As long as I’ve known it, the United States has been a great country — with conditions. Grocery stores stock a dazzling bounty (in some neighborhoods). Public schools provide excellent, free education (in the right school districts). Health care is the best in the world (if you’re wealthy and white). Elections are reliable, and voting is easy (if you’re white). Police are always there to help (if you’re white).
Every measure of American greatness comes with a caveat; every promise has its fine print. Those of us for whom America works great sometimes have to work to remember this truth. Children are useful for this purpose: Try explaining to, say, a 10-year-old, how in the United States, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, lots of kids your age go hungry.
It’s true. Welcome to the Land of Opportunity (results may vary), the Shining City on a Hill (batteries not included).
Given our celebrated optimism and can-do attitude, we should be able to rid our country of these conditions, to remove the shameful asterisks. But (1) powerful forces profit from the status quo, and (2) it’s hard to remember to fix what isn’t broken for you.
Well, good news: Now things are broken for everyone.
I’m not talking about that first panicked run on toilet paper, the first month of chaos and tragedy. I’m talking about today, nearly seven months later, when a great nation would long since have come back strong.
But America hasn’t. No matter what neighborhood you live in, your grocery store might still display strange gaps on its shelves. Whether or not your school district is one of the “good” ones, your teenager might be taking algebra from her bedroom. No matter where you live in the United States or how fortunate you are, you still face daily dilemmas about what’s safe, what’s worth the risk and what to say to the idiot wearing his mask under his nose.
Unemployment is high; businesses are closing; the future is uncertain.
Is it worse for some than others? Of course it is. This is America, after all! We are suffering from this pandemic to vastly different degrees according to racial and economic disparities. Black and Latino people are getting sick and dying at much greater rates than non-Hispanic whites. Wealthy people are getting wealthier, and the working poor are either unlucky enough to lose their jobs or unlucky enough to keep them and have to face that idiot with the mask under his nose all day long.
But even lucky people like me who get to stay home and keep our jobs are experiencing, maybe for the first time, the sensation of living in a country that simply isn’t working.
The United States’ top health agency can’t get its advice straight. Our once-coveted passport will not get us into France or Italy or Spain. It will not even get us into Canada.
Meanwhile, a postal service that prides itself on the swift completion of its appointed rounds has been stymied neither by snow nor rain but by a major Trump donor touting efficiency.
As for our vaunted democracy — a system we like to crow about despite the rash of asterisks that have plagued it since its inception — the coming election appears bound for disaster of one kind or another. President Trump is casting doubt on the validity of the mail-in ballot even as more citizens than ever before will cast their votes that way. The post office is not promising it can deliver ballots on time; Texas, for one, is making it harder to bypass the post office; South Carolina makes it hard to send in a valid ballot — and the Supreme Court just said that’s fine. The president has told us repeatedly not to count on the fundamental thing that makes a democracy work: the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next.
Did you see that “presidential” “debate”?
Did you hear the White House is a COVID-19 hot spot?
How are we doing, America?
Not so great. But I confess to harboring a little bit of hope. Hope that the more broken America is — the more Americans America fails — the more likely we are to fix it, for everyone. Hope that real change could follow the widespread devastation of this catastrophic presidency and pandemic the way the New Deal followed the Great Depression. That we seize the chance to make America truly great — and this time, no asterisks.
At least, so argues my good old American optimism.
Kate Cohen, a writer from Albany, NY, is a Washington Post contributing columnist.