America is Having an Internal Search. Who are we? What Do We Value?
America Looks for Itself, in Itself
As the pandemic rolls through America, interesting characteristics are arising. They are arising for individuals and collectively. We find ourselves highlighting sometimes very different aspects of our values. Some are just different; some are in conflict.
This is not a new phenomenon. Like a collective Diogenes, we periodically seek to define who we are and what we stand for. But it is more important than ever this time. We must decide what are our national values and priorities going forward. A different America is being born. What shall we decide to make it?
America was founded largely on a doctrine of individual liberty. In an overly simplistic form, the idea is that we each have an innate right to do what we think is best for us. In so doing, the overall good will be served. We have some people now who find this time of crisis is ripe for them to assert their freedom. They believe they should be free to make their own judgements about risk and reward. They chaff at any restrictions on their personal liberty.
This is not an unimportant perspective. In one sense, it is in the great American tradition. The First Amendment exists to ensure people can say something unpopular. We should give a wide berth to the assertion of individual rights. And yet, we have to wonder. Is your “right” to a haircut, a tattoo, or a drink at a bar really a right? Is it your right alone when facing a deadly communicable disease? How well is democracy served by people trying to break into a legislative chamber, armed with long guns? Even if they are only trying to make their point? We should not automaticallytriumph over me, but neither is me a stand-alone declaration. Absolutes seldom lead to a good ending. How will we find the balance?
I have been struck, brought to tears, by the torrent of reports about people doing good and heroic things. So many people have decided that this is a we moment, as in we are all in this together. People sharing resources they can’t afford to share. People stepping up in large and small ways to help others, including people they do not know. Many are giving away their federal stimulus money to help worthy causes. And of course, those on the front line. Everyone in the medical field and first responders, for sure. Delivery drivers and grocery clerks, too. And many others. The list is long and inspiring.
This, too, is a fine American tradition. The idea of helping others, of stepping up to meet a need is essential to civilization. Approaching Memorial Day, I see a new generation of heroes. I see people who knowingly take risks and make sacrifices for others. There is now a torrid debate afoot about how broadly we define “we” in terms of giving help. What is the role of each of us as individuals? What can we expect from state and local government? You may have noticed a bit of a debate as to the role of the federal government.
This last one, about the federal government, is pretty clear in the current fight. The government has failed to even show up for the most part. But at least as important is deciding what is the role of national government in the eventual recovery. At the scale we are now dealing with, what we decide will shape this country for the lifetime of most of those now alive.
We May All Be in This Together, But…
While we are all in this, whether we are all in this together is a different question. For some of us, we face some fear of temporary isolation. That is an irritant, but we will get over it. Many of us have taken a beating on investments, and that is worrying. But look around.
Others are sick or dying or are losing loved ones they cannot even say goodbye to at the end. Others have lost their jobs – most have almost no savings, a depressingly permanent American trait. They could lose their homes, their cars. They have to worry if a month from now, they can feed their kids.
Some are told to come to work, even if that workplace is dangerous. Refuse to work, no unemployment insurance for you – you quit! A few weeks ago, citizens of Wisconsin learned that if they wanted to vote, they would have to risk their lives. Many took the risk, and the death toll is coming due. Now we are doing the same to our poorest and least empowered workers.
Too many are at risk of losing or have already lost their businesses. Everyone I ever knew who built a business put insane amounts of time and sweat into building their dream. They are the stuff of which our economy’s power, and they are role models for others to follow. Now, in an instant, through no fault of their own, it’s gone. Thousands of medical personnel are permanently damaged by what they are trying to combat. Suicide rates are sure to rise among them – it’s that bad.
Among all these people, are parents, trying to home school children. They are trying not to let the kids see how exhausted and frightened the adults are every single day.
So, before any of us think we are suffering through this, take stock. How does my life compare to others just now?
What Does All This Mean?
I’m going to ask that we all think a bit about this We/Me – Freedom/Community conundrum. I am not convinced these are either/or questions unless we choose to make them so. But we do have to set some priorities.
We are called upon to think seriously about second order consequences. How many lives are we willing to risk to crank up the economy? On the other hand, how much safety and security do we need at what social and economic costs? Who gains when we make these issues into battle lines?
In our next installation of this discussion, I will share with you what I have concluded, at least so far. I have a vision of America going forward. Much of it is hopeful. Some of it rests between frightening and depressing. The possibilities are enormous, for good and bad.
We are in a most unique time in history. There have been great pandemics before – one hits about every 100 years or so. We have seen economic hardships, even collapse before. We have seen great social division and tension before – we fought a civil war, you know.
But rarely, perhaps never, have we seen all three coming together in such a perfect storm. Add one more disaster and we could say the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are upon us.
Time to pick our battles and name our values, America. See you later in the week.
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