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The “Solidarity” Trap

Our failures of pandemic solidarity cost lives. Ukraine is testing our solidarity in another way.

“Fight for someone you don’t know,” said Senator Bernie Sanders throughout 2019, making the case that Americans, after centuries of desperate and cruel individualism, should elect a democratic socialist to be president of the United States.

In March 2020, a deadly global crisis arrived. Sanders’s campaign tanked, but we spent the next two years finding out what he meant—an unprecedented and tortuous experiment in social solidarity in a nation founded on selfishness, class hierarchy, and property rights.

To respond to the coronavirus pandemic, we needed to change our lives completely. We had to wear masks, stay six feet from other people, cancel gatherings we had eagerly anticipated, risk and in some cases sacrifice our livelihoods. Eventually we got vaccinated, sometimes reluctantly or fearfully. Even if we weren’t that worried about contracting Covid-19 ourselves, we did all these things to make others safer: the immunocompromised, the elderly, and people who because of their work or living quarters could not avoid the virus. A sign on the New York City subway urged us to mask up, channeling Bernie Sanders: “Save the life of someone you don’t even know.” We took such precautions in part because the pandemic was so awful for our whole society—the economy, our public school system, our hospitals—that we felt a collective obligation to do whatever we could to end it.

We did all this even though “social distancing” sounded—and felt—like a dystopian metaphor for the alienated society we were trying to leave behind, not the one we were hoping to build out of the diseased, boarded-up wreckage.

These Covid measures were not our only experiments in solidarity during this time. After years of racist police murders, we were moved by the murder of George Floyd, a person most of us did not know, to flood the streets in protest throughout the summer of 2020 demanding change. We organized to elect a less terrible president. We wrote postcards to Georgia voters to elect two new senators, and we got our family and friends to do that, too. On the local level, we agitated for tenants’ rights and against pipelines, and we elected some politicians who sounded a lot like Bernie Sanders. We organized mutual aid in our communities, bringing food to hungry people and helping our neighbors get vaccinated. We did all this despite the fraying of our social, family, and work lives, and the exhaustion of isolation.

I say “we.” What I mean is: Some of us did these things. We also learned that many of our fellow citizens—including some we loved very much—opposed all this human solidarity, deeply and on principle, as strongly as we believed in it. They thought wearing a mask or getting vaccinated was a personal choice. To them, it was offensive to suggest that any health precaution was a social obligation.

In fact, while invoking solidaristic principles turned out to be a persuasive way to nudge many vaccine-hesitant family, friends, and fellow citizens to comply with public health measures, to some, the very idea of taking responsibility for the health of others was noxious: They felt that vaccines, especially mandates and other policies to compel and encourage them, were akin to “communism.” Many of our fellow Americans were also profoundly offended by the George Floyd protests, by subsequent efforts to teach schoolchildren about racism, and by even the quietest murmurings about socialism: They countered their neighbors’ “Black Lives Matter” signs with Thin Blue Line flags, voted for Trump, disrupted school board meetings, and did not believe that Biden won the election. They were willing, paradoxically, to organize—even to experience the ecstasy of collective action—against the whole idea of the common good.

In some ways we all failed at solidarity. Not only did the public health zealots among us sometimes alienate the holdouts through smugness, condescension, or lack of sympathy, few Americans put pressure on our government or on pharmaceutical companies to share vaccines with poor countries. Many people will die because of our failures.

Still, almost two years since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared us the victims of a global pandemic, we are trying solidarity again, standing with people we don’t know in Ukraine against an unjust and murderous attack by Putin.

But what does “solidarity” mean in this context and how do we do it? Many actions Americans are taking seem well-meaning but possibly useless: displaying Ukrainian flags on their social media, booking Airbnbs in Kyiv to support businesses there.

Other solidaristic efforts seem dystopian and reckless, like crowdfunding money to arm the Ukrainian people fighting Russian occupation. Some of the fellow feeling for Kyiv inspires deranged foreign policy recommendations that Biden is fortunately ignoring: a no-fly zone over Ukraine, for example. A group of New York artists, not a demographic usually associated with apologetics for the military-industrial complex, flew paper planes in the Guggenheim in support of this idea, which would put the entire world in danger of nuclear war. The loud proclamations of solidarity can risk drowning out the voices of realism, who are trying to keep us all alive.

Further, I’m not alone in feeling that the outpouring of solidarity for the Ukrainians can feel selective or even racist, given many Americans’ cold-heartedness toward refugees who aren’t white. And denunciation of Putin’s invasion sometimes sounds like projection: Where, after all, was our solidarity for the Iraqis, the Palestinians, the Yemenis, all victims of imperial aggression by the United States and its allies?

It is good to want to support suffering people, even symbolically. It was a little silly but also touching, for instance, that New Yorkers formed a line around the block to eat pierogis at Veselka, the legendary Ukrainian restaurant in the East Village. And some actions are more meaningful than that, like attending anti-war protests (especially those that condemn Putin while also insisting that “our” side not escalate the conflict), donating to relief efforts, taking care not to share misinformation (whether it comes from Russia, the U.S., or Ukraine), and demanding that our government welcome refugees while working to find a diplomatic solution. If this conflict teaches us to consider people we don’t know who live beyond our national borders, that might be progress.

But the solidarities of war have an ugly side. Fighting for people we don’t know in a conflict means fighting others we don’t know any better but who also have moms who are texting them, hoping they make it home alive. As our empathy with Ukraine feeds into age-old Russia hatred, institutions both in the U.S. and elsewhere have “parted ways” with musicians like Russian soprano Anna Netrebko and others, for refusing to denounce Vladimir Putin (apparently, we now only tolerate knuckleheaded patriotism in ourselves and our allies, hardly a workable principle for global solidarity). Not just Russian national teams, but also Russian club teams and individual athletes have been banned by international sports associations. And musical programs have started dropping long-dead Russians with no relationship to the current atrocities, such as Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky.

This could go badly wrong. Americans should never be discouraged from solidarity, but in this case our intense fellow feeling for the Ukrainians, if channeled into anything other than actions promoting peace and humanitarianism, risks fueling an already bloodthirsty culture of bellicosity between superpowers. This would be devastating for the whole world, and especially for ordinary Russians and Ukrainians.

The stakes are very high. Our solidarities during the pandemic saved lives, while our failures cost many more. In Ukraine, we have even less control over the situation, and our understanding is even more elusive. It’s going to be even harder to get this right.