alike would be six feet apart. They screened temperatures prior to entry.

None of this satisfied Whitmer, though she herself recently was photographed breaking social distancing measures in order to walk arm-in-arm with Black Lives Matter protesters. Nor did it please a functionary from the local department of health, who circulated an email detailing that “the Health Department would not endorse or state in any way that this event was acceptable”—the answer to a question likely never asked.

What Whitmer and America’s never-ending complex of bureaucrats and busybodies consistently miss is that Americans are supposed to be a self-governing people. Given reliable information, we can operate sensibly without their diktats. Hillsdale College did not conduct a deep scrub its campus and keep visitors socially distanced because of Whitmer’s insights or orders. They did these things because its administrators used their own faculties of reason to find a way to continue a time-honored ritual in the safest way possible under unique circumstances. They weighed all things in the balance and came to a reasonable resolution.

In so doing, they highlighted the arbitrary nature of Whitmer’s edicts. Why did Whitmer argue—apparently without evidence—that protests against her draconian executive orders back in May caused the virus to spread, only to proceed to participate in a Black Lives Matter protest less than a month later? Why should it matter how many people are in an open-air venue so long as they are appropriately distanced?

This is not to say that all critics of Whitmer’s overreach were satisfied with Hillsdale’s approach. One friend who is a Hillsdale student pointed out the dystopian vibe of the modified ceremony. Replete with students eerily spaced out, giant monitors overlooking the stage, and—I kid you not—a choreographed drone show to close the night, he said it reminded him of Apple’s famous “1984” commercial. 

Another former student said that Hillsdale’s sanitation measures—and the legal argument advanced by the school’s attorneys that the ceremony was actually in compliance with the governor’s order because the order contains language excusing first amendment exercises—represented capitulation to the scientism gripping the nation. 

Better to just go on as normal, he figures.

Unfortunately, there can be no “normal” until we wrest our liberties back from the clutches of people like Whitmer. Hillsdale may have tried to thread the needle a bit, but nevertheless they had the courage to go forward with an event deemed illegal by people with the power to make things difficult for them. This was no small act of courage. Whitmer had signaled her hopes that local law enforcement would break up the event, and she certainly could have dispatched state police. Hillsdale College knew these things and went on with the show anyhow.

Were the sanitary measures excessive? The answer to this question is essentially an article of religious conviction at this point. Depending on who you ask, wearing a mask is an effective method of curbing communicable diseases or an exercise in ritual humiliation. The real question is not whether such things are necessary, it’s whether we are capable of self-government regardless.

In an unfortunate coda, the department of health that refused to “endorse” Hillsdale’s graduation sent inspectors to issue warnings to several local businesses the day before the ceremony. The businesses were threatened with fines or even closure if they did not do a better job of enforcing Whitmer’s order requiring the wearing of masks.

Hillsdale’s mayor, Adam Stockford, said he called the department of health and an official denied that the warnings were in retaliation for the graduation. It’s not hard to see why someone might think otherwise—most of the businesses in question are restaurants frequented by college students. 

Stockford, who is currently waging an insurgent campaign for state representative against a moneyed establishment darling who relocated from outside of the district, was one of Michigan’s first mayors to push back against Whitmer’s orders, signaling that he would offer whatever support possible to businesses that unlawfully reopened, and endorsing a citizen-sponsored Fourth of July parade when the official event was canceled.

He did not mince words when I asked him for his thoughts on this latest overreach. “Governor Whitmer and her party scoff at the idea that people can govern themselves,” Stockford said. “She has buried the people of Michigan under more than 150 executive orders since this began. People should not be afraid of fines, imprisonment, or financial ruin if a health inspector shows up and sees someone without a mask. That is happening here in Hillsdale, and that is administrative tyranny, plain and simple.”

At a quickly assembled community meeting on the following day, Stockford, administrators from the college, and about 50 town citizens discussed strategies for countering the invasion by health inspectors, including flooding threatened establishments with business and coming together to raise legal defense funds. As I write, a Facebook video of the event has almost 1,000 views, no mean feat for a city whose population numbers 8,000. My friend Lance Lashaway, a farmer and small business owner active in local politics, told me that he could feel the mood turn as the event went on. 

“People came in afraid,” Lashaway said, “but by the end of the meeting those feelings had been replaced with a sense of community and empowerment.”

And after all, what is self-government if it isn’t banding together to oppose the Whitmers of the world? 

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About Bill Zeiser

Bill Zeiser writes from Hillsdale, Michigan. He is a Hillsdale City Councilman, representing the third ward, and holds an MA from Hillsdale College’s Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship.

Photo: Ruben Cueto

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