Have you been thinking about what it’s going to be like to come out of the pandemic? I have, but I admit that I have been thinking about it really on a very microscale: I’ve been thinking about what it means for me personally, and my ability to travel and get together with friends and family; I’ve been thinking about it in terms of Wartburg Seminary, and how it will be for all seminaries going forward; and I’ve been thinking about what it means for the church in general, and when and how we all will be able to gather in person again. But, of course, all of these questions pale in light of the larger global issues we as a whole world, not even just as a nation, are going to face post-pandemic. What is the world going to look like in one year, five years, or ten?
Fared Zakaria has some ideas about that, and, as I am a big fan of his podcast “GPS,” I wanted to read his book, Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World. Honestly, I would have to say that while the book is really interesting, it is also pretty dry—as I said, I love Zakaria, but this book was not as engaging as it could have been, I think.
If I had to sum the whole book up, I think I would take the title of the last chapter, lesson 10: “Sometimes the Greatest Realists are the Idealists.” That’s how I would describe Zakaria’s tone: he takes very seriously the challenges that the pandemic has both brought to the fore and exacerbated, but he also sees opportunities for us all going forward; I would say that he is cautiously hopeful that we can take what we have learned during the pandemic and move forward, together–only together, in a constructive way. He concludes the chapter with this assertion: “It is not a flight of fancy to believe that cooperation can change the world. It is common sense” (233).
Each chapter is a “lesson.” So, lesson one is titled “Buckle Up.” The point of this chapter is that “ everyone is connected, but no one is in control. In other words, the world we live in is “open, fast – and thus, almost by definition, unstable” (14). The point of this chapter is that we need to inject more stability and safety in human societies, so that we are better prepared for what surely will come next.
The next “lesson “is about better government—beyond the defunding of the right and the over-encumbering of the left. He argues that “good government is about limiting power but clear lines of authority… It requires recruiting bright, devoted people who are inspired by the chance to serve their country and earn respect for doing it” (53).
Lesson three, “Markets are not Enough,“ talks about the problems that manifest when everything is dominated by the market; he calls at a “pay to play“ society (66). He goes on to say, “market-centric thinking has invaded every area of human life, leaving a little space for other values like fairness, equality, or intrinsic value“ (69).
In lesson four is about the need for experts, but experts who pay attention to the people, making sure to close the gap between the “elites” and the “ordinary people.” He talks a great deal in this chapter about the urban-rural divide, “which is growing every year, and might be the most significant fault line in America electorally speaking—more so than race or gender” (91). Without elites, with both knowledge and power, we will have the “unthinkable in the modern age: government by gut and the celebration of ignorance.” (95) So we need elites, but in a democracy, they need to “take greater pains to think about how to connect with people and keep their needs front and center” (95).
Lesson five is that “ Life is digital“–no surprise there; and lesson six is no surprise either: “Aristotle was Right–We are Social Animals.” In that chapter, he talks about the increasing urbanization that is happening all across the world; given that reality, he opens the chapter with the following sentence: “The real puzzle about pandemics is why they don’t happen more often“ (122). He reminds us of Aristotle’s belief that the whole point of cities is to form citizens, to make us into “model human beings”–“Humans create cities and cities make humans” (146).
Lesson seven, which is about inequality, raises the possibility that the pandemic might “return us to a world of great and widening global inequality“ (151). He talk specifically about India, where the terrible choice was between shutting down the economy and creating mass starvation, or keeping it open and risking mass infection. My favorite quote in this chapter is “When everything can be bought, every aspect of life becomes unequal” (164).
Lessons eight and nine are related: those chapters are about the continuing evolutions of globalization, and the “bipolar” world we live in, with China and the US at either end.
The last lesson, lesson ten, is the one I referenced at the beginning: Zakaria argues that, realistically, idealism is our only way forward. He gives an example from Eisenhower’s life, and the lesson he took from all of the suffering he had seen during World War II: “go the extra mile for peace and cooperation.” In an interview Eisenhower gave to Walter Cronkite in the US military cemetery in Normandy, Eisenhower said the following, “these people gave us a chance, and they bought time for us, so that we can do better than we have before… So every time I come back to these beaches, or any day when I think about that day 20 years ago now, I say once more we must find some way to work to peace, and really to gain an eternal peace for this world” (214).
He ends the book by describing a scene from the movie “Lawrence of Arabia,” the point of which is that, contrary to those who take a more predestined view of things, “Nothing is written.” For Zakaria, that is the reminder for us at this moment, too, as we start to come out of the pandemic. Many things are possible—we have seen that—and we can choose to go forward in many different directions. This is how he closes the book: “This ugly pandemic has created the possibility for change and reform. It has opened up a path to a new world. It’s ours to take that opportunity or squander it. Nothing is written.” I stand with Zakaria on the side of hope and possibilities, for all of us together.