Mixed Greens

Which shall it be?

Posted 4/8/20

Nineteen years ago, in the months following 9/11, many publications devoted space and ink to predictions about how the attacks would change us. A few prominent commenters foresaw “the end of …

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Mixed Greens

Which shall it be?


Nineteen years ago, in the months following 9/11, many publications devoted space and ink to predictions about how the attacks would change us. A few prominent commenters foresaw “the end of irony,” suggesting that our national culture, so jarred by the violent event, would be transformed overnight into a landscape where artists and entertainers took things more seriously. Ten years on, The Atlantic revisited the notion of a stark cultural dividing line and concluded that irony hadn’t died—it just took a brief rest. A similar 10th anniversary retrospective in New York Magazine suggested that irony had simply become ineffective in a post 9/11 world in which journalists and scholars were derided as old-fashioned fuddy-duddies, clinging hopelessly to an outmoded “fact-based reality.” That’s how one of George W. Bush’s aides expressed it, adding that the administration he served was creating its own reality through its actions. As we have seen in the intervening years, alternative realities beget alternative facts, which can come home to roost in the form of denial and deadly incompetence.

In the present emergency, big thinkers from various fields of expertise are once again speculating about the broader long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. They are looking at how the pandemic may transform our lives, from the practical day-to-day to our philosophical and spiritual beliefs. And once again, they are asking whether COVID-19 will create a clear dividing line of “before” and “after.”

One set of predictions concerns our attitudes towards science and expertise. Will the exemplary leadership of our medical experts foster a broader renewal of faith in scientific process and fact-based policy making, and a rejection of the decades-old culture wars that have politicized issues like climate change, pollution, healthcare and educational policy? In particular, advocates for climate action are hoping for a new understanding of the connections between climate change, the destruction of wildlife habitat and the potential for new viral outbreaks.

Other writers are examining ways the pandemic will change how we interact. Many more people may be working and studying from home—if they are lucky enough to be able to do so—long after the immediate danger has passed. Others may return to more conventional workplaces with a new need to maintain a form of social distancing. What technologies will we need to enhance or invent in order to facilitate remote learning, working from home and telemedicine? What will be lost culturally, psychologically and spiritually as we develop new ways of handling or avoiding personal contact?

What can we learn about logistics and the functionality of our basic systems? For example, the cost-cutting “just in time” supply chain keeps manufacturing processes lean by reducing the stock of materials and products companies keep on hand. But, as we’ve seen in the past few weeks, applying that principle to emergency planning has been a deadly mistake. “Lean” costs live in a health crisis that requires rapid action. We’re going to have to prioritize the maintenance of stockpiles of vital medical equipment and supplies, funding health research and global health monitoring, access to medical care to everyone, and valuing and fully supporting our healthcare professionals who are making such extraordinary sacrifices.

Right now, we are focused on how to get back to normal. But we are going to have to face the fact that “normal” didn’t work. It didn’t protect us or prepare us. We need to rethink how we live, how we work, how we deliver medical care, how we plan and invest in emergency management and climate resiliency, and the responsibility of government to safeguard our health and safety. We are inextricably connected—across systems, religions, nationalities and political perspectives—and our welfare depends on the welfare of others.

That’s not socialism. It’s biology.


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