What we’re seeing right now is a perfect confluence of all of our failings.
I’ve written many times about our unwillingness to reckon with the darker aspects of our history, both as Americans and as Christians. We like to plow forward professing that we’re the greatest country in the world and proudly proclaiming that God has blessed America and somehow equating this country with the chosen people of God.
While faith and patriotism are wonderful things, what we’ve clung to has gone far beyond into an arrogant nationalism. When we say America is the greatest nation in the history of the world, we don’t actually look to any evidence to back it up. It’s not an evidentiary claim; it’s a gut claim. And anyone who even slightly hesitates to echo such a suggestion is blatantly anti-American. Further, America is God’s chosen land, and therefore anything less than full-throated nationalism is heretical.
Unfortunately, this has led us down a path of, well, ignorance. We boldly march on in one direction shunning any suggestion that there might be flaws in our path. We create a culture that so vilifies individual weakness that we both choose not to provide for those who must miss work due to sickness, but further we lay immense amounts of guilt on those that do miss work when sick even if they are lucky enough to have a paid leave benefit.
We declare “personal responsibility” as the be all, end all, and therefore decree that anyone who is struggling to make ends meet simply is not working hard enough. It’s a nationalistic form of the prosperity gospel, which preaches (falsely) that material wealth is entirely based on how much faith you have, and therefore, anyone who is poor is lacking faith.
But such a thought process allows us to dismiss those in need. It’s their own fault they’re struggling; we don’t owe them anything. Maybe they should get another job, a better job, one that pays them more and provides health care.
I’m pretty sure every person in our country who has ever had a job has gone to work when they were sick. In most cases, I doubt there was much hesitation or consideration of staying home, regardless of whether they had paid sick leave. Because staying home is being weak; tough it out and go to work. Or because if you don’t go to work, you might lose your job. Or even if you don’t lose your job, you won’t get paid and then you won’t be able to make rent.
Our obsession with personal responsibility has gone so far to the extreme that it’s come at significant cost to community wellness. It’s the root of a culture that clings so tightly to “free market” capitalism that we see people pouring billions of dollars into their bank accounts while so many are homeless, hungry, and dying from preventable causes. It’s also this approach that makes us so vulnerable to the spread of infectious disease. Each time someone goes to work while sick, they risk spreading that sickness to everyone they come into contact with. While most of the time it’s merely a common cold, we have a well-established tradition in our culture of spreading infectious diseases far more than any developed nation, much less the “greatest nation in the history of the world” ever should.
Further, we take the idea of American Exceptionalism seriously. One of our favorite truisms is that it could never happen here. We believe it both within our small communities and our country as a whole. Regardless of all the mass shootings elsewhere, it could never happen in our hometown. Regardless of how much the rhetoric of political leaders of a certain party start to sound like Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s, it could never happen in America. Regardless of the tremendous impact a new disease had in China and Italy, it could never happen here.
Those two pieces combine to create an incredibly self-centered arrogance that both believes we’re better than everyone else and invincible. Therefore, when we learn about the threat of a deadly virus working its way around the globe, we all but dismiss it. In fact, the current presidential administration saw such little use for pandemic prevention planning and disease control scientific study that it’s gutted those resources over the past three years. It could never happen here, so why waste money?
As it starts to happen here, we continue in our arrogance. Instead of paying attention to the facts and experiences of other countries already hit, we go meme-crazy, claim any level of concern is a partisan hoax intended to harm the president and dismiss any threat. It could never happen here.
As it continues to become more real, our arrogance goes even further to say, well, even if it does hit, it’s only really a threat to the elderly or medically compromised. In fairness, few traditions are more American that dehumanizing entire chunks of the population based on demographic qualifications, so we shouldn’t be surprised. While few would say these words overtly, the message being overwhelmingly put out is that these two groups really don’t count. “Normal” people will be fine. It’s not really a threat.
As the truly unprecedented nature of the threat really takes hold, everything comes to a stop. But instead of a healthy fear and acknowledgment that it can, in fact, happen here, we get angry and bitter about the ways we’re inconvenienced. Thousands of people worldwide have already died, and more are being added to that tally daily, but how dare they cancel that show I was really excited about?
It’s amazing seeing the rapid shift in people’s messages from before they were personally affected to the moment it actually became real to them. Whether it was a friend or family member, or even just someone in their community infected, suddenly this isn’t a huge overreaction that everyone should calm down for. Suddenly it’s serious.
And it is serious. So as people realize that fact, they panic and continue their self-centered arrogance by rushing to the store to buy enough cleaning supplies to last them 100 years. Unfortunately, now there are no supplies left for others. Too bad. They should’ve been there faster. Personal, responsibility, remember? Every person for themselves, and those left behind will just have to die, I guess. That’s the American way.
I am so thankful every time I see a post on Facebook or a story in the news sharing about people reaching out in love to help the most vulnerable during this time. And I am desperately saddened to see those stories overwhelmed by the opposite response to this situation that we’re seeing from the vast majority.
This is serious. People have died, are dying, and will continue to die. Likely by the end of this, we all will have lost someone due to this pandemic.
But at some point (hopefully sooner than later) it will end. At that point, we’ll be left to pick up the pieces. And there will be a lot of pieces as we discover just how devastating this experience will be for all of us in so many ways – medically, socially, culturally, economically. I pray that as we go through this together (apart, please respect the restrictions for going out as much as you can), we will seriously reconsider some of the deeply rooted aspects of our American personality.
If we truly want this country to be the greatest in history, we can’t just claim credit for successes and pass the blame for everything that goes wrong (despite our president doing exactly that every time). We must really reckon with our failings, historically, culturally, politically, economically, etc. And we must find a way to grow through them and improve. If we do so, maybe next time such a threat hits our country we’ll be far better prepared.