Sixth in an ongoing series, “Notes from a Plague-Time”
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that to make a recovery, one must first recognize there is a problem to recover from — and analyze it.
The “problem” here is America’s worse-than-shambolic response to the coronavirus pandemic besetting the world. In truth, our response to this deadly viral catastrophe has itself been a catastrophe. Americans, stung at the spectacle, are crying out: How can this be happening?
We Americans have long prided ourselves as Number One for “nimble” organization and management, for “world-beating” inventiveness and creativity. We are, after all, sole proprietors of that “special juice” — a can-do attitude. Granted, this pandemic is “novel” — something new in human history. But, normally, such a challenge would have brought out our best. “Step aside, please. We’re Americans, we’ve got this.”
The scales have been ripped from our eyes. America — see: the White House — cannot organize even such a simple-but-vital thing as supplying the personal protective equipment our frontline medical heroes need as they risk their lives to save others. Going on two months, it still can’t get done. And now, with “testing, testing, testing” universally acknowledged as the sine qua non to “going forward” (where Americans always want to go), the White House outright lies about the testing going on, ducks responsibility, refuses to lead — in sum, America can’t do.
What this unending train wreck of a crisis reveals is: America is Number One in ineptitude, incompetence, irresponsibility. Which are serious flaws in and of their own, but which, in a deadly pandemic, will compound — incalculably — the damage wreaked in unnecessary death (at posting, the toll in the U.S. is over 80,500), in unnecessary economic destruction, in unnecessary suffering (per The Washington Post, America now has a mental health crisis).
Are we seeing the demise of the American superpower, the coup de grace delivered by its own hand? America’s decline, bruited since 9/11, certainly feels accelerated; have we reached the Point of No Reversal? A column-cum-obituary by The Irish Times’ Fintan O’Toole states it: “Over more than two centuries, the United States has stirred a very wide range of feelings in the rest of the world: love and hatred, fear and hope, envy and contempt, awe and anger. But there is one emotion that has never been directed toward the U.S. until now: pity.” The Atlantic’s George Packer declares America a “failed state.” We have amended T.S. Eliot, who imagined the world ends “not with a bang, but a whimper.” It ends, it seems, in a confused mess.
In truth, we Americans have been deluded about our peerless props and reputation for some time. Two major forces weakening our system — Republican know-nothingism and an antipathy to seriousness — have brewed for decades, gaining steam in the go-go 1990s and now blending in perfect — or rather imperfect — union in our president, Donald J. Trump. See: any White House coronavirus press briefing.
Republicans, for reasons they justified at the time, have become a Know-Nothing party — anti-science, anti-fact, anti-truth. Their anti-government, anti-bureaucrat, anti-elite ranting, famously aimed at reducing government so it could be drowned in a bathtub, has yielded institutional catastrophe: Government now is headed by hack political appointees (while staffed by thinning ranks of professionals) who cannot, for just one of many examples, administer the relief packages Congress, in a miracle of bipartisanism, passed to aid suffering citizens and businesses.
To their credit, some Republicans — retired — have voiced regret: Former senator Bill Frist, a doctor, now avows science will point the way, proving conscience pulses in some. But: The institutional damage has been done, aided and abetted by professing Christians who cannot see the hypocrisy of standing by an amoral and dangerously demagogic President who mocks every virtue Republicans had long, and properly, espoused — like personal responsibility, a failing whose effects, as we see, are killing.
Political weakening was coupled with cultural weakening. Neil Postman in 1985 wrote of it in his book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” In the postwar era, while some youth rebelled for a cause — to right racial and sexist wrongs — others rebelled without a cause, against “the system” and “bourgeois morality.” Thus grew the cultural O.K. to cut corners, shade the truth, shirk responsibility, and yuk-yuk about it. Thus could torture, conducted by U.S. troops in Iraq, fail to rouse public furor. Heroes were out, the antihero was in. Over time the “transgressive” shaded into criminality, reflected post-9/11 in the wildly popular TV series about a mob boss who “whacked” his rivals and took his angst to a shrink (“The Sopranos”), and later in a series about a high-school chemistry teacher who, learning he has cancer, turned to producing meth to provide for his family “after” (“Breaking Bad”), all sanctioned by critics praising the “bent” and “twisted.” Culture being as powerful as politics in shaping a people, and with the unserious dominant, it is no surprise a “Breaking Bad” culture finally got its President: Donald J. Trump, Number One in grift.
(This cultural weakening was mainly, yes, a liberal thing, specifically an ultra-liberal thing, with the boomers being the “super-spreaders,” to use a term of the moment. I am a boomer by age and a liberal by philosophy. My boomer and liberal friends know I have protested ultra-liberalism’s licentiousness and no-boundaries policies forever: “Guys, we need to get serious.” And I cite Republican know-nothingism not because I am a Democrat, but because I believe in science and the Enlightenment.)
Why do these “unserious” qualities matter? Because life is a serious business and when crisis hits, as it has now, these traits not only are no help at all, but — again, as embodied to imperfection in Trump’s incompetence and irresponsibility — they are a force multiplier. See: Trump on ingesting disinfectant to combat COVID-19, then claiming he was only being sarcastic. In response, the world is laughing at us (also here).
Likewise, it is no help at all in this Age of Corona when our lead liberal newspaper, The New York Times, in its “Sunday Review” section, focuses the entire section one week on rebuilding a better nation (“The America We Need”) and then, the next week, that section leads with a full-page treatment of the nude selfie as High Art. Seriously? One has to ask: Is this a culture worth saving? Would it even know how?
I believe we do know how. More to the point, course-correction is already taking place to restore America as the Can-Do Nation, engineered by the conscientious public heartsick at Trump’s fiascos and determined to push upward.
See: the universal public admiration bestowed on scientific experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx, lead spokespersons for the White House coronavirus task force. That this admiration is driven by mortal fear of a deadly virus signifies all the more: We truly know now that expertise — of which America has a superabundance — and not know-nothingism will save us. And, it is a New Day for the bureaucrat, like Drs. Fauci and Birx. Welcome home.
See also: the universal public admiration bestowed on the medical heroes — the doctors, nurses, techs, EMTs — laboring valiantly, some dying themselves, as they fight a vicious virus. These authentic heroes knock flat the anti-hero — the rogue, the disrupter who moves fast and breaks things, the mock-criminal. How refreshing to embrace — once again — the real deal.
See also: the real-deal governors of New York, California, Ohio, Michigan, Virginia, my own Washington state for can-do organizing at the state level what Trump can’t do at the federal. Some of these governors are Democrats, some Republicans.
See also: the general public acknowledging the pandemic as serious and supporting, by big majorities, the sheltering-in-place orders — and, all the upending considered, adapting well. Whilst sheltering, much deep thought is taking place — a good and necessary thing. Meanwhile, disputing the pandemic’s seriousness are the know-nothing protesters inveighing against government overreach and threatening us all.
We see also America in its greatest peril since World War II — as a nation, as an economy, as the magnificent experiment in self-governance it represents in History. Let us view the Trump administration’s catastrophic handling of this catastrophic peril as the nadir in this country’s life — and let us pivot for higher ground. First order of business becomes then: to defeat in November not only Donald Trump, but Trumpism — the know-nothing, irresponsible, dishonest, arrogant, dangerous regime of these four years, that has nearly broken the America we admire and love.
Crises instruct — or they destroy. We stand instructed, sobered. We see the need for truth and, conversely, how lies kill. We see the need for character and, conversely, how the lack of it appalls. We crave honesty, decency, seriousness of purpose. As “Amazing Grace” has it, we once were wretches, blind, but now we see. Enough with breaking bad; there is, we can sense it, a powerful pent-up need in the conscientious public to break good, to break capable, to save America.
We can do again. Seriously.
Image: Plague doctor, circa 1656, during bubonic plague, Rome.