July 4 Virus Thoughts

We are celebrating, today, the independence of the North American colonies of Great Britain from the rest of the British Empire. We had devised, here, the beginnings of a single political system and we proclaimed that it “was, and of right, ought to be, [composed of] free and independent states,” [1] To skip over the separateness of the separate states for just a moment, the Declaration says that our system really ought to be independent of your system.

It is that sense of ourselves as many, yet one, (e pluribus unum, and all that) that required the President of the United States to bring to the Congress “information of the State of the Union.” The State of the Union address was intended to be an answer to the question, “So…this union thing…how’s it going?” [2]

It isn’t going all that well, I’m afraid. Barack Obama has a vision that we were “not red states and blue states but the United States of America.” That’s not what is happening. We are, in fact, declaring independence from each other. Think of it this way: “Who are you to tell me not to….”

Notice that this transition moves away from system requirements—that’s what the Declaration of Independence was about—and  toward the question of whether we are to stop relying on each other. The pandemic puts that question to us directly.

There is the question of freedom for—what is it we demand the freedom to accomplish together—and freedom from external restraint. Those two ways of considering freedom [3] cast a sharp light on where we are today. We have solved the problem of external restraint—which is what Jefferson was concerned about—but we have lost track of what we want to do together.

4 July 1Consider this. Let’s say I want to put my shoulder to the common weal [4] and move us forward as efficiently as possible—but only provided that everyone else is pushing as hard as I think I am pushing. That’s why successful wars are so good for morale. First, the sense of external threat gets people to cooperate, even to sacrifice, more than they normally would. But also, there is a real reduction in monitoring just who is doing just how much. A great deal is excused in “There’s a war on, you know.” The focus on our freedom to accomplish what we intend is still being buffered by our attempt at keeping our independence.

And when the war is over and a nation is struggling to survive, as Germany and Japan were, or simply basking in the prosperity that victory brought, as the U. S. was, there is a time when you are just too busy to spend a lot of effort making sure that no one is getting advantages you are denied. But then the prosperity wains and people find themselves working very hard again, but this time with no external enemy.

The Tea Party voters Arlie Russell Hochschild studied in Strangers in Their Own Land imagined that they were standing in a very long line, waiting to receive the results of their hard work and sacrifice. But the line is not moving forward. This situation is not covered by “There’s a war on, you know.” It is not covered at all.

So what I want now is the best social outcome we can manage for us all, PROVIDED that no one gets more than I do or works less. And if the value of the work no longer serves to fuel my resentment, then how arduous or unpleasant the work is will have to do. If I work three jobs, I don’t want people who work two jobs to have what I have. If I work a dangerous job, I don’t want anyone who works a safe job to have what I have. And I don’t want people with no job at all to have…really…anything.

This independence from each other is what we have sunk to. And, not to give the Russian bots too much credit, it is the effect that they worked so hard to achieve in 2016. This is, in fact, what many of the Russian bots did [5] although, as former President Obama said, we were doing it to ourselves anyway.

There are solutions, of course, and our experience of the COVID-19 virus has made some of them obvious. If we had the trust in government leadership so many other nations have and the sense of ourselves as bearing a common burden and pursuing a common goal that so many other nations have, we would be having the kind of success with the pandemic that they are having and that we can only envy.

There’s no chance, I suppose, that we could begin to celebrate Interdependence Day. The 4 July 4matter of formal separation from Great Britain seems to be pretty well in hand. “Freedom from” has been accomplished. And we are not going to accomplish much more unless we find a way to affirm and value our common citizenship. It is possible that we can come to feel a sense of pride that all Americans are receiving what they need to put together a good life for themselves and a sense of shame that some Americans are sleeping in the streets and rummaging through dumpsters for food.

We could do that.

It would require the sense that we cannot become who we once thought we wanted to become just by demanding our own rights. The ceiling on who we can become together by demanding our own rights is a very low ceiling. A whole-hearted celebration of Interdependence Day would be a step in the right direction.

[1] Here is the text: “Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.” I note, for the first time that of the three verbs, one is a linking verb and the other two are in the passive voice. Not really a trumpet call, is it?
[2] The Constitution also requires that the President “recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” That is the body of the State of the Union address today. The “measures” part; not necessarily the “necessary and expedient” part.
[3] I have in mind Isaiah Berlin’s famous “negative liberty” and “positive liberty” in mind here.
[4] Just that one pun, please. It is independence day, after all.
[5] Which is why they spent freely on fluoridation campaigns and on anti-fluoridation campaigns; on pro-life campaigns and on pro-choice campaigns.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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