I’m a citizen of the United States of America but have trouble defining United. As—when—the coronavirus pandemic winds down, how will Americans define the word?
During Congregation Sherith Israel’s Zoom Shabbat service last Friday night, Rabbi Jessica Graf asked what will our country be like post-COVID-19. It’s a good bet we’ll be facing a great many changes no one could have imagined as we rang in 2020.
But let’s start at the beginning.
Over the near-244 years of our national existence, some Americans have interpreted United as the bond between semi-sovereign states joined mainly by the need for a common defense. After all, the British returned to our shores in 1812. Beyond that, they see fifty states marching to their own drummers.
United still inspires debates about the Constitution regarding the extent of powers granted to the federal government and those not and so left to the states. States’ rights advocates long have sought to tilt the balance from Washington to state capitals. Their political ideology supported segregation for a century after the Civil War until Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Many states’ rights advocates continued to resist Washington’s imposition on their “way of life.” Many still do.
Other Americans take a broader view of United, promoting legal and ethical standards that transcend state boundaries. They want to give Washington increased latitude, particularly to protect minorities.
The coronavirus pandemic has heated up this conflict. Responses have varied from state to state. That’s understandable. New York City, population 8.3 million, is not Deaf (pronounced Deef) Smith County, Texas, population 18,700. In a nation as large and diverse as ours, state and local initiatives proposed by people who know the territory may work faster and better. But guidelines put out by the White House then ignored by the Oval Office in its zeal to open the economy should still be something that, forgive the pun, unites us.
The pandemic will end. Many people are, or soon will be, proposing specifics either to retool America or leave it the way they found it. Or take it back to the time of their grandparents. Any discussion must first address our interpretation of United.
Does our cherished freedom—if we know what that means—demand that states go their own way even when, in many cases, they ignore sound public health policy or privilege some citizens over others? Should states refuse to follow directives from Washington not because they’re wrong but because they fear the “slippery slope” leading to the erosion of “freedom”? If so, can states match the power of the federal government to anticipate and mitigate public-health challenges, stimulate the economy and support the unemployed?
In essence, are we “one nation under God”? (Does God have anything to do with it?)
I’m skeptical that enough Americans will pull together rather than separate themselves by region, state, county, city or town, even neighborhood. As the late House speaker Tip O’Neill (1912-94, Dem.–Mass.) famously remarked, “all politics is local.” I get that.
But as New York Times columnist Roger Cohen recently wrote, “To bet against the human tendency to relapse into old bad habits is foolish. Tragedy tends to foster expressions of idealistic unity that prove fleeting.” I get that, too.
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