On the Eve of the Fourth of July
We are nearing the end of a week at our cabin in the Wallowa Mountains with our two grandsons, Levi and Colin, ages 8 and 9. As Linda says, it’s a quite a bit noisier than usual, but that’s a (mostly) welcome change. Riding herd on the grands is part of the reason that I’ve posted less of late. Another part of it is that we’ve put some distance, literally and figuratively, between ourselves and the burning issues of the moment.
But you can’t really get too far away. This week the local paper, The Wallowa County Chieftain, carried a story about a rash of anti-tourist signage. On the sign going out of town that read, “Don’t Forget To Come Back,” the words “Forget To” had been whited out, leaving a new message, “Don’t Come Back.” Other signs accused visitors of committing “negligent homicide,” presumably by exposing locals to the virus. The local Chamber of Commerce, which has been working hard to save the tourist season, isn’t happy.
While the anti-tourist campaigners (or maybe “campaigner,” as I tend to suspect one cranky person is behind it all) have a point, it is more of a frontal assault than is necessary. Another tack might be for locals and visitors to actually take the mask and social distancing guidelines more seriously, and resist making them a symbol of where you stand in the culture wars. The truth is that many locals too, despite Oregon Governor Kate Brown’s order mandating facial covering, haven’t taken the guidelines very seriously. My guess is that stringent adherence by locals would impact visitors. Instead, there’s a recall petition circulating for Governor Brown.
But blaming others for our problems or failures seems to be a pretty common m.o. these days, beginning with the President. We are the aggrieved. Someone is to blame, someone else.
In his 4th of July column David Brooks described our current state as one of “national humiliation.” For all to see, before the eyes of the world, we have shown ourselves unable to rise to the challenge of the pandemic. So much for “American greatness.” While Trump and his inconsistent messaging and short attention span come in for a large share of the responsibility, Brooks figures it falls more broadly, on an American public that has forgotten a sense of common purpose and common welfare.
“I’ll be delighted when Trump goes, but it’s worth pointing out that it wasn’t only because of Donald Trump that Americans never really locked down, and then started moving around again in late April.
“It wasn’t Trump who went out to bars in Tempe, Austin and Los Angeles in June. It wasn’t Trump who put on hospital gowns and told the American people you could suspend the lockdown if your cause was just. Once you told people they could suspend the lockdown for one thing, they were going to suspend it for others.
“Our fixation on the awfulness of Donald Trump has distracted us from the larger problems and rendered us strangely passive in the face of them. Sure, this was a Republican failure, but it was also a collective failure, and it follows a few decades of collective failures.”
In my last post, here, one about police reform, I called attention to the hopeful story of Camden, New Jersey. Against the odds, Camden has made real progress in this area. There are stories like these — many of them.
But the larger story is not encouraging. America has lost something. And it isn’t just statues. It is a sense of decency. It is a sense of personal responsibility. It is a sense of common purpose. Brooks is right, Trump is more a symptom of a larger dis-ease than the cause of it. More from Brooks,
“On the day Trump leaves office, we’ll still have a younger generation with worse life prospects than their parents had faced. We’ll still have a cultural elite that knows little about people in red America and daily sends the message that they are illegitimate. We’ll still have yawning inequalities, residential segregation, crumbling social capital, a crisis in family formation.
“Trump’s rise in 2016 was a symptom of all these crises, long before he had a chance to become an additional cause of them.
“What’s the core problem? Damon Linker is on to a piece of it: ‘It amounts to a refusal on the part of lots of Americans to think in terms of the social whole — of what’s best for the community, of the common or public good. Each of us thinks we know what’s best for ourselves.'”
I doubt that such a problem will be addressed simply by people being exhorted to care more about others or by many individuals suddenly deciding to be more thoughtful. This moral erosion has been a long time in the making. It has something to do with politicians who’ve played the single and wedge issue game and who have lost a sense of the gravity and consequence of their own calling. It also has something to do, as well, with substituting material visions of the good life for spiritual ones. And it has much to do with taking important social institutions, that need care and nurture, for granted — or worse — degrading them by willful neglect.
We come to this Fourth of July, 2020, and it’s not just “another Fourth,” with the usual BBQ’s, backyard parties, small town parades, and fireworks. It is a Fourth when a stock-taking is long overdue and is being forced upon us. Some signs of honest self-assessment and humility would be about the most hopeful thing that could happen just now. Will some Fourth of July speakers take such a risk? Or will it be more of “America the greatest” bravado, of pushing the easy polarization, of looking for someone — someone else — to blame?