Our crisis and history

Apr 2, 2020 By Steven R. Peck, Publisher

Some on-air experts the other day already were trying to assign historical ranking to the ongoing period of national hardship brought on by the still-growing spread of coronavirus and its accompanying illness, COVID-19.

An easy and understandable tendency among us humans is to assume that the thing we are living in right now simply must be more important than what has come before. That's due in part to a general and pervasive ignorance about history, but it's more than just that. Even with our big brains and superior intelligence in the animal kingdom, the attribute that might be called "perspective" doesn't come all that naturally to us

So, there the professional talkers were on a national program, trying to decide if the coronavirus crisis ranked with the Great Depression, or World War II, or the restive turmoil of the Vietnam War era, or, perhaps, higher than anything we've ever seen in its impact on lives and history.

The quickest and shortest answer is that we just don't know yet.

So far, even as worrisome and disruptive our 2020 spring has been, it's hard to claim equivalence to the Great Depression. That lasted for a decade. This hasn't even lasted a month.

Some of us, displaying a semi-perverse eagerness to find our own significance in the history of hardship, are claiming that what is happening to us here in the first month of spring 2020 compares with what the nation went through during World War II.

We'd better hope that isn't true when we look back on it five years from now -- because that's about how long the United States was immersed in that global conflict -- beginning with a military attack by a foreign power on American soil, and ending with the dropping of the atomic bomb. It between, more than a million Americans were killed or wounded.

Rather than trying to claim some strange pride in being just as bad off today as any previous American generation was during its particular crisis, a more instructive view might be that this is if not yet worse, certainly is different from anything we have experienced before.

It's hard to argue with that one. During the Great Depression, for example, economic times were historically difficult, but at least the schools weren't closed. Major League baseball kept playing, and the bars and restaurants were open.

There were no recommendations, much less orders, prohibiting us from gathering in groups outside our homes. In fact, in those days, such entertainment and social activities were crucial weapons against the social upheaval and tempting sense of despair that greeted the relentless economic strife.

During World War II, hundreds of thousands of young Americans were being killed in foreign lands by bombs and bullets. But we could go to a movie if we wanted to, or out to dinner. And the economy was awake again. Our factories were humming, our employment ranks swelling after the dismal job losses in the 1930s.

What we're going through now -- and which, if we face reality, we're going to continue to go through for some months ahead -- is a weird combination of economic, health, and social tumult unprecedented in our modern techno-times.

It has elements of the economic calamity of the Depression. It has reminders of the national focus of war time. Certainly it has the health-related uncertainty and worry of the flu epidemic of the World War I era or the polio scare in the middle of the 20th century.

What it does not have yet is much duration. The rear-view mirror of history helps us package and compact previous periods which are measured not just by the calendar, but by their circumstances. One day, most likely, we will be able to do that with the coronavirus. That we so far are unable to only adds to our troubles now.

There is a toll on public health, on our economy, and the personal finances of all but the most wealthy among us. On top of all those deep and very real anxieties, this is becoming a crisis of morale as well.

And, painfully, many of our accustomed means of dealing with that part of it are lost to us.

That's what's different. Where it ranks isn't so important. It's bad enough all by itself.

As we wrestle and worry with questions about history and context among modern humanity's tribulations, the most useful part of that somewhat self-pitying project might be this: All those previous periods of turmoil are definable and measurable by the very fact that they ended.

They came, and they went.

So will this. And it will end even faster if we do the obvious, and, yes, difficult things that will keep it from getting even worse. Let's get that done first, and there will be plenty of time for remember-whenning afterward.

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