ONE OF THE MORE PERNICIOUS ASPECTS of the novel coronavirus pandemic is how it attacks not just our bodies and minds but also our sense of community. It tears at our very togetherness. We huddle in our homes, fearful of direct human contact. What makes us fully human — our enduring need for connection — has unfortunately become fraught with potential danger.
Here on Orcas Island, that assault on community comes in venues such as the Saturday farmers’ market. For years I would run into diverse acquaintances there, striking up conversations that renewed old and occasionally fraying ties. But this past summer the market was but a shadow of its prior existence, with perhaps a dozen booths and fifty people there at any given moment. And now that October rains have begun, it cannot go indoors at the Odd Fellows Hall for a month or more, as in prior years, for fear of igniting a major Covid-19 outbreak. Other popular community events like the traditional Odd Fellows Halloween Dance and Thanksgiving Dinner have similarly had to be canceled this year.
I also miss in-person meetings at the fire station — for example, of the County Council, Eastsound Planning Review Committee, and my homeowners’ association — that often brought me into contact with individuals I might not agree with but still needed to hear from. Many smaller meetings that used to occur almost daily at the public library have not happened since March. And the wildly popular Solstice and July 4 Parades, with scores of participants and many hundreds of onlookers in prior years, have similarly had to be canceled.
I’m sure there are plenty of other voluntary activities I’m less aware of that have suffered cancellations, too, from school gatherings to music and theater productions at Orcas Center, to frequent events at the community church and senior center. These activities are what have made us a flourishing community.
Today we struggle to fill the yawning gap with email, conference calls, video meetings and online blogs, but these electronic forums fall well short of what is needed to nourish thriving relationships. They are notoriously poor at relaying the nonverbal cues and messages that convey the subtle nuances of meaning so essential to good communication.
COMMUNITY ACTIVITIES are the antidote to the avid individualism that has characterized our nation since its inception. This was the central theme of a mid-1980s book, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, by University of California sociologist Robert N. Bellah and four young colleagues, published to wide critical acclaim. They took their title from a prominent phrase in Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous 1830s treatise, Democracy in America.
Often unspoken, these innate habits of American life form “the web of moral understandings that tie people together in a community.” In the United States, the book’s authors argued, such voluntary community institutions as churches, town halls and parent-teacher associations have provided the crucial connective tissue that bind local societies together despite the diversity of their members and the individualistic forces that threaten to rend them.
But as Commonweal editor Peter Steinfels observed in a review, Habits of the Heart was a worried book. “We are concerned that this individualism may have grown cancerous,” the authors wrote in their preface, “that it may be destroying those social integuments that Tocqueville saw as moderating its more destructive potentialities, that it may be threatening the survival of freedom itself.” Voiced in the midst of the self-absorbed Reagan years, this threat has never been greater than it is today under the dark shadows of the Trump presidency.
From his first day in office, and before that on the campaign trail, this president has done his utmost to divide Americans, not unite us under common ideas we could agree to, or at least acquiesce in. As Tocqueville wrote:
Without common ideas, there is no common action, and without common action, men still exist, but a social body does not. Thus in order that there be a society, and all the more that this society prosper, it is necessary that all the minds of its citizens always be brought together and held together by some principle ideas.
Americans have been seeking such new common ideas for nearly three decades, ever since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union — our nearly universal common enemy — and the end of the Cold War. Not since the deep 1850s divisions over slavery has US society been so polarized as it is today.
The novel coronavirus could have become one of those bonding common enemies — as indeed it is — but our antagonistic president has used it instead as yet another means to divide us Americans from each other. From the outset, he publicly denied its gravity while privately confiding that he knew it was “deadly stuff.” Instead of heeding the advice of highly respected scientific leaders such as Anthony Fauci and Robert Redfield, he ridiculed wearing of masks and instead touted quack remedies like hydroxychloroquine and ingesting bleach. He even went so far as to deride responsible leaders — for example, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer — who mandated the wearing of masks, urging his rabid base to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” Which was what some of his far-right followers were apparently planning to try to do before the FBI foiled their evil plot.
ELSEWHERE I HAVE WRITTEN that, because of his actions and inactions, this president deserves our condemnation as personally responsible for the needless loss of over 100,000 American lives — more than the number who perished in the Korean and Vietnam Wars combined. But perhaps we should not single him out as the only one responsible for such carnage, for he has been encouraging what some have dubbed the “toxic individualism” of American society. This phrase echoes the prescient warning of Habits authors that our cultural individualism “may have grown cancerous.” During the Trump presidency, that malignancy has seemingly metastasized and now afflicts a large part of the body politic.
There is no better example of this toxic individualism than the man who, claiming it violates his freedom, refuses to wear a mask that would protect those around him from the coronavirus that he could be spreading as an asymptomatic carrier. That’s not freedom; it’s irresponsibility. And egged on by their president, the spineless Republican governors of several Sunbelt states initially refused to mandate mask wearing when they reopened their economies prematurely in May. They soon had to reverse themselves as the Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths surged in the summer. That, if anything, was “American carnage.”
Other national societies that stress collective priorities over individual freedom — for example, China, Japan and South Korea — have fared far better than the United States in combating the pandemic. In Japan, mask wearing is an almost universally accepted norm. That nation of 127 million has experienced fewer than 95,000 Covid-19 cases and 1,700 deaths so far; both numbers are only about one percent of corresponding US figures. Much of that huge difference is due to an irresponsible leader inflaming the toxic individualism of his followers.
HERE ON ORCAS ISLAND, and in San Juan County more generally, we have been behaving more like the Japanese than have our mainland counterparts, with obvious results. We have taken mask wearing very seriously and try to keep our physical distance in situations where encounters with others cannot be avoided. And despite thousands of visitors this summer, with hundreds of them probably infectious, there was only a small increase of an additional 15 or so Covid-19 cases. Much less than one percent of the county population has tested positive for the virus, far better than the state average. And despite the fact that about a third of county citizens are over age 65, we have yet to experience a single death!
Toxic individualism is thankfully not a significant part of our Orcas Island culture.
I believe that these figures reflect the importance that islanders attach to our community. Toxic individualism is thankfully not a significant part of our Orcas Island culture. We of course value the distinctive individuals who contribute to island life in many different ways, especially for how they enhance its palpable diversity. And as San Juan County eventually recovers from this pandemic — a process that will probably take years — we should keep high among our priorities the need to reinvigorate the vital community activities that have made island life worth living. These are the cultural ties that bind us together, despite our differences, in a distinctly rewarding society.
Robert. N Bellah, et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985; rev. edn. 2007).
Neal F. Lane and Michael Riordan, “The President’s Disdain for Science,” New York Times (5 January 2018), p A27.
Jean Kim, M.D., “How America Fell into Toxic Individualism,” Psychology Today (25 May 2020).
Michael Riordan, “The Human Cost of the Trump Pandemic Response? More Than 100,000 Unnecessary Deaths.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (30 September 2020).
Orcas Island physicist and writer Michael Riordan is author of the award-winning 1987 book The Hunting of the Quark and coauthor of The Solar Home Book (1977), The Shadows of Creation (1991), Crystal Fire (1997) and Tunnel Visions (2015). His articles and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Seattle Times, Scientific American, and many other publications. He serves as Editor of Orcas Currents.