Lockdown Lamentations (III)
March 15, 2021
I feel strangely elated today because I got my second shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine not so long ago. Thank you, Germany! Thank you, Turkish immigrants in Germany! I had two days of weakness, perhaps fever, a slight headache, the shivers. On the third day, I rose as if from the dead (one of our guys once did it, as you may recall) and now I’m ready to take on the world. Next Monday my quarantine ends … almost. Of course I’ll still wear a mask and socially distance but I’ll go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art again (God, how I missed seeing my El Greco paintings; yes, they belong to me personally, even if nobody knows). For one year now I have been living in the shadow of the fear of this virus: I had no illusions that if the Angel of COVID ever found me, he might well take me. And now that fear has passed over me — just in time for Pesach.
Do you remember how at the beginning of the pandemic, in March and April 2020, we looked at Germany with envy? The Germans had a sane chancellor who was capable of empathy; we had Trump. The Germans took the virus seriously, did everything right and had few deaths; we started a civil war about masks (about MASKS, God damn it!), Trump supporters demonstrated against lockdowns with semi-automatic weapons and we produced a pile of corpses. I remember hearing the sirens of the ambulance cars going up Broadway, past our house. I remember seeing the pictures from Hart Island, not far from our home, where the coffins were buried democratically in rows of two: with three coffins standing on top of each other in each line. No end was in sight.
This has changed dramatically; now the Germans are admiring us. They got careless during the summer of 2020, produced a huge second wave of sickness and death in the fall — and now don’t seem to be able to get vaccinations going. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad: they have set up a system of arcane rules and complicated procedures whereby you have to „get in line or else,“ and they’d rather throw vaccines out, it seems, than break with that system. I spoke to a friend of mine in Berlin recently, a doctor whose task it is to vaccinate, and she told me, laughing and cursing, how she almost got sent home at one of the Berlin vaccination centers without a shot because the powers that be didn’t understand that it was her turn to get vaccinated first.
The Germans now look at America and see our pragmatism, our stamina, our new administration, and they regard us once again with a mixture of awe and criticism. Some of it well-founded, some not. Why don’t the Americans give away any of their vaccines? they ask. Why don’t they take care of their neighbors, the Canadians and the Mexicans? And I have to remind them that we are vaccinating ourselves out of a much deeper hole than they find themselves in (74,000 deaths in Germany vs. 530,000 deaths in the US); that we already have two home-grown viral mutations circulating in California and New York; that the race against the clock is more urgent in the US than in Canada, where the infection rate is much lower; that the Biden administration has pledged four billion dollars to Covax, the plan that seeks to vaccinate low-income countries. But of course, my German friends are right. We are sitting on unused stockpiles of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is perfectly fine (the FDA just didn’t have time to approve it yet); we should give that away to our Mexican and Canadian friends immediately.
The basic story here is that the US is back in its old role of leadership and stewardship. I think one day we will look at the spring of 2021 as a time of heroism and the hiccups won’t matter that much. The summer will be glorious: I already look forward to the block party we’ll celebrate in my quiet, multiethnic, multi religious — in other words, very American — street in the Bronx once we’re all vaccinated. The economy will come roaring back. And Joe Biden? He’s doing everything right so far. He doesn’t talk much, except to express empathy. (He’s our Commander-in-Grief, somebody quipped.) He doesn’t give press conferences, he acts. He lets other people in his government do the talking, mainly, thereby showing that governing (unlike ranting) is a team effort.
But what will become of the GOP, which reminds me more and more of the communist parties of the Eastern Bloc? Let me offer another analogy from American history: the Whig Party. As you know, the American Whigs were — like their British counterparts — committed free traders; but unlike their British cousins they contained a deep inner contradiction. Some American Whigs were pro-slavery, others were anti-slavery. After the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, when the Southerners succeeded in expanding slavery westward, a bitter conflict broke out within the Whig Party. The result was that a new party was founded, the Republican Party. They were free traders with a conscience — the ones who saw slavery for what it was: an abomination. And the Whig Party? It just withered away. I strongly suspect the same will happen to the Republicans of today. The Republicans have two, and only two, ideas: (1) The old hierarchies must be maintained (the old racial hierarchies; the hierarchy between the sexes). That’s what all this blah, blah about „cancel culture“ is really about. (2) Donald Trump must be venerated. (I loved the golden effigy they put up during the latest Conversative Conference. I love it when Christians take the Bible literally and show themselves to be heathens erecting a „thopheth“.) With a program like that, you can steal elections but you can’t win them.
Twenty years from now, there won’t be a Republican Party, but there will be — God willing — a sane center-right party. You and I, dear Stephen, will then be really old men. Which means we can go back to being a leftist and a conservative (although I must confess I have discovered my inner social democrat here in the US), hotly debating politics over a glass of something or another, with our rollators nearby. Oh, how I look forward to that!
March 18, 2021
Congratulations on your second shot and your Lazarus-like return to the world of the living! Georgia’s governor announced recently that he would permit vaccinations for individuals as “young“ as 55 (largely because we were dead last in the state-by-state vaccine race), so I have my first shot scheduled for Monday. Whoever thought such happiness could accompany getting a large, sharp needle inserted into your arm?
All across the country, you are seeing the newly vaccinated — predominantly the elderly at this point — emerge joyfully from a year of hibernation. It’s reminiscent of the scene from the movie Cocoon where a group of seniors stumble upon a pool that makes them look and feel young again. My 84-year-old dad called me the other day to report that he’d had a very exciting day, which had included driving to the library to drop off a long-overdue book and to the Apple Store to upgrade his (rotary?) iPhone 5 to something more appropriate to this century. “There were people outside, Steve. It was just amazing!”
I wonder if we are going to look back at the past year and determine that both the United States and Europe got this pandemic wrong. Starting with Donald Trump, we allowed our response to get politicized here and, for lack of a public consensus, ended up falling back in many instances on what has historically been the American default position: the crudest form of laissez-faire individualism. Just as the first wave was cresting, our governor famously decided to open bars, restaurants, hairdressing salons, bowling alleys, and tattoo parlors. It was a Darwinian experiment in individual responsibility that many of my fellow Homo sapiens badly failed. While a lot of my neighbors performed their civic duty and maintained their social distance and wore their masks, I witnessed a lot of others behaving really badly. People barging into supermarkets with their mask adorning their neck like a cheap cotton ascot. People renting out homes on AirBnB to throw massive house parties. And a lot of people needlessly dying, about twice as many per capita as in Germany.
In Europe, by contrast, governments relied on their own historical default position, which was to invoke national solidarity to shut entire countries down. Even if the response was more grounded in science, it was statism at its worst, and it proved ultimately to be unsustainable. The recent violent protests in my beloved Netherlands are but one proof. And keeping people locked in their homes for months on ends may not ultimately have been all that effective — all that time indoors may have only ensured greater inter-family spread of the virus.
I am ever the pragmatist, and I think we’ll find that in retrospect the most pragmatic policy would have been to ban large gatherings, insist upon mask wearing in crowded and indoor spaces, and leave it at that. But I am not a public health specialist, nor do I play one on TV.
I am also not as much of an optimist as you, my friend, when it comes to the larger world out there. I think President Biden (I love the sound of those two words in combination) is doing a lot of the right things in terms of foreign policy, but a reversion to the mean — a return to the policies of the Obama era — is not going to return the United States to the position of global hegemon. That moment in time has come and gone; today’s world is decidedly multipolar, with China and Russia competing with us and Europe for influence, and others coming up behind them. Nor are the Administration’s recent actions, as much as I agree with them, going to be sufficient to get us to where we need to be. They are not sufficient to resurrect the Iranian nuclear deal, to rejuvenate the Paris Climate Accord, or even to stabilize the U.S.-European relationship.
On the last of those, I see the U.S. and Europe, like star-crossed lovers, falling back into our old familiar quarrels. We’re once again arguing over burden-sharing, over China, over Nordstream 2. Kant foresaw harmony among a community of democracies; I see nothing but silly, internecine bickering while Putin and Xi mischeviously eye our lunch.
Is any kind of alliance of democracies doomed to be dysfunctional by design? I am not convinced that need be the case. Maybe we just need a greater sense of common purpose, as we had at moments during the Cold War. That’s one of the many reasons that I think we should be doing more globally on the vaccine front. The U.S., Europe, Japan, South Korea, and whoever else cares to join us should become pharmacy to the world — manufacturing and distributing vaccines at warp speed (to borrow a Trump administration phrase) to any country that needs it, so we can put this damnable virus behind us.
P.S. – What the hell is a rollator?
April 12, 2021
Unfair! Unfair! We started this exchange with a clear division of labor: I was supposed to be the optimist, your role was that of the skeptic. And now you are sneaking up on me with a utopian dream, a dream of global proportions — the United States of America as the world’s pharmacy and hospital. It is breathtaking. It is historical. It would give the term „US imperialism“ the most benign meaning it has had since Americans extended a helping hand to Europe (including Germany and Austria) with the Marshall Plan. And do you know what is most unfair about your utopian vision? It is realistic. It might well come true. Once we’re vaccinated, or as vaccinated as we will ever be, the Biden folks will undoubtedly do exactly what you envisioned, my friend. Actually I just read or heard somewhere that one company is busy developing a vaccine precisely with the idea that it might be given away for free to sub-Saharan Africa and India. We might see the US flag become a symbol of hope again. And this would at least partly heal the patriotic pain my immigrant heart had to endure in March 2020, when it suddenly was Cuban doctors — Cubans! — who showed up in Bergamo, Italy, to help that unfortunate city. Not a single American in sight (we were too busy dying by then) but Fidel Castro’s zombies!
Your worries pale in comparison to your own vision. Yes, NATO countries are bickering again — but so what? That’s just the normal state of affairs. Considering that de Gaulle withdrew from NATO’s military command structure in 1966, that he didn’t want to put the nuclear arsenal of France at NATO’s disposal, that he told all foreign forces, especially Americans, to withdraw from French territory — decisions that were not rescinded until 2009 — all of this is not serious. Not very. My wife and I enjoy the odd quarrel, usually over nothing. We still know we’ll grow old together. And I must confess that after You-Know-Who (the former guy) came to power in 2016, I thought NATO was done. Finished. Kaput. I also seriously believe the Western Alliance would not have survived another four years with a man in charge of American foreign policy who for all intents and purposes behaved like an agent of Russia. And I believe another thing: the Russian regime is growing weaker. (That they are now openly trying to murder Navalny in prison — he may be dead by the time we have finished this little exchange of views — is a sign of weakness, not strength.) Like all faltering regimes, Putin and his gaggle of gangsters will make up for their weakness by becoming more aggressive in their posture to the outside world. The people in Ukraine are already feeling the effect. This alone will concentrate NATO’s mind wonderfully – indeed, we do have a common enemy.
I am not sure I share your analysis of what went wrong during the pandemic. It is not that the US Government did nothing under no. 45 — in fact, they were very consistent and effective. Their policy was to let the virus rip; their policy was to sabotage any mitigating measures. (Have you seen Alex Gibney’s documentary „Totally Under Control“?) In the end Dr. Scott Atlas — remember him? — was quite open about this. Once the Trump people found out that COVID mostly killed dark-skinned people, they didn’t care how many corpses they produced. (For this alone they should face prison time. Each and every one of them.) And „lockdowns“ in Europe? Where in Europe, dear Steve, did you see lockdowns? I’ve lived in Israel for a while, I know what a lockdown looks like. All European governments ever could do was ask people nicely to stay at home. People who demonstrate against this in the middle of a pandemic and burn cars, as in your beloved Netherlands (can they also be my beloved Netherlands?) deserve no sympathy. Germans (who do have a sense of humor!) invented a new word for such fellows: „Covidioten.“ Or in plain English, covidiots.
Let me end this by talking about the word „optimism“. A few months ago, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks passed away — the former Chief Rabbi of the UK. I never had the honor of meeting him — alas — but I read many of his books and believe he was one of the great sages of our generation. Rabbi Sacks kept stressing that he was not an optimist. An optimist, he said, is somebody who believes that things will somehow get better by themselves; and that is not a Jewish position. The prophets of the Hebrew Bible were no optimists. They didn’t say, „All will be well if you just keep sacrificing those animals at the Temple.“ They said, „If you don’t care for the widow and the orphan, if you don’t give your laborer his honest wages, the Lord of Israel will spit out your sacrifice.“ The Jewish mindset, Rabbi Sacks said, was not optimism but hope. Hope is active. Hope doesn’t see reality in rosy colors; it can be quite bleak in its assessment. But if things are bleak, something must be done about that.
Which of course brings me to the meaning of the word „rollator“. A rollator, dear Steve, is a walker with wheels on it, so you can push forward while holding on to it for dear life — very useful once your legs refuse to do their job. My dear grandmother, of blessed memory, who survived the Nazis and much personal grief, had such a thing at the end of her life. But at the time of Francisco Goya there were no rollators. At the age of seventy, Goya made one of his most famous drawings — when you visit us in the Bronx you will see a copy in our living room. It shows an old, old man with a very long white beard who is holding himself upright with the help of two wooden walking sticks. Underneath, Goya wrote two words: AUN APRENDO. I’m still learning.
Stephen R. Grand
Steve Grand is the executive director of the Network for Dialogue, a new non-profit initiative designed to facilitate civic dialogue in the Middle East and North Africa. He is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. Previously, he served as the executive director of the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Strategy Task Force, co-chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley. For more than six years, he directed the Brookings Institution’s Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, where he authored the book „Understanding Tahrir Square: What Transitions Elsewhere Can Teach Us About the Prospects for Arab Democracy“. Prior to that, he was director of the Middle East Strategy Group at the Aspen Institute, an adjunct professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School, a scholar-in-residence at American University in Washington, DC, and an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He also has served as the director of programs at the German Marshall Fund, a professional staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the founding executive director of the Civic Education Project. He received a Ph.D. in International Relations from Harvard University and a B.A. from the University of Virginia, where he was a Jefferson Scholar. He serves on the boards of Foreign Policy for America and the Project on Middle East Democracy, as well as on the international advisory committee of the Vaclav Havel Library Foundation.