Friends, I have voted. It is a precious opportunity we never miss. And tomorrow, I want you all to know that I will STILL be your neighbor and fellow countryman. I will still do all in my might for good.
Vickie and I watched Henry Louis Gates’ series “Finding Your Roots” recently. In 2021 he did a show for singer and music producer Pharrell Williams. As he discovered the pain of his slavery past he was emotionally overwhelmed.
Then he said something that knocked me over. “I love America. I just want America to love me back.” That was a powerful insight. We are a country that has been filled with glorious and terrible truths. But we keep stumbling along.
That comment touched me. I want, I wish, I hope, I pray…that we can “love each other back.” That might be a way through. We have so much to be grateful for, so much possibility, such prosperity. But it will lie unrealized unless we love each other back.
REVIEW of Michael Lewis, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story W. W. Norton & Company (May 4, 2021).
After retirement I am deeply enjoying reading again at a level that I could not do when I was so busy. I just finished The Premonition: A Pandemic Story by Michael Lewis. Michael Lewis is the best-selling author of Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, The Blind Side, The Big Short, The Undoing Project, and The Fifth Risk.
Rather than an exhaustive overview of the pandemic, Lewis tells us from the viewpoint of individuals—a state public health officer, an epidemiologist, IT entrepreneurs and medical researchers racing to understand what was coming and sounding the alarm amid the complexity and disconnect that is American healthcare and politics.
It is a great read, as all of Michael’s books are, but it is focused on the puzzle of how our society was felled by the virus by our incompetence and inability to move quickly and unified, of deep distrust bred over decades, the politicization of the CDC (for example, it’s director ceased being a civil servant in the Ford, Carter, and Reagan errand instead became a political appointee, thus dooming any independence and functioned less to act and more to discuss and recommend.)
A quote That stood out to me was this one:
One day some historian will look back and say how remarkable it was that these strange folk who called themselves “Americans” ever governed themselves at all, given how they went about it. Inside the United States government were all these little boxes. The boxes had been created to address specific problems as they arose. “How to ensure our food is safe to eat,” for instance, or “how to avoid a run on the banks,” or “how to prevent another terrorist attack.” Each box was given to people with knowledge and talent and expertise useful to its assigned problem, and, over time, those people created a culture around the problem, distinct from the cultures in the other little boxes. Each box became its own small, frozen world, with little ability to adapt and little interest in whatever might be going on inside the other boxes. People who complained about “government waste” usually fixated on the ways taxpayer money got spent. But here was the real waste. One box might contain the solution to a problem in another box, or the person who might find that solution, and that second box would never know about it. (p. 77)
He tells multiple stories about individuals who saw it coming or had extraordinary insight into how we might act and yet ran into wall after wall when action was of the essence. There really isn’t much about the usual Democrat or Republican politicizing for what followed. Rather, it was the perfect storm of human inertia, oblivion, and bureaucratic lethargy. His insight is that some of the problems came about because the solution of some earlier generation became a problem for the next one.
I have seen this in the institutional church in my life experience. The hardest thing in the world is to kill off something that three people started 70 years ago and only two people are keeping going now. Rather than celebrate what it did and give it a proper burial, we perpetuate something because of our inability to say that it no longer is the best thing we could do.
Perhaps part of the problem is our constant rushing past “endings” in life—to say, “This was a very good thing once, and we honor it.” Our style as humans is generally either to worship the mythical past as perfect or destroy it as the worst that ever was. It may be why we keep trying to turn genuine history into something else—control of the so-called “narrative.” Instead, our best efforts might be letting history speak to us completely rather than only hearing what we want to hear.
Another issue is our inability to think and act on the long view. The first real effort to build a pandemic response plan began not with President Obama but President George W. Bush. The problem, though, is that that it only became an interest during crises and then other issues would push it aside once more. The bureaucratic and political problems of the CDC and other health entities stretch back all the way to the 1970s and Gerald Ford’s administration. In our rush to the future, Lewis warns, we continue to sustain our prior lessons.
Some critics have debated the heroes he chose and that his portrayal of lonely and persistent people against the wave of indifference or hesitance is not fair. Still, it is easy to see how what he says is true. I came away with sympathy for all those who were struggling to come to grips with this—even understanding the tendencies of those who hesitated. Nothing is the same in real time. For those of us in leadership of institutions, it is a familiar pressure. It is incredibly difficult under pressure to recognize and galvanize others to respond to a crisis in a timely way. In these kinds of moments, you can never wait for all the information before you can act. That’s what makes these kinds of decisions so much harder than more routine ones.
For me it also brought up the challenge of community building. America has been tearing itself into tribal warfare for a long time, but while pressure is necessary for pushing us into solutions, it ultimately must be turned into actual concrete actions. For that reason, the deepening of genuine citizenship, enlarging our tents, and continuing the good fight to get one another engaged and involved rather than analyzing and posting might be the great challenge of our day.
I love everything Michael Lewis writes, and this is no exception. I would suggest that his prior book, The Fifth Risk is a great companion read with this one. It focuses (and genuinely sets the stage for Premonition) on the disruption of transition from one administration to another, looking at 2016-17 in particular, but more directly on the issue of “competence” as one of the great threats to our current existence. This is a book that takes a complicated story and serves it up well. It’s worth your time to read it, because this will not likely be the last pandemic we face. Will we learn?
We are, I believe, in a crisis, and the needs of this moment are for competence, cooperation, and authentic leadership. This is why authoritarianism is appealing to so many. The great temptation in our anxiety is to turn to the safety of giving responsibility to someone else. Far harder is stepping up to our own part.
Michael Lewis stirs all these thoughts and more. You ought to read this book. It is not so much a comprehensive look at the pandemic as a larger reflection on the costs of inaction and bureaucratic insulation that cripple us when institutional wisdom and clear leadership are needed most.
My friend LaMon Brown reminded me of this quote from a book i read many times and loved over the years, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC by Frederick Buechener.
“Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back–in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”
Perhaps it bears reflection as we continue devouring one another with our mutual condescension and distrust. Our leaders in America today look like us: they play to our outrage because it seems to work. Except it doesn’t. There is no room in continuous rage for discussion, understanding, listening, calming ourselves or self-understanding. The immediacy of social media is the most striking feature that is most unlike anything in my upbringing. You didn’t have millions of people potentially responding to you. And why should you?
Somehow anger, like gossip, is not longer seen as a negative force in life. It has its purpose, but the ancient traditions understood that rage, like fire, could consume, and had to be contained. The important question to ask myself is, “Why has this made me so angry?” If I cannot answer I should wait to speak until I can.
I got the Phizer vaccine. Both shots. Felt a little bad half of one day after the second shot and since then–nada. Truth is, the shingles shot walloped me a lot harder. But then shingles aren’t so great. I have talked to a lot of people who are unsettled about getting the shot in Alabama. They had a lot of different reasons. So I decided to write down a list. If I were worried or had questions about getting the vaccine, here is where I would go to settle my mind.
Your doctor. Or a nurse or other health professionals (although some, surprisingly, have been hesitant, but not many).
The local Health Department.
Someone who does medical research (I know someone who actually does research on Covid. He says, “GET THE VACCINE!”).
People who have had the shot whom you trust. Your pastor, rabbi, or other spiritual leader if they are wise, calm and reliable people. Your local medical school faculty and researchers.
People who are wise in your life and you tend to trust them. And I would listen to people who got the vaccine already and had enough time to tell you how it affected them.
People over 65. People who have the most to lose got out there and got the shots.
Here is where I would avoid looking for answers
Random social media. Remember, it’s only as reliable as the expertise of the person looking for information. A distrustful person will be attracted to paranoid websites. That’s how algorithms work. You don’t have to find them. They find you.
Your friend who has definite opinions about everything, especially about what you ought to do.
Your phone, cable tv, and the internet generally. Only because it is like going into Yankee stadium and asking random people what you should do with your health during the seventh inning stretch.
People who are sure the world will end next Thursday. Or any other day ending in “y.” They don’t know and the Bible is clear that they don’t know.
Your cranky uncle who you only see at Thanksgiving who forwards an email to you with his message, “I’ve been saying this for years.” Remember, he still thinks wrestling is real and the moon landing was fake.
Anyone who says, “It’s a definite fact that…” followed by something weird you never heard before.
If you’re under 45, your friend who says, “That’s for old people.”
If you’re under 25, your cool friend who says, “We won’t get it.”
A lot of misinformation is out there. It underlines the truth–we have to make decisions based on confidence in someone else. No one figures it out themselves. Science is done in community, through trial and error and by growing consensus. Emotions are not too helpful in a decision like this. You need a clear head, some cold hard facts and a bit of rational sense.
Right now there are certainly people who have had the vaccine who tested positive for Covid. But if you go to the ICU, the people on the ventilators with Covid are almost all unvaccinated. Work it out in your mind from there.
We’ve all (or most of us) been getting vaccines and shots all our lives, for diptheria, tetanus, measles, Hep-A, B and who knows what else. We have come to have a healthier life through these efforts. This has been an exceptional time, and the pace of this one is so fast your head spins. It is understandable that people are confused. So why not start with the people you tend to rely on in your daily life? You’ll get a better answer than you’re liable to find on Instagram or Twitter.
Please consider getting this shot as a responsibility we all undertake for one another. I am without a single doubt anymore that it works, that it saves lives and that it is worth the risk. It is disheartening to listen to people operate out of emotion, personal opinion without knowledge and disinformation. Ultimately, this one is not a “well, I have a different point of view.” It’s settled. It’s not perfect but it’s our only shot at beating this thing. Just do it and we can quit talking about it.