Death of a Nation

by Tom Swift

Editor’s Note: I drafted this two weeks ago. As is the nature of grief, writing helps to process it, yet processing it works — you move on, not wanting to return, out of fear of the memory of the feeling. You get to another place because of the writing and you don’t want to go back. Yet it’s still there. There but not the same. Please forgive the flaws this dissonance may bring about in this utterance.

I am grieving for our country. By this I do not mean to suggest that I have the capacity to grieve for an entire nation. I do not mean, of course, that I have all fifty states and territories pulled toward me, that they are collectively crying on my lone shoulder. I mean that I am grieving the loss of our country as I have in my lifetime as an American come to understand it to be. I am grieving what I thought we represented, grieving what I thought it meant to be an American.

I have long understood that we are not a perfect people, that this is not an optimal place, that we have more than a time or two failed to live up to our ideals. This is about my perception. This perception may not align with that of others, but, to be clear, this is not about finally seeing holes in the notion of American exceptionalism. We are not now and have not been for some time, if we ever were, leaders or models in various important metrics of societal fitness. I get that. What I feel today is something altogether different than disappointment. Something significant and fundamental has been lost — possibly temporarily but it sure feels like permanently.

It is has taken me some time to reach this understanding — to figure out why I have these past weeks had periods of low energy. Dips in mood. Irritability. Overwhelming malaise. To be sure, my emotions are not so easily parsed as to be able to cleanly trace them to any single source. But I am finally able to understand that I am grieving and that my body reflects that grief.

I am not grieving because I cannot go to the gym like I used to or because I can’t linger in a coffee shop with friends like I want to. I do miss those aspects of daily life. Certainly. But I am not even grieving because suddenly going to the grocery store feels like a harrowing experience. I have shelter-in-place easy compared to so many others. If I have been exposed to the virus, I have not gotten sick. I have not lost my job. I have, certainly by American standards, excellent health coverage. I wish I could see my colleagues at work and buddies at the gym but many, many people have it so much worse than I do and, in fact, I am finding a number of advantages in the new arrangement. This is not about loss of personal freedom.

In fact, I see now that my grief began before I ever heard of COVID-19. But our collective response to the pandemic cinched it: We are different now. There is simply no doubt in my mind about that.

My perception of America has been that we have a shared reverence for our laws, values, founding documents, and ideals. That we stand together in times of crisis. That when the chips are down, we fight — together. That in extraordinary times, we do what we can for others. By “we” I mean not just acts of charity or noble singular efforts. To be sure, there are many inspiring stories to be found right now. The women and men serving in our hospitals and clinics are heroes. They deserve only praise and support. I am not suggesting all Americans have turned into ogres. By “we” I mean not individual responses but the collective one. (The president’s son-in-law, the most recent person named to lead the response to COVID-19, said it during his recent press briefing: “our” was the word he used when referring to a federal stockpile of ventilators, meaning the feds, not the states. When did the federal government separate itself from the people and the states it was authorized by those states to serve?) We still this many months into a national health crisis don’t have a coordinated national response. And it doesn’t look like we will get one any time soon. I am not an expert on American history but I am trying to imagine another time in which we would have reacted to such a threat to American lives in piecemeal fashion. It’s as if when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor we turned to Hawaii and said, “good luck with that.” We’re here as a “backup.” We don’t have responsibility here. It’s up to your governor. When the towers went down on 9/11, we were all New Yorkers. Yet when hundreds of New Yorkers started dying of COVID-19 every day people gathered on beaches in Alabama in protest parties. You make America great again. I just wear the hat.

It is quite possible that my perception of what America was before and is now is different than that of others. But that is what has died in me — why this is my grief, even if not yours.

I would like to further prove this case. But to attempt to do so would be to engage in a political argument that you either already know and agree with or don’t and never will. I would have to point out that we have a president who willfully lies about a life-threatening pandemic. A president who calls states currently ravaged by Coronavirus “complainers.” A president who openly admits he sends aid to states that back him politically and not to those who do not. Political football with aid for dying people! A president who appointed four different people in a span of five weeks to oversee the response. A president who has within his power, but refuses to exercise the power, the ability to take lawful action to swiftly ramp up needed medical equipment and supplies and restrict behavior that would lessen the spread and rate of death. Meanwhile, he is allowed to remain in office with a very likely chance of being re-elected (even though he almost certainly will once again not receive a plurality of the vote). See, there I go. Anger is part of grief.

FDR was not wholly altruistic. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus. Lyndon Johnson was no saint. I certainly did not agree with everything Barack Obama did — I wished at times would have fought harder — and I named my dog after him. Yet if you cannot see the difference in the air in America right now — then versus now — months into a pandemic, our nurses are wearing garbage bags while our states attempt to outbid each other for medical supplies — well, that makes me sad. Sadness is surely also part of grief.

The challenge is not what gets me down. I feel certain we will get through this but I feel equally sure that we will never go back to what was lost before the first COVID-19 victim on American soil.

What have now in America is not just a lack of agreement but a lack of fundamental shared facts. We have not just different beliefs but different priorities. Democracy used to matter more than party. The impeachment “trial” showed us that is no longer the case for at least a difference-making number of us.

Recently, I happened across Mark Edmundson’s essay, “Walt Whitman’s Guide to a Thriving Democracy,” published in The Atlantic (May 2019). I should know Walt Whitman better than I do. At various times when I have picked him up, I have not been in a place to hear him. Whitman is the poet laureate of democracy — the one to which we should turn when we, as a nation, lose site of our ideals: It takes not an astute political observer to suggest one of those times is now.

Whitman, Edmundson says, speaks to our moment in many ways: “At a time when Americans hate one another across partisan lines as intensely perhaps as they have since the Civil War, Whitman’s message is that hate is not compatible with true democracy, spiritual democracy. We may wrangle and fight and squabble and disagree. Up to a certain point, Whitman approved of conflict. But affection — friendliness — must always define the relations between us. When that affection dissolves, the first order of business is to restore it.”

That sort of logic speaks to my nature. I love the idea, the ideal, of two opposing parties who put forth their very best arguments, fighting vigorously for what they believe to be right, then slapping backs and hashing out a compromise in the shared tradition of pragmatic progress. Yet what do we do when one side stands in support of a wholly different set of principles? Russia: if you’re listening …

Whitman calls us all blades of grass — out of many, we are one. But what if some of us prefer to be berries on a bush? Clouds in the sky? Pick your own metaphor from the tree.

If, for example, there were today a significant faction that wished to and pushed to abolish the thirteenth amendment — that is, if there were a serious movement to restore the right for some human beings to hold other human begins in bondage — to bring back slavery — would we attempt to meet them half way? Of course not. There would be no half way. There is no half-way in life-saving measures in a pandemic, either. People — our people, no matter what lever they pull in the voting booth — are dying and we had the power to save more of them than we did. We have the power to save more of them than we will.

The absurdity of that example — if, in fact, it is absurd; few things shock me in this Trumpian time — proves the point. “Good people on both sides.” Porn-star hush money. Bragging about forcefully grabbing women’s genitals. Shaking down a foreign leader, an ally fighting a bloody battle against an adversary, to dig up dirt on a domestic political rival. Total obstruction of Congress. Falsehoods in the tens of thousands. The list of behaviors that are anathema to Whitman’s democratic ideals is long.

What do we do — what do I do — when one side chooses to embrace a different paradigm? I wrestle with this nearly every day.

Whitman lived through the Civil War. Surely, he has something to say about unity and the street cred to say it. Yet, I can’t help but note, that the piece was written months before we had ever heard of Coronavirus. Incompetence has consequences. Lack of empathy does, too. I am not sure where, frankly, we go from here. Certainly, you hope there is correction but you can’t expect anyone, not Joe Biden anyone else, to wield an enormous historical eraser and wipe away the death — of our countrymen and countrywomen, or of the shared values that, if they had still lived, would surely have prevented some of those losses.

Wholly narcissistic leaders don’t care enough to do what they can when they can to advance or protect the republic. I don’t see a restoration of friendliness when led by a man who never smiles, who shows no compassion, who demonstrates an utter lack of humility.

Do you?

Around the time I read the Edmundson essay, there were also interviews circulating with grief expert David Kessler, including one by Scott Berinato in the Harvard Business Review (March 23, 2020). These pieces take the tact that many people are grieving, understandably, at this time, even if they don’t realize that that they are. Of course, they are grieving if they have lost someone inflicted but they are also grieving over lost normalcy — not being able to see friends and family and coworkers, not being able to be and do what they did before living under shelter-in-place orders. Kessler points out that there is power in recognizing this grief. No doubt, that is true. I have not heard of others applying the word, grief, to loss of their concept of America. I do feel that, though. Possibly this will be proven to be different amalgam of feelings masking themselves. I can say now only what I believe to be true.

We have never been a perfect union. But we have been a better one.

We haven’t always elected good people. But we have always elected more decent ones.

We used to be different. And I miss what has been lost.

Post script: I watched President Obama’s video endorsement of Joe Biden shortly after finishing this piece. Listening to his words gave me a jolt of hope — prompted me to question again whether this is but a dark time that will soon pass — either because I am starving for hope or because there is genuine reason to have some. We shall see.