Questions of Civic Proportions Newsletter

March 22, 2020

My Fellow Citizens,

This is a moment when we need everyone to get it. Dr. Sanjay Gupta told late-night host Stephen Colbert that he thought we were. People are starting to get this, Gupta said, “I have an obligation now, not just for my health, my family’s health, but for your health and your family’s health.” 

He went on to observe that we are “codependent on each other in a way I’ve never seen before.” Add this observation to a long list of things we’ve never seen before. 

The conversation played out on a late-night stage in an empty theater. Dr. Gupta shared that his travels had also revealed a lot more handwashing happening in men’s restrooms at different airports. 

We’re all washing our hands a lot more, but we’re also adjusting to living in a world with something we’ve never seen before. When everything is uncertain, where do we look to see our way forward?

Madison took up this question in Federalist No. 37. His answer was to look to the past. He had sought helpful precedents in the confederacies of history. Madison advised his readers that those historical examples could “furnish no other light than that of beacons, which give warning of the course to be shunned.” He explained that those beacons offer warnings, “without pointing out that which ought to be pursued.”

When it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have examples to follow and examples to avoid. And yet, we continue to stumble around in the dark. 

Hidden in a discussion about how to predict the future, an award-winning science-fiction author offers an explanation. Among Octavia Butler’s strategies for predicting the future, she wrote, “where we stand determines what we’re able to see.” Butler believes in looking to the past but added we also need to be aware of our perspective.

Butler’s quote appears in an essay titled “A Few Rules for Predicting the Future.” Published in Essence magazine (May 2000), she introduces the essay through a conversation with a student. First, he asked if she really believed we would encounter the kind of trouble she described in her books. Those stories, of course, were rooted in trouble Butler could already see. She explained, “All I did was look around at the problems we’re neglecting now and give them about 30 years to grow into full-fledged disasters.”

So then he asked for THE answer, as in, “so, what’s the answer?” Butler explained that there wasn’t one. Now, from her essay:

“No answer? You mean we’re just doomed?” He smiled as though he thought this might be a joke.

“No,” I said. “I mean there’s no single answer that will solve all of our future problems. There’s no magic bullet. Instead there are thousands of answers — at least. You can be one of them if you choose to be.”

No single answer. No magic bullet. But a thousand answers with room for us all to participate. That’s a shared project. That’s an interdependence that some of us can already see from where we’re standing.

It’s also a proposition we can use to help others see the part they might choose to play in the days ahead.

Let’s stand together and shape the future,

Shellee

Questions of Civic Proportions

“I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong.”

—Richard Feynman, American physicist

But what would a good coronavirus strategy look like?

 

We’ve all seen the curve and the appeals to flatten it. This comprehensive walkthrough of all the numbers includes an overlay that indicates the number of ICU beds available. That’s a persistent red line that runs across the bottom of the graph. That simple addition shows how difficult it is to answer the question of what a good coronavirus strategy would require.

Thomas Pueyo includes a whole series of graphs and talks through them all. His goal is to educate and spread the word. His concluding thought (just in case you don’t read to the end):

“What if Churchill had said the same thing? “Nazis are already everywhere in Europe. We can’t fight them. Let’s just give up.” This is what many governments around the world are doing today. They’re not giving you a chance to fight this. You have to demand it.”

 

Staying with this theme, read Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes’s take on how little a virus cares about bullying, poll numbers, or professed perfection. It offers exercising another one of Octavia Butler’s rues for predicting the future: respect the law of consequences.

 

 

Can we reconcile the good acts of corporate responsibility today with the practices that sustain those problems every day?

 

The flood of campaign emails gave way to COVID-19 emails from every corner. I received messages from our local tree service and car repair shop. President Barack Obama used his social timelines to highlight stories of help, and Forbes tried to round up a long list of companies who have taken action to protect their most vulnerable employees.

While these are all welcome developments, I can’t escape the voice of Anand Giridharadas and his 2018 book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. It’s a book that I read with a local book club. It continues to change the way I think:

“Profitable companies built in questionable ways and employing reckless means engage in corporate social responsibility, and some rich people make a splash by “giving back”—regardless of the fact that they may have caused serious societal problems as they built their fortunes.”

 

It’s easier than ever to see the consequences we all face in maintaining an inadequate healthcare system and accommodating employers unwilling to provide paid sick leave.

 

 

But, seriously, what is THE answer?

 

Octavia Butler said there wasn’t one answer but many. How then will we sort the good ideas from the bad ones? In 1937, Einstein shared his thoughts on good and evil:

 

“I most seriously believe that one does people the best service by giving them some elevating work to do and thus indirectly elevating them. This applies most of all to the great artist, but also in a lesser degree to the scientist. To be sure, it is not the fruits of scientific research that elevate a man and enrich his nature, but the urge to understand the intellectual work, creative or receptive.”

 

That’s right. We do our best work when we give those around us something to think about. 

 

Good Work: Charity Stand Up Show Raises $10K for Wuhan China

Jesse Appell earned a Fullbright scholarship and went to China to study comedy. He recently used the stand-up skills he developed at work in China to raise money for medical supplies to support Wuhan, China. He hosted a comedy show at his American high school.

In one video, Appell explains, “To live well, we need health and happiness. I can’t give people health, but I can give them happiness.” 

His work is helping us all share in that happiness too. Appell returned home to Massachusetts over the Chinese New Year, and the coronavirus rendered him unable to go back to work in China. That’s when he decided he could still be part of the work to get through the difficulty. 

The video above is a short montage of highlights produced by The Atlantic. This short interview with WBUR in Boston includes a collection of Appell’s videos. In that interview, he says that he hopes to make people laugh and to “create connections across cultures.” 

If you’re looking for fun ways to prepare for the Olympics in your living room, the people of China have a few ideas, and Jesse Appell has put them all in one place for us to appreciate them.

Stay strong, Wuhan. Let’s share the happiness we find and stay healthy too.