Coronavirus in Italy, Part 1: Understanding What’s Different About America

Another 793 people died in Italy yesterday. 627 the day before. A total of 53,578 cases nation-wide. Over 6,000 people have recovered and 2,857 are listed as critical. So many numbers. Numbers that equal lives.

A week ago when Italy declared a lockdown on the country, quarantining everyone to their homes, someone asked in a chat group, “Why is it so dramatic in Italy?” Honestly, it’s dramatic everywhere. This pandemic is unprecedented.

And yes, there is something different about Italy. It’s not just the sheer number of people infected and dying, it’s who is dying.

But it’s difficult to understand another nation until we understand our own. Before discussing Italy, we need to first look at the U.S.

The United States is still young. So very young; an adolescent in so many ways. We are every teenager who is so sure they know more than their parents, who thinks anyone over thirty is so ooold. We are enamored with youth. We think we’re hip and cutting edge. All our ideas are brilliant and unique. We’re cocky and dramatic. Everything is drama. Ordinary lives have become theatre for the masses, not as a tool for learning—for understanding our frailty and humanity—but purely for entertainment. We’re the kids who squirm at sex scenes but want to see more. Who fall in love and then give back the ring after a cute new kid transfers into our class. We read Shakespeare only when forced and then laugh at the funny language. History is cool but just when it relates to the young. We’re nostalgic for the 50’s, when rock-n-roll was ‘invented,’ and the 1970’s, when everything was ‘groovy.’

We eschew the wisdom of elders. We roll our eyes at warnings and instructions. We laugh at other people’s pain. Pranks are a national pastime. We bully. We demand things our way. The customer is always right and we have the money, so of course we’re right, now give us what we want. Me First. First in line, always in front. Unless we’re in the back cuz we’re too cool for all that. But then we’re angry if you ignore us.

It’s no coincidence that our President is a man-child who throws tantrums on Twitter. Retreating to his room, he laments his suffering and outrage in his diary. Except his diary isn’t private. He doesn’t want it to be private. Neither do we. We want to see, we want to read, we want to make fun. Nothing is more entertaining to kids than teenagers. Especially when they squirm. It makes us feel better, so much stronger and wise.

Of course, this isn’t 100% true. There are still adults in the room. Only, we’re not listening. As a nation, we don’t respect authority. Robert Bly wrote about this in The Sibling Society, all the way back in 1996, and it’s more relevant today than ever. Sure, we’ve matured a bit. We’re teenagers, after all, no longer kids. We passed the Civil Rights Act (and others), we elected a black president. At the same time, we’ve become more clever and cunning, not so easily persuaded or deceived. Just like teenagers. We found loopholes to skirt the rules. We discovered more creative ways to hide our activities, while simultaneously flaunting our rebelliousness. Even as more of us attend college, we laugh at degrees, positions, and titles. We broadcast our opinions as if they were facts and expect to be respected for what we think but haven’t studied. The only thing that matters is money. Money and fame. Money buys anything. Money makes us important. And fame is reserved primarily for the young, the newest hot “thing,” (because fame is a commodity). We listen to people in front of the camera regardless of their talent or lack of it—but not those reporting the news, historical news outlets are so old-school and the reporters are too old to be trusted. We listen to people with money, regardless of how they made it. Like teenagers, we all want to be superstars and play with piles of cash. We’re each living on dreams, playing the lottery to lift us out of poverty, and waiting for our one big break to change our lonely lives.

Of course, we didn’t elect Hillary Clinton in 2016 and we couldn’t fully support Elizabeth Warren this year either. It’s not just that they’re women, it’s that they remind us too much of Mom. And the only thing we hate more than Dad telling us to cut our hair and be home by ten is Mom telling us to zip up our coat, wear a hat, look both ways before crossing the street, and be nice to our friends. See, we can rebel against Dad but Mom, dammit Mom, we love you, we know you care, but you’re just so damn annoying and you’re really cramping our style. Don’t tell us it’s for our best. We’re almost adults, (why can’t you understand that?), and you’re so out of touch. We can take care of ourselves.

Parents say, “Stay home,” and teenagers say, “It’s my life. I’ll do what I want.” Then we rush to the stores and buy more than we need. We panic like children. We scream, “Me! Me first! Me! Me!” And when adults finally step in and enforce a few rules, we act like puppies placed in a crate. We whimper and whine. But worse than puppies, we shout, “This is martial law! You’re taking away our rights!!”

Why is it so dramatic in Italy? It’s dramatic in the States, not in Italy. Americans are the ones being dramatic. The restrictions in Italy are extreme, yes. Unprecedented. But so is this pandemic.

People in Italy are mourning their dead. They are following the rules of quarantine, terrified of this virus spreading. It’s not just the number of people dying but who is dying. The elderly. Tomorrow we’ll explore what this means in my next post: Coronavirus in Italy, Part 2: Death, Age, and Identity.

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