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In 2021, America Needs More ‘We’ And Less ‘I’

It is an understatement to say that 2020 was a very bad year. Even if and when the COVID-19 pandemic is brought under control, the effect it has had on our social fabric will be long-lasting.

Far from bringing us all together, we have divided into two camps: those who respect the recommendations of public health authorities and those who thumb their uncovered noses at them. This pandemic has shone a bright light on the extent to which selfish and self-centered behavior is the defining characteristic of the age in which we live.

Already more Americans have died from COVID-19 than the entire number of U.S. military deaths in all of World War Two. Yet, protesters with their always handy placards denounce an imaginary dictatorship that would dare ask them to protect the society at large – by the horrible requirement of wearing a cloth covering on their face or to limit their gatherings.

2020 marked the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower arriving at Plymouth Rock. Before a single person set foot on what would become American soil, the pilgrims drafted a document while the Mayflower was still anchored off of Cape Cod. The Mayflower Compact thus became the earliest recorded agreement of the New World outlining rights, a rudimentary sort of governing principles and, most importantly, included responsibilities to be undertaken by all.

The pilgrims had to commit to the general welfare of the proposed settlement. All would pledge themselves to promoting and protecting the community.

When exactly did so many citizens abandon the notion of “we” and reject the idea of community, cooperation and civic responsibility that comes with living in a group instead of isolated in their own personal Unabomber shacks in the woods?

The United States became a country because of collective purpose manifested in coordinated and cooperative action. No independence could have been achieved and no democracy born through individual will alone.

Our very Constitution – which is so readily invoked by those whose actual understanding of it is meager – begins with the word “we” – as in “We the people.”

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson famously wrote about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” but he also goes on to write that government was entrusted with making laws to ensure the “safety” of the citizenry it serves.

How would those who squawk and stamp their feet at the idea of wearing a mask have managed during World War Two? The entire nation had to ration basic goods like sugar, gasoline and even shoes. Blackouts along the coasts were enforced by Civil Defense Wardens. It is certain these anti-maskers would have bristled at directives to turn the lights out or cover their windows as it would have made watching Duck Dynasty or The Bachelor inconvenient.

What is most galling is the ignorance and selfishness that comes with refusing to wear a mask or obey public health guidelines on limiting contact. Masks are primarily for the purpose of protecting OTHER people in case someone is carrying the virus but is asymptomatic. As the virus is airborne and transmitted through respiratory droplets, the mere fact of being in proximity to others threatens the safety, the health and potentially the life of anyone they come in contact with.

This same observation can be made of those who we all see every day who “wear” a mask around their chins or cover only their mouth while leaving their noses exposed – which is the same as not wearing a mask at all. They are like the stubborn child who shouts, “You’re not the boss of me!” All the while they feel they are gaining a victory against a tyranny that exists only in their small and enfeebled minds. My guess is that their resentment of government does not extend to returning or refusing the stimulus checks to come.

Certainly it is not everyone. Many act responsibly. How we respond to this global crisis is not only about protecting ourselves, it is about protecting others as well. That is what it means to live in a community and truly be “all in this together.”

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America that, “individualism at first only saps the virtues of public life; but in the long run it attacks and destroys all others and is at length absorbed in downright selfishness.”

And let’s not forget John F. Kennedy’s famous inaugural exhortation of, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Today, his speech might have to come with a trigger warning lest it provoke anxiety in the sensitive ears of that portion of the citizenry who only want to think of themselves.

Here’s hoping that 2021, against all odds, brings a lot more “we” and a little less “I” back into American life.

Gavin MacFadyen is a writer and lawyer living in Jamestown.

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