I have dandruff. Bad, flaky, bloody dandruff. (I recently read that it’s the embarrassing sentences that most need to be written.) 

Okay, I don’t have dandruff all the time. Only when I’m cripplingly, chronically stressed. Times like right now. 

I’ve tried everything to fix it. It’s humiliating — disgusting, really. I am at war with my scalp.

In fact, I’m at war with a lot of things right now. We all are. We’re in an unprecedented state of war more totalizing than any of us have ever known. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Public discourse in America is deeply ill. One symptom of our sickness is how we abuse the metaphor of war, how we can’t imagine collective action without it. Everything is a war: the war on drugs, the war on Christmas, the war on poverty, the war on terror, the war on cops, the war on coal, the war on women, the war on cancer, the trade war, the culture war.

Right now, the war is against the coronavirus. From well-intentioned rally cries of support to fascist dog whistles, you hear the rhetoric used every day. “In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy, as well as the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens, I will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States!” decreed our Supreme Leader Donald J. Trump just earlier this week in a flawless exercise of wartime logic. 

Hospitals are the trenches. Our homes are bunkers. Essential workers are our homegrown warriors. Those who die from COVID-19 are simply fighters who lost their fight. And it’s hard to compare the death count to anything but wars (we’re rapidly approaching the death toll of the Vietnam War, by the way). 

Once we’re at war, everyone’s a soldier. Everyone must be prepared to make a sacrifice, or so they say. In reality, it’s you who must prepare to be sacrificed. Remember a month ago when I wrote about the cult that is arguing that the economy is more important than human life, remember that? Well, they’re still trying. “There are more important things than living,” according to Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, as of April 21. 

Even Avril Lavigne is in on the game. She just re-recorded her 2019 song “Warrior” to honor our heroic essential workers. I’m sure the flags will fly at half-mast when the track drops.

The war metaphor is fundamentally broken. No matter how noble the fight, envisioning humanity through the lens of its worst creation yields a warped, broken image of ourselves. 

There are so many things wrong with using war as a metaphor for everything, and I’m not nearly the first to argue this. So, I’ll focus on one thing in specific, something particularly relevant at Yale: War gives us a sense of a common enemy, but no sense of a common good.

A steady, calculated assault on the greater good has characterized the last 40 years of American life. Including, but not limited to: defunding public education, the decline of unions, the great squeeze of the middle class, the obliteration of the working class, the destruction of public space, the auctioning off of protected lands, the catastrophic desolation of our environment, and the newly emboldened effort to obliterate the United States Postal Service. The message: if we share it, it’s got to go.

As we’re plunged into a twin crisis of economic and biological destruction, our government is both unwilling and unable to care for its people, to give human decency primacy over private gain. Even if selflessness survives on an individual level, we have no institutional means of channeling it. 

I mean, even war — in my lifetime at least — has not been a communal event. They’ve been we-shop-while-they-fight affairs, yielding nothing but a few hundred thousand dead civilians and a few trillion more in defense contract profits. 

Even when killing is the only thing we can fathom doing together, there’s always the assumption that someone else is going to be pulling the trigger, and certainly it won’t be you who gets killed.

Yale is no exception. In fact, at Yale, exception is the name of the game. You are an exceptional student, an exceptional coder, an exceptional writer, you’re, in general, an exception! Here at Yale, we don’t lose our jobs in economic meltdowns, oh no. We’re the ones who write about the meltdowns, or litigate the meltdowns, or get us out of meltdowns, or cause them! When your world is built on exceptionality, it’s hard to imagine that it could ever happen to you. When you don’t think it could happen to you, you tend not to care.

Thus, all that is good and meaningful belongs to the individual. At Yale, the greater good exists only as a function of individual success. Sure, your charity might help people — but it’s your name on the building, your face on the website, your resume it appears on. First and foremost, it’s yours.

But when your entire world is built on how well you can stand out, you’re fundamentally unequipped to deal with a situation that demands the opposite. The only way forward — out of this crisis and through those that will inevitably follow — is with the understanding we have nothing but each other.

I’m not talking about platitudes or profit-maximizing corporate activism here. I’m talking about material change, from the interpersonal to the international level. I’d be lying if I said I had a plan for it, but, as we’ve all recently learned, plans are only worth so much.

Two months ago, we thought we had our spring semesters in store, our summer internships awaiting, our opportunities full-steam ahead. We thought our futures, for as wild and unpredictable as they’d be, would at least be unpredictable on our own terms. All of that disappeared overnight.

When value systems predicated on prestige and ten-point plans have the rug ripped out from under them, all that is left are people. You, me, us.

The future and the individualized success it promises is fragile. The communities who make the present and future worth living, however — they endure.

We have to go beyond imagining ourselves as atomized individuals who can only unite under the guise of war.

This is not war. It’s something greater.

ERIC KREBS is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at eric.krebs@yale.edu .

  • Man with Axe

    You assert that “A steady, calculated assault on the greater good has characterized the last 40 years of American life.” This “greater good” as you define it include a number of debatable components:
    1) defunding public education. I wonder if this has actually taken place, if you are talking about k-12. The amount that is spent on public education is enormous, and there seems to be no correlation between the amount spent and educational outcomes.
    2) the decline of unions. Since forming a union is a voluntary action determined by a democratic vote it would seem that it is the workers themselves who don’t want a union. I fail to see how anyone else benefits from the lack of unions of workers themselves don’t want one.
    3) the great squeeze of the middle class. Maybe, but this is somewhat illusory. Middle class people today have much bigger houses, eat in restaurants more often, and have much more elaborate entertainment options. They can obtain the 1980 middle class standard of living working fewer hours on average, even though that standard seems like poverty to today’s college grads.
    4) the catastrophic desolation of our environment. And yet the air and water are orders of magnitude cleaner than they were decades ago when rivers caught on fire.
    5) the newly emboldened effort to obliterate the United States Postal Service. This obliteration is caused by email and on-line shopping. No one writes letters and few companies send junk mail when websites and emails are essentially free and can reach millions.

    I guess the main point is that “the greater good” is not agreed upon. That is why we have politics, so we can debate what the greater good really is. It cannot be assumed.