Phrases like “Live free or die” are deeply woven into the American ethos; Americans so often see themselves as residents of, perhaps above all else, a land of freedom. Even if they have been taken out of context, there is a reason that quotes like Franklin’s, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety,” sit heavy on the American soul.
But it’s hard not to feel as if this sentiment has been stretched too thin when protestors storm the Michigan statehouse with guns to protest the Coronavirus lockdowns, or when protestors flaunt signs that say “My body, my choice,” with a drawing of a facemask crossed out in heavy red marker. Sure, there are raging debates as to the actual utility of these facemasks. Yet this doesn’t seem to be the impetus of the protestor’s anger; the overall sentiment is that the government shouldn’t force citizens to do anything, save perhaps paying taxes.
Indeed, the notion of personal sacrifice for the greater good is a matter of great contention throughout much of our nation. To wear a mask is such a small gesture; if there is even a small chance that lives could be saved with a piece of cloth over the face, why wouldn’t we do it? The gesture comes at such a small personal cost. Yet the “cost” of this act seems to be largely symbolic. To many, it represents a loss of freedom, a loss of the individual’s ability to think and choose for himself.
From the very beginning of this pandemic, many expressed both disgust and frustration that the government was interfering in the free-movement of people to the end of saving lives. People in my own Facebook feed were quick to call local governments tyrannical, senseless, and overreaching. Yet it is a fact that the quarantine saved countless lives.
This raises a larger question: what does it mean to be an individual in America? Where does individualism end and collective responsibility begin? It seems that the answer, increasingly, is free action regardless of the consequences to others. Yet there was a time where we as citizens had a greater notion of the collective good. Less than eighty years ago, we came together as a nation to fight the Axis at great personal expense: think meatless Mondays, scrap drives, etc.
We cannot exist as individuals estranged from others, estranged from the suffering and hurt of our neighbors. To see our own interests as the chief-end of existence is to abandon empathy entirely; we see the logical conclusion of this kind of individualism when radicals gun down crowds of innocents to enact their ideologies on an unwitting public.
Even locally in Rio Grande, many were baffled in the Herald comments section at the idea that a peaceful protest might be imposed on roadways for just a short time (including many calls to ‘run them over’). Is the collective right to peacefully protest for black racial justice not worth a little inconvenience? NASCAR’s decision to ban the Confederate flag comes to mind; the racial, historically-rooted hurt that the symbol brings does not trump the freedom of individuals to express it.
We as Americans have had to give things up for the greater good, yet the very idea of the American Dream has been one rooted in a form of individualism: have a great idea, work hard, do well for yourself. Yet we have had moments in our history such as the Great Depression and the following New Deal, and even now, where the American Dream has failed; we must look around and realize that the American Dream is not working for many. Individual determinism won’t necessarily pull us out of this bind, and it has not done that for many; people acting individually and acting on the whims of American freedom without consequence doesn’t always help.
Maybe it’s time to consider ideas that involve sacrifice to fix problems that impact us all. Many of the nation’s problems -- Coronavirus, Chinese threats to our economy, systemic racism -- will never find solutions if we act as individuals estranged from community and from others. “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country:” John Kennedy said it so well.