Opinion

The best of America, the worst of America

As we open a new calendar page, we have choices to make about which version of America we want to enact in 2021 and beyond

How do you sum up a year like this one? The past 12 months have thrown so many curveballs that it's become cliché to try and enumerate them all. Among my friends and loved ones, "2020" has become a kind of shorthand for baffling, absurd, heartbreaking, enraging. I started the year by proclaiming how exhausted I was. I don't think any of us had any idea how exhausted we were about to become.

As I look back on 2020, I find myself thinking of it as a study in contrasts. This year has brought out both the best and the worst of America. In the absence of a decisive, science-based national response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been largely left on our own to navigate challenges many of us never expected to face in our lifetimes. As a country, we are reaping the consequences of a political, economic, and cultural machinery built on cruelty and conquest. But at the same time, individually and collectively, Americans have stepped up in extraordinary ways to protect our communities and reshape our immediate future.

As we open a new calendar page, we have choices to make about which version of America we want to enact in 2021 and beyond. We must look to the best and most humane versions of ourselves as we decide. It's a matter of literal life and death.

Let's start with the ugly stuff. The American mythos is rooted in a toxic mix of white supremacy and rugged individualism: a sense that the white-privileged among us are the sole masters of our own destiny. We are steeped in a culture that insists freedom means behaving exactly as we please, and that everything around us is ours for the taking. Even at the best of times, that attitude sits very poorly with our responsibility towards each other, and towards the land on which we live.

With the arrival of COVID-19, it's become abundantly clear that our health and safety — our very lives — are intimately bound up with the behavior of those around us. And Americans' rugged individualism is fundamentally incompatible with the self-sacrificing behaviors that have been proven to slow the spread of viral illnesses like COVID-19 — wearing masks, keeping physically distanced, avoiding prolonged indoor contact. Unfortunately the reigning political regime has consistently played into this narrative, casting mask mandates and shelter-in-place orders as somehow un-American, and couching its push for states to resume "business as usual" in the language of liberty.

And then, of course, there's our health-care system. COVID-19 is battering America's hospitals and clinics beyond their breaking point, and putting those who get sick at the mercy of a system that routinely bankrupts people after serious illness. But the rot the virus is exposing has been spreading in this country for a long time. Here, too, American individualism rears its head: We are taught that our health is our responsibility alone; that it can and should be managed through sheer force of will; and that it's our fault if we are too old or sick or disabled to survive without halfway decent medical care. White supremacy tags along too, insisting that the communities of color who have borne the brunt of the pandemic are to blame for being vulnerable to illness in the first place.

So far, so ugly. But there is reason for hope too.

Even as our national leaders have left a void in America's COVID-19 response, individuals have stepped up to fill a sliver of it. For those of us who know better than to embrace individualism at all costs, 2020 has been a year for us to learn how to support each other and affirm the great bond we share. I know so many people who have voluntarily upended their entire daily lives to avoid spreading the virus; who have started mutual aid funds and raised millions of dollars to support their neighbors; who are finding creative and unexpected ways to stay connected with friends and loved ones while physically apart.

2020 was also a year where America's history of protest and activism came to the forefront. The Black Lives Matter protests during the summer sent a loud-and-clear signal to the powers that be that Americans were not going to back down in the face of profound cruelty. And the fact that the U.S. presidential election turned out as it did is a testament to the phenomenal efforts of activists — particularly Black, Indigenous, and other activists of color — to overcome decades of ruthless, systematic voter suppression and get voters from marginalized communities to the polls.

Not every American embraced generosity and interconnectedness, justice and science this year. But plenty of us did. And now it's time to carry that forward into 2021. We have to embrace tenacity in the face of cruelty, and reject the most destructive aspects of our American identities in favor of acknowledging our interdependence and dismantling our prejudices.

2020 is not done with us yet. Its legacy will reverberate far beyond Dec. 31. But we have a chance to redefine how America moves forward from this strange, destabilizing year. Let's look to the best of our American instincts in 2021, and keep chipping away at the systems that would have us believe we can't be both American and humane.

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