As the novel coronavirus continues to tear through America, reaching new daily highs for infections and stretching hospital capacity across the country, one thing is undeniable: COVID-19 was never the biggest problem. We were. This virus, like most, is opportunistic. It takes advantage of pre-existing conditions. And Americanism is the world’s ultimate co-morbidity.
There is a reason 130,000-plus have died here, far more than anywhere else on Earth. There is a reason the United States continues to suffer under the weight of the pandemic, long after it subsided in most of the industrialized world. There is a reason Americans are currently barred from traveling to most of Europe. And in each case, the reasons are the same: we are a failed state, beholden to a set of cultural values that make us more vulnerable, and more dangerous than anyone else. Ironically these values, which we proclaim make us special — indeed, better than others — are what, at this moment, make us special only in ways that one would rather not be.
American exceptionalism, in 2020, means an America exceptionally ill-suited for survival and exceptionally well-positioned for mass death — a nation filled with people exceptionally unwilling to listen to reason, science, logic, or anything beyond the fluttering of their oversized American flags.
Simply put, we suffer disproportionately because of cultural flaws that are largely unique to the United States. If we do not confront and challenge the defects in question — most notably, a hyper-individualism that has militated against sufficient social distancing, masking, and other measures that could have crushed the spread of the virus — we are doomed. Even if we emerge from the current crisis, another will meet us down the road in years to come, and unless we are a very different nation when that happens, the results could be catastrophic.
This may sound hyperbolic, but it isn’t. Hyperbole is suggesting the virus will magically disappear one day soon, as the president insisted more than 100,000 COVID obituaries ago.
Hyperbole is suggesting we had to re-open everything and get the economy moving, as if one could really jump-start commerce so long as millions were still falling ill or afraid of doing so.
Hyperbole is insisting the entire thing is a hoax concocted by Big Pharma to push a future vaccine, which, as with all vaccines, will be nothing more than a deliberate attempt by Bill Gates to kill everyone.
Hyperbole is that meme you spread around last week because you actually believe Instagram is a news source.
Hyperbole is whatever the hell Tucker Carlson has to say. It’s Laura Ingraham’s primary source of protein. It’s Sean Hannity’s body wash.
Saying that coronavirus is devastating America is not hyperbole. That is science. That is a fact. That is indisputable among rational people. The problem is, this country is filled with the opposite: people who think listening to doctors and scientists is for liberal intellectuals and “soy-boys.” This latter term (in case you are unfamiliar with it), is a favorite insult among Trump cultists, who apparently think soy is grown by vegan, gender-fluid unicorns in a magical rainbow forest as opposed to being one of the most significant agricultural exports of American farmers.
If experts say wear a mask, that’s more than enough reason not to wear one. Masks are weak, passive — just one step removed from a ball gag. Wearing a mask is for sheep, they say. Anyway, they note, masks don’t even protect you from COVID, ignoring that they were never intended to protect the wearer, but are pretty good at preventing the asymptomatic carrier from spreading it to others. Meaning that refusing to wear one is not merely a way of saying you’re willing to gamble with your own health, but that you think you should have the right to roll the dice on mine — which makes you an asshole and a sociopathic one at that.
If Americans had all been willing to voluntarily mask up for the last three months whenever they went in public, we would probably have been done with all this by now. Not only would tens of thousands of lives have been saved, but the economy would have bounced back quicker, and people could already be looking at a resumption of their pre-pandemic lives. But no: our hyper-individualistic need for maximum liberty — which we define the way a 7-year old might, as the freedom to do whatever we want, whenever we want — made such a gesture unthinkable.
Don’t go to church or the bars at the beach? Don’t have a bunch of friends over for barbecue and beer? What are you, Antifa? Wear a mask in public for the good of the community? Why that’s communism! We know this because the first seven letters of community and the first seven letters of communism are the same. Coincidence? Hah, of course, you’d think that, George Soros.
We could have done what Denmark did, which is basically pause the economy and pay people enough to get through the crisis. Doing so would have been cheaper than the scattershot forms of stimuli we’ve offered thus far, and much less expensive than the overall hit to the economy caused by rolling uncertainty about a second wave or just the reality of a never-ending first one.
As infections mount and as the death count grows, the economy remains perpetually stuck in neutral — meaning ongoing recession — with no end in sight. Rent freezes are about to expire, subjecting millions of families to potential eviction. Millions more are about to lose the federal addition to their unemployment checks, even as they are unable to find safe work to which they can return, and even as many have yet to receive a penny of the money to which they were entitled, months after applying for it.
But rather than freezing and forgiving rent and mortgage payments and distributing enough emergency assistance to get folks through —say, $2000 a month per adult and $500 a month per child — we sent out smaller one-time stimulus checks and promised enhanced unemployment insurance that hasn’t materialized for millions of people.
And all because God forbid we go big and save people from economic destitution: in that case, they might start to think the government has a role to play in helping people in need. Our religious devotion to the myth of rugged individualism is more sacrosanct to us than our fellow Americans’ lives. We will sacrifice others, not for the economy — after all, both life and the economy are imperiled right now — but for our ideological commitments. For our politics. For the so-called American way of life, which is now a leading reason for the new American way of death.
Our only hope is to abandon that ideology without delay, consign it to the garbage heap of bad ideas to which it belongs, and recognize the importance of the common good over the hyper-individualistic desire to do whatever one wants. No one likes being locked down for weeks or months at a time. No one likes wondering if their jobs will be there on the other side of business closures. No one enjoys the insecurity and vulnerability that comes with a public health emergency. But the only way forward is together, not as atomistic individuals who think being told to wear a mask in Costco is tyranny, but as persons committed to the health and well-being of the whole.
For this to happen, white Americans will have to be prepared to challenge our people because it is mostly our people who so vociferously elevate the elementary school understanding of freedom over society’s needs. Only white folks could think social distancing and 50 percent capacity seating at restaurants was a blow to their Constitutional rights. Only white folks would complain about how difficult they find it to breathe with a cloth mask on, even as Black men are having their breath taken quite literally by police on camera.
Black and brown folks have long understood that the community had to rise or fall as a collective — that freedom and liberty meant all of them or none. Only white Americans (and persons of color in thrall to the white paradigm of hyper-individualism) could think themselves an island untethered to the lives and well-being of others.
Even as folks of color have paid an outsized price for the national non-response to COVID, perhaps enough white Americans are feeling the kind of vulnerability that can allow us to rethink our political and ideological attachments. One can at least hope.
Maybe the white parent with an immuno-suppressed child who previously vacillated between parties and never understood Black Lives Matter will now begin to wonder who has their interests at heart. Is it the white folks showing up at state capitols with guns and camo demanding a reopening of everything, even at the risk of their child’s health? Or might it be the Black folks and their non-Black allies, calling for the prioritization of the public good?
Perhaps now, white America will recognize the dangers of having crafted a hierarchy of human value. Although that mindset was devised with a clear racial taxonomy in mind — one that placed us at the top and Black folks at the bottom — what we can now see, provided we are paying attention, is how difficult it is to contain that mentality once established. Like any toxic effluent, it seeps from the container in which one tries to hold it and seeks other water to poison, still more soil to foul.
And so the same society that said Black life didn’t matter (at least not as much), now says the lives of the ill don’t matter either, or the elderly — including the white ill and the white elderly: your spouse, your grandparents, you. All must yield to the individualistic God of Americanism, which gives us the right to go maskless in the name of freedom, consequences be damned.
For America to survive, Americanism must die. And the sooner, the better, for everyone.