For forty years the chief tension in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was nuclear proliferation. Decades of Americans and Soviets alike grew up under the lingering cloud of nuclear war. When it is all said and done, possibly the human and certainly the economic costs of the coronavirus will likely outpace those of a literal nuclear strike on the United States. We are living in history.
This week my boss, Congressman Tim Burchett, released his personal cellphone number on twitter for anyone in serious distress to call on him. What ensued, after a few stories from national media carrying the number were published, was beyond that which he might have imagined. Thousands of texts and calls came in to Tim’s phone over the past few days. Many hundreds of them were short exhortations from people and places all across the nation. Sweet Christian grandmothers from New Jersey, and roughneck good ole boys from Iowa called in to thank and encourage Tim for his message and willingness to help.
Unfortunately, a great many of the calls were from folks caught in true crisis. Those facing joblessness, evictions, and the possibility of losing decades old small businesses. My conversations with Tim about these opened my eyes to the widespread calamity brought on by this coronavirus.
In February of this year, just over one month ago, we recorded the lowest unemployment rate in this nation since 1970. Today, we creep toward Depression era numbers of 25% unemployment. We are close to a world in which one in every four working Americans is jobless. The realization is setting in that there may no longer be a “normal” to return to when the dust settles. My heart goes out to new college graduates, who overnight went from graduating into one of the most robust economies in memory, to certain joblessness for the foreseeable future.
This generation, my generation, has been a favorite target for criticism from media and older folks in general for a number of years. The term “millennial,” often mistaken for “Gen-Z,” almost has a pejorative connotation attached to it. It conjures up images of tide pod eaters and cell phone addicts. It is true that this generation as a whole has had it good. We have all had it good, relatively, in this country for nearly a century. Today we will be tested.
When this crisis subsides it will be the millennials and Gen-Zers who are called upon to rebuild this nation. This almost certainly will be the great challenge of our time. While much of the aforementioned criticism is well deserved, I expect a shift in the value systems of these people, and Americans as a whole. My generation was raised to believe, as Brad Pitt said in Fight Club, that we would all grow up to be “millionaires and movie gods.” You can be anything you want to be, most of us were always told, and that was true for our generation for many years. But trial by fire seldom leaves one unchanged. The depression era values and mindset seem to have more merit to me today than at other point in my life. A generation whose goal has always been self-actualization, one that has perhaps prioritized glamour and experience over stability and survival is about to have a rendezvous with what the rest of the world would call reality. We are learning that we are not invincible.
Russell Kirk, the great conservative philosopher, wrote that “veneration withers upon the pavements.” This means simply that in fast metropolitan living, respect and awe for God and nature can fade into the background. As life as we know it screeches to a halt, many Americans are rediscovering that veneration. In the race to make America Great Again, perhaps some of us forgot about making America good again.
We will emerge from this crisis different people than we were when we entered it. We must reforge our national values, and do more than throw out a few hashtags and attend a few church services. It’s time to cut the bull, stand for what is right, and love your neighbor, democrat or republican. It is time for a new generation of Americans to do what all those that have come before it have done, innovate. That is our ethic. We have never encountered a crisis we could not innovate our way out of. This one will be no different.
At halftime of Super Bowl 44, Chrysler aired one of the greatest commercials I’ve ever seen. It focused on the economic comeback of the auto industry after the 2008 crash, and featured the gritty, iconic voice of Clint Eastwood. “This country can’t be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again and when we do the world is gonna hear the roar of our engines. It’s halftime America, and our second half is about to begin.”