Life is never perpetually smooth, or even close. Waters get rough. We are storm-tossed, turned around, at times upside down, periodically buffeted. In times of personal adversity, uncertainty, and doubt, we feel tested. Staying upbeat is hard, let alone confident, optimistic. Societies are like that too.
The storm metaphor may sound trite, but is apt. On the water, staying afloat and getting from where you are to different objectives requires awareness of changing circumstances, adjustment to obstacles, bright eyes and action as opportunities present, patience – and keeping one’s bearing. That is where our society is – right now.
On a personal level, we know when we are ill at ease, stressed by unanticipated events, forced to make choices, rethink, double back, reverse course, start again. All this is familiar – if disquieting. Societies are harder to quiet once stirred – but it can be done, and often has been.
Today, we find ourselves on high seas – a resurgent wave of coronavirus buffeting California, Arizona, Florida, and Texas (together, half of cases), waves of social unrest, political fractures in our 2020 cycle.
Of course, big waves propagate, bump, build, cancel and create other waves. The “pandemic” triggered political reactions, which prompted our first “instant recession.” Waves of “stimulus” money aimed to cancel or reduce some of our economic uncertainty.
Likewise, reduced interpersonal contact – to mitigate the rippling virus – led to successive waves of innovation in remote work, learning, and commerce. New ways of learning emerged, K to graduate.
Recent spikes in social unrest – peaceful protests to pro-socialist violence – triggered reduced support for police. Reduced support has eroded police morale and retention, spiking crime across the country.
Police retirements are up 400 percent in New York, shootings up 130 percent year-on-year. Los Angeles has seen a 250 percent jump in homicides, 56 percent in shootings. Seattle witnessed a 525 percent increase in crime. Across the country, successive waves of unrest buffet public safety. Seas are rough.
In short, our society is experiencing – on top of political acrimony – layers of economic and social insecurity, which leaves everyone ill at ease and continues to challenge political leadership on all levels.
So where is the good news? There is some – and it is worth seeing.
First, we are a flexible, adaptive, largely free, and resourceful society. Americans are can-do and prove this over and over. If uneasy with sudden change, new burdens, unexpected inconveniences, and rethinking our options, we still do it – almost reflexively.
Americans seem hardwired to think out go-forward strategies, escape routes, workarounds, new ways of doing what must be done without excuses for not doing it. In some ways, the average citizen is better at this than our uncoordinated, uncooperative, often pampered political leaders.
Give an American a problem, and he or she will typically find a way to solve it, reasonably fast. Thus, if we must work from home, interact with masks, reprogram for self-distancing, find ways to support our oldest, accommodate our youngest, we do it. In maritime terms, we navigate shoals, trim sails, reset rudder, and go with the flow.
Second, while these waters seem uncharted, we have been here before. Americans have long been experts at crisis management, often because we tend to put off until crises what must be done. We have a knack for focusing on the moment, assessing, and managing stacked waves of uncertainty.
While all this seems new, Americans have weathered far more, compressed into tighter time blocks. Unprepared for wars, including WWI and WWII, we did what we had to do. We mobilized on a dime, deployed, resolved to win, and did – decisively. We re-stabilizing America and the world.
Likewise, in periods of social stress, from our founding, through tumultuous post-Civil War reconstruction, international communist pressures, Great Depression, Civil Rights battles, violent 1960s, 1970s, and post-Vietnam era, we have pressed ahead for the far shore of stability – our compass clear.
On occasion we hit shoals, faced internal bitterness, gave way to mutual recriminations, but we have always re-found our ballast, recovered in full – and pressed for the right balance of freedom and peace.
On public health, we have also been here. While 125,000 died from COVID-19, more than 675,000 died from the Spanish Flu in 1918. In 1957, the “Asian flu” killed 70,000 Americans, probably more.
Between July 1968 and late 1969, as Americans beat the Soviets and put men on the moon, we suffered the “Hong Kong flu” pandemic, which killed more than 100,000 Americans. Vaccines took a year.
Interestingly, Americans somehow managed widespread social unrest, including bombings by the communist Weather Underground, Black Liberation Army, and socialist groups, the Vietnam War, three assassinations, national protests, urban riots, and Hong Kong flu – never shutting down our economy.
While federal spending jumped under Presidents Johnson and Nixon, President Kennedy did what Reagan and Trump did – he cut taxes, triggering an economic surge. US growth jumped from 2.6 to 6.2 percent between 1961 and 1963, holding near 5 percent as we landed on the moon. Again, we are a resilient, make-it-happen nation.
Bottom line: Yes, current waters are rough – for individuals and societies. But resilient individuals and societies prevail, and Americans are resilient. It is in our nature. It is part of what we have learned to be, self-reliant, undeterred by adversity, prepared to work hard, defend freedom and prosperity.
So, here we are. Beset by another pernicious virus, buffeted by new unrest, pausing for some introspection, managing an unruly election, and navigating economic, safety and morale issues, we will prevail. We always have, so long as we stay upbeat, confident, and cognizant of our history. Storm-tossed maybe, but seasoned. And now is when seasoning counts.