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The humanity factor: Pick your poison

Lots of people have drawn parallels between UK prime minister Boris Johnson and our own lovable commander-in-chief Donald Trump. Examples include their mutual conservative leanings, nationalist screamings and wispy – Brits might say “candyfloss” – hair. If you want to see an entertaining comparison of the two that might end with you wishing you were a Royal subject instead of a colonist, watch John Oliver’s expose from a year or so ago.

More recently Johnson and Trump have shared membership in the “screwed the pooch on COVID” club. Johnson famously began the journey suggesting that building widespread COVID immunity through mass infection was the way to go, while Trump went for the far simpler, “this is not the pandemic you’re looking for” Jedi mind trick. Neither worked and, since then, both have had to moderate their approaches and modulate their rhetoric – somewhat. But differences remain.

For one thing, the US has over 208,000 COVID related deaths, which is the worst possible statistic I’ve ever written; while the UK has 42,000. Still horrific, to be sure; plus the deaths as a percentage of the total population is dead-even at .06%. So maybe that makes you feel better, although I can’t imagine how.

Another similarity is growing dissatisfaction across the pond with Johnson’s administration’s competence in managing the crisis. In that regard, he is under fire in much the same way Trump is here; although it’s tough to say from this distance who is imperiled more. One thing I will say is a headline caught my eye today and made me squint a little at the screen. It said, “Boris Johnson apologizes for getting his own Covid rules wrong.”

It said he “apologizes.”

That word caught me off guard, I’ll admit. It’s not unlike what happens when you watch a rerun on TV and two characters kiss and you flinch and internally scream, “your mask! Where’s your mask? Are you crazy?!”

“Boris Johnson apologizes.” It said so right in the headline.

Maybe it was a mistake, so I read the article. But nope, it references a Johnson tweet where he says, in direct quotes, “Apologies. I misspoke today.”

By the way, can I say how tired I am of presidents and prime ministers tweeting? If we wanted an 8th grader for president, we would have elected one. I’ll pause while you finish the joke silently in your own head. Ready? Good. Let’s move on.

It’s the day of the first presidential debate and I’m marveling at the break in nouveau presidential protocol that, up until not very long ago, wouldn’t have even been a consideration. Imagine being a world leader in an unprecedented health crisis and saying to the people, “Ooops, sorry, there’s a lot going on and information is changing rapidly. I’m only human and I’m trying to get the most information and make the best decisions I can, as fast as possible. Obviously, even one person dying from this thing will weigh heavily on me and all of us, but I want you to know it’s the most important thing on my plate and I’m doing the very best I can for you, and for all of us.”

Whew, I got a little teary-eyed there. Can you even imagine what it would feel like to have a leader like that? Someone who wasn’t afraid to admit he was human? Fallible? Working to do his best, not claiming to own the patent on what’s right? Isn’t that a leader we would all want, assuming we had that option? I mean, let’s face it, doctors haven’t been able to achieve uniform consensus about COVID, even today, so clearly you can’t fault a bureaucrat in a suit and a big office for not having all the answers and making all the right decisions months and months ago. That’s just not reasonable. That rejects the laws of nature, human and otherwise.

But is it too much to want a leader who is transparent, who admits what everyone already knows – that a pandemic is larger than all of us, and that we are hampered by discovery before we can embark on recovery? Don’t we want a leader who isn’t afraid to change his mind as the base of knowledge grows? We should hold our leaders accountable to a high standard of integrity, not omnipotence. One is attainable, one is not. We should hold our leaders accountable for doing the right thing for the right reasons, not for picking a path and doubling down when times get tough.

Do you know how I know that? I’m a parent. And that’s what I hope I’ve (we’ve) instilled in my children. Have a soul. Be thoughtful. Do the right thing, whenever possible. Don’t let having done the wrong thing (because we all do!) justify doing the wrong thing again. And the main thing my wife has hammered into my head over decades, which has finally taken hold, sorta: It’s more important to be kind than right. To be fair, I enjoy being right more than almost anything, so in my daily life I aspire to being both. When I can.

So OK, all of this is backward-looking, which is of limited value. In the Boris Johnson article, we are reminded that many in the UK are troubled by how indecisive or uninformed or scattered he and his people are being with regard to COVID policy. In comparison, people here in the US who are displeased with Donald Trump’s COVID response are displeased with his rigid adherence to the “this is not a problem, we are doing great” talk track and aggressive “reopen business” mandate. I guess my question is, which is better? What are we more comfortable with?

It’s an important question, because I feel like – starting with the debate tonight – we might have an opportunity to test the candidates, as well as ourselves. If there’s one thing I’ve learned during four years of President Donald Trump, it’s that he absolutely will not change, no way, no how, and when challenged based on his motivations he will respond by defending his point of view and inflaming those who agree with it. How would President Joe Biden respond? We can only guess, since he has never been president before. That said, the only thing we have control over is WHAT DO WE WANT?

I can answer that for me, certainly. I want a guy (or gal, let’s be clear) who is more like my wife. I want someone who will admit his humanity, define himself by it. I want someone who is principled but fallible. I want someone who will make mistakes within reason, acknowledge them, learn from them, and do better. I want someone who earns our support by earning our trust. I recognize that there are bad people out there, powerful people who are bad: people without principle who don’t play by the rules. I can only imagine what it would be like to line up behind a leader who was under attack by such people but who had earned my support and respect by being unwilling to bow to the base instincts of mankind.

This has gotten pretty political, obviously. I’m not sure how any conversation, about anything, over the next several weeks can escape being political. I won’t apologize for it, but I also won’t reduce myself to campaigning for, or against, anyone. I would love it, though, if people around the nation would think, mull over questions, push themselves out from their comfort zones – in the privacy of your own mind – about these important issues. Because the choices we make, including those we decline to make, are the choices we own. And we are responsible for the consequences therefrom.

Over the past year, accelerated by the wear and tear of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, I have come to believe the base narrative that systems of government, society and business have all been engineered in the context of a white reality in which both whites and non-whites reside. This is traumatic for me. Further, I refuse to be branded by this information, nor reviled because I am white and grew up in the only manner available to me. Anyone who wants to make judgments about me based on being a gainfully employed white guy in his fifties can suck it.

But that said, I own who I am and what I want. I can look back and see a time when life was easier and more comfortable and, if I’m a pinhead, long for those times. But since I’m not a pinhead, I can also look forward to a time that is different than “the good old days,” and maybe not easy in ways that I don’t even understand yet; but that is a better time. When I was younger I wanted to be a screenwriter, a jet pilot, a singer-songwriter. I’m none of those things, and that’s okay because I have people I care about, who care about me, and a desire to be a good person.

I recognize if I was a superstar it would be a lot harder to put all that at risk in order to be a good person, open to change, open to growing. We’re taught to want what we want and to hold on desperately to what we get. Maybe the only thing of value I have are the people I keep close. Maybe I just don’t have enough material wealth to be concerned about losing what I have or sharing what I could have.

Or maybe it’s as simple as this: I want to hold onto my humanity. I want that to be how I live, and how I’m known; and, eventually, how I’m remembered. And I’m curious how many others there are like me out there.

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