Without a healthy, inclusive, just and reciprocal social contract, we cannot be free.
This 4th of July, to honor the long-ago opened and still incomplete move for citizen-led self-government, we must fully commit to the work of ending structural racism and reckon with the ways in which misgovernment, economic inequality, and a surging pandemic affect the meaning and lived reality of human freedom. Constraints on real personal sovereignty deny tens of millions the ability to define their own journey and chase their dreams.
The social contract, and so the space for personal sovereignty, is being tested by multiple converging crises:
- As of this morning, COVID-19 has killed 129,476 Americans. Not one of the 50 states is currently seeing a decline in new infections.
- 45.7 million people (25% of all workers) filed for unemployment insurance in 13 weeks, from March to June.
- The murder of George Floyd has left Americans of all backgrounds feeling betrayed and unprotected.
- Opportunistic extremists and criminal networks have sought to leverage nationwide protest and mistrust of police to incite riots, sow fear and division, and expand the space for impunity.
- The President of the United States has responded with an appalling lack of empathy, made worse by persistent incompetence and bullying.
COVID-19 is a test of everything we pretend to be.
The United States is suffering by far the worst outbreak of the COVID-19 virus in the world. On the very day tens of millions of people look for ways to celebrate the nation’s founding, the number of lives lost will surpass 130,000. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are projecting another 18,000 will die in the next three weeks.
Propaganda of suspicious origin has sought to convince people who support Donald Trump that wearing a mask is an affront to their personal freedom. Science tells us clearly, however:
Wearing a mask makes you free: it allows you to show your respect for human life, to protect those around you, and to be able to move more freely in a pandemic-stricken world.
If everyone wore a mask, the rate of infection would plummet, possibly to less than 10% of the current rate, and most places would be able to have something closer to a normal economic life. The dangerous political obsession with opposing masks is putting lives in danger, and will cost the nation dearly, not only in immediate economic terms, but in long-term recovery and in lives lost.
Failure of leadership is making everything worse.
The current occupant of the White House, who is supposed to be the nation’s highest ranking public servant, has consistently shown hostility toward the very idea of responsibility to others, and has used the office to promote a shadowy network of illicit interests, many of which clearly run contrary to the interests of the people and our democratic republic.
This responsibility of each of us to each other is very much the issue right now.
A pandemic emergency was coming. We knew that.
- The last two administrations spent more than a decade preparing not only our national response, but also a global network of scientific monitoring, information-sharing, and response measures.
- Since 2017, the Trump administration has, inexplicably, been dismantling that system, de-funding research and staffing, and as recently as this year, plotted the total elimination of pandemic preparedness efforts.
The wider and faster the virus spreads, the greater the opportunity for mutation. The virus circulating in the United States now has been reported to be 10 times as infectious as the virus that first emerged in Wuhan, in late 2019. The gross incompetence of national leadership has fostered a longer, deeper first wave of COVID-19 infections, and likely made the virus itself more dangerous.
Lack of accountability is costing lives and undermining national resilience.
Despite the obvious fact there is no collapse in demand for food, our food systems are strained, and breaking. The United States is experiencing a wave of spreading hunger, as acute hunger and food insecurity spread around the world. This is happening, because the food system is not designed to serve all people well, or to resist serious shocks.
The institutions that profit from our food system are accustomed to allowing unbearable costs to fall on others—on workers, on society as a whole, on nature, and on consumers (communities, households, and institutions). In the background of our national crisis is an epidemic of non-communicable diseases, linked to both undernutrition and to the forms of malnutrition that lead to obesity. The CDC warns that prevalence of NCDs worldwide is undermining global health security.
The unaccountability of the major forces in our food system is part of what created the vulnerabilities that have made COVID-19 so devastating. Racial injustice and economic inequality have also made the impact worse, and more uneven and unjust. The lack of accountability of major institutions to marginal and vulnerable communities exacerbates these risks.
Our food security crisis is not only the result of COVID-19, or of social distancing and shutdowns. It is, however, a clear signal about our prospects for sustainable economic recovery. We will not be able to fully recover, and to bring all segments of our society along in a return to prosperity, if we do not decentralize and shift to more collaborative, inclusive, sustainable practices.
George Floyd reminds us that public servants owe honorable service to all people, always.
The murder of George Floyd has opened the deepest wounds in American society—revealing to the entire world that a system of bias, brutality, and impunity continues to plague the country, even in the most progressive of cities. That a police officer could sadistically squeeze the life out of a human being, and that three other officers could do nothing to stop it, while all four appear to have arrogantly believed they would face no consequence, has shaken the nation to its foundations.
Suddenly, it has become clear to everyone: If such impunity can exist, then no person’s humanity is being honored, protected, or allowed to flourish. When the community, and then the region, and then the nation rose up in outrage at this evil, peaceful protesters were met with:
- Combat-style policing;
- Extremists seeking to create chaos;
- White supremacist gangs looking to smear the protesters as violent;
- Opportunistic looting by criminal networks and desperate people;
- And a President who we now know indulges the perverse desire to stage a violent military attack on his own people.
In this incredible moment of national shock, hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of people, consciously put their own lives at risk to stand up for what is right, and for the ideals and virtues of a self-governing society of free and equal people, and to demand justice for a man they never knew.
The nationwide protests demanding justice for George Floyd and an end to impunity in police killings of African Americans is now thought to be the largest mass movement in US history. The movement is diverse, multigenerational, and nationwide, and suggests a new recognition has taken root that the nation is still in need of what Lincoln called “a new birth of freedom.”
Self-government works through the courage of people who call for needed change.
In Minneapolis, a veto-proof majority of the City Council has now committed to disband and replace the Minneapolis Police Department—after decades of reform have left in place a system that allows unfit officers to kill with impunity and remain in their jobs. The City Council is calling for a transformational new model of public safety, and committing to build this new model with help and leadership from the community.
This is courageous. And, it is democracy in action.
We have become accustomed to the idea that our institutions take care of us, that our institutions are accountable, that our institutions will deliver the services we require, and that they will not fail. The events of 2020 have shown us that our institutions are far more capable of moral and practical failure than we have been willing to admit.
Correcting these failures is essential to the feasibility of self-government.
The crisis is so deep it seems we all now can admit: there is no way “back to normal” from here. This has opened up new space for reckoning with the fact that “normal” was deeply problematic and deeply unjust.
We cannot surrender our right to act virtuously in the world, in service of our fellow human beings, to corrupt or unaccountable leaders. We cannot surrender our many diverse dreams of a better democracy, with liberty and justice for all, to those who would oppose that urgently needed process of reciprocal liberation.
This 4th of July, the national mood is one of apprehension, uncertainty, anger and exhaustion, but also of renewal and determination. The insight is flooding around us:
Each of us must do more to make things work for everyone else; we must contribute to each other’s wellbeing; we must uplift each other, if we are to enjoy freedom and justice for all.
That renewal still lies ahead of us, but it is coming closer, as we struggle through this time of turmoil together.