Since the first case of covid-19 was reported in the US, Americans have had to face a new cause of illness and death. Two years into the experience, society remains divided in its willingness to combat the virus, protect itself, and limit the harms that this pernicious, sometimes mortal contagion wreaks. Covid is just dangerous enough to interfere with ordinary social pleasures, disrupt institutional regimens, and cramp habits of congregation outside. Continue reading
Category Archives: American Conditions
Editor’s note: This previously unpublished post is seeing the light of day today, 3 Dec 2021, as the Omicron variant has begun to sicken Americans, sending the covid epidemic into a third distinct phase. The basic distinction made here, in the divergent risks the virus poses to the vaccinated and unvaccinated, remains as salient today as in September, when this piece was composed.
Instead of continuing to wane. the pestilence known as COVID is surging, and a nasty new phase of the pandemic lies ahead. Since the more contagious delta variant arrived from overseas, it has moved into areas previously left untouched. More Americans in out-of-the-way places are getting sick. Delta is spreading over the South and other “red” regions where a fatalistic or defiant attitude toward preventive measures reigns.
At the same time, delta confounds the simple narrative of “victory through vaccination” that federal officials and the scientific community have been telling. Two starkly different fates await the vaccinated and unvaccinated, but, unfortunately, even vaccinated people are still contracting and transmitting the disease. Continue reading
Living Through a Paradigm Shift
I’ve turned to video to cover topics that I think are important but that I can best present in an informal and patently speculative way. Today’s video is about living through a paradigm shift, which occurs when a society must abandon the concepts and practices that formerly governed its culture. Do you think, as I do, that, in the wake of the insurrection and the pandemic, a new set of values and interests will come to prevail in the American mind? Let me know.
The Carnage on American Ground
Church is uncomfortable at times. On Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, I went to church in the middle of the day. The season of Lent was beginning: a period calling Christians back to the church and a deepening of their faith, a call that is not so easy to respond to, given that we are errant and have only a cloudy notion of God.
The sermon, which the bishop, Jeffrey Lee, preached, was about how our personal enchantment with the world leads to spiritual misery, characterized above all by our estrangement from human society. (Lee spoke at length about Eustace, the fictional bad-boy of C. S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, who, in his eagerness to claim a great treasure found in a dragon’s lair, clasps a gold bracelet on his hand, only to find that his greed has transformed him into a beastly dragon, too.) Christians may resolve to “give up things” for Lent, as is customary, but without divine grace we cannot restore ourselves, nor can we hope that such measures will bring us to a right relation with other humans, a relationship that we innately desire.
Which is why (here the bishop leapt to a startling conclusion) the Christian mission is inevitably collective. We would be miserable even if we could attain salvation alone, but, as it is, we simply can’t. Moving away from the wrong and toward the right involves turning from individuality and toward the common good. It involves assuming responsibility for the many wrongs we witness each day. Lee argued, for instance, that we, his hearers, were in some way responsible for the death of a respected police commander here in Chicago, who met his fate at mid-day Monday while trying to apprehend a convicted felon in flight after committing yet another crime. The commander, who just a few minutes earlier had been on his way to a meeting at city hall, was shot dead in the stairwell of a downtown government office building.
I left church about 1:30, pondering how I could be responsible for this crime. At about the same hour, I later learned, a crazed nineteen-year-old entered the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida and, armed with a semi-automatic rifle and ample ammunition, began shooting dead the youngsters, teachers, and staff inside. After murdering 17 people, most of them in their teens, this ghastly creature slipped away to hide himself in the banality of a Walmart and Subway before being picked up by the police.
Fingers have begun to point, divisions to arise, as though this damning episode were a grand occasion for taking sides. But we are all on one side in sharing the responsibility for crimes so deeply rooted in who we are, whose sources are not just individual, but moral, legal, political, and communal. As inhabitants of a self-governing society, we are all responsible for the society we have. When it comes to gun violence, every person of conscience in the US can rattle off what needs to be done. That we fail to do it ranks as a tragedy, a national sin.
Mary Schmich on what Marjory Stoneman Douglas would have done (Chicago Tribune).
The Face of Power
Election 2016 delivered a shock to conventional wisdom, to liberals and conservatives, to the political establishment, and to people like me who write or talk about politics professionally. Even though I correctly predicted a Trump victory, still when it came to pass, I was shocked. Now, when I wake up in the morning, I sometimes feel a sense of foreboding. At other times, though, I feel guardedly optimistic—about the body politic, if not about Trump.
Because conventional wisdom, the professional politicians, and the party establishment, all needed to be shocked. For at least five years, I have been writing about the stale condition of the parties and their ideologies. I have been writing about how the parties need to reorganize themselves around new ideas, about how the nation needs to get organized around a new constellation of goals appropriate for our times. Nothing less than the victory of a Donald Trump was required to shake the political parties and all their personnel out of a state of perpetual complacency. Both GOP and Democratic leaders must wake up: they are under much greater pressure now to use what power they have responsibly and constructively. If they do not deliver better government for the electorate, their parties are going down. I firmly expect that the next two to four years will be a time of constructive ideological ferment in the United States–and that politics will attract a new generation of leaders committed to reform and a renewed focus on commonly shared ideals, like a generally enjoyed prosperity and peace.
Like most intellectuals, I enjoy a life of privilege. I live in a city. My circumstances set me off from the rest of the population who are not part of ‘the creative economy,’ a term used to describe the formation of elites who make things and make things happen–who enjoy a sense of influence and autonomy. This election has rudely reminded all of us to broaden our vision and consider what is really happening in our country: how a system that used to work for most Americans, providing sound education, civic consciousness, and secure livelihoods for breadwinners–has been gradually slipping away. Great swathes of the nation are cut off from the expansive prospects that cosmopolitan Americans find so exciting. The election has forcefully re-directed our gaze–back to the ordinary places where democratic power dwells.