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We are society. But individual rights. Good together. But don’t step on me. Form more perfect unity and promote public welfare. But secure the blessing of freedom for ourselves and our offspring.
From the time the American republic was born to this day, this is its trademark: Me and us – different competing but overlapping tastes of freedom – living together, but often in conflict.
The history of the United States and the colonies that formed it has been a 413-year balancing act on a variety of topics, priorities, desires and ambitions. Now, in the era of coronavirus, the tug of war – is this about the individual or the community they are in? – Showing himself in a new, high-risk way.
On Friday, protesters gathered at the foot of the Pennsylvania Capitol stairs – most of them without masks – for the second time in a month to curse Governor Tom Wolf and demand that he “reopen” the country sooner. This is one of many countries where vocal minorities have criticized virus-related shutdowns for trampling on individual rights.
“He who dares is free,” read the sign carried by a Pennsylvania protester. “Selfish and proud,” said another, referring to the governor’s statement that the politician who advocated the immediate reopening was “selfish.” “My body is my choice,” a sign at a rally in Texas reads, co-opting the slogan for the right of abortion to oppose mandatory mask rules.
“This pandemic presents both the common good and the freedom of this classic individual. And the ethos from different parts of the country about this is very, very different. And it pulls the country in all these different directions, “said Colin Woodard, author of” American Characters: The History of the Epic Struggle Between Individual Freedom and Shared Goodness. “
Although polls show the majority of Americans still support some degree of closure, the cry for reopening has grown in recent weeks as job losses continue to increase. In Pennsylvania and throughout the country, the general chorus of demonstrators is: Don’t tell me how to live my life when I have to get out of the house and preserve my livelihood.
“They were told to stay at home, just wait. And that’s a very strange democratic message to get. And the only way to do that is to say,” I trust the government, ‘”said Elspeth Wilson, assistant government professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania.
While the catalyst is an unprecedented pandemic, the collision of individual rights and the common good is as old as the republic itself: Where the right of one American to move in public without the tip of a mask, and the right of another American to not be infected with a potentially fatal virus starting?
“This is economic paralysis by analysis for several people. And they are afraid, “said Steven Benko, an ethicist at Meredith College in North Carolina.” They feel humiliated. “
The Americans have long romanticized those who reject the system and take action on their own – criminals, cowboys, rebels. Many American leaders have struggled to reconcile it with the principles of “common good” that are generally needed to govern.
“Reagan does it better than anyone. He is a cowboy who sells the American vision together. That’s quite a contradiction,” Benko said.
Ronald Reagan’s coronation metaphor – the United States as a “city on a hill” – was borrowed from the Puritans, whose traditions shaped the American ethos, including the compact that created the first British government in the New World. But Puritanism also asserts that hard work, a form of moral truth, signifies success and salvation.
Over time, and with other ingredients added as more groups come to the American coast, a vague shame becomes inherent in the inability to be an individualist: If you cannot get along alone, in the eyes of some people, you are less than American.
But can such “crude individualism”, as it came to be known, be applied in a 21st century virus scenario where everything from food shopping to health care to package delivery requires complex and precise networks that form a common good?
Also discussed in this debate, which some people call neglected truths: Individualism tends to benefit powerful groups, economically or socially. In short, doing what someone wants is much easier when you have the means – health care, money, privileges – to deal with the effects it has.
That is especially relevant when the direct impact of one’s individualism – in the form of a virus-laden droplet – can ripen to other people.
“We fail to recognize how interdependent we really are,” said Lenette Azzi-Lessing, a clinical professor of social work at Boston University who studies economic inequality.
“Pandemic and handling it successfully does require cooperation. It also requires joint sacrifice. And that is a very bitter pill to swallow by many Americans, “he said.” This pandemic reveals that our destinies are interrelated, that the person in front of us is lining up at the grocery store, if he does not have access to good health care, that it will have an impact on our health. “
U.S. History sometimes it is revealed that during the turbulence – the Great Depression, World War II, even the founding of the nation itself – the common good became the dominant American gene for a while. Will it happen here? Or are political and economic fragmentation and social media too strong to allow it?
“The status quo is individualism. And then when we come to this crisis period, that changes, “said Anthony DiMaggio, a political scientist at Lehigh University who examined groups that advocated reopening. “All these rules go out the window and people are willing to throw away all ways of looking at this world.”
So what is it, as Ayn Rand once told the interviewer, that “everyone must live as an end in himself, and follow his own rational interests?” Or more like Woody Guthrie, quoting Tom Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath”: “Everyone might be just one big soul – well, it seems so to me.”
More likely, in a country sewn together by an act of high-level political compromise, there is something in between – a new path that Americans must map so they can continue their four-century trial through an unprecedented period. Once again.
Watch: Risks associated with reopening the rural parts of the country
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