What Kind of Country Do We Want?

Doña Ana County, New Mexico, 2017
Magnum Photos
Doña Ana County, New Mexico, 2017; photograph by Matt Black

In my odd solitude I stream the America of recent memory. The pretext for drama, in the foreground, seems always to be a homicide, but around and beyond the forensic stichomythia that introduces character and circumstance there is a magnificent country, a virtual heaven. In a dystopian future, children would surely ask what it was like to live in such a country. Candid memory would say, By no means as wonderful as it should have been, even granting the broad streaks of pain in its history. Before there was a viral crisis whose reality forced itself on our notice, there were reports of declines of life expectancy in America, rising rates of suicide, and other “deaths of despair.” This is surely evidence of another crisis, though it was rarely described as such. The novel coronavirus has the potential for mitigation, treatment, and ultimately prevention. But a decline in hope and purpose is a crisis of civilization requiring reflection and generous care for the good of the whole society and its place in the world. We have been given the grounds and opportunity to do some very basic thinking.

Without an acknowledgment of the grief brought into the whole world by the coronavirus, which is very much the effect of sorrows that plagued the world before this crisis came down on us, it might seem like blindness or denial to say that the hiatus prompted by the crisis may offer us an opportunity for a great emancipation, one that would do the whole world good. The snare in which humanity has been caught is an economics—great industry and commerce in service to great markets, with ethical restraint and respect for the distinctiveness of cultures, including our own, having fallen away in eager deference to profitability. This is not new, except for the way an unembarrassed opportunism has been enshrined among the laws of nature and has flourished destructively in the near absence of resistance or criticism. Options now suddenly open to us would have been unthinkable six months ago. The prestige of what was until very lately the world economic order lingers on despite the fact that the system itself is now revealed as a tenuous set of arrangements that have been highly profitable for some people but gravely damaging to the world. These arrangements have been exposed as not really a system at all—insofar as that word implies stable, rational, intentional, defensible design.

Here is the first question that must be asked: What have we done with America? Over the decades we have consented, passively for the most part, to a kind of change that has made this country a disappointment to itself, an imaginary prison with real prisoners in it. Now those imaginary walls have fallen, if we choose…


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