Saturday, March 28, 2020

Dr. Strangetimes: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Coronavirus

When growing up, I often focused on two era-defining phenomena from the previous generation: The New Deal and the Holocaust. How could the members of my society, one shaped by a faith in Adam Smith's invisible hand and a love for the gadgets that result from Smithian economic competition, have so thoroughly embraced a program in which the federal government took such a prominent role over the means of production? And how could the members of another great society, one associated with some of the finest composers, philosophers and writers who ever lived, have so thoroughly close their eyes, ears and hearts, while their soldiers dehumanized, terrorized, and pulverized nearly an entire ethnic group, which happened to be my own?  

The answers, I decided, include the following: Circumstances define character. Needs take precedence over wants.  Human beings, like other animals, are inherently self-interested, and our interests begin with self-preservation.  Accordingly, we are averse to risks, we don’t fix what isn't broken, and we don't rock the boat without a damned good reason … yet we are willing to take steps to protect ourselves -- and our fellows -- when we all feel a common threat is coming.  Like a storm … a worsening of a major economic depression … or a deadly, global pandemic.  

Bernie Sanders and some of his supporters fooled themselves into thinking that America was ready for another New Deal when he declared his candidacy in recent years. At one point, after the Nevada Caucuses, I even fooled myself into believing that he could get nominated, elected, and empowered to enact a program based on an expanded notion of "human rights." Unfortunately for Bernie, he ran and lost in the B.C. era -- Before Coronavirus. Back then (i.e., a full month ago), the majority of Democrats and left-leaning Independents thought that the only national "virus" was in the White House, and that once we are rid of the pestilence of Trumpism, we could get back to the glory days where Bill Clinton and Barack Obama presided over a society marked by prosperity, complacency, and a love for the gadgets that result from economic competition. Bernie had no chance in such a climate -- particularly not when the media was reminding us that he was trying to rock the boat at a time when the waters were rough (when Trump is President) and would continue to try to rock the boat even if the waters were to become calm (after the Trump Presidency is over, and prosperity, complacency, etc., returned to the kingdom).

Now, of course, we live in the A.C. era. And we can contemplate a period of 1-2 years where a virus comes and goes and comes again, destroying lives and jobs, and hearts and lungs.  In the A.C. era, we no longer dream of an America where we as individuals can either satiate ourselves with wonderful gadgets and trips to exotic places, or at least contemplate a time when our family will have lifted themselves up to be able to enjoy such prosperity and complacency. (For yes -- complacency is itself a luxury good in this dream). Now, we realize that we live interdependently. Our health and welfare, and that of our precious loved ones, is completely tied up with the virtue and wisdom of everyone else. And now we take seriously the sanctity of human life and human health because finally, we have an agent that poses an imminent threat to the rich as well as the poor. We're not simply talking about a scourge of bullets in the inner-cities, or of treatable cancers that devastate poor, underinsured communities in the countryside. We're all in this together and -- like the soldiers in the great wars of yesteryear -- we'll be "in the shit" together for quite a while.  

Now, it is possible to understand what the progressives like FDR or Sanders were talking about. Now it is possible to understand that we, for selfish reasons, might want a strong government devoted fundamentally to the protection of universal human rights. Roosevelt spoke about the four freedoms: freedom of speech/expression, of worship, from fear and from want. Now in the A.C. era, it is finally reasonable to consider that the critical mass of American voters might soon realize that their own enjoyment of these latter two freedoms cannot be preserved in a society molded with the spirit of Adam Smith and Ronald Reagan. Oh, we're not there yet, I get that. But after a round or two, or three, of the Coronavirus, I suspect that we just might be.