“These are the times that try men’s souls” – Thomas Paine

Times like these bring out the best and worst of us

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

To put it mildly, these are challenging times in more ways than can be counted.

From viruses to economic difficulties to travel restrictions to ever-changing guidelines on gathering or public socializing, we are in an era of conflicting – if not outright contradictory messages from government and media.

Thanks to social media, wild rumors pass faster than facts and, thanks to years of cultivated distrust of official figures, conspiracy theories abound.

If there was ever a time when we needed solid, reliable information, this is it. And if there was ever a time when we needed solid, reliable leadership, and examples of heroism and courage, it would be at this moment.

I don’t know about you, but I see people I know veer between apathy and hysteria, with barely a hovering pause over the characteristics most needed today – compassion, generosity and a sense of camaraderie infused with the knowledge that humanity has seen far greater challenges, and yes, in these times – as in all times – as much as we may deny or minimize it – we really do need each other.

The word “try” had a different meaning when Thomas Paine used it. “Try” meant to test, to prove the strength and durability of something. A piece of metal, a stretch of rope, or even an individual might be “tested” to see if it, or they, would hold up under demanding circumstances.

Back then, a tool, a friend or a companion had to be trustworthy. Few back then had what we would now call a “plan B”.

We are accustomed to cheap, ample (and usually plastic) replacements for any product, and who among us does not have “Facebook friends” we have never met, and probably will never meet?

The vast majority of us are likely to trust (or distrust) a message based on where it came from and whether we agree with it or not, rather than if it is plausible or even possible.

How many of us have become willing, even eager, participants in the “echo chamber” of those we agree with and have entirely lost the concept of a statement holding “the ring of truth”?

Our notion of “truth” has become atomized and subjective – and vulnerable to distortion and manipulation by those who would do us harm.

The distortions and manipulations are many, but the underlying strategies are few.

The principles of Russian manipulation of media and political systems at home and abroad can be found here: https://bylinetimes.com/2020/03/04/big-lies-and-rotten-herrings-17-kremlin-disinformation-techniques-you-need-to-know-now/?.

The most frightening aspect of these techniques is not how insidious and corrosive that they are to any enduring, fair or just system of government, but how commonplace or even ingrained they have become.

These are indeed the times the “try” us in the old sense of the word – we see, for better or worse, what we are “made of”.

Times like these bring out the best – and worst – of us.

Those few acts of courage and sacrifice, and those few words of leadership stand out – and those words and acts of denial, obfuscation and obstruction – and the all too frequent acts of outright cowardice and hoarding, along with price gouging on essential items highlights the eagerness to exploit which seems to lie barely below the surface of far more of us than we’d like to acknowledge.

Stories emerge of people acting in ways so far removed from basic standards of human decency that you have wonder how they rationalize it.

Our retail stores have ample food, resources, and yes, toilet paper, if customers buy a rational amount – or even double or triple their usual amount.

But when people buy hundreds of times their usual amount – or in some cases, literally buy every item on the shelf, they exacerbate panic and create shortages and dangerous situations for those who really need those products – as with face masks for example.

One example of this is the one-man panic and shortage creator based in Tennessee. This young man, on March 1, the day after the first coronavirus death in the United States, set out in a silver SUV to pick up some hand sanitizer.

Driving around Chattanooga, Tennessee they hit a Dollar Tree, then a Walmart, a Staples and a Home Depot. At each store, they cleaned out the shelves.

Over the next three days, they took a 1,300-mile road trip across Tennessee and into Kentucky, filling a U-Haul truck with thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer and thousands of packs of antibacterial wipes, mostly from little hole-in-the-wall dollar stores in the backwoods. The major metro areas were cleaned out.

With the intent of selling these products online (at outrageous prices, of course) this man (and his brother) created panic and chaos everywhere he went.

His justification is telling. He was fixing “inefficiencies in the marketplace”.

He went on to say “I honestly feel like it’s a public service. I’m being paid for my public service.”

His logic is that of the black market hustler or the addictive-drug pusher.

He inhabits the dark side of humanity – and profits from the darkest corner of capitalism.

There are consumer-protection laws for price-gouging – particularly in situations of emergency.

It only takes two or three people with these acts of “public service” to create, or dramatically increase panic and chaos at crucial moments.

Manipulation may involve far more than prices – it can endanger the lives of many of us.

One current head of state, on hearing that Germany was close to perfecting a vaccine for COVID-19, offered vast sums of money for it on one condition – that it would only be available in his own country.

Such an act in a time of international crisis defies common sense and decency.

Such acts on a local or international basis amplify anxiety and create unnecessary hazards under already difficult circumstances.

Corruption and manipulation, never the emblem of a healthy society, do even more damage in times of crisis.

In contrast, Jonas Salk, who developed the polio vaccine, refused to patent it.

This was in a time when polio paralyzed between 13,000 and 20,000 children annually.

According to the CDC (https://www.cdc.gov/polio/progress/index.htm) the number of worldwide polio cases has fallen from an estimated 350,000 in 1988 to 407 in 2013—a decline of more than 99% in reported cases.

Thanks to the affordability and availability of this vaccine, four regions of the world are currently certified polio free—the Americas, Europe, South East Asia and the Western Pacific.

We could do the same with COVID-19.

But only if we encourage and reward the best, not the worst of us.