I keep hearing people say, “The world is changed now; nothing is ever going to be the same after this.” I am usually skeptical about such predictions that “everything is changed now,” because I’ve heard people say it too often when it turned out to be false. I was reminded of one such example not too long ago.
During the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, I repeatedly heard people say, “Wow, this will really change things.” And then, there was that amazing day when a line of tanks was stopped by a single Chinese protestor. I remember the person sitting next to me watching the scene on television turn to me and say: “There’s no going back now. Things will be totally different after this.” I thought he was probably right.
Now, fast forward to last year. A professor I know was sitting in his office with a foreign graduate student from China. On the inside of the door of his office, this professor had hung a poster of that famous scene of the single Chinese student standing in front of a long row of tanks. The graduate student from China looked up at the poster quizzically and asked: “Why do you have that there? You know that never happened.”
“What?” replied my incredulous friend. “That was just propaganda from enemies of China.” The Tiananmen protests were a small group of radicals who went “too far,” he insisted, spurred on by foreign governments. So much for “everything being different” and “there’s no going back now.” It takes more than one great photo op and a bunch of talking heads on television to change the government in China.
So too it will take more than one dramatic event (whether it’s the attack on 9/11 or the current pandemic) and a few pundits spouting “it will all be different” to cure the political dysfunctions that plague us.
It’s easy to say, “things will be different,” because, in certain ways, things always are. The question isn’t whether things will be different – the universe is in constant flux – but whether they will be better or worse.
From what I can see, things will be pretty much the same, only worse. Let’s be honest with ourselves. There has been no letup in bickering and partisanship and hatred and innuendo and attributing bad motives to one’s opponents. There has been no increase in the political realm in basic kindness and civility, no greater willingness to enter into a meaningful public dialogue with others who disagree, no greater respect for the Constitutional order. I’m not telling you anything you haven’t already noticed.
The media hasn’t shown itself during the crisis to be noble defenders of truth and freedom. They are ideologues increasingly blinded by their anger and prejudice. They have unquestioned “narratives” by which they sort through and interpret the profusion of data and factoids they must process every day.
They set these before the public in as emotionally charged and entertaining a way as possible to keep their advertising revenues high enough to continue servicing the huge debts owed by their parent corporations. This crisis, no more than the last several, has done nothing to quell their divisive tendencies; it has merely increased their rapaciousness. There is no reason to think it will be any different in the coming months, especially as we approach the election.
So although I have no idea what will happen, we might reflect on a few things that perhaps should happen.
Many people have concluded that we should be better prepared. That seems obviously true. But the question is, prepared how? Most proposals I’ve heard involve trying to predict in advance what we will need when the next essentially unpredictable crisis befalls us so we can exercise our technological prowess to control the problem and then conquer it. That’s not wrong, but it may leave us always preparing to fight the last war rather than the next one.
I have a slightly different idea. To prepare for the next unpredictable crisis, perhaps we should do what we can to make sure that nearly every business and person in the country has a three-month buffer to subsist on if the economy should come to a complete standstill again.
No more being highly leveraged, living on edge. No being steeped in debt, so that even a week’s pause in business means financial ruin. The top 85 percent of the economy should be able to survive for three months on savings, with no need for multi-trillion-dollar government bail outs, hand-outs, or loans. Each person and business could be encouraged to think of being prepared in this way as his or her civic duty.
Civic duty? Who thinks that way? We should. Too many people don’t.
The way we would know “things have changed” is if the nation and individuals in it were living more frugally and being more civic-minded. We would be equally passionate, but less partisan. There would less sniping, less concern about celebrities and more concern for the long-term good of the nation. There would be no discussion of Twitter, ever, and people would recognize the difference between snarky memes and a reasoned argument that takes seriously one’s opponents.
The shouting media mob would be replaced by serious reporters who don’t do gotcha’ journalism and who would earn respect not just for ideological purity, but because they have gained a well-deserved reputation for being fair-minded and for helping further a sensible discussion among different parties and between those who hold differing visions of the common good.
Many readers are probably just laughing at me now. What can I say? God help us. It would take a miracle. But unless some fundamental things change – unless we rediscover and revive the virtues that have from time immemorial allowed civilizations to flourish – the future will be not so very different; it will be, I fear, much the same – only worse.
*Image: Changing West  (from ‘America Today’) by Thomas Hart Benton, 1930–31 [The MET, New York]