Hard times and shocks often produce needed change, for individuals and for a nation. A dramatic shock to a life of routine can produce change that reason and discourse can only envy.
The Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 wreaked death and destruction which unsettled belief in a loving and benevolent God. I remember vividly how the dramatic shock of Pearl Harbor unified America's resolve to fight the new enemy, even including former isolationists. It was amazing to see how our country came together overnight. The U.S. financial calamity of 2008 changed the world's view of U.S. capitalism from a model to follow to something deeply flawed. Today, President Trump's volte face from decades of America as a steady world leader has changed the world view to "America the unpredictable, caring only for itself."
Likewise, the worldwide shock of the COVID-19 virus will change our lives and our world, hopefully for the better. Look at some of the short essays in Politico Magazine of March 19. The editors asked 34 well known thinkers to speculate on how the present virus shock might change our lives.
Writers commented on a move from our hyper-individualism to a more communal perspective, from the belittling of knowledge and experts to recognizing experts are essential, and a new view of seeing ourselves as American citizens first rather than as primarily members of a political party.
Mark Lawrence Shrad, associate professor of political science at Villanova University, wrote of how we may be jolted into a new kind of non-military patriotism based on common pride in our country's goodness and opportunity for all. This penchant to help others is exemplified by the selfless work of doctors and health workers today.
Peter T. Coleman, professor of sociology at New York University, believes the pandemic might break America out of our angry and divisive polarization. He says we are trapped in "an escalating political and cultural polarization," adding, "Perhaps the 'common enemy' psychology will bring us together."
Tom Nichols, professor at the U.S. Naval War College, feels that two generations of mostly peace and prosperity have lulled the U.S. population into complacency. The virus teaches us that good government is essential.
Finally, Eric Klinenberg, professor of sociology at New York University, argues that the current shock "is going to cause immense pain and suffering. But it will force us to reconsider who we are and what we value, and, in the long run, it could help us rediscover the better version of ourselves."
I find it uplifting and hopeful to consider these conjectures. There can be no doubt that both parties have not taken seriously the vital issues before our country. No person or country on its own can assure that fish will survive our despoliation, or that the melting Antarctica will not raise sea levels, or that technology won't lead to destructive cyber and net warfare.
To create serious government, we need both government officials and leaders with their eyes on the prize of good policy, not their pocketbooks. We need experts who devote their lives to knowledge and science and good government. In addition, informed and thoughtful voters are a requisite of choosing good leaders.
Perhaps as the Politico writers suggest, the virus onslaught will shock us out of our "me first" view of ourselves into a "we" view which will open our eyes to what could and should be.
Perhaps out of a virus dour a rainbow of hope can shine. Then a government could arise that doesn't try to trick the people, and citizens would take responsibility for their lives within an economy fair to all.
Roy Wehrle of Springfield is emeritus professor at University of Illinois Springfield.