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.