Garrett M. Graff: What Americans are doing now is beautiful
After many decades of truancy, when our markets and politics and pop culture valorized extreme egoism, COVID-19 has offered us a crash course in civic character. The pandemic is forcing Americans to choose, very visibly, whether to live like citizens or like sociopaths. Citizens see in systems, while sociopaths see only themselves; citizens defer short-term gratification for long-term benefit, while sociopaths flip the sequence.
I live in Seattle; my wife’s sisters and nieces and nephews are in southern Louisiana; my childhood friends are in the New York metro area. I had an early awareness of the magnitude of the crisis in the U.S.—and I’ve felt rising indignation at how many people across the land are not yet living like citizens.
But do I wish for the cataclysm to hit everywhere as hard as it has hit Seattle and New York and New Orleans? Hell, no. What we need is not for every community to suffer intensely, but for every community to commit to joint defense. It’s the NATO principle, brought home: an attack on one is an attack on all, and necessitates a response from all. That is true at every scale, from the neighborhood to the nation.
The practice of civic character centers on three precepts:
Society becomes how you behave. Our behaviors are literally contagious, so we should select them with care. Practice good hygiene and take preventive measures, but also resolve not to give in to fear. Sustain empathy and love, so that these will spread instead of fear. Balance anxiety with fact and context. Our task is to keep each other not just un-sick but also sane.
We’re all better off when we’re all better off. Any community is only as healthy as its least healthy members. That means making the case for paid sick leave for all, for a stronger public-health system. We need to see aid to the most vulnerable or disfavored not just in terms of charity or altruism, but also as serving our systemic, societal, and enlightened self-interest.
Don’t hoard power; circulate it. The temptation to hoard has never been higher. But when we all withdraw and hold on to what we have, when we stop circulating our concern, our money, our attention, or our power and instead direct all those things to ourselves, the body politic seizes up, and the economy has a heart attack. So, we need to keep circulating our money, our time, our care to those who cannot survive this period alone, whether that’s a shuttered small business or an isolated neighbor.
To be clear, self-organizing citizens alone cannot handle this crisis; we need effective government action, public resources, and coordination. At the same time, even effective government is by itself insufficient. On March 19—a seeming eternity ago—I met via Zoom with high school students from across the United States. They were already translating COVID-19 information into the languages their immigrant parents and neighbors speak. They were already setting up peer-tutoring exchanges with students they’d never met, from other states. They were delivering food to food banks, creating text-based peer mental-health services, and establishing ask/offer help boards online.