The Vision Project

The Myth of the Independent American

Editor’s Note: In this BC Law Magazine “Vision Project” series, we are engaged in a lengthy discussion with Boston College Law School faculty about where the Covid-19 pandemic and its attendant medical, economic, racial, and political consequences may lead us. As New York Times op-ed columnist Timothy Egan so eloquently put it recently, “Every crisis opens a course to the unknown. In an eye-blink, the impossible becomes possible. History in a sprint can mean a dark, lasting turn for the worse, or a new day of enlightened public policy.” There are warnings and worries in these professors’ views, but there are also farsighted ideas and strategies for crafting a better future, a more just society, and a world in which each and every human being is equal under the law.


PROFESSOR CATHLEEN KAVENY

Kaveny, the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor at Boston College, has a doctorate in ethics and a law degree, both from Yale University. The most recent of her four books, Prophecy without Contempt (Harvard, 2016), which examines the use of religious and moral rhetoric in political disputes, drew rave reviews from the Christian Century, Commonweal, and the National Catholic Reporter.


Kaveny-Pellegrini-squareWhat moral or religious lessons is the pandemic teaching us? We have come to realize that even though we’re a materially very fortunate country, we are very vulnerable. Economically disadvantaged people have always understood our vulnerability, but the pandemic has also driven that home to the more comfortable among us.

Many people who live in places like Newton and have good educations and good jobs have tended to forget that we’re all connected. We’ve bought into the myth of the independent, heroic American individual taking on all comers in a fight for justice, like the hero in a Western movie. What we’ve learned from the pandemic is that we’re all in this together and that we need to exercise self-restraint about things like wearing masks and following guidance to stay at home.

This challenge to the myth of the American as isolated individual feeds into things many religions have long taught: solidarity, brother- and sisterhood, responsibility for neighbors. I hope religious communities can help people think about what the pandemic means and what our responsibilities are. Sometimes that means praising and blaming the right things. Rusty Reno, the editor of First Things, a conservative religious journal founded by the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, has said people who wear masks are being cowardly and unmanly. That provoked a lot of justified outrage because you wear masks to protect other people, and that’s not unmanly—or unwomanly.

As a student of public rhetoric, can you think of any figures who have done an outstanding job of pandemic-related communications? Any who are notable for having done an ineffective job? You have to say that President Trump has not responded effectively in terms of bringing the country together or taking this thing seriously. Dr. Anthony Fauci, on the other hand, has done a very good job. What has made him effective is his air of calm, of shedding more light than heat. There’s a big tendency in American society to move toward the apocalyptic—in the case of the pandemic, to see it as divine judgment, as a judgment against science, as a judgment against China, even as a judgment against practices such as abortion. What Dr. Fauci does is help us resist that apocalyptic tendency. He’s got a plan that involves every one of us, so he’s encouraging solidarity. His basic ethical insight is that we’ll get through this together if we work together.

In the June Atlantic Monthly George Packer writes: “The United States reacted [to the pandemic] like Pakistan or Belarus—like a country with shoddy infrastructure and a dysfunctional government whose leaders were too corrupt or stupid to head off mass suffering.” He also writes: “We can learn from these dreadful days that stupidity and injustice are lethal; that, in a democracy, being a citizen is essential work; that the alternative to solidarity is death.” Is Packer engaging in hyperbole? Is he using what you’ve called the prophetic voice? It’s hyperbole. It’s overheated. It’s a prophetic indictment, but it’s not the time for prophetic language; rather, it’s the time for practical language.

I do agree that Trump has been disastrous in failing to lead the entire country instead of just his base. But we’ve seen tremendous leadership from the doctors and nurses, the hospital system, several of the governors. Yes, we need to review our infrastructure and ask whether our hospitals should be using a just-in-time inventory system that was intended for auto manufacturers. We need to rethink our nursing homes: Is this really the best way to take care of fragile elderly people? We need to devote some scrutiny to things like access to health care and on-the-job safety for frontline workers.

But I don’t think we’re like Pakistan or Belarus, and using that rhetoric is counterproductive. What’s the proper response to it? Revolution? I think people are more likely to respond with despair, and despair leads to paralysis.

What about the churches? How much have they contributed to leadership? The churches are committed to the common good, to protecting the vulnerable, but they’re not scientists. They don’t have a sense of how much social distancing is necessary or how many people can safely attend a religious service. They’re doing what they’re told by medical professionals, and that’s what they should be doing in this situation.

I also think churches need to keep the focus on solidarity and social justice. Pandemics have a way of exposing social fault lines of injustice and vulnerability. In religious terms, I would say that America’s “original sin” is racism. The murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd show the urgency of solidarity in proclaiming that “Black Lives Matter.” But we also see that the pandemic has hit people of color the hardest, along with the economically insecure and the elderly. Combatting racism is not simply a matter of reforming the criminal justice system, as important as that is. It is a matter of transforming the entire society, including the health care sector and the educational sector. Churches can emphasize that the transformation of the heart that the Gospel calls for on Sunday must have good fruits the rest of the week.

What changes would you hope to see in a post-pandemic world? I’d like to see a world that’s better prepared to respond to the unexpected, with better food and supply lines, an early warning system, a certain nimbleness. I also hope we will recognize that it’s a global world—that what’s happening in Wuhan in December is going to happen in Boston in March. I’d like to see an education system that has rethought our relation to technology—how best to use it to educate while realizing that education isn’t just conveying information. It’s teaching people to think, to respond, to evaluate, and that’s something that happens in community.

When it comes to religious institutions, I hope they use the pandemic to inculcate the value of responsibility to others, of the idea that we are vulnerable and our actions can harm the vulnerable. I think people recognize the need to pull together in the face of this. They’ve been shaken by the risks run by health care workers and the people who work in the grocery store, and they’re disturbed by what’s been happening in nursing homes. The churches should apply that to move in the direction of solidarity and away from the individualism that has often dominated American life.

Read all faculty Vision Project interviews here.

 

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