Our national pandemic of 'sick individualism' Skip to content

Our national pandemic of 'sick individualism'

What the coronavirus has revealed is the power of America’s cult of selfishness.

4 min read

I couldn’t help a double-take when the rusty old truck passed me on a western Kentucky highway.

Painted on the side of its faded greenish hood was a bright red circle bisected by a similarly-hued diagonal bar that was superimposed over a white hypodermic needle.

Below the hand-painted “artwork” were the letters “F.T.M.,” which I took to mean “F--- the Mandate.” "FREEDOM" was also hand-painted in white letters on the hood.

I can imagine the reaction in World War II had the syringe been a ration book and the letters accompanying it were “F.R.R” — as in “F--- Rationing Regulations.”

Had the truck been so decorated, the driver doubtless would have suffered at least a verbal close encounter of the worst kind with a vet home on leave ,or with members of a family with a gold or blue star banner proudly hung in their window.

“What the coronavirus has revealed is the power of America’s cult of selfishness,” New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote going on two years ago. So does the old truck, which, too, was plastered with an obscene bumpersticker showing a stick man f-ing the word "LIBERALS."

The deadliest pandemic in history is still a worldwide killer. The virus has claimed the lives of more than a million Americans (including nearly 16,000 Kentuckians) and counting.

The truck driver is more proof that the “sick individualism” of anti-vaxxers/anti-maskers/covid deniers hasn’t gone away either, says Murray State University historian Brian Clardy. “It’s me, me, me — my ‘rights’ at the expense of everybody else’s.”

The angry, irrational — if not flat-out paranoid — opposition to government efforts to keep us out of the hospital and the cemetery “is sometimes portrayed as love of freedom,” Krugman added. “But people who insist on the right to pollute are notably unbothered by, say, federal agents tear-gassing peaceful protesters. What they call ‘freedom’ is actually absence of responsibility.

“Rational policy in a pandemic, however, is all about taking responsibility. The main reason you shouldn’t go to a bar and should wear a mask isn’t self-protection, although that’s part of it; the point is that congregating in noisy, crowded spaces or exhaling droplets into shared air puts others at risk. And that’s the kind of thing America’s right just hates, hates to hear.”

I don't know if the trucker is a churchgoer. But Jesus makes Krugman’s point in the Bible: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12, King James Version, AKA “the Golden Rule.”)

The trucker’s up-yours, in-your-face signage and obscene sticker reminded me of this paragraph from Krugman’s column: “Indeed, it sometimes seems as if right-wingers actually make a point of behaving irresponsibly. Remember how Senator Rand Paul, who was worried that he might have Covid-19 (he did), wandered around the Senate and even used the gym while waiting for his test results?"

In The Deseret News last year, Jay Evenson proposed that “this generation of Americans has trouble with the concept of sacrifice.” (The trucker was a white guy who looked to be middle-aged.)

“The generation that understood it best — those who survived the Great Depression and World War II — are leaving us quickly, and much too soon. We could use their wisdom right now, as well as their memories of ration books, chocolate shortages, and having to drive on bald tires because rubber was needed for the war effort.”

In a column written after the Uvalde grade school gun massacre, Krugman suggested that “we should think of vehement opposition to gun regulations as a phenomenon closely linked to vehement (and highly partisan) opposition to mask mandates and vaccination in the face of a deadly pandemic, vehement opposition to environmental rules like the ban on phosphates in detergent, and more.”

Krugman asked, “Where does this hatred of the idea of civic duty come from? No doubt some of it, like almost everything in U.S. politics, is related to race.

"One thing it doesn’t reflect, however, is our national tradition. When you hear talk of home-schooling, remember that the United States basically invented universal public education. Environmental protection used to be a nonpartisan issue: The Clean Air Act of 1970 passed the Senate without a single nay. And Hollywood mythology aside, most towns in the Old West had stricter limits on the carrying of firearms than Gov. Greg Abbott’s Texas.”

In 1941-1945, “national tradition” included virtually the whole country uniting behind the war effort. Most Americans understood that the dire national emergency demanded measures like government-mandated rationing of gas, tires, sugar, meat, coffee, butter, shoes, and other consumer goods. John and Jane Q Citizen understood that sacrifice was a “civic duty” they owed to our servicemen and servicewomen who were risking — and sometimes losing — lives and limbs to defeat the deadly triple threats to democracy worldwide: Nazism and Fascism in Europe, and Japanese imperialism in the Pacific.

Almost nobody bellyached, at least out loud, that rationing infringed on their “personal freedom.” (If they did gripe, they usually got an unpleasant earful from their friends, neighbors, and even family members.)

“I don’t fully understand where this aversion to the basic rules of a civilized society is coming from,” Krugman confessed. “What’s clear, however, is that the very people who shout most about ‘freedom’ are doing their best to turn America into a ‘Hunger Games’-type dystopian nightmare, with checkpoints everywhere, loomed over by men with guns.”

This much is clear, too: If a majority of Americans today were infected with the “sick individualism” of the truck driver, the covid death toll would be considerably higher than a million plus, and if a “cult of selfishness” dominated the America of my parents (my mother worked for the local county ration board, and my father was a sailor on ships in the Pacific), the “The Man in the High Castle” would be dystopian reality and not just TV fantasy.


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Berry Craig

Berry Craig is a professor emeritus of history at West KY Community College, and an author of seven books and co-author of two more. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)

Arlington, KY



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