We've made it through another week people, capped off by the Fourth of July, which my good friend jokingly referred to as the Unfourth of July. It is certainly a surreal time to be celebrating independence, freedom, and patriotism.
When I was a child, the Fourth was a time to celebrate fireworks. I never cared about the rah rah rah America; gimme some stuff to light and make pretty sparkles and maybe some noise. I spent the early part of my childhood in rural communities where fireworks were not illegal and the bigger pop we could make, the more satisfying it was. As I got older and grasped more of what the Fourth of July was supposed to be about, I still didn't buy into it all that much. I read a lot as a kid and I understood there was a central problem with how we told the story of our country, but I wasn't able to articulate it clearly until I was probably in college. My goddaughter, 13, is incensed about celebrating the Fourth this year because she sees it as a celebration of genocide against Native North Americans. Is there anything more clear and pure than the righteous indignation of a teenager as they point put the fundamental hypocrisy that the adults around them seem to blithely accept? I understand her rage, and admire her so much as she lets it fly, it's like a clarifying tonic. By all means, let's have a serious discussion about the Fourth of July and what we are truly trying to mark with this occasion. Another thing that is long overdue on our national health self-examination.
Other things happening in the world have been less heartening. I have been thinking about the word "de-escalation" a lot this week as I read about ordinary everyday people working in public and customer service jobs who are being called on to deal with outraged American citizens over mask-wearing. Most people have no idea how to calm down a stranger who is out looking for a fight, and are often finding themselves entangled in a physical or verbal assault that is most definitely above their pay grade. I can't stand watching videos of people behaving badly, my life is not long enough for that shit, but I glancingly passed through several mask confrontation videos while trying to get to the news this week. It's pretty easy to immediately get the common thread that connects these confrontations and diagnose the issue, we have all gotten an 101 education in epidemiology in the past months so I feel qualified to do this. It's a wholly recognizable and specific brand of American dysfunction, rooted in the the myth of American exceptionalism. For diagnostic purposes, let's refer to this as "toxic individualism".
I know that the word "toxic" is overused and deployed to describe a wide range of previously acceptable behaviors that are getting more closely examined these days, and therefore its punch and meaning gets diluted. And maybe the whole idea of toxic individualism is just one more example of another American habit of pathologizing bad choices and behavior. I'm going to argue that toxic is a great word, pungent and salient, immediately conveying meaning and comprehension. When I say "toxic individualism" you know exactly what I mean. You can make your own quick list of behavioral symptoms, the first one being a pernicious entitlement to do exactly what one wants under the guise of freedom and personal liberty while dismissing the right of the rest of us to be free of stupid and dangerous behavior.
There is something highly performative about these mask-wearing confrontations playing out at your local stages hosted by Trader Joe's, Targets, and 7-11's. They are orchestrated by people who know they will be confronted because they are, in many cases, breaking with state and local guidelines in order to make a point about their personal beliefs, and they won't hesitate to use violence to drive the point home. All of this is putting essential workers in the untenable position of trying to de-escalate situations that are created to get out of control.
The idea that we should not ever have our personal liberties questioned, even if our choices hurt other people, flies in the face of another philosophical viewpoint, the one that says we area all connected and interdependent. Our peculiar brand of American exceptionalism seems to say we are connected through our ability to do what we want, while ignoring our dependence on each other to do the right thing to protect ourselves and those around us. It's just a slight move of the needle, but one is entrenched in the hypocrisy of toxic individualism while the other is rooted in the hope of the collective that upholds our dignity as human beings through right action. Unfortunately, the latter is not currently in vogue as a shared American value and I'm sure I could be considered a treasonous commie by some for even writing that sentence.
I can't think of a more perfect time than the Fourth of July weekend, the day where we celebrate our independence from the colonial rule of Britain, to consider the myths we carry about ourselves as Americans, and how that has influenced our behavior and outlook on ourselves and our fellow citizens. These myths are as much a part of the structure as the other things we are taking a hard look at right now, they are all connected, and all of us who live in America are subject to it. I know that for me, the shock of Europe blocking American travel to the continent is shaking up the belief that I have that I am allowed, as an American, to travel to almost any place in the world, in safety and without question as long as I can afford the plane ticket. This is giving me a good starting point to consider some other beliefs I am carrying around with me about my place in the world.
I have always been fascinated by our perceptions of ourselves as Americans, and the contrast with how the rest of the world sees us. Whenever I travel, I like to ask people how they think about America, how they perceive Americans. We are definitely a recognizable type. What does these questions bring up for you? I'm dying to know what you think.