The Perfect Storm of Empathy
The perfect storm is rolling across America: The clouds are dense with months of repression, suppression, and depression. Some people are chugging through to find their own light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, while others are convinced that the tunnel is much longer — and that glimmer some see is a reflection of selfishness.
Regardless of where you are in this continuum, without doubt, Americans, in toto, for at least 50 days, sacrificed and sequestered themselves, if not side-by-side, collectively but alone, with the ubiquitous mantra, “We’re all in this together,” heralded daily from television shows to streaming concerts, from roller coaster pressers to anemic Public Service Announcements.
Newscasters ended their reports with heartfelt reminders: “Stay-at-home. Be safe. We’re all in this together.” Entertainers filled the metaverse with streaming content harping the same tune. Government officials encouraged us to stay-at-home. Road alert signs flashed the same messaging. The abundance and saturation of such sentiments metamorphosed from sage advice to political propaganda, especially when the data points started to shift.
The upshot is that implicit guilt got programmed into us: If we dare to “go out” to get groceries, or walk the dog, we were putting everyone at risk. If we’re not at home, we must be spreading the virus around. This behavioral conditioning is inherently tinged by implication that only the selfish don’t stay-at-home — only outsiders and loons aren’t “in this together” with the rest of us. This is the so-called new normal that is being sold to the world. And it’s packaged as a chance to make the world a better place by adopting new paradigms of social conditioning. For about 50 days, we bought what was being sold.
By and large, we gave cease a chance. We did admirably well. We deified Dr. Anthony Fauci, held vigils, utilized sewing machines and 3D printers to make PPE, prayed for the infirmed and alone. We stopped everything, except those so-called essential services. With many small business owners living month-to-month, the power of the federal stimulus checks waned, the SBA loans were slow, tepid, and ill-administered, the coronavirus college models were all grossly inaccurate and apocalyptic— and with the flipping of the calendar came the impatience to remain self-quarantined.
The flatten the curve mantra has an unfortunate repercussion — it has flattened the nerve of many people: The nerve to go out in public, the nerve to visit doctors, the nerve to go to restaurants, the nerve to shop, the nerve to travel, the nerve to return to life. For a moment, the great political divide which became a gigantic gulf in 2016 had ebbed briefly to a new beginning of fighting together against the common but novel coronavirus — the Invisible Enemy. But as the month of May reminded us of another month of Sundays that would feel just like any other day of the week, the hope that we can find political balance has been dashed. The storm rolls in and settles over us like November clouds in Seattle. Where is our hope? Where is our national nuance and social subtlety? It resides in our collective ability to restore and renew our sense of empathy toward one another.
The unelected, doctorally-educated elite scientists, once demi-gods, have proven that they are only human. Wisdom shifts with the wind: don’t wear masks, be sure to wear masks; the U.S. shouldn’t worry — oops, it’s a pandemic; travel freely, stay-at-home, maybe go out and get some sun; hydroxychloroquine as a therapeutic shows promise while creating dangerous heart conditions; only the elderly should worry — except that children and teens might be more at-risk to suffer from pediatric multi-system inflammatory syndrome. We need more ventilators —oops, ventilators might be making matters worse, as this virus manifests symptoms of pulmonary thrombosis.
Perhaps because so many scientists got this wrong from the beginning (or just didn’t know enough and erred on the side of extreme caution), we are now experiencing a new wave of warnings from them, motivated and predicated on guilt. We must understand the public health officials rationale, which is to protect us all — even if they aren’t exactly sure themselves on how to do it. But public health protection also requires dimensional thinking about the impact from shutting down entire global financial systems. Governor Cuomo admitted recently that he grapples with how this COVID-19 situation changes every two weeks. At a daily presser he waxed, as he is known to do, and declared: “I said, we don’t believe children are affected by this virus…. I’m talking to the best public health experts on the globe, and that’s what they told me. And that’s what I told people. And now that turns out not to be true. I presented it as a fact. And a fact is a fact. But what’s happening here are that facts are changing.”
If the intent of science is to better understand and come to grips with the world around us, then it is an art, too — for art by its very nature is a quest toward discovery and an effort to self-express upon the human condition. Science must be adaptable. It is important for a leader to have facts—and it’s important for leadership to be prepared to adapt when their advisors learn something new. That’s why we cannot create effective policies based solely upon graphs and charts that are predictive. It is true that we are accustomed to liking data because it makes us feel that there is a sense of control; we tend to believe what is quantifiable. But when the estimates are so far off, like all good scientists, we must question the methodology and examine the new realities. Sometimes, data is used to obfuscate rather than clarify. We must be careful to not be drawn solely to the charms and allure of numbers — especially when they are served as models for the future. If numerators matter, then for darn sure, denominators do, too. A fact is a fact, except when it isn’t.
There are plenty of medical experts who have provided counter-narratives to the Fauci-Birx-Redfield approach. But one must hunt down these alternative opinions because they tend to support a more surgical approach to protecting the public versus the pervasive trajectory we’re currently on. There are slight hints that the unified front might be cracking, evidenced by Dr. Birx’s recent spill that, “There is nothing from the CDC that I can trust.” Let the vulnerable hunker in their bunker, get the riskiest groups tested, extrapolate some meaningful data to determine a realistic death rate, then get the show on the road. But these strategies tend to get squelched by a media that is determined to make the pandemic a political operation.
Headlines erupt daily to counter whichever narrative doesn’t work for you politically, financially, medically. The lockdown sympathizers are winning, though, in the battle of the headlines. Why? Because they can easily carry the torch of compassion and concern for life over enterprise. There’s a simplicity to their argument: life over lifestyle. It creates a visceral response and readily divides people. It makes for great noisy cable news.
Raising a ruckus is the obvious result when people feel disenfranchised. Who would’ve guessed that modern day Samuel Adamses would appear as defiant hair salon owners, barbers with militia, and rebel restauranteurs?
Social media ignites by the minute with point-counterpoint videos, essays, and scurrilous posts. Surely there is an unholy alliance when the likes of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Dr. Judy Mikovits are on the same side of an argument! What strange new world order is this? Does it really take a virus to realign who we are?
It’s time to accept that not every action is polarizing. It’s time to build a bridge to find the essence in sundry approaches and assimilate a cogent and integrated policy. But the media tends to enjoy drawing lines between black and white, north and south, left and right. The irony is they do so because it’s good for business and comes during an extremely virulent political season.
Those who present arguments to debate are quickly tagged as conspiracy theorists. If you question methodology or look for supportive evidence, your credentials are called into question; you may even be one of those anti-vaxers! During this pandemic, a number of doctors and virologists have taken hits in getting their alternative information out in a stable manner. Anyone on the wrong side of an argument is trolled, researched to find an evil agenda, exposed, and humiliated with a tweet storm.
Platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook police the offending content, but only after millions have seen it, and then the content gets placed on a blog or vlog controlled by the content creators. The fact that it disappears into a forbidding fog because an algorithm has deemed it misinformation only fans the flame that certain truthful sensitivities have been touched — proving to the conspiracy choir that the content had chops. Scientists unwilling to debate and to immediately be dismissive are not reflective of how science should work—it demands to be challenged. Scientific debate often manifests itself as a battle of credentials. Scientists should be able to get along, but we find them losing their empathetic connections to their colleagues, because debate has become a partisan weapon. So rather than finding connections, they contrary view must simply be shut down!
But when has censorship ever been a good idea? The JFK assassination, Area 51, Chernobyl, COVID-19? Let’s ask Goebbels. Censorship is especially offensive when it has been moderated by political agenda. If we were all truthful with one another, YouTube and Facebook content would be eviscerated if the standards of misinformation were deployed uniformly, despite political motivations. Networks are constantly editing and shifting their content to satiate their audiences. There appears to be a herd immunity to quality, straight dope news. (NHK being a refreshing exception.) It’s nearly impossible to satirize anything these days because we are living in a satire of sorts. It is also increasingly difficult to make a point without having that point jammed between your eyes.
You can write the headlines yourself: If a red state decides to jump over barriers on the Road to Normal, you can bet that within two weeks, statistics will be sculpted to serve-out death stories about how toxic and selfish it was to open businesses prematurely — even if the data proves contrary. Likewise, keep the shops closed and you’ll see headlines about suicide rates rising, spousal abuse on the increase, and middle-class families waiting in interminable food lines, while others resort to eating the family dog for sustenance at the Summer Soltice Festival. The truth, axiomatically, is often right smack dab in the middle. The rebels rise and resist to prove to the cautious and contained that life can and will go on. The fearful hunker-down as the fearless, like pioneers, emerge to see if the uprising is over.
I’m reminded of what a client once told me during the B2B web-rush era: “That pioneers end up with arrows in their backs.” This was good advice, he felt, and we should stay away from using such terms in any messaging. Pioneers, he maintained, is a spooky term for investors to hear. But I argued with him that pioneers are also perceived as heroes, trailblazers, brave souls who buck the prevailing wisdom and venture into the unknown for something better. But, he countered, it doesn’t always work out, does it? History proved both of our points.
The uniquely American aspect of where we are is that we’ve reached an inflection point: we have frontline medical heroes in league with bio-viro-researchers cutting through bureaucratic red tape and seeking therapeutics and vaccines; we have nurses risking their lives every prolonged shift; we have politicians coming together to pass along trillions of our dollars to keep us from imploding individually and as a nation; we have corporations empowered to champion producing PPE and ventilators in exchange for a little branding (or in GM’s case, to restore their good name); we have accepted, albeit temporarily, that there are essential businesses (for at least the short term); and we have embraced the term scientific as particularly meaningful — though the more it gets used and abused to create political division, the more it becomes a tool, a Leftist shibboleth.
So, scientifically-speaking, here we are now: After 50+ days of living in the shadows of death, unless one takes their daily D3, a sun-sequestered person is also likely to be an immune-suppressed person, a depressed person, and in some cases, a cognitively-impaired person. (Let’s not get into the psychological horrors that a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder must feel when they’re told repeatedly to wash their hands.) Releasing an immune-deficient population into a world of infection can, to some people, appear as an easy tactic for population control.
Control. That’s a word that governments love: it is akin to power. And if there’s one thing that at least half of Americans immediately reject, is giving away any additional power to their government. It is antithetical to their sense of freedom. The rest of the population gets there eventually, too, once the freedoms that mean something to them are eroded. (Think American Revolution as a precedent.)
For now, the symbol of power is the face mask. One cannot be fearless wearing a face mask. It’s counter-intuitive. Ironic, even. And for those who prefer a pot of compliance instead of stirring the gumbo, sneers are dispensed to all who defy the waffling wisdom. You can see the sneer quite clearly: The number of people who wear their masks below their noses is stunning— especially among our elected leaders. One woman cut a hole in her mask so she could breathe more easily. Meanwhile, public humiliation aside, no mask at all means Costco is an off-limits place to shop. And just when the TP stock returned.
The face mask mandate melange has its history, too. During the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, San Francisco witnessed the rise of the Anti-Mask League. There was fervor among the dissenters, with violence erupting over the issue of making it a crime to not wear a mask in public. Both sides of the argument had science on their side, similar to the discussions we are having today. Wearing masks was an enforced or unenforced ordinance, depending on the city in which one lived. In the end, the data showed that case and death rates which had stringent mask mandates proved no better — and were in some instances even worse, than those cities without the regulation. Do we all reasonaby believe that a non-medical grade mask with designer motifs or logos, which is made of cotton, which puckers around the cheeks and leaks around the nose, is actually doing something medically?
In 1918, scientists and policymakers in cities with rigorous mask policies felt the need to do something because of all the deaths. Wearing masks were a quick visual cue to their citizens that control and containment was happening — something was being done—even though the data didn’t corroborate the policy. By 1919, when the Anti-Mask League had more formally organized, the compulsory mask-wearing mandate was not reinstated in San Francisco and other cities like Tucson, because the number of cases were finally plummeting. War over.
Studies have been conducted to determine if masks were being worn properly during the 1918 pandemic. The materials used were not as advanced, of course, as they are today. People tended to only don their masks while outside, then took them off while indoors, where they needed them the most. But that was then— and the studies, at best, are anecdotal. There is no clear bottom line to the question, ‘To mask or not to mask.’ That’s why we’ve seen public health officials swing from advising that we not wear them to mandating that we do wear them—within the course of a few weeks. It is not an unreasonable proposition, we are told, that we wear a mask for others because they’re wearing their masks for you.
Meanwhile, back in the 1919 Perth Daily News, an article urged that “The gentle art of kissing has become far too common especially among the fair sex…. Let us at this trying time plump for sanitation and let sentiment take care of itself…. The public should take a firm stand at least until this devastating epidemic is over and be contented with a handshake and thus avoid the risk of passing from lip to lip the germs of the flu.”
Though there are similarities between the pandemic we are experiencing now to the one in 1918, distinctive and ingenious responses to wearing masks and avoiding kissing have emerged: trendy designer masks have taken the place of the ghastly gauze masks of 1918 — and couples have cutely adapted the art of kissing to the art of mask mashing. It’s become quite a phenomenon, with stock photo services now brimming with mask smooching couples. Masks with art and favorite licensed characters also make the notion of wearing a mask more of an acceptable fashion statement. By trivializing it, the thinking goes, mask-wearing becomes more acceptable because it’s a fun thing to do. But like most fun things, there’s also increased risk of accumulating bacterial matter in the masks — and the ones that aren’t disposable get readily reused. Ugh. People are all over the place on what constitutes proper mask-wearing. Just like in 1918. Societally, when it comes to masks, we learned nothing in the ensuing century.
During the 1918 pandemic, the public was discouraged globally from interacting and practicing unsavory acts: Avoid taking taxis, wear masks in public, don’t spit in the streets, one customer per 500 square feet of floor space. But the medical professionals and policmakers also had pushed other measures that were easier to handle: The public was encouraged midstream to go outdoors for a brisk walk to invigorate their lungs.
As time tends to heal all wounds and dispense with ambiguous policies, with each wave of influenza from 1918 through 1920, people became more intolerant of changing their behavior. The world moved on to newer, bigger issues. Life eventually evolved, people stopped wearing masks in public, and unfettered travel once again became commonplace. The dark period from 1918–1920 was over. Without the overt worry of infection, people could tune in to one another, show some empathy, compassion — and even kiss.
Why are some of us just fine with staying at home? Financially, perhaps, there’s been no impact on your lifestyle. Stories abound about families coming together, rediscovering board games, enjoying baking bread to teach the kids scientific principles, and tending to all the home maintenance from having kicked the can month-after-month during normal life. Could it be that some of us are accepting of the stay-at-home edict because we’re making the most of it? It’s vacation time at home! Things could be worse.
Is there a sense of pre-nostalgia — the feeling of wanting to hold on to an unusual experience you’re living while knowing it could end before all the joy has been fully wrung out of the situation? Meanwhile, for others, perhaps there’s nostalgia about returning to normal—where you’ve rolled the dice and collected $200 for passing Go one too many times, where the kids might really be better off being taught at school. If we get into the shoes of those with whom we disagree, we might find some common understanding. But instead, our politics keep us from stepping into any shoes that aren’t our own.
In the pursuit of returning to normal (or the new normal), there’s a disturbing narrative running through our daily news, where those seeking to open their businesses are being branded as lunatic, selfish extremists. Remember the messaging early on in the pandemic declaration: Stay-at-home. We can do this. We’re all in this together. Stay safe. The quest for freedom and commerce, henceforth, has been demonized as fringy and despicable behavior. Tesla’s Elon Musk defied California’s business closure edicts and dared the Fremont gendarme to arrest him at his assembly line; President Trump tweeted his support, while Musk followed up with a ‘thank you.’ It can happen — and it’s a promising counter-narrative: Pioneers from both sides of the political spectrum seeing eye-to-eye, for just a moment.
As this bizarre period of global history tries to find its denouement, we must realize something that we don’t cotton to very easily: that we need each other. Hey, we are all in this together, so stop ostracizing people! Virtual social engagement is good, but personal interaction is better. We can Zoom away the gloom, but nothing beats the intimacy of seeing one another, in the flesh. Such physical collaboration engages the imagination and sparks innovation. It is the agent of alchemy, the catalyst of creativity, where serendipitous solutions are borne. We need rebel rousers to push the limitations of institutions — and we need indefatigably curious “scientific” people to immerse themselves in themselves and their work, like Sinclair Lewis’ anti-hero, Martin Arrowsmith.
Sorry, the new normal should not be about wearing pool noodles in public to maintain a safe distance, except for a brief moment to mock the notion of the new normal. As horrifically sarcastic and brutal as it sounds, we depend on one another: like a red wheelbarrow, we also need Wall Street. To stay on the rails of humanity, we need the tensions of left and right polemics. And since any coronavirus can be at our doorstep in the course of a 13-hour plane ride from a country known for being duplicitous, concealing, and imperialistic, these microbes which breed epidemics that can swell into pandemics, compel us to find our commonality — at least among ourselves in this country, if being American means anything.
Here’s one common trait, for example: Those pioneers who scoff at the naysayers who want to stay in their cocoons are quite similar to our deified scientists. Indeed, scientists are often thought of as facing-down the frontiers of the unknown and wrestling with nature to find paths toward a better life. Those hair stylists and barbers who want to work to earn money to feed their families, those restauranteurs who brave the storm because of their vested branding and desire to provide food service to the hungry, those truckers who push 18-hour days to complete the supply chain, those first-in-line patients who will take therapeutics in double-blind studies (or maybe only get the placebo), those first to hold their arms out for a vaccine inoculation that’s experimental and unproven… those pioneers. Those Americans. We are them. They are us.
As is the way of Americans, we freely appropriate without regard to make whatever we want our own. We’ve even usurped the word American as meaning people in the United States, with no apologies to Canada, Mexico, or the entire continent of South America. And so it is with the French word pioneer, which refers to a foot soldier digging into the trenches (perhaps this is how nomadic pioneers also became settlers in the folklore of the West). But we have made the term to be more American — it means trailblazer and innovator, being first, bucking the odds, going against the grain, not accepting the status quo, forging forward toward something better— no matter the risks involved.
The final chapter, then, to be written to close this saga of a virus gone wild, is very Old Hollywood: sappy, happy, but sweet — sentimental, but sensational in the outcome — that we are all, eventually, in our own unique way, pioneers. This moment in time is a perfect storm of empathy — where American pioneers from science can walk with American pioneers of industry and find a common cause. We can emerge together, thoughtfully. It’s ingrained into our heritage to embrace freedom — freedom from deception, freedom to pursue happiness. Freedom from a pandemic and freedom to find sensible solutions. So, as pioneers, who are, indeed, all in this together, we must find ways to respect one another’s opinions (not close it down or censor it), respect not only our physical space, but our political and intellectual space — because we are all birds of a feather…who, yes, flock together. Listen: if the COVD-19 antibody test can be wrong 50% of the time, then there’s room for alternative viewpoints.
Otherwise, the Invisible Enemy, which can also be a euphemism for intolerance, wins.
I have heard a brother of the story-telling trade at Naples preaching to a pack of good-for-nothing honest, lazy fellows by the sea-shore, work himself up into such a rage and passion with some of the villains whose wicked deeds he was describing and inventing, that the audience could not resist it; and they and the poet together would burst out into a roar of oaths and execrations against the fictitious monster of the tale, so that the hat went round, and the bajocchi tumbled into it, in the midst of a perfect storm of sympathy.
— From William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.