I used to think Americans were a pretty smart people, at or at least somewhere near the top in the word’s intellectual food chain. Setting aside the arrogance of that assumption, the last five or six years have severely undermined my confidence in our country’s grasp of rational thought.
Growing up in the prosperous and dynamic years after World War II, it was easy to feel exceptional. Our victory over fascism left us with a massive military presence and a booming economy strong enough to help a devastated world recover as the United States became a superpower and later outlasted Soviet Union communism to win the Cold War.
America and its cultural influence dominated the world. Our industrial know-how and top-notch universities took us into space and invented Tang and the internet. The success of the civil rights movement, our youth’s righteous opposition to Vietnam and the vast improvement among our seniors and the poor as part of the Great Society showed we were trying hard to be more compassionate and socially just — that fine arc of history leading to the election of our first Black president, Barack Obama.
Silly me. As a mountain of reporting after 2016 has amply demonstrated, in our culture and our politics, our country has been less exceptional and more a deplorable example of exceptional needs. We are no longer united as a country in working together to “promote the general welfare” and live up to the noble virtues and values we inherited from our founders. Instead, we have become a nation of selfish, opportunistic individuals who appear to put themselves always as No. 1 while casually and cruelly treating everyone else like No. 2.
Yes, I know there are still millions of hardworking, honest Americans with generous hearts, people of faith and goodwill all around me, and still a core of society who lives in reality and harbors hope that all lives do deeply matter, deserve to live with security and dignity and aspire to build a just and inclusive society.
But what is breaking my heart and shaking my faith in our country’s future is the massive current craziness of our national politics and our absolutely bewildering self-destructive response to the COVID-19 pandemic that has already cost 640,000 American lives over 16 months.
And I’m not just talking about the wannabe dictator and grifter Donald Trump whose one-term presidency was so bad historians recently ranked it the second-worst in American history and the absolute worst in “moral authority.” Trump’s misbehavior in office and following his electoral defeat last year, resulting in the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, demonstrates that when it comes to moral fiber, the man is fiber-free. But Trump is a loser and deserves to remain one.
My dismay now is with the country Trump and his followers have broken. Even before Trump, the modern Republican Party has devolved from a respectable governing alternative into an authoritarian cult of personality unmoored from reality, mired in conspiracies and totally obsessed with power, with no interest whatsoever in actually governing and serving the people. Congress is a rat’s nest of treasonous obstructionists.
Polls show an alarming number of Republicans on the right and Democrats on the left who would be glad to secede from the union. A third of the country, insanely, believes Trump’s “big lie” that he really won the election.
Politics in many of the states are equally as bizarre and destructive, with Republicans working to subvert future elections. Social interactions in person and on social media have become coarse, cruel and disgustingly dangerous to democracy’s future. It scares me that the United States is depending on so many who are refusing to unite and even embrace violence.
And if I had any doubt American intelligence is overrated, our country’s world’s worst response to the pandemic has confirmed it. Hundreds of thousands of Americans unnecessarily died because they and others refused to heed the guidance of public health experts and scientists about masking and social distancing, separating themselves into Stupids and Survivors. Republicans, including Trump, led the exodus into disease.
And now, despite ample supplies of proven lifesaving vaccines against the virus and its variants, right-wing media and politicians around the country are actively — and dishonestly through deliberate misinformation — discouraging people from getting the shot that can protect them from this society-altering pandemic.
Coronavirus infections are surging in places with low vaccination rates, rising almost 70% in the United States in a week. Hospitalizations and deaths are also rising again. The shots aren’t perfect, but they are overall very effective in preventing serious illness and death. Yet almost a third of Americans, especially among younger adults, remain unvaccinated, making it difficult for the country to achieve “herd immunity” necessary to break the pandemic’s back.
This is, simply, stupid. Some people, sure, have medical conditions that prevent them from being vaccinated. But for most people, it’s willful, not medical, and it is putting them and their communities at unnecessary risk.
The shots are free, accessible, proven safe and effective, and support for them among the intelligent is bipartisan, especially among county leaders.
Good politics and good health should be no-brainers. But the lack of brains is ruining our democracy and our lives. Even if you’re more partisan than patriotic, at least save yourself and do us all a favor. Get the shot. Now.
It might be the smartest thing you ever do.
Ken Ripley, a Spring Hope resident, is The Enterprise’s editor and publisher emeritus.
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