A week ago I planted a small United Nations flag in my front yard. I debated with myself for several days before I finally worked up the nerve to put it there. Would it offend the neighbors? Would they throw rocks through my windows?
Let me take a step back and explain why I wanted the flag in the first place. About three weeks ago, in a fit of patriotism (or some sort of fit), several people planted small, plastic American flags in my neighborhood, concentrating them on the two main area roads. They planted them every ten feet on one or both sides of the road and, where there was one, on the median. They planted thousands of them. Even if they were only 50c per flag, they represented a sizable investment (and a nice profit for the People’s Republic of China).
The flags are starting to fade, and bend over in the wind, and blow away in the wind—adding to the accumulated, ubiquitous, eye-stabbing, toxic plastic landscape-litter. And the City is not cutting the grass because the workers don’t want to seem unpatriotic, or because flag removal is not in their job descriptions. So we’re now sporting a shabby, patriotic look, with a hint of environmental disregard.
It’s hard to know what someone means when they put a flag on their house or put 5000 on the public roadways. You want to hope it means something like, “America, we are going through a tough time, but together we can pull on our resources and grit to get through this thing.” At some level, I’m sure that is what is meant. My experience is that people are displaying that attitude. People are wearing masks and keeping distance from one another, patiently enduring lines, washing their hands, and being pleasant. I frequent a local deli, for example. I can’t actually go in the deli; I order by phone and the waitress meets me at the door, with mask, to exchange food and money. But we chat for a minute and I wave at others working behind her and they wave back. We are all genuinely happy to see one another walking about in good health. In the midst of a heightened awareness of human frailty, life seems more precious and it is celebrated.
But good will is not the message that oozes forth from the media. There we are called ad nauseam to partisan division, as if that is the most important subject for public consumption. I’ve noticed the “whack-a-mole” metaphor used to describe how we will be addressing the coronavirus until we reach herd immunity. Maybe we should think about whacking the partisan mole while we’re at it.
I’m going to put myself out on a limb here and suggest that even right-wing Americans would rather not be infected with the coronavirus. They would rather not become so severely sick that their bodies are permanently maimed. They would rather not die. They probably do not want these things to happen to their loved ones, either. I’m also going to guess that left-wing Americans would rather not lose their jobs, lose their savings, and become impoverished. I’m going to guess they would prefer that America not experience a depression. I’m going to guess that they would rather not live in a world where goods and services are scarce and unreliable.
The reality is that we all share the same fears because we are all truly threatened in these two very big ways. The fact that the left and the right have decided to emphasize different fears is, frankly, irrelevant. The problem is not one or the other; the problem is both. America (and the world) needs to focus its energy, imagination, and determination on coming up with solutions that lead to a rapid reestablishment of a working, functional society, while making this happen in safe ways. A cavalier return to past routines will result in a million deaths.
Sometimes I think that America is divided because it’s in the best interest of politicians that we remain that way. It’s all about getting elected. Staying in power is more important than serving the American people. (Those who put partisan politics above the needs of the country should be removed from office.)
Sometimes I think America is divided because it’s how the media sells papers (or gets people to linger over their websites, etc.) Jonathan Rauch said it well: “Extremism, outrage, and conflict are catnip for journalists.”
But mostly I think it’s our own fault. We let the charlatans, narcissists, and power brokers lead us around like pigs with nose rings. P.T. Barnum may have said, “There’s a sucker born every minute”, and he is probably right, but we don’t have to remain suckers all our lives. For some reason, 90% of public attention is given over to the 10% of people who are nuts. When they come on the radio or the TV or the computer or the phone, hit the “off” button. If you really want to be a free American, hit the “off” button.
The first priority for reestablishin normalcy is to keep the most vulnerable in social isolation. The elderly, those with serious medical conditions, and those who care for these people, should remain in safe locations until herd immunity is accomplished. Hospitals and medical centers need to cordon off services so that COVID-19 patients remain isolated, allowing for the provision of other medical services. Businesses should be allowed to open but with face-mask requirements, as well as with strictly managed distancing rules. Restaurants should open but with very limited indoor seating, and with expanded outdoor seating, wherever possible. Large venues, such as sporting events, concerts, plays, and church services should be allowed but with very limited audiences, and with carefully controlled processes for entry and exit. Testing for infection should become frequent for everyone who mixes in society, with the exception of those who have attained immunity. No doubt, there are many other good ideas that should be employed. These ideas should be shared, and there should be a concerted effort on the part of all states to conform to the most effective methods.
I worry that the display of American flags is not about the need to serve and support one another, the way good citizens ought. I worry that it primarily means, “Support the right-wing agenda”. Or, I’m afraid it means, “Let America look to its own needs and let the rest of the world fend for itself.”
Which gets me back around to the U.N. flag on my lawn. As it turns out, not only have no rocks been thrown through my windows, I have not received a single comment. (Now I’m worried that my neighbors don’t know what a U.N. flag looks like…or that there is such a thing as the U.N.)
In the year 2020, the entire world has been attacked by a single enemy. It’s like one of those science fiction movies—“Invasion of the Glob Snatchers”—only with a nasty twist of reality. So why are we suddenly nationalistic? Are the people of other nations less human than the people of ours? Will we hoard our resources while others around us die?
Let’s look at it from a different perspective. What if India comes up with a vaccine? Will India keep it from the rest of the world? Will they charge exorbitant prices? Will they lack good will? China is the single manufacturer of more than 50 life-supporting drugs used in the U.S. How will we react if they stop sending us those drugs?
For the most part it appears that the nations of the world are cooperating, sharing scientific discoveries, and sharing resources in the battle of the pandemic. It is idiocy to do otherwise. There are smart, resourceful people all over the world. We should be happy to have them as our friends at all times, and at this moment, more than ever. It’s a good thing to cheer being American, but let’s not forget that, more fundamental than being American, we are human.
This is what I mean by the United Nations flag in my front yard.