d r a f t

In May 2020 xxx

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 I was an American history major in college, back in the 1980s.

I’ll be honest with you. I thrilled to the way the American story was told back then. To immigrate to America was to join the luckiest and greatest nation in history. “Nothing in all history had ever succeeded like America, and every American knew it,” Henry Steele Commager wrote in his 1950 book, “The American Mind.”

To be born American was to be born to a glorious destiny. We were the nation of the future, the vanguard of justice, the last best hope of mankind. “Have the elder races halted?” Walt Whitman asked, “Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond the seas? We take up the task eternal.”Twitter ChatDavid Brooks answered questions about this column on Twitter.

To be born American was to be born boldly individual, daring and self-sufficient. “Trust thyself: Every heart vibrates to that iron string,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in an essay called, very Americanly, “Self-Reliance.”

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Today, of course, we understand what was wrong with that version of American history. It didn’t include everybody. It left out the full horrors of slavery and genocide.

But here’s what has struck me forcefully, especially during the pandemic: That whole version of the American creed was all based on an assumption of existential security. Americans had the luxury of thinking and living the way they did because they had two whopping great oceans on either side. The United States was immune to foreign invasion, the corruptions of the old world. It was often spared the plagues that swept over so many other parts of the globe.

We could be individualistic, anti-authority, daring and self-sufficient because on an elemental level we felt so damn safe.

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Aside from a few protesters and a depraved president, most of us have understood we need to suspend the old individualistic American creed. In the midst of a complex epidemiological disaster, to be anti-authority is to be ignorant. In the midst of a contagion, to act as if you are self-sufficient is just selfish.

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In this atmosphere, economic resilience will be more valued than maximized efficiency. We’ll spend more time minimizing downside risks than maximizing upside gains. The local and the rooted will be valued more than the distantly networked. We’ll value community over individualism, embeddedness over autonomy.

Something lovely is being lost. America’s old idea of itself unleashed a torrent of energy. But the American identity that grows up in the shadow of the plague can have the humanity of shared vulnerability, the humility that comes with an understanding of the precariousness of life and a fierce solidarity that emerges during a long struggle against an invading force.

Cite: David Brooks, “The First Invasion of America,” New York Times, May 21, 2020 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/21/opinion/us-coronavirus-history.html.

***

What a difference a year makes. On May 6, 2021 Brooks couldn’t be upbeat about what he (or a Times headline writer called “Our Pathetic Herd Immunity Failure.” Comparing it to the “national cohesion, voluntary sacrifice for the common good and trust in institutions and each other” of the World War II period, he said:

In 2020 Americans failed to socially distance and test for the coronavirus and suffered among the highest infection and death rates in the developed world. Millions decided that wearing a mask infringed their individual liberty.

This week my Times colleague Apoorva Mandavilli reported that experts now believe that America will not achieve herd immunity anytime soon. Instead of being largely beaten, this disease could linger, as a more manageable threat, for generations. A major reason is that about 30 percent of the U.S. population is reluctant to get vaccinated.

We’re not asking you to storm the beaches of Iwo Jima; we’re asking you to walk into a damn CVS.

Citing the American experience in World War I (and leaving out the vicious nativism of the period), he said Americans in crisis have shown “what Alexis de Tocqueville called a ‘social body,’ a coherent community capable of collective action.” But now, he added:

That basic sense of peoplehood, of belonging to a common enterprise with a shared destiny, is exactly what’s lacking today. Researchers and reporters who talk to the vaccine-hesitant find that the levels of distrust, suspicion and alienation that have marred politics are now thwarting the vaccination process. They find people who doubt the competence of the medical establishment or any establishment, who assume as a matter of course that their fellow countrymen are out to con, deceive and harm them. 

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A lot of Americans have seceded from the cultural, political and social institutions of national life. As a result, the nation finds it hard to perform collective action. Our pathetic Covid response may not be the last or worst consequence of this condition.

How do you rebuild trust? At the local level you recruit diverse people to complete tangible tasks together, like building a park. At the national level you demonstrate to people in concrete ways that they are not forgotten, that someone is coming through for them.

Which brings us to Joe Biden. The Biden agenda would pour trillions of dollars into precisely those populations who have been left out and are most distrustful — the people who used to work in manufacturing and who might now get infrastructure jobs, or the ones who care for the elderly. This money would not only ease their financial stress, but it would also be a material display that someone sees them, that we are in this together. These measures, if passed, would be extraordinary tangible steps to reduce the sense of menace and threat that undergirds this whole psychology.

The New Deal was an act of social solidarity that created the national cohesion we needed to win World War II. I am not in the habit of supporting massive federal spending proposals. But in this specific context — in the midst of a distrust doom loop — this is our best shot of reversing the decline.

Cite: David Brooks, “Our Pathetic Herd Immunity Failure,” New York Times, May 6, 2021 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/06/opinion/herd-immunity-us.html

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