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The Underbelly of American “Values” and Coronavirus: Selfishness and Violence?

While Italians sing from their balconies in a gesture of solidarity, Americans buy guns to protect themselves from Armageddon

The Statue of Liberty at the time of coronavirus (Illustration by Antonella Martino)

In the New York Times daily brief today, Wednesday March 18, Melina Delkic who writes the European edition of the morning Daily Briefing, talks to health reporter  Donald McNeil and pinpoints the main difficulty in stopping the Coronavirus in the US: self-entitlement and selfishness.

Delkic writes: “It’s basically urgent that America imitates what China did. China had a massive outbreak spreading all over the country, and they’ve almost stopped it. We can shut off the roads, flights, buses and trains. I don’t think we’ll ever succeed at doing exactly what China did. It’s going to cause massive social disruption because Americans don’t like being told what to do.”

In America the unwillingness that Delkic identifies as a distinctly “American” attitude– to refuse being told what to do- is called spirit of independence and it’s a foundational value. Indeed, American “values” are touted by self-proclaimed patriots as the paradigm that all countries should emulate, the so-called “American way of life,” and independence and forceful individual action feature prominently among these. What’s more, the belief is that we should export these values to all other nations which in their estimation, fall short in the love for “democracy”. Hence, the enacting of foreign policies that are euphemistically called “nation building”. This was true especially in the historically recent Bush years, where the stated objective was to bring “democracy to the people,” and judging from the futile and fruitless 20 year war in Afghanistan and American intervention in the Middle East, this was to be a gift made to “the people” whether they wanted it or not– and whether their culture and systems had any traditions that would warrant it or support it.

In a recent Letter to the Editor to La Voce di New York, Christopher Binetti opined that Italian President Conte, enacting a nation-wide lockdown in Italy in an attempt to stop the spread of the Coronavirus, was acting as a dictator and that his was a cynical power grab.  Misguided and misinformed in my view, Binetti went further and called the provisions an example of dictatorial “martial law” and feared for the survival of democracy in Italy.   “This precedent, regardless of Conte’s intent, is extremely dangerous to republicanism, civil liberties, and liberal democracy in Italy” he declared. Perhaps Conte’s wording could have been better. For example, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, is talking about a possible “shelter in place” order for NYC instead of a “lockdown”; and I admit that this sounds much less threatening.

In the meantime, while we whine about the relatively mild restrictions that have been placed on us thus far in the US, such as the closure of gyms, we have seen countless videos of Italians embracing the need for the  admittedly drastic action of a national lockdown and they have taken to their balconies and windows to express solidarity by singing and making music. Indeed, I would point out to Mr. Binetti that many of these men, women and children, that he sees as the victims of  Conte’s dictatorship, are enthusiastically singing “Fratelli d’Italia”, their national anthem. I cannot even imagine such an example of patriotism and human solidarity in the US.

Melina Delkic goes on to state that, “We need to ….aggressively tackle the clusters. People have got to stop shaking hands; people have got to stop going to bars and restaurants…” When asked by McNeil what is missing in the American response to this global crisis, Delkic unhesitatingly puts her finger on it: the “sense of collective action and selflessness… This is absolutely what Americans are missing, that it’s not about you right now. My parents were in the World War II generation and there was more a sense of we’re all in this together.”

Americans also worship self-reliance and the Constitution. While there may be nothing wrong with such values–when practiced with moderation–their underbelly is the widespread love of guns and weapons, as they say, “to protect ourselves”. This is not the place or time to rehash the painful subject of gun violence in our country, I’ve already discussed that at length elsewhere. Sadly, we are too familiar with shootings and mass killings that even target children in schools. This so-called value of self-reliance and self-protection may already be rearing its ugly head. In a text sent to me two days ago by a close acquaintance, I was warned that: “If anyone thinks things have calmed down, think again, I visited my doctor today and across the street there is a gun and ammo store. We suddenly hit a traffic problem of cars trying to get into a full parking lot. There was a line outside the store of at least 20 waiting to get in.”

It’s hardly worth reminding ourselves that dire expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies. Are Americans buying guns while Italians sing from their balconies? I hope not, but judging from what we know about American values and the widespread passion for the 2nd Amendment, we need to worry.

I have no way of knowing whether everyone, or anyone, will continue to embrace solidarity and pull together for the common welfare as we go forward, but if you have the stomach for it, read Albert Camus’ The Plague or José Saramago’s Blindness for a terrifying glimpse into the complexity of human behavior in an extreme crisis.

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