As Naomi Klein explained in “Shock Doctrine,” sudden social and economic disruptions provide opportunities to advance deep cultural change. Ideas on the periphery of mainstream thinking can be re-introduced in the midst of distracting turmoil, when standard notions are in flux and maybe not seen as working. The Corona virus is presenting the world, and Americans, with opportunities and choices that will reveal our core values, individually and collectively. It’s a good time to ask what we want.
The grabbers of wealth and power will look for and exploit opportunities to grab more wealth and power. That’s what they do. On a small scale, we saw two Tennessee brothers travel the state, buying up 17,000 bottles of hand sanitizer with a plan to sell them for $70/each. On a larger scale, we see that Mr. Trump tried to buy exclusive rights (“for America only”) to promising German vaccine research. On a larger scale yet, it’s not hard to imagine Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump mapping out scenarios for postponing the November elections to buy time for the President to regain his footing after the Administration’s fumbled response to the outbreak. Those whose default instincts are selfish and self-centered will take all the toilet paper and blame the Chinese or the Europeans or the Democrats for the problems. Those who see and feel themselves as one of all of humanity, however, will see, feel, and respond to the needs of all.
This is not to say we should not care for ourselves and our loved ones; the airplane safety instruction to put your own oxygen mask on first, then your child’s, is sound. You can’t help others if you are disabled from helping. But the instinct of a parent or teacher to take the bullet for a child is also instructive. What religion or moral code does not call for the strong to protect the weak and the rich to help the poor? The call to know and love a common humanity is just as human as the urge to protect and serve our selves, and perhaps just as strong. The question is not whether each of us is more generous or selfish, we all are both. The question for us as citizens in a crisis is which values do we want to advance in our lives and for our society.
President Trump’s response is inevitable, he will advance only his own personal interests; and his Administration is constrained to defend and protect his selfishness. We will see what Majority Leader McConnell does with the recovery bill negotiated and passed by the House in his noticeable absence. We know he would choose tax cuts over free testing and paid sick leave, but more giveaways to the wealthy will be hard to justify now to catastrophically affected citizens. The economic fragility of so many in our wealth-imbalanced society soon will be laid bare.
As we huddle quietly and alone today in solidarity with neighbors and loved ones we hope we are shielding from harm, we might ask ourselves what kind of society we want: a divided, me first, them against us world of domination and exploitation; or one in which visions of one humanity, one kingdom of God, inspire compassion and shared concern for the well being of all. The next question, of course, is what can we do to bring those values more concretely into expression in our social, political, and economic lives.