So Now What?
by
Screenshot of the Golden Gate Bridge in the film trailer for “On the Beach” (1959)

This virus thing has gotten crazy. San Francisco … closed down due to the coronavirus’ spread?! A whole American city on hold? And other localities set for like privations?

Joe Biden’s and Bernie Sanders’ contemporaries may remember (as I do, being one of them) a Gregory Peck/Ava Gardner movie from 1959: On the Beach. Following a nuclear war, an unharmed American sub ventures to San Francisco for a look. There is only stillness; no one is in sight. No one.

It gives one the willies to contemplate the shutdowns that government officials, here and abroad, are implementing or contemplating: so extended, so complete as to invite ridicule. Few seem to regard them as ridiculous. That, too, gives one the willies. We are entering an age nobody imagined just weeks ago. We do not know what lies at the end of the tunnel when the light is switched back on.

There is little good in predictions. I suspect, even so, we are in for a massive mental reorientation as a nation, as a people. You don’t go through things like the shutdown of normal daily life without rethinking basic premises.

Reorientation could be good for us, or it could be bad. I prefer, on the whole, half-full to half-empty glassware. How might we end up better? Rising above the hatred and hostility, the malice and power-grabbing, of the past half-century — I could go for that if it happened. Modifying the conditions responsible for that hatred and hostility — that would be good, too. Downsizing our politics and putting life in better perspective. It would make of America a different, perhaps a better, place.

The presidential candidates, in their Sunday night debate, lacked anything useful to say about the sickness and the already unfolding national shutdown: likely because, as politicians generally do, they were looking at the short run and the bottom line.

We have had enough (it seems to me) of short-running and bottom-lining. We need to think on what we’re about as a people, and on the legitimate uses of liberty. It would be a change, all right. It might even make easier the healing of life when COVID-19 is gone.

The human condition — including the human medical condition — is tied up in the eternal questions, how shall I live, and how should I strive to die? No act of Congress or Supreme Court decision is likely to answer such questions.

Which is not for one minute to say politicians don’t matter. It’s to say they aren’t Mr. and Ms. Fix-its — a point American society, against all expectations in our politically obsessed moment, could be starting at last to wrestle with. We have more and more in the last 100 years neglected the big issues of life — decency and duty, honor and faith, loyalty, self-respect, seriousness of purpose and intention. We hardly give them a second thought. We want to know what CNBC and Fox have to say. We want to see the polls.

There is no dispensing with government orders and orderings of one kind and another. It’s where we are. Will we stay where we are? That’s the question. Maybe not. What if on the other side of the school closures and the hand-washings and the social distancing we begin, miraculously, to traffic in the really big issues: seeing how the venom and partisanship and hatreds and impeachment trials of recent years have left us scared and distrustful, unlikely to be appeased by jobs programs or Fed liquidity injections?

I think the American people, without knowing it, may be shopping for a moral center — a way of confronting and dealing with the big questions of life. We might experience, God knows, a revival of interest in God. The real questions of life, as Americans used to understand, are religious in nature. That was before the rise of the “Nones” — the no-religion-for-me folk, more concerned with personal satisfactions than with the particulars of the truly good life.

Somehow our latest habits and modes of thought have let us down. We flag and flail in consequence of once-unimaginable disorders our present way of life failed to prevent. Time for some new thoughts, some new approaches? Maybe so, I truly think — which may be the most anyone can say with any certainty at this black but light-tinged moment.

William Murchison’s latest book is The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson.

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