by Milan Vodicka, Ph.D.
Somehow, in this July of 2020, I find it challenging to anchor the starting point of my writing. Being bombarded daily with “news” headlines, depressing Covid-19 data, reports of deplorable behaviors, and “presidential” tweets…
Well, I am old enough to see parallels, analogies, similarities with events that already transpired during my lifetime. Although this pandemic, in its scale, is beyond the spectrum of my experience, there are shadows of history creeping through. Let me offer some reflections on those. Let me also invoke some insights from the international perspective.
From the succession of the forty five presidents of the United States, I have memories of thirteen of them being in the office, reading about them, and being affected by their actions and inactions. This translates to an astonishing twenty nine percent of the US presidential history! I lived their time, concurrently with mine.
I came to the US in 1970. The president then was Richard Nixon. Today, the president is Donald Trump. The perception I have of the United States, as a country, is vastly different now. Also, my perception of the United States people (some of them in particular) grew and evolved. The presidents are not excluded from this view.
I vividly remember meeting the first American. It was sometime in the early sixties, when – in my native country of Czechoslovakia, after the communism established isolation from ”the West” – some western citizens were actually able to visit. The American in Prague, at that time, was the metaphoric equivalent of an alien from another planet that landed on the Earth. The American I met, was “a gentleman,” nicely dressed, polite and friendly, smiling. My trouble showed up after asking him, “What can I do for you?” I diligently learned this phrase. Naturally, he answered in English. I did not understand a word. However, as a gesture of gratitude, he gave me a packet of “the West-made” razor blades. That was a treasure! I recall shaving with them, thinking every touch was a caress.
Contrast this to the headlines and stories of current days: “A woman in Arizona destroyed a mask display at Target.” “A woman in a Costco in Oregon sat on the floor and refused to move when asked to wear a mask.” “Retailers have to deal with anti-mask customers harassing and assaulting workers.” “Woman spits at gas station worker when asked to wear a mask.” Masks, really?
I picked up these headlines quite randomly. Where is the kindness I wrote about above?
Other headlines: “Trump’s approval rating has 89-point partisan gap.” “Trump identifies a new enemy: Americans he does not like.” “According to Trump, 99% of Covid-19 cases are totally harmless.”
The “89-point partisan gap” comes from the recent and widely respected Gallup poll. Two percent of Democrats approving Trump’s job performance, ninety one percent of Republicans approving! This is the largest discrepancy for the poll since 1940s.
It tells us that different people see the world differently. Let me add to this another voice, the voice of my Canadian friend: “The US is failing as a society. What is missing is a feeling of belonging to a community. Your president acts as an agent of this separation disease, as well as the agent of the actual Covid-19 disease.”
The “failing as a society” becomes very apparent when the US response to the Covid-19 pandemic is compared to other countries. What makes the difference is the US emphasis on the individuality – everyone has his or her own vision of applicable “rights.” This is evidenced and, in some cases, produces the insanity of connecting “Constitutional rights” to a simple fact that we are dealing with an infectious virus. Any naive and conspiratorial conviction is posited against the judgement of certified bona fide professionals. The attitude of righteousness is elevated to equality. It applies to just about anything; from Electoral College to guns, to wearing masks, or other anti-virus measures.
And leadership? “White House defends Trump’s claim that 99 percent of Civid-19 cases are ’harmless’ with chart showing 5 percent are fatal.” This is beyond pathetic. Words do not mean what they mean, truth is not truth… Are there any other countries where something like this would stand or be tolerable? Yes. Historically, I lived in and emigrated from one of those.
The real truth is that we, the people, as a US society and a community, have a lot in common. I hope the November elections will show that.