Human beings always aspire to be part of something larger. There’s the family but it’s limited, they want a level beyond that. So they find other entities to feel they belong to, like nations, religions, movements or generations. Very often — most of the time — those involve heavily symbolic elements.
A generation of Americans recalled where they were when they heard JFK had been shot. (I’m Canadian but I was napping in my dorm in Boston on a Friday afternoon getting ready to lead a service that night when the head of the Jewish student group woke me saying, ‘The president’s been shot. I think an American should lead prayers tonight.’)
None of them had actually been there and few were directly connected; but they identified. Same for 9/11. Americans felt it deeply, many enlisted for Afghanistan and Iraq. 9/11 transformed everything, yet for most, it held no direct connections, it was all via symbolism. That’s a risky base to build identity on since it was largely mythic and unrelated to any experienced reality.
This also goes for generations. I remember being stuck on the Long Island Expressway, many lanes of cars on either side, seeing everyone nodding their heads as I was, to the refrain in “Hey, Jude.” You felt, We are one.
Benedict Anderson described these as “imagined communities.” They were/are powerful despite that, or due to it; they shaped individual, national and global realities. In the U.K., Brexit, wrote someone in the London Review, “was fuelled by a desire for the society of a collectively imagined past.”
Of course, imagined communities contain real elements. There’s a mix.
But now there’s COVID-19. In the U.S., it has meant a run on two things: toilet paper and guns, the latter perhaps to protect the former. But COVID-19 is different. It’s not symbolic or at a distance. It touches people directly, not symbolically, although who they imagine they are, still affects how they react.
I find myself thinking, If only the U.S. had public health care. It’s something real that affects everyone and gives them cause to believe they can trust and help each other. It unites people through a reality — versus a mighty but flawed myth. It won’t solve everything — Canadians hoard TP — but it’s a counterweight.
COVID-19 itself is like a counterweight to imagined communities: it’s a community-building experience that’s unimagined and nonsymbolic. It doesn’t spawn separate identities, it transcends them because it menaces everyone, everywhere. It’s transnational but subsumes nations. It links people in dangers that are real: real fears, needs, losses. It produces an unimagined community.
It creates a community that everyone, literally, can identify with it. It’s general in nature: the identity of being human — but not an abstraction or symbol. It’s total fact, right in front of, or in, our noses. It’s an identity that runs against other identities, whether imagined or a mix of real plus imagined.
Yet this identification with all others comes about through massive, nearly universal, isolation and asociality. Our lockdowns and quarantines unite us.
For sure, different communities, more and less imagined, are differentially affected by COVID-19. As they say in Louisiana, When it’s cold, the poor get colder, when it’s hot the poor get hotter, when there’s sickness … Yet the existential thrust of this plague undercuts distinctions and privilege. Speaking as a privileged person I’m struck by its ability to thrust most of that aside.
On this matter — the virtues of unimagined community — Canada may be uniquely placed. We have relatively little that’s mythic or symbolic to build a community on (though many of us have tried.)
So we rely on other foundations that are real if not as emotive, to construct unity: especially institutions like the railroad, the CBC, the health care system. They don’t engender passion the way a martyred leader or a 9/11 does but they have the merit of being actual, usable and the result of concrete efforts by people we know or are.
My late friend, Graeme Gibson, often noted our luck avoiding the nightmare of war that our parents knew. But we never talked about the comparable scourge of epidemics. It seemed so unlikely: scarcely worth a mention.
Rick Salutin writes about current affairs and politics. This column was first published in the Toronto Star.