I’ve enjoyed the privilege of working out of my home for 20 years. I never liked commuting. I’ve preferred to set my own hours. I always thought of an office as the worst place to do focused work.
Since the pandemic hit, more people have been forced to work from home, where it is often a less-than-ideal alternative. Maybe you’re competing with a spouse for work space. Maybe your children require attention. Maybe you just don’t have the tools to do your job properly from a remote location.
Still, from the point of view of day-to-day risk, working at home remains a privilege. “Essential workers” must continue to report to work and put themselves at greater risk of infection. The distinction between those who work at home and those who don’t threatens to replace the traditional way of dividing the workplace: white-collar versus blue-collar.
Even as some work at home and others continue to show up at workplaces, many millions more have lost their jobs altogether. To have any work at all these days is becoming a privilege in itself.
Just as we all have multiple identities, we all occupy overlapping circles of privilege that are frequently invisible to the fortunate even as they are painfully obvious to the marginalized. The quarantines have served to reveal class privilege. The Black Lives Matter protests have helped to highlight white privilege. The #MeToo movement has exposed male privilege.
But in this country, the novel coronavirus has underscored and simultaneously undermined one privilege above all.
Americans have enjoyed an exceptional status for much of the last century. Pearl Harbor and 9/11 aside, the homeland has not been attacked. As the world’s largest economy, America has provided at least the illusion of advancement to all its citizens, and the “American dream” has functioned as a beacon for many millions of would-be immigrants around the world. Participating in a longstanding democracy that social movements have continuously improved, Americans have had the privilege to act as the subjects of politics rather than merely the objects.
Large-scale tragedies, civil war, famine, economic collapse—have always happened in some other unlucky part of the world. Oceans, wealth, and luck shielded the United States from these scourges.
The United States is currently the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. It has suffered more infections and deaths than any other country. Our vaunted health care system has been overwhelmed. Our government spouts anti-scientific nonsense.
And now Americans are no longer welcome around the world.
I’d lined up two international trips in 2020: to Germany in the spring for a conference and to Edinburgh in August for the Fringe Festival. I didn’t think twice about buying the tickets. I didn’t need to worry about visas. With the exception of North Korea, I’ve never had any difficulties traveling to any corner of the world. Talk about privilege.
Both events were cancelled. I’ve barely traveled much beyond my neighborhood in the last few months, much less contemplated foreign adventures.
But now Europe is starting to return to some semblance of normality. It has re-opened its borders to the citizens of a dozen countries. The United States isn’t on the list. The Trump administration has defiantly built walls to keep out immigrants. Now the world wants to wall off America.
This extraordinary deflation of American exceptionalism will continue to have implications for geopolitics for years and decades to come. For the time being, however, I and many Americans will have to get used to working and staying at home, not just as a function of a restructured workforce, but as a people whose global privileges have been suspended.