“It’s like a jungle sometimes. It makes me wonder how I keep from going under.”
—“The Message,” Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, 1982
A little less than a month ago, we at NPQ wrote about how the government’s response of spending trillions of dollars in response to the pandemic opens policy options that had been closed but probably should have been open all along—things like paid sick leave, universal basic income, and universal health insurance, for example. We got criticism from some: How dare NPQ talk about opportunity in the midst of tragedy?
There are answers to this challenge—including the facts that most social change occurs amid tumult and the sad reality that if progressive answers aren’t provided, reactionary or even fascist answers most assuredly will be—but there is also a kernel of truth in the criticism. The pandemic has hit us so fast, so hard, and continues to hit us fast and hard, that we haven’t had so much as the chance to mourn.
We can’t even properly memorialize the dead. It is not safe to do so. These days, if you don’t ever wonder how you keep from going under, you’re probably not human.
Two months ago, many of us were, at best, dimly aware that a novel coronavirus existed. Few of us would have anticipated that more than 60,000 Americans would die from that virus by the end of April, with the death toll now at 71,500 and rising. This is the heavy burden that we now face. And face it we must, because the pandemic is hardly over. In the US, the curve has flattened, but the number of cases has not declined. Additional waves of an even more virulent strain have been posited as potentially headed our way, and in other countries, like Russia, where the virus was slower to arrive, the same dynamic is just starting. And then there is the economic fallout—in the US, some 30 million are newly unemployed. At some point there will be memorials, but not yet.
We do need, however, to respond in real time to the underlying conditions that have made us so susceptible. And that means now more than ever, we must do our best to learn from the calamity, think critically, and act with speed and creativity.
As US media has emphasized, deaths from COVID-19 now exceed the deaths of US troops in Vietnam. Less covered, but worth noting, is the death toll in Vietnam. Vietnam borders China, so the virus hit there earlier than in the US. What is the COVID-19 death toll in Vietnam? Zero. Now Vietnam is shipping supplies to other nations. Last month, it expedited the shipment of 450,000 hazmat suits to the US.
Vietnam is not the only country to achieve, at least so far, low COVID-19 mortality numbers. Even if few other nations have zero fatalities, a number of nations have kept cases and fatalities to less than one per 100,000 people (the United States is currently at 21.5 per 100,000), including wealthy nations such as South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand and poorer nations like Lebanon.
If one looks at nations that have kept the loss of life the lowest—there are certainly technical things they have done right, such as testing, targeted lockdowns (case isolation), and regular communication, including, at least in Vietnam’s case, public service music videos. But these measures have been informed by cultural values—not the least of which is social solidarity—which, whether the governments were democratic or authoritarian, left or right, have made a life-saving difference.
A decade ago, Alexandra Minna Stern and Howard Markel, two professors from the University of Michigan’s Center for the History of Medicine, and Martin Cetron, a division head of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), wrote an article titled “The 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic in the United States: Lessons Learned and Challenges Exposed,” published shortly after the 2009 flu pandemic.
The authors noted, “There is a delicate and interwoven balance among the virus, the host, and the social milieu that influences the timing, transmission patterns, spread, and severity of the pandemic….morbidity, suffering, and even mortality rates may also be exaggerated by preexisting differences and disparities in underlying conditions both medical and cultural, such as war, poverty, crowding, and slavery.
They add, “These events are not simply medical or public health events in isolation, but vast and complex in their social impact.…Pandemics demand a multidisciplinary response and call on all of society to engage and participate. There are clear roles for both private citizens and uniformed personnel; for households, communities, work forces, volunteer organizations, and professional organizations; and for traditional governance structures at the local, state, and federal levels.”
In a nutshell, there you have the central challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic for the United States: a cultural or social milieu, if you will, that’s uniquely poorly suited to containing the health effects of the virus.
In early March, Dr. Anthony Fauci said in congressional testimony that the lack of testing in the US was a “failing.” But the failing is more thorough than a few (million) missing tests. The United States as a culture has failed. Our lack of mutual care is now a major pre-existing condition.
In the meantime, a narrative has emerged that exalts the frontline essential worker—generally unseen and unrewarded—as a hero. Apparently, though, we prefer our heroes to be profoundly undercompensated and disposable.
This narrative has to change; those who toil every day so this country can function should be properly valued, not merely seen as valuable when it suits political fashion. In summary, we have to shift the underlying narrative that nourishes the policies and theories of governance that plague us.
Even as a virulent culture of racism and belittlement has flowed like lava down a mountainside, we have seen new leaders and interconnected movements emerge to carry this message, along with policy recommendations.
So, there is hope. But we must mobilize to address our core cultural failing: a lack of common cause that results from our failure to dismantle white supremacy and an economic system marked by a uniquely virulent strain of dog-eat-dog capitalism. To do this, the civil sector—artists, activists, connectors, and laborers alike—must begin to see ourselves as being engaged in this work, to bring us out of our present toxic mix of gross political corruption and plutocracy.
In this endeavor, policy change is critical, but for any policy fix to stick, we must repair the underlying culture.
This leaves us with two central questions:
Sign up for our free newsletters
Subscribe to NPQ's newsletters to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.
- Are we capable of cultural repair and what would that look like?
- What policies, if implemented, would help sustain a culturally healthier United States?
Below are some initial ruminations on these two critical questions.
The Cultural Struggle
Talking about culture can be challenging. Culture can be thought of in terms of genre (e.g., goth culture), but it also can be taken to mean the underlying assumptions or categories of analysis that are used to frame choice.
In the past century, the United States has often been an important center of culture globally in both senses of the term. The United States gave birth to a plethora of popular music (among them: jazz, the blues, rock, and hip hop), the institution of Hollywood, and so on. We could add to this many American artists, authors, poets, and entertainers of all stripes.
But behind those individual cultural forms is a national culture that frames the very idea of what it means to be an American. As 2020 Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the 1619 Project of the New York Times, remarks, “I had been taught, in school, through cultural osmosis, that the flag wasn’t really ours, that our history as a people began with enslavement, and that we had contributed little to this great nation.”
Our nonprofit sector—indeed, the idea of the nonprofit—reflects this. Back in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, as Oliver Zunz notes in the web publication HistPhil, “posited the ‘art of joining’ in voluntary associations as the ‘fundamental science’ of democracy” and remarked that Americans were “constantly joining together in groups.” This is an important seed of the notion of civil society, even if the formal US nonprofit sector did not arise until much later.
And yet this concept of democracy and civil society was of white male America—and, in fact, perhaps even more narrowly, a largely Anglo-America. As Tocqueville extolled US civil society and voluntary associations, millions of Americans of African descent remained in chains. As Tocqueville toured the United States in 1831 and 1832 doing research for his book, the Choctaw Nation was being forcibly removed from Mississippi to Oklahoma to make way for the expansion of white settlement and slave plantation agriculture. Before the decade was out, an estimated 125,000 American Indians were forced west, including 16,000 Cherokee, at least 4,000 of whom—some estimates say more—would not survive the journey on the Trail of Tears.
Over time, the boundaries of who is “American” in the US have expanded—but not fully, and it remains framed by whiteness. If you need more evidence of this, look for images of Uncle Sam. You’ll notice they’re nearly always white, even as two-fifths of our population is not, and as some people of color seek to reclaim the symbol as their own.
It may not be terribly original to note that the US was founded on the twin original sins of slavery and genocide. Historian Jeffrey Ostler made the same point not long ago in the Atlantic, for instance. But the point is important, nonetheless.
Indeed, ongoing challenges to these practices are a central thread in US history. Recent decades have seen the rise of people of color in politics and culture, but also a white supremacist backlash. Making matters worse has been rapidly rising economic inequality, fueled by neoliberal policy that makes largely white elites wealthier while increasing the economic fragility of working-class whites and people of color.
And in the midst of the pandemic, the obvious lack of solidarity is plain for all to see. Just to name a few instances:
- Corporations are given easy access to the Federal Reserve low-interest loan window. Small businesses see aid rationed and engage in Hunger Games-style competitions for limited Paycheck Protection Program funds, pushing those who lose out in the impossible position of choosing between protecting their health and their businesses.
- Major populations have been excluded from government support, including undocumented workers (who are half of the country’s farmworkers) and Puerto Rico, whose residents still had not received stimulus checks at the end of April.
- Worker protections have taken second fiddle to production of meat products.
- Workers have been told that failure to return to work when a business reopens because of fear for their health puts at risk their unemployment insurance.
Such measures not only elevate pandemic deaths—they speak to the fact that many whites in power today do not see people of color as part of the collective American “we.” As one observer of Georgia’s move to reopen barbershops, nail salons, and tattoo parlors pointed out, “Their owners and employees tend to be workers [of color] who no longer qualify for government support. This is not accidental.”
Policy, Culture and Repair
The antidote is both simple and complicated. It requires making being a part of the US polity meaningful. As john powell, director of the Othering and Belonging Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, aptly put it, “While policies are important, the essence of the struggle is about who we are.” For powell, creating a culture of belonging is critical to move forward. “To belong,” notes powell, “is not just to be a citizen or member in the weakest sense, but to be able to participate in cocreating the thing you belong to. This makes it different than inclusion.”
And, as Dawn-Lyen Gardner, an actress who spoke at a conference last year emphasizes, “We are makers of each other. We need empathy in our culture.” Gardner says artists play a critical role because they “have the ear of people.” Writing in NPQ, my colleague Cyndi Suarez adds, “While some may view art as a luxury, the artist’s role is to change the world—to make us feel, so we can think.”
We don’t know—yet—whether the shock of the pandemic, and the blatantly inadequate public and private sector responses to it, might open a window in our culture and allow meaningful policy change space to move in. But it is possible. We do know that what are sometimes known as “policy windows” open and shut quickly.
So, if there were an opportunity to embrace public policies that flow from—and reinforce—a culture of solidarity, what might that look like?
Certainly, support for the arts through the federal government would be one key element of rebuilding a culture that embraces solidarity. There are, of course, many others.
One could imagine many of these. Here is a succinct list that is hardly meant to be definitive, but creates a picture of what might be possible—and, of course, what might be well worth fighting for:
- Universal paid sick leave, so that no one is financially pressured to share germs (to say nothing of the novel coronavirus) at work;
- Universal basic income, so people have an income floor to meet basic needs;
- Universal health insurance, so that money is not a barrier to care and medical bankruptcies become a thing of the past;
- Student debt forgiveness and free public higher education going forward to put an end to debt-financing of education, which restricts lives and livelihoods;
- A path to citizenship for immigrants already in the US, and ensuring all immigrants are treated with respect and have access to services;
- An end to mass incarceration, replaced by a framework rooted in restorative justice;
- An investment in a green economy to address the climate crisis and leave the world better for the generation that follows;
- An investment in reparations and repair, including both a “truth and reconciliation” commission and the design of remedies, including both collective and individual cash payments to the victims of slavery and genocide; and
- An economic framework that fosters rights for workers, employs progressive taxation, and promotes community ownership of business to reduce class divides.
It is important to emphasize, however, that shifting the culture is most critical. This is true because only if we operate from a framework rooted in universalism and universal belonging would policies of the types listed above become possible.
One way of saying this is that for a more just US to emerge post-pandemic, our vision must be values-based. For instance, the international cooperative movement declares its values to be “self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity.” Cooperative principles and practices are then derived from those values. A justice framework that guides US policy should likewise be values-based.
Even more fundamentally, as powell noted in NPQ, a culture shift requires changing the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. “Our existing institutions and story,” he wrote, “will not carry us to the future we want.”