Government is good. The public square is often occupied by people debating the goodness of government. That is, not merely should government be ethically good, but it is a good institution to nurture. The answer is unquestionably yes. We have seen now the result of not tending to the essential functions of our government infrastructures on local, state and federal levels. Government is neither a business nor a vehicle for political philosophy, but it must be influenced by both to serve current circumstances and to prepare for those that will be different.
Leadership matters. Maybe since President Kennedy but certainly since President Reagan, the presidency has become marinated in the cult of personality that has dominated our celebrity-driven culture. Most of the time, we have been fortunate that the occupants of the White House have understood that their job is to lead, not to advance their brand. The stunning amount of support for the conduct of Donald Trump in this crisis is an indication that too many Americans do not understand the role of competence and expertise in leadership.
It’s not only about efficiency. For a long time, our economy (and, in turn, other aspects of our lives) have been driven by reducing costs through streamlining practice. While people are expected to be nimble as circumstances change, trimming close to the bone to preserve a bottom line means that the unexpected turn of events results in the end of the line for a business that thrived in the good times. We see the same problem in schools, medical practices, the arts and, most tragically, the family.
Take contingency planning seriously. Honestly, we should have figured this out a long time ago. The pandemic has affected more places simultaneously than other emergencies, but there has not been a year in this generation that has not presented a terrifying scenario. We have discussed them all. We have made effective plans for none – 9/11, snipers and lone wolves, hurricanes and other extreme weather, environmental pollution, displacement of large populations, cyberterrorism. I could keep going. Don’t dismantle what we do not need in the moment. Invest, instead, in what we will need in some foreseeable moment. And maintain it.
Protect dissent at all costs, but not necessarily behavior. It is the nature of our democratic society that people will disagree, sometimes very loudly. The protection of conscience and expression is fundamental to our society. Speech, art, music and certainly faith should never be subject to censorship with some very narrow exceptions. But acting on that dissent when it violates the law or critical public interest comes with consequences. Even the practitioners of civil disobedience accept that there are consequences to their actions. Individuals who weaponize our rights in their own dangerous causes must accept the legal consequences as well.
Without facts, conspiracy theories reign. If ever there were an example of the importance of relying on validated experts rather than ignorant speculation, it is regarding this virus. But it is not only when it comes to this issue that the lesson applies. We need to delineate the line that separates science from fiction, no matter how inconvenient the former and how earnest the latter.
High tech, high touch. Almost 40 years ago, John Naisbitt declared as one of his Megatrends this juxtaposition. At 91, I suspect that even he is surprised at just how high technology has climbed. But there is nothing that has supplanted the human need for personal contact, especially contact not mitigated by a screen. We are still learning the challenges of the ethics of physical contact and mutual consent, but we have been reminded of the importance.
Tradition must be nimble. What makes a tradition a tradition is that it is consistent over time. What makes a tradition more than habit is the meaning from which it emerged. When tradition is a vehicle for preserving and sharing meaning it serves its purpose. When the meaning is not accessible, tradition devolves into habit – and that can work to undermine the meaning it seeks to preserve. In these fraught times, it is not enough for tradition to provide the comfort of the familiar. Tradition – whether faith, work or opening day – must adjust to remain meaningful.
Tip. Hand-to-mouth is a dangerous lifestyle, even in a strong economy. People who earn their keep by serving others are rarely compensated at a level they need, let alone deserve. A tip (and a generous one) is the recognition that at moments like this crisis, we rely on the willingness of others to fulfill the responsibilities we choose to outsource – food delivery, transportation, hygiene. And in those circumstances when a gratuity is inappropriate (health care, responders, trash collection), gratitude will go a long way.
The matter rests in my hands. Every tradition has some version of this story: A king offers to spare the life of a wise opponent by offering a choice. He says, “In my cupped hands I hold a small bird, either alive or dead. If you can tell me which, I will spare your life.” The wise man knows that whatever he guesses, the king will best him; if he says “alive,” the king will crush the bird; if he says “dead,” the king will set the bird free. So he responds, “Your majesty, the answer is in your hands.” That’s the message to each of us.