These Days

Although I am trying very hard to block out what’s happening in the U.S. right now, they exert such a powerful influence that unbidden American news items keep popping up on my Facebook feed. Many Canadians are shocked and saddened by the miserable response of the U.S. federal government to this crisis. While I agree that the lack of empathy and concern shown by The White House is heartbreaking, there is no way in which it is surprising and not just because of the malignant narcissist who now lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Americans have always prided themselves on being fiercely independent and self-sufficient. Their national motto of “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” intrinsically promotes the idea of putting oneself before others, whereas the Canadian credo of “Law, Order and Good Government” extols the sublimation of individuality to ideas and institutions that further the greater good. The rugged, self-made individual is the American ideal, downplaying the value of sharing wealth or acting on the behalf of others. Republicans have fostered and exploited this archetype for decades, and Democrats have only feebly stood up in opposition.

In 1986 Ronald Reagan said,

“The nine most terrifying words in the English language are; I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

I can think of much scarier phrases such as, “I’m sorry, but we can’t find your daughter anywhere” or, “People with your diagnosis count in weeks not months.” Clearly Reagan was being hyperbolic, but he definitely believed the essence of what he was saying (as did the millions of U.S. citizens who voted for him). He tapped into their shared picture-book image of the ultimate American success story, with the protagonist pulling himself up by his own bootstraps while spurning help from his government or anyone else for that matter. Ronald Reagan was immensely popular, winning the most electoral votes of any President in U.S. history, and the Republican Party hitched its wagon to his persona and policies with eager devotion. Here was a larger-than-life figure who lent his shiny new face to the conservative movement of the day. He was already well known due to his involvement in the McCarthy hearings and his previous life as a Hollywood film star, making him an ideal poster boy for the Republican Party – a position he holds to this day.

The cornerstone of Reagan’s platform was so called trickle-down economics, a theory originally put forth by an arch-conservative economist named Art Laffer. Laffer posited that cutting taxes on corporations and the rich would leave them with more capital to invest resulting in a more robust economy and a better standard of living for all. This model has been tried repeatedly by U.S. federal and state governments over the past three decades, and every time has proven to be a dismal failure – deficits balloon, the rich horde their money at the top, and average Americans suffer. Still the Republican Party continues in this vein, most recently evidenced by the massive tax cuts enacted when Trump came to power.

The Republican economic policy is empirically flawed, but their ethos of smaller government and every man for himself resonates so perfectly with the deeply held notion of American exceptionalism that they continue to wield power. Their belief in rugged individualism and their frequently irrational fear of socialism are perfectly embodied in the person of Donald Trump. Here is a man who is irrefutably self-centred, a shameless self-promoter, and gleefully dismissive of the pain or needs of others. He is rich, famous, and successful despite saying and doing whatever he wants. He is the ultimate American.

Now that a national emergency has arisen, however, Americans are needlessly dying because of their misplaced loyalty to the Republican party and their ill-conceived notions of individuality. The only course of action which can protect and serve a population during a national health emergency is a well-conceived, expertly executed and generously financed coordinated response. U.S. citizens are now paying with their lives for chronically under-funded government agencies and a deep-seated fear of socialized medicine. They make up less than 5% of the Earth’s population, yet their Covid-19 deaths to date constitute 25% of worldwide fatalities. Were it not so tragic this could be considered ironic given that they consume an estimated 50% of all the drugs produced by Big Pharma.

American belief in non-interventionist governance has greatly contributed to many unnecessary deaths in the short run, and I predict that their bloody-minded individualism will draw out and exacerbate this tragedy in the long run. There is an organized and armed group in Michigan pushing to prematurely re-open the state, and the other day I heard their leader say,

“Being told to stay home when you’re sick is quarantine. Being told to stay home when you’re well is tyranny.”

There it is in a nutshell. They are so distrustful of their government and so wrapped up in their right to individual liberty that they cannot perceive the greater good, even when doing so could ultimately save their own life or that of someone they love. Michigan has a population of 10 million, yet they already have a death toll of 4,135. Meanwhile Canada, with a population of 37.6 million, has only experienced 3,391 casualties. We have been strictly following self isolation and social distancing recommendations, and they have not. Even irrefutable numbers such as these can’t turn them away from their myopic insistence on unfettered freedom. The only thing we can reasonably do in response to the tragedy unfolding to our south is to keep our border closed and hope that eventually calmer heads will prevail, although I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one.

There are millions of Americans who did not vote for Trump who are suffering because of his mismanagement of this crisis, and my heart goes out to them. It is their extreme bad luck that a man so self-serving and callous as to cut funding to the W.H.O. in the middle of a pandemic happens to be in office right now. While they are not directly responsible for his ascension, liberals have mostly sat by while their country devolved to the point where such a loathsome individual could even run for president, let alone win the election.

For years I have watched documentaries and televised rants produced by American liberals about the many ills in the U.S. they perceive to have been created and/or propagated by conservatives. In the end, however, they pretty well all maintain that this is not what Americans are truly like and that they live in the greatest country in the world. To these two assertions I say, “You can’t have it both ways.” You can’t spend an hour delving into a profound systemic problem and then say that the people responsible are better than this, because clearly they aren’t. It is also absurd to expose rampant malfeasance, glaring inefficiencies or huge inequities in your society and then claim as a nation to be better than everyone else. Liberals have been more than happy to sound the alarm on all of the terrible problems they are happy to lay at the feet of conservatives, but have seemingly done very little to correct them. In the end they have reaped what they sowed.

The situation in the States is only adding to the almost palpable anxiety and uncertainty floating in the air these days, and most of us can’t help but be effected. Occasionally I succumb to these feelings, but mostly I can distract myself and find contentment in small things like a delicious orange or the vibrant green buds on my lilac bushes. The Chinese have a saying that crisis is half danger and half opportunity. If one pays more attention to the first half of this adage, then concern and worry necessarily follow. I try to give more weight to the second part, taking solace in the many acts of kindness and courage fostered by our shared fight against this virus, and imagining the good that might come as a result of it.

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