As Naomi Klein explained in her 2007 book, Shock Doctrine, extreme circumstances and fear can make choices a society once considered unacceptable suddenly seem necessary and appropriate. For better or worse, these choices can re-set people’s expectations and become a new normal. From such disruption dictators can arise. But valuable lessons and changes for the better can also take hold and possibly endure. We would be wise to notice and cultivate re-sets that lift us, personally and socially. Here are three on my list.
Facts and expertise matter. It’s hard to believe the first country to eliminate polio and put a man on the moon needs a crisis to remember this, but apparently we do.
When I need a plumber, a cardiologist, or advice in buying a new cell phone, I seek the guidance of someone who knows more than I about solutions to my problem. I might even turn the problem over to them to solve for me. In our increasingly complex world it’s easy to feel ignorant, lost, and less self-reliant than we like. But to live safely and well, we cannot avoid depending on the knowledge and expertise of others, people with skills and insight we don’t have.
Similarly, our national security depends on climate scientists, military strategists, diplomats, accountants, intelligence analysts, epidemiologists, and professionals whose fields many of us have never heard of. Equally important are the professional executives and managers who know what expertise is needed in a given situation and how to find and integrate that knowledge to solve complex problems.
Maybe this year we all agree that even if facts and expertise intimidate and overwhelm us, they are critical to our health and we reject them at our peril. I also hope we learn that strong opinions, high confidence, and even absolute certainty are not the same as facts. Confidence is good for bluffing; certainty offers a feeling of security; and opinions are like noses—everybody has one. While bluffing and a feeling of security might help us evade real problems, they cannot solve them. Humility and an open inquiring mind are much more conducive to finding real solutions.
There is only Us. Real problems, as opposed to socially invented ones, threaten us all. Global warming, the effects of nuclear war, and pandemics, for examples, care not about the political and social boundaries we create. Their consequences will affect every one of us. Covid-19 threatens humans as if we are a single organism–one humanity. Whether we all get sick from the virus or not, we are exposing each other and suffering the consequences together.
It’s hard to think of much that’s truthful about most of our tribalizing. Our divisions are largely arbitrary, self-defined, illusory, and irrelevant to objective reality. What difference does race, religion, gender orientation, class, or political leaning make in the big picture framed by a pandemic? Most Americans remember experiencing a sense of unity in the shock of 9/11 (though the feeling quickly faded after the Bush Administration mounted a brutal, racially tinged attack on an innocent population).
Not only is the pandemic a threat, but it’s going to be a long and global one. If we can resist turning on each other out of fear and frustration, and tune out polarizing politicians who would arouse our anger and hatred for their own selfish purposes, we might be able to hold on to this recognition of our shared humanity long enough for it to take root in our social consciousness. Our relationships during social isolation are more conscious and deliberate, our attention to the wellbeing of those around us is more acute, and our appreciation for the sacrifices of hospital aids, store clerks, and delivery drivers illuminates very real connections to people typically invisible to us. Absorption of this awareness of our interconnectedness could be a game changer for social healing and a more people-centered economy.
Government is not the problem. Governance is a sport everyone can play if we choose to approach it as the democratic process our founders intended it to be. Forgive my obsession with this topic, but given my career(s) in public service it’s an especially poignant one for me.
Criticizing government bureaucracy is as much an American pastime as baseball. In recent years, however, criticism of government competence has been manipulated into condemnation of the very existence of government. Many Americans absorbed the self-serving libertarian mantra that taxes are evil, regulations are economy killers, and government is an intrusion on individual liberty. Business is good, government is bad. This attitude is wrong and destructively shortsighted.
In fact, business and democratic government serve very different purposes; both are essential and neither can do what the other does. One exists to produce wealth, the other to attend to the interests and needs of society. One is responsible to and for owners and shareholders, the other to and for citizens. Their separate missions overlap, and are best achieved when harmonized, but they are often, and necessarily, in tension with each other. The coronavirus showed us how important the differences are.
Life-saving surgical masks and other personal protective equipment have been missing from action because production was exported to the Chinese who could make them cheaper. Similarly, hospitals stocked ventilators at normal usage levels because it was economically efficient. Now lives are at risk because these critical devices are unavailable. The private sector might have stockpiled ventilators if future marketing opportunities were promising enough, but that was not their responsibility. It was the job of professionals in agencies like the CDC and Homeland Security to think about the needs of society, to anticipate and prepare for a pandemic. If they failed, they deserve to be criticized, but the need for their role continues.
Medical preparedness is just one example of myriad government responsibilities assigned by the legislative branch and supervised by the executive branch. Many are largely invisible to most of us even as they keep the nation functioning. Denying their value and handicapping government’s ability to function, even for political or ideological reasons, undermines the public good.
I hope our Coronavirus experience leads to agreement that we need a government that understands complex problems and has the expertise to deal with them; a government that takes seriously its mission to protect and serve all of us and has the resources to do so. Let’s agree we don’t need government to be an end in itself—either “the problem” or “the solution,” but need it to be an effective, transparent, and accountable mechanism by which our free and democratic society governs and cares for itself.
We are seeing dramatic changes, many are likely to be painful. Here’s hoping our care-full responses build a better future.