Is there still a place called ‘us?’

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - Opinions - Leonard Leonard Pitts is a colum­nist for The Mi­ami Her­ald. Con­tact him at: lpitts@ mi­ami­her­ald.com © 2020 The Mi­ami Her­ald. Dis­trib­uted by Tri­bune Con­tent Agency.

The other day, I or­dered take­out from my fa­vorite Chi­nese place. I did this as a ges­ture of sol­i­dar­ity af­ter hear­ing that peo­ple have been avoid­ing Chi­nese restau­rants be­cause of the coro­n­avirus pan­demic that orig­i­nated in Wuhan, China.

I also did it be­cause I had a taste for egg foo young.

If my in­tended mes­sage was mud­dled by those mixed mo­ti­va­tions, well, chalk it up to the fact that the pan­demic has been hell on easy sym­bol­ism. This is sup­posed to be one of those times where Amer­i­cans come to­gether, where we put aside our sin­gu­lar, self­ish needs and con­cen­trate in­stead on act­ing in the best in­ter­ests of the greater and larger us.

But you have to won­der just how it is you go about do­ing that. Or, more to the point, how do you go about show­ing your fel­low cit­i­zens you are do­ing that?

It’s a ques­tion one did not have to ask in pre­vi­ous na­tional crises; they lent them­selves eas­ily and nat­u­rally to sym­bolic ges­tures of sol­i­dar­ity and unity. Af­ter the Ja­panese at­tacked Pearl Har­bor, you joined the Marines, planted a Vic­tory Gar­den or col­lected scrap metal. Af­ter John Kennedy was mur­dered, you wept in the streets end em­braced strangers as kin. Af­ter the ter­ror­ist at­tacks of 2001, you gave blood, lit can­dles and hung Amer­i­can flags from free­way over­passes.

But the pan­demic of 2020 of­fers no equiv­a­lent sym­bol­ism of na­tional unity. No, in the great pan­demic, we hoard toi­let paper and Purell, and get our egg foo young to go. It’s not quite the same.

Granted, that’s a stylis­tic is­sue, in­ter­est­ing but ar­guably in­con­se­quen­tial. Ex­cept that it masks some­thing larger. Af­ter all, if, in years past, we put aside our sin­gu­lar, self­ish needs and sought what was right for the greater and larger us, these last years of un­re­lieved ran­cor, of Amer­i­cans liv­ing in al­ter­nate po­lit­i­cal re­al­i­ties, re­quires an hon­est ob­server to won­der if those things are even still pos­si­ble.

And I’m sorry, but you’ll read no false equiv­a­lence here — not even in the ser­vice of hoped-for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. Be­cause the truth mat­ters. And the truth is, it was the po­lit­i­cal right that se­ceded from that greater and larger “us,” that in­cul­cated in its ad­her­ents a sense of sep­a­rate­ness, that made of them an is­land warmed by a burn of per­ma­nent griev­ance.

Nor has that stopped in the face of pan­demic. Rush Lim­baugh and Sean Han­nity have sug­gested the dis­ease is not all that se­ri­ous. U.S. Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., and for­mer Mil­wau­kee Sher­iff David Clarke have said, in de­fi­ance of all med­i­cal ad­vice, that peo­ple should go out and do the town. Tr­ish Re­gan, a since-sus­pended Fox Busi­ness an­chor, claimed the “lib­eral me­dia” were us­ing the coro­n­avirus to “de­stroy the pres­i­dent.”

Even dur­ing a pan­demic, it seems, some of us find it hard to get be­yond com­pet­ing po­lit­i­cal agen­das, hard to be one na­tion, in­di­vis­i­ble. On De­cem­ber 7, 1941, Novem­ber 22, 1963 or even Septem­ber 11, 2001, that would have been im­pos­si­ble to con­ceive. Yet, here we are.

Al­ways pre­vi­ously, one thing has been re­li­ably true of this frac­tious na­tion: In time of cri­sis, we come to­gether. Now we’re about to learn if that’s still the case. The early re­turns are not good.

Make no mis­take: As our health care sys­tem, sup­ply chain and econ­omy are be­ing tested, we the peo­ple are also be­ing tested in our very un­der­stand­ing of Amer­i­can iden­tity. We are a balka­nized na­tion, a col­lec­tion of bro­ken pieces where even the specter of mass ca­su­al­ties is just another ex­cuse for po­lit­i­cal games­man­ship. This mo­ment forces upon us a defin­ing ques­tion: Are we still ca­pa­ble of com­mon cause?

Is there still a place called “us?”

Pitts

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