“In 4 months, the US transformed into an obedient socialist country. Government dictated what events are acceptable to attend. Violent protests that instill fear are OK but church services, family funerals and patriotic celebrations are dangerous. And you bought it without a fight.”
This summer, my eyes were blessed with this Facebook manifesto of Orwellian paranoia and conspiratorial fearmongering. At the time, I remember laughing a little at my poor Facebook friend’s expense. Ignorance and paranoia are pitiable offenses, but they could hardly dent my new 2020 hide of steel. Now, I want to return to my friend’s Facebook post and begin unpacking the unending crisis of COVID-19 as an issue lurking beneath American individualism.
As of October 5, 210,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. CNN cites this fatality rate to be greater than Americans killed “… during the five most recent wars combined: the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, the War in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf War.”
Despite such horrific numbers, we still see Americans on the streets and at their local stores with masks hung loosely around their ears, wrapped around their necks, or stuffed inside their pockets. According to a survey done by Brookings, 40% of Americans say they do not wear masks because “it is their right as an American to not wear a mask.” Other answers included “it is uncomfortable,” “the coronavirus is a conspiracy,” and “I don’t want to be mistaken for a criminal.”
These answers demonstrate a deep-rooted issue at the heart of American identity: individualism. Writing for The Atlantic, Meghan O’Rourke elucidated the problem: “We are so addicted to the concept of individual responsibility that we have a fragmented health care system, a weak social safety net, and a culture of averting our eyes from other people’s physical vulnerability.”
The concept of individual identity leads us to other conclusions about our sense of control. Despite globalization, systemic and institutional racism, and generational poverty, Americans cling with stubborn faith to the national myth of the individual’s superhuman ability to “succeed.” Much of the population’s current success and progress largely depends on the privilege of their ancestors and the withholding of resources and opportunity from POC. As a result of this history rooted in institutional racism and generational trauma, modern inequalities have accumulated in employment, housing, education, healthcare, government and other sectors of society. Therefore, a “failure” to succeed is not completely a byproduct of the individual’s effort or lack thereof.
In American culture, there is a strong faith in human ability to succeed. However, individualism forces people to be dependent on themselves alone. As far back as 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that “[American’s individualism] constantly leads [one person] back toward himself alone and threatens finally to confine him wholly in the solitude of his own heart.” The democratic form of individualism dissolves the duties that typically link one citizen to another, leaving each person to rely on their own means of survival. Of course, many Americans find ways to thrive and form community despite this trend, but individual choice, responsibility, and self-agency are the dominant values admired in our culture.
Individual choice implies both positive and negative freedom. Positive freedom is the ability to take action towards a specific goal. Negative freedom, on the other hand, is the capability to abstain from this action. For instance, Americans have the right to vote (positive); but Americans also have the right not to vote (negative). This freedom to say no echoes the Brookings survey results. Americans believe they “have the right” to not wear masks as individuals with freedoms to decide for themselves.
The most glaring fault in this logic is the fact that COVID-19 is contagious. As case numbers rose, COVID-19 became more than an issue of individual choice and agency; it became a public health issue.
Returning to my Facebook friend’s words: “It’s absolutely terrifying to me that so many people don’t question ‘authority.’ They are willing to surrender their critical thinking skills and independence. They just… gave up without thinking. Without a fight.”
While Americans have objected to governmental interference since before the Boston Tea Party, the response to COVID-19 has shown that the tendency to distrust authority yields a population obsessed with conspiracies about control. This paranoia about a lurking Big Brother can result in self-destructive tendencies and fear-mongering gossip.
America’s obsession with conspiracies is also not a new phenomenon. From the Illuminati to freemasonry to JFK’s assassination, conspiracism is a beloved part of the American psyche (and the inspiration for several great movies). Individualism seems to encourage development of these theories by characterizing the ordinary citizen as a noble but perpetual outsider. Imagined backroom dealings and powerful secret societies must be responsible for keeping this hero down, so the logic goes, because otherwise, his hard work would result in success.
Our culture encourages the idea that each individual has control over their lives and fates despite intergenerational trauma and a globalizing society that takes much of the choice out of our hands. If we buy into this idea, then external causes of powerlessness require a source to blame, or an active and malicious antagonist working against our success.
If we must constantly be wary of invisible foes, we might view other actors with paranoia or distrust. My friend criticized the surrender of “critical thinking skills” and “independence,” which seems to imply that we must all suspiciously regard each piece of information as suspect in order to maintain some semblance of autonomy.
Polarization exacerbates this issue. The news cycle on social media is hard-wired to reflect the user’s existing opinion. People are so worried about being duped by the other side, they become broadly dismissive, even of well-argued ideas. Of course, some level of inspection is necessary to fact-check sources of Internet information — but the refusal to acknowledge carefully researched and scientifically backed facts speaks to the obsession with some invisible foe.
In this instance, distrust of government and loss of control combines perfectly with individualism to produce a conspiracy. Attempts by the government to heighten COVID-19 concerns among the public with doomsday death counts or desperate pleas to avoid large crowds only worsen the skepticism and fears of mass control.
Our burning desire to remain independent and self-reliant does not supersede the reality of the situation. No individual is an island. Despite American culture’s emphasis on self-agency, we must also acknowledge our responsibilities towards each other. Sympathy, patience, and understanding go a long way in combating any foe. COVID-19 is no different.
“They got you. Without a thought. Without a fight. Just like France. Just like Russia. Just like China. Welcome, comrade.”