masks

Not the Covid-protecting version, but the one covering the Nation’s face. The deep lines and cracks are showing. They have been developing for some years. Amazing how fast a country can age. The big question is how long have we been hiding behind it. Did we have it on, even at the time de Tocqueville told his glowing story? Is our history more than what the winners have written? By the numbers, America is great, or, maybe, was great. Our riches are stunning. We have been the envy of other countries, admiring our freedoms. Our global economic and military forces commanded the stage. But what was lurking behind the mask.

Covid has stripped away that mask, just as it has been putting them on individual faces. The numbers of Americans that either lack the bare necessities or struggle to find them is staggering. At the other end of the spectrum, the wealth of the tiny fraction of the ultra-wealthy is equally staggering, so much so, as to be obscene when placed in the context of the whole mass of humanity that call themselves American. Our vaunted infrastructure is in tatters. Its poor state is tightly coupled to the wealth that has piled up in recent decades. What monies that should have been devoted to the public good, to the Commonwealth, has gone to the rentiers and others who have rigged the political system.

The delicately balanced governance system of checks and balances that the Founding Fathers put in place, for good reason, is completely dysfunctional. The leader of the most august of our legislative bodies has said that, “[w]inners make policy and the losers go home.” In a majoritarian sense that might be true if he was referring to laws governing the Commonwealth, but he was talking about the spoils available to the already rich and powerful. Even more than the corrupt accumulation of power and wealth is the lack of care and understanding. The strength of America, de Tocqueville wrote, was in its small civic associations that provided the bonds that held the disparate elements of our society together. More recently, Robert Putnam has chronicled their disappearance and, with them, the evaporation of what he termed, social capital.

How serious that loss has become can be seen in the fatal shooting of a clerk by someone being told to wear a mask. This incident demonstrates two dreadful, related truths(a word used very carefully these days) about today’s America. One is the absence of any sense of being a part of and caring for the highly interconnected system of humans and the rest of the world, including the life-supporting parts. That’s our real world and it won’t work unless we take care of it. Ending a life is the ultimate absence of care.

The second is the ubiquity of guns, a problem in and of itself, because it produces the largest number of deaths per capita of any nation with an established and stable system of governance. The number of guns per capita is 4 times as much as any other country’s holdings. The outlying prevalence of guns in America is related to something unique in our national psyche. Guns are symbolic as well as practical. They carry a message to keep away, on the one hand, and of domination, on the other. They reinforce our deep-rooted racism and prejudices. Carrying a gun, as more and more states allow their citizens to do, is a not-so-covert signal to keep away, to harden the invisible wall too many of us have built around us. The wealthy’s walls are made of brick and mortar; the rest’s walls are constructed by guns and threats.

The pandemic makes it clear, in stark details, how much one’s life depends on others. Covid always comes via transmission from others, as does its opposite, the care given to those affected by it. Our President mistakenly calls the pandemic a war, and claims to lead us into whatever battles are to be fought. But, in fact, he has shrunk from the job, stoking the fires of separation on which he has built his politics. Talk of getting back to the normal is everywhere. Perhaps so, in terms of our quotidian activities, but not in our separate ways. Some, like me, lived through and remember the last Great War we fought and won. While it was guns and those who carried them who did the work on the battlefield, it was a unified people that linked arms and showed that it could care for a common cause that made victory possible. So must it be in the case of the pandemic and in the normal era that is to come in its aftermath if America in fact is to match America, the dream.

One Reply to “The Mask Is Off”

  1. John,
    Your thoughts on this resonated with me.
    It seems as though nearly every company advertising on TV insists that “We are all in this together.” However, it doesn’t feel like that. It’s true that we are all affected by the pandemic in one way or another, but our response is anything but “together.
    Recently I’ve been engaged by Richard Rohr’s thoughts on Solidarity – being one with the many. He has caused me to try to apply these ideas to myself as I encounter “the other,” particularly those I perceive as adversaries. This is crucial in these times when the world can seem to be divided into friends and foes. Rohr’s quotes from Paulo Freire are particularly meaningful.
    “Dialogue cannot exist without humility.
    How can I dialogue if I regard myself as a case apart from others—mere “its” in whom I cannot recognize other “I”s?
    How can I dialogue if I consider myself . . . the owner of truth and knowledge . . .?
    How can I dialogue if I am closed to—and even offended by—the contributions of others?
    Self-sufficiency is incompatible with dialogue.
    At the point of encounter [in dialogue] there are neither utter ignoramuses nor perfect sages; there are only people who are attempting, together, to learn more than they now know.”
    The line that hits home is: “Self-sufficiency is incompatible with dialogue.” For the last year I have been thinking and writing about the idea of self versus other as a distinguishing concept between conservatives and liberals. It also takes the form of the individual versus community. While I use the term “versus,” I am not satisfied with it. The word connotes an adversarial relationship I don’t wish to have; it also sets up a duality. Actually, I mean something more like “compared to” rather than “versus,” as in “the concept of the individual compared to the concept of community.” This still doesn’t eliminate binary thinking – a duality of opposition; but it does mitigate some the adversarial nuance.
    But back to the idea that “self-sufficiency is incompatible with dialogue.” It seems to imply that the self-sufficient person is actually engaged in monologue; talking to oneself; more interested in speaking more than hearing or even more than being heard. If I truly believe in the primacy of community over individuality, of other over self, then I must accept the reality that I and the other are one – that I and all others are one. That is the notion of community.
    The binary thinking, which I’m trying to avoid, opposes individual to community. It is, however, a false dichotomy. A community is built of individuals – but individuals who have come to achieve their individuality through service to the community. This is where and how the individual flourishes and is fulfilled: by becoming one with the community. So the individual and the community are not seen as a duality, but rather as parts of a whole.
    Integrating the concepts of individuality and community is like breathing. The breath is a single thing, but it is comprised of a dual action: inhaling and exhaling. One cannot only inhale or exhale. We must do both to survive. Inhaling is akin to serving self and exhaling to serving others. Both are necessary for survival. The one thing necessary is breathing, but it has two components. “Self-ishness” is like inhaling and holding your breath. You can only do that for so long. If you persist, you die. To fulfill your individuality, your selfhood, you must exhale – give to others, to the community. The whole breath is definitely greater than the sum of its two parts. Only by joining in community are “we all in this together.”
    Thanks for your thoughts.
    Dick

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