Tag Archives: COVID

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Autocrats On Parade

How did this expansive stretch of the world’s geography wither to the point where it is hard to remember that it once contained a culture of innovation?

Educators supposedly talk about “teachable moments.”  We are surely in the midst of one right now, at least if we are paying attention. Two authoritarian leaders—one representing a major power, and one seemingly intent on ruining what remains of a failing nation—are displaying mistakes that inform and shame at the same time.

China, of course, is the major power. But it would be a sobering lesson for President Xi Jinping to fully comprehend the disbelief of his nation’s trading partners over the misguided decision of quarantining cities like Shanghai because of COVID. Almost nothing else so clearly demonstrates the horrors of a totalitarian state than a YouTube video of faceless and white-suited minions ordering apartment dwellers to appear on their sidewalk to be tested. The quarantine in Shanghai has been so restrictive that some are unable to get the basic necessities of life, including food. This is all in support of Xi’s “zero COVID” dictum that was meant to display China’s better discipline in dealing with the pandemic. Yet his misguided policy has turned the idea of public health upside down, making the lockdown something worse than COVID itself. Nothing says “failed government” as quick as a visual display of compulsory submission that resembles nothing so much as a mandatory morning rollcall of prisoners. To say that this policy of process over compassion has gotten bad press in most of the world is an understatement. By any national standard, China has a tiny fraction of active cases. But, of course, there is apparently no one around to tell President Xi he has made a fool of himself and inadvertently helped spread the few cases that exist.  As a reporter from the Australian Broadcasting Company notes, people have been desperate:

But if the wrong-headedness of the Chinese President looks farcical to the rest of the world, the unilateral military actions of Russian President Vladimir Putin are far more troubling and despotic. Putin is still nearly mute head of a long-fading superpower at risk of devolving even further. By now the story of his obsession with the idea of rebuilding a fantasy empire is well known, if also badly out of step with the way the world works in the 21st century. Invading and slaughtering the residents of a sovereign nation is why the global order changed after the Second World War. We have to remind ourselves that the senseless Russian attack is real: a murder spree in plain view of cameras from around the world. Working alone in the tomb of the Kremlin and without a free press, Putin has lulled himself into believing that no one would miss Ukraine if it became a clone of an inert Russia.

But the young democracy has given him more than he bargained for. Ukrainians have what most Russians seem to lack: a sense of personal agency, and of participation in the civil life of a messy democracy. It’s little wonder they were ready to reject being taken over by their moribund neighbor.

No One Wants What Russia Makes

If Russia is not yet a failed state, Putin’s error, along with pushback from most of the world’s democracies, will soon yield that result. Even now Russia’s birth rate is below levels that can sustain it. Many of the young and the nation’s best and brightest have moved to less oppressive countries. And Russia remains a remarkably corrupt and unproductive place, having missed chances to foster tech and progressive innovators like its smaller neighbors of Finland and Sweden. As we all know now, Russia mostly keeps the lights on by falling back on old and sloppy extractive industries like timber, oil and gas. Value-added businesses that make good things are rarer. No one wants Russian cars, appliances, audio components or computers. And many of us are less than happy at the thought of stepping on to a plane maintained by a Russian ground crew. My guess is that even the country’s few remaining and clueless allies may even be rethinking their purchases of those “jack-in-the-box” Russian tanks.

How did this expansive stretch of the world’s geography wither to the point where it can be hard to remember that it was once home to innovative arts and sciences? Instead, the aging residents that have not fled remain mostly silent and too ready to again fall for the fictions of a delusional leader.

I hope we Americans are paying attention.  We have our own embarrassing parades of small-minded thinking that threatens long-held personal freedoms. But we are also at a perfect moment to witness the hubris of autocracy alongside the idealism of relatively new and cruelly-tested Ukrainian state. The twin tyrannies of Xi and Putin should remind us of just how much is at stake when small people with stale ideas seize power they have not earned.

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Grievances Arising from Covid and Beyond

We may want to act, but in some cases the best we can do is react.

One of the apparent effects of long-term stress is that we are more inclined to engage only to assert rather than listen. We seek the psychological release of airing our feelings, leaving our conversational partners to function only as recipients of accumulated complaints. Add in the sour national political mood, and additional stressors of everything ranging from getting children vaccinated, to acknowledging existential threats like climate change, and we are ready to reload our rhetorical canons and keep firing.

Under these circumstances, becoming active and empathetic listeners is all the harder. Most of our energy has already been sapped by rumination and complaints. We are hardly prepared to pay what I once called the “energy surcharge” of active listening that requires taking the time to focus on the feelings of others. You can check yourself on this by recalling the last time you felt the need to write done what another was saying.

Anecdotally, we see forms of “unloading on another” all the time: in videos of passengers arguing with airline agents, unhappy customers using the frail medium of the phone to lodge complaints, or in news reports of political rallies, where everyone present seems to be on a short fuse.

Reaction as a Substitute for Action

In times of stress we may want to act, but in most cases the best we can do is react. And so our rhetoric turns expressive and argumentative in the hope that our words will achieve what seems to be beyond our direct control. For example, it was one thing during the height of the pandemic to be warned that we should stay out of crowded spaces. But for some it was a step too far that our favorite travel destination or restaurant was temporarily off limits. We seem unable to accept a message that requires altering our most fervent intentions: a condition that can launch us into a high rhetorical orbit. Even in the face of solid evidence, hearing an alienating “no” from another is rarely going to be accepted as the last word.

Then, too, there is the apparent promise of an end to the global nightmare of COVID, though that moment seems further off than first thought. And no sooner have its life-threatening negatives begun to subside than other pandemics of social resentments have become more virulent. The many work and family displacements from COVID that added hardships seems to have emboldened many to press forward with ongoing demands for greater gender parity, friendlier workplaces, better childcare, less sexual and racial bias, and corporate reform. An insistence to be heard first and engage later has added new challenges to previously settled relationships. Interactions with employers, family members and even friends now seem more cautious and transactional. They define the current period of superheated identity politics that has become fully transformational: perhaps unwanted by many, but no less real.

With so many interpersonal bonds in flux, it can be hard to know whether the future holds more rebukes, or a placid period of exhaustion and quiescence when we might again hear each other with more understanding.

Seventy years ago, the nation still waited for needed forms of human empowerment. But news of the new polio vaccine created a wonderful pause while the nation celebrated its good fortune. Polio would no longer claim more of its children. In contrast, we seem to be in a time when embedded social inequalities have seeded resentments that have made the nation less interested in savoring our successes.