Our former Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis, recently said that before Allied troops stormed the beaches at Normandy in World War II, they were told that, “The Nazi slogan for destroying us…was ‘Divide and Conquer.’ Our American answer was ‘In Union there is Strength.’”
If in union there is indeed strength, it then follows that in disunion—in division—there is weakness. It boils down to this time-tested adage: united we stand, divided we fall. At this moment in history, that immutable truth is not enough to convince us that we need each other. Sadly, and to our own detriment, we live in an era where individualism is more highly prized than communitarianism. How else are we to explain the placards like this, “I will not trade my freedom for your safety,” that were so prevalent last Spring as our infectious disease experts begged us to wear masks and practice social distancing?
The outrage, fueled by a president who very publicly chose not to follow his own experts’ guidance, and by a jaundiced segment of the media that dismissed the virus as a hoax, was effective only in dividing us as the virus spread. You’d have thought they asked us sacrifice our first born. The really troubling aspect of these promoted divisions is that we have four percent of the world’s population, but 24% of the fatalities. Our inability to pull together has made our country a modern-day leper colony. Few want to come here, and few other countries will let us go there. Under the banner of individual liberty, this novel coronavirus has been allowed to ravage us.
“Liberty” is now the nice word for “selfish.”
It begs the question, is freedom absolute? Should you endanger others in the name of personal freedom? Does personal liberty trump societal good? Who decides? If the government’s first responsibility is to protect the citizenry, doesn’t that imply that it has to place public health above personal freedom? Today, would our society and economy look more like Western Europe, South Korea, Canada, and New Zealand, if we weren’t so selfish?
I have no illusions about monocultures like Japan and China where there is virtually no individualism. That couldn’t and shouldn’t be the case in the world’s great melting pot. I am not advocating for some kind mind-controlled lockstep. That’s definitely not a good look for us, but come on—wearing a mask is the least you can do. Short of never coming out from under your bed, there is nothing less you can do and still fight the spread.
Last weekend, I heard a particularly selfish individual insist that if you don’t like people exercising their freedom not to wear masks, you can stay home. That sounds more like bullying than standing up for personal liberty: “If you don’t want me to steal your lunch money, don’t come to school.”
There is truth in the idea that American Exceptionalism is rooted in individualism. We would not be the greatest nation ever but for the freedom for our domestic-born and immigrant populations to start over and reinvent themselves, build the better mousetrap, and exchange crazy ideas that become billion-dollar ideas. The Marlboro Man—the rugged individual alone atop the ridge, on horseback and staring into the middle distance—is one of our most revered icons, and for good reason. Our unique ability to allow the freedom to experiment, and then apply the results to all, has made us what we are. We have successfully, in fits and starts to be sure, fought our instinct to pull the ladder up behind us once we’re safely in the treehouse.
The defining song of the Depression Era, “Brother Can You Spare A Dime,” was all about a helping hand. It didn’t soft-pedal the devastation of the times. In fact, it was a protest song doubling as a cry for help. It reflected the universality of our predicament as it both remonstrated against economic destruction, and acknowledged the profound and fundamental goodness of the American character.
This current aberration, this reflexive selfishness, encouraged by leadership at the highest levels of government and media, is the most un-American movement I’ve witnessed in my lifetime. It is pernicious because it leverages off of the well-deserved and very positive imagery of the self-reliance and individualism that made America great. It is a manipulative and cynical misreading of our collective values.
Coming together to fight adversity has always made us stronger, not weaker. We must summon the unity General Mattis referred to if we are to surmount this crisis. In this terrible time, we must ask: Can we rise above, and are we better than our politics?