Interesting, isn’t it, how much barbed wire has suddenly slithered out of the conversation? How fear, and a threat that ignores borders, combine to encourage civility and prod us closer? How, suddenly, rigid ideology and blinkered partisanship seem awfully stupid?
Ronald Reagan thought about it, in his way, and blurted it out to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev during the last years of the Cold War.
“I couldn’t help but say to him, just think how easy his task and mine might be … if suddenly there was a threat to this world from some other species, from another planet, outside in the universe,” Reagan said later. “We would find out once and for all that we really are all human beings here on this Earth together.”
The topic back then was relaxing tensions between nuclear armed states, but in the past week, we’ve seen the cleansing power of fear everywhere.
As economies shrink with shocking speed, pole-axing entire workforces, it is no longer fashionable, even in a normally nuance-free polity like the United States, to be a libertarian, or even a small-government conservative. The pitchforks have been put aside, at least for now.
Another of Ronald Reagan’s famous quotes, the one about the nine most frightening words in the English language being “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,” suddenly seems risibly simple minded.
The government is here to help, all right, and everyone is gibbering with gratitude. Rugged individualism might be a fun bumper sticker in normal times, but true power and accomplishment lies in collective action, and government collectivizes us.
Donald Trump wants to borrow, or print, a trillion dollars and hand it out in all directions, and there hasn’t been a peep from the Tea Party caucus in Washington, the red-meat hellraisers who were propelled to Congress by resentment over Wall Street bailouts back in 2008.
In Canada, the Trudeau government’s spending bill – equally massive by proportion – will sail through Parliament to nothing but applause. Nothing but kind words and encouragement from the Conservatives. Andrew Scheer, in fact, declared he will press the government to ensure nobody who needs government support will fall through the cracks. That’s conservatism, in this moment. Sounds a lot like liberalism, doesn’t it?
In Toronto, Doug Ford has been sounding weirdly statesmanlike, saying explicitly nice things about Justin Trudeau and his deputy PM, Chrystia Freeland.
And when the far-right fratboys at “Canada Proud” created a meme indirectly mocking Sophie Gregoire Trudeau’s coronavirus-positive test result, it was encouraging to watch the avalanche of disgust that rolled down the social media mountain.
Even Donald Trump is trying, to the extent he’s capable, to tone down the bared-teeth blaming and shrieking, and his acolytes at Fox, like the old Western communist parties reversing course in lockstep with Stalin, have obediently followed his lead. It’s not the liberals’ fault anymore. It’s China’s. Well. That’s progress of a sort, isn’t it?
Politicians aren’t the only ones suddenly behaving like adults.
Heard much in the past few weeks from the starchy, woke, censorious crowd of finger-pointing shamers? Notice how their demands for kooky neologisms and singular-plural pronouns have quieted? No one has the patience for them right now, and they know it.
And journalists have dropped the adversarial posing. They’re listening politely to politicians and officials, letting them finish sentences, suppressing their urge to ask long, bloviating questions. They’re trying to elicit information, rather than a cheap headline.
Journalists have highly tuned antennae. Just as they did after 9/11, they are reading the public mood, and sensing now is not the time for the usual shenanigans. I loved my old cobber Terry Milewski’s peerless hound-and-hector ability, but I’ll bet a week’s pay he’d be quiet and respectful right about now.
It’s almost as though reporters feel we’re all in this together. After a cameraman in Ottawa thanked Health Minister Patty Hajdu just for being there and working hard, Hajdu choked up on camera.
The comity is all pretty nice to see, isn’t it? It should make any sensible person ask him or herself how valuable our calcified ideologies and self-indulgent orthodoxies were in the first place. We treat ourselves to them because we can afford to. A wise old friend used to sigh at our culture wars, and say there wasn’t anything wrong with our society that a dose of starvation wouldn’t sort out. Or virus, it turns out.
Perhaps once this is all over, if we aren’t all grubbing for insects in some apocalyptic hellscape, we’ll think before barking.
Well, probably not, but there sure is a lesson in all this. (And yes, I am perfectly aware of my lifelong addiction to the snark. I’m a dick, too. There. Happy?)
In 2009, nearly a quarter century after Reagan talked about the aliens, someone asked Mikhail Gorbachev about it.
The old communist lit up: “President Reagan suddenly said to me, ‘What would you do if the United States were attacked by someone from outer space? Would you help us?’ I said, ‘No doubt about it.” He said, ‘We too.’ So that’s interesting.”
Sure is, isn’t it?