So far as I can tell, our egos have taken over, and near perpetual hysteria is the result. What happened?
For multiple decades, we’ve forgotten that we’re supposed to be running the great American freedom experiment cooperatively, together. Instead, many of us seem to think that it needs to run the way we want it, and the people who disagree with us can be damned.
It began, ironically, with the Civil Rights movement in the 50s, a movement to share the benefits of freedom with all citizens. If the great American freedom experiment had been working properly, the sharing of freedom with Blacks would have begun and continued after the Civil War, but that didn’t happen. So, by the 1950s, Blacks turned to civil disobedience.
Civil disobedience worked to some extent, but it taught us disobedience, and disobedience led to incivility. We saw it happening in the 60s. The country was temporarily reunified in the 70s, largely because pretty much no one could deny that the President of the United States was a criminal. Then, we had a series of Republican presidents, plus Jimmy Carter, who did the job the way presidents are supposed to do it, managing as well as they could, leading in directions they thought were best for the country. Reagan’s political philosophy may have been too conservative for many, but his leadership nevertheless was cooperative and generally inclusive.
Those years were prelude. The hysteria began with the Bill Clinton presidency and the Newt Gingrich opposition. That’s when leadership stopped being cooperative, when leadership changed to the belief that the people in power get to say how it is going to be. Gingrich said something like, “The purpose of politics is twofold: (1) to get power, and (2) to exercise power.” And Clinton proved he was a subscriber to that view when, on day one of his presidency, he signed an amazingly divisive executive order, establishing “Don’t ask, don’t tell” for gays in the military. Whether the policy was a good thing or not, it wasn’t the action of a political leader of a democracy; it was a glimpse at autocracy.
Since then, it’s gotten worse. Gridlock prevails, compromise rarely happens. The networks have long since decided that the evening news is about ratings, not news. “If it bleeds, it leads” has been taken to an entirely new level. The networks shamelessly stoke the anxieties of their viewers, because that’s what drives ratings. (Every night, NBC’s Al Roker tells us about the latest storm and that “27 million people are at risk,” even though weather related deaths are down over the past five years and that practically none of those 27 million ever actually dies from the weather.) Social media took it to a new level; now, we can listen to whatever antagonizes and inflames us, 24-7.
All notions of cooperation, of being in this together, seem to have gone out the window.
I say that hysteria has taken over, because so many of us are consumed by our own perceptions of what we think should be that we have lost sight of what is.
I tested positive for COVID-19 on the last Sunday in June. Three hours later I picked up a five-day dose of Paxlovid; by Friday morning I was symptom-free. The experience has caused me to reflect on how we, as a country, reacted to the pandemic. Many, but not all of us, became obsessed about it, and our outspoken anxiety was driven by the broadcast, print, and social media.
Reality turned out to be something different from the nonstop crisis that was portrayed on television. Pretty early on, the scientists told us this would be a pandemic. We know about and understand pandemics. This one has been running the course that was predicted, with substantial deaths and with multiple waves of new infection. The medical science industry jumped into action, and by early this year, most of us who so chose were vaccinated and double boosted. Still, I got COVID, but between the vaccines and the availability of drugs to treat the illness, I’ve apparently been able to stave off any serious complications. The same is true for millions of people around the country.
Although the press has made a big deal about the fact that more Americans have been killed by COVID than the 1919-22 pandemic, a significantly smaller percentage of the US population died this time around. And many of those who died from COVID were elderly and at risk, a cohort that was much, much smaller in 1919. There were relatively few octogenarians in 1919 – people simply didn’t survive long enough to be the prime targets of a flu pandemic.
In other words, the pandemic turned out to be, in relative terms, less of a catastrophe than people feared. Could the US have done better? Absolutely; measured against perfection, large-scale human activity rarely delivers perfection or anything close. Did the lack of better performance cause some unnecessary tragedy? You bet it did. We didn’t do as well as we could have, and too many lives were lost. However, all in all, we’ve done better than last time, and in two years we’ve turned COVID into a disease we can treat with five days of prescription medication. That’s not bad.
From that perspective, I wonder what the media-driven hysteria was all about. Night after night, the liberal broadcast media screamed about what Trump said or didn’t say, about what Trump did or didn’t do, and about why this agency or organization should or shouldn’t be doing something more or something less. The conservative broadcast media screamed that making people wear masks was a violation of our constitutional rights and totally unnecessary. The truth, which we expect from the news media but rarely get, was that the wheels of our modern, capitalistic society were turning as they should, the healthcare industry was scrambling to help people and to save lives, and we had a lot of success. True, the wealthy were better served than the poor, but we could have predicted that from the start – in our world, the wealthy always do better.
It’s not about who was right and who was wrong, and it never was. There were, and there always will be, scientists who say we can do more – more quarantine, more masks, more hand-washing. We didn’t listen to the scientists completely; we never have, and we never will. Frankly, the same is true about climate change – the most extreme of the scientists, no matter how accurate their science, would shut down much of modern human activity, and that’s just not going to happen. The Chinese aren’t about to stop burning coal.
The pandemic should have been about doing the best we can in a complex, pluralistic society. It should have been about rational discussion, reasonable leadership, and cooperation. It shouldn’t have been about politics. Many liberals would have done well to remember that liberty is at the core of the American ethic, rather than to jump to conclusions abot the things government must do. Many conservatives would have done well to recognize that the people of the United States were in danger and cooperative action was necessary to save lives.
So, here we are, with the pandemic largely but not completely in the rearview mirror. With ample assistance from the news media and others, we are now more or less hysterical, or delirious with joy, about abortion, or about climate change, or the Supreme Court generally, or inflation, or the Ukraine. If you believe NBC News, the airline industry is in total meltdown and no one can fly anywhere. The truth is that life goes on, things change and get better or worse, and most people live through whatever it is. The planes are still flying. As a species, we could do better, and many of us think we should do better. The truth is we never will do as well as we should, and it helps no one to despair, to rage, or to demonize those who don’t agree with us.
Am I saying we should ignore the news and go back to living our lives in joyful ignorance? Well, yes and no. The recognition that life goes on, despite our tendency to treat one thing or another as a crisis should lead to a few conclusions that can inform our lives:
- Should we give up working for change in our communities, our nation, and the world? No, It’s human nature to seek to make things better, and we should and will continue to work to do so.
- Change takes longer than we’d like to think. We’ve learned that eliminating racism takes longer, and that securing a woman’s right to control her body takes longer. It’s pointless to view every misstep on a long road as a catastrophe. Small consolation, I know, to people who have been waiting for change, but change simply takes longer than we think it should.
- Some of us will commit 24-7-365 to make change, some will be supportive but more passive. Some of us will commit 24-7-365 to oppose change, some will be more passive. If we behave properly, collectively we will cause our world to move forward.
- In the meantime, the wind will blow, the sun will shine, the rain will fall. We will find happiness in our lives, and we will not be able to avoid all sorrow. Hug your loved ones, be kind to strangers.
- Armageddon is almost certainly not around the corner, and if it is, there is nothing you can do about it.
Juneteenth and July 4th are national holidays because they celebrate our country’s commitment to liberty. It’s a time to celebrate the fundamental principle that binds us as one nation. Don’t despair. Celebrate. Celebrate together.