Members Only | May 26, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Land of the Weak, Home of the Depraved

The Memorial Day Weekend showed us who we are.

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National character is something conservatives, especially elected Republican officials in all levels of government, say they take very seriously. They tell the story often of the United States being the land of the free and the home of the brave. Americans are a hardy folk, they say, ready to face hardship, determined to overcome tyranny despite the odds. No one can defeat an idea, they say. In America, that idea is freedom.

When the going gets tough, Americans don’t get going. We say whatevs, and head to the beach.

If American behavior during the Memorial Day Weekend is any indication, however, that story is false. If our behavior during a pandemic that has killed over 99,900 in two months, the equivalent of thirty-three 9/11s, is any indication, that story is perverse in its distortion of reality. Sure, we want freedom. We don’t want to work for it, though. Sure, we want liberty. We don’t want to sacrifice, though. The US isn’t the land of the free, home of the brave—more like land of the weak, home of the depraved. When the going gets tough, we don’t get going. We say whatevs, and head for the beach.

It’s too easy to blame the president. Donald Trump won’t wear a mask. He mocks “social distancing.” He pushes to revive an economy in the ditch (even though the economy probably won’t have anything to do his eventual victory or defeat). As the death toll closes in on 100,000, he expresses no grief, no sympathy, no hope. Instead of revering those who died fighting for liberty, he goes golfing, and throws punches from the safety of Twitter. He was born on third base, but it’s worse than thinking he hit a triple—the accident of his birth means he’s entitled to winning the World Series.

Don’t forget the tip jar!

But blaming Trump for ordinary behavior is wrong. We shouldn’t give a pass to grown men and women when they choose not to wear a mask, thinking “Well, that’s what happens when leaders fail.” A leader is not a nation. A nation—a people with its own character and cast of mind, its own values separate from leadership—should not be graded on a curve. Our luck ran out with the election of a world-historical liar, but we rise to the occasion or don’t. We work together in facing calamity or don’t. We are a union—or we’re a mishmash of states that can’t stand each other, and won’t stand.

I’m glad to see the cable news networks heading out to interview beach goers and summer’s eve revelers who have decided to ignore even modest social-distancing guidelines. I’m glad to see people going on record as being ignorant, lazy or misinformed, and therefore dangerous to public health and safety. I’m glad to see exposure of the lie that wearing a mask is somehow a violation of individual liberty.

But the question I kept wanting asked, as I watched people rationalize the irrational, was: What would you say to other Americans who lost a husband or mother to Covid-19, but could not touch them—could not be in the same room as they were dying—for fear of being infected? What do you say to people whose loved ones were buried by strangers? A less charitable question but worth asking: Aren’t you pissing on their graves?

We are a union—or we’re a mishmash of states that can’t stand each other, and won’t stand together as one.

It’s not hard to imagine the general contour of the answers to those questions, though, to be sure, the answers themselves would be various and sundry. Basically, it would be: you do you. But in the context of a pandemic, in which your decisions affect me just as my decisions affect you, you do you is as polite as it is dishonest. In reality, we’re all in this together and those who won’t see that are a serious problem. An honest answer, moreover, would be: I don’t care about my fellow Americans, I don’t care about the number of dead, and yes, I am pissing on their graves and I’d happy to do it again. They’d never say this in front of TV cameras, of course. That would take courage.

Allow me to be clear: I don’t really think America is the land of the weak and the home of the depraved. Polls show a massive and silent majority doing what needs to be done, taking extra care to get on with life without accepting unnecessary risks. Most people in this country are indeed rising to the occasion. They just don’t get play on CNN.

But there are people in this country, there have always been people in this country, who embody a wholly imaged nation within a nation, a confederacy in which “real Americans” are chosen by God to rule in God’s name. “Real Americans” believe in order more than law, control more than freedom, conformity more than individualism. A nation within a nation is built to maintain hierarchies of power. Power corrupts. This “nation” is, therefore, soft and decadent, selfish and disloyal, and willing to wound itself to wound its enemies. It’s a perversion, in other words, of the real America.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor and publisher of the Editorial Board, a newsletter about politics in plain English for normal people and the common good. He's a visiting assistant professor of public policy at Wesleyan University, a fellow at the Yale Journalism Initiative, a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly, and a contributing editor for Religion Dispatches.

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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