Our public conversations have begun emphasizing the optimistic outcomes generated by the coronavirus pandemic. Donald Trump said the pandemic will “make us a better country.” Mike Pence said, “We’ll come out of this stronger than ever.” Our online newsfeeds and newspaper headlines describe the pandemic as “the Big Reset,” a chance to “build a better world” and a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to redress political dysfunction, renew religious vitality, redesign our cities and reinvigorate our industries. After corona, we will no longer turn a blind eye to racism, inequality and climate change. And we will develop the political will to support paid sick and family leave, universal health insurance and stronger labor unions. Carpe diem.
It’s likely that you have relied on optimistic words to make sense of the coronavirus pandemic. I know I have. I have two young children. I am starting a new job, selling my house, moving my family across the country. My 92-year-old grandfather passed away in February and my family was unable to celebrate his long, honorable life. Optimistic words have helped me and my family through this mystery, uncertainty and devastation.
Optimistic words reflect an understandable human response to the pandemic. Optimistic words comfort us. Optimistic words draw our focus to the positive social change produced by our suffering. And optimistic words allow us to look back over a long history of plagues, world wars, depressions and natural disasters to find inspiring stories of human ingenuity, altruism and resilience.
But our optimistic words are killing us.
The corona pandemic will not produce a better or stronger country. More than 67,000 Americans are dead, and the lives of the survivors are measurably worse. Optimistic words should not distract us from a more sober reality: Our lives are now much more difficult than they otherwise would be.
So where do optimistic words come from? In my forthcoming book I trace the origins of optimistic words back to a deep religious, political and cultural reservoir transcending our current pandemic. The most vivid example is the vocabulary of many American Christians who look forward to a Second Coming of Jesus Christ accompanied by apocalyptic catastrophe. But beyond the church, the vocabulary used to justify callous public responses to poverty, illness, gun violence and climate change draws from a similar catastrophic reservoir. And maybe that’s why our nation’s incompetent response to the coronavirus pandemic is as troubling as it is predictable.
Recent reporting has laid bare how early and often the Trump administration was warned about the devastating potential of the pandemic. In an alternative reality our political leaders could have transmitted these warnings to the American public. In early February, we could have begun enhancing international scientific collaborations and coordinating the manufacturing and delivery of critical supplies; we could have prepared for robust quarantine and isolation measures; and we could have begun enhancing surveillance systems to track the spread and predict hot spots.
Instead, our leaders dithered. They downplayed the threat and focused public attention on optimistic words about a “better country” that will emerge “stronger than ever.” I should be clear: Our dithering is explained by a number of factors, including xenophobic and contradictory attitudes toward China; suspicion of international collaborations and scientific expertise; protecting economic growth for political gain; and our president’s well-documented inability to comprehend complexity. But Trump is not alone in deserving blame. Incompetent public policy is produced by incompetent linguistic options — like an empty fridge, our optimistic words leave us all hungry.
Going forward, what does a more competent vocabulary sound like? Our own history offers some guidance. American postwar prosperity was sparked by strong institutions, including public health systems, research universities and federal agencies incentivizing innovation, sanding down the jagged edges of capitalism and ensuring more Americans had the opportunity to live healthy, viable, productive lives.
Every evening, New Yorkers gather on their stoops and balconies to cheer on their health-care workers. Supporting strong institutions is far less sexy. But if the goal is to prevent the next catastrophe, we must combine praise for our health-care workers with direct political action to support strong institutions and eliminate references to deep-state, anti-government conspiracies from our public conversations. We should be able to agree on this much: Preventing the next catastrophe is far more important than finding the silver linings in constant cycles of devastation. The subtle and incremental influence of strong institutions can be so effective in predicting and preventing the next catastrophe that we may not even notice. And we will be a stronger and better country for it.
Luke Winslow is a professor of rhetorical studies in the School of Communication at San Diego State University. He will be joining the faculty at Baylor University in the fall of 2020. He is the author of “Economic Injustice and the Rhetoric of the American Dream” and the forthcoming “American Catastrophe,” from which this essay is derived.
Concerned about COVID-19?
Sign up now to get the most recent coronavirus headlines and other important local and national news sent to your email inbox daily.