In the (amazing and perfect) movie Crazy Rich Asians, the haughty matriarch Eleanor Young declares, “All Americans think about is their own happiness.” Now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, this statement rings true more than ever—and we are all dealing with the consequences.
The United States was already an outlier in our failure to handle COVID, but since the November election, the number of daily new cases has skyrocketed even further. As of this writing, the U.S. is now regularly logging 200,000 new cases per day, shattering all previous global records as we close in on 15 million cases and 300,000 deaths. That daily rate is literally one thousand times higher than in China, a country with three times our population. More Americans now die from COVID-19 every few days than the total number of Chinese who have died from it since the pandemic began.
Even without vaccines, China and other countries have managed to suppress the coronavirus through strong leadership, effective measures, and the united efforts of their people. Taiwan, South Korea, New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Argentina, and even our neighbor Canada have all been successful in controlling cases and enacting reopening plans. As a result, their people have been able to return to work, school, and shopping centers—while the United States, a developed country that boasts the title of “global superpower,” has seemed powerless to defend itself against the virus.
Actually, “powerless” is the wrong word. Power is potential, ability, capacity. The United States has always had those things. But it turns out power is useless if we lack something else: the will to make hard choices, and sacrifices.
Crazy Rich Asians closely examines cultural differences between East and West, with the East portrayed as prioritizing family and community over individual whims, while Westerners are seen as more selfish. Eleanor credits her own success to having sacrificed personal desires: “All this doesn’t just happen. It’s because we know to put family first.”
China didn’t go into this pandemic with any more information or resources than the United States, yet it has come out relatively intact. In the U.S., by contrast, the loss of life has been equivalent to a thousand 9/11s. Why? Because China prioritized group safety over personal convenience, choosing “Life” while the United States instead chose “Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Obviously, the choice wasn’t unanimous. Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been attempts to conceive and implement a comprehensive national strategy for combating the coronavirus. But those attempts have been undermined by a right-wing campaign decrying precautions against COVID as intolerable attacks on personal liberty. President Trump and other Republican leaders have catered to this vocal (and sometimes literally armed) camp, ignoring or mocking basic measures like wearing masks and social distancing. Constitutionally guaranteed rights like freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of religion have all been cited as justification for rejecting measures to protect others, especially the elderly and vulnerable.
Individual liberties are vitally important. Indeed, they are a defining characteristic of American society. As Americans, we each have the right to voice and act upon our beliefs. Every child is taught Patrick Henry’s motto: “Give me liberty, or give me death!” But the choice is not always that simple. Sometimes it’s not a choice, but a balancing act. When “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” come into conflict, you don’t just have rights. You have a choice. And when the stakes become life or death, you have a responsibility to choose wisely.
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl writes: “Freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness. That is why I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.” Abnegating responsibility means ignoring half of what it means to be an American—or for that matter, an adult. Indeed, the legal definition of adulthood is based on the recognized capacity to choose responsibly between right and wrong.
Adults also know that right and wrong are not always clear in every situation. To declare that personal liberty always automatically outweighs the lives and wellbeing of our neighbors is childish and lazy. It is this kind of extreme, unthinking, uncaring absolutism that has been our downfall in the fight against COVID. It is based on a shallow and misguided understanding of liberty.
The American tradition of personal liberty endows us with a strong sense that each of us is an independent entity. Yet we are more than just a crowd of individuals, each jealously guarding our personal freedoms. We are a community—a nation—and this requires taking into account the greater good, not just personal preference. No act is more patriotic than sacrificing to protect your fellow Americans. No act is more selfish and unpatriotic than refusing to acknowledge this shared, mutual responsibility. The same people who wave the flag and claim “Liberty” as their justification for endangering others seem to have forgotten this. Their refusal to accept the responsibility that comes with their rights is, ultimately, a denial that we are a nation. Essentially, they are saying that the United States of America does not exist, except as an excuse to do as they please.
“Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Those are the rights nation’s founders saw as most important. If we sometimes have to choose among them, and we do, then we should clarify our choices. Temporarily curtail personal liberty and happiness in order to preserve life? Or allow other Americans to die, thereby losing any future hope of ever enjoying any rights at all? Perhaps the maskless gun-wavers shouting their willingness to die for their own rights should instead consider living for everyone’s rights.
President-Elect Biden has called upon the American people to “do what they do best: step up in a time of crisis.” But all evidence suggests that what America does best is solipsism. Effective vaccines are on the horizon, but science can only go so far when our values fail us. As recently noted in The New York Times, vaccines will be much less effective in the United States because we have already allowed the virus to spread so widely.
We need to take a tip from Rachel Chu, the protagonist of Crazy Rich Asians who is at first condemned by Eleanor for her selfish American ways. Even though she finds the Young family difficult and demanding, she does not take the easy way out by just running away with Nick. She stands up for herself, but not by clinging to blind individualism. Instead, she demonstrates her willingness to sacrifice their relationship for the good of Nick’s family. By acknowledging the needs of others, she proves that she can strike a balance between East and West, between individual liberty and the greater good. Can the United States of America do the same?
If we can’t, then what about the future? When COVID evolves, will we be left scrambling once again, unable to act or stop the infighting? If COVID-25 or COVID-93 surges with a death rate of 30, 40, or even 50 percent, will Americans finally be willing to sacrifice some of their personal freedoms for the common good? Or will our desire to exercise our liberty ironically precipitate the collapse of our nation?
Only time will tell.