For COVID-19, America is Home

As any number of Facebook posts and memes have pointed out in recent weeks, we don’t wear masks to protect ourselves, we wear them to protect others. Our homemade cloth masks don’t do a great job of keeping the virus out, but they’re fairly effective at keeping it in.

In other words, minimizing the spread of Coronavirus depends on concern for others.

But America was founded on the idea that somehow individualism adds up to utopia for everyone. The best society happens when I get mine. The root of this ideology is economic, but it has, over several centuries, become generalized to all spheres of life. We have recently seen the results in pictures from malls, restaurants, and, remarkably, state capitols.

Being forced to wear a mask violates my freedom. Rules requiring me to distance from other citizens violate my freedom. Closing restaurants and bars violates my freedom.

We have apparently reached the point in our social evolution where I have the freedom to kill you. If the government does anything to prevent me from killing you, that’s communism.

Individualism is no longer an ideology of freedom (if it ever really was). It’s an existential pathology.

my car my choice drunk driving is a rightI’ve written before about the French statesman Alexis de Toqueville, whose tour of the US in the early 19th century gave us Democracy in America, still regarded by many as the most insightful look at our national character ever written. For me, the center of his thesis rested on the phrase “self-interest rightly understood.”

Their socially and civically viable vision of self-interest was working well in 1835, when Alexis d’Toqueville wrote “How the Americans Combat Individualism by the Principle of Interest Rightly Understood.” The idea and word “individualism” were newly minted and Tocqueville marveled that “an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts [Americans] to assist each other, and…willingly to sacrifice…[for] the welfare of the state.”

This variety of self-interest knows it needs a thriving community and doesn’t seek to gain at the expense of it. Weakening what you depend on, slowly weakens your more enlightened self-interest (it’s a win-now-lose-later strategy). Similar logic animates Pericles’ funeral oration: “It does not matter whether a man prospers as an individual: If his country is destroyed, he is lost along with it.” Even Ayn Rand, the high priestess of selfishness, distinguished between what she called rational and irrational forms.

What would de Tocqueville have made of the display in Lansing a couple of weeks ago?

Granted, much has changed. The America of 1831 (when he arrived) was comparatively homogenous – which is another way of saying the slaves hadn’t been freed and, as such, the particular forms of racism that have driven both social evolution and public policy since Gettysburg (and especially since the Civil Rights Act) didn’t yet exist. People are more likely to take care of theirs, and it’s always a mistake to romanticize their concern for yours.

In short, America c.2020 is perhaps the ideal host for Coronavirus. Its ability to spread is dramatically hindered where the population actively works to protect others. A society that has fetishized and institutionalized feral-dog-Darwinism, on the other hand, is the best incubator imaginable.

COVID-19 wasn’t born in America, but rest assured, America is its home.


  • I just had this argument with my cousin on FB yesterday. I usually don’t pick fights online, but every once in a while I pop off. His big hang up was “fear” and he wasn’t going to live in fear, I couldn’t get him off that. Also, he kept talking about me volunteering to go in the boxcars. I said, “What about being considerate of others?” But he just said that no one can force him to wear a mask. He kept insisting that a mask does not stop the virus. “If you can smell Lysol through the mask, you can get the virus.” He also did not directly answer any questions. I was rather disappointed.

    • I hope you handled him with more patience than I would have. But hell, I think about my relatives back in NC and what you describe is probably standard there.

      I guess we can at least be grateful we’re not like that.

      • I have two sons in college and in English 101 they had to read a book called Mindset. My wife read it on her own. It talks about having a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. A growth mindset is willing to change as new information comes in, a fixed will not change. I’m afraid my cousin has a fixed. I didn’t realize how fixed it was until this conversation. I’m sure I was more patient than you would be!

      • I think a lot of it boils down to change –> fear, and we live in times of massive change. Fear, of course, –> stupid…

  • Your post expresses the same basic message of a recent post of my own:

    I’d put a slightly different spin on one particular point. You write that, “The America of 1831 (when he arrived) was comparatively homogenous.” Sort of. It was homogenous at the local level, but regions varied quite a bit in culture and ethnicity.

    The Mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states, in particular, were majority non-British. They were mostly of Germanic ancestry and that was true going back to the Middle Colonies. Prior to the world war era, Americans identified more with region than with the nation-state.

    That is mired in federalism. It’s also why the government response to a public health crisis comes almost entirely from the state level and even at that level it tends to be weak. With the enforced assimilation of the American Melting Pot, the ethnic experience of regional identities was largely destroyed. Those regional identities held greater sway at one time, as did local communities.

    • Thanks for the nuance here. Those regionalisms were quite powerful, as you note. And not all groups were equally guilty of the sort of racial biases I point to here. My people – the Scot/Irish – are probably a huge majority of the problem, and I can’t tell you how proud that makes me…

      • Your people aren’t all that different from my people. My mother’s family is from the Upper South, although they are more Northern European, largely German. The Upper South, like the Midwest, had a large influx of Germans but it was a specific group of Germans, including many Palatine Germans.

        A commonality that many early German immigrants also came from a contested border region, that of Alsace-Lorraine that shifted between German and French control. Border people are known for a particular kind of culture of honor, independence, self-defense, and violence. My family was on the early American border among the first settlers pushing into the Ohio Valley and beyond.

        So, even though there is much British ancestry in the Upper South, most of it is not English. And the Scots-Irish themselves are a mixed lot because they consist largely of Germanic, Dutch, and French ancestry from immigrants and refugees over many centuries, from before the Norman invasion into the late colonial era.

        Consider the French Huguenots. They were another people who were concentrated at a border region, largely because of persecution. Persecuted people often found refuge in such places. That is why many of them further escaped to Britain where the assimilated into the Scots-Irish.

        The Scots-Irish were the mutts of Britain. So maybe it’s unsurprising that their descendants in the US are those most likely to simply identify as ‘American’ as opposed to claiming any specific ancestry. They helped create the American culture of assimilation, including early on mixing with blacks and Native Americans.

        A distinguishing feature of some people in the Upper South is the high cheek bones inherited from the Cherokee. When they weren’t fighting Indians, they were sometimes doing other things with them. One of my maternal ancestors was fighting Indians in Kentucky only years after the American Revolution, but I don’t know of any native ancestry. One of my aunts by marriage has those high cheek bones.

        On my father’s side, by the way, the earliest ancestor to immigrate to the colonies was a Scotsman. His name indicates he originally was Dutch. That is typical. Most Scottish ancestry is Dutch. They first came with the Normans and over time became concentrated in Scotland, including among the Scots-Irish. That Scottish ancestor was fighting Indians in the mid-1600s and was a slaveholder, including a captured Indian. That family owned slaves right up to the Civil War.

        There is a long history behind the culture in the United States. That helps explain regional differences, for sure. It was doing genealogical research that I learned a lot of American history. It helped make it more concrete and personal.

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