Scholars have long pondered how a democracy deals with war. Can we remain free if we conscript and establish central control? Can we fight and win a war if the people are fully informed of the horrors of war and every family sends a son or daughter to the fight?
We now face the question of how an open and democratic society deals with a pandemic.
Do we exercise command authority and shut whole economies down?
Vice President Mike Pence said recently that he and the president fundamentally believe in leaving how people deal with the pandemic, at Thanksgiving, for example, up to them. Let individual Americans figure this out on their own. Let them make their own calculations. For the variables are different for each person and family and the situation is vastly different from city to city, state to state, though COVID-19 seems to now be spiking almost everywhere.
That’s my gut reaction, too: Let people figure this out for themselves. Most will do what is right and responsible, even at great personal cost. I recently met a man who forswore his income for the first four months of COVID-19 because he is diabetic and has heart issues. No one at work was social distancing or wearing a mask in April.
And yet the libertarian model does not quite work here, does it? If ever most of us needed decent information, guidance and direct aid, from the government, it is now.
It also strikes me that this is a time for the nation to embrace its “vital center” and not its farthest wings. We are often a nation of reaction. Going from Bush to Obama to Trump, for example, is like going from an all-meat diet, to all greens, to all carbs.
And the extremes are often exaggerated and empowered by hard times. Demagogues were plentiful during the Great Depression. Antifa and the Proud Boys are on the march now.
We are sometimes reactionaries as individuals as well. We all know people who will not wear a mask and others who will not leave home. I know people who will not visit in a home — two and two people, together — or go to church, but will get on a flight to Mexico. They somehow embody both fear and recklessness.
We are a people of extremes: puritanical and profane; censoring and incontinent of flesh and image; conspicuously religious and utterly self-obsessed.
This is a time to seek balance. The government should seek it and each of us, as individuals, should.
Life in a cave or a basement is impossible. Life without risk is not life. But we must calculate the risk. We can engage in a level of risk that is reasonable.
Reasonableness, and not passion, is the needed medicine right now.
The other medicine needed is mutual respect.
We have to have a little faith in each other to get through the second plague.
We have to get through the crisis of division and mutual detestation that ails us.
We could start by pledging to each other that all Americans will accept the result of the current presidential election: Whoever is elected president will be accepted as legitimate. We will not riot or defame each other. And we will move forward together — until the next electoral contest.
Once Americans, of all persuasions, could be assumed to share certain basic values: Love of the country — its land, its soldiers and its creed, that all men and women are equal in the sight of the maker.
We now need to reestablish some common rules of the road, ones that we can all agree on — no matter what. How about: We renounce violence. We will not shut down speech we disagree with. We will all respect the offices, institutions and customs of the republic.
We have to have a little faith in each other, and in our system.
Donald Trump said a great thing the other day. He said: The American people are smarter than the elites that lead and inform them.
Joe Biden said something great, too. He said there is no contradiction between trying to create opportunity for those who have not had it and supporting the police. Both, he said, are about dignity.
We will survive COVID-19. The herd, so called, will get stronger; ameliorative drugs will be found; and then a vaccine will be discovered, and made available to us all.
I have no doubt that this will happen.
But how to survive the pandemic of loathing that so many Americans feel toward each other and the leaders of the “other” tribe? How do we build immunity to hate? Where will we find the vaccine?
“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” said Abraham Lincoln, echoing Jesus of Nazareth. It took 100 years to heal from the Civil War and just as long to begin to march toward justice. The healing and the progress, not coincidentally, came together. Martin Luther King Jr. — aided by a whole movement of civil and religious leaders of all colors and faiths, a progressive Congress, and a president from Texas who said and thought a lot of backward things, but wanted the country to heal and move forward — took us past anger and hate into mercy, justice and love.
King always tied himself to the American founders, flawed though they were, because they built a solid house — a house where no one man, party or power gets the final word or prevails in the final sense. Separation of powers and federalism enforce gridlock, say some critics. They also force dialogue.
And yet, let’s be honest, the house seems not so solid right now. The earth below its foundation is rumbling. And there is no voice like King’s on the scene.
Sen. Eugene McCarthy said that the capacity for leadership exists in every American and that reason is the only true medicine in public life.
These are the vaccines for surviving the second plague: reasonableness and mutual respect.