We Need to Talk: COVID-19 and the Culture Wars

Nearly every issue has become fodder for political combat in our polarized society, so I was not surprised when the COVID-19 pandemic proved to be no exception. Depending on which side of the Red/Blue divide we’re on, the virus is:

  • A source of wildly overblown fearmongering. The coronavirus gets more attention because it’s new, but the flu actually kills more people in the U.S. and is thus more dangerous. We should ignore the hype and go about our business as usual.
  • Armageddon. Our lives are about to change drastically. Hospitals will be overwhelmed. Millions of people will die. We must cancel everything immediately in order to prevent imminent worldwide disaster.

As each new day brings constantly revised case numbers and a climbing death toll, culture warriors on the cable news networks have managed to stir a generous dose of character assassination into the mix. The Facebook and Twitter meme wars have begun. Blame and finger-pointing abound.

Some conservatives have accused those in the liberal/progressive camp of actually hoping millions of people die and the stock market crashes so Donald Trump will be defeated in November’s presidential election. Some on the liberal/progressive side have accused folks in the conservative camp of not caring whether Grandma dies as long as the stock market stays up and Trump gets reelected. Good grief. I wish I were making this up.

“Our hyper-polarization is so strong that we don’t even assess a potential health crisis in the same way,” Jennifer McCoy, a Georgia State political science professor who studies polarization, told a Reuters reporter (link HERE). This “impedes our ability to address it.” 

For my husband Pete and I, the COVID-19 crisis is intensely personal. That’s because we check the boxes on several of the at-risk categories (age, lung disease, heart problems, high blood pressure, diabetes, BINGO!). All these risk factors could make the coronavirus extremely dangerous for us. Suffice it to say, we are taking this threat very seriously. Ugh. Prayers appreciated!

Pete was hospitalized at the end of February with a pneumonia-type virus. Upon his release, his medical team told him to stay home until further notice to avoid being exposed to some of the virulent flu strains already going around our community because his immune system is so compromised. For the past couple of weeks, I’ve voluntarily quarantined myself along with him to avoid catching anything that I could then pass to him. And that’s before the COVID-19 saga started.

Some use the argument that “flu kills 50,000 people a year” as a reason for not taking COVID-19 seriously. Influenza does indeed infect hundreds of thousands of people annually, even folks who were responsible enough to get vaccinated. And it kills way too many of them. But the answer is not to downplay the seriousness of COVID-19. The answer is to take all communicable diseases, including influenza, more seriously.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was a bad idea to pass along one’s illness to others. In early 2018, Pete and I stopped at a lovely little buffet for lunch on our way to visit cousins in North Carolina. The young woman who waited on us was highly contagious, judging from her constant sniffling, coughing and sneezing. We never arrived in North Carolina, but had to return home when we became ill ourselves. Pete wound up in the hospital.

Pete and I tried not to be judgmental toward the food server we believe gave us the flu that ultimately landed Pete in the hospital. We knew she probably couldn’t afford to stay home from work because of “a few sniffles,” since she most likely didn’t get paid sick days. And she may not have completely understood the risk involved in spreading influenza to an older person like my husband.

But I can’t believe the number of supposedly mature adults who neglect to cover their coughs and sneezes, and who show up in public obviously ill. I’m not even talking about people who go to work sick because they can’t afford to stay home. I’m talking about people who go to church, restaurants, public gatherings and other places where their presence is in no way required. It’s as if people have a hard time understanding why something that is not a problem for them could possibly be a problem for someone else. 

And this is part of what makes the current COVID-19 crisis so scary for my husband and I, a reason that has nothing to do with right-wing or left-wing politics.

I’m a fan of encouraging people not to panic, although I’m sure some would quibble with me on what constitutes a “panic response.” For me, a panic response includes things like buying up a store’s entire supply of toilet paper and leaving none for our neighbors. Or avoiding certain people simply because they look like they might be of Chinese ancestry as opposed to maintaining distance from someone because they’re coughing and sneezing all over the place. It is NOT a “panic response” to follow the suggestions of public health experts, including those suggestions that may inconvenience us like staying away from crowds when we’re sick.

The tricky part is figuring out how to separate the progressive vs. conservative political posturing from the information we need to know in order to protect ourselves.The hysteria I’ve noticed so far comes mostly from politicians (of both stripes) and the news media, while the information from the public health people and medical experts has been very helpful in figuring out how to deal with our current situation. 

As people in the high-risk group, my husband and I have elected to listen to our doctors and medical experts, not politicians and news media pundits. Here are some very good sites I trust to be reliable sources of unbiased information about COVID-19. The information is provided by trained medical professionals whose only agenda is to help us stay healthy:

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Includes up-to-date information on global locations where cases have appeared, symptoms, steps to prevent illness and what to do when sick. Link HERE.
  • Mayo Clinic. Includes an overview on symptoms, diagnosis and treatment, along with risk factors, prevention, travel advice and up-to-the-minute news about the outbreak. Link HERE.
  • WebMD. More coronavirus news and updates, how to prepare your family for disruptions that might occur, ways to toughen up your immune system and how to separate facts from hype. Link HERE.

The truth about COVID-19, according to these experts? Children and young adults may experience the new virus the same way they experience a common cold or a mild case of flu. On the other hand, elderly people or people of any age with serious underlying chronic health conditions such as heart disease, lung disease or diabetes face a potentially life-threatening risk if infected. 

And yes, COVID-19 does appear to be more serious than the flu, according to these experts. Even if the fatality rate turns out to be closer to 1 percent than the initial 3.4 percent figure cited by the World Health Organization, this is still 10 times deadlier than influenza in a bad year.

Am I worried about COVID-19? I’d be lying big time if I said I wasn’t. My husband and I are trying to keep a lid on our anxiety by following the advice of our health care team and doing what we can to keep ourselves healthy. But given the stakes for us, we’d really love for the political posturing by culture warriors on both sides to stop so we can get down to the business of addressing the crisis in front of us constructively.

If they really want to be responsible, the news media could use the current COVID-19 situation as a powerful “teachable moment.” Here’s a chance to impress on the general population the vital importance of good handwashing hygiene, covering coughs or sneezes properly and staying home when sick – whether we’re talking about COVID-19 or the more garden-variety influenza.

The media can also educate the public on why illnesses that are little more than a nuisance to younger/healthier people can land at-risk people in intensive care or worse. Many otherwise intelligent people still fail to understand this.

If they really want to be responsible, elected officials of both parties could work together on policies like paid sick leave that make it easier for people to stop coming to work sick. They could collaborate in a bipartisan way to improve our health care system so people can get the medical treatment they need to avoid passing their illnesses to others. 

If the rest of us want to be responsible, we could all take off our political/ideological hats for just a few minutes, eliminate the name-calling, the shouting, the trolling and the flaming, and have a rational discussion about how to help each other through the current crisis.

This could go a long way toward saving lives in the face of communicable diseases of all kinds.

Book excerpt: We need to talk

Note: This is the first excerpt from my book in progress, which will examine the polarization ripping apart our society and discuss an appropriate Christian response.

Sometimes I want to stick my fingers in my ears and yell “SHUT UP!” over and over at the top of my lungs until the madness stops.

One cannot turn on the news, sign in to a social media account or go out in public without getting a daily dose of the name-calling, accusations, counter-accusations, demonizing of opponents and overall nastiness that characterize our society’s Culture Wars:

You know who’s causing all the problems in this country, don’t you? … It’s those racist, misogynistic Rethuglican deplorables who want to impose their narrow version of morality on the rest of us. …  Those whining Libtard crybabies and snowflakes who want safe spaces and free stuff. … Those naïve socialists who would destroy businesses and bankrupt the government with their outrageous demands. … Those greedy capitalists who stuff their pockets while robbing honest hard-working people of their retirement funds. … Those lazy welfare recipients with their infuriating sense of entitlement. … Those wealthy elites who have too much already and want more, more, more. … Those incompetent teachers who staff our lousy public schools. … Those illegal immigrants stealing our jobs. … Those SUV drivers contributing to global warming. … Those environmental wackos who want us to give up eating hamburgers. … Those obese gluttons who gorge on junk food and drive up health care costs. … Those fat-shamers who encourage eating disorders with their unattainable standards of attractiveness. … Those feminazis destroying the family. … Those cisgender, heterosexual white men who refuse to acknowledge their privilege. … Those people who own guns. … Those people who want to take away our guns. … Those fundamentalist Christians, those radical Muslims, those godless atheists, those New-Age navel gazers … Those self-centered Boomers running up the national debt with no regard for how their decisions will affect future generations. … Those teenagers who watch too much TV, play too many video games, listen to music with depraved lyrics, do drugs, drop out of school, get pregnant and join gangs. … Of course, none of this would be happening if it weren’t for those helicopter parents who fail to teach their hopelessly coddled trophy kids personal responsibility!!!

Whew! Have we left anyone out?

Here in the U.S., one could see news commentators practically salivating as they proclaimed the 2016 demolition derby of a presidential election to be the ugliest mudfest in history. The venom shows no signs of abating as we gear up for a 2020 campaign season that began with an impeachment trial. 

Even before 2016, we had come to regard name-calling and character assassination as normal for election campaigns. On the cable news networks, political pundits and other guests routinely talk over each other and shout each other down while debating the latest hot-button issues. “Flaming” and “trolling” have become popular sports in the anonymous comments sections that follow some news articles and blog posts. 

We have Climate Wars — those who believe climate change is caused by human behavior versus those who believe the former are perpetrating an elaborate hoax. We have Health Care Wars — those who wish to preserve the private insurance system versus those who want government-funded Medicare for All. We have Class Wars — the 99 percent versus the 1 percent. We have Education Wars — ferocious debates over issues such as high stakes testing, merit pay for teachers and private-school vouchers. We have Mommy Wars — mothers scrutinizing and judging other mothers’ decisions on everything from working outside the home to letting one’s toddler use a pacifier. 

This seething anger has seeped into the public square and manifests itself as an epidemic of rudeness. Many people I encounter in my everyday life seem more cranky and defensive than they used to be, and some seem to be spoiling for a fight. A car with a middle-aged driver sports a bumper sticker that tells us what we can eat if we don’t like the owner’s driving. We have Road Rage (shouting, cursing and flinging obscene gestures at other drivers), Airport Rage (yelling at ticket agents and flight attendants), Sidewalk Rage (reacting violently because people in front of us are walking too slowly), Parking Lot Rage (engaging in an angry standoff with another driver over a parking space) and Starbucks Rage (working oneself into a ballistic frenzy over the color and design of a coffee cup).

Sadly, those of us who identify as Christians are in no position to judge secular society when it comes to polarization. We often stand justifiably accused of stirring the pot ourselves — and not in a good way. Progressive and conservative Christians regularly skewer each other on Web sites such as Patheos. And we have our Worship Wars (which transcend denominational boundaries) — Christians locked in an unyielding struggle over whether a congregation’s music and worship style should be traditional or contemporary. 

As I’ve paid closer attention to the steady drumbeat of vitriol that makes up the background noise of our daily lives, I find myself thinking, “No wonder we’ve become a nation of people with clenched teeth and balled up fists.”

It would be bad enough if the tide of anger and disrespect — both in our churches and our larger society — served only to put people in a surly, antisocial mood. Unfortunately, the damage doesn’t end there. Our finger-pointing epidemic leads to everything from Congressional gridlock to violence against individuals who belong to maligned groups. While we bicker incessantly, our real problems go unaddressed — raging war in various global hotspots creates millions of refugees; thousands of children worldwide die each day of starvation and/or totally preventable diseases; nearly a third of all children in the U.S. live in poverty. 

On a personal level, the constant conflict leaves me wanting to grab a good book and a flashlight and dive under the bed with my cat. Apparently, I’m not alone. Hidden Tribes (link HERE), a report on public opinion by the organization More in Common, says as many as 67 percent of Americans belong to a group the authors have dubbed “the Exhausted Majority.” Although members of this group have many political and ideological differences, they share fatigue with the current state of U.S. politics and a feeling of being forgotten in political debates. The relentless back-and-forth arguments have rendered many folks just plain fed up and wondering if the U.S. can move beyond division, according to the report.

Matthew 5:13-16 urges Christians to be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.” I suspect this precludes my hiding under the bed with my little yellow cat until the world stops fighting. But I suspect it also means I must aim to avoid being part of the problem. Because the vitriol on all sides is so widespread and so relentless and so damaging, we must look for ways to create more light and less heat. As Christians, I believe we should do no less.

Questions for readers: How has our society’s polarization impacted you personally? Your family and friends? Our larger community? Our churches? Which problems do you see going unaddressed while we rip each other apart? What do you think is behind all the divisiveness and how do we turn down the heat? How do Christians avoid becoming part of the problem? 

I’d love to hear your responses to these questions, as well as your comments on the article itself. Just hit “Leave a Reply” below. When responding, please keep in mind the guidelines I’ve outlined on my Rules of Engagement page (link HERE).

Time to write that book

I’ve known since grade school that my writing skill would play some role in my life’s work, whatever that turned out to be. From young adulthood on, I’ve used this God-given talent in my career as a journalist, as a public relations writer helping various not-for-profit organizations promote their causes, and as a human services executive preparing grant proposals for prospective donors. I’ve even managed to win awards, from first place in an American Legion essay contest when I was in seventh grade to statewide journalism awards from the Associated Press when I worked for a daily newspaper.

But one goal on my bucket list has remained elusive. From age 10 onward, I’ve dreamed of writing a book. More than 50 years later, that goal is … still on my bucket list. So this year, I’ve decided it’s time!

My book — with the working title We Need to Talk — will examine the polarization ripping apart our society and discuss an appropriate Christian response.

Here are some of the issues and questions I want to explore:

  • I suspect the ongoing Culture Wars affect our daily lives more than we realize. How does the steady barrage of name-calling, insults, character assassination and demonization of opponents permeating every area of our lives affect our work, our personal relationships and our mental health? Is the endless bickering simply irritating background noise, or is the impact more malignant?
  • Our current political climate did not just come out of nowhere. Why are people so angry, and what factors are contributing to the rage? Are the Internet and social media to blame? Talk-radio and cable news networks? Changing demographics? Social changes that threaten to disrupt our way of life? The dizzying pace of technological change that overwhelms our ability to keep up? All of the above?
  • Part of my initial motivation for seeking spiritual direction was the internal tug-of-war over my own values brought on by the increasing divisiveness in our society. I’ve begun to suspect I’m part of an “exhausted majority” of folks who feel pressured to take sides in the Culture Wars, but at the same time, don’t fit neatly into either the left-wing progressive or the right-wing conservative camp. What are my own beliefs about the hot-button issues that consume our nation’s culture warriors? How can I avoid the continual pressure to “choose sides” and do more of my own thinking?
  • As ideological positions in our society harden, and people become increasingly “dug in,” common sense seems to have flown out the window. Is healing possible? What aspects of our thinking and behavior would need to change for this to happen? What would happen if we could all take off our political/ideological hats for just a few minutes, eliminate the name-calling, the shouting, the trolling and the flaming, and have a rational discussion about the real issues?
  • Some would say Christians are in no position to judge secular society when it comes to the Culture Wars — we are often accused of stirring the pot ourselves, and not in a good way. What is our role as Christians in fighting or mitigating society’s political battles? How do we engage people who disagree with us, while keeping in mind God’s commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves? And perhaps more importantly, how do we avoid becoming part of the problem as our society grows ever more partisan and angry? How can we be part of the solution?

As I research these issues and explore the questions with my spiritual director in the coming months, I will post book excerpts to this blog. I’d like to invite the blogging community to comment and offer editing or research suggestions. I hope to get responses from all sides — liberals, progressives, conservatives, libertarians, independents, centrists, people who don’t like labels. 

Since 2017, I’ve been posting entries to my blog Seriously Seeking Answers. Among the helpful features Word Press offers is a running word count. My annual site statistics show I’ve written approximately 20,000 words each year since I first created the blog. After three years, that’s almost … a book. This means I’ve proven to myself that writing a book is doable. No excuses!