merica’s not so beautiful these days. Blame it on a president or a virus, on racism or a public so deaf to dialogue it knows only to sling mud. Or maybe blame it on blame itself, a culture of blame and outrage by now so ingrained it knows only the sound of its own foul fury.
Consider the realities in the simplest of terms.
In office is President Donald J. Trump, beloved by some but hated and berated by others, a man who does things his way and is loyal only to his own instincts. His various vulgarities offend those who claim they stand for open-mindedness while at the same time loudly resisting all that they believe hinders social progress, defined mostly in terms of the need for greater cultural diversity, even if this requires blunt historical revisionism. Take a position that casts doubt on widely embraced social “upgrades,” whether they concern sexuality, race relations, or shifting forms of gender address, and you risk almost instant thumbs-down ostracism by those eager to keep their open-mindedness closed to rude interlopers. The side you choose is who you are to the exclusion of respectful disagreement, which has all but ceased to exist.
There’s a virus on the loose, addictive in the fearful spell it casts but in no way cataclysmic. Nothing about it is overwhelming save that it struck a complacent developed world convinced it had surmounted such perils, and when faced with the reality that it had not, froze like a deer in the headlights before embarking — in part propelled by the rhythmic drumbeat of headline news — on a well-intentioned but ruinous strategy of shut-downs that in less than six months has cut into the existing social and commercial fabric in ways that will take years to fully comprehend, let alone repair. This near-Orwellian reformulation of public life’s ways and means has so far done more to fray the American (and global) psyche than limit the spread of the disease, a job only a proven vaccine will be able to handle efficiently.
In the interim, governments large and small, forced into sync with a long-absent war mentality, have in essence made war on their own businesses, promising to patch the economic damage done by adding to already mountainous debt.
The morale of the union has been cast aside, as if fortifying it belonged only to military wars. At no time have leading government or medical officials placed psychological harm (anxiety, depression, paranoia, pessimism, despondency, social sadness, and alienation) on the same table as physical illness. This narrow definition of public health produced a data-driven guideline that portrayed the saving of lives in bodily terms alone, an inexcusable misrepresentation of the concept of “wellbeing” that should prompt medical experts and social scientists to rethink what makes human beings tick, and want to.
The disease has also had an incendiary effect on politics. The likely Democratic presidential candidate has accused those who fail to wear protective masks of complicity in spreading the illness, if not taking lives, an assertion as malign as many made by his rival, a histrionic incumbent who has from the start advanced the position that preserving way of life comes ahead of any sickness, a largely ridiculed position that nonetheless contains a kernel of truth. Public health has risen to the sacred cow status of national security, the same national security that not so long ago was used to justify the suspension of due process and the use of torture against terrorists.
This sudden “new normal” has conferred on would-be disease slayers semi-autocratic sway. They are perceived as righteous figures trying to save lives in an imagined wartime scenario absent from the American scene for nearly a century. Given the excited words and zeal associated with the fight, the price of national salvation has yet to be rationally assessed.
But to express reservations about the methods and strategies being deployed against the virus, let alone suggest over-reaction, is to be instantly seen as a gross denial of enlightened medical science, as if skepticism were the equivalent of calling the Earth flat.
So it is that the virus, like much in American public life, requires choosing and remaining loyal to a side. Either that of a precarious sitting president who blames China for his country’s illness misfortunes and refuses to wear a mask because, as a militia of one, he will not be told what to do, or that of a medical establishment that, while swearing by reams of clinical data, has yet to fathom what trying to protect the whole by closing moats and ramparts in medieval fashion can do to those obsessed if not undone by what has become a relentless emphasis on threat and woe that comes as small and mid-sized businesses collapse outright. The age-old admonishment to avoid creating and stoking public panic has been ignored in a way that suggests a complete breakdown in not medical but emotional intelligence.
That the virus itself is far less severe than a number of 20th-century maladies, including smallpox and tuberculosis is of no importance because those diseases wrought greater havoc in Europe, Africa, and Asia than in the United States. Europe also endured two recent world wars, neither of which caused national destruction.
Most important perhaps is that Americans, more than any other people, swear by the data-driven miracles of modern medicine, exalted during the Cold War in part to separate the advanced U.S. and its recovering European allies from the miserably retrograde medicine associated with Soviet communism and the countries of the unwashed Third World. As the American middle class grew, many within it came to regard medicine as a wall-like defense only heart disease and cancer could penetrate. All else could in some way be slowed or fooled into remission by near-magical medication. Later, even depression began entering the miracle cure category.
This implicit belief in disease control caught many Americans entirely unprepared for the novel coronavirus, whose arrival and swift spread short-circuited all the miracle solutions America had to offer, giving the makers of headline news free reign to howl. As death tolls rose in Europe, 9/11-honed American media rolled out its alarmist red carpet. By the time the epidemic made its landfall in New York City, urban dread, as ever schooled by Hollywood drama, was primed for the occasion.
Refusing this script was Trump, seen by many in his home city as an unfit madman, and thus the dye was cast.
And cast it remains, with virus views constantly up for grabs in what has become a morbidly outsized passion play so swollen with hyperbole by agitated believers and skeptic alike that to refuse to pick a side or a viewpoint (or borrow one from an online sage) is all but unpatriotic.
In a word, the virus has come to embody a multi-trillion dollar celebrity all seek to fear most or least, inducing a visceral malaise so widespread that it has come to threaten the Trump presidency, a scenario not even a science fiction wizard could have concocted.
Debate over how best to confront the viral interloper is typically shrill, with one side, now the largest, swearing by restrictions and occasionally advancing intimations of Armageddon. The other side, convinced the drama of the disease is as big if not bigger than the sickness itself plays “hold the fort” and mocks doomsayers as needlessly overwrought.
Pick science or defiance, and gird for the digital applause or shaming to follow.
Remarkably, the virus is not the only piece of wreckage littering America’s 2020 landscape. Virus aside, guilt and rage are in impressive supply.
Take the May murder of George Floyd. Either Floyd is a martyr and yet another egregious example of police brutality and systemic racism or he is simply a victim of a rogue cop and the entire incident has been blown out of all proportion by police haters who seek the crippling of law and order as part of a sensational and longstanding radical conspiracy.
Racism or mismanaged power, or both? Decide, do it now. And make it clear which side you’re on, even if it takes reckless overstatement.
Do not dare ask why the crowd of onlookers that watched the Floyd murder unfold and filmed it did not at some point set aside their voyeurism to intervene on his behalf in the hallowed name of civil disobedience, or gut-level humanity, or both. Such action would have been both risky and courageous, as would going to work in virus times, a right that was dubiously suspended. To deny risk and the courage that can come with it is also to deny dignity, and dignity can be larger than life, a concept entitled postmodernism understands poorly, if at all.
But no, do not say any of this aloud.
Instead, do push for enlightened censorship to assuage Instagram-era guilt for incorrectness past. Distance yourself from virus naysayers and racists. Shame yourself publicly if necessary, since to be a white middle class American is of itself offensive.
Ban Uncle Ben’s face and that of Aunt Jemima; rethink the cultural and cinematic status of “Gone With the Wind” and with it the statue-rich legacy of Confederate generals. Cast doubt on the commemoration of the slave-owning Founding Fathers, who perhaps should be retroactively admonished or their grave sites made to vanish. Disavow inconvenient history, since all manner of distancing is now in vogue. Don’t even bother bringing up that the whole of the fruited plains of America were pried away from indigenous people by a force far more focused and systematically unforgiving than that let loose on Southern slaves, whose rights the North came to champion. Guilt for the massacring of the American Indian is not trending in the way it did 40 years ago, when Marlon Brando caused an Oscar night fuss on their behalf, offending the likes of John Wayne.
And no, there’s nothing to talk about, on this or any other matter. Pick left or pick right, white or black.
Think humans should have the right to reframe their own sexuality, and therefore their place in the socio-sexual sphere, listen for cheers. If they don’t come, launch your offensive against idiots and religious zealots who look to 2,000-year-old scripture for guidance. Or hide under your bed, since the scripture people carry big sticks.
Social media is the newest cattle prod of choice. “The man” or “big brother” is these days an assortment of little brothers, a domain tweet hustlers share with corporate giants eager to harvest personal preferences in ways that do not acknowledge privacy in the same way lockdowns abuse basic freedoms. That human operating systems might not be able to keep the pace of digital offerings, causing some to retreat or capitulate in despair, is an anti-progressive notion also best left unsaid.
To suggest the blunting of online immediacy is seen as a greater peril than any curtailing of civil liberties.
Your app is your shepherd, you shall not want. Or is it? Choose.
Once you do, join a like-minded tribe. Never mind if that preaching can at times seem kin to the extremism America has spent nearly two decades fighting in the Middle East. Sometimes things go too far and even social media platforms ban users, Aunt Jemima style. But what then to say when the ban can include those who contend the coronavirus is not as serious as made out to be?
If you don’t like this, you’re free to leave if, that is, there’s anywhere left to go that hasn’t agreed to some form of medical martial law (or is it noble civil protection?).
Want all to get better? Some say that can be accomplished by voting callous crook Trump out of office in what they describe not as a national election but a referendum on democracy. Yet again, cue applause, or boos.
In some ways, this urban-provincial head-butting reflects Civil War-era enmities never fully reconciled.
New age big-city Unionists still square off against rebranded Confederate secessionists who hail Trump as the symbolic commander of a redecorated Fort Sumter, a role he clearly relishes even while under siege. The progressive values exalted in urban hubs never convincingly trickled down. When communism, which kept patriotism glued together for five decades, suddenly staged an ignominious collapse, the country swiftly returned to picking its own scabs, an easy relapse since many in a country founded by hardline Protestant pilgrims who placed “In God We Trust” on national currency never came around to embracing the shifting geography of secular values.
The nation’s growing ambition and international profile as well as its “give me your tired, your poor” PR (emanating largely from New York) papered cracks over for decades, as did (reluctant) participation in those two 20th-century world wars.
The Great Depression was followed by a booming postwar economy that also did its part in keeping unresolved cultural differences at bay. The election of Barack Obama, which seemed to represent the clearing of a massive hurdle, in fact only added taller ones.
So it is, with the complicity of a virus and an especially ugly racial incident, that the ugly America has re-emerged, and with it a divide that more than ever defines citizenry in terms not of American-ness but pledged affiliation within it.
Some saw the turmoil coming, sensing a growth of righteous intolerance all around. In 1974, the songwriter Randy Newman released “Rednecks,” a song written in response to then-Georgia Governor Lester Maddox’s appearance on a popular late-night New York talk show, where, as an unapologetic segregationist he was roundly jeered. It was 1968, whose turmoil in some respects presaged the tests and turns of the present.
Newman, an outspoken writer born into a Jewish Los Angeles family, wasn’t fooled by the apparently earnest decision to invite a raw southern boy into hostile Union territory, the same territory that loathes Trump and seeks the imposing of a masked state. His song began,
Last night I saw Lester Maddox on a TV show/With some smart ass New York Jew/
And the Jew laughed at Lester Maddox/And the audience laughed at Lester Maddox too/Well he may be a fool but he’s our fool/If they think they’re better than him they’re wrong…
But what seemed at first like a quirky apologia for the lynching crowd turned on a dime. What followed slammed hypocrisies social media correctness would likely disown, if not censor:
Now, your northern nigga’s a Negro/You see, he’s got his dignity/Down here, we too ignorant to realize that the North has set the nigga free/Yes, he’s free to be put in a cage in Harlem in New York City/And he’s free to be put in a cage on the South-Side of Chicago and the West-Side/And he’s free to be put in a cage in Hough in Cleveland/Free to be put in a cage in East St. Louis/And he’s free to be put in a cage in Fillmore in San Francisco/And he’s free to be put in a cage in Roxbury in Boston/They’re gatherin’ ’em up from miles around/Keepin’ the niggers down
Stories have at least two sides, even medical stories, each of them not only well worth hearing out but essential to any non-judgmental understanding of a problem or a threat. Remember this before slouching back into some partisan trench, where if you look closely you’ll see mud on everyone’s uniform.
Trump didn’t start the slinging. He merely ensured the battle was wildly joined, adding his own special poison and pulling out a fiddle that soon may not be his to play.