You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, after they’ve tried everything else. — Winston Churchill
During World War II the U.S. and Great Britain were not always on the same page about how to fight an unprecedented totalitarian enemy. But the allies worked out their differences, won the war, and founded a new world order, led by the United States.
Now, 75 years later, the rest of the world is amazed and bewildered that America failed to do the right thing when facing a pandemic and is saddled with a divisive and dysfunctional government.
There’s nothing new about people getting things wrong in a time of crisis. During the 1918 flu epidemic many citizens refused to wear masks but eventually relented as the crisis dragged on. Or consider this description of human behavior during the Black Death in 14th-century Italy when many believed that “the surest medicine for such an evil disease was to drink heavily, enjoy life’s pleasures, and go about singing and having fun, satisfying their appetites by any means available, while laughing at everything.”
Are we really acting differently from the supposedly ignorant and superstitious Middle Ages even though something called science has changed the world in the meantime?
Whatever the cause of our ongoing calamity — psychological impairment, mass delusion, abysmal leadership or just widespread nastiness — let’s agree that many problems need to be fixed, ASAP, to return to something like a stable nation. But how?
A recognized guide
From ancient history there has been a recognized guide to political and ethical issues. The Greek philosopher Aristotle provided benchmarks, or what can be called best practices, that have been respected for more than 2,000 years. Some of them could be useful now. That’s not to say there aren’t many other traditions or cultural avatars with valuable advice. But let’s consider his particular ancient wisdom. (A good guide to his ethics is “Aristotle’s Way,” by British scholar Edith Hall.)
When faced with problems or a difficult situation, we need to make decisions about what to do. Of course we always have the option of avoiding real problems or pretending they don’t exist, which usually leads to things getting worse, sometimes unbelievably worse. But let’s take the adult course of action and follow these time-tested guidelines for decision making:
- Don’t be hasty in your deliberation. Do you have all the facts, or even care about them? Impulse decisions can be satisfying but often wrong. Take your time if you can; sleep on it. Both fast and slow deliberation work together for best results.
- Verify all information. Is your Internet source reliable, or does your co-worker’s friend really know the truth about the coming market crash? You should be skeptical and double check any dubious information.
- Consult and listen to expert advisers. You don’t know everything. Try to get the best information you can from as many sources as possible, not just the ones you agree with. Otherwise something vital could be missed.
- Consider everyone’s point of view. Decisions, especially momentous ones, can affect many people, not just you or your buddies. Try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see their world, especially those less fortunate.
- Look at past experience. Has there been a situation like this before? If it went well, learn from that. If not, avoid those previous mistakes. Remember that there is a past (history), not just moment to moment events.
- Think about different kinds of outcomes. What are the odds: most and least likely? Things may not go the way you expect, so you need to anticipate other outcomes. Remember to take into account luck, probability, and the unknown.
Notice that these rules do not exactly rise to the level of rocket-science difficulty. In fact most of us use these guidelines one way or another all the time without a second thought in doing our work, managing households or raising families. These unspoken rules of thumb are something that we learn and practice as the lessons become habitual.
Considered practical knowledge
Aristotle argued that these useful habits lead to virtue and a good life, although not everyone follows that path or anything like it. Taken together, his suggestions may seem to us like a fancy form of self-help but were actually considered practical knowledge, as opposed to formal logic or pie-in-the-sky theory. With all our current problems and chaos, it’s a prize irony that we Americans have such a reputation for a can-do spirit and “getting things done.” Expect that to change.
Seeing national and local leaders who have avoided these common-sense fundamentals, or turned malicious, is both remarkable and mystifying. We wonder and shake our heads over how much important work is not getting done, or done in the worst ways possible for lack of this basic civilizing toolkit. That’s when trains go off the rails and damage assessment begins.
Having seen the steep downside of “shaking things up” with no particular plan, we can hope for a slow recovery and better role models as leaders. Life itself provides enough stress without mere citizenship being a recipe for more. Most of us are ready for a time when we don’t have to feel apologetic about this country, or see more signs like this one posted outside a restaurant in London:
Larry Struck is a writer and former expat now based in Edina.
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