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Opinion: The Cultural Roots of Americans’ Failing Coronavirus Response Date Back To Thoreau and Emerson

Noted nineteenth-century American writer Henry David Thoreau, opens his 1849 essay “Resistance to Civil Government,” one of the most famous political essays of all time, with the immortal lines:

“I heartily accept the motto,–“That government is best which governs least;” and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically.  Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which I also believe,–“That government is best which governs not at all;” and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.”

Thoreau’s writings, this essay in particular in addition to his landmark work Walden, have earned him a powerful place not just in the American literary canon but, really, in the American cultural mentality. He articulated a romantic individualist ethos that licensed citizens to question, indeed outright dismiss and even ignore, authority and the rule of law.  Like that other famous American character Jiminy Cricket who urged us to always let our conscience be our guide, so too did Thoreau, as when asked, “Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator?”  And he answered his own question, thusly, “The only obligation I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right.”

America’s embrace of this ethos, however, and its deep-rootedness in American culture may have a lot to do with both Trump’s and the American people’s disastrous response to the coronavirus pandemic.

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If you were to read Thoreau’s opening lines to “Resistance to Civil Government” today, in the midst of this public health crisis, let me suggest these sentiments should come off as more than a little reactionary and counter-revolutionary when precisely what we need is a coordinated national response, a government intervention that manages production, helps distribute and allocate resources where most needed, and provides consistent and accurate information.

And yet an anti-social individualism is still strongly operating to hamper the nation’s efforts to manage and curtail the spread of the coronavirus.

In his 1841 classic essay “Self-reliance,” Thoreau’s intellectual compatriot Ralph Waldo Emerson endorsed this anti-social individualism, writing, “Society everywhere is a conspiracy against the manhood of every one its members. Society is a joint-stock company in which the members agree for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater.”

This passage perfectly describes a widespread mentality operative even in the midst of the coronavirus.

As an example, take the response Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez received after tweeting the following plea:

To everyone in NYC but ESPECIALLY healthy people & people under 40 (bc from what I’m observing that’s who needs to hear this again): PLEASE stop crowding bars, restaurants, and public spaces right now. Eat your meals at home. If you are healthy, you could be spreading COVID.

A Katie Williams tweeted back:

I just went to a crowded Red Robin and I’m 30. It was delicious, and I took my sweet time eating my meal. Because this is America. And I’ll do what I want.

Or, as Emerson might say, “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.  Good and bad are but names very readily transferable to that or this; the only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.”

In other words, he’ll do what he wants.

As will Thoreau, who tells us, “I am not responsible for the successful working of the machinery of society. I am not the son of the engineer.”

They, especially Emerson, tended to imagine the public and social sphere as only capable of hostility toward the individual; neither got far in imagining what a society would be like if accommodated the individual, although Thoreau wonders about this possibility often in his writings.

Because of these limitations, they had trouble imagining acting for social change and transformation in collective ways, only able, really, to conceive of individual acts of resistance, as they already conceived of the individual self in an alienated state, dissociated from the abstract society they concoct.

The coronavirus pandemic requires that we do act as sons of the engineers and imagine, demand, and create good government.

We need it.

And we need to see through this powerful hyper-individualist ideology to even entertain the possibility, and see the reality of, good government that serves the people’s interests.

 Remember when Tea Party activists used to wave signs demanding “Keep your goddamn government hands off my medicare”?  People loved their government-run healthcare; they just didn’t know it because the right wing has trained so many Americans reflexively to hate government (even when the right wing controls it!) and automatically see it as the enemy and as inefficient.

Indeed, the world had been turned upside down for these Americans, as they protested against their own interests, railing against a government that administered the very program they wanted.

We need democracy now more than ever—a government of, by, and for the people—when the familiar world is shutting down and the people find themselves in need.

We need consistency and rationality in the form of leaders we can trust who tell the truth and acknowledge reality and our world of laws.

Unfortunately, in Emerson’s thinking, we see the roots of Trump’s fascism and poor leadership, as Emerson endorses that each live according to his own law, regardless of reality, writing famously,

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.”

Right now maybe we could go for a little statesman not filled with delusions of his own grandeur, one willing to listen to experts and scientists.

We need not the charismatic authoritarian “great soul,” but a government of many minds working cooperatively in the interests of all.

Thoreau did say, when talking about a government that governs not at all, that “when [people] are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government they will have.”

The people do not seem prepared for it.


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