The last four years have been extremely revealing. Not only have we learned how politically divided we are, but how morally and ethically broken sections of the culture are. The emerging picture of what ails us is not a nice one. We will need to do a lot of work if we are to overcome the most toxic elements of the modern-day United States. it is not just misogyny, or white supremacy, or racism. These are just elements in this noxious mix. But none of this necessary work can happen until we confront this dangerous reality. As a nation, we are not just divided, but some of our core values are deadly.
While we all like to fantasize that our side is perfect, this is not limited to one corner of the culture. Lack of tolerance and an inability to hear each other is a classic of this. Let me be clear though. There are some things in American culture that are not just ugly, but most be banished from civil society. These include antisemitism, racism, and white supremacy. Or at least, if we are realistic, away from polite society, where they are no longer acceptable, again. The truth is that these have been under the surface all these years, and became acceptable in the last four years in ways they have not been in decades.
However, we are in this trouble not because of racism, antisemitism or white supremacy. They have always existed, and at times dominated the culture. We are in trouble for a more basic feature of the culture, that allows those to flourish. This is the celebration of ignorance for ignorance’s sake. This is not necessarily new, but at this point, it will get people killed because the distrust of experts means people are ignoring simple public health measures that could save lives. Let's be clear about this. In the United States, many people believe that their opinion is just as valid as that of experts. Distrust of knowledge is at a high watermark. Ergo, many Americans question data and information. It’s always been in the mix and is one of the basest instincts of the culture. At times it seems to recede into the horizon, but when it comes back, it does with a vengeance. We live in an era when some media and religious leaders celebrate this cult of ignorance. They use it to manipulate people and spread conspiracies. This Is dangerous for multiple reasons. It also creates different universes of facts which makes running a society increasingly difficult.
This is why many Americans deny basic things like the climate emergency, which is already affecting all of us. We are also witnessing otherwise intelligent people deny vaccines work, or that COVID-19 is real. Regarding the climate emergency, we now understand that the fires in the West are now year-round. The weather tends to be more dramatic and extreme as well. However, every year we also have warmer summers and overall warmer winters across the country. The planting season is also changing making agriculture less predictable. Yet, many Americans still refuse this new reality. Never mind that water levels are already rising in Miami. In effect, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change seems mild compared to actual events.
In the age of COVID, this is a problem. No matter what public health officials say, a good percentage of the country still refuses to wear masks. As I wrote above, some don’t believe the pandemic is real. However, a larger subset claims that this is in the name of freedom, and as I have written in the past, this is positive freedom. This is something that is very pervasive in the United States, and the only concept of the term for many. Negative freedom, ergo, what affects others, is hardly present in whatever remains of civic culture in the United States. They also have come with a series of conspiracy ideations that are not just wrong, but crazy. Some include state control and the idea that vaccines will be used to inject trackers.
QAnon has weaponized much of this and used anti-vaxers as an effective delivery method, that spread this beyond just the far right. At this point, there will be resistance to the vaccine, which is the only effective way to end the pandemic for good. Some of the things circulating online include things like this modifies your genetic code, (is a messenger RNA vaccine, which will not touch your DNA). In my mind, the most ridiculous of these is that it will put nano trackers so the state can know where you are at all times. Well, they can already, though your cell-phone. No need to inject a thing. You are that paranoid, get off that phone and turn it off, permanently,.
Then we have Republicans in the Senate who promote this from their platform. According to the New York Times:
A doctor who is skeptical of coronavirus vaccines and promotes the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a Covid-19 treatment will be the lead witness at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on Tuesday, prompting criticism from Democrats who say Republicans should not give a platform to someone who spreads conspiracy theories.
Dr. Jane M. Orient is the executive director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, a group that opposes government involvement in medicine and views federal vaccine mandates as a violation of human rights.
“A public health threat is the rationale for the policy on mandatory vaccines. But how much of a threat is required to justify forcing people to accept government-imposed risks?” Dr. Orient wrote in a statement to the Senate last year, calling vaccine mandates “a serious intrusion into individual liberty, autonomy and parental decisions.”
This is a problem; by promoting these people they do not help us to get beyond COVID, or for that matter set national health care goals. Imagine if you will if she had been around when the polio vaccine was deployed? Fun fact, people wanted that vaccine. According to Time:
In the midst of the contentious debate between anti-vaxxers and those who side with mainstream science, it can be hard to imagine a time when Americans almost universally embraced vaccination.
That time was the 1950s, when the very real, utterly devastating effects of polio overshadowed any hypothetical questions of vaccine safety. In 1952, the worst polio outbreak in American history infected 58,000 people, killing more than 3,000 and paralyzing 21,000 — the majority of them children. As TIME reported, “Parents were haunted by the stories of children stricken suddenly by the telltale cramps and fever. Public swimming pools were deserted for fear of contagion. And year after year polio delivered thousands of people into hospitals and wheelchairs, or into the nightmarish canisters called iron lungs.”
We have moved far away from that point in American history. Polio, however, is almost gone from the planet. It remains in some isolated areas of Afghanistan, for example. A COVID vaccine is at most weeks from authorization in the United States. It is starting deployment in the UK, and slowly it will spread to the rest of the world. By the end of next year, we should have it on a regular vaccination schedule.
The 1950s were the high point of science as central to American society. It was the era of SPUTNIK and the cold war. It was a time when we emphasized STEM education in a way we have yet to repeat today, in spite of all the talk. It was also a time when reading deeply was a middle-class value, and knowledge was essential. To say that this included black and brown people would be a lie since this is also the time of separate but equal and Jim Crow laws. But the elites that controlled society valued all these things. Religiosity, which was deeper then, lived side by side with these ideas since they did not see a conflict, except for some fringe groups, College, was also cheap and affordable. University systems, such as the University of California system, are a product of this era. At the time they were extremely affordable as well.
We were competing with the Russians, and we were in the midst of a cold war. So literally we needed those engineers and scientists. In the 1960s we also decided to launch a moon mission, which was at its heart not about discovery, but both national pride and winning the cold war. Remember, the rockets that took astronauts to the moon could be used for nuclear delivery. These days we talk of a return to the moon, partially because we are again, in the midst of a cold war.
The Role of Religion in American Society
The United States is increasingly becoming a secular society. Younger generations are no longer identifying with any religion in high numbers. This did not start yesterday, but the process is well underway and it is seen as disruptive of core ideologies. The Christian Right is watching as its number diminishes, especially among the young. This is what happened in Europe two generations ago. It is one of the reasons why the Christian Right claims they are under assault and are persecuted, even if they remain the majority religion in this country. This is the origin of the culture war and so-called war on Christmas that we have been in the midst of since the 1980s when Jerry Fallwell decided they had to be involved in politics. It was done in an effort to stop a process that started in the 1960s. Involvement in politics was an attempt to stop this, instead of asking why were young people leaving the church (and other faiths.)
This new greatly diminished status is wrenching to the pious who see the secular world as a threat to them, and their core values. They have become increasingly ardent in this toxic culture war, and in their attacks on secular institutions. In a way, it is an extension of the conflict between faith and secularism that took over Europe over the 19th century. We are just experiencing it over a century later.
This is especially wrenching to the fundamentalist religious right since they are having a hell of a time adapting to a new world where more views are acceptable. They are also not dealing well with the larger society's acceptance of things like transgender rights, and the extension of grace to those of other faiths. They are, in particular, having an issue with immigration. They see this as a direct threat to their dominance of both the culture and politics of the nation. It is a demographic time bomb. In some respects, they embraced white supremacy and this new world rejects their view of religion and the social order.
In times of pandemics, they seem to be the worst at accepting that churches and temples (since the Jewish far-right joined them for similar reasons) are loci of infection spread. In this case, the magical thinking that comes with religion is making it very difficult to accept that prayer and singing in an enclosed space are a problem. The needs of the soul are important, but they can be taken care of, mostly, though zoom. Though there is another more pedestrian rationale. The collection plate will not go around the congregation in a Zoom service. This is pedantic and materialistic, but it is part of it.
In the meantime, some churches have become hot spots for pandemics, and authorities can’t do much because the Supreme Court went against centuries of precedent when it comes to public health. Why? Because at least five of the Justices are from the far right. They are not showing, in my view, either good legal sense or grace. Am I being harsh? Absolutely, but the judgment of history will be even more severe. Their actions will cost lives, but I suppose this keeps the collection plate full. All religions put the preservation of life above all, including following the most basic tenets of a given faith.
Money and the Polity
Life and its preservation are a human imperative, This is why economies have shut down due to the pandemic, In the United States, uniquely among advanced economies, we have created an either-or situation. We either save lives or the economy. It could, and other nations have proven this, be both. This is ideological since Republicans refuse to allow for the kind of economic support programs that would prevent the rise of poverty we have seen. We are effectively in the midst of a Great Depression on top of a pandemic, Some of this is by design or ideology. This is why we have endless lines at food pantries. We are the wealthiest economy in the history of humanity, but we also are the most broken. Partly because we put money ahead of grace, or human life.
We were infected by Ayn Rand and her selfish objectivist ideology, and seem incapable of pulling together as a nation. The Republican Party in particular is finding its inner fiscal responsibility demon, once again. They will use it as a cudgel to stop the help most Americans need, while their very wealthy donors continue to accumulate cash. After all, a Democratic president is taking power on January 20th. But even last March they refused to pass enough help for the American people because ideologically they are opposed to anything that will help the vast majority of the people. However, there was a transfer of wealth to those who need it the least. This will slow down the economic recovery, and impact the fiscal health of the nation for years to come.
We as a nation tend to put money above all else, which is extremely materialistic and leads to a toxic culture of consumerism. The pandemic has laid bare the issues with this. Stuff is not essential, Food, shelter, and basic services, including health care, are. It has also shown how vacuous our values are. When you care more about stuff than human life this is a problem. I suspect that the pandemic will change some attitudes regarding this. The question is whether it will be enough to start to course correct towards a culture that values human life, and polity more than things. It is a good question whether it will also redirect our values away from signaling wealth through stuff. Because in the age of climate change we will need to if we are to survive as a species.
One of the things we needed over the course of this disaster was economic support for those least able to shoulder the crisis. We have not done this, and it will hurt our eventual economic recovery. This cannot happen until the virus is fully brought under control, and eventually, most of the population is vaccinated. However, even this last point is in doubt. We already have vaccine hesitancy and a large percentage will not take the vaccine. They continue to spread conspiracy, and any time a mirror is presented, or facts…the response is that you must be a hater.