2020: The Year that Broke Us

There’s a certain kind of adversity that bonds people together, a brand of struggle that brings out the “better angels” of our nature. We experienced just such adversity after the September 11th attacks: a unifying moment when strangers comforted each other and American flags seemed to wave from every home. It’s hard to imagine that the unity experienced on September 12th was just nineteen years ago; in the odd manner of nostalgia, it feels like “just yesterday,” and yet another era entirely.

There have been other such moments throughout history: the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Space Race against the Soviets, the Revolutionary War. Other countries have also shown a similar capacity to rally around a cause, and yet America’s example is somehow more remarkable given our incredible diversity and democratic ideals. Coming from everywhere, we seem to represent both the best and the worst of what humanity could be.

2020 has been full of adversity and struggle, but – just in case there were any lingering doubts – no unity, no common cause, no better angels. While there have certainly been individual cases of heroism and sacrifice, America as a whole feels more divided than ever. As I reflect upon the past nine months, it seems more likely that 2020 will go down as the year it all finally came apart, the year that broke us.

It started with the COVID-19 pandemic, the “coronavirus” that seemed so far away in January and February as it ravaged Italy and China. It seemed that way because we didn’t know that it was likely already here. We didn’t have the daily death counts plastered across every news station to remind us, inspiring the terror that we or our loved ones might be next.

Then suddenly it was “here,” though “here” felt different in New York and New Jersey than in rural Virginia where I live. We went from “schools might close for a while” to “we’re shutting down for two weeks” to “we’re not coming back in person this school year” in what felt like a matter of days. New phrases like “flatten the curve” entered the American lexicon as we admonished each other to practice “social distancing.” We were told this was the biggest challenge of our lives, and all we had to do was stay home.

Surely this was easier than storming the beaches of Normandy or sheltering with Washington through the winter at Valley Forge. We might have endured a toilet paper shortage, but there was no rationing, no gas lines stretching around the block. In the Internet Age, we had Amazon to supply us, Netflix and Hulu to entertain us, and Zoom to interact with friends and coworkers. How could we complain?

Slowly the weeks became months, and still the children were kept inside, the elderly kept isolated in nursing homes, schools and churches shuttered. Workers who had initially enjoyed a nice break from the daily grind were furloughed, then fired, then unemployed. Businesses began to close. The market crashed, then recovered. Stimulus checks, beefed-up COVID unemployment, and the Paycheck Protection Program provided welcome relief, but they could not stop the overall economic situation from deteriorating.

By May, a good half of the country seemed to have had enough of lockdowns and distancing measures. Deaths were declining. The weather was warming. Worst case scenario predictions of over two million U.S. deaths no longer seemed possible, let alone likely. COVID-19 was shown to be less deadly than initially predicted (or at least declining in its virulence), not more. Yet as repressive measures continued, people began to protest the undemocratic edicts of overzealous governors and demand a return to business as usual.

But there remained another half of the country who – for whatever reason – did not want the restrictions to end. Maybe they had experienced a personal loss due to COVID; maybe they still feared for their family’s health. Maybe their political leanings spurred them to defy Trump, who was clearly on “Team Reopen.” If Trump wanted the schools and businesses open, they had to close. If Trump promoted hydroxychloroquine as a possible treatment, it had to be banned. Whatever their reasons, Team Lockdown condemned Team Reopen as reckless and selfish, while Team Reopen responded with charges of tyranny and excess. And yet people still spoke as if summer might bring a return to normalcy.

It didn’t. Instead we had the death of George Floyd, following other high-profile victims like Ahmad Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Born after the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the Black Lives Matter movement roared to life, gaining an army of new converts. Video evidence showed Officer Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck. Floyd later died. Who now could challenge BLM’s narrative that America was racist to the core, with an army of racist cops wantonly hunting African Americans in the streets?

This was not the time to conduct careful statistical analysis of the evidence, not the time to bring up the fact that more unarmed whites are killed by cops in the United States than blacks, and that far more blacks are killed by criminals than by law enforcement – making them a much greater threat to black lives. This was not the time to ask tough questions about why certain disparities persist across racial lines, despite tremendous progress in recent decades.

Oh no, not by a long shot. This was the time to search one’s soul for any vestiges of unconscious bias, to post black squares on social media, to declare one’s allegiance to the cause. If you were white, this was the time to be an “ally” – which basically meant shutting up and conceding to ever more radical demands:

Confess your white privilege. Kneel. Beg forgiveness for the sins of your ancestors, or at least other peoples’ ancestors who shared a similar skin pigmentation as you. Defund the police. Don’t criticize the young people looting Target; it’s “just property.” Pay no attention to the smashed windows and burnt buildings in New York and Chicago and Portland and Kenosha.

Oddly enough, the people making these demands tended to be white liberals, while many ordinary Black and Hispanic folks were begging for an end to the looting and rioting.

Their pleas fell largely upon deaf ears. America had gained a new national religion – one that had been steadily growing in power for some time but needed an event like the death of George Floyd to hit the mainstream. The dying civic virtue of old and a much-diluted Christianity proved incapable of pushing back against the Cult of the Woke.

The summer of 2020 saw over a billion dollars in property damage due to rioting, including small businesses that may never rebuild, many minority-owned. At least twenty-five people died in the violence, including David Dorn, a retired cop who happened to be African American. He was defending a friend’s pawn shop from looters when his murder was livestreamed on Facebook.

America seemed to have lost all sense of dignity, propriety, and respect. The very goodness of our existence was called into question, as statues celebrating American history (not just the Confederacy) were attacked and destroyed.

If there was one silver lining to the early summer “unrest,” it at least seemed to normalize leaving one’s home. Here were crowds of people in the streets: day after day, night after night, and no one seemed to be stopping them.

When asked to assess the danger, the same public health officials who begged us not to hold funerals or visit elderly relatives in nursing homes now declared that protesting racism was a worthy reason to gather in large numbers. George Floyd was given multiple funerals. Civil rights icon John Lewis had a large service attended by several prominent politicians with minimal distancing. And yet the little people were expected to continue living by draconian edicts flouted by their very architects.

Two events in the summer of 2020 served to lift my spirits: the release of Hamilton on Disney+ and the Republican National Convention. Of course, both were attacked by the woke for the crime of celebrating America, for not dwelling enough on its sins. But they reminded me that America is still a land of patriots, that we have a great history that has carried us forward to this moment. There are still a lot of good people in this country who believe in the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Fall rolled around, but few students went “back to school” in the traditional sense. Having been initially dismissed and then encouraged, masks were now mandated almost everywhere. Their donning took on an aura of almost religious observance, with the unmasked attacked in the public square.

The 2020 presidential campaign ratcheted up, exacerbating an already polarized climate. Big Tech revealed its bias in the censoring of the New York Post story on Hunter Biden’s incriminating laptop, after demonstrating an earlier willingness to censor stories critical of the COVID party line. It was enough to make one wonder just whose interests these mega-corporations existed to serve — those of the American people, or of the Chinese Communist Party?

People hoped things would go back to normal after Election Day. Unfortunately, this has not been the case.

After months of cautionary Facebook memes (“If you can wait in line at the grocery store, you can wait in line to vote”), it soon became clear that many states had radically altered their election laws in potentially unconstitutional ways. It had to be done, we were told, to keep people safe from COVID. Then on Election Day, the word went out that it was okay to vote in person… even if you had COVID.

When most Americans went to bed on Election night, Donald Trump seemed to be cruising to reelection. He had already won big victories in Florida and Ohio, Republicans were holding the Senate, and Trump had commanding leads Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The following day, we learned that these states had all decided to stop counting the votes around the same time, only to continue in the absence of poll watchers. A mysterious “pipe burst” had halted the counting in Georgia… a story that was later revealed to be a lie. Accusations of voter fraud and “shenanigans” abounded, though often with the helpful Facebook or Twitter tags that such claims were “disputed.”

You know the rest. The media decided to call the race for Joe Biden the Saturday after the election, despite ongoing recounts and lawsuits. Rudy Giuliani has been leading the legal fight for Trump, who has yet to concede the election. In the meantime, the charismatically unorthodox duo of Sidney Powell and Lin Wood have alleged even more widespread and nefarious election stealing.

In the meantime, Trump’s supporters are being urged to “unite” around Joe Biden; this after four years of being harangued as a bunch of deplorable racists and bigots. The same media that pushed unsubstantiated allegations of Russian collusion for three years now swear by the integrity of our electoral process. Their hypocrisy is not lost on conservatives, who are in no mood for unity.

If Biden is inaugurated, at least a third of the country will always doubt his legitimacy. If Trump somehow prevails, America’s cities will likely have to put back up the plywood to protect stores and property from the mob, now that they have had a taste of their own power. Say what you will about Trump supporters, but even their belief that a presidential election has been stolen from their anointed leader has not prompted violence, nor is it likely to do so.

To recap, almost everything fun has been taken away: parties, festivals, big weddings, concerts, sporting events. The small pleasures we are still allowed come with a multitude of distancing requirements and distrustful glances from behind blue surgical masks. Even news of a record-fast vaccine has not prompted the likes of Dr. Anthony Fauci to suggest we are anywhere near to regaining the old normal, if it ever returns.

We have gone from at least aspiring to color-blindness to the opposite extreme of becoming color-obsessed. The old civic religion glorifying the Founding Fathers and the U.S. Constitution has been replaced by a new religion that sees racism everywhere, just as the Puritans once viewed sin. But unlike the Calvinism of old, this new religion offers no forgiveness, no possibility of atonement, no unity of purpose. It is reductionist and militant and joyless.

Our electoral system is a mess. Millions of Americans have lost faith in the process.

Throughout this entire screwed up year, I have still enjoyed moments of great happiness and joy, and I know I am not alone in this. The sun still shines. Nature is as wonderful as ever. The blessings of marriage and new life remind us that there are some things no pandemic or election can take away.

But through all the ups and downs, I cannot help but grieve for America: for all that we have lost this year, including the loved ones we have lost to COVID. I feel as though I have been in a state of low-grade grief since April, and it’s exhausting. Nothing is as it should be, nothing makes sense. How does one remain sane in an insane world?

From the perspective of heaven, we Christians know how the story ends. We are promised that the “gates of hell shall not prevail” against the Church, but the Bible offers no such assurance of America. The Titanic was supposed to be unsinkable, and yet it was brought down by an iceberg. How will these new fault lines be repaired?

How do I get over the the dehumanizing experience of being regarded as potentially infectious material, or the realization that many of my fellow Americans would turn me in for hosting an illicit gathering in my own home? It’s a deeply unsettling thought to share a country with millions of people who care nothing for basic human freedoms, who would give it all up in a heartbeat for the promise of safety. Even when the current madness ends, what happens the next time there’s a crisis?

How do we get back to the point where we respect each other as individuals and fellow humans, not just representatives of privileged or oppressed groups? As this highly contentious election continues to play out, how can our faith in American democracy be restored?

Of course, it’s still possible that we can come together: masked and unmasked, black and white, liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat. But based on the evidence alone, and barring some dramatic new development, it seems highly doubtful.

2020 may instead go down as a turning point in American history, the year that finally broke us. They say “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” and a certain kind of adversity can serve to strengthen the body politic. But what doesn’t kill you can also leave you weakened, diminished, and traumatized. The trauma of 2020 is bound to leave deep scars upon both our collective and individual psyches, wounds only divine intervention can heal.

The Loss of Fatherhood and the Rise of the Nanny State

Is it possible that almost every disturbing trend in American society shares a common theme – one that is both obvious in its harm, and yet politically unspeakable? If so, then Mary Eberstadt has named it for us in this brilliant essay just published in First Things. The culprit: a veritable epidemic of fatherlessness.

A wave of violence gripped the United States over the past summer, causing over a billion dollars in property damage and claiming at least twenty-five lives. While it is easy to pin the blame for this “unrest” on the usual suspects – Donald Trump, the coronavirus pandemic, racism, political polarization, etc. — Eberstadt sees it as “but the latest eruption along a fault line running through our already unstable lives,” as “deprived of father, Father, and patria, a critical mass of humanity has become socially dysfunctional on a scale not seen before.”

The social science research could not be clearer: statistically, children do best when raised by married biological mothers and fathers. Eberstadt notes that “absent fathers predict higher rates of truancy, psychiatric problems, criminality, promiscuity, drug use, rape, domestic violence, and other less-than-optimal outcomes.” And yet today, almost one in four children in the U.S. grows up without a father in the home, a figure that includes 65 percent of African Americans.

Of course, such an environment is not possible for every child. Divorce and death have long separated parents from their children, and even a two-parent home does not guarantee a healthy family dynamic free from abuse and neglect. Demography is not destiny. Success stories abound of individuals who have overcome difficult childhoods to attain great success as adults: consider two-time president Barack Obama or Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance, just to name a couple.

However, one could compare these success stories to people who have lost a limb: the fact that it is possible to live a happy, fulfilled life without an arm or a leg does not meant that having two arms and two legs is no more advantageous than being an amputee. People survive absent, abusive, and/or neglectful fathers, but the wound remains. And it hurts. And in their pain, many seek out dangerous father substitutes like gangs and extremist groups like Antifa.

While Eberstadt is Catholic, her argument also accords with the eastern wisdom of Confucianism. She makes frequent references to “filial piety,” the traditional Chinese virtue of respecting one’s parents and ancestors. Confucius taught that the father-son relationship was at the core of all other relationships, including that between ruler and subject. Moral duties and obligations flowed both ways, whether one was in the dominant or subordinate position. The virtue of empathy (shu) was meant to counterbalance the need for loyalty (zhong).

Eberstadt speculates that the decline of fatherhood has accelerated the decline of religion (loss of God the Father) and patriotism (love of the father-land and respect for the Founding Fathers), dubbing this the “threefold crisis of paternity.” Deborah Savage laments: “they have been left alone in a cosmos with nothing to guide them, not even a firm grasp of what constitutes their basic humanity, and no means of finding the way home.”

Fatherlessness results not only in aimlessness, but also anger and resentment. This is the rage fueling the destruction not only statues of Confederate fathers, “but of Founding Fathers and town fathers and city fathers and anything else that looks like a father, period.”

Police officers certainly fit this category as well, be they male or female, black or white. Since the death of George Floyd and even before, they have been subject to countless brutal attacks and assassinations. Recent demands that we deploy social workers to the scenes of conflicts instead of police may be tantamount to “keeping Dad out of it and letting Mom handle it.”

Almost all of our institutions have been feminized, from school to church to the workplace. While some of this has been for the better, in certain cases it has been for the worst.

In our schools, offending students are offered seemingly endless “second chances” by well-meaning teachers, counselors, and administrators. While zero-tolerance policies represent a likewise undesirable extreme, the lack of consequences is also destructive — to both the bullies and the collective, who must put up with their ongoing misbehavior.

Sometimes kids need a cookie and a hug and to be told everything will be okay. Other times they need to be challenged and disciplined and made to take responsibility. Usually (but not always) mom is the “good cop” to dad’s “bad cop.” In the memoir now movie Hillbilly Elegy, it was J.D. Vance’s grandma (“mamaw”) who stepped into the role of father.

Many people – but especially young men – are desperate for someone to demand more of them, not less; to insist that they clean their room, stand up straight with their shoulders back, and take some damned responsibility, bucko! How else can we explain the phenomenon of Jordan Peterson, best-selling author of Twelve Rules for Life? People don’t just want hugs and cookies, they want rules! And rules tend to come from Dad.

The sad truth is that even kids being raised in homes with their biological fathers are often missing out on just such “tough love” and guidance. It is within the maternal instinct to shelter one’s children from physical harm. Fathers understand somehow intuitively that children need to roughhouse and wrestle, even if it means getting hurt. But they are often overruled.

Considering the evidence presented in The Coddling of the American Mind, it would seem mothers are getting their way more of the time. Children are no longer allowed the same kind of free play and structured risk-taking enjoyed by previous generations. While this approach has resulted in fewer accidental deaths, it has also led to rising anxiety and diminishing self-reliance. Earlier generations of college students once protested for more free speech; now they demand trigger warnings and safe spaces.

Mary Eberstadt traces the decline of fatherhood and the family back to the launch of the birth control pill in the 1960’s, certainly a monumental development. But perhaps it is time for the feminist movement to consider how some of their tactics and messaging may have discouraged men from taking responsibility. When men constantly hear “women don’t need you; we can do everything just as good as men,” they will more often than not simply shrug their shoulders and fade into the background. Respect was historically the price men were paid for the immense responsibilities they shouldered on behalf of the family. Why assume this burden in the first place when the only rewards are insults and mockery?

Men, and especially fathers, should be respected and celebrated, alongside women and mothers. The unique needs of boys and men should be acknowledged in our schools, our churches, and our workplaces.

Of course, there is a limit to this course correction. Celebration of masculinity should never be used to denigrate femininity. Male or female, each of us contains both a masculine and a feminine nature, the exact balance of which may change over time. Recall the Chinese yin yang symbol. Yang represents the masculine, the orderly, and the known; while yin symbolizes the feminine, the chaotic, and the unknown. Though opposites, yin and yang are also complementary, relying on each other for their very existence.

I don’t want to live in a world where my sons are coddled, mocked, or ignored, but I also don’t want to live in a world plagued by sexism and male chauvinism. Masculinity itself is not “toxic,” but by repressing the healthy expression of masculinity, we force it into such unproductive channels as violence and machismo.

As a culture, we have grown to associate masculinity with the negative effects of its excess. However, femininity is not without its dangers; it can become “toxic” as well. Consider the storybook characters of Sleeping Beauty and Rapunzel. Sleeping Beauty’s parents sought to shield her from all danger, thus their refusal to invite the Evil Queen to her baptism. But Maleficent was not to be thwarted; her revenge was to cause the princess to fall into a deep sleep, just at the point when she should have been reaching maturity. Likewise, Rapunzel’s mother locked her away in a tower.

The rise of what we may accurately call the “nanny state” shows that government need not wear a masculine guise to become tyrannical. Likewise, the fact that Anthony Fauci and Gavin Newsom and Joe Biden happen to possess Y chromosomes has not kept them from embodying and encouraging the worst of the “feminine” vices – lethargy, neuroticism, and cowardice.

Here we now sit – asleep in our towers, walled off from others, admonished not to work or play or worship or gather. It’s okay, we are told; the government will take care of us.

And yet we all – men and women – desire something more, some greater purpose than mere survival to give our lives meaning. Only by returning to the traditionally masculine virtues of fortitude and perseverance and responsibility can we free ourselves from the grip of the nanny state.