|Infusing goodness, beauty, and truth into our public discourse|
Issue No. 9
In a matter of weeks, the COVID 19 crisis has upended life as we know it.
Across the world, billions of people are in self-imposed and forced isolation. People’s professional lives have been overturned through job loss or obligatory teleworking. And people’s personal lives have been truncated due to the shelter-in-place mandates and bans on even small group gatherings that most states have implemented. Over fifty million primary and secondary school students sit at home due to school closures, as well as millions more college students. People already isolated and marginalized in society are now even more at risk for depression and suicide. Economists still differ on just how great the economic costs of the quarantine have been and will be, but there is no question such costs are considerable; it will take years to quantify these costs, not to mention the social costs imposed by this long-sustained period of isolation.
Of course, all of this is necessary to save lives. As of this writing, America has nearly 200,000 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus—which has already taken over 4,000 lives in our country, and counting.
Welcoming New Life During A Pandemic
In the midst of all this suffering, however, my husband Kian and I are thrilled to have welcomed our baby boy, Percival James Alexander Hudson, into our family earlier in March.
It is something of a strange time to bring new life into the world. Were we not amid a global pandemic, we might have had friends and family visit us during our stay at the hospital, but it was in compete lockdown by the time we left. And we might have had family stay with us to help us transition and acclimate to life with a newborn, but my mother had to leave out of concern Canada might completely shut down its boarders (it did to non-citizens). We almost certainly would have introduced Percy to many more loved ones (instead, we’ve enjoyed a lot of FaceTime with them!).
Yet this time together in self-isolation has been a blessing. Interestingly, in some cultures, such as in parts of Latin America, baby and mother are in self-isolation for the first six to eight weeks post birth to allow for recovery and also bonding. And despite the social distancing, family and friends, both near and far, have found ways to demonstrate their love and support for us—having meals delivered from local eateries, sending us notes and videos of encouragement and affirmation, and more.
More than anything, welcoming Percy the world during a global pandemic—watching each day as the economic contraction and death rates continue to increase both domestically and abroad—has inspired us to count the health and well-being of our family among our many blessings.
Times of Crisis Reveal Who Are
During this trying time, people are understandably worried about their own wellbeing and that of those whom they love. Having a new little one to care for, we understand this more than ever before. Yet even now one thing has remained constant: As the highly social species that we are, this time of crisis has brought out the best in many of us, not the worst, even as the anti-social behavior of price gouging and fights over provisions at grocery stores tends to dominates headlines.
I wrote about this neglected, but hopeful story for USA Today last week—about the many and varied ways that Americans are helping one another in this time of need. Distilleries are making hand sanitizer and giving it away for free. Restaurants are delivering free meals to the elderly. People are creating nonprofits overnight to fill some community need.
This reveals something beautiful about America. As I mentioned when I was a guest on Indiana’s Fox 59 earlier this month, times of crisis tell us who we are. These stories reveal that America is, as Tocqueville noted on his journey through America in the early 19th century, America is still a nation of joinders, do-ers, and fixers.
Civilization—American or otherwise— is held together by the small, cumulative decisions people make to help their fellow citizens. Alone, such actions may seem minor. But in the aggregate they make an enormous difference. One of my favorite thinkers, Adam Smith, distinguished between justice and beneficence. Justice is the bare minimum we owe to others, an obligation to do no harm. Today, this means staying home during the quarantine and not potentially infecting others. Justice, however, is about merely surviving. To flourish, we need beneficence—our duty to actively do good toward our fellow man. We can take encouragement from the fact that—while no crisis will ever be free of bad actors—there are many determined to help one another, despite the personal costs and risks.
The Irreplaceable Nature of In-Person Relationships
Another noteworthy facet of these strange times is the way in which our forced and self-imposed isolation has revealed the irreplaceable nature of the physical element of community and relationships. We are, and have been for some time, the most digitally connected society in human history. Yet, as we’re finding out during this quarantine, digital connection simply isn’t enough. Friends who are parents to elementary and high schoolers tell me that, even though they connect with their friends with Facebook, Twitter, Tik Tok, text messages, online classes, and other digital platforms, they still miss their friends. People who may have once longed for remote work options now find themselves pining for their offices and co-workers.
The last few weeks could not have more completely vindicated Aristotle’s point about man’s sociability. We often appreciate things best when we don’t have them anymore. On this score, I had the pleasure of writing for The American Conservative about the importance of the dinner party as a social ritual that rebuffs loneliness and binds civilization. When we can no longer dine together in-person, where does that leave us? Indeed, what if this extended time of social distancing re-invigorates community life in America? Could all this isolation foment a social and communal renaissance? Do the stories such as the one I documented for USA Today indicate that we might already be on the cusp of one?
The Short-Term Gains and Long-Term Costs of COVID 19
It is worth thinking about the ways in which this crisis might irrevocably change American life, for better and for worse, in short term and the long. Full disclosure: I am more optimistic about the likely short-term changes than the likely long-term ones.
We know that times of crisis in our past have often resulted in eras of strong national unity. The periods following the American Revolutionary War, World War II, and the terrorist attacks of September 11th, for example, saw an America fortified; the hazard of a common enemy brought us together. Yet often these effects were short-lived. Parallel to the way in which many Americans are choosing to elevate the common good over those things which divide us, as I wrote in USA Today, many of our national leaders are already politicizing our situation and sowing seeds of further division. What would it take for real, long-term gains to be made in the pursuit of national unity and the common good?
With confirmed cases of COVID 19 in virtually every country in the world, governments are making various decisions about ways to mitigate the transmission of the virus—often doing things that truncate individual liberty. Many countries—including America—are dishing out fines and imprisonment to people who violate the shelter-in-place mandates. China and South Korea are monitoring people’s movements via their smartphones constantly. These measures may be necessary and effective in mitigating the spread of the virus now—but what about when, God-willing, we get the virus under control? Will these coercive and invasive restrictions be repealed, or will they seem too useful to give up entirely?
We know from crises in the past—most recently, the Transportation Security Administration’s security theater and vast increase in citizen surveillance created in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11th—that once these crisis measures are in place, they are difficult to roll back, even if they are no longer needed. This is a major problem, for many of these laws are costly, ineffective, and intrusive. As legislators debate further measures, they should consider including a “sunset clause” in these laws, or a clause that requires that the laws be re-evaluated at the end of a crisis, to ensure these measures are terminated when they are no longer necessary.
COVID 19 is currently among the top three causes of daily death in America. This is a tragedy. But it would only be more disastrous if we did not each do our part to alleviate the suffering around us—by social distancing, yet also by reaching out and staying connected to loved ones during this trying time. Doing our part also means actively looking for things we can do to help our neighborhoods and communities. If we let the virus cause us to withdraw, the injury to our social and economic lives will only be worse.
What I’m Reading: Historical Accounts of Plague, Society, and Community
In his History of the Wars, Roman historian Procopius (500-570 AD), gave an account of the plague that ravaged the known world (or, at least, from Byzantium to Persia) in the 6th century—the first account of a pandemic reliably recorded in history. Procopius relates that the plague originated from Egypt and took five to ten thousand lives each day at its height. He notes that the streets were empty, as people were too busy caring for the sick or fearing for their lives to leave the house—not too different from today’s self-quarantines. All work ceased, and Justinian I gave out money to survivors—a stimulus package, 6th century style—to help them through the dire time. For more interesting comparisons to our own time, read Procopius’ full account here.
Daniel Defoe, famous for his novel Robinson Crusoe, wrote an account of the 1665 Great Plague in London called A Journal of The Plague Year. The novel is often read as nonfiction (Defoe was five years old during the plague year), and for good reason—the work is well-researched and provides insight into the nature of a culture in crisis, not unlike our own. Defoe’s work captures the way in which human nature is tested in times of emergency. He outlines his struggle between maintaining a business and providing for himself, as well as surviving the plague itself. He discusses the morose ambiance of a once-vibrant London: “Sorrow and sadness sat upon every face, and though some parts were not yet overwhelmed, yet all looked deeply concerned; and, as we saw it apparently coming on, so everyone looked on himself and his family as in the utmost danger … Tears and lamentations were seen almost in every house.” He mentions the pickpockets and thieves that capitalized on the societal vulnerability for their own selfish gain. He remarks on the “sequestration of the sick” that the government enforced—a moratorium on visitors to the sick from leaving their homes until a government inspector gave them the green light—and the instructions to keep streets and houses clean. This early form of quarantine and sanitation is remarkable; Londoners of the time had no notion of bacterial or viral transmission. I found this observation particularly striking: “It must be confessed that though the plague was chiefly among the poor, yet were the poor the most venturous and fearless of it, and went about their employment with a sort of brutal courage. I must call it so, for it was founded neither on religion nor prudence.” Defoe gets to the exact question that many leaders of developing nations face, and one that many in need in our own nation are currently contemplating. Those who lack resources—at home and abroad—are put in an untenable position: risk infection, or starve? Find more insights from this classic work here.
Renaissance humanist Giovanni Boccaccio’s famous Decameron begins with an Introduction in which he famously describes the outbreak of the Bubonic plague in Florence—a plague which over the course of the fourteenth century killed close to sixty percent of the city’s population. A particularly striking passage, here: “But what gave this pestilence particularly severe force was that whenever the diseased mixed with healthy people, like a fire through dry grass or oil it would rush upon the healthy. And this wasn’t the worst of the evil: for not only did it infect healthy persons who conversed or mixed with the sick, but also touching bread or any other object which had been handled or worn by the sick would transport the sickness from the victim to the one touching the object.” Find more of Boccaccio’s beautiful and heart wrenching prose here.
What I’m Writing:
The Roots of American Conservatism
For Modern Age, a quarterly academic journal of American conservatism, I reviewed George F. Will’s new book, The Conservative Sensibility. I enjoyed the book, which Will hopes will be the definitive account of American conservatism. I found parts of his analysis wanting, however. First is Will’s equation of American conservatism with classical liberalism. Surely, there is some overlap, but there are differences as well: most important is that conservatism is a disposition, while classical liberalism is a fully formed, value-laden political philosophy. Any conservative disposition must be complemented with a value-laden political philosophy; but to claim the two are one and the same only invites confusion. I took issue with another claim of Will’s too: he claims that an American conservative must strive to conserve the American Founding. This implies that all that is good and great in America began and ended in that specific era—circa 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was signed, to 1789, when the United States Constitution was ratified. Yet there are many things in America’s history after that decade worthy of preservation and celebration—and many things in that era that are condemnable. If we limit what we wish to conserve to the Founding Era, we miss Abraham Lincoln, Fredrick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., Susan B. Anthony, and other American heroes who fought and sacrificed to see the Founding ideals of life, liberty, and equality realized for all Americans. Read more of my review of Will’s work here.
The Weaknesses of Capitalism in the Words of Adam Smith
We hear a lot of criticism of capitalism and free markets today, but many critics don’t realize that Smith, sometimes considered “The Father of Capitalism,” was very aware about the economic system’s potential flaws because he was a aware of the weaknesses in human nature. In The American Spectator, I explain how more than two centuries ago Smith anticipated and addressed these criticisms of capitalism. Read more here.
Thank you for taking the time to read this month’s A New American Renaissance! I hope these ruminations above offer stimulation and encouragement during this peculiar era. As always, I welcome your thoughts on these notions and more. Please write to me as ideas come your way!