“We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership.” —Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, June 2020
I actually don’t think that’s all we’re witnessing. I think our problems run much deeper. Four hundred years deep, dating back to the day the first slave stepped off the ship onto the soil that would one day be the soil of the United States.
Oh where were our visionaries then?
I suppose we could look to our founding fathers. Well, not all of them. But Benjamin Franklin allowed himself to be educated on the slave situation, though he remained pessimistic about integrating Black people into society. However, a thoughtful, intelligent man could not help but be troubled by what he himself saw as “an atrocious debasement of human nature”.
Yet he owned two slaves himself. And Benjamin Franklin was the best white man we had to offer at the time.
Jump ahead a few centuries. On June 16, 2015, Donald J. Trump announced he was running for president. Less than a year later, it was obvious he had the support to win. To the befuddlement and consternation of thoughtful, intelligent people everywhere, Donald J. Trump went on to become president of what was once the greatest nation in the world.
Life went on, but from that moment, the rights of the marginalized were under attack and in danger. As Mattis says, we haven’t had mature leadership. We have had evil leadership. Ignorant leadership. Leadership with the rights and privileges of the rich and powerful and white (and mainly male) prioritized. And our institutions have suffered because so much of them is controlled by that very demographic. It’s hard to stand up for what’s right when your stock portfolio is soaring. It’s hard to be concerned about “the others” when your race/religion/party is on top.
“The founding fathers, in their genius, created a system of three co-equal branches of government and a built-in system of checks and balances. I feel as though that is under assault and is eroding.” —Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, May 2017
Turns out Clapper was right. Our institutions have crumbled. Our checks and balances are nearly gone. And now we have a choice to make. The economy is on the verge of recovering after the blow it was dealt by Trump’s mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis. We haven’t seen the last of COVID-19, but people are learning how to live with the danger. That’s not even the wrong thing to do. We had to adapt. We are strong that way. Where we are weak is remembering the bad times.
Black Lives Matter has a chance for the first time in our history to make a difference. As a Southern White Woman—which I put in capitals because I worry constantly that it defines me to others, but, worse, to myself—I know this is important. It is important to every marginalized human being in our country including women, but it is most important to the Black community, which may finally throw off four hundred years of oppression.
Can we as a nation find the strength to resist a government which would oppress all of us—all but the powerful, white, and rich? Can the powerful, white, and rich find it in themselves to resist the call of more power and more money? Some have. James Mattis was one of them. There have been others.
“We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don’t. We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent.” —Senator John McCain, October 2017
“Without fear of the consequences and without consideration of the rules of what is politically safe or palatable, we must stop pretending that the degradation of our politics and the conduct of some in our executive branch are normal. They are not normal. Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as telling it like it is when it is actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified.” Senator Jeff Flake, October 2017
Can others follow? Can we all come to realize what is wrong is wrong even when it is not in our own interests? I don’t know. In November 2020 I hope I will find out. I pray what has been normalized—whether that has happened over four years or four centuries—will be rejected. Only then will the symbols of freedom we treasure mean anything at all.
Everything feels wrong now, and it seems that everyone is trying to quantify it and box it up and make it what they’ve always known. “Don’t judge people if you see them not wearing a mask or taking their kids out or trying to go back to work—you don’t know what they’re going through,” say some. This is true. But it does not escape my sense of fairness that some of these people are the same ones who are quick to judge those who take their families and flee from death and poverty in other countries. Don’t judge them, either. You don’t know what they’ve gone through.
We all want to go back to “normal”, but I don’t think we’re ever going to get back there from here. We’ll go back to some semblance of day-to-day life, but I believe what scifi writers have been warning us about—that some event would come along eventually that would change us forever—has finally happened. Where we go from here is really up to us. We can remain politically divided with half of us in denial about our doom and the other half constantly lecturing about it—or we can unite and fight for survival. I pray we opt to find the best in all of us when we declare victory over this virus…and return to “normal”.
Today I sat in my silent bookstore hoping for the phone to ring with someone wanting to take advantage of my Covid-19 remote shopping option. The silence is of my own making. I closed to the public at the end of last week. It felt like the right thing to do.
It’s very difficult right now to know what the right thing to do is because it’s difficult to know what to focus on. Medical experts who say this epidemic will not end well if we don’t continue to isolate ourselves? Government hopefuls who expect real life to echo the movies and miracle cures to materialize out of thin air? Economic brains who anticipate the further shutdown of the economy to be more catastrophic than thousands of deaths?
And truly, it’s hard to see the true danger. It’s invisible until it hits you or someone you love. The medical community understands this. They’ve given us the tools to defend ourselves (wash hands, don’t touch face, remain socially distant), but they warn if we don’t use them, the effects will be devastating.
The truth is, though, this silent and invisible enemy will be the most devastating one we’ve ever faced if we don’t listen to facts. Scientific facts—something we’ve been trained to disbelieve in our recent alternative fact universe—are what can save us, but how likely are we as humans to listen now that so much is at stake? Our lives depend on it, but are our pocketbooks more important?
What do we focus on? We can’t focus on any one thing, really. We have to see the whole picture. All at once and from every angle. And know that what we don’t see—the invisible—can harm us.
In truth, I feel we’ve all been denying truth and facts and science for so long in favor of what one political party or another says, I’m not certain we’re going to really get this pandemic thing until it smacks us in the face. And it’s a slow-moving thing that we’ve been misled about by the government that’s supposed to be looking out for us, so now that we’re told what’s actually happening and what needs to be done to stop it…nobody believes it. Even I—and I am far from a fact-denier—have a hard time believing it’s really so bad that restaurants need to close and kids shouldn’t have play dates. I still go into my store every day hoping it will be normal again. But it’s not. The little town I live in is spookily empty on these bright spring days.
And in spite of all that, it angers me to hear others make this political. The Democrats made it up, the media is whipping us into mass hysteria, it’s no worse than the flu. Yeah, I know it’s hard to accept, but this thing can kill you. And if not you, then someone you love. It’s the first true pandemic since the 1918 influenza epidemic which killed more people than World War I, and we’re still in the beginning stages of it. Denying it won’t stop it, any more than denying global warming will stop the seas’ rise.
That’s where we are right now. We have to make some tough decisions. Tough times are coming, and if history is any indicator, we most likely won’t learn anything from it.
Pandemic of the Head
By Michelle Garren Flye
It’s never happened before, so it can’t be happening—whoa!
Who can tell if this is the end of the world…or just for show?
Yet people sicken and die—but that happens every day.
How can we judge if it’s wrong to go this way?
Time to be responsible, that’s what you claim—
Have you no care for the pocketbooks you maim?
No parties left but political ones, and those you can’t attend.
Who will be left to pick up the pieces of what’s left in the end?
The sweep of a pen proclaims we must stay at home to work.
But what of those whose businesses can’t survive such torque?
Some will suffer more than others, of that there is no doubt.
The choice is simple—sickness and death is the only way out.
Shelter in place to protect the weak of our society.
Quarantine is a trial, but there’s nowhere left to flee.
No matter how this ends, both sides will declare tis what they said:
A pandemic like no other before…but it was all in your head.