There is no such thing as the united States.
As an era of medical mask mandates draws to a close and we begin to ponder lessons learned, that one should top the list. Not to overstate the case.
To our credit, we are a nation that has always united in times of national crisis. When Pearl Harbor was attacked, when the Russians launched Sputnik, when John Kennedy was murdered, when terrorists flew planes into skyscrapers, we ceased, albeit briefly, to be red or blue or black or white. We were Americans and as such, we mourned together, sacrificed together, strove together, met the challenge together.
Yet, this is also true: absent history putting a metaphorical gun to our heads, we’ve always been a fractious people, a bunch of competing interests — South versus North, farm versus city, hippies versus hardhats — masquerading as a nation. To repurpose an infamous quote by Booker T. Washington, Americans can be “as separate as the fingers,” on a daily basis, “yet as one as the hand” when their country is imperiled.
Except that now, we are not even that. No, we are a nation that managed to politicize medicine, that made science a liberal conspiracy. We are people who literally couldn’t come together to save their own lives.
Let’s pass lightly over Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene here because she seems — this is not a joke — to be a woman in dire need of psychiatric intervention. Suffice it to say, her recent equation of mask mandates to the slaughter of Jews during the Holocaust, while obviously offensive and absurd, is of a piece with how conservatives have consistently framed directives aimed at blunting the COVID-19 pandemic.
From the former president to governors like Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida, to media outlets like Fox “News” to angry mobs at the Michigan state capital, the right has chosen to resist every effort at managing a once-in-a-century health crisis as an encroachment upon sacred personal liberty. This, from the people who mandated transvaginal ultrasounds for women seeking abortions and genital inspections for transgender girls playing soccer. Asked to wear masks as a matter of public safety, they rent their garments, tore their hair and moaned, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen” as if possessed by Paul Robeson’s ghost. They whined about being oppressed with the self-righteous petulance of those who have never been oppressed a day in their lives.
So, the postmortem of this era will be that, for arguably the first time in history, we faced a crisis that did not bring us together. That is a sobering realization. It induces mixed emotions as the pandemic begins to ebb.
Maybe you wonder why anyone’s emotions would be mixed. After all, restaurants are reopening, theatrical movies are returning, smiles are visible again. We are buoyed by fresh appreciation for the virtues of community: the murmur of conversation in a crowded restaurant, the buzz of anticipation before the lights go down at a concert, or just chatting with the barber while getting a shave — simple, implicit reminders of our shared humanity.
It’s a good feeling, this promise that soon, we will be around people again. Yet, it is a feeling alloyed by fresh recognition of just how balkanized America has become. We used to know how to forge common cause from national calamity. Apparently, we no longer do. This is the kind of thing that once brought Americans together.
Now it’s just something else that tears us apart.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. firstname.lastname@example.org