Friday, May 22, 2020

What’s wrong with America?

Don’t get me wrong. I love my country, and I’m proud to be an American. This pandemic has brought out the very best in some Americans—I see it in my neighbors reaching out to each other, I read about random acts of kindness, and hear stories thata reinforce my belief that most of humanity is basically good, kind, and caring.

But it’s hard during an unprecedented crisis to see so many people picketing and protesting because their rights are being infringed upon. They demand their freedom! They want to get a haircut, sit in a restaurant or a bar, go to the theatre, live life as they’ve always known it. They don’t seem to recognize that these are not normal times and all of us have to make some adjustments.

I am in full sympathy with those who call for re-opening businesses, because they cannot survive economically without a paycheck. We have to recognize how many American live paycheck-to-paycheck. But in my mind, staging protests is not the way to accomplish that goal. And as we gradually re-open (too fast for me), workers lose all my sympathy (not that they care) if they do not wear masks and take other safety precautions in this time of plague. It’s called being a good citizen, a good American.

Those who protest that masks infringe on their rights and do so while armed with assault weapons are beyond contempt. I want to say to them, “Get over yourself.” That is the most selfish act I can imagine, because they not only assert their so-called independence and reveal their inner weakness, they endanger the rest of us and put an extra burden on front-line workers. And that's not the kind of America the armed forces we will honor on Memorial day fought and died for.

A colleague posted a memory about WWII when the world, principally England, lived in blackouts. No sliver of light could show as a target for Nazi bombers. America had blackouts too, though fortunately without bombers. I was a very young child in Chicago during the war—let me emphasize very young—but I remember my uncle was a warden, and I used to go with him to be sure people were complying with the blackout and to warn those who weren’t. Today, some selfish souls would claim the blackout infringed on their rights, and whoever warned them would be at risk of being shot. Bring on those bombers!

I just finished reading The Day the World Came to Town, by Jim DeFede. It’s an account of 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland, when thirty-eight jetliners, carrying thousands of passengers, were marooned there by the shutdown of American air space. The people of Gander put their own lives on hold and willingly shared their homes, their clothes, their linens, their food, and their goodwill with people from all over the world. They loaned their cars, bought toys for the children, cared for the animals who had been on board. They counseled with distraught parents, worried about the children from whom they were separated in what was a scary time for both adults and children. World tension was at a high, but you’d never have known it in Gander and surrounding small towns.

Nobody protested, nobody talked about their rights, nobody scorned the passengers as “foreigners”—one African American woman was probably the only black person on the island, and she drew attention less because of the color of her skin than because she was a tall and commanding figure and her hair touched the small of her back.

Friendships were forged, some to last a lifetime. One woman discovered that the daughter of a host family lived in the same town in the American South as her own daughter. Thousands of miles away, the two daughters got together, and the Newfoundler was able to reassure the American daughter about her parents’ safety.

Among the stranded passengers was an internationally known European fashion designer, Werner Baldessarini. When a Saudi prince offered to send a private jet to rescue him, Baldessarini turned it down. He did not feel he should be given special treatment, and he had made friends among the other passengers. He wrote:

There was no hatred. No anger. No fear in Gander. Only the spirit of community. Here, everyone was equal, everyone was treated the same. Here, the basic humanity of man wasn’t just surviving but thriving.

Those words echoed in my mind long after I finished the book. I wish every American, but especially the minority who are making themselves so prominent, could read them. And then again, I’d say, “Get over yourself. We are all in this together.”

PS: The events at Gander are the basis for the successful Broadway play, Come from Away.

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