On American Exceptionalism

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Last night I took this photograph as I did a pick up for an Asian restaurant that my wife and I like here in Fort Worth. It is July 29th and every single parking spot is filled. One can imagine that at least two people are in each vehicle, and the parking lot has options for spots along the street, as well as the neighboring spot which shares with yoga. Where at first this particular restaurant seemed to be upholding some mandates on what the possibilities were in order to socially distance for six feet, now all that seems to be off the table.

I have been in the restaurant in the past. I know that when there are this many people in there, it is impossible to stay six feet away, though this CDC guideline should not be taken as gospel either. Reports from early research in China describe situations where a single carrier in a restaurant could spread it to whole tables as far away as ten feet, thanks to the circulating air-conditioning pushing aerosols.

This information is out there. The New York Times has reported it. Here I am talking about it. It’s in the air…pun intended.

Now I am sitting here, listening to Bon Iver as he spouts beautiful gibberish in his album 22, A Million, too upset really to play video games or read more of Thomas Metzinger’s book.

Because it is not just this restaurant. Many of them, whether we were in Houston or here in Fort Worth, have boasted these full parking lots.

Not so long ago, it would have been upsetting to not carpool to save gas to defeat Nazis. It would have taken all your effort to save on coffee, chocolate, and rubber, to support the cause. The phrase, “Don’t you know there’s a war on?” might be useful here. Trying to convince people to make the much easier, much safer and, considering the world, much more enjoyable choice seems to be more difficult than ever.

I was picking up my order curbside. I made the call at 7:15 and the food came out at 7:19. In just four minutes, I only had to wear the mask when consulting with the waitress who brought the food out. From there, it was the trip back in my car that I would have made anyway if I were to go into the restaurant.

Seeing the faces of others as they wore masks into the restaurant made me pity them. It is not as if people enjoy wearing them, but we do it to protect other people, and even it seems, based on early reporting of results from mask wearing, protecting ourselves. But in order to eat, one must remove the mask, and the discomfort of all that, the anxiety of going to a restaurant, makes me wonder what people are exactly enjoying about the experience? For me and my friends, we have ordered a pizza and then sat out in the backyard roughly fourteen feet from each other and at no point did we feel like we were having a terrible time.

I have said this before and I will say it again: what sushi is worth a ventilator?

Just because a person is younger does not mean that they are totally immune, as the majority of hospital visits occur in the 18-49 threshold rather than the 50 and older ages. Not only that, but my state of Texas is not necessarily the paragon of sound dieting and exercise, things that aggravate the virus. We are the state that believes in “bigger is always better.” We have Whataburger…

What was the promise of American exceptionalism? It seems to me that at some point the diversity of our thought makes it impossible to properly categorize us as standing for this or sitting for that. But I was under the impression that the power of democratic institutions like law, education, representative rule, could overwhelm other previous ideas in religion and aristocracy, in order to create a robust collection of citizens. Ones built on the desire to raise all boats, where the pleasure of work and of a dedication to the process of election, no matter how slow and stymied by debate, was absolutely necessary in order to define consensus.

We go inside restaurants I suppose because it makes us feel good. It allows us to spend the dollar, to invest in local business. It gives us the chance to be seen by others, the extroversion of this nation, and the expectation of extroversion ordered for everyone except maybe Rosa Parks and her book Quiet Strength.

But again, can we not see the obvious bets one makes in order to be seen? Is there not something to be gained by supporting the business through an online order, for reducing the interaction with another human being to only five seconds, while providing all the benefits that you hope to bring? Is there not some obvious choice here in order to prevent a negative?

And the negatives go on. The possibility of a hospital visit for which you may or may not have insurance. The possibility of the spread of a virus in the course of a pandemic, one such that is so bad as to be unheard of in our living history, as well as that of a century. The possibility of arriving in the hospital at a time when deaths are escalating and hospital beds are more difficult to procure? And assuming a doctor has to make a choice between keeping your body alive and that of someone younger than you, the choice seems obvious based on the data. The possibility to spread something either symptomatically or asymptomatically to your family, your friends, the waiter, other patrons, that guy you held the door open for because you wanted to be a gentleman. The possibility that you might be not quite dead but a “long termer,” suffering brain fog for months, or that you might receive such a bad blood clot in your leg as to require amputation. The possibility that you might get the disease a second time when caring for one of your relatives (or have a relapse as a pocket of the disease in your system makes its way through…we are still unclear).

When we suggest that this time is unprecedented, it is not as much an exaggeration as we wish it was. The black plague, the Spanish flu, and other events like it have spread disastrously like this has. And the cases for the world keep increasing…not just cases in general…daily cases.

It had become abundantly clear that, in absence of sound leadership during this crisis, that human behavior would be the thing to thwart it. We could not guarantee testing, and we could not provide the right safety equipment and hospital beds to make us prepared. Not only that, we had no vaccine and we knew little about how the virus affected those with prior conditions, and we had no genetic profile for those who got it the worst. So we shut down the schools, the businesses, the churches.

And for a time, it was good.

Even I was not under the impression that we should keep things locked down forever.

But now this…?

Each day we continue to repeatedly make declarations of opening up only to close back down out of shame and embarrassment. For every baseball team there is the Florida Marlins. For every bar there is HandleBar Houston.

This is a direct quote from the New York Times briefing today on July 29th:

Back in April, the United States’ leading authority on infectious diseases expressed hope that no more than 60,000 people in the U.S. would die from the virus. A few weeks later a major research center predicted that the figure would be just over 70,000 people by early August. In May, the president said that between 75,000 and 100,000 people might die.

On Wednesday, the nation’s death toll surpassed 150,000, according to a New York Times database.

That the figure has soared so fast and so far beyond those estimates illustrates how difficult it can be to accurately forecast the spread of the virus, or to predict the way citizens and politicians will respond to it.

“The aspect which is really impossible to predict is human behavior,” said Virginia Pitzer, a professor of epidemiology at Yale. “To what extent are people going to socially distance themselves? To what extent are politics going to influence whether you wear a mask? All of these factors are impossible to factor in.”

Again the line goes: human behavior.

I no longer know, at least for my tribe in the state of Texas, what threshold exists for people to cross that would frighten them enough or scare them enough to truly commit to this moment. Is that not what American exceptionalism is all about? The capacity to overreact, to overcommit, is what allows us to band together. But our weakness for a Wednesday night meal from our favorite Asian restaurant does not seem like exceptionalism.

It seems like ignorance.

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