It’s already starting to happen. The healing. The power to love one another. The excitement of a shared commitment. The sense of wholeness when we know we belong to something larger than ourselves. It’s been a long time coming, but the blossoms are opening. No one can take this from us now.
Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York keeps telling us we are going to defeat the “beast” of this virus epidemic and come out the other end better and stronger. It’s tragic that it has taken such a scourge to wake us up to the damage we’ve done to ourselves and our planet, but better late than never.
How we got here
This is one very short version of how we got to the point of electing a con man as president: During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, American leaders turned to the ideas of British economist John Maynard Keynes. He taught that the best way to stimulate a moribund economy was to increase government spending and lower taxes. The Roosevelt administration developed dozens and then, eventually, hundreds of different programs to help individual citizens succeed and prosper. Basic necessities were subsidized. Unions built a comfortable life for workers. A sense of community flourished on the local level. And “Happy Days are Here Again” became the national theme song, at least for European Americans.
Post-World War II became “the American century,” partly because most of the other powerful nations had been laid low by the war. With basic necessities such as food and shelter being met for most citizens, the need for more progress became apparent, and we entered the age of Aquarius. Giving birth is never easy, but the heroes of the civil rights, women’s rights, Native American rights struggles helped us keep our eyes on the prize of equality and opportunity for everyone. We had time to study the environment and recognize the damage we were doing to Mother Earth.
So, what happened to Camelot? How did we get from loving our planet and each other to a hundred thousand of us dying from an unseen virus?
In short, some very smart people wanted to become even richer than they already were and financed a plan to tap into the less humanitarian parts of our human nature. They turned to economists like Milton Friedman who preached the philosophy of limited government, personal freedom and winner takes all. Using emotionally charged issues, they cornered the market on voter turnout.
Over time, our more advanced sense of humanitarianism and cooperative behavior began to fade, and folks became downright suspicious of government and each other. We became more interested in stroking our own egos, living the good life, and filling the void in our lives with compulsive consumerism.
And while we were looking forward to weekends and partying, we didn’t notice that very few of us were accumulating a larger and larger share of the wealth we were all creating.
The rich got richer and the poor got poorer over the last few decades. No one can deny that. Automation, globalization and the dismantling of our common bonds brought us to a dark place where murder and suicide now outnumber deaths from some of the major diseases. As the virus spreads across the country, people are buying guns, and domestic violence is a major issue. In short, we are a sick society.
How we rebuild our communities
But the pandemic has also given us time to examine our lives, our culture and our future. Despite the damage being done by a tiny virus, we’ve re-imagined a society based on cooperation, sacrifice and love. We are rewriting our common story without even being aware of it. “We are all in this together.”
We’ve seen many examples of shared community on TV:
- An incredible outpouring of affection and support for “frontline” workers during this crisis. (Too many examples to list here.)
- Amazing use of intellect and ingenuity by thousands of Americans:
…using 3 D printers to make face masks
…organizing virtual meetings, family gatherings, church services
…adapting to online learning, expanding broadband
…turning face mask sewing into an artistic competition
…adjusting to working from home and saving on gas
- Innovative expressions of the need for social connectedness:
…individual singers and instrumentalists combining their talents online (How do they do that?
…New ways of celebrating traditional events such as birthdays and graduations
…Neighborhood parties with social distancing, drive in theaters for live concerts
…Eager participation in local outreach efforts such as food drives, checking on neighbors, delivering food and medicine to senior citizens
What we’ve learned and what needs fixing
The epidemic has also brought to our attention issues that have been simmering behind the scenes for a long time. The good news is that we are now more open to solving some of those problems.
Gov. Cuomo has filled the role of moral leader left vacant by the White House during this national tragedy. One issue he is addressing head on is the disproportionate effect of this virus on communities of color. Working with church leaders in the hardest hit neighborhoods, the NYC public health department has set up testing sites in those churches to track the virus. The plan is to go well beyond serving those communities during the epidemic. What they learn and accomplish can be replicated in other parts of the country.
The pandemic has brought our attention also to the appalling conditions in some Native American communities. “Navajo Nation,” in the Southwest, has one of the highest rates of disease and death caused by COVID-19. The question is: How is it possible that people living in the richest country in the world don’t have immediate access to potable water? The governor of Arizona is doing all she can with state resources, but the Indian Health Service (part of HHS) is AWOL. This can and will be fixed with a Democratic president in the White House.
Pollution is bad in most of our country but much worse in cities. Now is the time to address urban health issues, especially those affecting children. We’ve known for decades about the rates of asthma in big cities and how children have to miss school on “orange alert” days. Decades ago, when we were, as a society, sincerely interested in making life better for everyone, a big campaign forced paint companies to remove lead from their products because it causes damage to children’s brains. Now imagine a campaign like that directed at fossil fuel companies and other polluters.
We see on TV the before and after photos of polluted cities. When people work from home and don’t drive or use public transit, the air is cleaner and healthier. Now is the perfect time to revive the enthusiasm for saving the environment that began in the 1970’s. For starters, our new president must rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement and begin repairing our relationships around the world. Environmental groups have been stigmatized by the big polluters, but we can gradually change that with our support of those organizations. Imagine the creativity of our younger generations and how much they can accomplish in a short time.
“Going to prison shouldn’t be a death sentence.” Sadly, it took a deadly virus to bring prison reform front and center for discussion. The prison industrial complex, aided and abetted by businesses looking for cheap labor, must be thoroughly examined. There is nothing “correctional” about a system that traps people during a pandemic.
Just as shockingly, we’ve been forced to learn about the inhumane treatment of immigrant laborers, especially in meat packing plants. This is the time for Congress to finally face the need for comprehensive immigration reform and for us to elect a president who will inspire that effort. And, yes, it’s time to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Health care…. It’s time to detach health insurance from employment. This issue received plenty of attention during the Democratic debates, but the loss of work due to the pandemic now demonstrates why we need guaranteed medical care for everyone.
Many of us shook our heads watching tens of thousands of pounds of food being plowed under for lack of markets. Milk had to be dumped too. This was happening as people out of work were lining up at food banks. It’s time for some federal agency to work out a plan for transportation and distribution of food, not just in case of another pandemic, but also for the next wave of climate induced weather disasters.
Then and now
We need a new story to tell ourselves what we expect our “new normal” to look like. It’s pretty obvious we are never going back to the America of 2019. And that’s a good thing because we have the opportunity now to rewrite our vision of the future. What have we learned from the worst disaster to hit our country since the Great Depression? In a way, we are seeing many of the same problems… hunger, homelessness, high unemployment, a fractured political system that plagued us back then.
As described above, we, the people, have risen to the challenge of facing this epidemic head on. When hospital workers needed us, we rushed in to help. When leadership at the national level failed us, we organized and did amazing things in our own communities. This new spirit of togetherness and service to others has rekindled the love of community that was stolen from us in recent decades.
Now we can build on those local connections/
…Get to know someone new and different…. There is a wonderful example in St. Louis each Christmas Day when Jewish and Muslim neighbors work together on hundreds of local projects while giving Christians a day to celebrate their holiday. The best way to reduce our fear of others or discomfort with people we are not used to being with is to work together on some local project of mutual interest. Local elected officials can facilitate these connections.
…Promote the arts…. As President Kennedy said, “When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgement.” Those who want to control us work constantly to confuse us with “alternative facts,” emotional distractions and ways to tempt out that lower part of human nature. Why else would they be promoting competitive and increasingly violent forms entertainment as “sports”? Why do they insist on cutting funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, National Public Radio and Public Television? Why is it, when school budgets come under the knife, it’s always the arts that go first? Think about it. Remember the Maslow hierarchy of needs? Once we are fed and housed, we yearn for something psychologically and spiritually satisfying.
…Offer people a chance to be part of the decision-making process locally and nationally. We need to work on expanding voter participation starting with teaching some form of civics (and not just a “course” in it) to children and teenagers. Given the natural desire to join forces to help one another shown during the pandemic, this should be an obvious next step. Maybe we can reimagine how local government works to bring more citizens into the decision-making process. How do we include non-citizens who are essential members of our community and who pay taxes?
…Finally and most importantly, we need to rewrite the story we live by. George Monbiot, writer for the London Guardian, has written about this extensively. He describes the toxic ideology of extreme competition and individualism that has come to dominate the world that must change if we are to build a healthier society. What is needed now is the same “story” people needed in past centuries after a cataclysmic disaster laid them low. Monbiot calls it the “restoration story.” We obviously need to restore the foundation of a healthy economy that meets people’s basic needs. But, more than that, we need to listen to those better angels of our human nature Lincoln spoke about and create a new politics of belonging. The Biden campaign slogan has already been written: We are all in this together.