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Where is America? Where America Is

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Where is America? Where America Is

“A man breathes into a saxophone / Through the walls we hear the city groan / Outside it's America, outside it's America…”...

9 Minutes Read

“A man breathes into a saxophone / Through the walls we hear the city groan / Outside it's America, outside it's America…” -- U2

Where is America? I could almost put my finger on it. Trying to triangulate, with the analytical equivalent of dead reckoning as to where “America” – the America I know – had blown off course at the apex of COVID-19 and all things 2020. And what to do about it.

Course-correction is needed – fast. Tom Wolfe’s vivid description of Chuck Yeager going down in the high desert in his NF-104 jet (like America, a high-performance vehicle) came to mind, trying to figure out what do next: “Chosen or damned!… It blows at any seam! Yeager hasn’t bailed out of an airplane since he was shot down over Germany… I’ve tried A! – I’ve tried B! – I’ve tried C!… 11,000 feet, 7,000 feet…”

By my calculations, “where America is” lays squarely at the Venn intersection of two essays: 1) “We are Living in a Failed State” by George Packer, and 2) “It’s Time to Build”, by Marc Andreesen.

Alone, they don’t work. Packer’s piece is the classic situation of admiring the problem – or in physician’s terms, it’s “the diagnosis”. The other, mistakenly, is all action and no strategy – following the medical analogy, it’s the cure without knowing, really knowing, what’s systemically wrong. In business, military or just walking down the street, you can’t formulate direction with no strategy; and neither can you can’t divine strategy without situational awareness.

And that situational awareness arrived with the horror of nearly 200,000 dead Americans from COVID-19, and moral outrage over the early summer killing of George Floyd. A pent-up country, usually bursting with energy at the best of times, found outraged in shock, horror and sadness, and like Yeager’s NF-104, it blows at any seam.

That’s where America is.

What’s at stake? My country. Your country. Our country. Our children. The future of teens. Ways of life. Immigrants. “Natives”. Black opportunity. White privilege. “American Exceptionalism”. Capital. Labor. The future of work. All of the above.

Where is America?

With history as our teacher, The Twitterati summarily opine that we’re living through 1919, 1941 and 1968 – and maybe 1861 – all at the same time (and with skies over California turning orange as I write this, maybe a trip to Mars thrown in for good measure).

When it comes to the coronavirus, the only predicate for suffering really is the Spanish flu of 1919. It was Irish surgeon Dr. Michael Ryan, the executive director of the World Health Organization's Health Emergencies Program, whose March 14, 2020 leadership advice will hauntingly reverberate with all Americans wondering where – like Yeager’s plane – our leadership flamed out. But maybe it offers us a lesson in what to do going forward:

  • Move quickly. You have to go after the virus.
  • Stop the chains of transmission
  • Community acceptance is deeply important.
  • Be coordinated, and be coherent.
  • Analyze the impact to schools, security, and economies.
  • Be fast – have NO regrets; you must be the first mover. The virus will always get you if you don’t move quickly.

Ryan concluded by saying: “If you need to be right before you move, you will never win. Perfection is the enemy of the good. Speed trumps perfection. The problem we have in society at the moment is that everyone is afraid of making a mistake. But the greatest error is not to move. The greatest error is to be paralyzed by the fear of failure”.

America has now spent months wandering – willfully – off course. Leadership is absent, but even more distressingly, it can feel like we’ve been actively abandoned. We – Americans – are adaptable. But irretrievable months have been hopelessly lost. And no strategy has been found. It’s really been a tale of every state for itself. Every person for themselves. “It’s a free country – I’ll go into Walmart unmasked if I da*n well please. Society, you say? What’s that? Didn’t Margaret Thatcher say there is no society…?”

So, perhaps against the backdrop of Mr. Andreesen and his “Time to Build” manifesto, and taking a long-range view of the future of work, following are the critical, “build-intensive” questions to ask, and actions to take that can help:

  1. How do you rebuild trust in government? From state, to local, to federal: Like any company where it’s lacking, get a new CEO. You can swap out members of the Board more tactically.
  2. How do you build bulwarks against moral hazard, at a time when the Fed allocates trillions? Iron-clad audits, backed by rule of law. Otherwise, to quote Lou Reed: “Somewhere a landlord is laughing till he wets his pants”
  3. How do you build equality? Rebuild communities and opportunity by building an equitable labor force of the future. It’s already happening.
  4. How do you build social bonds? If there’s one thing lockdown has taught us, an evening spent sharing a glass of something tall and cold (or two) with a neighbor paced at six feet is infinitely more rewarding than doom-scrolling social media for six hours. It’s time to physically and morally (re)build our neighborhoods, block by block.
  5. How can we build our trust in others? The late Robin Williams might have said it best: “Ego? Bye-bye. The thing that matters is others, that’s what life is about”. In your community and career, consider the profound power of giving your time for mentoring, tutoring and uplifting; every professional should be doing this. Let the 3Cs of coaching, connecting, and caring (for others) be your guide.
  6. How do we build a healthcare system that is more equal? Lessons abound in near-neighbors, both culturally and/or proximally (e.g., here, here and here). At the rate we’re going with COVID-19, we risk breaking what we already have.
  7. How has our concept of “essential workers” changed? There are frontline folks that kept our families fed, healthy and in relative safety. Maybe I’m quixotically tilting at windmills, but would it be too much trouble to double (yes, double) their pay? (dreaming the impossible dream in an era when 9/11 first responders are still having to claw healthcare benefits from a seemingly ungrateful nation nearly twenty years later)
  8. Why can’t we simply expect “more” from our fellow citizens? The shrieking lunacy of the entitled unmasked at Walmart – it’s all there on display on social media. I don’t know what your argument is for not wearing a mask, but you’re wrecking your economy, your employment, your families, and maybe dooming your grandma and grandpa too.

We can do it. From the Declaration of Independence, to the thirteenth Amendment, to the Civil Rights Act to Marriage Equality, it’s do-able, and fixable. Our mother country of England – at the height of its Victorian halcyon period – did it with the Reform Acts to extend the qualifications for voting, with Scotland doing so later the same year. It was expanded in 1867, with secret ballots added in 1872. By 1918 and 1928, property ownership and men-only qualifications were respectively rolled away.

Society, the economy, the schools… all of it, some days – a lot now, really – it does feel like Mr. Packer’s failed state. Our work ahead is yes, to rebuild it, but also to recapitalize and remodel it – right. But we need to acknowledge what is painfully obvious: that a country so rich with expertise, resources and capacities tripped. And when it did, 200,000 people fell over dead due to a complete failure of its high-performance machinery.


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