Coronavirus Pandemic is Not a War

Wash Hands Stay Home

A pandemic is not a war.

To call the pandemic a war shows a failure of imagination. 

President Trump claimed he is a wartime presidentThe Governor of North Carolina said, “This pandemic is a war, and we need the armor to fight it.”  Finance gurus want to issue coronavirus war bonds.  Foreign policy pundits are saying absurd things like, “We need to fight a holding action on the economic front.”  The Head of NATO said we are fighting “a common invisible enemy.”

This is nonsense.  Wars are intentional actions that deliberately kill human beings.  An enemy is a person serving a government.  War is a political act involving the conscious decisions of moral agents.

A virus is a force of nature.  It has no intentionality.  A pandemic has no political agenda.  There are no enemies here.  There is no one to negotiate with.  There will be no peace treaty. 

The war metaphor makes us think in nationalistic terms.  But a pandemic is a global problem.  Nationalism prevents cooperative action.  We don’t need a wartime president.  We need a global team of scientists and doctors.  

The war analogy creates a morbid fascination with body counts.  This leads to lame statistical analogies.  People have compared pandemic deaths to the numbers killed in wars.  The Surgeon General said this will be “our Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment.”

These comparisons are uninformative.  Better comparisons would consider those killed by other infectious diseases, say AIDS or Ebola. 

This fascination with body counts implies that that we “win” when the count goes down.  But each death represents an infinite loss.  Dead people are not tally marks on some perverse scorecard.  Instead of counting body bags, let’s talk more about grief, mourning, and resilience.

The myths of war, as I have argued elsewhere, make it seems that a soldier’s death is vindicated by victory and the justice of the cause.  But in a pandemic, there is no justification or vindication. 

The rhetoric of war also gets infused with patriot and religious language that becomes propagandistic. 

When President Trump sent the Navy ship, Comfort, to New York,, he published a patriotic video and tweeted:With the courage of our doctors and nurses, with the skill of our scientists and innovators, with the determination of the American People, and with the grace of God, WE WILL WIN THIS WAR .”

Again, the idea of a war to be won is absurd.  Also absurd is the idea that the grace of God is involved in this, or in any battle.  Hurray for the doctors and scientists.  But the real work is about healing and mitigation, not about defeating an enemy.  This is an unglamorous effort, conducted one person at a time in sick beds and hospitals.  The American people don’t need to put on armor or steel themselves for battle.  We need to stay home, wash our hands, and wear masks in public.

Unfortunately, our imaginations are infected by militarism.  Patriotism is tightly woven around war.  We cheer on the war machine, despite morally problematic and endless wars.  If the “war” against coronavirus is like the war in Afghanistan, we are in trouble. 

Nor do we think enough about peace-building.  The pandemic calls for cooperative cosmopolitanism and creative community transformation.  Public health is not war.  It is peace-work. 

War rhetoric has led us astray before.  The “war on drugs” created a punitive system of mass incarceration, while thousands continue to die.  Drug overdoses killed 67,367 people in 2018.  The war on drugs failed because it should not have been a war. 

Instead of combat, we needed compassion.  People turn to drugs because of pain, depression, or a lack meaning and purpose.  The solution to the drug pandemic is a peaceful campaign of caring for those who suffer.

A similar rhetorical shift is needed for the coronavirus.  Let’s support the care-givers by giving them the equipment they need.  Let’s build inclusive infrastructure to support social-distancing in a time of economic turmoil.   Let’s provide compassionate care for those who suffer and grieve.  And let’s encourage the wartime president to stay out of the way of cosmopolitan science and the peaceful work of public health. 

The Tough and the Tender-Hearted: Trump, Jesus, and Socrates

Fresno Bee, December 22, 2020

President Trump has a steely spine. He is feisty and pugnacious. Some people admire him for his toughness. But toughness is not the only thing that matters. There is also a need for a more tender-hearted morality.

Trump is a paradigmatic tough guy. The title of Trump’s 2011 book is “Time to Get Tough.” He explained that to fix America “we’ve got to be smart and get tough.” Earlier this year Trump bragged that all of the tough guys are on his side: the police, the military, and the bikers. And in a famous tweet from 2105 he said, “When somebody challenges you unfairly, fight back, be brutal, be tough, don’t take it. It is always important to WIN!”

Trump’s recent letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is a great example of how tough guys operate. A softer man would have apologized, resigned, or attempted to negotiate a compromise. But Trump expressed no remorse or interest in reconciliation. Indeed, he touted his toughness in the letter, saying “I have been far tougher on Russia than President Obama ever even thought to be.”

The letter is scathing and belligerent. He accuses the Democrats of staging a partisan coup. He says the Democrats view democracy as their enemy and are “declaring open war on American Democracy.” He even suggests that Pelosi has weaponized religion, suggesting that she prays for his demise.

Some people admire truculent tough guys. Pop culture is full of them. Americans love movies about cowboys, soldiers, gangsters and cops. We like Robert De Niro, Clint Eastwood and Samuel L. Jackson.

History is also full of tough guys. Plato described a tough guy named Thrasymachus, whose name literally means “bold fighter.” Thrasymachus defined morality simply as helping friends and harming enemies.

That’s how tough guys view the world: divided between friends and enemies. They reward loyalty and show no mercy to their rivals. For tough guys, the essence of morality is power, since power allows you to help your friends and punish your enemies.

The tough world view is self-reinforcing. You assume that your enemies are waiting to pounce and that your allies may sell you out. The solution is to be relentless toward friends and enemies alike. But that causes friction and animosity, which increases the need for further toughness.

In a tough world, even loyal comrades are temporary. The assumption is that people only do favors looking for something in return. This is a world of cronies and accomplices, vendettas and possible violence. It is the world we see in Shakespeare and Sophocles, as well as in Hollywood.

Philosophy and religion provide a critique of toughness. A more tender-hearted morality is espoused by Socrates, who argued against Thrasymachus’s hard-hearted worldview. Socrates said, “we ought not retaliate or render evil for evil to anyone.”

Jesus said something similar. But Jesus went a step further in his advocacy of love. Not only are we to love our neighbors, we are even supposed to love our enemies.

Tender-hearted morality looks beyond the distinction between friend and enemy. It judges things impartially. It sees dignity and worth in all persons. It respects everyone equally. It forgives and shows mercy. It wants to transform enmity into community.

Tender-hearted morality elevates love above power. It thinks that gentle kindness is superior to tough-minded ferocity. Instead of seeking favors, soft hearts give without expectation of payback. Instead of a loyalty and revenge, tenderness calls for hospitality and compassion.

Tough guys will see tenderness as foolish. Softness shows weakness and vulnerability. In a tough world, enemies will exploit weakness. Those enemies must be defeated. And the cronies and accomplices must be kept loyal. The tough cannot yield. They cannot admit wrongdoing. They cannot offer mercy or seek forgiveness.

The logic of toughness is understandable. But unyielding Scrooges and gritty Grinches inhabit a dark and lonely place. The antidote is to soften up your spine and open up your heart. The Christmas message calls us toward charity and joy. Instead of winning and fighting back, this is a time of giving and forgiving. It is a season that encourages us to set aside the love of power and recall the power of love.

The World is Getting Smaller

We’re growing closer. For proof, check out World Cup rosters and McDonald’s in Peru

Fresno Bee, July 12, 2018

The world is more integrated than ever. Consider how far we have come. A hundred years ago Europe was at war, colonial power still existed, racism was legal, and women were not allowed to vote.

Progress is never guaranteed. There are danger signs, as trade wars develop and old alliances are threatened. But it is difficult to imagine a return to the bad old days of colonialism, militarism, and legal discrimination.

I’m writing this from Lima, Peru, where I am participating in the biannual congress of the International Society for Universal Dialogue. This conference includes scholars from a variety of countries, who come together to talk about the prospect for developing a more just and humane world.

This organization began at the end of the Cold War to bring scholars together from East and West. It has evolved to become a global conference that includes speakers from all continents, religions, genders, and races.

The World Cup has been playing in the background as we meet. Throughout the city of Lima, football fans congregate in small cafes and bars to watch the games. Peru lost its opportunity in the qualifying rounds. But World Cup fever predominates. Sport is a unifying force.

The semifinals were an all-European affair featuring Belgium, Croatia, England, and France. Europeans invented this game. But South America teams also excel, while Asia and Africa are catching up.

The French team includes a number of players with African heritage. Our small world is mixed and integrated in ways that would have been unimaginable 100 years ago. Old-school ethnic nationalism has become absurd.

Europeans and Americans still dominate the globe as a result of prior colonial power. Economic globalization often means domination by European and American corporations. Coca-Cola and Budweiser are World Cup sponsors. But so, too, are Qatar Airways and Hyundai.

This economic mixing is apparent in Peru. Lima has McDonald’s, Starbucks and KFC. But there are also Chinese restaurants, French patisseries and Sushi bars alongside the local cuisine.

McDonald's_Surco,_Lima,_Peru
On Ethics columnist Andrew Fiala is attending a conference in Lima, Peru, where he notes an economic mixing. Lima has McDonald’s, Starbucks and KFC. But there are also Chinese restaurants, French patisseries and Sushi bars alongside the local cuisine.

On the drive from the Lima airport, huge signs welcome Pope Francis who visited Peru in January. Francis is from Argentina, which is another sign of the times. He is the first Latin American pontiff.

When the Pope was in Peru he pointed out that there was much work to be done to build a just and humane world. There are slums in Lima and poverty in Peru. Political corruption is a problem. As is violence, racism and intolerance.

But we are making progress. And the way forward must include a continued commitment to those universal values that unite us. Science and scholarship are already global. Scholars are united around shared principles of reason and evidence.

After long decades of outright discrimination against women in the academy, women are now invited to the table. So too are scholars and scientists from the developing world. We can build upon that spirit of inclusion.

We can also build upon the values found in sport. These include ideas about fair play and sportsmanship. Athletic excellence is recognized as a value that transcends race, nationality and gender.

TRUMP NATO 11
President Donald Trump casts a shadow on a wall at a news conference following the NATO summit in Brussels on Thursday, July 12, 2018. Trump strongly recommitted American support for the alliance on Thursday, declaring, “I believe in NATO.” (Doug Mills/The New York Times) DOUG MILLS NYT

Not everyone is happy with globalization. President Trump’s “America First” agenda points in a different direction. So too does the British “Brexit.”

But the American tariff war and the difficulty of pulling off a clean Brexit show us how integrated the world has become. It is not possible to build a wall, flood the moat, and pull up the bridges.

Our world is too interrelated to disentangle the forces of progress. The French soccer team is not going to purge itself of its African players. Women are not going to give up their place in the voting booth or in the academy. And Sushi is here to stay in Peru.

The political news is often grim. But tune in to the World Cup – or visit another country – and you’ll see a common and hopeful humanity. There are kind, generous and hard-working people everywhere. Most of us understand that the present is better than the past. We do not want to return to racism, sexism and militarism. And we understand that there is much work to be done to build a more just and equitable future.