The American “Character”

Prior to the emergence of Covid19, I would have predicted that Americans would find a way to confront the challenge of a once in a century pandemic.

I’m not naïve or sanguine about the wisdom of the American public or its leaders. In fact, I’m usually pretty cynical about the U.S. But we’ve faced common threats before and have weathered them. Surely, in matters of personal health, even the most self-interested person would support public health measures.

But I simply was not cynical enough.

Before the pandemic, certain facts were clear. The American way has never been about building institutions that protect everyone. Americans have never shown much concern for the welfare of others. We’ve never believed everyone deserved access to health care, a robust safety net, or a high-functioning public health system. In the U.S., we believe that if you fail at anything, including getting sick, it’s your own fault, because we are all self-made persons who can survive and flourish on our own. Those who survive did so because they are strong. Those who don’t survive didn’t deserve to. Apple pie and social Darwinism are a match made in heaven.

I knew all of that already. But, nevertheless, a common threat to everyone’s health should elicit a reasonably robust collective response, even among the purely self-interested, because good health is in everyone’s self-interest.

Over the past two years, it has become apparent that this indifference towards others carries with it such animosity that large swathes of the public are willing to take on enormous personal risk in order to proudly wear that indifference. Large numbers eschew life-saving vaccines and masks and go to their deaths insisting they were right all along. It’s not self-interest but the display of self-assertion that matters. Making everyone believe you care only about yourself is more important than caring about yourself. I’m sure in Darwin’s fossil records there are such stories although there is no one around to tell them.

What we are, who we are, set us up for the calamity that has happened over the past two years—almost a million dead and counting with many more damaged for life.

No one can ever again write the words “American character” with a straight face.

Published by Dwight Furrow

Wine, food, and travel writing, philosophy, aesthetics

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