We keep getting sucker punched. We then get up, we get revenge, and we get sucker punched again. Welcome to contemporary American history, a study in deep denial; and, I say this as an American who loves and shares the highest values of this country. Why, however, does it seem we are always one step behind disaster? What can we do to be better prepared? This seems to be one of the most pressing of questions for Americans to address. The answer seems not just to be accountability at the top, but a willingness to mobilize resources before one begins feeling the pain of a new disaster. It requires integrity and imagination and pressure from the people to expect that disasters can be and should be predicted and averted.
On January 22nd 2020 I returned to the USA after several months in Shenzhen, China. Coming back, I had the sniffles. No fever, no cough, just the sniffles, so I wondered whether I was going to be pulled out of line at O’Hare Airport and tested. Yet, everyone from the flight was whisked through the entry process. There was simply an electronic sign that said: “Travelers from Wuhan: If you are feeling ill, please see a doctor.” So folks apparently casually entered the country in this way, even from hotspots, until February 2nd. If you were ill and from Wuhan, they recommended that you enter the country then call a doctor.
Weeks followed in which the president indicated that this was simply a flu. Although Art Basel Hong Kong had been cancelled, I travelled to New York City to attend some major art fairs in early March, hobnobbed with hundreds of art lovers, rode the crowded subway, and did not see a mask on anyone. I saw a newspaper headline quoting Mayor de Blasio, as he wiped his nose with his hand, saying that folks should not ride the subway if they are sick. We now know the virus was being spread in New York City at that critical time.
It finally sank in that we must flatten the curve. But South Korea flattened the curve by offering testing to anyone who wanted it and by contact tracing. Until it was too late, we did not produce masks or testing kits. I had always been taught that in a capitalist market, when a need arose, companies would swarm in and fill that need. It seems to work with pretzels but not with N-95 masks. We got price gouging and not Adam Smith. Nobody in a position of power seemed prepared for this disaster, the market did not respond as we are taught it will, and nearly two months were wasted in denial and not preparation.
We now know the CIA alerted everyone in D.C. of this situation: a pandemic and a severe outbreak that could kill the vulnerable and severely harm the economy. One immediately recalls how lower-level FBI agents tried to alert the higher-ups of possible hijackings and terror attacks before 9/11 and how they too were ignored. Indeed, looking at the various crises in the USA through the recent, and not so recent, past, one has to wonder why we seem to be taken by surprise so often. We are often like a big, powerful, but oblivious giant who continually gets sucker punched, then turns his attention to extreme retribution or reaction, but learns little in the process.
You could compile your own list of crises the USA might easily have avoided but did not. We have nothing but trouble in Iraq because American leadership failed to grasp, in the early 90s, that a highly belligerent dictator felt aggrieved by an oil-price war, and even felt he had the green light from the US to attack the country behind dropping oil prices. The last world-wide economic crisis started as nobody in a position of power seemed to realize that banks could be destroyed by lending money that could not be paid back. Hurricane Katrina left thousands of people stranded helplessly in a football stadium. As our oceans turn to acid and temperatures climb, we have no grand vision to address this, no desire to marshal every resource we can to save ourselves.
One could argue the Me Too movement was all about denial at the top - a lack of recourse to justice as the powerful did not want to hear about abuses or take action to thwart wealthy men’s secret pleasures. Why did some women wait 20 years to get justice? They tried reporting abuses which went nowhere. Do you remember African American folks taking to the streets of American cities in protest a few years ago? For how long had they complained about racist police abuse? Neither government nor the press listened. Only due to social media was the truth able to come out about abuses by the powerful against women and black folks. We can go back to 1998. Students were being bullied in the USA for generations. Teachers and administrators would blame the victims. The sucker punch came at Columbine.
Among our social problems waiting to become sucker punches, we now have students who go into hopeless debt to get an education. We have children growing up in areas of violence, drugs and poverty who are earmarked for the lucrative prison system. We have over 50,000 homeless people in New York City. We have an income disparity gap that rises year after year. We still do not have healthcare for everyone who needs it. We have too many workers in the coal industry not being prepared for the future. Green energy relies so heavily on fossil fuels that it should be called Soylent Green energy. These are just some sucker punches coming down the line.
We could even go back in history. We were not prepared for Pearl Harbor. We allowed the Iron Curtain. Truman did not seem to realize Mao was defeating Chiang Kai-Shek. We could not see Sputnik coming. One morning we woke up to suddenly realize the Soviets had filled Cuba with nuclear missiles. We believed dominos were going to fall throughout South East Asia and 50,000 Americans and 3 million Vietnamese died because of that. We did not see the oil embargo. We did not know arming jihadists in Afghanistan would ever be a bad idea. We once released dangerous terrorists from a prison in Iraq and simply watched as they soon were operating their own make-shift country, as big as Pennsylvania, trying to bring about Armageddon.
How can this happen in a country with such an abundance of talent, intellect and initiative? Which demon, exactly, has to be exorcised? Which angel has to be embraced for this to stop? The blame for this would seem to be at the very top, where information gathered by hard-working and conscientious professionals is often not acted on and leaders seem to be in perpetual denial until shaken awake. There are no bold initiatives and no problem-solving endeavors until a crisis is underway. The idea of vast mobilization of resources and effort without the existence of a painful exigency seems unthinkable. Why is it seemingly so impossible to marshal efforts and resources before a problem rears its head?
One fears that someday the sucker punch will be so severe that we will not be able to get up and fix things and get revenge. So far, no terrorist group or country has been able to pack a powerful enough punch to knock us down for so long that we cannot get back up, but that does not mean it cannot happen. It seems to be close to happening with this virus. We are too blessed with creativity and potential to keep acting like a sleepwalker lumbering through the world, waiting to take another beating.