On March 16, French President Emmanuel Macron was the first head of state to declare war in the battle against the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. In a televised address to the French nation, he repeated the phrase “we are at war” as obsessively as Cato the Elder more than two millennia ago, who insisted in the Senate that “Carthage must be destroyed.” The phrase COVID “delenda est” echoed in the minds of those older French adults who remember having studied Latin at school.
A week later, US President Donald Trump followed suit by calling himself a “wartime president.” The metaphor seemed appropriate for two reasons: the need for prompt action and the very real hope of victory, thanks to the prowess of scientists. Both leaders called upon today’s consumer societies to adopt a defensive wartime discipline, the key to opposing a foe that scientists believed could be incapacitated, if not definitively defeated.
Texas Politician Dan Patrick Is No Longer Pro-Life
That war is still raging. In the increasingly disunited states of America, the system of defense has proved to be worryingly porous and the troops increasingly in disarray. Some of the generals, exasperated by the enemy’s tactics, have begun promoting surrender as the most effective defense. The president himself has encouraged mutiny in certain states, recently tweeting: “Liberate Michigan,” “Liberate Minnesota.” He called the heavily-armed mutineers who physically threatened the state government in Michigan “very good people.”
Chris Christie, the Republican former New Jersey governor, has stepped up to push the wartime rhetoric to a surreal level. He wants Americans to leave the trenches and expose their bodies to the enemy, comping this strategy of self-sacrifice to the war effort against Germany and Japan 80 years ago. “We sent our young men during World War II over to Europe, out to the Pacific, knowing, knowing that many of them would not come home alive,” he said. “And we decided to make that sacrifice because what we were standing up for was the American way of life. In the very same way now, we have to stand up for the American way of life.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
The American way of life:
A chaotic economic system that, starting in the 20th century, sought recognition as a full-blown culture, even claiming the status of a moral philosophy whose principle tenet is to define a commercial transaction as the most virtuous form of human activity and to elevate the quest for profit above the goal of the preserving human life
The global coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated its power to reveal the fault lines that exist within the cultures of affected nations. When Macron described the situation as a state of war, he implicitly evoked the memories of the Nazi occupation of France and the bombardments of Paris at the end of World War II. He was encouraging people to avoid the enemy and to seek shelter, rather than mount a frontal attack on enemy forces. It was all about quiet but resolute resistance, a constant in French culture.
Americans have never been invaded. Their idea of resistance is based not on reacting to the presence of an enemy that has invaded their territory, but on preventive action against a foreign threat. It could be in Cuba, Vietnam, Iraq, Iran, Venezuela, Nicaragua. And it must be dealt with “over there” to prevent it from happening here.
That has been the justification of all recent American wars and punitive actions across the globe. It’s mostly fantasy since no enemy would think of trying to occupy the US. But it gives Americans a sense of security to feel they have the means of preventing threats well before they can possibly occur.
Like the French, the Italians have memories of past invasions. The patriotic protest song, “Bella Ciao,” often intoned by neighbors on their balconies during the coronavirus lockdown, tells the story of someone who wakes up one morning to discover the presence of the invader (ho travato l’invasor). The partisan is ready to sacrifice his life to rid the country of the invader.
In the war against COVID-19, the Italians have made the sacrifice and are now emerging from the lockdown. Like Americans, they now find themselves struggling with their definition of “the Italian way of life.” Unlike the Americans, it focuses on love and friendship, the existential question of defining the borderline between kinship and personal attachment. Italians are struggling on Twitter to decipher the new rules that the government has announced concerning the reestablishment of social relations. The law now makes it licit to visit people with whom one has “kinship” (congiunti). But the idea of kinship remains vague. It isn’t only blood relatives or spouses. A recent legal precedent elevated an affective relationship to the level of a kinship relationship.
At the same moment, Christie wants people to lay down their lives for the American way of life, the question of the Italian way of life turns around seeking the definition of what the cartoonist Vauro Senesi has termed “the hierarchy of love.” Do close non-sexual friendships have the same or possibly even a stronger affective value than formal kinship or a steady amorous relationship (fidanzati)?
Americans like Texas Attorney General Dan Patrick and now Christie are focusing on a far less trivial question: What’s more important, living or making money? Some may see in this contrast the proof of the triviality of Italian culture. Or they may see it as the confirmation that US culture is so serious and business-oriented that human emotion will always take second place to making money.
Americans are understandably living in a state of historical confusion. Unlike the French, Italians, British and most other peoples across the globe, the only war conducted on US national soil was the brutal Civil War pitting the North against the South. This tradition of going to battle against one another combined with the memory of never having been invaded and occupied by others may help to explain the meaning of “the American way of life.” It’s all about rivalry and competition. US culture encourages polarization in ways that no other national culture does. For many Americans, both Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives live in a state of permanent civil war.
At this precise moment of pandemic-induced anguish, Republican personalities such as Chris Christie, Rush Limbaugh and Dan Patrick have begun invoking their idea of the American way of life. This implies that those who resist opening the economy are un-American and, therefore, the enemy.
For the moment, only 26% of Republicans polled support the idea of rebooting the economy compared to a paltry 6% of Democrats. But the number may increase among Republicans as Donald Trump, abandoning the combat against the virus in favor of his fight for reelection, now appears to be willing “to trade lives for the Dow Jones.”
Joe Lockhart, the former White House press secretary under Bill Clinton, sees the Trump administration and election campaign “pinning all of their hopes on getting the economy reopened, using their economic spokespeople and hoping that the American public has a high toleration for the death count moving up. It sounds terrible to say and even worse to do.”
If President Trump pursues his strategy and gets any traction from it, a new state of civil war may be in the offing in the months leading up to the election. For his strategy to work, Trump is counting on another element, belligerence towards China.
As so often in the US, a debate that initially focused on problem-solving quickly degenerates into a state of internecine warfare. Like other presidents before him, Trump knows the precious value of designating enemies in times of electoral uncertainty. His campaign theme has already started targeting China as the evil empire that contaminated America and threatens the American way of life.
But this time, Trump may have bitten off more than he can chew. His internal enemy is the majority of the US population, fearful of contamination and unwilling to roll over for the sake of the Dow Jones. His external enemy is the entire population of China. And that combat on two fronts implies ignoring the real enemy that has already invaded the land and is gaining strength every day.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.
In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.
We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money. Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.