Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Pearl Harbor?

On Sunday, US Surgeon General Jerome Adams (who also edifyingly acknowledged that he missed  Palm Sunday Mass) said that this Holy Week "is going to be the hardest and the saddest week of most Americans’ lives, quite frankly.” He then went on to make an analogy obviously intended to highlight the catastrophic character of this moment. “This is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment. Only, it’s not going to be localized, it’s going to be happening all over the country. And I want America to understand that,” he said.

I applaud Adams for trying to alert Americans - some of whom still seem insufficiently frightened - to what is happening. New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo, at present perhaps the leading exemplar of political leadership in the country, has been doing that, as have others; and every voice counts in this crisis.

The "Pearl Harbor" analogy is obviously meant well, meant to get people's attention and force them to focus. So I don't fault Adams for using it. Still, I do wonder about his analogy. Pearl Harbor was, famously, a "sneak attack." So was 9/11. Covid-19 is not. The US had several weeks (at least) to get up to speed and prepare for the virus' arrival in this country, but did not do so - due to an amazing failure on the part of the Administration in Washington. That is the most immediately obvious flaw in the Pearl Harbor analogy.

But there is another even more unfortunate flaw in the analogy. After Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt did not leave it to Hawaiians to address the problem on their own or in competition with other states and US territories. Rather, he took the lead in confronting the crisis and called upon the entire country to join in a common united effort - the exact opposite of what our current, consistently divisive President has done. 

Commenting recently on the awkward phrase "social distancing," Ezra Klein recently said on his podcast: "What we need is physical distancing and social solidarity."

Social Solidarity seems to be a concept completely alien to our current President and to his political party. If anything, this current crisis is revealing just how badly damaged our social fabric has been over the past several decades. 

On that same Palm Sunday, Queen Elizabeth II spoke to the people of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth - a significant percentage of the world's population. She addressed her people in the inclusive language of social solidarity, something our President has never done and likely never will.

Of course, she occupies a uniquely unifying role in her society, which - combined with her almost flawless fulfillment of that role through most of our lifetimes - gives her a moral standing on the world stage few others can claim. Indeed, I think that at present, in this crisis, when unifying moral voices are so needed but so few, there are perhaps only two on the world stage - Queen Elizabeth and Pope Francis - who have so far been able to do so.

As a politician, the President of the United States is necessarily in a different category from either the Queen or the Pope. Yet, one can recall times in the 20th century when the President of the United States could make a comparable contribution on the world stage. But no longer. It is not just that the occupant of the office has changed. So, sadly, has the United States.

(Photo: President Franklin D. Roosevelt asks Congress to declare war after Pearl Harbor, December 8 1941)

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