The COVID-19 pandemic has made visible another plague threatening America: toxic individualism.
This is an unbridled and extreme perversion of a near sacred American ideal. Individualism, we have been taught since grade school, built America. Our biographies lionize the lone ranger. Our frontier myth singles out the intrepid pioneer. We cleave to the words in the Declaration of Independence extolling our inalienable right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
But in its toxic form, this individualism has unleashed social pathologies and corrosive social practices. It may explain why my white Facebook “friend,” fueled with an unmerited self regard despite multiple personal failings, posted recently his screed against the “chinks” whom he accused of having exported the Coronavirus to the US. It fuels the toxic masculinity that prevents President Trump from wearing a face mask when in the company of others. It fires the reckless rushing of beaches and the siege of state capitol buildings against the advice of public health officials. This toxic form of American individualism is the social media equivalent of #F$%kYou.
This dark side of the American experience has always been there. We see it in the craven indifference to Native Americans whose populations were decimated, displaced, and derided. We see it in the tortuous regimes of southern labor camps Edward Baptist described in arresting detail in “The Half Has Never Been Told.” We see it in horrifying postcards white Americans mailed to their mothers and sweethearts attesting to their attendance at extralegal, but public lynchings of African Americans during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is a toxic form of individualism that blinds one to a neighbor’s equal claim to humanity.
As the poison of toxic individualism spreads, America needs a dose of humility to counter its lethal course. A better president is a good start. But as appealing as it is to blame President Trump for this toxicity, he is merely America’s pusher-in-chief. We are addicted to individualism, an hallucinogenic that blots out everyone but ourselves and magnifies our needs and wishes so that they are the only things that matter.
Frederick Jackson Turner in his now famous 1893 essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” helped twentieth-century Americans articulate the relationship between our westward expansion and the forging of the American character. The process of encountering successive frontier lines (the Appalachian mountains, the Mississippi River, the Great Plains, the Rockies, the Pacific) cultivated those pioneer traits of individualism that became part of the American mythos.
But as Greg Grandin makes painfully clear in “The End of the Myth,” this frontier individualism came at the expense of minorities. White Americans who embraced and profited from frontier individualism too often saw the world in zero-sum terms: their freedom and liberty required the dehumanization and destruction of others. Grandin’s gut-wrenching descriptions of centuries of torture whites inflicted on Native Americans, Mexicans, and African Americans unmask the red-white-and-blue bunting that has festooned our national myth and memory.
The recent protests and demonstrations following the murder of George Floyd tell us there is more unmasking to do.
White Americans, and white middle-class Americans in particular, have had the privilege of individualism. We have had the security of our rights. It is not a privilege and security shared by others. George Floyd did not share in them. Does anyone seriously believe that had African American men shown up outside the Michigan state house carrying assault rifles that events would have unfolded the same way it did when white men seized that space?
Those occupying state capitol buildings demanding their right to a haircut, a tattoo, and a dine-in experience enact an individualism no less toxic given the potential to spread COVID-19 to others.
We have rights and we justly cherish them. Our myth of individualism has at times inspired us. But at what cost (and to whom) do we insist on our individualism?
Students of color at the State University of New York at Cortland recently participated in a virtual Black Lives Matter forum. Some in tears, others in anger, they described poignantly their experiences of recent weeks and the past semester. They wanted the college to do more. They wanted the faculty to do more. They wanted their white peers to stand with them. In their pained witness, they were condemning the toxic individualism that teaches self over others and expresses more anguish over the asphyxiated economy than the asphyxiated black body. Our myth of individualism has failed those students as it failed George Floyd and the generations who came before them. We do not need a new myth. We need a more humane reality.
Calls for community are urgent, but not new. We hear them from most presidents and presidential candidates. It was arguably Barack Obama’s 2008 Philadelphia speech, with its reminder that we are our brother’s keeper, that rescued his candidacy. It is a leitmotif in our nation’s rhetoric. It was the call to community that sustained the Civil Rights Movement and gave hope to so many that “we shall overcome.” It was the shared sacrifice that helped Americans endure the Great Depression and win the war. It was the critique by populists and progressives that clipped the wings of Gilded Age individualism and inspired a politics of social justice. Abolitionists and utopian reformers in the decades before the Civil War pushed against the politics of self to imagine a community of brothers and sisters.
We hear this call, perhaps surprisingly, even among the band of Massachusetts Bay puritans, a community that inhabited the best and worst of our national identity. After all, they delighted in the slaughter of their Native American neighbors and claimed God’s blessing for the undertaking. We have sanitized their history to remember them instead as the planters of our religious liberty. Their errand in the wilderness, we tell ourselves, was the fertile seed bed from which sprouted our cherished right to individual belief. But the puritans valued (their) community more than the individual. John Winthrop, the colony’s governor, wrote his now famous lay sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” not to celebrate individuality but to warn against it. Winthrop’s “city upon a hill” image that Ronald Reagan was fond of (mis)quoting was not a boast but a warning. In the rest of that passage, which Reagan ignored, Winthrop shakes his disapproving finger at his companions, reminding them that if they fail in the work God has set for them as a community, He will make them a byword through all the ages.
At his best and in his most poetic prose, Winthrop calls for community, not individualism. Invoking familiar scriptural passages, he affirmed that they were one body, reminding them that they “must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other’s necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make other’s conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body.” Governor Winthrop would have worn a mask.
God knows, the puritans were not pure. Winthrop’s vision was restricted to his community, not the community of all humans. The body he spoke so eloquently of was the body of his fellow believers. Still, when the puritans found themselves in crisis, they turned to each other. Winthrop reminded them that they were one body and they must “partake of each other’s strength and infirmity; joy and sorrow, weal and woe. If one member suffers,” he preached, “all suffer with it, if one be in honor, all rejoice with it.”
There is an appealing humility in Winthrop’s words that we need today. His call for community is a counter narrative to our typical American individualism. Yet, we need to universalize his vision. We need to recognize that we are George Floyd’s body. That knee choked all of us. “All lives matter” is toxic because it is blind to the suffering of the vulnerable. Every life is precious, but doctors treat the suffering first. All homes are important to those who live in them, but the firefighter rushes to the one in flames. Black lives are vulnerable, as we have seen in too many police encounters and in too many black communities disproportionately hit by COVID-19. We need to stand up. We need to rally. We need to protest. And we need to wear the damn mask.
We cannot allow the face of this pandemic to be that of the man yelling in unrestrained fury only inches from the line of stoic officers defending the Michigan legislature or the Sunday warriors armed with their assault rifles demanding their right to go to the mall. We need a vaccine for Covid-19. But we also need immunity from the toxic individualism that threatens our civic body.