The Coronavirus pandemic has revealed a major weakness of American society
And how looking at our country as a concept could help us reconsider our response
I’ve lived abroad for five years. There was a point during that time where I suddenly realized, all countries are concepts.
Obviously, countries correspond to geographical regions, which are physical and tangible, but the society that exists for the people living a given set of borders are very much created out of the imaginations of men and women (mostly men, but we’ll save that story for another day).
The United States for example, was build on the foundations of freedom of speech, religion, “inalienable rights” of man. But we have already been seeing for a long time that each principle is very much up to interpretation, and says more implicitly that explicitly.
With controversies about political content on social media, we are seeing the fallibility of the “free-speech”principle, because the real world is much more complicated, despite how much we may hold the former to be self-evidently right.
Our nation’s principles have, in the long term, created a concept which our country represents, which exists more implicitly than tangibly in any government body or document. Instead it exists within the minds of its citizens, passed down for generations. After having lived within it for our entire lives, we take it for granted, and view it as a baseline, where if things are done differently elsewhere, we feel uncomfortable, like there’s something amiss.
Yes, what I’m saying is we are essentially the subjects of a grand experiment. No, not as in ancient aliens using earth to test out a new species as an army for galaxy domination. But rather an experiment of life in practice: all societies are experiments simply because we cannot tell the future, and we are testing our ability to understand the past by trying to avoid repeating mistakes humanity has made throughout history.
If the United States is an experiment, then the hypothesis put forth by our founding fathers would be that the set of principles we have defined — those of certain freedom and rights — will allow people to will live better lives than those of other societies. If you were a founding father, that would seem like a reasonable goal, right? With a blank canvas, we have no reason to start but from the most fundamental of human desires: that of happiness and fulfillment. All political ideologies are simply abstractions of that fundamental goal. Nobody ascribes to a political ideology because they want to make life worse for others (whether they have inadvertently done so is another conversation), just as nobody founds a country for the sake of a political agenda. Politics are a tool, and that tool is only effective when is serves the interest of its subjects, i.e. you and me.
The set of principles outlined in our constitution form the concept which our country is based on. Like a concept album, in which all the songs together form a cohesive meaning, each aspect of our society is built around that set of basic principles. The concept in the case of the United States, broadly defined, is a society built around prioritization of individual freedoms over collective stability, and a cynical attitude towards all forms government authority.
And it’s been a pretty damn successful experiment up until now. However, what we are now being confronted with is shining a massive spotlight on the weak points of our society.
The principles which have served us well up to this point are now backfiring.
Our aversion toward authority is causing people to subvert government recommendations which are intended to save lives. Our extreme conviction towards individual freedom, which led to the building of the most vibrant economy in world history, is now causing people to lose their lives, because their friends and neighbors refuse to comply with, and are even protesting against, government orders.
The idea that any government action will be abused and exploited stems from the founding of our country, when people were coming from under the rule of an all-powerful empire.
But our reverence for these fundamental principles should not get in the way of our ability to address problems in the here and now.
It is the concept which has brought us to this point. And this concept is currently being challenged by a foreign invader. Not a nation or an army, but a virus, something which carries no passport and has no political affiliations. If anything, this pandemic should be a wake-up call that a society is more than just politics.
Political ideologies do not take context —time, place, and history — into consideration. Therefore they are ineffective in solving a global pandemic, which is something which calls for taking into account the real situation in a given place at this particular time, and looking at it with an understanding that a society is a concept. Looking at it this way, we should be able to see the virtues of societies based on different concepts, with different values and different foundations, and understand that there is no one right answer for how a society should work.
And by the same token, we should be willing to accept that certain concepts right now might be working better with regards to this pandemic than ours. Certain societies have instilled a higher importance in collectivism as opposed to individualism, which leads the people in those societies to be more likely to sacrifice their individual freedom for a “greater” good. If we look to see where those are, we may be able to make a correlation that those societies might be having an easier time at this very moment. A nation does not have to be “communist” or “authoritarian” to value collectivism. Whatever you may think of China, take a look at Italy, or New Zealand.
This pandemic is simply bringing to light the weak points of our society concept, and I do not consider myself unpatriotic for pointing them out. I do believe those solid foundations can serve us well for decades or even centuries to come. But I also believe that some our habits which worked well for us in normal times are not applicable right now. We should educate ourselves on the concept that our country was built upon, and the context thereof, so that we can choose to adapt our actions according to the current situation. This pandemic is something new for all of us, and it will take some introspection to break the habits that have been passed down in our society for generations. And if there were ever a time for such introspection, it’s right now.