A coffin filled with dirt with a surgical mask in it.

The Well Actually

The Grimness of American Individualism

From anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers to legislators banning books and terrorizing trans kids, people are going out of their way to make life worse for everyone else. When did we stop caring for one another?

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I attended my first online funeral in Fall 2020, when a member of my extended family—a sweet, smart lady named Sue, the first newspaperwoman I’d ever known—passed away from COVID just weeks before vaccines began rolling out in the US. Attendees were beamed into the church to watch a reverend and a couple of vocalists maneuver around an altar—carefully maintaining six feet of distance—and loved ones read eulogies from their living rooms. At the end of the service, as we all grieved together in a thoroughly dystopian Zoom chat, Sue’s husband issued a plea: Get vaccinated when it’s your turn. It’s all she wanted.

Later, as our family began making plans to gather once we’d all gotten the shot, I learned that Sue’s own son had refused the vaccine. I struggled to comprehend this news. I knew, of course, that anti-vaxxers existed; I mean, I live in Texas. I might even have told you that if anyone fit the profile for an anti-vaxxer, it was this man. But to rebuke your beloved mother’s dying wish? This dying wish? I kept coming back to one word: grim. How grim this world, where ignorance and misinformation and selfishness win out not just over science and reason, but over love.

It felt like a private and small grimness, even as I heard other stories like it. There seemed to be no shortage of distraught and frustrated laments from other families grappling with similarly incomprehensible rejection of our most basic human social responsibilities—not even to strangers, but to the people we love and live with.

Perhaps I should have been prepared, then, for the onslaught of cheering, clapping, celebratory in-flight videos from the first moments after a Trump-appointed judge struck down mask mandates on public transportation. Yet I was not. And once again, only one word felt right: grim. But this grimness felt bigger. It was more than just another depressing confirmation of a politicized pandemic—it’s long been clear that those best positioned to save lives have instead sacrificed them for comfort, complacency, and profit. These were celebrations of the most macabre kind; sheer, unbridled relief at not even having to pretend to give a fuck about other people—little kids, immunocompromised folks, disabled folks, workers in public-facing jobs, just anyone who doesn’t want to get any sicker than they have to be—anymore.

This is a weaponized grimness. It feeds on isolation and silence and gaslighting; it tells us that we are reactionary and foolish for worrying about getting sick or making someone else sick. It tells us that we are wrong and bad to protect ourselves and others. It mocks us for ever having believed things could have been different: that systemic change was possible, that a pandemic could shift the future of public health. This grimness tells us that we must throw away our old masks, the ones that protected our lungs and bodies, and put on new ones: happy faces unconcerned with 1 million people dead from COVID in this country alone.

I don’t suggest that the idea of screwing each other over is new. If anything, it is as old as old gets. But things feel particularly sharp and dangerous right now, don’t they? It’s not just with COVID and masks, either. It’s the mainstreaming of neighbor-on-neighbor surveillance, such as abortion bans with “bounty-hunter” style provisions that invite strangers to collect cash for reporting other people’s abortions. It’s a fixation on policing deviance (or perhaps “deviance”) from anything but the most regressive and conservative ways of being and thinking, such as banning books and instruction on critical race theory, or right-wing takeovers of public libraries. It’s shutting off the escape routes and means of resistance that have allowed people to survive, thrive, and support one another even under systems built for oppression and marginalization, such as casting abortion funds as criminal organizations or arresting people who offer water and food to undocumented folks. And, yes, it’s harassing those of us who are still wearing masks to protect ourselves and our communities.

These are not merely manifestations of ideological differences; these are expressly political efforts to take concrete means of self-preservation away from those whose sheer existence threatens the small-minded bigots who are most invested in maintaining white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity. In a must-read piece for Them, Jules Gill-Peterson put it this way: “The cost of transphobia is material.” This cost analysis applies to all the other -phobias and -isms, too—it is a hallmark of the usual state-sanctioned and systemic gatekeeping of essentials like health care and food. 

The difference now is that states and systems are expanding and outsourcing these gatekeeping responsibilities to anyone and everyone in a kind of modern, material McCarthyism. It isn’t enough to be a science-denier: You can chastise kids for masking up. It isn’t enough to be a transphobe: Now you can report your neighbors to Child Protective Services because they’re supporting their child’s gender transition. It isn’t enough to be a bigot: You can get the principal fired for supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion practices at school. It isn’t enough to be a misogynist: You can collect $10,000 if you think someone thousands of miles away had an abortion. 

It is no accident that many of these efforts are being done extra-legislatively, such as Texas Governor Greg Abbott directing the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate trans kids and their families, or the Florida Department of Health’s attempt to ban gender-affirming care for trans kids, or school boards bullied by parents afroth over historically accurate history lessons. It makes perfect sense that this is all happening amid endless hand-wringing over “cancel culture,” demanding that people most harmed by bigotry and intolerance not just put up with it, but perpetuate it and fund it and celebrate it.  As soon as the arc of democracy started really bending toward progress, it became clear that the usual means of keeping people down weren’t going to pan out long-term—even with all that gerrymandering and voter suppression.

And it is notable that this new public-private surveillance scheme is being cast as more than a responsibility, but as an obligation. A patriotic obligation. A moral obligation. A religious obligation. It doesn’t work otherwise; how else do you de- and reprogram people into policing their neighbors’ personal lives? And how better to ensure that the reprogramming continues apace than to outlaw the means of mutual aid and support that people have developed in order to survive against the odds?  

This is the inevitable result of American individualism: a louder, meaner, fuck-you Americanism that isn’t just about bootstrapping yourself, but about burning your neighbors’ boots. And it is very, very grim indeed.


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