Magazine May 4, 2020, Issue

From March’s Madness to April’s Fools

A woman waves a flag during the coronavirus outbreak in San Diego, Calif., April 8, 2020. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

9/11 was my senior year of high school. It happened 20 miles in a straight line from the physics classroom where we were when the principal came over the loudspeaker, and when you went to the McDonald’s on Route 17 during sixth-period lunch, you could see the black column of smoke on the skyline where the buildings had been. Our town of 14,351 lost two men in the attack — including my lab partner’s father — and eventually three more to the wars it started.

I was not an especially brave 17-year-old, and I remember being pretty well freaked out for a couple of weeks there. Particularly at the sound of the loud, low-level F-16 passes over our condo that evening, and over the next few days watching the live camera they kept trained, in anticipation, on the Empire State Building each time it was evacuated because of another anonymous bomb threat.

I went off to college the next fall in Washington, D.C., and just before midterms the Beltway sniper — snipers, as it turned out — started murdering people up and down the I-95 corridor, including four in one day in October. Sometime that week I caught myself half-consciously walking in a serpentine and random fashion across a quad in Foggy Bottom and was so embarrassed I would have welcomed a .223 to the butt cheek for being such a wuss.

After the customary four years, I took my bachelor’s, then spent an abortive couple of semesters at graduate school back in New York, and right about the time I dropped out to get a (relatively) real job as a writer, the subprime-mortgage market collapsed, setting off the Great Recession.

That one I experienced with an almost French absurdity. It set my single mother — a loan officer — back nearly a decade, but for my own part it was like Dylan said: When you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose. My student-loan forbearances came and went, I hawked my meager wares at several publications, and I lived on a series of futons atop any number of staircases with a rotation of roommates in several Manhattan neighborhoods — interrupted by a couple of furloughs to my childhood bedroom in New Jersey, the less said about which the better.

Eventually, things improved, as they usually but don’t always do. I paid off my student loans about a year before abolishing them became the official position of the Democratic Party; met my wife; married her; bought a house; and sometime about six weeks ago I thought, “Hey, things are not terrible. I mostly have my crap together. Maybe it’s time to start a family.”

No doubt God had a good laugh.

A fellow Millennial caught hell online the other day for saying we’re a generation that has “never known stability.” Her many critics are of course right that previous generations had things a whole lot worse (that’s basically always been true), and I haven’t dedicated the first half of this column to autobiography just to bitch and moan.

Instead I relate all this because it occurred to me that the present crisis — the virus — is a weird mash-up of those several fears and anxieties from the last two decades. Like 9/11 it’s a collective trauma and a collective tragedy. If you don’t now, you will probably soon know someone who dies in this pandemic. Like the financial crisis, it has knocked tens of millions of working Americans on their asses, upended their best-laid plans, set them back a year, a decade. And like a sniper on the loose it has us all taking weird routes on the sidewalk, probably more scared than the numbers dictate we ought to be, engaging in rituals that make us feel a little bit safer and not a little bit more ridiculous.

But there are also unwelcome novelties in this experience. For example, it’s the first crisis of my lifetime to occur under a complete and total lack of trust by the public in the institutions tasked with guiding us through it.

Don’t get me wrong. Ordinary Americans have been pretty great. Our doctors, nurses, truck drivers, and deliverymen have buoyed us. And together we’ve distanced. Homeschooled. Donated. Volunteered. Built things. Even hired.

But poll after poll shows that the U.S., almost uniquely among countries dealing with outbreaks, has lost faith in both politicians and the press at precisely the time we need competence from both.

So on one side we have governors and beat cops engaged in petty and pointless acts of vindictive governance, taking down license plates at church parking lots, shutting down “nonessential” aisles in big-box stores, chasing lone joggers out of public parks. And on the other side we have “just the flu” madmen, some of whom have the president’s ear, so angry that the economy has shut down six months before their guy goes up for reelection that they are setting out to disprove the old political saw that the Constitution is not a suicide pact.

And in the middle we have a press that is determined to do their worst when we need them at their best, spending half their time fluffing CCP malefactors and the rest of it trying to goad the White House into making decisions that confirm their low opinion of it, as if what the public needs most right now weren’t information about treatment research or relief efforts, but a story from CNN proving, at long last, that the president sometimes behaves erratically.

This too shall pass, of course, and we may yet emerge from these hard times stronger than before. But that will depend on the courage of our neighbors outstripping the utter frivolity of our leaders.

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Daniel FosterDaniel Foster is a former news editor of National Review Online.

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