We Lost A Shared Reality

By Paolo von Schirach–

WASHINGTON – May be this was never true; but for a very long time many in America could argue that, whatever our political or ideological differences, we all shared the same facts based reality. We may have differed on what to do about issues and problems; but at least in a broad sense we were basing our judgments, opinions and counsel on the same facts.

Maybe it is a myth

As I said, may be deep down this was never true. Indeed, we have ample evidence that different segments of the American society for the longest time lived in different universes, with their own set of facts and related explanations.

Just to cite the most egregious example, leaders in the American South, even after the end of the Civil War that formally ended slavery, for almost a century embraced the fantasy that racial segregation was a fair and just legal and social arrangement, wisely created for the benefit of all, Whites and Blacks. They claimed that the facts on the ground demonstrated that segregation worked just fine for all parties. Nobody seemed to notice, let alone acknowledge, any conflicts between the US constitutional principle of equal justice for all and statutes that clearly and openly contradicted this core principle, denying African Americans their civil and voting rights, opportunity, education, jobs, and a lot more. And this is just one example, albeit gigantic.

A shared reality

Still, despite this and other discrepancies, the American cultural and political elites seemed to base their opinions on the reassuring assumption that they were drawn from a reality we all shared and agreed with.

For many years, the media reinforced this assumption. Every evening, when the news came into millions of American homes from the three big networks, not many viewers would challenge the truthfulness of “the facts” that were presented to them by the News Anchors, (all of them serious looking, middle aged, white males), and all the other correspondents. If it was on the evening news, well, it was factual. It was the truth. Revered CBS News Anchor Walter Cronkite famously signed off his daily broadcast with “And that’s the way it is” which could be interpreted as “This is the final word on this. We have told you the entire story”.

Again, may be what was presented on TV every night was not the entire truth. May be there was subtle or not so subtle editing and therefore willful manipulation in the way the events of the day were covered. But, even if this was happening, even if millions of viewers were in facts duped and fed lies, not many Americans openly doubted the truthfulness of what they watched every evening.

Customized media for true believers

Well, if we fast forward to today, we realize that we are in an entirely different world. Today we do not even pretend to have a shared reality. We have different realities, and we openly and consciously follow the one that suits us the most. When it comes to “news”, we choose to watch, read and listen to those who speak to our biases and prejudices. In the public affairs shows there is not even a pretense to be “objective”. Facts are presented selectively, with an obvious intent to spin in order to make a prepackaged point. Likewise, no effort to separate news and opinions. It is all a big stew. Worse yet, millions of people see nothing wrong with this approach to “news coverage”. The fact that the opinions we love to listen to in many if not most cases our grounded on fantasies, or at the very least serious distortion of “the facts”, is not even contemplated.

A nation of cult followers

Is this unprecedented? Well, not entirely. If we look at our past, of course here in America we always had some extreme political movements, strange cults, and weird sects that proclaimed outlandish things, often basing them on non existent “facts”. And these groups attracted some followers. But the point is that these were and usually remained fringe phenomena, with a modest following.

Now, very large sections of our society have voluntarily chosen to become the modern equivalent of cult followers who embrace a set of fantasyland theories with the absolute, unflinching certainty that they are based on “true facts”. The added corollary is usually that all those who disagree with the believers of a particular “truth” are deemed to be either stupid or evil. In many cases, they are portrayed as archenemies to be fought and neutralized.

A political view of Covid -19

An interesting example of this immersion in fantasyland is in the different way in which Americans, depending on their political orientations, look today at the still unfolding coronavirus pandemic.

What? Are there political views on the nature of the virus that caused this unprecedented health crisis? Yes, there are. And they are not confined to issues on which there can be legitimate policy disagreements; such as: how much money should be spent on testing, on emergency care, or on the development of a vaccine, who should be in charge of this and that, and the like. No, the disagreement is much more profound. it is about the nature of the disease, ans therefore on how dangerous it is, and what sorts of precautions individuals should take.

According to the website The Bulwark, here is the summary of views on the pandemic held by many (albeit not all) Republicans:

  • Less than half of Republicans believe that COVID-19 is a major threat to public health.
  • 63 percent of Republicans say that the extent of the coronavirus is exaggerated.
  • A quarter of the public thinks that the pandemic is the result of a planned conspiracy.
  • 40 percent of Republicans say COVID-19 is no more deadly than the flu.
  • 50 percent of Republicans say the COVID-19 death toll is an exaggeration.
  • 23 percent of Republicans say masks should be worn “rarely” or “never.”

Just to pick one item from this list of truly bizarre beliefs, I do not believe that many in the medical profession would seriously argue today that Covid-19 is more or less as dangerous as the flu. Sure enough, in many cases it looks like the flu. Its symptoms are similar, and the affected patients may experience only some temporary discomfort. But we also know that the mortality of Covid-19 is much, much higher than the flu, 52 times higher according to some calculations. Besides, as of now there is no Covid-19 vaccine; whereas flu vaccines that can prevent or at least mitigate the flu symptoms do exist. Hence the covid-induced lockdowns, and the various public health measures aimed at preventing, or at least minimizing, coronavirus contagion.

So, here we go. Medical experts say something based on empirical evidence. But a segment of the population prefers to believe others who provide an entirely different analysis. The medical experts wonder how is it possible that so many Americans would hold views that are contradicted by the known facts. But they do it anyway.

Green America within reach in no time

On the other side of the political divide, we have some segments within the Democratic Party who talk about their plans to make America Green in just 15 years as a perfectly reasonable, practical and cost effective plan. They honestly believe that it is possible to transform the entire power generation and distribution system and most industries in America, the largest economy on Earth, within a relatively short period of time, with no downside and no meaningful discomfort for a nation of more than 330 million people.

And yet recent developments, such as the California blackouts caused by significant supply problems caused by deployed, and as yet imperfect, renewable electricity prove that going green, itself a worthwhile goal, will require significantly improved technologies that as of now are not available on any scale. And yet the believers dismiss this “fact”. They see no problem in implementing this fantasy based on the “fact” that we already have what it takes to engineer this most dramatic transformation. The only people who see problems –so argue the believers– are those who want to derail the green agenda, because they represent the vested interests of the fossil fuels industry and their lobbyists. So, even here the opponents of “the truth” are essentially enemies.

Private universes

Well, here we are. It is a fact that large segments of our society now live in their own self-sufficient, private universes that have no interest in engaging others holding different views. They are completely impervious to fact based evidence that may contradict their beliefs. They believe what they want to believe, and proclaim that to be the facts-based truth.

There are still some pragmatists, for now

The only positive element in all this is that there still are some Americans who try to understand what the facts related to any issue or problem are. They genuinely seek to find common sense-based agreement on feasible solutions for real issues. And these people try to build coalitions and partnerships in order to advance real world practical solutions. And this is good. But it looks that the armies of the sectarian believers are growing. If this phenomenon does not stop, if the sectarians end up dominating the political and policy environment, we may face a real national crisis relatively soon.

This American Republic is founded on the (fantasy?) assumption that most citizens are generally reasonable people who will naturally seek common ground with others in order to address real life issues that affect the broader society. If this is no longer true, if we are just a bunch of warring sects proclaiming mutually exclusive “truths”, it is hard to understand how our system of government based on compromise and reaching out to others can survive.

Paolo von Schirach is the Editor of the Schirach Report He is also the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Chair of Political Sciencand International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC.




US Response to Coronavirus Dictated by Panic, Not Policy

By Paolo von Schirach –

WASHINGTON – Nobody is prescient. No one could have foreseen the timing and the extent of the coronavirus pandemic explosion which originated in China and then from there spread all over the world. However, as I noted elsewhere, the US was especially vulnerable, because it was utterly unprepared to meet any public health emergency.

No systems, no plans

Amazing but true, America had no “pandemic early warning system” in place so that a timely alarm could be sounded, nor did America have any meaningful public health “rapid reaction force” in place that could have been activated after the alarm had been sounded, in order to deploy all the necessary medical equipment and other materials where mostly needed, while ordering and enforcing the necessary contagion prevention measures, (immediate widespread testing, quarantines, social distancing, and lock downs).

True, eventually some of these measures were ordered and implemented here in the US. But, lacking anything even resembling a master plan, all this was done very late, and in a horribly inefficient, fragmented fashion, in a climate of confusion, disorientation and –at times– sheer panic.

Panic led to an extreme response

And the panic created by a disease with no cure and catastrophic predictions about millions of dead Americans, unless we closed everything down, led to the fateful decision to shut the country down, with full knowledge of the incredible damage to the economy that this decision would imply, including a slew of bankruptcies, and tens of millions of suddenly unemployed workers.

Let me make this clear. It did not have to be this way. We closed America down because, at the time, with no deployable countermeasures available and a deadly disease spreading rapidly, there seemed to be no other viable choice, if the main goal was to save American lives.

And, again, there was no other practical choice because the US had no deployable countermeasures, no contagion mitigation systems that could be activated. Here is the sad truth. When coronavirus arrived, America was literally a sitting duck, completely unprepared and therefore defenseless.

Amazingly, this means that America, the world’s leading economic power, leader in medical research and information technology, had not thought that a pandemic could occur here, and therefore had done essentially nothing to prepare for it. As a result, when coronavirus hit, the US had no workable tools to slow down the advancing pandemic, except for quarantines and lockdowns — public health countermeasures first deployed in Europe in the Middle Ages, at a time in which public officials literally had no other remedies.

Taiwan, South Korea and Germany had systems

In contrast, other governments over time had developed pandemic preparedness plans, and they activated them –immediately, as soon as news of the pandemic originating in Wuhan, China spread.

In Taiwan the government had a system in place (created in the aftermath of the SARS pandemic in 2003) that was immediately set into action when the Taipei government realized that something bad was happening in China, back in December 2019.

In South Korea, almost overnight, the government deployed a robust virus containment strategy based on massive testing and subsequent isolation of all positive individuals.

In Germany, a national and regional network of testing facilities sprang into action, almost immediately. As a result, Germany, to date, has by far the lowest number of fatalities per unit of population compared to the rest of Europe.

Because they had robust and tested “damage limitation strategies”, these countries had tools to limit contagion. Their number of fatalities is quite low, despite no cure and no vaccine. Which is to say that, unlike the US, other governments had thought about the possibility of a pandemic and had therefore funded and put in place policies and countermeasures that helped them contain the damage. If they could do this, so could we. The fact that we did not is a huge stain on America, the country that is supposedly ahead of everyone in innovation, science and high tech.

Early warning system would have contained the pandemic

Let me be clear. A US early warning system would not –I repeat, would not– have prevented this virus for which there is no cure from reaching the US and infecting people. However, a sophisticated early warning system, (which includes the ability to learn as early as possible about an unfolding epidemic anywhere in the world, and then quickly track and isolate positive individuals in order to prevent or at least slow down contagion), combined with prepositioned stockpiles of medical emergency material, (masks, protective gear, ventilators, field hospitals easily deployable by the military in high incidence localities), most certainly would have slowed down this pandemic, while reducing its spread and scope. Which is to say that, if America had had a robust pandemic plan in place, we could have avoided shutting down almost the entire economy, while probably saving thousands of lives, even in the absence of a cure or vaccine.

Millions of victims?

As we had none of the rapid reaction tools in place, overtaken by panic, federal and state policy-makers concluded that the only choice before them was between condemning literally millions of Americans to a certain death caused by an advancing coronavirus, or closing down almost the entire US economy in order to slow down contagions, this way preventing a horrible human tragedy. And so, lacking any plausible alternatives, Washington and most of the 50 States decided to literally close down the biggest economic power on Earth.

What is terribly wrong with this scenario is that this “either we kill people, or we kill the economy” choice could have been avoided by having a tried and tested contagion prevention national plan in place that would have worked like a very powerful shock absorber. This is what Taiwan, South Korea and Germany, among others, did –rather successfully.

Of course, as I said above, even if America had been properly organized to react to this pandemic, there would have been some contagion, many deaths, huge economic damage and enormous dislocation resulting in a recession. Hence the need for the US Government to intervene with emergency funds. But, for sure, both the economic dislocation and the emergency interventions would not have been on this scale, (almost three trillion dollars!), because the damage, while still very substantial, would have been far more limited.

Are we going to learn from this disaster?

I really hope we learnt our lessons here; even if at the cost of more than 50,000 lives, and counting; and close to three trillion dollars in emergency aid to corporations and individuals, and counting. I hope that by now our elected leaders have realized that the US cannot afford to have essentially no workable rapid reaction system in place when it comes to low probability but extremely high risk public health occurrences.

Of course, it will cost money to set up and maintain the necessary early warning and rapid reaction infrastructure, trained workforce and chain of command.

But this strategic investment will be only a fraction of the close to three trillion dollars we have already spent so far, not to mention the fact that early detection will give us the ability to save thousands of lives by preventing out of control contagion via timely quarantines and other targeted isolation measures.

Paolo von Schirach is the Editor of the Schirach Report He is also the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Chair of Political Sciencand International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC.