While discussing his award-winning show “Chernobyl” with Princeton students and staff in a Zoom meeting last Thursday, Craig Mazin ’92 drew a marked difference between Communism and “communalism.” The former: a government system that historically failed in its implementation. The latter: a culture devoted to shared interests and well-being and committed to the idea that another person’s life is as important as one’s own.
Mazin’s goal in creating art about a horrific disaster in the Soviet Union, he claimed, was not to illuminate the Communist nature of the country but rather the “communalist” culture of the people. For viewers in the U.S., a country long obsessed with glorifying individualism, it could be unfamiliar to see a show dedicated to the harm we can avoid and the lives we can save when we think and move collectively. Yet now more than ever, this type of thinking is necessary.
For a long time, the United States has adopted a superiority complex around ideals of democracy and liberty. These grand words have been thrown around in speeches and campaigns, defining America as inherently better and more dedicated to freedom than all others. Ideas of individual rights have specifically been used to belittle more communal cultures like those of Eastern Europe or Asia. Often associated with communist or socialist governments, the idea of moving together as one society has never been taken seriously.
Yet right now, our collective identity is more important than ever. The self-interest embedded in American culture is incompatible with any overarching crisis like the coronavirus; removing the virus’ threat as quickly as possible depends entirely on every person’s individual choice to stay home. We are now seeing the devastating effects of what happens when our culture shuns the idea of collectivity and community as a whole. The inequalities and barriers that separate us from each other are finally being brought to light, exposing deep ignorance across the country.
We have seen college students going on spring break, unabashedly stating, “If I get corona, I get corona”; churchgoers still showing up to Sunday services, despite direct government orders not to; and even after the CDC announced the importance of wearing masks in public, President Trump himself refusing to comply. Aside from rash personal choices, we have seen irresponsible decisions made at corporate levels, with Amazon and Instacart workers protesting the lack of protective gear given despite risky working conditions. The lack of organized, diligent testing and the price of healthcare have led to horrifying stories of people dying at home.
The country is not only at war with an invisible virus but with its most basic cultural foundations. People are realizing that the system of economic “free-for-all” and “take what you can get” does not offer any protection in the case of a global pandemic. Americans are finally having to contend with the reality that not only their own choices, but those of all people around them, have undeniable consequences on their lives. They are no longer able to ignore the pain and suffering of others, fearful it could affect their own lives.
The tragic irony is that it does not have to be this way. The countries and cultures America has long criticized for a lack of individualism are now finding new and quick solutions to handle the virus. Most notable is South Korea, whose established national healthcare system and commitment to keeping testing free has led to no formal lockdowns or shelter-in-place orders since the introduction of the virus. Surveillance cameras and government tracking, all tactics seen in the U.S. as threatening in the hands of the government, are what allowed South Korea to find all those exposed to the virus and ensure they self-quarantine. Though their actions were not nearly as swift, European countries that decided lockdowns were necessary early on are now seeing hope of returning to normal in the future. Even if measures such as tracking seem extreme, the idea of trusting the government, and each other, to have our collective best interests in mind is one to learn from. Either through pre-established systems or more recent reactions, these countries were able to collectively give up current freedoms for a commitment to a quicker recovery while saving as many lives as possible.
In contrast, with no lockdowns, no consolidated system of testing, no free healthcare, and the highest number of cases and deaths worldwide, the United States is flailing in the face of the coronavirus. An unwise and often selfish cultural conviction that one should be able “to live their life” no matter what has backfired; each individual choice has led to a collective societal paralysis and the loss of so many lives that could have been spared.
We, as the American people and government, cannot talk about democracy, liberty, and equality in a country like this. It is more evident than ever that the American system does not see all lives as equally valuable. The extreme commitment to individual freedom puts communal health and quality of life at cost. The idea that success is not collective, but gained for one’s own benefit, leads to careless greed and, eventually, devastating consequences.
We must learn to see each other, all of us, as people whose lives could just as easily be our own, whose destinies are linked together. We must be willing to cease prejudice toward other cultures and countries. We must learn to see “communalism” as separate from Communism. Only in recognizing each other’s humanity and working together will we be able to fight the coronavirus and prevent future tragedies of its kind. We can open our minds and re-envision our systems. We can change. And in the meantime, we can stay home.