Michael Cooper

Michael Cooper

Michael Cooper is a journalist and attorney from the foothills of North Carolina. He's working to bridge the rural-urban divide in American politics.

America Apart, America Together

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Greetings from a screened-in porch in Raleigh where I’m looking out on another spring day in the Tar Heel State. The flowers are blooming, bees are buzzing, and cardinals are flying around. This is a season we’ll never forget and one we’ll never get to enjoy.

It’s been an oddly-uplifting day, following the news of the death of singer-songwriter John Prine. He wrote about sad subjects (addiction, old age, heartbreak) with an irony and sense of humor that always made you feel better and more grateful in the end:

“When I get to heaven,

I’m gonna shake God’s hand,

 thank him for more blessings

than one man can stand…

After listening to “In Spite of Ourselves,” “Paradise,” and “Spanish Pipedream,” all afternoon, it’s hard not to be optimistic and cheerful about the world even during these darkest of days. And in that effort, I thought I’d write something about the good that can come from this crisis.

Outside of a twice-daily walk around the block, and the occasional drive around the city for some sanity, I’ve been trapped inside for the last month just like everyone else. But we’re all doing the best we can, like the folks out there who are baking sourdough bread and caramel cake, dancing in the street at the appropriate social distance, and catching up on yardwork and spring cleaning. And I’ve finally gotten around to finishing some of the books stacked up on my nightstand—Summer Meditations by Vaclav Havel, A Short History of England by Simon Jenkins, Pearls of Wisdom by Barbara Bush, and The President is Missing by Bill Clinton and James Patterson.

As an attorney, the most important thing I can do right now is to sit my ass at home. But we’re all thinking about the incredible people on the frontlines of the fight against COVID-19: doctors, nurses, first responders, Amazon delivery drivers, grocery store clerks, and of course, cashiers. Yesterday I made the trip to the CVS pharmacy, and after thanking the young woman behind the counter, I asked if she was watching that Tiger King show on Netflix. She replied, “No, after I leave here, I go to my second job.”

I hope when this is over, we remember those men and women who turned out to be essential, who are heroes simply because they get up and go to work every morning. I hope we reward them and pay them what they deserve and treat them like the real role models, instead of the reality TV celebrities and Instagram influencers we’ve been worshipping.

I hope this crisis brings out the best in us instead of the worst, because that’s not always been the case in every crisis. I don’t think, for example, the Great Recession led to anything great in the aftermath. Just a lot of angry people who couldn’t agree on what to do next. Perhaps that’s because not everyone felt it. There were winners and losers. Some communities got left behind, and some places benefitted; some industries vanished, and some companies got bailed out. It’s safe to say that West Virginia, Youngstown Ohio, Detroit Michigan, and small-town North Carolina didn’t have the same experience as Silicon Valley, Charlotte, Atlanta, or Houston over the course of the last decade– or the last thirty years.

But now? This is a shared experience. There isn’t a single zip code that’s immune to the plague, especially not from its economic impact. Rich, poor, middle-class, black, white, gay, straight, atheist, Jew, Democrat, Republican, urban, rural–we’re in this together, and the streets are empty in small towns and big cities alike.

In that sense, this is unlike anything we’ve been through in the modern history of this country: 9/11, Watergate, the Challenger explosion, the impeachments of President Trump and President Clinton, or the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Dr. King.

The world stopped to grieve and everyone remembers where they were on November 22, 1963, and September 11, 2001. But after a few days, life went on. Weeks after the attack on the World Trade Center, President Bush was on the mound in Yankee Stadium throwing out the first pitch in game three of the World Series.

But in the coronavirus pandemic, life in America is on hold, and that will change us. Hopefully for the better.

Hopefully this reminds us of the things that matter most. My father and I actually had Yankee tickets for last Friday, and you know it’s serious when there’s no baseball in America. But I’m not sad about missing the Yankees play the Toronto Blue Jays—I’m sad about missing an annual father-son road trip, and about not being able to stop to see my niece and nephew along the way.

The silver lining this month is that we’re learning what we can live without: shopping malls, music festivals, live sporting events, and all those conferences that got cancelled. And we’re remembering who we can’t live without: the friends and family members we’re spending time with now on Zoom and FaceTime. It’s the sight of their face, the sound of their voice, that filled the void in our soul more than the mere events and activities we did together with them.

We’re rediscovering that now. I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent more time talking to my parents and my sister in Philadelphia in the last month than I have in years. That’s a good thing, right? That can’t be bad for the world!

That sort of reconnecting is taking place across our 50 states and throughout our more than 3,000 counties in America, in virtual happy hours and virtual birthday parties and virtual dinners with our best friends on the other side of the country through conversations that are done remotely. After years of losing touch and breaking plans, we’re making them now with people we haven’t seen since college or high school, or with distant relatives after we missed that last reunion. And as cliché as it sounds, this is going to help bring us back together as a country.

Maybe when this is over, we’ll go back to normal—the same distracted and self-interested society we were before, with the same polarized electorate. But maybe not? The longer social distancing goes on, the more optimistic I am about our future. Hard times can build character and resilience, and those qualities, once built, will do us all some good.

That’s not to downplay the suffering: thousands of Americans will die and millions will lose their jobs or their life savings; divorce and domestic violence rates will skyrocket; a number of the stores and restaurants that just closed will never reopen. But as someone who grew up in Appalachia, and who returned there to practice law on the frontlines of the opioid crisis, I saw that the American response to tragedy and loss was, and will be, an inspiring display of resolve and a newfound sense of pride and spirit.

We’re seeing that now. We’re seeing the best of America from the men and women volunteering for food pantries, donating to charities, cancelling rent and utility payments, looking after children at home, and converting lesson plans to Skype. We’re seeing it in the massive corporations repurposing their factories to produce medical supplies, and in the local distilleries holding off on making booze and making hand sanitizer instead. That sort of ingenuity will live on. By making each day better than it could be, we’re becoming better versions of ourselves. And imagine that on a cumulative, nationwide scale?

For almost a century we were all off doing our own thing—going to concerts and baseball games, playing golf, sitting on the beach or in the library, shopping at the mall. Now we’re all alone together, forced to confront the same big existential issue in our own little ways.

The best moment you can best compare this to is the mobilization of America after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Everyone had a responsibility. Everyone had a role: Rosie the Riveter on the home front, Marines on the beaches of Iwo Jima, the Tuskegee Airmen over the skies of the Mediterranean Sea. Today our challenge is to flatten the curve of the coronavirus, to jumpstart the economy when the coast is clear, and to take care of the folks who lost their jobs this spring. Right now, most everyone is doing their part. Maybe that continues for a while– and we use that renewed spirit, as neighbors, as entrepreneurs, and as fellow citizens, to address some of the other challenges we face, like immigration, the national debt, and climate change.

We do that by having a newfound appreciation for the role we all play: scientists, engineers, EMTs, healthcare workers, the 55-year-old MAGA hat wearing truck-driver who’s critical to the supply chain, and the 35-year-old blue-haired young woman at the checkout counter who is keeping the grocery store open. Think of how dependent we are on people who don’t look like us, how dependent we are on those who disagree with us. We’re all in this together.

On my walk earlier I was thinking about a photo my mom posted to Facebook, an image of a puzzle she just finished—one that looks like a community. Every piece comes in a different shape and color, and that’s what makes them fit together as part of a bigger picture. The same could be said of America: a nation of over three hundred million, each with our own racial and ethnic backgrounds, religions, cultures, professions, localities, hobbies, interests, ideals, and politics.

In a nation this large, we want pluralism and viewpoint diversity. We want liberals and conservatives, Baptists and Presbyterians, Catholics and Unitarians, jocks and nerds, rednecks and hipsters, soldiers and hippies, yogis and gamers, Dead Heads and goth kids, Duke fans and Carolina fans, and maybe even us N.C. State fans too.

The United States isn’t supposed to be a totalitarian state from a dystopian novel with one ruling party, one allowable culture, or one official ideology. And it’s better that we’re not that way. But we’ve forgotten that.

American politics is broken not because we don’t agree, but because we think we should agree. We’ve gotten away from seeing each other as equal, though distinct, parts of the national story, with valid perspectives and important parts to play. That’s going to change now that we know how essential we all are, how we all fit in, and who we couldn’t live without. And that’s going to bring us back together.

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1 thought on “America Apart, America Together”

  1. Well said, Michael. I especially like your though that the real problem is not that we disagree too much, but that we think we have to agree on everything.

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