Column: Is American society ready for the coronavirus pandemic?
A few months after September 11, 2001, David Brooks went back and looked at coverage of Pearl Harbor for an article in the Weekly Standard (“After Pearl Harbor,” December 10, 2001). What he saw intrigued him. A sense of unity and patriotism followed both surprise attacks. But media after Pearl Harbor had none of the sorrow, sensitivity, and angst that filled the news, with reason, after 9/11. Recognizing the inevitable costs of war, Americans on the home front at the outset of World War II were nonetheless eager to carry on as usual. They did not apologize or second-guess. They soldiered on. “When you step back and contemplate the range of post-Pearl Harbor media,” Brooks wrote, “you are struck by how extraordinarily proud of itself America then was.”
I revisited Brooks’s article this week while thinking about the differences between America during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919 and America during the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic today. Some of the distinctions are self-evident. America is far more wealthy, free, and technologically advanced than it was then. We enjoy the benefits of incorporating half the population into our economy and society, of ending de jure anti-black racism, of attracting the best and most ambitious talent from across the globe. We are no longer a rising power but a reluctant hegemon. A raw deal awaits any American who trades places with a doppelgänger from midway through Woodrow Wilson’s second term.
What changed is the American ethos. Expressive individualism replaced self-restraint. Narcissism and the therapeutic sensibility triumphed over the reticence and sense of tragedy that comes from living in places and times where there is no safety net and death is a constant presence. The culture of debunking, revisionism, and repudiation informs education, entertainment, art, and occasionally sport.
The size, scope, and ambition of the federal government and its managers is far greater now than it was then. So are the public’s expectations of government capabilities and performance. The institutions that stand between the individual and state have weakened where they have not crumbled. Family, community, religion, and voluntary association attenuate as modernity deprives them of their traditional functions.
The United States is beginning to shut down and self-isolate. Its G7 partners range from states of quarantine (Italy) to lockdown (France) to closed borders (Germany). Countries do not make such decisions on a lark. Nor is the reason for these extraordinary measures a secret. What terrifies the authorities is the prospect of surges in infection that would push public health systems beyond capacity and result in mass death. To prevent a medical catastrophe, the authorities guarantee an economic one.
The social capacity of America has received less attention. The worst-case scenarios anticipate an epidemic that lasts until a vaccine can be mass produced 18 months from now. Do we believe that American society could withstand until then the additional pressures that have been put on it over the past week?
The typical discussion of how coronavirus will change your life focuses on a specific practice or sector of industry. You hear a lot about telework, home schooling, vote by mail, or movies released on Video on Demand rather than in theaters. This piecemeal approach is understandable. Perhaps the problem is so complex, the potential extent of the disruption so massive, that the way to approach it is to study one aspect at a time.
But an extended lockdown will affect more than activities. It will warp institutions. There is a debate over how Congress might operate under social distancing. What about churches, synagogues, and mosques? Church attendance was falling before the virus. Even if the pandemic were to revive the religious impulse, would-be prodigal sons won’t be able to attend services. Church finances—nonprofits in general—will be harmed. In some cases, the damage will be irreparable.
The family enters this crisis beleaguered. My American Enterprise Institute colleague Nicholas Eberstadt writes in National Affairs of “the collapse of work for adult men, and the retreat from the world of work of growing numbers of men of conventional working age.” The recent improvements in the overall labor force participation rate will disappear if the economic fallout of the pandemic is large and enduring. Long-term joblessness and lack of prospects are barriers to marriage and to family formation. And the two-parent family is the seedbed for the character formation of young people. The social costs are enormous. And they are mounting.
Bill de Blasio’s indecision over whether to close New York City schools revealed that these institutions perform parental functions as much as educational ones. The school has become much more than a place of instruction. It is the site of feeding, caring, and supervision (if not disciplining) of children. Deprived of the shelter of the local school, children and young adults will have to look to parents for meals, instruction, and surveillance. Are parents ready to fulfill the responsibilities assumed by the state? What will happen when parents return to work or look for new employment? Will teenagers obey a guidance or curfew that is not enforced under penalty of law?
Large pools of nonworking or truant males are not associated with social or political stability. But they loom large in our future. The economic self-isolation of America can continue only for so long as American society permits. And if Americans, as they have tended to do, revolt against strictures from above, how will authorities respond? None of the answers are comforting. If the coronavirus overwhelms America’s social capacity, our government won’t be in a position to choose between an economic crisis or a pandemic. It will have both.
A first in human history: Anxious about their future on a hotter planet and angry at world leaders for failing to arrest the crisis, masses of young people poured into the streets on every continent on Friday for a day of global climate protests. Organizers estimated the turnout to be around four million in thousands of cities and towns worldwide. (Somini Sengupta, New York Times, September 20, 2019) (Below: Youth March for Climate Change (New York City, Sept.20, 2019)
What is the motivating force which could impel such an amazing reaction of youngsters all over the world (except China)? Clearly, the threat of extinction is taken so seriously by so many youths that they felt compelled to participate in this effort. What has convinced so many in so many places simultaneously?
Apparently, it is the vision of the planet earth being baked into destruction by the sun’s rays. This vision seems to have originated from the speculations of climate scientists as interpreted and simplified by activists. Cold, neutral, formulaic science has never elicited such emotional reactions. Those ideas had to be interpreted and simplified by propagandists. Eventually, the vision emerged with its dramatic impact and its ability to inspire visceral fear. It is this vision which has motivated a youthful passion which thirsts for a cause to believe in.
In that sense, climate change advocacy demonstrates many of the same characteristics as religion. It is an unquestioning belief in an unseen event; it inspires an ethic requiring sacrifice to achieve; and it thrives on communal events. Thus, it meets the traditional characteristics of religion: creed, code, and cult.
This phenomenon also raises the question, “Why are these folks (young and old) so open to a new religion?” Why are they not dedicated to the traditional religions of their elders? Or, more concretely, why has the Western world witnessed such a precipitous decline of traditional religious practice in recent generations?
The answer to these questions lies in the disconnect between the common life experience of our modern culture and the world view of traditional religions. As one way of approaching this topic, we might look at the differences in the epistemology (the way of understanding) between what religion teaches us compared to that of our everyday life.
Traditionally, religion proclaims that another invisible world exists in addition to this visible world. The invisible world is better than this world. This vision has brought comfort and peace to many millions of people through the ages. It has served as a reason for us to behave in certain ways which are conducive to the common good and it has given us hope to reach heaven and eternal peace when we die.
Common life experience in the 21st century exhibits a quite different vision. First of all, we live in a world of constant discovery. While many aspects of this world are invisible, such as thoughts and emotions and happiness, it is also true that our science is based on the presumption that all reality is ultimately physical, even if it is too small to be seen (atoms), too large to be understood (the universe), or discoverable only through its effect on things that can be measured (neutrons). As a culture, we have come to believe that all reality is knowable, even if we don’t yet know it. We keep learning new things all the time, only to discover more things we don’t know. Nevertheless, the thrill of learning is one of our cultural goals.
It is the task of the theologians to conceptualize and explain the spiritual dimensions of our human experience and the connections between our life experience and our traditional beliefs. It appears that today’s theologians are asleep at the switch. Our culture cries out for an ethic which takes the world we live in much more seriously than does traditional religion. To achieve that ethic, a new vision must be developed – one which understands the beauty of the universe, the world we live in, the body we have been given, and the ways in which this visible world must be treated in order for us to achieve happiness and satisfaction in our interactions with this world, our community and ourselves.
In such a vision, we see technology as an extension of our body – machines to take us farther and faster than our legs could carry us, to make our minds more agile, our imaginations more original, our views more expansive. We see our love extended to other races and places beyond our natural limits, our talents challenged by new plateaus, and our world enriched by the newness of our life on earth. This is a vision which will allow us to seek the transcendent meaning of life as the sum of all the good and evil we can see with our sharpened insights and to find our personal path to virtue, happiness and holiness.
As our lives are enriched by the colors and textures of this world which God has provided for us, we are also confronted with new responsibilities and obligations. which have been ignored in the past, to maintain that world. Some examples: while the absolute need for cheap and plentiful energy is granted, how do we justify digging coal at the risk of black lung disease for the miners? How do we justify burying nuclear waste which will take 3000 years to dissipate? How do we preserve our planet’s suitability for human life? How do we balance the harm of nuclear weapons against the cost in human life? What do we owe to trees and wildlife? And, what are the ethical norms by which we are to measure such answers?
Religion, like life itself, must evolve to meet the very real spiritual needs of real people. If organized religions fail in this fundamental obligation, people will substitute whatever they can find in order to satisfy the primal need we all share for spiritual nourishment – even if it is as flimsy as climate change.
“The real crisis we face today is a spiritual one; at root, it is a test of moral will and faith.”
by Scott L. Vanatter
President Reagan’s address March 8, 1983 at the Annual Convention of the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Florida has become known as the “Evil Empire” speech. The speech also included many other insights into who Reagan was, and into his considered wisdom on things of this world, and of the world to come.
Apropos to this year’s campaign, Reagan declared this truism, “If history teaches anything, it teaches that simple-minded appeasement or wishful thinking about our adversaries is folly.” Continue reading