It was 1978, ad our little family had just landed in England and taken the train into London. Suitcases in hand, my wife and two young girls headed for the street to hail a taxi to take us to the bed and breakfast where we were to stay. I raised my hand and hollered, “Taxi, taxi.”
“Hey laddy, mind the queue,” somebody called out. There must have been 60 groups of people waiting patiently in line for the next little black taxi to pull up and whisk them away.
“In America we just run to the curb and hail a cab,” dear wife said to the lady in line ahead of us.
“Yes,” she said, “we sent all the bad ones over there.”
Turns out those boxy London cabs came one after the other, and we waited but 10 minutes before it was our turn to be whisked away. It was all orderly and polite, and it worked very well.
This memory of a little culture clash comes to mind as I wonder why we Americans have such a hard time wearing masks, staying six feet apart and following other rules and recommendations promulgated by public health officials for preventing the spread of COVID-19. Well over half the people I see walking our west county streets seem not to have heard that masks and social distancing are good for their health these days. But surely they know that what they are doing is dangerous to themselves and others. They have simply chosen to do it anyway. Personal choice seems more important to them than community health and safety.
I recall a book I read back in the 1980s called “Habits of the Heart,” written by a number of U. C. Berkeley sociologists. It finds that that east and west, north and south, a dominant American belief is that personal freedom is the basic value and the foundation of our greatness.
These authors cite Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous 1841 essay “Self Reliance” that advocates “pursuing one's own thoughts and intuitions, rather than adhering to public norms” as a potent example of our basic American creed. The other day I saw a TV ad for a financial institution that appealed to this deep-seated attitude. It said there is no American dream; there are 300,000,000 American dreams. Yes the old American individualism is still much in play, it seems.
And so, though we complain about bars, restaurants and other places of business being shut down, we choose not to wear masks, thereby increasing the spread of the virus, which means bars and restaurants and other places of business will likely shut down, and the whole economy will take longer to recover. Our form of individualism comes at a high price many of us are too willing to pay, one might say.
When I was a kid, teachers and preachers often spoke the phrase “for the common good.” I wonder if those words are put together any more. If anything can remind us of our need to seek “the common good,” this virus can. Day by day, we lead the world in new infections and deaths from COVID-19, while Europe, Japan and a number of other countries maintain a low level of virus spread. On this Independence Day, I wonder if one reason for this is a widely held sense of independence that is defined too much in terms of personal choices rather than what is good for all.
In London, back in the day, lining up and waiting your turn to take a taxi worked really well for everybody, even us out-of-place Americans.