Scrabble, Virginia – “In a normal year…” So many conversations begin with or include that phrase. In a normal year here in Rappahannock County we would wait patiently until May Day to place our herbs in the ground. But, of course, this is in many ways a most abnormal year.
Climate change brings with it odd aberrations, often proving why it is wrong to call the phenomenon “global warming.” This Spring unusual Arctic wind patterns brought a mid-Spring cold snap, driving temperatures at night here into the thirties. The experts at the local nursery were adamant we wait even longer to plant. I was beginning to think Godot’s first name was Herb.
Thus, as much as I wanted to go out and put the basil in the ground every day for the last two weeks, I was forced to wait until today to place the annual herbs in the soil. Some herbs, however, have become perennials because of the mild winters. The sage, mint, chives, rosemary and thyme have already grown to robust proportions, showing no sign at all of winter damage. There was almost no real winter here in Rappahannock County, another result of climate change.
Much of America has been like the herb gardeners here, impatient to get out despite the warning of the experts. States and counties have been ignoring the guidance to wait to end the pandemic lockdown until new Covid case numbers begin to drop. Indeed, some areas are opening up at what appears to be the period of greatest risk when case-loads are rapidly accelerating. We know what the results will be, more dead Americans than there needed to be.
The fact that governors, county commissioners and mayors in some locations will defy the counsel of public health specialists and epidemiologists, knowing that they will be killing some of their constituents, is shocking at one level. At another level, however, we as Americans are beginning to accept that it is part of our culture that some elected officials, notably from one party and one swath of the country, regularly ignore scientific consensus and support policies that will endanger the population. One has only think of gun control and, of course, climate change.
It is horrific to me that the highest levels of our national government ignored clear warnings from public health and Intelligence officials. The fact that willful ignorance of such warnings is a pattern, and especially characterizes this administration, should not be something we come to accept. For more than two months, experts warned that a pandemic was coming, indeed, as we now know, was already here. What kind of person engages in magical thinking, hoping that the experts are all wrong and that the tsunami coming down upon them will dissipate before the damage? We all know some people who make those kinds of mistakes in their personal or professional lives, but we would never choose to give them responsibility for the lives of millions of others. And yet that is exactly what this country did.
We did it in 2000, when we elected a man who had spent most of his adult life in alcohol induced stupors and who had no record of accomplishment. That man engaged in magical thinking when experts told him the country was going to be attacked. Then he went on to accept concocted fantasies to convince himself that he should initiate a war, a war in which hundreds of thousands died. If you think that is an extreme judgement on the man, I invite you to watch the new American Experience “George W. Bush,” a four-hour documentary on PBS. How quickly we forget.
And we did it again in 2016. As a nation, we chose as our leader a clinical case of malevolent, delusional narcissism; a man who had never worked for anyone other than his father and himself, leaving in his wake many failed enterprises and even more court cases. If President Trump uses bullying as an offensive tactic, he uses fantasy on the defense. It should have been no surprise that he would turn to magical thinking when told an unprecedented disaster was about to befall the country. It is fitting that such a failure to prevent and prepare for disaster was followed by a parade of decisions, made to minimize his personal responsibility, once the calamity had become clear.
Both men, in their own ways, remind me of the Soviet leader Josef Stalin, who, upon being told by Red Army intelligence that the Nazis were marshaling forces to invade, went into denial and did nothing. When the attack fell upon Russia like Jupiter’s hammer, Stalin went into a days-long clinical depression and issued no orders while the Wehrmacht’s blitzkrieg ate up thousands of square miles of Soviet territory, killing hundreds of thousands.
The past performance and the temperament of a leader both matter, especially when the wave is about to crash upon them, and to still a greater extent after it has actually done so. Personal temperament may be the most important determinant of a leader’s skill at crisis management. Alas, in the last two decades we have chosen two leaders whose personal temperaments cracked under pressure. In both cases, Americans have paid, and continue to pay, the price with their lives. We must not develop a tolerance for decision-making that imperils the American people.
In the Autumn, as every year, I intend to harvest the basil and make my pesto, heavy with garlic and extra virgin olive oil. Thus, I now have the Autumn to look forward to. And so does America.