Dear Benny & Henry—
I write to you in the midst of what is shaping up to be one of the most staggering crises in American and probably world history.
In the United States alone, COVID-19 deaths recently passed 130,000, with no sign of the disease’s spread stopping and experts declaring that our window of opportunity to control it—to “flatten the curve”—has by now slammed shut. Meanwhile, we’re told that a vaccine is at least a year away (assuming that one ever arrives at all) and that people can be expected to wear masks in public for the foreseeable future.
It’s no exaggeration to call what is happening an apocalypse, not in the sense that it’s the end of the world, but that it is, per the dictionary, “an event involving destruction or damage on an awesome or catastrophic scale.”
To the narrow extent that I can find comfort right now, it is because the two of you, being far under 20 years of age, are both highly unlikely to contract the disease, and quite likely to see it come under control before you reach adulthood.
What happens between now and then, though, is anyone’s guess.
When you look back, however, you will doubtless seek to understand the present, frantic state of affairs, particularly in regard to why America, the wealthiest and most powerful nation on Earth, has seen the highest amount of COVID-19 cases as well as deaths.
Far be it from me to offer a comprehensive explanation. Like many, I find myself shocked and confused. I can point, however, to a variety of forces, all of which have haphazardly and yet perfectly coalesced into an absolutely flawless disaster…
At the center of it all, we have American culture. More and more, our culture is defined by our politics. I remember, while growing up in the 1990s, seeing commentators squint to look for differences between Democrats and Republicans. Nowadays, the differences are not only clear, but urgent, and the gap between the parties seems to only widen with each new attempt they make to communicate.
The Republicans, it is said, are the party of freedom, generally opposed to government in the form of taxation or regulation, but entirely at peace with it in the course of preventing abortion, securing our borders, or pursuing national defense. The Democrats, meanwhile, are the party of equality, seeking justice by way of government mechanizations, unless of course they appear in the form of the police, or continue to benefit the wealthy, the white, straight, or male.
On this last note, we have reached a cultural breaking point in regard to the consistent systematic marginalization and abuse of Black people, brown people, women, and LGBTQ+ people in this country, all of whom, in varying contexts and to varying degrees, find themselves deprived of leverage and opportunity.
As the pandemic got going, I thought back to September 11, 2001. On that dark day in history, years before you were born, terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, murdering 2,977 people and spurring a rare moment of political unity in U.S. history.
Or at least it seemed like unity…
The illusion, I think, was propped up by the media. Back then, you see, there wasn’t any social media. Moreover, there wasn’t any widely accessible independent journalism or social commentary. No YouTube, no Facebook, no podcasts, no Instagram. We lived then in a top-down, vertical world, wherein authoritative voices spoke from above, issuing facts and opinions to those below.
The world’s gone flat, horizontal. We can hear everybody all at once. It makes “unity” seem like a bygone concept. And it makes me realize, as many others have, that this country has long sat upon unseen divisions, kept invisible on account of unheard voices.
We can both see and hear now. We hear from Black Americans about their multilayered state of oppression. We hear from rural Americans about the generations-wide blows of having their manufacturing jobs shipped overseas. This latter group, largely white, finds it appalling, and racist, to hear about their white privilege, seeing as poverty and indignity have battered them for so long. The left, however, being acutely aware of dangers, disadvantages, and indignities to oppressed Americans that reach back across many decades and indeed centuries, isn’t about to squeeze out a droplet of sympathy for them.
Enter Donald Trump.
Like the patriarch in a dysfunctional household, the President of the United States thrives on malice and discord. Animosity, resentment, division, paranoia—such are the things that make him feel all is well. He secured a narrow victory in 2016 by preying cynically upon our country’s longstanding divisions: a Divider-in-Chief, using Twitter, that most toxic of social media platforms, as his main mouthpiece.
Social media age: meet social media president.
It works, what Trump does, at least in terms of sheer marketing—which is to say, it works in terms of keeping him—chronically! constantly!—on our country’s collective mind. He was just doing what he does best this past weekend, while celebrating The 4th of July. He told his freedom-loving followers on the right that the far left was out to crush their liberty: silence them, censor them, crowd them out, shut them down, exile them to the graveyards of the past.
As he gave his grand speeches and rallied his base, COVID-19 cases spiked all across the land—and yet to hear the president tell it, one would think that the virus was far less deadly than the Democrats.
For one thing that this president depends on is lies. And as a matter of course, the liar’s game depends on discrediting the truthful. In Trump’s case, that’s had him discrediting the press, even going so far as to term it The Enemy of the People. He’s subjected the U.S. press to so many smears, attacks, distortions, insults, and evasions that here in this large and awful year, 2020, he actually got his supporters to distrust an advisement from science that can absolutely help us to slow the virus:
I speak now of the advisement to wear masks.
In the greatest political horror I have witnessed, many on the American right are avoiding masks due to a toxic cocktail of media distrust, science skepticism, hypermasculinity, and deranged, excessive notions of what it actually means to live in freedom. All of which are encouraged, in ways both overt (his own refusal to wear a mask in public) and subtle (his consistent undermining of anything the left has to offer), by the president.
For much of this pandemic, we’ve had our motion restricted. We’re sheltering in place, staying home, only going out or traveling when absolutely necessary. As this state of inertia has dragged on, the right has protested it most emphatically, wielding guns in some cases on the steps of state capitols for the sake of getting our governors to grant us liberty. Would it not stand to reason, then, that those on the right, amid their colossal will to break free, would welcome the mask-wearing as a safe means of being out in public?
I regret to say: no. Those who want too much of a good thing, it is said, wish to have their cake and eat it, too.
But some on the American right, I too regret, are fighting to avoid their cake and discard it, also.
This is what happens when culture is replaced by politics, when the populace is divided into tribes, and when the tribes are conditioned to grant each other nothing less than their total and committed fear and distrust.
I remember the old days, circa 9/11. I recall something from late in the day of the attacks. In Washington, D.C., outside the Capitol building, 150 members of the U.S. House and Senate joined together in a mournful moment of silence. As the moment found its ending, with unrehearsed spontaneity, all the leaders in attendance broke into song. Republicans, Democrats, Senators, Congresspeople. They sang “God Bless America.”
Understand: The 90s had just ended. Irony was still very much in fashion. Many mocked this somber moment of song. But I look back on it now and my heart swells with sadness.
Not because America once was united.
But because we’d once allowed ourselves, briefly, to think we were.