We Americans have been nurtured for more than two centuries by the idea of personal freedom. Emblazoned upon our collective consciousness are phrases like, “the land of the free” from Francis Scott Key’s Star Spangled Banner. We have clung to the idea of free choice as a result of our history classes showing us the horrors of strict dictatorships and oligarchies across the globe. Freedom of speech is of prime importance among our many liberties, though our broader freedoms of choice have sometimes been more blurred by varied experience, wealth, race, sexual orientation, education, religious affiliation, etc.
I have noticed more bravado recently on the evening news in comments made by people who seem to refuse recognizing recommendations and even laws about wearing masks in public places and keeping safe distances during the Covid 19 pandemic. In my entire life, I have never witnessed such bravado in dismissing established science facts and safeguards with the standard, “I’m an American and have freedom of speech and assembly.” Such grandstanding and disregard for the safety of others filters down, of course, from “the top” in an egomaniacal avalanche of refutation, posturing and pretense. The result is a perilous fantasy that everything is just fine, and that everything is under control by our capable leaders. The argument by others who flout current etiquette and law about masks and distancing is the terror that we could too easily become “a nanny state.”
The title of Frank Sinatra’s hit song of the 1960’s, “My Way” sums up the growing attitude of many Americans, who are weary of being cooped up and want to hear or pretend that everything is just fine again. During World War II Americans thoroughly observed in their homes and businesses black-out laws, as did the citizens of The British Isles. People may have whined about the inconvenience, but people were less likely to flout the laws, because there was a deeper sense that errors could harm others too. Our sense of community seems to have suffered set-backs since then. People grumbled in the 1960’s about seatbelts in their cars, but the facts about saved lives made most people less likely to disregard the law. I liken this to the current attitude of some in their reluctance to immunize against Small Pox, Polio, Measles, or any other dreaded disease that can be fought effectively through such serums. Science is not in the list of important considerations for such people. Our national “ME FIRST” mentality has risen to the surface again through those who would prefer a display of braggadocio and poor betting instead of protecting their own lives or those of others.
People are certainly weary of being cooped up and are nostalgic about what life was even six months ago. The Bubonic Plague of the middle ages and the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 must have made folks feel similarly imprisoned and bored. Today, the media give us a much wider view with many more mixed messages that can confuse and imperil many, who want or need to be dangerously optimistic instead of hearing heart-rending facts.
As a nation, we have not been this pessimistic since the Great Depression and World War II. We need to remember that some of our freedoms become blurred and even compromised when their misuse threatens the very lives of others. So many interviews I’ve watched on television showed people wearing swimwear and no masks on crowded beaches, enjoying the limelight and bragging at not being concerned about the virus, as though their stand is heroic instead of just plain stupid and possibly dangerous to others. As much as I admire and love the writing of Henry David Thoreau, his powerful essay, Civil Disobedience is not currently helpful or especially wise. “For government is an expedient by which men would fain succeed in letting one another alone; and, as has been said, when it is most expedient, the governed are most let alone by it.”
The worst current problem we have is mixed messaging, a yin/yang of careless disregard versus healthy fear and respect. We have to realize that this is all temporary and can be reduced only by everyone’s cooperation. In that regard, the Me Too movement has become the Me First mentality for too many. Our charity and patience are essential to our survival, and it is that mind-set that can and must prevail. JB