There is much talk about the impact of the coronavirus on electoral politics, on America’s position in the world, on higher education, and on large swaths of small businesses. All of those are, in their different ways, important. Some of them can be evaluated systematically. But none is so important as the virus’s impact on our character.
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There is a social science of measuring happiness, which reminds one of the words G. K. Chesterton put in Father Brown’s mouth about the early lie detectors: “What sentimentalists men of science are! And how much more sentimental must American men of science be! Who but a Yankee would think of proving anything from heart-throbs?” There are not, and cannot be, quantitative measures of character, but what Sam understood was that in the end, character dominated all else. Today the biggest, probably the most important, and almost by definition the least answerable question is what the coronavirus will do to our character.
Anecdote and impression would suggest that the coronavirus may prove Sam right. There is immense human misery: We read about or know directly some of those who have died or who keen over loved ones who are dead or dying; those who suffer illness and isolation; those whose livelihoods have vanished overnight, or who feel the claustrophobic pressures of isolation taking them beyond the reach of sanity. But for the most part, what is striking is the decency and fortitude of average citizens, their willingness to comply with onerous and suffocating restrictions, their willingness to help one another.
It has been troubling for a long time that healthy 21-year-olds who happen to be in the armed forces get boarding priority over grandmothers in their late 60s. This is a misguided tribute to courage and self-sacrifice—misguided because that 21-year-old may have experienced no combat whatsoever. Now, however, we have a more thoughtful understanding of heroism. We know that it is also embodied in the nurse and the doctor, the police officer and the firefighter, the taxi driver and the grocery clerk, the neighbor who goes shopping for an elderly shut-in. In short, we see the heroism that is often latent in everyday life, and—the precious thing—we appreciate and celebrate it.
The United States has the misfortune of being led by a man utterly devoid of character, a razboynik, as Sam, with a curl of the lip, would have termed him—a man who can whine about journalists while seated at the feet of Abraham Lincoln’s statue, disclaim responsibility for anything and everything, bully and abuse subordinates who are infinitely more valuable to public health than he, muse about injecting bleach, and generally disgrace himself and his country with his antics. But that only calls into higher relief the virtues of all the others—the mayors and the governors, the public-health officials and the ambulance drivers, the home manufacturers of masks and ventilators and, yes, the billionaire philanthropists.