Let’s Not Mistake Selfishness for Freedom

As July 4th rolls round, I’m finding it difficult to muster up much enthusiasm for the country I call home. With close to 130,000 people dead and over 2.6 million infected with Covid-19, it’s become clear that American exceptionalism is deadly.

The Covid deniers and Black Lives Matter protesters show two sides of the independence coin.

The United States leads the world in coronavirus cases and deaths, and America remains the only country whose citizens are treating the use of masks as a political debate rather than a death necessity with life-and-death implications. Working parents are desperate as politicians make few moves to sort out schooling come September; as Deb Perelman put it in The New York Times, right now “you can have a kid or a job — you can’t have both.” I’m also pretty sure we’re the only place where young citizens are holding “Covid parties” — gatherings where the first person to contract the virus gets a payout.

As I’ve written before, the health and safety of Americans now depends on the dumbest among us.

What has made me feel proud, however, are the continuing protests across the country against racist police violence. Watching a diverse group of neighbors, family, friends, and young people come together to demand change is enough to melt my jaded heart.

We have a responsibility to make clear whose freedoms and safety are really in danger — and whose are just inconvenienced.

It’s strange — and telling — to witness these two different ideas of American freedom. While protesters are demanding the freedom for Black people to live without fear of state violence and murder, white conservatives are complaining that their freedom is being infringed upon because they can’t shop at Costco without a light piece of fabric against their face. It’s those two definitions of “freedom” that are dominating the news; it feels shocking that we’ve allowed the latter to stand as a credible argument.

Video after video shows white people spitting on counters, coughing at people, throwing groceries, screaming at employees — all while characterizing their tantrums as an exercise of free speech or freedom. That their biggest infringement of “freedom” is a simple piece of cloth doesn’t seem to register. Meanwhile, peaceful protesters and journalists are being arrested and beaten in the street.

I realize these two Americas have always been there; but there is something jarring about watching them in tandem. We have a responsibility to make clear whose freedoms and safety are really in danger — and whose are just inconvenienced.

With so many people sick, with so many people still struggling for the most basic of rights — there’s no time for empty patriotic gestures. America is the land of the sick and dying, not the free. It’s time to realize this country isn’t special, at least not in the way we want it to be.

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