The COVID-19 pandemic has forced to the surface some very peculiar ideas about American values. Those values have changed significantly since the explosive century of industrial consumerism. As industrial extraction, production, and consumption expanded through the twentieth century, right up until the pandemic, economic change has transformed the character of the old “rugged individualism” as well as the barn-raising impulse of cooperation.
Yes, our history is replete with examples of rugged individuals who made their way by persistence, grit, and personal strength—not often without the help of neighbors or government. The individual took direct action to achieve a goal, though not always within the law. In any case, self-reliance was an honored value along with compassion. Now, it is a social illusion.
Illusions of Liberty
Today, we give lip service to self-reliance. However, our institutional structure—that is, the ubiquitous complex of corporate and governmental organizations that some call the corporate state—has turned self-reliance into personal dependence on institutions. That is part of the impetus for the growing interest in “survivalist” ideologies and the pseudo-militia movements.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the total dependence of most of the population on the condition of the corporate economy and its vulnerable global supply chains, regardless of any effort at relying on oneself. The illusions of individualism, curried for decades by corporate marketing and media propaganda, lay exposed for all to see. The corporate political plunder of the “stimulus” program congress funded ostensibly to help workers and small businesses, stood out in stark contrast to the heroism of individuals, from emergency-room doctors to grocery clerks. Once again, plutocracy trumped both public health and the economic needs of the public.
Many do not like having to face the interdependence of people in our complex corporate state. We react in many different ways. Both the political left and right each have their own critique of the failure of our imagined freedom to make it by our own blood, sweat, and tears. As the economy of endless growth crumbles, its illusions of economic freedom cannot stand.
The Politicization Pandemic
That is why, I think, we see such peculiar politicization of public health as both a social value and a complex set of institutions. On the one hand, most folks praise the medical first responders—the doctors, nurses, viral scientists, and other health workers—as “warriors” and “heroes.” Don’t get me wrong; they are all that and more. They routinely risk their lives to save the lives of strangers.
Yet, they also have to endure the damage done by politicians whose only interest is in manipulating public opinion in their interest in re-election. The anti-science criminal culture of the political nihilists in power overpowers the necessity of collective action to protect public health.
“Since he feels no responsibility for his citizens, he felt no need to learn about the situation from experts. He doesn’t like experts: their very existence implies his lack of knowledge, and Trump sees himself as an absolute authority on everything.” https://scoundreltime.com/trump-and-the-criminal-culture/
The pretend president who fails to measure up even as an “apprentice,” claims to be a “wartime president,” nevertheless refuses to take the aggressive strategies public health experts offer as crucial weapons in the war against this “invisible enemy.”
Billionaire backed political groups such as Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity finance a small number of armed extremists who try to intimidate governors who issue public health protective orders. They threaten governors for attempting to take measures such as social distancing, wearing masks, and closing non-essential businesses where the highly contagious deadly virus can easily spread.
Social Responsibility for Public Health
Why is the expectation that people exercise social responsibility defined as the removal of civil rights? Many folks already feel that the “deep state” has taken away their rights because no matter what they do or how hard they work, their right to achieve the “American Dream” has eroded massively in the last few decades. The extreme concentration of wealth among elites and the suppression of wages for the many exposes the illusion of rewards for individual hard work.
Public health is not just the sum total of the personal health of each individual. It is a collective condition of the whole population, and the institutionalized efforts to defend the public against disease. The exercise of overdrawn “individual rights” becomes a failure of individual responsibility when opposed to the collective good of suppressing the spread of the pandemic. Like it or not, we are in this together.
Responsibility necessarily accompanies freedom in a civil society. Obsessive focus on individual “privacy” by “leaders” in the face of the collective threat of the pandemic becomes an ethical failure of politics. Testing and tracing the origins of transmission, along with social distancing, masks, hand-washing, and gloves, are the weapons of war against the pandemic.
Only a complex set of collectively coordinated acts of cooperation can achieve public health. The pretend president has eviscerated public health institutions ever since he assumed office. Since the pandemic began, Trump has repeatedly undercut the efforts of the CDC to coordinate the fight against the spread of COVID-19. He is, in the effects of his actions and inactions, the anti-president, who extols the insanity of those who would “liberate” us from the responsibility of supporting public health.
If anything, humans are social animals. We are interdependent. That fact is anathema to the criminal culture of Trumplandia, where individual loyalty to the boss always trumps facts, science, and social responsibility. For the criminal culture, social responsibility is a scourge on the power of corruption to deny interdependence.