I have been struggling to put into words how I see our polarized nation feel, trapped in a cruel Groundhog Day script, where instead of improving ourselves, we inure to daily death counts, the elderly perishing alone in nursing homes, and divide ourselves into mask vs. no mask camps along political tribe borders.
I think Ross Douthat nailed the feeling for me in his New York Times essay today “The Coronavirus Quagmire.” It’s almost Trumpian in its pining for a greater time, when George S. Patton roused his troops on the value of winning. And it’s almost Carteresque in its description morbid acceptance of a “cruel new normal,” quoting Matthew Cotinetti’s phrase.
I remember in the mid-1970s when President Gerald Ford, hapless and ragged, tried to rally a shaken nation out of the inflation that followed the oil embargo with a slogan: Whip Inflation Now, “WIN,” which had as its inverse mnemonic “NIM,” meaning No Immediate Miracles. That campaign is memorable only for its failure to do anything but deepen a sense of profound national impotence.
This is how I see coronavirus affecting an America that has grown used to a daily diet of junk news, political strife, and ever-increasing cycles of outrage, coupled with a few grand gestures here and there. All of that was topped by a dessert of a forever-expanding economy and a forever-increasing stock market. Deprived of all of that and forced to quarantine, the news cycle is stuck on “repeat,” while everything tastes like ashes.
We are beating the virus in the same way the medical experts said we would. We flattened the curve, even in places like New York City, though that’s more of a challenge. We have produced enough ventilators (about which Americans learned what every doctor knows: it is the last resort to treat a dying patient, and most doctors would prefer the alternative to being hooked to one) to last through this and the next pandemic. We have caught up on testing in most places.
But we haven’t “beaten” the virus, because it’s still here, people are still dying, and we are now painfully aware that the rent will be due next month, and businesses are not opening up quickly. Nor should they, because in order to keep the death count from spiraling, we can’t go back to crowded restaurants, trade shows, movies, plays, and baseball games.
All the things Americans count on to escape the banality of living and flying headlong into mortality have been stripped away, leaving us vulnerable, irritable, and sad. Adding to this, some prescriptive essays like the one by the Washington Post’s Norman Chad proclaiming we “don’t need more sports in our lives; we need less” just rub salt in the wound.
In strictly medical terms, we are making astounding progress. We should be grateful that the Trump administration hasn’t killed every one of us, as many in the anti-Trump media would have us believe (no matter how Trump reacted, he either overreacted, under-reacted, didn’t provide enough ventilators, or made too many).
As Douthat wrote:
But an assumption of futility hangs over these efforts — a mentality of “no, we can’t” that emphasizes all the ways that we aren’t like South Korea or Taiwan or Eastern Europe, all the impositions that Americans supposedly won’t stand for, all the ways that our exceptionalism and polarization and mutual suspicion will inevitably make our death toll rise.
If I may boil down that thought to its essence, it means: Americans can’t be Americans with coronavirus here. We can only act out on stage a rough drama, a farce, of American life. We can pick teams on the mask vs. no mask field. We can choose the “liberate!” or open up now team, or the shelter-in-place team.
But both teams know that there’s no alternative but to live through this, and the virus doesn’t care which path we take. It is unmoved by our rhetoric, like inflation was unmoved by Ford’s WIN pins.
Douthat says America is looking for leaders. I agree. The President, in his ham-handed, insulting, and thumbless way, is hawking hope. But people aren’t buying this time. Gov. Andrew Cuomo was hawking sensible precautions, that is until his precautions put COVID-19 positive elderly people into nursing homes to spread the virus to our most vulnerable.
As I believe with all my heart, God will provide a leader. The leader won’t come from where we expect, or our political farm teams. The leader won’t rise on the backs of social media strategies, or megachurch pulpits. Someone, however, will rise to the task of providing the spark of hope. It might not be the same person for everyone. And it won’t be about the ego of the person God raises up.
There will be victory in this present darkness–to borrow a book title. We will find it when we learn to rest in the presence of God, and look to Him for our peace, and listen to His voice, from whatever vessel he chooses to lead us.