Pandemic, policing, politics – thinking through and acting in the current crisis

Mike Steinmetz is a Senior Adviser to Cityforum, a former member of the Rhode Island Cabinet under Gina Raimondo, a former career US Navy Jet Pilot and a classically trained musician.


An American Carol

My reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic numbers and protests has been like those of a pilot flying very low in a fast jet. The senses are saturated, feeding fast almost automatic reactions.  Anything up close is a blur.  Experience and instincts say “ignore what’s up close and focus way out in front” to acclimate to the sensory overload.  A similar process of acclamation is now in play with media coverage for the COVID-19 numbers and the growing protests. Events and figures up close are a blur of people in PPE or figures holding cardboard signs.  Experience tells me “don’t fixate because if it’s close, I cannot change it, and if it has not harmed me, why should I concern myself?”  Climbing just a bit higher changes the blur into people and events into dialogs, allowing me to tune in and review what’s happening. From that higher vantage point I also see links to the past.  The past contains significant missteps that have bent the truth and at times, created mythology so enduring it has led to war.

Discussions of truth can be challenging so I use definitions provided by Neil deGrasse Tyson. His explanation for personal truth, political truth, and objective truth is helpful.  Objective truth being the only truth that is based on scientific fact. Today, our world is data-intensive, information-intensive, and highly transactional, providing anyone with access to the right technology,  the ability to create and communicate anything as if it were objective truth.  I will share some of my opinions then share some objective truth from US history.

My opinions.  There are places in the world that would welcome better technology and faster communications, using both to help their citizenry survive rather than debate the pandemic.  There are places in the world where demonstrations reacting to systemic racial and economic inequality would be met with a total media blackout, followed by measures to suppress further demonstrations, and worse.  Throughout history US political leadership has understood that no executive communication will go unchallenged by a free media.  US history objective facts. The Bill of Rights was challenged seven short years after its adoption.  The Fifth Congress drafted and President John Adams signed,  The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.  These acts, among many things, made it more difficult for immigrants to vote and challenged the freedom of the press with certain prosecution for [anyone] “writing, printing, uttering or publishing any false [..]writings against the government.”  Think of the Sedition Act as our first “anti-fake news” legislation in US history. My opinion.  Citizens of free countries should now understand that news and social media have always contained confirmation bias, both human and more lately algorithmic.  Political push-back regarding such bias has been a part of American politics since our founding.  When, however, an effort is made to intentionally confuse the citizen by muddling any differentiation between objective, personal and political truth, the winds of our American society can and do shift dramatically.

When did we begin to feel compelled to communicate and represent our most profound personal and political beliefs as objective truth?  Perhaps we always have.  I would, however, argue that abandoning our personal and political truths is to abandon our well-tempered sense of empathy; leading soon thereafter to authorship and ownership of mythology.  Even if well-intentioned, we all eventually become a casualty of our own myths and mythmaking.  Beyond the well-known and historically fragile passage of the American Declaration of Independence reading, “We hold these truths to be self-evident” is a passage that, in part, reads,”  […]: and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves […].  The observant citizen might now draw the conclusion that many are now (collectively) righting themselves.

The American government provides its citizens the right to hold personal and political views.  I hold the following personal and political views; Black lives matter.  The global pandemic and our data-driven reaction to it matters.  A robust debate over economic disparity, and new ways to integrate twenty-first century communities with twenty-first century policing, matters.  The impact of being digitally disadvantaged in a rapidly evolving digitalized 5G world, matters because once behind, it’s very difficult to catch up.  The continued importance of a government well defined by a constitution that ensures a free press regardless of its bias, matters.  A free press is key to tearing down myth and clearly differentiating between personal, political, and objective truth.  Constitutionally prescribed separation and balance of power between the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches of government, matters.  We do have freedom of choice, and many Americans work diligently to ensure our continued freedom to vote our conscience.

We’ll never completely throw off our conscious and unconscious bias, but we can work harder to listen, understand, and learn from the previous generations’ missteps.  If we do so, we’ll undoubtedly face a stinging gale of unevolved truth.  The pain of that stinging gale is progress.  It’s a mile marker on the road traveled by those engaged in the bitter debate and the unsatisfying compromise of our American lives.  Avoiding the pain of our democratic process is to ignore those for whom there is no debate thus never any accommodation through compromise.  The pain also represents the beginnings of our rekindled empathy for the perspectives of our fellow citizens.  For many of us, some unsettling version of Jacob Marley’s ghost has already crept into our dreams, chanting ″ ‘Business!’ […]. ‘Mankind was my business,” reminding us that there are always consequences for our beliefs, actions and our mythology.  I, for one, feel no need to have Jacob Marley’s ghost schedule a final visitation with that frightening spirit of the future.  The past and the present are sufficient for me to imagine the worst that could happen.  One last opinion and personal truth.  Expect that a better future for America, one with hope, equality, and respect, will mean that after facing the stinging gale of unevolved truth, concluding the bitter debate then drafting the unsatisfying compromise, we won’t get everything that we wanted.