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Our Evening of Fear: On COVID-19, American Ideals, and the Common Good

March 28, 2020

Building on Pope Francis’s reflections, I would argue we are lost and afraid because we are only now, courtesy of an effective quarantine, realizing just how much we need a robust *society*. We have lost track of the broad human basis of our nation. The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the hollowness of our current set of market-dependent ideals. Isolation has forced a reckoning with our weak and thin democracy. There is nothing worse than being imprisoned with one’s bad ideas.

We need contact, friendship, and interaction beyond the false construction of the nuclear family. I love my family, but they cannot meet all of my social and psychological needs. My students, neighbors, colleagues, and the city of Chicago make me a whole person. I am little outside that context. We should more robustly support the common good and the commonwealth because we know this kind distancing, while needed temporarily, is not the human condition. We are embedded beings. Our human flourishing depends on a broad social health.

If any one good comes out of this crisis, my prayer is that it kills libertarianism as a viable electoral strategy. I hope it also diminishes our hyper-individualism broadly, but I will settle for a death blow to libertarian politics.

The historian in me knows that Americans are individualists at heart. My historical work has also taught me that we are, on the whole, creative in how we destroy history—courtesy of the endless churn of capitalism. Living in the past, whether in memory or as a historian, has been deemed unproductive—unless there’s a buck to be made. Historical knowledge has been reduced to ornament, a bit of cultural capital to be flaunted rather than deeply engaged and meditated upon. The material profits of history always seem to have a cap in relation to our capitalist base structure. Our presentism disables us. It keeps us from learning needed permanent political lessons from the past harms caused by individualism.

The COVID-19 crisis has exposed a great many social and political weaknesses in the United States. Because we haven’t put enough stock in how much we need each other, we’re paying for it with world record infection numbers. We haven’t properly valued the human beings with whom we live. This crisis has exposed our sandy social foundations.

It has been, in Francis’s words, evening here for some time. We haven’t sufficiently feared the consequences of our thin social and economic structures.

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