“Sometimes people don’t want to hear the truth,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche, “because they don’t want their illusions destroyed.” Welcome to the United States.
The first principle of the American creed is that the world is redeemable. We believe that we are exempt from the constraints of the human condition. I disagree. As Albert Camus suggests: We are Sisyphus.
Whatever their faith, ideology or party, most Americans are utopians. Since the Puritans washed ashore and John Winthrop foresaw “a city upon a hill,” the American experiment has been a perfectionist project, an exceptional escape from nature and history. No matter if you believe in free markets, a welfare state, democratic socialism or anarchism, your agenda is grounded upon an unshakable faith in human perfectibility and the inevitability of creating a heaven on earth.
Awash in cognitive dissonance
Every so often, a calamity of such magnitude occurs that it shakes the foundations of our taken-for-granted reality. COVID-19 is such a moment. The United States is awash in cognitive dissonance: Our illusion is that America is redeemable, that the Promised Land is just around the corner; the truth is that we are embedded in nature and history, tossed about by their unpredictable vicissitudes.
“The world is a hellish place,” said singer-songwriter Tom Waits.
In all societies, power struggles between groups are ubiquitous and perennial. The powerful are predators who prey upon the vulnerable — they always have, and they always will. In all environments, natural and human-made calamities are ubiquitous and perennial. No amount of Shangri-La prophylactics will shield us from injustice and cruelty, from death and destruction.
To acknowledge this is not a brief for quietism; by no means does unblinkered realism absolve us from acting against suffering, cruelty, and injustice. Nevertheless, we are Sisyphus, forever condemned to push the rock of righteousness up the mountain, only to see it roll back down, perpetually. The world is not redeemable.
But what if we have it all wrong? What if redemption is not a “forever after” thing? Perhaps it is more like extended epiphanies, interludes in which we transcend our mundane lives.
For sure, communities do not experience forever-after redemptions; nevertheless, they do have redemptive episodes. Throughout history, exemplary communities have stood up against pestilences, disasters, and social catastrophes like war, human slavery, ethnic cleansing, and climate change. Regrettably, too often these redemptive communities have faced unresponsive dominant communities and nation states. In this time of COVID-19, our essential workers are redemptive communities, inspiring the rest of us to listen to our better angels, ignoring the shrill voices of our demons.
During this plague, the selfless acts of courage rise to a heroic level when speaking of health care workers, first responders, transit workers, and workers in essential industries. At a more prosaic level, we must not overlook a contagion of kindness, the millions of small acts of care and compassion that emerge like blades of spring grass. Amidst all the death and destruction, this too is a redemptive moment in American history.
Still, Camus closes “The Plague” with a cautionary note:
“None the less, he knew that the tale he had to tell could not be one of a final victory. It could be only the record of what had to be done, and what would assuredly would have to be done again in the never-ending fight against terror and relentless onslaughts, despite their personal afflictions, by all who, while unable to be saints but refusing to bow down to pestilences, strive their utmost to be healers.”
The world remains a hellish place. It cries out for our attention. We must create what Martin Luther King Jr. called “beloved communities” who answer those pleas by pushing the rock of righteousness toward the peak, acting against suffering, cruelty, and injustice. I am one with Camus: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Monte Bute teaches sociology and social science at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul.
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