It’s been quite a year. Last March, just shortly after the COVID-19 outbreak caused lockdowns across the globe, I penned a rather upbeat, optimistic column published here. It posited that humankind’s awakening to the fundamental truth that we are all linked together (and, therefore, inescapably interdependent) presented a profound opportunity; as a result, I foresaw “us” emerging from the crisis stronger, wiser, and prepared to build a better future for our species.
Looking back now, a full year later, that column appears quaint and perhaps incredibly naive. So much has transpired in the intervening period that might cause any rational thinking person to question, if not laugh out loud at, that hopeful view.
About two months after my column’s publication, George Floyd was senselessly murdered in a racist attack that sparked worldwide condemnation and massive public protests demanding an honest confrontation with centuries of bigotry and race-based oppression.
At the same time, the sitting president of the United States engaged in a months-long conspiracy, built upon an outright lie, to overthrow the American system of government and install himself as king. More remarkably, his treasonous effort was fully supported by a national political party!
And, so, not surprisingly, on Jan. 6, 2021, “a day that will live in infamy,” we all witnessed, live on television, an attempted coup, a heavily-armed, orchestrated takeover of our nation’s Capitol to prevent the mundane orderly recordation of the votes of the Electoral College. The perpetrators (white supremacists, neo-Nazis and QAnon conspiracists who had been summoned by the president and then whipped into a frenzy at a pre-coup rally) constructed a gallows on the front lawn of Congress and shouted “Hang Pence!” as they forcibly overtook Capitol police (killing one) and defaced the offices and halls of Congress.
Although, thankfully, our democracy endured that assault, and three weeks later saw a peaceful transition of power to the duly elected new administration, that result was far from clear at the time of the attack. And, to this day, Republican congressional leaders stand by their earlier public votes literally to disenfranchise 81 million American voters.
Events beyond our shores have also undercut my hopeful predictions for enlightened global cooperation. A military coup in Myanmar overthrew a democratic election; Syria’s Bashar al-Assad continued his reign of terror including violating numerous international treaties banning torture and use of chemical weapons, while the world stood idly by; 279 young schoolgirls were kidnapped for ransom in Nigeria (then set free); the Israeli government refused to provide life-saving vaccines to Palestinians living in the West Bank, etc.
So, no, the world has not miraculously transformed into an awakened, enlightened global community, universally committed to protecting the environment, guaranteeing basic human rights for all, eradicating hunger, disease, human trafficking, oppression, and injustice in all forms.
Maybe next year. 😉
In all seriousness: Human progress runs a gradual, incremental, and protracted course. A century ago, in this country, women were not allowed to vote, much less hold powerful positions like vice president, Supreme Court justice, Treasury secretary or director of national intelligence. 150 years ago, our nation embraced the sale and ownership of humans as chattel (slaves).
One need not go that far back in time to see how rapidly we, as a society, have evolved socially and politically. Only a decade ago it would have been unthinkable for Pete Buttigieg, an acknowledged gay man, to be a serious candidate for president of a national political party, or for Jared Polis to be elected the nation’s first openly gay governor.
And only five years ago, prior to the launch of the #MeToo movement, sexual harassment in the workplace was not only commonplace, but largely ignored/accepted as ”just the way things are.” The Matt Lauers, Charlie Roses, Les Moonveses and even Harvey Weinsteins of the world committed their treacherous acts with impunity.
And so, only one short (but seemingly endless) year after COVID-19 arrived in Colorado, I cling to my arguably naive optimism that our global pandemic experience will further hasten our species’ social and political evolution.
Colorado’s state archaeologist recently opined that the disposable face mask (most often blue on one side, and white on the other) will be unearthed by future archaeologists and identified as a key artifact demarcating this historical period.
I firmly believe that the face mask is the appropriate symbol for how this communal experience can, and hopefully will, transform human society. We all donned (and, we absolutely should continue to don) face masks in public to stop the spread of the virus by preventing our own oral and nasal discharges from infecting others. Face masks undoubtedly protect the wearer, too, to some extent. But their primary purpose is to protect others from our germs.
The face mask teaches the primary lesson to be learned from this shared global experience: Like it or not, we are all in this together. An outbreak that began in remote Wuhan, China, quickly engulfed the entire planet, killing millions of our kind and causing immeasurable pain and suffering to many millions more. Building walls and even closing borders did not prevent the global spread.
As I pointed out a year ago, if this experience teaches us anything, it is that no person is an island. No country, state, municipality, or subset of humanity can effectively isolate itself from phenomena of global magnitude: Infectious diseases. Pollution. Destruction of the Earth’s ozone layer. Greenhouse gases. The melting of the polar ice caps and the concomitant rise of sea level that will soon flood many cities.
Homo sapiens have done amazing things. Spoken and written language. Mathematics. Science. Art. Literature. Medicine. Air travel. Space exploration. Radio. Television. The internet. Organized societies with governments elected by, and responsible to, the public. And most recently vaccines.
At the same time, like our evolutionary predecessors, we are, at base (literally), tribal animals with deep-seated instincts of fight or flight, and reflexively coding “the other” as a threat/predator/enemy.
Such biologically-based survival mechanisms cannot and will not be eradicated. But the course of human history shows a gradual evolution as we have become aware, over the centuries, that looking out for the well-being of other humans, as opposed to their destruction, helps us. It’s referred to as “enlightened self-interest.” And, as the world has figuratively shrunk in the past few decades, that awareness has grown exponentially.
This view, of course, is not universally shared. There are many amongst us who still believe isolationism is a viable option; or that so long as “our people” are doing OK we needn’t concern ourselves with “those people” who are less well-off. (And it matters not whether “those people” live across the globe or merely across town.)
That sad fact only proves that evolutionary change is not homogeneous – it does not affect an entire species simultaneously. But, eventually, when those who have evolved in their thinking outnumber those who have not, social policy changes: LGBTQ rights. Women’s rights. Black Lives Matter. Diversity, Inclusion Equity. Perhaps, eventually, reparations.
One year into this pandemic, I remain cautiously optimistic about “our” future. The face mask – a ubiquitous presence in public spaces during this period – is our symbol of hope. It should serve to remind us, in the “after times,” that our own self-interest, indeed our own survival, requires us to protect and take care of others in our community.
And, when it comes to public health and the environment, that community is a global one.
Steven Zansberg is an attorney in Denver specializing in First Amendment, media and intellectual property law.
CORRECTION: This column was updated at 11 a.m. on March 12 to correct the span of time between the author’s March 22, 2020, column and the May 25, 2020, killing of George Floyd.
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