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 as consumers, techno-internet citizens or hyphenated Americans, as many of us have become during the past few decades.
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.” 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 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.
During the ancient Roman Republic (509 BCE-27 BCE), the idea of shared citizenship evolved into a key concept. In his book, “Rubicon,” Tom Holland argues that, to a Roman, nothing was more sacred or cherished, and that “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,” or “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 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 nuclear-war drills. I was nine when, in 1957, the stark and arresting news came of the Soviets’ success in orbiting the Earth with Sputnik. In the succeeding years of the Cold War, we witnessed the arms race, Cuba going communist under Fidel Castro only 90 miles off Florida’s coast and the tense 13 days of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
We marched annually in Memorial Day parades and listened to ceremonial readings of the names of the fallen. President John F. Kennedy’s famous words actuated a generation: “And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
The united early 1960s eventually gave way to the divisive latter 1960s. The 9/11 patriotic moment notwithstanding, the past five decades have seen a shift in many minds from the American as citizen to the American dominated by self and by subcultures 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 PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceEthics group files complaint against former Pence chief of staff Marc Short Pence aiming to raise M ahead of possible 2024 run: report Congress could stop Milley's nuclear weapons quandary from happening again MORE says, “We will get through this together.” Dr. Deborah Brix of the White House coronavirus task force promises, “We shall move through this together in solidarity.” In Rhode Island, Gov. Gina Raimondo says: “We are all in it together.” A local car dealer pledges, “Together we’ll get through this,” and even ESPN declares: “Let’s all do our part … #OneTeam.” 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, in which neighbors express civic spirit with those across the alley. Of this new ritual, Amanda Hess says: “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’s “Black Death” and the 1918 influenza pandemic were much higher. The first was exceptionally high — European cities lost 20 percent to 60 percent of their populations; entire villages simply disappeared in England and in Germany. Between 1347 and 1351, historians estimate that the European population declined 25 percent to 50 percent. In the 1918 influenza pandemic, about 500 million people worldwide were infected, one-third of the world’s population; at least 50 million died, with some estimates as high as 100 million — far more deaths than 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 subculture, inimical to sustaining a truly American civilization.
Fred Zilian, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I. 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.