Post Script from the United States, Land of Fear

The White House barricaded in Washington for fear of peaceful demonstrations after the death of George Floyd. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Not a week goes by without me receiving a worried message from an old friend or a distant cousin, anxious to know how I am doing in America. The news is not good, I have to say. In the laxer states, Covid-19 is picking up steam. Unemployment is rampant in cities and the countryside. Yesterday, stock markets around the world plunged in the face of the uncertain future of the national economy. The wave of demonstrations that shook the country following the death of George Floyd paints a picture of social apocalypse. But these dire events are also narratives, distorted and amplified to a saturation point by fractured political forces and a media machine that, perhaps more than elsewhere, is fond of the spectacular.

 If you follow the news of the pandemic on both sides of the Atlantic, as I do for, you are struck by the difference in tone. While in Europe Covid-19 is frightening, in the United States it is absolutely terrifying. There is something typically American about this relationship with fear, as highlighted by Michael Moore in Bowling for Columbine. Here, more than on the Old Continent, fright is considered to have educational virtues.

However, the information about the virus is the same here as in Switzerland or England. It is the treatment of the pandemic that differs. Eager to educate the citizen, American journalism always chooses anxiety. This is reflected in the frequency of certain topics (such as cases of young and healthy victims, which are particularly popular), a certain taste for pathos and, often, an automatic wariness of all vaguely positive subjects, dangerous because they are likely to demobilise the masses, such as the possible seasonality of the epidemic or future vaccines.

The political context crystallises this culture of fear. What you think about the pandemic, the wearing of masks, containment or reopening is supposed to follow the divide between Republicans and Democrats. But these lines, drawn fairly neatly in the media according to their allegiance, are somewhat blurred with real people. Fortunately, I'm tempted to say.

 In an unusual way, fear is more visible on the Democratic side. I suspect a more or less conscious form of political calculation lies behind this attitude. The pandemic offers an opportunity to depict the disaster of the Trump administration, of condemning its records, of showing how his three years in office have brought the country to the brink of the abyss. I will not pretend otherwise, by the way. 

But these partisan motives take part in the darkness of the image that America sends to itself,– the same it sends to the rest of the world. As if it takes absolute despair to ensure the non-election of the White House tenant. As if the slightest ray of sunshine was to be feared, because it could help Trump to restore his image. The fear of the pandemic is not only about the virus, but also about four more years of a catastrophic presidency. These fears are inextricably linked.

 Built up in the American media of reference, this image of the country, both accurate and biased, is the one that, taken up in the European press, worries and bemuse my old friends and distant cousins. I would like to send them a reassuring note. The situation is certainly terrible for the millions of people thrown into the unemployment abyss of a society devoid of a real safety net. But the President's martial gestures have not yet transformed America into a banana republic. And, above all, there are the demonstrations against racism and police violence. For this former slave colony, such opportunities to confront old demons are rare. The country shows that it can build something even in the gloomiest moments of history. This is much more noteworthy than the scenes of urban chaos and broken storefronts.

As for me, I'm not too bad, thank you.

link - This article was originally published in French in' Point du jour, Friday 12 June 2020.