April 13, 2020
(Note: This essay was originally published at thehill.com on April 23, 2020, as “Could the coronavirus create a new civic spirit in America?”)
While the coronavirus does unutterable harm to Americans, it also presents us with a great opportunity to think and act once again more as citizens, rather than consumers, techno-internet citizens, and hyphenated Americans, as many of us have become during the last decades.
As a human body is only as healthy as its individual cells, so a civilization or modern state is only as healthy as its individual citizens, a word we draw from the Latin word “civis,” meaning citizen. From this word we also derive our words: “civic,” “civilized,” and “civilization.” The related Latin word “civilitas” could mean civility or politeness, but to the ancient Romans it could also refer to civic unity or civicism. Mary Beard, the author of “SPQR,” explains it as: “we are all citizens together.”
The ancient Greek concept of citizenship was crucial to the identity and functioning of the Greek city-state. Citizens together took responsibility for the functioning of city government and defense, and for maintaining the proper relationship with the gods. In return, they shared in the city-state’s successes. As the concept evolved, it acquired the meaning of a shared ownership of the common good, not just a legal status, but rather the sense that the citizen was actively involved in the affairs of the city and contributing to its welfare.
To the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, a human could reach his full potential only through the city-state. Involvement in public affairs was part of the essence of being a human being. Our word “idiot” stems from the Greek word “idiotes,” used for someone who put private pleasures before public affairs.
Also during the ancient Roman Republic (509 BCE-27 BCE), the idea of shared citizenship among Romans evolved into a key concept. In his book, Rubicon, Tom Holland argues that to a Roman, nothing was more sacred or cherished. He states that in republican Rome “to place personal honor above the interests of the entire community was the behavior of a barbarian—or worse yet, a king.”
Roman culture socialized the citizen to place the common good before personal ambition. Indeed, historian Jackson Spielvogel states that the highest Roman virtue was pietas, “the dutiful execution of one’s obligations to one’s fellow citizens, to the gods, and to the state.”
For two decades after World War II, American citizenship, in my experience, hewed fairly closely to that of ancient Greece and ancient Republican Rome. I heard my uncles talk of their roles in World War II, TV shows glorified American valor and victory on land and sea, and we had a clear and present danger—the Soviet Union.
My classmates and I practiced scurrying to our battle stations under desks or in protected hallways during the nuclear war drills. I was nine when in 1957 the stark and arresting news came of the Soviet’s success in orbiting the Earth with Sputnik. In the succeeding years of the Cold War, we witnessed the arms race, Cuba going communist under Castro only 90 miles off the coast, and then the tense thirteen days of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
I marched in the annual Memorial Day parades and can remember the ceremonial reading of the list of names of the fallen. At the ripe and receptive age of 14, I heard John F. Kennedy’s famous words which actuated my generation: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
John F. Kennedy at his inauguration
The united early-1960s eventually gave way to the divisive latter-1960s. The 9/11 patriotic moment notwithstanding, the last five decades have seen a shift in many an American mind from the American as citizen to the American dominated by the SELF and by sub-cultures based on such things as race, gender, sexual orientation, and now even technological virtuosity.
The coronavirus pandemic has challenged these mindsets. Since the second week of March, the “I,’ “you,” and “them” of American society and culture have been displaced dramatically by the collective “we” and “us.” Vice President Mike Pence: “We will get through this together.” Dr. Deborah Birx: “We shall move through this together in solidarity.” In Rhode Island, Governor Gina Raimondo: “We are all in it together.” CBS News and local news: “We are all in this together.” A local car dealer: “Together we’ll get through this.” ESPN: “Let’s all do our part;” “#one team.” American citizens—all together.
Our renewed civic vocabulary is being matched with civic action on many levels: Digital titans Apple and Google are collaborating to build software for individual smartphones which will enable digital contact tracing. People will be able to determine if they have had contact with those infected. Numerous Facebook community groups have arisen for mutual assistance. Three New Yorkers created Invisible Hands, a website matching volunteers with seniors and other at-risk people needing food and medication. Firefighters have assembled outside of the Brooklyn Hospital Center to cheer workers. And there is the nightly Clapping in New York City: neighbors expressing civic spirit with those across the alley. Of this new ritual, Amanda Hess: “The Clapping is a communal outburst. It is a reminder that though we are isolated, we are not alone.”
The coronavirus pandemic, despite all the damage and death, will benefit us in many ways and make us more prepared for the next one, which may be much more lethal. The mortality rates of the 14th century Black Death and the 1918 Influenza Pandemic were much higher. The Black Death mortality rate was exceptionally high. European cities lost 20-60% of their populations. In England and Germany entire villages simply disappeared. Between 1347-1351, historians estimate that the European population declined 25-50%.
In the 1918 Influenza Pandemic a total of about 500 million people worldwide were infected, one-third of the world’s population at the time. At least 50 million people died, with some estimates as high as 100 million; indeed, far more deaths than the fallen in World War I.
Having gone through a genuine pandemic and not just a simulation, we will develop effective vaccines and therapies, we will stockpile the necessary personal, protective equipment (PPE), and we will refine our federal, state, and local organizations and protocols to wage effective war against the next pandemic.
However, one of the greatest benefits may be a new American civicism which can counter the mindsets of self and sub-culture, inimical to sustaining a truly American civilization.
Fred Zilian, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University, Newport, Rhode Island. He is the author of “From Confrontation to Cooperation: The Takeover of the National People’s Army by the Bundeswehr.” Follow him on Twitter @FredZilian.