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Commentary: There will be no return to 'normal'

Commentary: There will be no return to 'normal'

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David Shribman

The single element that Canadians most resent about Americans’ views toward their northern neighbor may be the conviction in the United States that Canadians are just like us. This week, in the wake of a Canadian national election that Americans all but ignored, it is time to turn the tables — to say, in oversimplification, that in a very important aspect, Americans are just like Canadians.

Listen for just a moment to the columnist Robyn Urback, who in the day after Justin Trudeau’s return to office wrote this in The Globe and Mail about her country:

“Canada in 2021 is not normal. The country has endured a type of collective trauma; a disruption so thorough and profound that not a single person has remained unaffected. ... Every single Canadian has lost something: a job, a loved one, a connection with friends, a routine, a sense of security, or a belief that, in the end, our leaders are capable and willing to make the tough choices to keep us safe.”

Change a word or two, and that applies to our own predicament today. The United States is not normal. The country has endured a type of collective trauma.

In the past century, the United States has lived through several hinges of history:

World War II changed the role of women in American life, transformed the nation into a global superpower, created a baby boom and a mass consumer culture and — no one says everything changes — failed to redeem the “Double V” victory that the Pittsburgh Courier, the indispensable Black newspaper, yearned for: broad victory for freedom overseas and broad freedom at home.

The combination of the Vietnam era, the youth rebellion and the Watergate scandal produced a national skepticism of authority and institutions that we live with today.

Though the Trump rebellion might be ascribed by historians to the disruption that began in the high-tech age, do not forget that the 45th president was born in the first year of the baby boom, and that he ingested that sense of rebellion in his youth.

The implications of the COVID-19 virus cannot be overstated. By month’s end, the American death toll may reach 700,000, about 12% more than perished in the Civil War, the deadliest conflict in our history. The Civil War split the country, shattered families, altered economic relationships, and created a new kind of politics that arguably dominated for a century. (It was only in the late 1960s that there were cracks in the Democratic Solid South, an immutable force in politics that assisted military mobilization in the years leading to World War II but resisted racial integration in the years following World War II.)

In similar fashion, the virus split the country, shattered families, altered economic relationships, and created, or at least amplified, a new kind of politics.

The Spanish flu of 1918-1919 was, in terms of death rates, more deadly than COVID-19. But its cultural and political implications were far less.

That earlier pandemic occurred in a far different country, less tied by means of communication, less aware of the sweep of the disease. And the flu was less politicized; the World War I-era pandemic barely rated a mention in the last two scholarly biographies of Woodrow Wilson, the president at the time. He never once mentioned it in public. It is a disgraceful record, earning Wilson the opprobrium of Tevi Troy, former deputy secretary of Health and Human Services in the George W. Bush administration and onetime CEO of the American Health Policy Institute, who in his book “Shall We Wake the President?: Two Centuries of Disaster Management From the Oval Office,” considered Wilson the country’s worst president in a disaster.

But here’s the difference, or rather the indifference: The American response to the Spanish flu was nonpartisan. The sitting president neglected to address it (and may have hastened its passage through the population by continuing troop mobilizations when they might no longer have been necessary) but did not politicize it. The president who followed (Warren G. Harding) may have subliminally invoked the pandemic when he spoke of a “return to normalcy” — a return to a world without war or pandemic — but he didn’t make flu response an issue.

Americans were devastated by the Spanish flu. But they were not divided by it.

Today, our politics are contaminated by the coronavirus, and so is our everyday culture.

The wearing of masks, the acceptance of medical warnings, even the willingness to take a vaccine that was produced in large part by the determination of Donald Trump to create one at warp speed — all of these are political indicators. Since 1942, with the introduction of a book bearing that title, Americans have known the phrase “You are what you eat.” Today we are — Republican or Democrat — what we wear on our face, or don’t.

Now to the question of whether we ever will return to “normal.”

President Harding argued that there was an American normal, but of course he could not replicate in the third decade of the 20th century what had been destroyed in brutal wartime carnage in the second decade. Even with a prime minister who bears the same surname as a previous prime minister (Justin Trudeau’s father, who held the position from 1968 to 1979 and 1980 to 1984), Canada isn’t returning to an earlier era. Trudeau’s leadership opponent, the Conservative Party’s Erin O’Toole, knew he couldn’t hearken back to an earlier age; he broke with party orthodoxy on climate change, abortion and LGBTQ rights.

We will not return to a pre-COVID world. We won’t go to the office the way we used to, we won’t eat in restaurants the way we used to, we won’t travel the way we used to, we won’t have the comforting sense of national health and well-being that we didn’t appreciate before and now yearn for.

But it is important that we understand what we are experiencing.

Just as COVID was not the flu medically, our experience with this disease is not like the experiences of our predecessors. COVID-19 is a medical marker in the human story, to be sure. But it is a historical turning point, too. All those cellphone pictures of people in masks will be the 21st-century equivalent of Brownie-camera snaps from 1945 of gatherings of people in uniform. They are time stamps, evidence of a transformative moment.

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