War or revolution? Who can say?

6 mins read

By David Taub

We have become inured to the metaphor of waging “war” on some evil.

Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” The Tea Party’s “Culture Wars.” And now, sadly, the “War on novel coronavirus.”

Alas, all these so-called “wars” were lost. This metaphor is now just a trite empty burger.

I prefer to think of the “war on COVID-19” as a revolution. Let us examine the common elements of most revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries. Seems to me they all share the same characteristics with the deadliest and most existential challenge we have faced in a century.

Revolution is a zero-sum game; there is a winner and a loser, usually one winner and many losers.

Revolutions are almost always violent, with great loss of human life and treasure.

Revolutionaries are almost never prepared to carry-out one, and almost always underestimate the costs in lives lost and economies destroyed.

Revolutions almost always lead to drastic changes in governments and unforeseen changes in cultures, in the societies of both winners and losers.

There is a story about Henry Kissinger who carried the torch of President Nixon’s desire to open up an engagement with China, by meeting with Mao Zedong.

True or not, it is a wonderful story and goes like this: Kissinger was nervous about how to open his dialogue with Mao. He decided on something non-political, so he asked Mao what he thought of the French Revolution. Mao paused for a moment, and then replied, “Too early to tell.”

And so, it will be with the COVID-19 Revolution. But you can be sure that it will share many characteristics of other “revolutions.” Because it already does.

Upon reflection, I think we are witnessing a world-wide revolution, one that will promulgate changes in every nation, state, culture, and ethnicity.

These changes will be dramatic in ways we cannot begin to understand, predict or envision. Just as in virtually every other revolution, the Principal of Unintended Consequences will rule the day.

So, you might say, “So what?” War or revolution. What the hell? Killing is killing; dying is dying.

If I am correct in this assessment, how we deal first and foremost with stopping the continuing spread of this dreadful killer-virus, with its concomitant loss of life and destruction of economies, will be substantially different from the chaos characterizing our present approach. Consequently, I expect our government, culture, values, and mores will undergo transformations we cannot begin to fathom.

COVID-19’s revolution has dramatically demonstrated how tragically our nation-wide health care system is unprepared to protect most of its citizens, or even provide basic health care for the most vulnerable of our society, pandemic or no. Because there is a dearth of testing kits/materials and sufficient trained medical staff to conduct them, even if they were available (which they are not), we cannot test the massive numbers required to assess and understand what is actually happening in this Revolution.

At present we are testing about 45 per 100,000 of population; the experts say we need at least 150 tests per 100,000 population — three times the current rate. At present, no one can receive a test unless they exhibit physical symptoms associated with COVID-19.

The failure of our national government to react appropriately to this revolution has already led to exhortations from the White House that it should exercise absolute powers that violate the most basic circumscriptions of our precious Constitution.

It’s not the first attempt at emperorship; it won’t be the last. Among the most potent and consequential words in American history are those set forth in the second sentence of our Declaration of Independence: “…We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Our government owes us a guarantee to those rights. A bad government that fails its citizens in its most basic responsibility, which is to protect life and limb, is grist for the mill of revolution.

Alexis de Tocqueville observed: “The social order destroyed by a revolution is almost always better than that which immediately preceded it, and experience shows that the most dangerous moment for a bad government is generally that in which it sets about reform.”

David M. Taub was Mayor of Beaufort from 1990 through 1999, and served as a Beaufort County Magistrate Judge from 2010 to 2015.  He may be contacted at david.m.taub42@gmail.com.

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