“I had spent my time counterfeiting eternity, I had understood nothing.” These troubled words from a man awaiting execution by fascists during the Spanish Civil War appear in Jean-Paul Sartre’s short story “The Wall.” They weren’t meant politically.
They aimed to suggest, instead, that anticipating a life’s end compels—or should—reflections on how it was lived. More: that such considerations ought to have been ongoing and not just arise in circumstances that inevitably concentrate the mind.
On TV, on the radio, in newspapers, and online, we hear that the coronavirus pandemic, the prospect of hundreds of thousands or even millions dead, is creating an “existential” moment in the United States (let alone beyond our borders). We won’t and cannot be in the same America after this, it is said.
We shouldn’t want to be. We can’t counterfeit eternity lest the future be damaged irreparably.
The first priority, of course, is obvious: deployment of all possible scientific, governmental, economic, and social resources against the disease. But we mustn’t skirt another urgent step. As millions hunker down at home, fearful of mortality, watching unhappy events unfold, we should think about some hard questions. Where have we been? Where were we going? Where do we want to go?
Consider an emblematic event during this crisis: at a March 18 press conference a journalist asked Trump, who at the pandemic’s start declared it a hoax, if it was fair that celebrities and the well-to-do have privileged access to the medical test for the infection.
“No,” responded the Mar-a-Lago populist, barely hiding a grin, before adding, “perhaps that’s the story of life. That does happen on occasion.”
Is it the story of life? If so, we ought to just assent to it. Basic advantage for some and disadvantage for others, safety for a minority and rough going for the rest of us. It’s as natural as killer viruses. But isn’t there something wrong about it that a decent society and a proper sense of citizenship would rectify?
The problem extends beyond the undisciplined but sometimes revealing Trump. His refusal to accept accountability for anything is well known, but is it emblematic of something in our culture? Ponder other events chronicled in the media on the same day as that press conference: Wealthy owners of second homes in the Hamptons on Long Island fleeing the city and crowding stores to stock up—not just on salmon steaks but on $200. bottles of Burgundy wine. Or students on spring break frolicking together on the shores of Florida rather than social distancing. (Ron DeSantis, the state governor, took some time to act against this.)
We hear we are at war against the virus, but these are rather different images from the sands of Normandy and Iwo Jima. Meanwhile, the commander-in-chief refuses to centrally organize logistics. Do his advisers really think that millions of unemployed should just pull themselves up by their bootstraps?
Those of us at home during the combat must think about the values that have been informing our society. Here is a question worth our attention: should sick people be treated according to their illnesses, or according to their place in labor markets? (I borrow that formulation from a British ‘liberal” but it no less captures what it means to be a socialist or social democrat). Existential matters feed into socioeconomic probes. And all these entwine with political questions.
Ronald Reagan declared at his first inauguration in 1981 that “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Bracket Trump’s ineptitude in handling the pandemic and ask yourself: In the longer term, hasn’t Reaganism been basic to our problems today? It attacked New Deal–era government policies that allowed the United States to tackle social suffering and prepare the way to wartime victory. If you accept that the ideology of Reaganism and the varied mutations to which it gave birth carry heavy burdens for our current distress, and if you concur that sick people should be treated according to their illnesses, then you may also agree that the United States needs the political will to reset the dominant values and assumptions of recent years.
It’s not that “government” should do “everything.” It’s that we cannot possibly be in this together without the means, political and social, to be so, and with radical inequalities permeating and dividing the country. Government and the American people have to start speaking of social citizenship as a priority.
Inequalities produce their own species of illness, and the United States has been deeply infected by them, not least in healthcare. Unless we refuse to consider those inequalities to be part of “the story of life,” we will not “be in this all together” and secure a healthy democracy—one that is not counterfeit—after the coronavirus is beaten.
Mitchell Cohen teaches politics at Baruch College, CUNY and is author, most recently, of The Politics of Opera. He is a co-editor emeritus of Dissent.