I suspect you are like me in at least one regard: we are all tired as hell of the impact the pandemic has had on our lives, including the wearing of masks. Statistically, most of us have not endured the disease of Covid-19 or lost a loved one—at least not to death. Unless we are completely ignorant of the efficacy of masks, or have been fooled by 45, we know beyond any scientific doubt that masks reduce the transmission of the SARS CoV-2 virus. We comply to survive.
However, the cost of masks and the general isolation required to get to herd immunity may be much larger than any cost—save the loss of human lives and related Covid-disabilities—we have endured thus far. Unity, required for any democracy to thrive against the perils it faces, was in a fragile state before the pandemic. It now may be lost forever. And, masks and isolation will share the blame. These Covid-costs are only just beginning to be realized. Masks—both virtual and actual—are slowly killing the promise of the American idea.
Our first virtual mask, simple partisanship, has always imperiled unity, but that has been a common mask throughout our political history. Read Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton to get a taste of that reality. Then, beginning in the 1990s, our second virtual mask was affluence. New and extraordinary wealth created enough space in our society to make bad decisions while largely escaping any serious consequences. This ahistorical slack in the system created by affluence also allowed us to become arrogant, self-centered, and dismissive of the need for cooperation. Money became our mask. We were too smart and selfish to entertain the admonition of the late Rodney King: “Why can’t we all just get along?”
Then, in the 2000s, came the virtual mask of social media, which allowed us to retreat further into ourselves. We joyfully allowed ourselves to limit our interaction to those ideas, beliefs, and ‘friends’ with which, or with whom, we agreed. Critical thinking gave way to the creampuff comfort of being correct, regardless of how wrong we were. In particular, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube made billions off our lazy minds and weakened characters. (Blaming them rather than ourselves has become the latest of our responsibility-avoidance behaviors.)
Then, in 2016, came 45; I won’t belabor that cost to unity.
Today, we are at home alone, or alone together with those who share a roof. When we venture out, we do it with actual masks and distance—lots and lots of masks and distance. Zoom, Webex, and Facetime have become our only means of faux face-to-face communication. And, they suck. Yes, we can see unmasked faces, but that is only one aspect of human communication. If we are to ever have a chance at unity again, it requires breathing the same air in the same place with each other where we can observe all the clues embedded in bodily communication and are forced to respond in real time to real issues, and maybe—just maybe—get a sense of who we are again. We must touch again, both figuratively and actually. We must shed our masks.
This last weekend, many 45ers met at CPAC’s annual conference to beat their chests of certitude and genuflect before a gold statue of 45, dressed like an entitled prep-school kid going to a patriotic cookout. (The scarlet red flipflops really set off his ensemble.) Others, however, understand the challenge of unity and are offering their work to begin the rebirth of empathy and understanding. And, no, they aren’t the ones who herald wokeness as a path to unity. To me, wokeness smells like another form of self-righteous certitude.
“How to Understand Your Enemy,” a podcast episode of The Good Fight, hosted by Yascha Mounk, included the research of John Hibbing, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska who has studied 45ers and pulls back the curtain on what motivates their support of 45, but more importantly how they see America and the world. Spoiler alert: no, they are all not deplorables. In Sunday’s Washington Post Magazine, Bill Donahue, who lives in rural New Hampshire where 45 won easily, illustrates his attempt to engage with the other political side which, through perseverance and patience, actually forged a new understanding—a necessary precursor to unity—with at least one political foe.
In my own hometown of Ridgway, Colorado, one rancher has erected an enormous American flag in the middle of his pasture, the kind commonly found flying over automobile dealerships in Texas. It has agitated many because of its size and unnatural visual impact in an otherwise pristine pastoral valley wedged between snow-capped mountains. At the same time, it has galvanized others who feel 45 was robbed of a second term. The letters to the editor that followed its erection on both sides—agitated or galvanized—were as predictable as they were banal. But, perhaps we should view it as a conversation starter; where people actually listen to each other. Perhaps the flag is even a cry for help—to be heard. Or, simply the display of a 45-bully. Either way, if we wish to be heard, we must be willing to listen.
People are scared; they are angry. We have reason to be both. However, we must realize that partisanship, affluence, social media, and 45, have turned us into enemies regardless of the facts at hand. The pandemic, marked by masks and isolation, may be the death knell of unity and our democracy. We have to get past this nonsense as soon as possible if the promise of America has any hope of being reborn. Today, America is on its own ventilator. Put a flag—however large or small—up to your ear to hear its feeble screams.
Please, people, we can do better. We must do better.