Society’s Perfect Storm

Three weather fronts collided off the New England coast in 1991 – and the subsequent movie in 2000.  The Gloucester fishing boat Andrea Gail tried to endure but could not survive the onslaught.  Everyone was lost.

We have as a society encountered a collision of “fronts” that have left us reeling.  The US mortgage crisis of 2007-08 and its aftermath has been characterized as a perfect storm.  The opioid epidemic started in the 1990s, accelerated in 2010, and continues unabated.  The coronavirus pandemic emerged in 2020 and continues as an endemic. 

In parallel, climate change, global warming, and its impacts are rolling along.  There will be no vaccine for climate change.  Storms, fires, and sea level rise will take their tolls, repeatedly if we do not mitigate the risks and the outcomes. 

In the background is the “infodemic” – social media has fueled a blitz of misinformation and disinformation, catering to “tribal” interests and providing a base for white supremacist and racist activists.  All of this has been playing out in the midst of increasing economic inequality, for everyone.  Such inequality is exacerbated by all of the above.

How should we think about this?  What should we do?  If we were “all in the same boat,” we might be able to work together to find a way forward.  But, we are in multiple boats headed in different directions, and some boats want to destroy others.  Perhaps we can work out a truce, but who is “we” and why would “they” listen?  Perhaps we could look to the United Nations as a model and call ourselves the United States.  But we have already done that, have we not?

Perhaps Congress could move beyond carving up the Federal pie and pay attention to society’s perfect storm.  How do get everyone healthy, educated, employed, and involved?  How can we best deal collectively with the many challenges outlined earlier?  How can we think collectively, not just individually.

This is a major challenge in itself.  Alexis de Tocqueville argued individualism, if interpreted as a sort of selfish focus on oneself and one’s own interests (as opposed to a recognition of individual rights and responsibilities) can easily descend into a type of egoism that could destroy civil society — and therefore the fundamental ability of a democracy to function.

How can we bridge the gap?  We might convene the equivalent of a Continental Congress to devise agreed upon principles to move forward.  This approach fits      amidst a spectrum ranging from Wild West to authoritarian rule.  In the Wild West, concealed carry weapons and stand your ground laws are the norm.  Disputes and disagreements are resolved by armed violence.  Traditional law is marginalized.

The authoritarian end of the spectrum involves state control of everything.  You obey authority or you disappear. Misinformation and disinformation are controlled by the state.  What you can know and do are totally prescribed.  If a vaccine is deemed to be warranted, everyone will be vaccinated or incarcerated.  If messaging conflicts with this policy, the messengers will be incarcerated.

Ideally, there is a middle ground on this spectrum — democracy — that balances individual rights and responsibilities.  In the US, the 1st Amendment guarantees free speech, and the 2nd Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms.  Can one bear arms to defend one’s rights to free speech?  Yes, legal experts say that there is no 1st Amendment right to attend a gun-free protest.  Further, in several states, if you feel threatened, you can stand your ground and shoot people whose stated positions threaten your comfort.

This situation obviously needs remediation.  The solution, it seems to many people, is an explicit balance of rights and responsibilities that everyone understands, explicitly agrees with and practices.  This requires that everyone understands civics.  However, according to the Brookings Institution, “Despite the fact that the core of our education system was built upon the belief that schooling institutions have  a central role to play in preparing American youth to be civically engaged, this goal has been pushed to the margins over time as other educational objectives have moved to the forefront.”  Reading, math, and science are important, but they are not the only important objectives.

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