Before the country involuntarily breathed in the pandemic economy, conventional wisdom held that Americans fundamentally admire fairness and fair play and that its politics stop at the water’s edge of national health and job creation. America bestowed upon itself qualities of self-reliance, earned merit, true grit, authenticity breeding credibility, courage of convictions, entrepreneurial zeal, nobility of purpose, self-made but also shared success, reaching for higher truths, treating others as oneself. A nation with an uncommon touch morally uplifting and equalizing all into a mosaic-commons offering unbounded opportunities.
In theory, this is not a country intrinsically admiring either inherited power or wealth although there are legions who suck up to both and more who feel they do not have a choice. In practice, a majority believe they increasingly embrace diversity, reject hurtful inequalities. The country that exudes a rising “sea to shining sea” optimism despite conflagration, contamination, and contagion, maintains it sees past false nostalgia anachronisms even when mortally threatened by a wipeout virus.
Undeterred by such hype, the pandemic traces out America’s deeply engraved social injustice scars scoring inroads of fresh wounds. Equality as worthy economic goal remains penalty-boxed at progressive academic and capitalist practice fringes. Compelling proven models from elsewhere still await their American apotheosis, an economic liberation “road to Damascus” moment waiting to exhale but still in exile.
This may be changing. Something comparable may be approaching as the ill-virus wind blows throughout the land searching for a breaking point to break through, recently landing in the Oval Office showcasing unequal privilege in overdrive. Uber-entitled officialdom benefitted from last resort, “compassionate use” zinc experimental cocktails of molecular antibodies delivered in warp-speed.
America’s President, tightly cossetted in finest medical tracing and testing biosphere state of art, retreated to Walter Reed for medical salvation, unmasked by the pandemic’s power. Fantasizing frontline emergency imaginations raced into overdrive witnessing in real time how elected servants of the Republic’s Constitution presume to tender their “get out of death’s clutches” free card at will, inserting a magic ticket to a vaccine theme park so physically, financially and legislatively beyond the reach of over thirty million Americans without hope of healthcare access, without taxpayer-funded “sanctity of life”.
The nation witnesses how the virus wipes disinformation stains off a two-way civic mirror. Hordes of COVID-19 susceptible and infected proles in surging Hoovervilles, recast and reliving the multi-decadal Great Depression’s “one-third ill-fed, ill-housed, ill-clothed” precariat redux. Millions staring in glassy-eyed, bloated stomach disbelief before gated communities of plenty controlled by those who could not bring themselves to authorize a consensus healing vote providing temporary shelter from the pandemic storm.
Dr. Seuss’ proverbial “Mack” becoming high information healthcare voter. James Joyce’s every turtle and no turtle, coughing at the bottom of King Yertle-the-Turtle’s pyramid of stacked shell-bodies. Mack whose single corporeal protest shakes the established social order so that those at the misappropriated top fall furthest from grace into a mariner’s trench gateway to the hell of biblical retribution.
A failed civic culture mythologizing exaggerated individualism at the expense of community solidarity and the greatest possible common good. A financialized, “greed is good” blood sport straining structurally embedded inequalities to the breaking point where the marginal cost of one more “dirt spoon” death breaks the entire system into unsustaining fragments.
Maybe this time the pandemic virus will finally break the partisan cultural and economic elitism fevers. Maybe now political consensus will congeal beneath the global COVID-19 scab scorecard proving three compelling truths. First, there can be no healthy economies without healthy peoples. Second, flattening contagion curves compels flattening inequality pandemic curves concurrently and decisively. Third, everything potentially healing is downstream from a reactivated, renewed and restored competent, compassionate, and collective culture. No building back better without it.
But then again, “only in America”, maybe not. A first-responding ideology over reason “told you so”, offensive and defensive baked-in commentariat rolls in like the pandemic fog enveloping the country. Drinking its own partisan bathwater as celebratory bubbly, an infected United States risks missing opportunities to secure a holistic, systemically fair, universal access vaccine. Without healing conversion and converts, a crumpled-up Constitution becomes used Kleenex sneezed at, discarded, but still viral in its misuse.
Today’s United States Senate will not pass a humane extension of basic pandemic unemployment “benefits” in time to avert human suffering because of plantation-ideological fears that treating people decently destroys their willingness to work for subhuman wages under subhuman conditions. Tomorrow’s global “austerity caucus” already preaches reams of financialized graphs-graft about rising deficits but only after depositing their own checks grabbed when the grabbing was good. Monetizing whenever their corporate personhoods succeed in once again squeezing the country’s laissez-faire spigots hard right to abuse the public treasury.
Last month 50 years ago, Milton Friedman concocted his “Shareholder Primacy” doctrine and unleashed a globalizing economy breeding predatory capitalist animal spirits. Spin-offs include “Creative Destruction” advocates who punched one-way tickets to economic performance stardom but without any equally innovating or budgeted empathy to “Creatively Reconstruct” those so creatively destroyed. Academic apologists sanctified economic “trickle-down” religion for prosperity gospel practitioners, deploying arrogant assumptions without a shred of human decency or faith in anything but temples of unbounded greed, condemning rising minimum or universal basic income wages while socializing the planet’s compounded, redlined misery waste flows.
In first response penance a year ago last September, the U.S. Business Roundtable discovered the downside of Shareholder Primacy and last February the World Economic Forum in Davos discovered Stakeholder Capitalism. Then coronavirus undeniably overpowered neoliberalism and everything changed. Now in the context of it takes a sickness to produce a cure, the virus becomes an equal opportunity inflictor inverting conventional pyramids.
Like Brigadoon beyond the mist, America searches for a more perfect market-based economy to internalize, localize, scale, and heal. Options abound. Sara Horowitz, Freelancers Union visionary founder, offers up a rising “new mutualism”. Harvard Business School’s Rebecca Henderson defines profitable pathways toward purpose-driven and shared values capitalism. Resilient industrial cooperative ecosystems like Mondragon confound hierarchical capitalist skeptics by showing how values impact structure to produce quality, innovation and renewal, closing in on seventy years as living laboratory to a world ever more hungry for replicable workplace democracy inspiration.
On the receiving end of a dehumanizing winner-takes-all politics reaping what it sows, America organically attempts to self-reconstitute beyond distractive and disembodying malice while embracing civic redemption and resurrection. As the religious intone, this can only succeed by acknowledging sinning and then attaining forgiveness by sinning no more. Credible civic faith calls out bipartisan accountability for crimes against immigrating humanity, civil society, and democracy so that “never again” becomes the moral imperative law of a newly hopeful and reinvented land.
Persuasion describes “schadenfreude” as a nation’s karma, relative “justice and just desserts”, in America’s case a disheartening abundance of amoral, self-righteous glee when so much righteous empathy is desperately needed. There but for the grace of social distancing and mask-wearing go “we the still living people”, dragging a deplorable scorecard cross up every congressional district Calvary. The United States as Golgotha, “place of the skull” in Aramaic, fitting for 215,000 perished from this earth to date, foreshadowing 7.5 million infected in a country with five percent of the world’s population but a fifth of its pandemic casualties.
So many more still to fall from outstretched arms. Post Walter Reed intervention as first step prima pares towards democratizing both suffering and antidote, let us pray that official America dares to say their names.